Building » +Northampton – Cathedral Church of Our Lady and St Thomas of Canterbury

+Northampton – Cathedral Church of Our Lady and St Thomas of Canterbury

Barrack Road, Northampton, Northants

The cathedral church of the Diocese of Northampton. Originating as a small chapel and residence in 1825 (both of which survive), a further church was built in the 1840s from the designs of A. W. N. Pugin. Following the restoration of the hierarchy and the creation of the Diocese of Northampton, E. W. Pugin prepared ambitious designs for a new cathedral in 1860, only partially implemented. A. W. N. Pugin’s church survived until the 1950s, when it was demolished to make way for a new tower, transepts and chancel, built from designs by A. Herbert. E. W. Pugin’s church is stone built and was richly furnished; much of the detail remains. Herbert’s work is solid and dignified, giving the building something of the cathedral scale and gravitas which it had hitherto lacked. The interior has undergone a number of transformations, most recently in 1998, and there are notable furnishings and fittings from each phase of its development. The cathedral dominates an important complex of historic buildings, which forms the nucleus of the Barrack Road Conservation Area.

In1823 Fr William Foley was sent by Vicar Apostolic Milner to establish a mission in Northampton. He acquired the present site, then lying on the edge of the town, which had once belonged to the medieval priory of St Andrew (from which St Thomas Becket had fled into exile). A chapel dedicated to St Andrew was opened on 25 October 1825, and alongside this Fr Foley also built a house and a small private school. The chapel survives as the Cathedral sacristy, complete with its original altar, and the house as Cathedral House.

By 1840 the congregation had outgrown this small chapel and William Wareing, newly-appointed  Vicar  Apostolic  for  the  Eastern  District,  commissioned  A. W. N. Pugin to design a new chapel dedicated to St Felix in 1843-4. This building  lay alongside and to the south of the existing chapel, to which it was connected by a narrow link. It was built at a cost of £1,200 and opened on 24 June 1844. This chapel served a seminary which was then established in the old church, with an inserted upper floor to provide dormitory accommodation for the students. The space between this building and the 1825 house was infilled with a new building housing a library on the ground floor with a chapel above. Whether Pugin was responsible for the design of this too is not clear. The Buildings of England states that the oriel window to the chapel, on the front elevation of the building, is ‘an original 14th century two-light window re-used’; the authority for this comment has not been established, but the projection now contains a modern single light window.

In 1851, after the restoration of the hierarchy, Pugin prepared designs for a new cathedral, but there were difficulties in acquiring further land. No further progress was made until the appointment in 1858 of  Francis Kerrill Amherst as second Bishop of Northampton. Amherst had been taught by Pugin at Oscott, and Pugin was to bid unsuccessfully for the hand of his sister Mary. Pugin died in 1852, but in 1860 Bishop Amherst asked his son Edward Welby Pugin to prepare ambitious designs for a new cathedral in Decorated Gothic style, with a tall northwest tower, slender spire and a long choir with side chapels. However, only the nave and apsidal chancel were completed. E. W. Pugin reversed the orientation of the church, placing the high altar at the west end; at the east end, the old chapel of St Felix was retained to give more seating accommodation, facing west. In this form the cathedral, re-dedicated to Our Lady and St Thomas of Canterbury, was opened on 29 April 1864, when Cardinal Manning preached.

In 1877 the Bishop moved out of Cathedral House until such time as he was able to occupy the new Bishop’s House, which was built at the expense of the wealthy Catholic widow Mrs Lyne Stephens, who also paid for churches at Shefford, Cambridge (Our Lady and the English Martyrs) and Lynford, Norfolk. The Buildings of England gives the architect as S. J. Nicholl. The building accounts state that the cost of the building was £12,339 10s 9d, of which the Bishop only had to contribute £1 4s 6d. The Bishop occupied the house in 1885. In the previous year Nicholl had designed the church and presbytery at Shefford, Bedfordshire, also at Mrs Lyne Stephens’ expense.

After the Second World War Bishop Parker put forward plans for the completion of the building along more fitting, cathedralesque lines. He had been impressed by the Leicester architect Albert Herbert’s designs for a tower for Pugin’s church at Mount St Bernard’s Abbey, Leicestershire, and plans were drawn up to once again reverse the orientation of the building and to build a new east end with tower, transepts and sanctuary in the Early English style. This required the demolition of the 1844 A. W. N. Pugin chapel. The foundation stone was laid Cardinal Griffin on 15 June1955 and after various delays the completed building was consecrated by Bishop Parker on 21 June 1960. The contractors were the local firm of A. Glenn and Sons.

Further modifications were made in 1975-6 when a forward altar was placed at the crossing under the tower. At the same time a large pulpit which had been installed in 1881 was removed to open up views of the sanctuary from the south aisle, the Bishop’s throne and font were repositioned in the sanctuary area and the interior was re-lit and redecorated. The architects for this work, which cost £42,000, were The Greenhalgh and Williams Partnership of Bolton.  A new organ was also installed at this time, made by Hendrik ten Bruggencate at a cost of £8,660.

In 1998 there were further changes to the sanctuary to allow more room for concelebration, with a new timber altar and seating. New shrines to Our Lady and St Thomas were set up in the south transept, the font was re-sited to the north transept and a large triptych by Stephen Foster was installed at the east end.


The church is of cruciform plan, consisting of nave with aisles and western apse (the sanctuary and nave of E. W. Pugin’s church), with eastern extensions of 1960 consisting of a tower over the crossing, transepts, chancel and south chancel chapel and north porch.

