Building » +Liverpool – Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King

+Liverpool – Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King

Mount Pleasant, Liverpool L3

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Illustrated London News 13 October 1934

One of the major British buildings of the twentieth century. The building comprises two parts, each of international significance. Sir Edwin Lutyens’ monumental and sublime crypt is all that was completed of Archbishop Downey’s grandiose scheme to eclipse Giles Scott’s Anglican Cathedral, and even rival St Peter’s in Rome. Sir Frederick Gibberd’s superstructure, completed in 1967, was built quickly and to a much reduced budget. It is nevertheless the outstanding monument in this country of the ‘aggiornamento’ of the Second Vatican Council, and is a showcase of the work of many of the finest British artists of the post- war period.

With the Restoration of the Hierarchy, the city centre church of St Nicholas became the pro-cathedral.  In 1853 Bishop Brown started giving thought to the provision of a purpose-built and more befitting  cathedral,  and  he asked  E.W.  Pugin to prepare plans for a large Gothic church at St Edward’s College, Everton, on a high point at the northern end of the city. It was intended that this building, opened initially as the parish of Our Lady Immaculate by Bishop Goss in 1856, should be expanded to become the cathedral.  However, this project was not to be advanced, and St Nicholas continued in use as the pro-cathedral and Our Lady as a parish church. The idea of a new cathedral was not to be revived until the time of Archbishop Keating in 1921 when it was advanced as a memorial to Archbishop Whiteside.

The Lutyens scheme

Archbishop Keating identified  a site at the top of Brownlow  Hill, the site of  the former Liverpool Workhouse, as more suitably commanding than that of the pro- cathedral. The site was owned by the West Derby Board of Poor Law Guardians, and was also being coveted by the University (for expansion) and the City Council (for housing). Keating died before the site could be secured, but this was achieved at a cost of £100,000 by his successor Archbishop Downey in 1930, in the teeth of sectarian resistance. The Rev Harry Longbottom, a prominent local Protestant, said he would prefer the site to be used for a ‘poison germ factory’ than a Catholic Cathedral, prompting Downey to comment that although he had only acquired the site ‘by a short nose’, this was better than ‘being beaten by a long bottom!’ (quoted in Doyle, 294).

Downey approached Sir Edwin Lutyens to design the new Cathedral, and a classical style was chosen, possibly to avoid comparison with Giles Scott’s Anglican Cathedral then rising. In scale, Lutyens’ design would trump Scott’s, and indeed that of any other English Cathedral. Architect and Archbishop obtained Pope Pius XI’s approval of the plans, and the Pope suggested the dedication, to Christ the King.

Lutyens developed his plans in the early years of the 1930s, and in 1934 his great model was exhibited at the Royal Academy. The design was for a great domed structure which at 510 feet would be notably higher than those of St Peter’s in Rome (450 ft) and St Paul’s in London (366 ft). The estimated cost of £3m dismayed many in the diocese, but Downey pressed ahead with fundraising (‘We need a cathedral, we need it urgently, and it must be a vast one’, quoted in Doyle, 297). The foundation stone was laid on Whit Monday 1933 and by October 1936 the Archbishop was able to say Mass in the shell of the crypt. Work continued steadily until 1941, when the Ministry of Works put a stop to them, since the builders were needed for urgent war work.

The Scott scheme

Lutyens died in 1944 and was replaced as architect by Adrian Gilbert Scott, younger brother of the architect of the Anglican cathedral. Scott estimated that it would cost £27m to complete Lutyens’ design, and the dream was looking increasingly distant. Finally, in 1953 Downey’s successor Archbishop Godfrey took the decisive step of abandoning the scheme.   Scott prepared a new design, still with a dome, but on a much reduced footprint (with a piazza in front over the western end of the crypt). The estimated cost of this design was £4m. Although clearly more affordable, the design did  not  find  favour  with  the  architectural  establishment;  the  Royal  Fine  Arts Commission condemned it as a ‘caricature’ (Doyle, 304). Progress was slow, and in 1957 the new Archbishop, John Heenan, sacked Scott as architect for the new Cathedral, but did instruct him to complete Lutyens’ crypt.  The crypt was formally opened by Archbishop Heenan on 26 October 1958, the Feast of Christ the King.

The Gibberd design

In 1959 Archbishop Heenan announced a competition for the new cathedral, to cost no less than £1m. The assessors were Sir Basil Spence and the Catholic architect David Stokes. Designs prepared by Frederick Gibberd, then known chiefly as the builder of Harlow New Town, were chosen from 299 entries.

Building of Gibberd’s striking circular, centrally planned design started in October 1962.  The building was placed towards the east end of Lutyens’ crypt, with a piazza in front, an idea first proposed by Scott. The structure was simple, consisting of two great ring beams supporting the main roof and tower, and in turn supported by sloping concrete buttresses. The interior was a single uninterrupted space, with a ring of outer chapels between the buttresses. The sloping design rose to a central funnel- shaped tower, placed over the central altar and filled with stained glass. Designs from major national as well as local artists were obtained for the glass and other furnishings.

The cathedral was opened in May 1967. It normally seats 2,200, and the final cost was £2.5m.

Technical problems, renovation and development

Technical problems began to develop soon after the completion of the cathedral. Chief amongst these was a failure in the surface of the piazza (causing ingress of rainwater into the crypt), leaks in the aluminium roof of the cathedral, the leaning outwards of the walls surrounding the podium and the delamination of the glass mosaic cladding of the buttresses. The Archdiocese took the architects to court with a claim for £6m. This was settled out of court.

