Southwark Cathedral - a Brief History

Southwark Cathedral is situated on a very historic site. It is believed that there has been a chuch here for over 1000 years. Prior to that there was a Roman villa and some of its pavement has been incorporated into the floor. In 1977 a well was discovered beneath the choir, containing a pagan statue believe to have been put there in the fourth century.

St. Swithun, Bishop of Winchester 852 - 867, is traditionally believed to have set up a college of priests on the site. The first conclusive proof of a church comes in the Domesday Book of 1086. This records that a monastery was present during the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042 - 1066) with its own wharf for the profitable unloading of goods brought up the river. 

After the Normal Conquest, control of the church passed to Odo, Bishop Bayeaux and then William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. In 1106 a new church, St. Mary Overie (over the river), was founded by two knights, William Pont de l'Arche and William Dauncey. This church was served by Regular Canons of St. Augustine. Part of their duties was to give relief to the sick and needy. To do this they built a hospital and dedicated it to St. Thomas of Canterbury. Now relocated to Lambeth, St. Thomas's Hospital is still caring for the sick today. Guy's Hospital, still based near the Cathedral, was founded in 1720 to care for patients who could not be accommodated in St. Thomas's.

Bishop William Gifford assisted with the building of St. Mary Overie. His successor, Henry of Blois, left his mark by building his episcopal palace, Winchester Palace, two minutes walk from the Cathedral. This building was occupied until 1626, meaning that St. Mary Overie could rely on the patronage of the Bishop of Winchester for all that time. Remains of the Palace, including a beautiful rose window, survive to this day.

In 1212 a disastrous fire hit Southwark, badly damaging the church, priory and hospital. Only a few traces of the Normal church remain today including a doorway in the north aisle of the nave. The Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, oversaw the rebuilding of the priory. It was one of the first examples of Gothic architecture in London and is now the oldest Gothic building in the city.

Work rebuilding the choir and retro-choir (definition: extension of a choir behind the high altar) began around 1215 and the eastern portion was ready for the consecration of a bishop n 1260. By 1273 the choir, sanctuary, aisles, retro-choir, lower tower and western bays of the nave had been completed. There was then a ten year delay in the rebuilding process, presumably due to a lack of money.

In the 1390's disaster struck once more when a second fire caused serious damage to the building. Around 1420, the then Bishop of Winchester, Henry Beaufort, later to become Cardinal, assisted with the rebuilding of the south transept and the completion of the tower. Beaufort's niece, Joan, was married at the Priory to James 1 of Scotland in 1424.

In 1468 the nave roof collapsed and the vault was rebuilt in wood. Some of the coloured intricate bosses from that ceiling can be seen at the west end and remounted on the ceiling of the tower space. In 1520 Bishop Richard Fox constructed the magnificent altar screen which still separates the Choir from the retro-choir. 

19th Century Southwark Cathedral

By the mid 1800's, not only was the church in bad repair but, at around the time when St. Bartholomew's Church was being built, it was seriously threatened by the reconstruction of the Old London Bridge, much of which dated back to medieval times. The new approach road to the bridge was within 60 feet of the east end of the church and fifteen feet above the churchyard level. A great controversy developed in the Borough about the future of the church. Some felt it was of architectural importance, others that 'St. Saviour's Folly' was a 'damp old monastery' that should be demolished and replaced by a parish church "more commodious to the needs of he poplace".

After an initial vote to demolish the building completely, the pro-restoration lobby won the day and thanks to the energies of the architect George Gwilt the easter portion of the choir, aisles and retro-choir were restored. However, the Bishop's Chapel (east of the South Transept) were both demolished. The nave was also in a poor condition and in 1831 the roof was removed for safety reasons and it remained open to the elements for seven years. In 1838 a makeshift nave was constructed which caused the great Victorian architect Pugin to describe it as "a vile a preaching place as ever disgraced the 19th century".

In the 1860s the London, Dover and Chatham Railway Company constructed the viaduct that still dominates the cathedral today.

By the end of the nineteenth century the cathedral church at Winchester could not respond to the poor living and working conditions of South London. At first the area was transferred to the Diocese of Rochester. But the Bishop, Anthony Thorold, felt that a new diocese centred at Southwark could cope better with South London's social problems. In 1890 the Prince of Wales laid the foundation stone to the new Nave, which is a very successful and harmonious neighbour to the older part of the building.

In 1897 St. Saviour's became the pro-cathedral (bishop or archbishop's seat) of South London. In 1904 an Act of Parliament created the new Diocese of Southwark and in 1905 the church became the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Saviour and St. Mary Overie. Edward Talbot, the Bishop of Rochester, was enthroned as the first Bishop of Southwark.

Southwark Cathedral is more than just a beautiful and historic building. It remains a working building and one of its continuing functions to to maintain a worship of God, with a full programme of Morning Prayers, Eucharists, Evensongs and special services.

Another function of the Cathedral is to be a centre for teaching, and lay readers and pastoral auxiliaries receive their training here week by week. The Cathedral's Education Centre deals particularly with children and many thousands pass through each year. The Cathedral is a popular venue for concerts, in particular the annual Southwark Festival and is host to exhibitions of the visual arts and to dramatic productions. Among the organisations attached to the cathedral is that of the Friends whose main function is to support the Cathedral with gifts, time and prayer.

The mid 1990's saw the commencement of a major development at the Cathedral. This was in response to the ever-increasing pressure of activities taking place for the Parish and the Diocese and to react to the challenge posed by the increasing number of people visiting the Cathedral. A Millenium Appeal was launched to fund the construction of a new building to the north of the Cathedral to accommodate a visitors' centre, a new restaurant, a lending library, and seminar rooms. The new buildings were officially opened by Dr. Nelson Mandela in April 2001.

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