30 secret messages hidden inside Britain’s epic cathedrals

Medieval craftsmen often left secret surprises and hidden messages in the cathedrals they built. Author Christopher Somerville shares how to find them and discovers that the devil is in the detail...

3 mins

These are just a few of the hidden surprises you’ll find in Britain’s national treasures: our wonderful, irreplaceable, tottery cathedrals.

Pay the few pounds they invite as an entrance fee – these cathedrals are worth it, many times over, and they badly need your contributions. Don’t forget your binoculars for the high-up details, and take as much time as you possibly can to explore everything there is to discover...

1. Coventry Cathedral's hidden secrets

The new stained glass window in Coventry Cathedral (Shutterstock)

The new stained glass window in Coventry Cathedral (Shutterstock)

The old medieval cathedral church of Coventry was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1940. After the war a new one rose, phoenix-like, dramatically modern, incorporating the ruins of the old cathedral but as unlike them as possible. Together the twin churches have become a world-famous symbol of suffering, peace and reconciliation.

Secrets to uncover:

  • Fixed to the outside wall near the entrance is Jacob Epstein’s eye-catching bronze sculpture of St Michael and the Devil. At first glance Old Nick appears to be safely tied up – but look more closely!

  • The porch linking the new cathedral with the bombed-out ruins of the old one bears an ominous resemblance to a low-flying aeroplane.

  • In the side chapels of the ruins, look for stonework details melted by the heat of the fire that destroyed the medieval building.

  • Peregrines nest in the old tower – keep an eye out for the dark cross shapes in the sky, and an ear for their chittering cries.

  • Fixed to the wall of the crypt stairs in the modern cathedral is the original charred cross formed by stonemason Jock Forbes after the raid, out of two burned roof timbers from the ruins.

  • If you walk towards the altar of the modern cathedral without looking back, you’ll get a big reveal when you turn round – the whole cathedral suddenly blazes with colour from hitherto unseen windows.

2. Wells Cathedral

Pangur, the cathedral cat, sleeping next to a radiator (Shutterstock)

Pangur, the cathedral cat, sleeping next to a radiator (Shutterstock)

The city of Wells at the foot of the Mendip Hills is tiny, and its mighty Gothic cathedral is enormous by contrast. You'll msarvel at the giant west front, packed with rows of statues.

Inside, famously shapely and modern-looking scissor arches, inserted between 1338 and 1348 to hold up the wobbly tower. There’s a bishop who lives in a moated palace, and swans on the moat who ring a bell when they’re hungry.

Secrets to uncover:

  • Here be dragons! Hunt under the misericord seats in the choir stalls to find carved wooden dragons eating their own tails, and search the capitals of the columns in the nave to spot many more fighting each other, or peacefully grazing the stone foliage.

  • In the north transept, look for the capital carved at the turn of the 13th century with a strip cartoon of a naughty attendant ('varlet') stealing grapes and getting thumped by the farmer for his misdeeds.

  • The Lady Chapel’s ‘jumble windows’ are made up of thousands of fragments of medieval glass from windows smashed by Puritan soldiers, billeted in the cathedral during the English Civil War.

  • Keep an eye out for Pangur the cathedral cat, who you'll usually find leisurely snuggled up to a radiator.

3. Lincoln Cathedral

Greed in Lincoln Cathedral (Christopher Sommerville)

Greed in Lincoln Cathedral (Christopher Sommerville)

Lincoln Cathedral sails high on its limestone ridge, drawing the eye for 30 miles around. All roads to it are steep and old; all views from close up are breathtaking.

Secrets to uncover:

  • Carvings on the west front depict sinners undergoing punishments, from the relatively mild (like having their hair pulled) all the way up to proper tortures (like their innards being torn out by devils, their private parts devoured by dragons).

  • A trip up the tower is a must. On the way, you’ll see all sorts of abandoned items, including the graffiti that three skylarking roofers left behind hundreds of years ago – the outlines of their shoes scratched in a lead panel, one round-toed, one pointed, one square. The view over the medieval town from high on the west front is stunning, too.

  • Modern craftsmen have left their mark on the exterior fabric. Look for the quirky creations of: master stonecarver Paul Ellis-Acker, the mason with a bottle of ale; Tony the lead dresser, wrapped round a lead pipe with an imp on his back; ‘guardian of the keys’ Stuart Boyfield with another imp stealing his keys; and a leering skull called ‘Greed’ with a gold coin in its teeth and pound signs for pupils.

4. York Minster

The Kings Screen in York Minster (Shutterstock)

The Kings Screen in York Minster (Shutterstock)

York Minster lies within the famous walls of York, a tight belt of stone drawn round the town 700 years ago. The Minster is superb, an eye-catching stone ship riding the waves of houses and narrow medieval streets.

Secrets to uncover:

  • Don’t forget the basement! Down in the crypt lies the thousand-year-old Doomstone, a great slab of limestone writhing with demons, grinning as they pitchfork the damned into a boiling cauldron.