Serious thought was given to the demolition of the cathedral. However 1992 saw the introduction of English Heritage cathedral grants, and these acted as the catalyst for the repair and renovation of the building. To start with the piazza was taken up, a new waterproof membrane inserted, and new paving and drains provided (architect Richard O’Mahony of Derek Cox OMF Architects). Work then proceeded on the superstructure,  under  the  supervision  of  W.J.  Vis  of  Derek  Hicks  and  Thew Architects. The mild steel pinnacles at the top of the corona were replaced in stainless steel, the lantern glazing restored, the aluminium roof stripped and replaced in stainless steel, the mosaics on the buttresses stabilised and covered with grp panels and the perimeter walls rebuilt. This programme of repairs was concluded in 2003; the total cost was £8m, of which £2m came from English Heritage and £3m from benefactors.

In 2002 Gibberd’s plan for a great flight of steps from the main entrance down towards Hope Street was finally realised, with the help of European Union grant aid. This flight is flanked on one side by the new visitor centre and restaurant and on the other by the Science Park building (architect Mark Dring of Falconer Chester).


See the list description, below.  Since its completion the building has continued to be adorned with new furnishings and artworks. Original furnishings and later additions not mentioned in the list description include

  • The organ, built in 1967 by J.W. Walker of London for £35,000
  • The expressionist Stations of the Cross by local artist Sean Rice, the gift of Archbishop Worlock on his priestly golden jubilee
  • Life-size figure of Abraham sacrificing the ram and double eagle lectern, also by Sean Rice
  • Small figure of the Risen Christ by local artist Arthur Dooley, in the Blessed Sacrament chapel
  • There is a flourishing programme of needleworking led by Sister Anthony Wilson MBE and her team, preparing banners and hangings of varying degrees of permanence.

List description


Roman Catholic Cathedral of 1962-67 by F Gibberd and earlier Crypt, adjoining.

Crypt: 1933-40. Sir E Lutyens. Brick with granite facing. Facades to north and east and west. East facade is symmetrical, with 3 round headed windows, the central one mullioned and transomed and with large keystone. 2 entrances have Tuscan aedicules with open pediments. West facade similar. North facade has 5 lunettes, round-headed entrances to ends.Interior of blue brick with red brick vaults and granite dressings. 2 central circular spaces are flanked by the concert hall to west and Blessed Sacrament Chapel to east. Both have double aisles and end in 3 apses. To north is the Community Hall and to South is the Pontifical Chapel. Chapel of Relics to south has 3 round headed recesses faced with marble containing Doric aedicules supporting chest tombs; pierced round stone serves as door (the “Rolling Gate”) -The Crypt was the only completed part of Lutyen’s design for the Cathedral, and would have lain across the main axis, at the north (ritual E) end. An impressive fragment of what Lutyens thought would have been his greatest achievement.

Cathedral (added to List Entry in 1994):- competition held for its design 1959-60. Constructed 1962-67. Architect Frederick Gibberd. Concrete frame with ceramic mosaic cladding; walls clad in Portland stone; aluminium sheet covering to roof. Circular plan with central altar and perimeter chapels. Conical form with sixteen raking concrete supports linked by ring beams at the eaves and at the base of the stained glass and concrete lantern which crowns the building. Within each bay of the frame, except at the front, is set a stone clad chapel; these are varied in form, some with squared corners and some with rounded corners. They are separated from the frame by strips of stained glass. The front bay is occupied by an entrance porch of triangular section which rises away from the body of the church to form a cliff-like facade which houses four bells and is adorned with a symbolic relief by William Mitchell. To each side of the entrance are doors incorporating fibreglass reliefs, also by Mitchell. The sixteen vertical concrete members of the central lantern are each topped by tall metal pinnacles, linked by a delicate web of metal struts. Internally the walls are plastered. The interior contains various fittings and fixtures of note, including the following:- The central lantern or’corona’ is filled with stained glass by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens, cemented together with epoxy resin and pre-cast within tracery of thin concrete ribs, a technique invented for the job. The Sanctuary:- canopy by Gibberd; Crucifix by Elizabeth Frink; Altar Cross and Candlesticks by P Y Goodden. The nave space:- Piper and Reyntiens stained glass framing the side chapels; curved benches by Frank Knight; geometrical floor pattern by David Atkins. The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament:- stained glass, reredos and tabernacle by Ceri Richards. The Baptistry:-grey and black floor and bronze gates by David Atkins. The Lady Chapel:- Madonna statue by Bob Brumby; stained glass by Margaret Traherne. The Chapel of St Paul of the Cross:- stained glass by Margaret Traherne. The Archbishop’s Throne was designed by R D Russell. Sources:- N Pevsner, South Lancashire; F Gibberd, Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool (1968); Architect and Building News 1960, 31 August, pp 265-70+ 228-9; Architectural Review, 1967 June pp 436-448.

Listing NGR: SJ357209029


Books and journals: Gibberd, F, Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King Liverpool, (1968); Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: South Lancashire, (1969); ‘The Architect and Building News’ in 31 August, (1960), 265-270; ‘The Architect and Building News’ in 31 August, (1960), 228-229; ‘Architectural Review’ in June, (1967), 436-448.

Heritage Details

Architect: (Sir Edwin Lutyens); Sir Frederick Gibberd

Original Date: 1967

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II*