Building » Westminster – Metropolitan Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood

Westminster – Metropolitan Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood

Ashley Place, Westminster, London SW1

The cathedral church of the archdiocese and the mother church of the Catholic community in England and Wales. The cathedral was built in 1895-1905 in the Byzantine style, from designs by John Francis Bentley. While owing much to contemporary and historic precedents, the design remains a highly original and creative tour de force.

For Norman Shaw it was ‘the finest church that has been built for centuries’, while Bradley & Pevsner describe the interior as ‘without doubt one of the most moving of any church in London’. The cathedral was designed from the outset to allow for later enrichment. Major furnishings by Bentley or the successor firm of Bentley, Son & Marshall include the great baldacchino over the high altar, the cathedra or bishop’s throne, the giant rood hanging from the sanctuary arch and the delicate iron light fittings. The quality and range of the internal marble work is remarkable. There are furnishings and mosaic work of outstanding significance by W. Christian Symonds, Robert Weir Schultz, Ernest Gimson, Eric Gill, Boris Anrep and, more recently, Tom Phillips and Christopher Hobbs. Externally, the prodigious massing of the red brick and Portland stone-faced exterior, with its giant Diocletian windows, dominates the area, while the tall, slender Italianate campanile makes the cathedral a landmark in longer views. Since 1975, the (ritual) west front has been opened up to view from Victoria Street. At the rear, the Cathedral Hall, Archbishop’s and Clergy House and the buildings of the choir school and adjoining primary school form a Cathedral ‘quarter’, the older buildings forming the core and focal point of the Westminster Cathedral Conservation Area.

With the establishment of the Archdiocese of Westminster in 1850, the church of St Mary, Moorfields in Finsbury Square (previously the seat of the Vicar Apostolic for London) became the pro-Cathedral.  

After the death of Cardinal Wiseman in 1865 the idea of a purpose-built cathedral was mooted as a memorial. In 1867 a site in Carlisle Place, closer to Victoria Station than the present cathedral, was acquired and Henry Clutton produced various designs for a Gothic cathedral on an ambitious scale (figure 2), to compete with the medieval Gothic of Westminster Abbey. However, schools rather than a cathedral were the chief priority of Archbishop (Cardinal from 1875) Manning, Wiseman’s successor (‘could I leave 20,000 children without education, and drain my friends and my flock to pile up stones and bricks?’. Instead (in 1868) he chose George Goldie’s church of Our Lady of Victories, Kensington, then under construction, to be the pro-Cathedral, replacing St Mary Moorfields. This was a more convenient location than Finsbury Square, being closer to the diocesan seminary at Hammersmith. A stock brick palazzo on the corner of Carlisle Place and Francis Street, built in 1867 as the Guardsman’s Institute, served from 1873 (until 1901) as Archbishop’s House. 

In 1884 the Carlisle Place site was sold when a larger, four-acre site became available at Tothill Fields, site of the former Middlesex House of Correction (see figure 1). Cardinal Manning’s solicitor Alfred Blount set up a company which acquired the site, sold the western half (site of the present cathedral) to the diocese and sold the eastern half for development (figure 3).

On plan (figure 4), as Bradley/Pevsner points out (p.674), the cathedral is a ‘Byzantine translation of the sixteenth century scheme of the Gesù in Rome’, consisting of a nave with perimeter chapels, domed crossing, non-projecting transepts and raised sanctuary.  There are three large domes over the nave, of massed and unreinforced concrete. The series of domes perhaps owes something to San Marco, Venice, although the building is not centrally planned. The debt to San Vitale lies above all in the intention to adorn the tunnel vaults and domes with mosaic decoration mosaic, a plan still largely unrealised. Outside, the domes are not prominent; the single most prominent external feature being the 284ft campanile. This is more Italian than Byzantine in character, similar in height and design to that at Siena (Bentley wanted two towers, but was overruled by Vaughan, primarily on grounds of cost; aesthetically this was a happy decision). The combination of red brick and Portland stone banding in the external facing is redolent of Italian Gothic in its polychromatic effect, but also has contemporary resonances, for example in Norman Shaw’s New Scotland Yard (from 1887).

The cathedral is 360ft (109.7 metres) long, 156ft (47.5 metres) wide and 117ft (35.7 metres) high (up to the top of the domes). The span of the vaults is 60ft (18.3metres), the height of the main arches 90ft (27.4 metres). The building is described in detail in the list entry below, but this does not include the most recent furnishings. The following is a chronological sequence of the main fittings:

1899:   Nave pulpit, made in Rome by Aristide Leonori, the design based on medieval Italian pulpits, with marble and inlaid mosaic (altered in 1934 by L. H.  Shattock, when the mosaic of Our Lady of Walsingham, by John Trinick, was added).

c1900: Enthroned bronze statue of St Peter at the west end, after Arnolfo di Cambio.

1901:   The huge suspended rood cross at the sanctuary arch, designed by Bentley and painted in 1903 by W. Christian Symons. Also the large marble font in the southwest baptistery, made in Rome from Bentley’s designs.

1902:   The cathedra, on the Gospel (left hand) side of the sanctuary, modelled on that in the church of the Lateran, Rome, with a walnut canopy of 1906, designed by Bentley, Son & Marshall.

