Essential Architecture-  London

Westminster Cathedral (RC)




42 Francis Street SW1 in the City of Westminster




Edwardian blood and bandage


brick and stone banding


  Westminster Cathedral from Victoria Street

Westminster Cathedral is the mother church of the Roman Catholic faithful of the Archdiocese of Westminster and the metropolitan church of the Westminster Province, located at 42 Francis Street SW1 in the City of Westminster in London. It is the largest Roman Catholic church in England and Wales. Not to be confused with Westminster Abbey of the Church of England, Westminster Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, shepherd of the Archdiocese of Westminster. As a matter of custom each newly appointed Archbishop of Westminster has been created a cardinal in consistory.

In the late 19th century, the Catholic Church hierarchy had only recently been restored in the United Kingdom, and it was in memory of Cardinal Wiseman (who died in 1865, and was the first Archbishop of Westminster from 1850) that the first substantial sum of money was raised for the new cathedral. The land was acquired in 1884 by Wiseman's successor, Cardinal Manning. After two false starts in 1867 (under architect Henry Clutton) and 1892 (architect Baron von Herstel), construction started in 1895 under Manning's successor, the third archbishop Cardinal Vaughan with Bentley as architect. The cathedral opened in 1903, a little after Bentley's death. For reasons of economy the decoration of the interior had hardly been started and still much remained to be completed.

Under the laws of the Church no place of worship could be consecrated unless free from debt and having its fabric completed, so the consecration ceremony did not take place until June 28, 1910.

On May 28, 1982, the first day of his six-day visit to the United Kingdom, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in the cathedral.

In 1995, at the invitation of Cardinal Basil Hume, the cathedral was visited by the Queen, the first visit of a reigning monarch of the United Kingdom to a Catholic liturgy for several hundred years.

Architecture and Mosaics
The Byzantine church architecture by John Francis Bentley makes Westminster Cathedral a highly distinctive building.

The dominating external features are the great campanile, St. Edward's Tower, 273ft high (top of cross, 284ft), and the West Front with its finely balanced pillars and arches.

The nave is the widest of any church in England and, because the Sanctuary is 4.5ft above the level of the nave, every part commands an uninterrupted view of the High Altar, with its imposing marble and mosaic baldacchino, on which light is cleverly concentrated. The richly gilt Crucifix hanging from the chancel arch is 30ft in length. On one side is the figure of Christ; on the reverse, towards the altar, the figure of the Sorrowful Mother. The Archiepiscopal Throne or cathedra, of marble and mosaic, is modelled on the Papal Throne at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.

The beautiful marble pillars are elaborately carved, with caps of white Carrara marble, no two alike. There are in all eleven side-chapels. Adjoining the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is a white marble monument of Cardinal Vaughan (d. 1903). The screen and gates in this chapel, surmounted by a gold pelican, are very beautiful. In a corresponding position on the other side of the Sanctuary is the Lady Chapel. The Chapel of St. Gregory and Augustine (the first on the right as one enters the nave) and the Chapel of the Holy Souls (the first on the left as one enters) are also complete; the former was the gift of Lord and Lady Brampton.

The cathedral continues to receive donations for the completion of the elaborate mosaics within. As of 2006, work is being undertaken to decorate the Chapel of St. Joseph.

Below the Choir is the Crypt, or St. Peter's Chapel, also with fine columns. Here are monuments covering the remains of Cardinals Wiseman and Manning, transferred from their original place of interment and Kensal Green.

The view from the Tower is much obstructed by nearby buildings and scenery. The tower is about 60ft higher than the western towers of Westminster Abbey, but is 30ft lower than the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament. Archbishop's House adjoins the eastern end of the Cathedral, in Ambrosden Avenue.

Despite its relatively short history compared to other English cathedrals, Westminster has a distinguished choral tradition, and the choir is considered one of the best of its kind in the world. This is thanks partly to the vision of Cardinal Vaughan, the cathedral's founder, and partly to successive distinguished Masters of Music. Since 2000, the Master has been Martin Baker, and previous holders have included James O'Donnell (now at Westminster Abbey), Stephen Cleobury (now at King's College, Cambridge), and David Hill (now at St John's College, Cambridge).

The Choir has commissioned many works from distinguished composers, many of whom are better known for their contribution to Anglican music, such as Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams. However, the Choir is particularly renowned for its performance of Gregorian chant and polyphony of the Renaissance.

All the boys of the Choir are boarders at the nearby Westminster Cathedral Choir School.

Unlike most other English cathedrals, Westminster does not have a separate Quire; instead, the choir are hidden from view in the Apse behind the High Altar. This, with the excellent acoustic of the cathedral building, contributes to its highly distinctive sound.