The United Kingdom’s relationship with Christianity began with the Romans, who invaded in 43AD. When they left in 410 AD, much of the UK had converted, and many Christian buildings stood in place of pagan temples. Here are some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring churches and cathedrals in the UK.
What’s the Difference Between a Church and a Cathedral in the UK?
A cathedral is a church, but it’s where the bishop’s seat, a “cathedra,” is located. A bishop runs the diocese, so a cathedral is a central church, which explains why they’re generally grander than a town or village church.
And an abbey? That’s also a church, but monks and nuns live there (or did in the past).
1. Canterbury Cathedral
Established in 597 AD, the Anglican Canterbury Cathedral is still in use today as a place of worship and a tourist attraction.
Archbishop Thomas Beckett met his end here on December 29, 1170, murdered by four knights who believed they were following King Henry II’s orders. The exact spot is marked for visiting pilgrims. Healing miracles attributed to Beckett’s death still attract people in the hope of a cure.
Most of Canterbury Cathedral is made from limestone taken from Caen in France, and inside lies Edward of Woodstock – The Black Prince, whose ornate grave is a highlight.
Firefighters saved the cathedral from bomb destruction in WW2, and today, Justin Welby is the current Archbishop of Canterbury. He crowned King Charles III in 2022.
2. St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is the Bishop of London’s seat and the mother church for London’s diocese. It’s situated on the highest point of the City of London on Ludgate Hill, and until 1963, it was the tallest building there. Its recognizable dome on the skyline is 365 feet tall.
Dedicated to St. Paul, the cathedral was first founded in 604 AD, but over the years, it’s transformed. The 1666 great fire of London destroyed its gothic predecessor, and its rebuild finished in 1710. St. Paul’s Cathedral is a tourist spot, but it’s a working church with daily services, too.
3. Westminster Abbey
Instantly recognizable Westminster Abbey in the heart of London has overseen the coronations of countless kings and queens. The most recent was King Charles III in 2022, but the first was William the Conqueror on Christmas Day in 1066. It’s certainly one of the UK’s most beautiful churches and cathedrals.
Benedictine monks founded Westminster Abbey in 906 AD, dedicating it to St Peter and calling it West Minster to differentiate it from London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is the East Minster.
The current abbey’s structure began life in 1245, commissioned by Henry III. Its heart is a medieval shrine to Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. Beautiful Westminster Abbey is one of the UK’s most important Gothic buildings, and it’s still a working Christian church today.
4. Ely Cathedral
Magnificent Ely Cathedral is an Anglican cathedral in Ely, Cambridgeshire.
Constructed from Barnack limestone (quarried near Peterborough) and paid for by Benedictine monks on the site of Queen Etheldreda’s monastery, the present building dates from 1083. The monastery itself was destroyed by Henry 8th dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, including Etheldreda’s shrine.
Ely Cathedral holds at least one daily service and 250,000 tourists visit to view its incredible architecture every year. One of its highlights is the central octagonal tower with a lantern that dominates the skyline.
5. Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, Dorset, was the fastest-constructed cathedral in medieval England. It took just 38 years. That may sound like a long time to us, but its scale and grandeur for the time period (1220 to 1258 AD) are incredible. This cathedral has the tallest spire in the United Kingdom. It reaches 403 feet, and visitors can climb the internal structure.
This epic cathedral contains one of the oldest working clocks in the world and holds a copy of the Magna Carta, but it still provides daily services for the Diocese of Salisbury.
6. St. Martin’s Church
Canterbury’s city center is home to St. Martin’s, England’s oldest continually used church and part of the Canterbury’s World Heritage Site. It’s part Saxon, having functioned at Queen Bertha of Kent’s private chapel in 580 AD, but most of today’s building is Roman. In fact, part of a Roman tomb lies in its walls.
This is the spot where St. Augustine, who arrived in 597 AD to convert the English to Christianity, set up his mission. Over the coming centuries, St. Martin’s Church grew. In the 12 and 13th centuries, the east end lengthened, and in the 14th century, monks built a tower with three bells. In the 19th century, it changed again, but since the 6th century AD, worshippers have congregated here.
