Understanding the Medieval Cathedral – Part 3

In Understanding the Medieval Cathedral – Part 1, we attempted to recapture the sights, sounds, and experiences of a medieval visitor to a Christian cathedral. In Part 2 we approached the building towards the elaborately ornamented West Front and entered through heavy, iron-studded doors into the Nave, advancing eastward as far as the Crossing. Here we encountered a partition or screen separating the main public space from the exclusively clerical space beyond. It is our intention in Part 3 to pass through this barrier, or Rood Screen, from the public into the sacred. We will be exploring the area of the cathedral known as the Chancel.

Rood Screen – Lincoln Cathedral
Prototypical Cathedral Plan showing position of the Rood Screen

But before we do so, let’s take a moment to attempt to place ourselves in the mindset of our medieval counterparts.

Imagine that you have arrived at the cathedral a bit early to chat with friends and neighbors and perhaps transact a bit of business. As the crowd continues to gather, you notice the children next to you are getting restless. Their mother settles them on the cold stone floor upon cushions that she has brought with her. She wraps them up in woolen blankets to ward off the draft that seems to emanate from everywhere at once.

Nave – Exeter Cathedral looking east towards the Rood Screen

Suddenly the bells ring out from the tower indicating it is time for the service to begin. Those still outside shuffle in and stake out a space for themselves in the nave—some standing, some squatting, and some sitting cross-legged on the floor. The West Door closes with a great thud, but latecomers continue to trickle in through the side door leading into the South Aisle.

After a few moments, muffled singing can be heard from outside. The West Door is thrown open again and the singing becomes louder and more distinct. It is a Latin hymn being sung by all male voices. Those on the floor slowly get to their feet, as the canons, deacons, and sub-deacons, led by the four principal officers of the chapter—the dean, precentor, chancellor, and treasurer (Wikipedia)—enter in stately fashion.

West Door leading into the Nave – Exeter Cathedral

They carry with them a large leather-bound and jewel-encrusted Bible, an ornate golden cross on the end of a long pole, and a broad tray containing the host—the consecrated bread and wine representing the broken body of Christ. They pass down the center of the Nave, with most continuing on through the Rood Screen—so called because it is sometimes surmounted by a large crucifix known as the Great Rood—into the Chancel beyond.

Rood Screen – Chester Cathedral

On the other side, they shuffle into their assigned stalls in the Choir. The Bible is placed upon the lectern and the cross is set into a purpose-built stand in the Crossing, while the host is carried further into the Chancel. It is taken through the Choir, up a short flight of stairs, and placed upon the High Altar, just visible through the lattice-like openings in the screen.

Lectern – Durham Cathedral

When the singing stops, the presiding canon, who has remained in the Crossing, issues a blessing in Latin, after which most of the congregation sits. An alternating series of Latin readings and hymns follow, with a loose translation provided for the relevant Scripture passages. The morning’s speaker ascends to the pulpit and clears his throat.

Pulpit – Canterbury Cathedral

As is often the case, it is not the bishop. Instead, it is the dean of the cathedral chapter. He delivers a lively 30-minute sermon in English on the benefits of generosity, making reference to one of the cathedral’s original benefactors as a shining example of what he is talking about. He directs the congregation’s attention to a large stone sarcophagus situated along the North Aisle. It is topped with a life-size effigy of the man himself, dressed in his robes of office—his mitered head resting on a pillow.

Effigy of Bishop Bronescombe (d. 1280) – Exeter Cathedral

In spite of the dean’s best efforts, several of the congregation have drifted off to sleep and one unfortunate man who has started to snore is kicked awake by one of the doorkeepers. The resulting ripple of laughter catches the dean’s attention and, after casting a brief stare of disdain over the congregation, he brings his sermon to a conclusion. 

He leads the congregation in reciting a familiar creed, after which, an offertory hymn swells up from the Choir. While the host is being uncovered on the High Altar, robed sub-deacons—subordinates of the Treasurer—pass out through the screen and circulate among the congregation with cloth bags on the end of long poles collecting the gifts and offerings of the faithful. You toss in a coin of the lowest denomination in your possession. Times are hard. Once again, prayers are recited and the chapter community, one-by-one, leave their stalls and ascend the steps eastward to the High Altar where they partake, first of the body, and then of the blood of Christ. Your mind wanders, as the action has moved exclusively into the Chancel, and though pious and solemn, the ceremony now seems somewhat remote and out of reach. As the canons resume their seats, you wonder what it would be like to be seated among them. You try to imagine the splendors to be found on the opposite side of that screen. Rich carvings, more candles than you can count, and the tantalizing glint of gold are convincing proof that what the bishop has said just might be true. Maybe the space around the High Altar really is a glimpse of heaven on earth. The choir breaks into a final chant as they begin filing back through the screen into the Crossing. The procession re-forms and traces its way back down the Nave and out the West Door.  

The crowd grows noisy as children and belongings are gathered up and people start heading toward the exit. But your eyes are drawn back to that screen. You move closer, trying to get a better view inside the Chancel before all the candles have been extinguished. 

Rood Screen – Worcester Cathedral

Exactly what would you have seen had you been successful in penetrating the shroud of exclusivity surrounding this holy of holies? Well, apart from the pipe organ (that came much later) and some likely Victorian renovations, the arrangement would have been very close to what we see today. Passing through the Rood Screen, (also known as the Chancel Screen or Choir Screen) you would have found yourself in the center aisle of a marvelously decorated set of oak Choir stalls.

Choir – Norwich Cathedral

Rather than the plain bench seating usual in churches today, each voting member of the chapter would have had an individual stall in the Choir. Ornately carved arms, or in some cases, heavy dividers, would have delineated each stall.

