Skip to main content Skip to main navigation

Chichester Cathedral

by Portia Tremlett

Written by Portia Tremlett, Museum Assistant

Chichester is known for its iconic and well loved Cathedral that dominates the skyline as you enter from neighbouring villages. With an impressive collection of important artwork, and a troublesome history, it still stands proud and is the home to a nesting pair of peregrine falcons.

The original bishopric was in fact situated in Selsey, believed to be under the current site of Church Norton, and was established in 681 by the Saxon St Wilfrid. After the Norman invasion of 1066 churches located in rural places were brought into the town and city centres. After the See of Chichester was established in 1075, the site of the old St Peter's church was chosen by Stigand, first Bishop of Chichester, and the construction of Chichester Cathedral began. It was not consecrated until 1108 by the then Bishop Ralph Luffa, believed to have been instrumental in a large amount of the build.

Although originally Norman in construction there have been many re-builds, alterations and extensions over the years, providing visitors the opportunity to see examples of Early English Gothic to Romanesque architectural styles within the total building. The Cathedral is unique in that it still has a separate free-standing medieval bell tower, still used by 15 bell-ringers who have to climb 84 steps every Sunday.

The Cathedral has been the unfortunate recipient of a number of disasters during its life; a fire in 1114 resulted in Bishop Luffa rebuilding the Cathedral and extending it westward. A further devastating fire in 1187 destroyed the timber roof and caused extensive damage to the stonework. The towers found in the central section and the facades have had a particularly calamitous history, thought to be the result of a long running problem with subsidence, with two of the fa├žade towers collapsing in 1210 and 1635, and only some of the damage re-built. The central spire built in the 14th century, and repaired in the 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren designer of St Paul's Cathedral, was hit by lightning in 1721 although still stood until its ultimate demise when in collapsed in on itself in 1861. Although unable to save the spire, fortunately, due to immense cracking seen in the crossing piers, the collapse was foreseen and so no life was lost. The spire was then rebuilt in 1866 by Sir George Gilbert Scott, a prolific architect known for a revival of English gothic style. After 5 years of construction the tower stood at 82 metres tall, and is what you can see today.

Although the building itself is famous for its unique and beautiful architecture, Chichester Cathedral is also home to some internationally important pieces of art, both modern and historic. In the floor can be seen a small fragment of uncovered Roman mosaic, whilst nearby are two early twelfth century carved reliefs regarded as outstanding examples of pre-gothic sculpture. The Cathedral suffered from heavy raids during the English Civil War, and a large screen was built to hide the two reliefs, which were then re-discovered at a later date. They are well-known for their use of modern works of art, including a beautiful and brightly coloured John Piper tapestry, a Marc Chagall stained glass window that entices visitors from far and wide, and a 'Virgin and Child' sculpture by John Skelton.

The Cathedral is still a lively and thriving centre attraction in the city, and has an extensive events and learning programme, with music and workshops, weddings, a choir and daily prayers.