Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Southwark Cathedral

A couple of more sharp turns of the street and I am at Southwark Cathedral. If you try and name as many Cathedrals as you can I bet it is a long time before you think of Southwark, if at all. Not surprising, because it has only been a cathedral for a relatively short time, and has one of the smallest diocese. However, due to its location it is ideally situated to serve a much wider flock than those who live in its immediate parish.

Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral

A convent was believed to have been established here around the year 606, and St Swithun, Bishop of Winchester, is believed to have set up a college of priests sometime around 860. That gives us a connection with Winchester at least. The first actual reference comes in the Domesday Book, where a monastery is listed as having its own wharf for the unloading of goods.

In 1106 two knights, William Port de L’Arche and William Dauncey set up a new church that they dedicated to St Mary Overie and also founded an Augustinian Priory to administer to the sick and needy. They dedicated the hospital to St Thomas of Canterbury, and this eventually developed into St Thomas’ Hospital at Lambeth Bridge.

Henry of Blois built Winchester Palace just a few minutes walk away, and the church remained under the influence of the Bishop of Winchester until the end of the nineteenth century.

In 1212 the priory, church and hospital were severely damaged by fire and work started to rebuild in the Gothic style. The church was continually expanded over the next three hundred years, and after the dissolution of the monasteries became the parish church of St Saviour.

Following the dissolution some parts of the monastery buildings were used for all sorts of things. One part was let out for a bakery, another as a pottery and a part was even used for keeping pigs!

The Church of St Saviour was in prime location for use by the entertainers of Bankside, and many of the names that appear on Shakespeare’s First Folio also appear in the church registers. There is a further connection to Shakespeare in that his brother, Edmund, was buried here in 1607.

During the early 1800s the church faced two threats. The reconstruction of the medieval London Bridge would come within a few yards of the buildings, and the buildings themselves were becoming in a poor state of repair and spent some time without a roof. There was a move to pull the church down, but restoration won the day and the buildings were saved. No sooner was this accomplished than the London, Dover and Chatham Railway Company built a great eyesore of a viaduct right next to the restored church.

With all of this going on it was becoming more difficult for the cathedral at Winchester to support a church in South London. After a short experiment with transferring authority to Rochester, the Diocese of Southwark was formed by Act of Parliament and the cathedral came into being, with the rather grand name of Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie.

There we have Southwark Cathedral, and with a few more twists of the narrow London streets I arrive at London Bridge.

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