Choir Stalls – Exeter Cathedral

The four corner stalls would have been set aside for the four elected officers—dean, precentor, chancellor, and treasurer, in order of precedence. Each stall was equipped with a hinged seat that, when folded upwards, revealed a secret little perch called a misericord (“seat of mercy”). Because medieval religious chapters participated in multiple services throughout the day and night, it was not unusual for members to be forced to stand for several hours a day. These nifty little carved seats were perfect for taking the weight off of tired feet and legs while still allowing the worshipper to remain upright. And because of their lowly position under the bottoms of seats and their often non-religious subject matter, most escaped the Puritan iconoclastic fervor that followed the English Civil War. As a result, misericords are some of the best-preserved medieval carvings left to us.  

At the far east end of the Choir, generally on the right, can be found the Bishop’s Throne or “Cathedra”, from which the building derives its name. These can be quite elaborate and, when completed in the Gothic style, are often crowned by a canopy in the form of an extravagantly carved pinnacle, or even a series of pinnacles.

Bishop’s Throne – Exeter Cathedral

The open space between the Choir and the High Altar (if there is any) is known as the Presbytery or Sanctuary. It is often slightly higher in elevation than the Choir.

Higher still, and further east, is the High Altar—in theory, the most sacred spot in the building. It is the place reserved for the Eucharist—in Catholic tradition the literal blood and body of Christ. In very early Medieval churches this would have been at the extreme eastern end of the building. However, as the desire for private chapels dedicated to the veneration of specific saints developed, additions were simply “tacked on” to the exterior walls of the Chancel. This created circulation problems as visitors to these chapels would of necessity have to pass through the Chancel. To avoid this, the Ambulatory came into being. The Ambulatory is simply a corridor that runs around the outside of the Chancel—in essence, an extension of the aisles along the Nave, on the east side of the Crossing. It allows visitors to access areas of interest on the east end of the cathedral without entering the Chancel itself. This was a popular location to place relics for viewing by the public. Access could be restricted to paying customers without impacting activities taking place in the Nave.

This innovation allowed great scope for making additions to the “holy” east end of the cathedral. Chapels, chapter houses (meeting rooms for the chapter), cloisters, and even secondary transepts were added, as imagination and finances allowed.

This eastward drift in cathedral construction continued steadily until it had become the norm rather than the exception. Let’s consider the examples of Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey (although, strictly speaking, Westminster Abbey isn’t actually a cathedral, as it hasn’t been the seat of a bishop since 1550).

At Canterbury, pilgrims were flooding in from across Europe when, just four years after Thomas Beckett’s murder, a fire destroyed the east end of the cathedral. Given the prestige (and earning power) of Beckett’s relics, an ambitious building program was initiated. The Choir was rebuilt in what is now known as the Early Gothic style by the noted French architect, William of Sens. In fact, William created England’s first flying buttresses as part of this rebuilding.

Flying Buttresses – Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral Plan

Unfortunately, the project was delayed when William fell from some faulty scaffolding and was permanently disabled. He was succeeded by William the Englishman who added the impressive Trinity Chapel located behind (east) of the High Altar. The Trinity Chapel would house most of the cathedral’s extensive collection of Saint Thomas’ relics.

Canterbury Cathedral – Presbytery (foreground), High Altar (center), Trinity Chapel (background)

But for the most precious relic of all—the crown of Beckett’s skull, which had been hacked off during his murder—the builders added yet another immense chapel called the Corona (Latin for crown)—a chapel on a chapel, so to speak. To reach this most holy spot—now significantly east of the High Altar—pilgrims had to ascend a steep flight of stone stairs in the Ambulatory. Many would do so on their knees to demonstrate their humility.

Ambulatory stairs leading to the Trinity Chapel and the Corona – Canterbury Cathedral

The elaborate shrine within the Corona which housed the cherished relic was richly encrusted with precious stones and was considered by many to be the most beautiful in all of Christendom.

A quick examination of the plan of Westminster Abbey reveals an even more aggressive scramble for the sacred real estate to be found at the Abbey’s east end. As you can see, Westminster’s east end is practically littered with chapels that were added on, only to be upstaged themselves by the addition of the massive Henry VII Lady Chapel in the early 16th century.


Westminster Abbey Plan
Henry VII’s Lady Chapel – Westminster Abbey

So, the next time you get an opportunity to visit a cathedral, spend some quality time in the Chancel. There is much to see and learn and it is a privilege that was not afforded to your medieval counterpart.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. Drop me a note if you found it interesting.


Wikipedia. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://wikipedia.org: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_chapter

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Rood Screen. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rood_screen

Photo Credits

Rood Screen – Lincoln Cathedral
Rood Screen – Lincoln Cathedral
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lincoln_Cathedral_Rood_Screen,Lincolnshire,_UK-_Diliff.jpg Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0
Nave Looking East – Exeter Cathedral
West Door Leading into the Nave – Exeter Cathedral
Rood Screen – Chester Cathedral
Lectern – Durham Cathedral
Pulpit – Canterbury Cathedral
Effigy of Bishop Bronescombe – Exeter Cathedral
Rood Screen – Worcester Cathedral
Choir – Norwich Cathedral
Choir Stalls – Exeter Cathedral
Author’s Collection
Bishop’s Throne – Exeter Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral Plan
Canterbury Cathedral – Presbytery, High Altar, Trinity Chapel
Ambulatory Stairs – Canterbury Cathedral
Westminster Abbey Plan
Henry VII’s Lady Chapel – Westminster Abbey


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