The E. W. Pugin building is Decorated Gothic in style, built of rock-faced Ancaster and Ketton stone, with a banded slate roof. It consists of a nave and aisles of five bays, with an addition of 1960 at the west end of the south aisle, faced in brick and built as a baptistery. Paired clerestory windows with Dec tracery, surmounted by hoodmoulds rising as pointed gables, the pinnacles of which now break though the extended eaves of the roof (Pugin designed a parapet here, which no doubt gave maintenance problems). At the apsidal west end there are taller windows to the former sanctuary, two lights then three, the larger windows with taller gables. There is a Gothic west doorway in the centre of the apse, formed in 1960 when the building was re-orientated.

The 1960 work is in a plainer Early English style, and is faced in Stamford brick, with stone plinths and reconstituted stone for the dressings.  At the junction with Pugin’s nave there is a broad, squat crossing with clasping corner buttresses, narrow lancet windows to light the interior and shorter windows on the upper belfry stage; above these a semi-embattled parapet. Short transepts with corner buttresses and high-level circular windows project to north and south, that to the south linking to the 1825 chapel. The tall gabled chancel also has corner buttresses, and stepped lancet windows; it is flanked by a chapel on the north side and entrance porch on the south side, each recessed behind the line of the east front, with single east lancet windows and raised parapet gables.

Inside, Pugin’s nave is broad and high. Arcades of clustered columns on high plinths have capitals of richly carved naturalistic foliage, with polychrome figures of bishops and saints at the springing of the hood moulds. A moulded band runs from east to west at clerestory sill level, upon which sit wall posts rising to a fine and complex timber roof with an open raised section with scissor braces and multiple rafters. The clerestory windows are paired trefoils with circular quatrefoil tracery lights; the aisle windows are circular, with elaborate Dec tracery set within pointed arch recesses. There are arched bay divisions in the aisles, with circular openings in the spandrel adjoining the nave arcading. Confessionals give off the north aisle, and the 1960 baptistery at the west end of the south aisle has now been converted to WCs. Alongside this at the west end of the nave (E. W. Pugin’s sanctuary) a choir loft has been inserted (circa 1960). Tall two- and three-light west windows with Dec tracery and stained glass (described below), and carved polychromatic corbels to the wall posts, with angels bearing musical instruments.

At the crossing, arches with plain chamfered mouldings, dating from 1960. The raised crossing is lit by two windows on each side, there is a flat ceiling divided into compartments, with a central circular trap to allow for the lowering of the bell. As in the nave, the walls are plaster and painted, but in the northwest corner is an attached internal stone turret providing access to the belfry stage, a quirky touch. The short transepts project to north and south; that to the north has an organ gallery. The sanctuary is square-ended and has a painted ceiling decorated by Hardman Powell & Co. of Birmingham; tall flanking Blessed Sacrament chapel to south and entrance porch from car park to the north

The main furnishings are as follows:

  • Stained glass at the west end (E. W. Pugin’s chancel) by Hardman, dating from circa 1864. Includes depictions of saints with local associations: St Crispin, patron of shoemakers, St Edmund, St Dorothy, St Hubert (patron of hunters), St Thomas Becket. At the bottom of the central window notable ecclesiastical antiquities of Northampton: the Eleanor Cross, the church of the Holy Sepulchre and St Peter’s.
  • Nineteenth century stained glass in the chancel from the former Catholic chapel at Ashby St Legers.
  • One south clerestory stained glass window erected to the memory of Bishop Wareing by the clergy of the diocese, depicting the Bishop presenting the chapel of St Felix to St William.
  • In the Blessed Sacrament chapel, east window by Joseph Nuttgens, 1998, depicting the Last Supper, Crucifixion and Noli me tangere.
  • The altar in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, with an inset panel of the Agnus Dei, is the cut-down surviving portion of the altar from Amherst’s cathedral.
  • A brass memorial to Bishop Amherst, possibly by Hardman, formerly in the centre aisle but now remounted on the wall at the west end under the gallery.
  • A brass inscription over the tomb of Bishop Parker (d.1975) in the Blessed Sacrament chapel.
  • Ancaster stone font with inset low-relief carving of the Holy Spirit descending; painted ogee cover and chain mechanism. Date not established, possibly circa 1960. The font has had several locations and is currently located beneath the organ gallery in the north transept.
  • The organ, built in 1976 by Hendrik ten Bruggencate.
  • Also under the north transept gallery, chapter seating presumably previously in the chancel. Near here, the entrance to the sacristy, housed in the 1825 church and retaining its original altar and the choir stalls from the pre-1976 chancel (not seen).
  • A large crucifix hanging from the chancel arch, a gift of the Holy Cross sisters at Hayle.
  • At  the  east  end,  a  polychromatic  carved  timber  triptych  depicting the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in the manner of Giotto, made by Stephen Foster for the reordering of the sanctuary in 1998.
  • Pine nineteenth century pews in the nave.
  • In the tower, a single bell, by Taylor’s of Loughborough, 1956.
  • Modern Stations of the Cross, carved in Austrian oak, donated by parishioners.

List description


Nave and aisles mainly 1863 by Edward Welby Pugin, enlarging on much smaller church, 1844 by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Crossing tower, transepts and chancel 1948-55 by Albert Herbert. C19 parts in Decorated style, brick with stone dressings.

Listing NGR: SP7529061672

Heritage Details

Architect: A. W. N. Pugin, E. W. Pugin, A. Herbert

Original Date: 1864

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II