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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

Southwark Cathedral: Interesting Facts & Brief History

What is Southwark Cathedral?

Southwark Cathedral is an Anglican (Church of England) cathedral on the south bank of the River Thames that has been a place of Christian worship for over a thousand years.

Southwark Cathedral

A brief history of Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral was once known as the priory church of St Mary Overie. St Mary’s early history is uncertain, however tradition traces its ancient origins to a 7th-century nunnery, in what would have then been a marshy village on the banks of the River Thames. The story goes that the nunnery was founded by a young woman named Mary Audrey, the devout and enterprising daughter of the local ferryman. She used the money she inherited from her father’s ferrying to build a nunnery. It is more likely, however, that the church’s rather unusual name referred to its location than its legendary founder. Overie derives from ‘over the rie’, meaning it was ‘over the river’ from Saxon London.

Early modern Southwark was a diverse and exciting area, home to raucous coaching inns, bustling markets and a thriving dock. It lay outside the jurisdiction of London, so became a hub of illicit activities and industries such as prostitution, bear-baiting, and theatre. The cathedral therefore had a rather ambiguous relationship with the borough. The Parish leaders wanted to set a moral example, yet they profited from licensing a large number of brothels. They preached law and order, but many thieves claimed sanctuary within the church’s walls.

Local prostitutes became known as Winchester Geese because they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester, who resided in the borough. In spite of this permission, these women were often excommunicated from the church when they died. A memorial to Southwark’s seedy past – and the church’s complicity - exists nearby in Cross Bones Cemetery, on Red Cross Way. It was established by the church as an unconsecrated burial ground for local women and men of ill repute and was in use up until the 19th century.

Southwark Cathedral Interior

The oldest part of the cathedral is the beautiful vaulted retrochoir (the space behind the high altar) which dates from the 13th century. Over the years it’s been used for rather unorthodox practices. During the reign of Queen Mary I, who was determined to restore England to Catholicism by any means, it was used as a court by the Bishop of Winchester to try Protestant heretics. In the second half of the 15th century, the retrochoir was rented by two local bakers. Following complaints about the condition of the chapel, the Wardens made a formal inspection and were horrified to discover that the chapel-turned-bakery had also become home to pigs and chickens.

The retrochoir has four chapels, one of which, dedicated to St Andrew, was one of the first chapels ever to be dedicated to people affected by HIV and AIDS.

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