A Point of View: History, Hogwarts and houses of God

(Clockwise) Vaulted ceiling of Exeter Cathedral; Gloucester Cathedral; St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne, Australia; St Paul's Cathedral in London

In the run-up to Easter, David Cannadine looks at a selection of the world's cathedrals and the important contribution that they have made to the broader lives of their respective cities and countries.

Perhaps it's because Easter's been approaching, or maybe it's just coincidence, but either way, there's been quite a bit of news lately about cathedrals, though it's not been very cheerful.

A few weeks ago, it was reported that what was left of Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand, which had been badly damaged in an earthquake last year, would have to be demolished. Built in the second half of the 19th Century, the cathedral had long been an essential part of the Christchurch cityscape and community, and the announcement that the surviving shell was too unsafe to be restored was greeted with widespread and understandable dismay.

Image caption Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand was damaged by an earthquake in 2011

And just a few days ago, it was reported that England's cathedrals are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet, even when they charge for admission. Running costs amount to thousands of pounds a week, and serious restoration, of the roof, the windows, or the stonework, can run into tens of millions of pounds.

These rather gloomy tidings were much in my mind when I recently went to Exeter to deliver a lecture at the university. With time to spare beforehand, I paid a visit to the cathedral, which was, like so many of its kind, a combination of comforting familiarity and breathtaking surprise.

There's a homely and attractive cathedral close, and a welcoming if slightly unprepossessing west front. But that's no preparation for the spectacular view which opens up once you go in: a high and heady vault running the whole length of the nave and the choir, constructed in the most elaborate Decorated style of the early 14th Century.

It's a glorious vista, lifting the eye and the spirit heavenwards; and it's easy to see why the great architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, included Exeter Cathedral as one of his twelve favourite English buildings.

If, like me, you're an historian by trade, there are many good reasons for visiting our cathedrals. The monuments, as on the walls at Exeter - to civic worthies, aristocratic neighbours, and local regiments - are a vivid reminder of the important part that has been played, and is played today, by cathedrals in the broader lives of their cities and counties.

And because I had the chance to listen to the Exeter choir, which was rehearsing for evensong, I was also reminded of the essential contribution that cathedrals have made, and still make, to the ancient and modern musical culture of their communities.

Edward Elgar may have lamented that he grew up poor and provincial in 19th Century Worcester, but because the cathedral was the focus of a vibrant and vigorous musical life, including the Three Choirs Festival held in collaboration with Hereford and Gloucester, it was in fact an ideally nurturing and encouraging environment for an aspiring composer.

Along with churches, castles and country houses, cathedrals are among our greatest architectural glories, and I suppose we all have our favourites among them. Perhaps Salisbury - unrivalled for its soaring spire and the grace and beauty of its setting, immortalized in the paintings of John Constable.

Or perhaps Gloucester, with its exquisite fan vaulted cloisters that have become familiar, as part of Hogworts School, to millions of people through the Harry Potter films.

Or perhaps Durham, standing high and strong on the city skyline, close by the castle - sacred power and secular power side by side, and often fleetingly glimpsed by travellers from the windows of the London to Edinburgh train.

As these examples suggest, we tend to think that the construction of cathedrals had ended by the 16th Century, and that Sir Christopher Wren's subsequent re-building of St Paul's in London was the exception that proved the rule.

And it's certainly true that when many of England's great industrial cities were given Anglican bishoprics, they often took over a large parish church and re-named it a cathedral, as in the case of Newcastle, Manchester, my home town of Birmingham, and also nearby Coventry.

Image caption Gloucester Cathedral doubled as a film set for the Harry Potter film franchise

But that's far from being the whole of the story, for, in many ways, the 19th Century was a great age of cathedral construction, including St Chad's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham, designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, and St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh, by George Gilbert Scott.

And in the aftermath of the Restoration of the Catholic hierarchy and diocesan structure in England and Wales by Pope Pius IX, many new Catholic cathedrals were constructed, culminating in the building of Westminster Cathedral in the Byzantine style, consecrated in 1910.

If we look further afield, to what was then the rapidly expanding British Empire, the 19th and early 20th Centuries were something of a golden age for the construction of Anglican cathedrals. From Toronto to Calcutta, Cape Town to Cairo, Hong Kong to Singapore, the British built churches wherever they went.

One of my favourites is St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne. Designed in the Gothic revival style by the English architect William Butterfield, it's diagonally opposite Flinders Street railway station, and thus at the very heart of the city.

Another is the Cathedral Church of the Redemption, in New Delhi, which was constructed between 1927 and 1931 as part of Sir Edwin Lutyens's master plan for the new capital of the Raj.

Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that these great Anglican churches are among the most enduring legacies of Britain's once far-flung realms, and when Jan Morris brought her imperial trilogy to a close, in Farewell the Trumpets, it was with an account of an evensong service in a cathedral of the old empire.

By the late 19th Century, new Anglican cathedrals were also being built back in England, beginning with Truro, designed by John Loughborough Pearson, and once again in the Gothic revival style, on which work was begun in 1880.

Two decades later, a competition was held to select the architect for the new Liverpool Cathedral, and it was won by the 22-year-old Giles Gilbert Scott, who was the grandson of George Gilbert Scott. It turned out to be an unhappy commission: the construction of the building, which was once again in the Gothic style, was fraught with difficulty, and was interrupted during both World Wars.

When Scott died in 1960, Liverpool Cathedral was still unfinished, and it would only be completed nearly 20 years later. Nor did Scott fare any better with Coventry, whose cathedral had been horrifically damaged in a German bombing raid in November 1940. Once peace had returned, he was invited to design a new building, but his highly traditional Gothic scheme was deemed inappropriate for the brave new post-war world.

The project was then thrown open to a full-scale architectural competition. The winner was a young man named Basil Spence, and his cathedral was an imaginative and exciting mixture of the traditional and the modern.

The shapes and spaces and configurations, of the nave, the choir and the sanctuary, were very familiar, but Spence also ensured that the cathedral was a showcase of contemporary British art, including Graham Sutherland's tapestry of Christ in Glory, John Piper's Baptistry Window, and Jacob Epstein's statue of St Michael and the Devil.

Image caption Coventry Cathedral is a showcase of British art

In recognition, but also in defiance, of the death and destruction wrought during World War II, Coventry's new cathedral was conceived from the outset in a spirit of peace and hope, reconciliation and resurrection, and to that end, Benjamin Britten was commissioned to compose a War Requiem, first performed soon after the building was consecrated, which was exactly fifty years ago, in the spring of 1962.

Like so many of our cathedrals, Coventry is an extraordinary and exhilarating place to visit, for it is, and yet it is not, a quintessentially 60s building: both of its time, yet also unique. Norman Tebbit once claimed that the 1960s was a third rate decade, full of third rate minds, which were (among other things) smug, wet, sanctimonious, naïve, guilt-ridden and insufferable.

Like the rest of us, he's entitled to his point of view, but a decade which produced Coventry Cathedral was far from being all wrong or all bad. And its abiding message, of peace and hope, of reconciliation and resurrection, is surely a good and noble one at any time, and especially at Easter time.