Its history and ancient, awe-inspiring architecture make you feel very small.
7. St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Ireland’s capital, Dublin, is home to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the largest church in Ireland. Millions visit each year, but it doesn’t have a bishop, which is a unique feature. Instead, the Archbishop of Dublin sits at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin.
This incredible building began life between 1191 and 1270 in honor of Ireland’s patron saint, St. Patrick, who baptized Celtic chieftains on the spot over 1,500 years ago. Today, it’s one of Ireland’s very few medieval buildings.
St. Pat’s, as it’s known locally, is one of the top tourist attractions in Ireland and is famous for its choir. St. Patrick’s Choir is Ireland’s oldest, established in 1432, and it still performs Monday to Friday!
8. York Minster
Anglican York Minister’s full name is the Cathedral of Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York. It is an awe-inspiring place of worship in the city of York in North Yorkshire.
This epic building is one of the most beautiful churches and cathedrals in the UK. It’s northern Europe’s second oldest gothic cathedral and houses the world’s largest medieval stained glass windows. The Five Sisters window is over 53 feet tall.
York Minster began life in the 7th century, but the present cathedral was built between 1230 and 1472. t was constructed on the remains of the Roman fort Eboracum, which was only discovered in 1967 when the foundations were re-enforced.
In 1984, York Minster’s south transept was the site of a huge fire that collapsed the roof. Fourteen firefighters fought to save the historic building. Repairs over the next few years returned it to its former grandeur.
Today, York Minster welcomes tourists and daily worshippers. It’s the Mother Church of the Northern Province of the Church of England and holds key moment ceremonies every day.
9. The Italian Chapel
The Italian Chapel on the Orkney Islands is the opposite of a grand cathedral, but it’s awe-inspiring and beautiful just the same.
This small, ornate Roman Catholic chapel was built on Lamb Holm Orkney Island during World Water II by Italian prisoners of war, hence the name Italian Chapel. It was constructed from two Nissan huts and lined with plasterboard. Concrete formed the altar, rail, and holy water font. Bricks, frescos, stained glass windows, and an altarpiece painted on the plasterboard give the internals a cozy feel. A thick layer of concrete protects it from the Orkney Islands’ harsh weather.
Given the time restraints (the POWs worked on their chapel outside of working hours), limited materials (wood was reused from a local shipwreck), and skills, this chapel is frankly astonishing and a testament to human ingenuity. Ultimately, the POWs only used it for one year before returning home.
10. St. Mary’s Priory Church
St. Mary’s Priory Church in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, is nicknamed the Westminster of Wales. For a church, it’s enormous, and it holds a staggering number of medieval sculptures, including the last remaining giant 10-foot-long oak icon from the 15th century. It’s called a Jesse, and it’s part of a larger carving (a Jesse tree, now lost in the reformation) showing the lineage of Christ.
Today, this 1,000-year-old working parish church holds three Sunday services: weddings, christenings, and funerals. It’s still the heart of the community.
11. Lincoln Cathedral
William the Conqueror commissioned Lincoln Cathedral in 1072 in the Gothic style. It’s a staggering example of Gothic architecture and home to the famed Lincoln Imp. This mischievous creature, allegedly sent by the devil, reportedly broke stained glass windows, knocked over the Dean, and destroyed lights, so an angel turned it to stone. The unfortunate imp is frozen in his column in the Angel Choir today.
Lincoln Cathedral sits in the city of Lincoln in Lincolnshire. Today, it provides worship services, holds graduations, orchestra and choir concerts, art exhibitions, and tourist trails, including a roof tour, which is not for the fainthearted. You can see across the city of Lincoln and beyond from the roof. It was the tallest building in the world in 1311, with a 525-foot-tall central spire. Sadly, the spire collapsed in 1548 and wasn’t ever rebuilt, but it remains one of the most beautiful churches and cathedrals in the UK.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/damienkeating
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