  • York Minster is partially founded on the remains of the Roman garrison of Eboracum. Look down a hole in the crypt floor, past the massive stones of an earlier church, to see the round base of a column that once held up the Roman military commander’s house.

  • The rose window in the south transept is beautiful; it’s also a miracle of survival. During a fire caused by a lightning strike in 1984, the glass of the window, over 700 years old, cracked into more than 40,000 pieces. They were so skilfully put back together that you’d never know.

  • Make time for a tour of the Chapter House roof. The cat’s cradle of timbers is a marvel, and on the way up you’ll be shown the medieval master mason’s private loft. The spidery outlines of window designs can still be seen on his tracing floor. It was made of plaster of Paris and trodden flat by children. You can still see the imprint of their little socks.

  • The Great East Window, showing the creation and the apocalypse, is a 600-year-old masterpiece. Focus your binoculars on the figure of God at the apex. You can still see where some irreverent repairer, wishing to ensure that the cleaned glass was correctly replaced, scratched ‘Top Senter’ (sic) across the Almighty’s forehead!

5. Durham Cathedral

Sanctuary knocker on the door of Durham Cathedral (Shutterstock)

Sanctuary knocker on the door of Durham Cathedral (Shutterstock)

Durham Cathedral is superbly sited on a narrow peninsula over a hairpin bend of the River Wear. This is the Norman cathedral par excellence: solid, heavy, militaristic, a statement of power and permanence in a turbulent border region. We’re here now. We’re in charge. Get used to it.

Secrets to uncover:

  • Walk the outside walls to enjoy the bizarre shapes and colours of sandstone that has been thoroughly eroded and weathered over 900 years.

  • In the gloom of the south aisle it’s easy to miss the Miners’ Memorial, a black ornate slab supported by coal-black angels, a reminder that Durham was a mining town within living memory.

  • The Open Treasure exhibition in what used to be the monks’ dormitory features some remarkable stone carving, including a collection of Dark Ages hogback grave markers of thick sparkly stone, carved in the shape of muzzled bears’ heads.

  • Open Treasure also occupies the former monastery’s Great Kitchen with relics extracted from the tomb of the region’s patron saint, St Cuthbert (c.634 to 687). Especially poignant is Cuthbert’s double-sided ivory comb, with which the cathedral’s 11th century sacrist Alfred Westou used to primp the saintly hair and beard whenever Cuthbert’s shrine was opened for visitors to view his remains.

  • Just off the Chapter House you’ll find a cramped little chamber just about big enough to contain a man - a punishment cell where naughty monks would be locked up for 24 hours solitary.

6. St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

Artist painting inside St Magnus Cathedral (Shutterstock)

Artist painting inside St Magnus Cathedral (Shutterstock)

St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall lies in the Orkney Isles, out at the edge of things. This is another sandstone cathedral, its red and white stones deeply burrowed by eight centuries of exposure to Orcadian weather.

Secrets to uncover:

  • Inside, the cylindrical pillars are incised with graffiti well suited to a church in a maritime location - boats, harpoons, fish-hooks, waves. You’ll have to go slow and look hard to spot them, but they’re there.
  • Take the behind the scenes tour. In the narrow ‘upstairs’ passage of the triforium lies a strange ladder, extra wide, divided into two by a central, vertical strake. I won’t do a spoiler for the guide’s tale... I’ll just say that where two ascended, only one descended.

  • In the south-east corner of the nave lies a wonderful marble effigy of 19th century Arctic explorer and man of Orkney, John Rae. In particular, admire his moccasins and intricately laced buckskin leggings.

7. Westminster Cathedral

Inside Westminster Cathedral (Christopher Sommerville)

Inside Westminster Cathedral (Christopher Sommerville)

The Roman Catholic cathedral of Westminster, built at the turn of the 20th century, resembles a giant, red-and-white striped railway station or fantastic Byzantine warehouse. Its two-tone interior is stunning to the senses – elaborate and flashy, with gold and marble bling below the balcony, and above that a vault of dark sooty black, mysterious and profound.

Secrets to uncover:

  • The scarlet cardinal’s hats ('galeros') of Archbishops Basil Hume and Herbert Vaughan hang above the tombs of their erstwhile owners until the strings should rot and the hats fall to dust in God’s own good time.

  • In St Andrew’s Chapel the cross is a simple shaft crossed with a spar, made of varnished and smeared painted wood. It’s one of hundreds fashioned by Italian carpenter Francesco Tuccio from fragments of wrecked boats cast up on his native island of Lampedusa, together with the bodies of would-be refugees.

  • In a glass case on the first floor balcony stands a 1:48 scale model of Westminster Cathedral, made of beautifully crafted wood. Architect J.F. Bentley used it as a working aid while designing the cathedral.

  • The Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs contains the glass sarcophagus that displays the mummified body of St John Southworth, hanged, drawn and quartered in 1654 for being a Roman Catholic priest.

Christopher Sommerville is the author Ships of Heaven – The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals, published by Transworld. You can order your copy on Amazon now.

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