1902-04:   Mosaics in the chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine, with mosaics by J.R. Clayton of Clayton & Bell, and marbles chosen by Bentley.

1902-08:    Holy Souls chapel. Bentley had designed the bronze screen and in his last years worked closely with Symons on the design and iconography of the mosaics and opus sectile work. 

1904-08:   Altar, canopy, communion rail and bronze screen to Blessed Sacrament chapel, by Marshall.

1905-08:   The huge baldacchino, from Bentley’s designs, supported on eight yellow marble columns, the canopy designed by Marshall. The altar below is a twelve-ton Cornish granite monolith. Bentley prepared various more elaborate designs for the high altar, and Vaughan’s decision to have a huge plain granite block instead was a ‘crushing disappointment’ to the architect (de L’Hopital, 137). The altar was consecrated in June 1908. 

1907:   Fitting out of the chapel of St Thomas Becket (the Vaughan chantry), with effigy by Marshall (carved by Henry McCarthy) and screen by Marshall.

1908:   Alcove conches and altarpiece in Lady Chapel, by Anning Bell; also most of the marbles in this chapel.

1909:   Delicate iron light fittings by Bentley, Son & Marshall.

c1910: Confessionals, by Bentley, Son & Marshall. Also altars in chapels of St George and the English Martyrs, St Patrick and St Joseph.

1910-16:   Design and fitting out of the chapel of St Andrew, ‘a masterpiece of the Arts and Crafts movement’ (Bradley/Pevsner) designed by Robert Weir Schultz, the patron the Fourth Marquess of Bute. Schultz’s collaborators included Ernest Gimson (responsible for the exquisite stalls of 1912) and Bainbridge Reynolds (the screen).

1913-17:   Marble lining of chapel of St Paul.

1913-18:   The Stations of the Cross, by Eric Gill, and amongst his finest works. Very low relief square panels in his favoured Hopton Wood stone, with colour sparingly used in the letters and gilding for the haloes. On the floor beneath the fourteenth Station is a small epitaph to Gill, carved by his pupil Laurie Cribb in 1942.

1916:   Mosaic in tympanum over the west front, by R. Anning Bell.

1921-22:   Marble work in the apse, by Marshall. Farmer & Brindley were responsible for much of the marble work.

1921-32:   The organ, by Henry Willis III, behind a screen by Marshall, 1927.

1929:   A relief of Christ behind the high altar, by Philip Lindsey Clark.

1931:    Bronze screen to the chapel of St George and the English Martyrs, by Shattock, behind which, in the chapel, is the shrine of St John Southworth, set up here in 1930.

1931-35:   Mosaics in Lady Chapel, by Gilbert Pownall, influenced by the Norman-Byzantine mosaics of Sicily, the model favoured by Cardinal Bourne.

1934:   Mosaic tympanum over the choir arch, by Pownall.

1947:   Installation of stone reredos in the chapel of St George and the English Martyrs, depicting Crucifixion and St John Fisher and St Thomas More (commissioned from Eric Gill in 1938 and completed by Laurie Cribb after Gill’s death).

1955:   Acquisition of a fifteenth-century alabaster sculpture of the Virgin and Child, now known as Our Lady of Westminster and placed towards the east end of the nave (south side), below the thirteenth Station.

1956-64:   Marble work in the nave, including gallery balustrades, from Bentley’s designs.

1957:   Mosaic panel of Blessed (St) Oliver Plunkett in south aisle, outside St Patrick’s chapel, by Boris Anrep.

1958:   A bronze plaque of St Thérèse of Lisieux in the south transept, by Giacomo Manzù (replacing a mosaic panel of St Thérèse).

1960-61:   Mosaics in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, by Anrep.

1963:   Mosaics in chapel of St Paul, by Justin Vulliamy, assisted by Anrep.

1982:   Lettered tympanum mosaic of north door at west end, by Nicolete Gray, commemorating the visit of Pope John II.

1998-99:  Bronze plaques of St Benedict and St Vincent de Paul in the south transept, by Bryan Kneale. Mosaic panel of St Patrick in south aisle outside entrance to St Patrick’s chapel, by Trevor Caley.

2001:   Mosaic of St Alban in north aisle outside St Joseph’s chapel, designed by Christopher Hobbs and made by Tessa Hunkin of the Mosaic Workshop.

2003:  Two marble panels and a mosaic panel commemorating John Henry Newman and The Dream of Gerontius (Elgar’s setting of Newman’s poem was first performed at Westminster Cathedral, in 1903) in north aisle outside Holy Souls chapel, by Tom Phillips RA.

2003-06: Completion of mosaics in chapel of St Joseph, designed by Christopher Hobbs and made by the Mosaic Workshop.

2006: Completion of mosaics in chapel of St Thomas Becket (Vaughan chantry), by Christopher Hobbs.

2010:   Mosaic panel of St David in south aisle outside chapel of St Paul, by Ivor Davies, made by Tessa Hunkin of Mosaic Workshop (blessed by Pope Benedict XVI on 18 September 2010). Adaptation of area behind high altar to allow for westward celebration of the Mass, carried out by Nimbus Conservation under the direction of Michael Drury RIBA.  

2012:   Completion of mosaics in the chapel of St George and the English Martyrs, by Tom Phillips (in progress at time of preparation of report).

Heritage Details

Architect: J. F. Bentley

Original Date: 1903

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: I