A history of the Collegiate and the Cathedral, from 1421 to the present day, edited by Jeremy Gregory

WALKING around Leuven in 1885, an observer encountered a baker wrapping his wares in pieces of ancient parchment. It turned out to be the archives of a local monastery that had been destroyed in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Closer inspection revealed somewhat surprisingly that one of the documents described some of the pre-Reformation silverware belonging to what is now Manchester Cathedral.

It’s a revealing and rather beautiful story. He tells, first, the difficulties that any historian of the place will encounter. Manchester does not have the full records of a Westminster Abbey or a Winchester Cathedral. Even something as solid and substantial as its architecture is not easy to interpret. The reconstruction and – again – the lack of documentation makes much of the analysis somewhat speculative. As Sarah Boyer observes in her fascinating chapter on the music of Manchester Cathedral, much of what we know “is based on casual references” rather than extensive archival evidence.

But the unexpected discovery of this precious document in a Belgian bakery also reveals how fascinating the history of Manchester Cathedral is. An important civic home to the city, it is also a shining example of the tensions and conflicts that have rocked the Church more generally over the past 600 years.

The list found in Louvain was compiled by Laurence Vaux, a Roman Catholic priest who fled Manchester in 1559 with silverware from what was then the Collegiate Church. More than that, as Ian Atherton notes in his wonderfully well-researched chapter on the post-Reformation period, the lack of evidence was often deliberate. “Darkness,” he writes, “was a deliberate policy. . . so that they can hide their dubious practices.

It takes real competence and exemplary scholarship to bring out the intrinsic interest of the institution despite the limits of the available sources. Fortunately, the historians brought together by Jeremy Gregory in this new book are more than up to the task. They include such authorities as Reformation scholar Lucy Wooding and perhaps the eminent local historian Terry Wyke.

Courtesy of Manchester CathedralThe 15th century nave roof of Manchester Cathedral, in one of many color illustrations in the New History, examined here

For the modern period, the two leading historians of the 20th century Church of England, Matthew Grimley and Jeremy Morris, each produce performances of bravery. Indeed, each of the 13 chapters – from Peter Arrowsmith’s prehistory of the place to Marion McClintock’s stained glass account – is of high quality, as are the very many color images provided.

The story these scholars tell is one of change. Founded in 1421, Manchester Collegiate Church was dissolved in 1547 and restored in 1556; dissolved again in 1649 and restored again in 1660. It became a cathedral in 1840, but continued to serve as a collegiate foundation and parish church for decades: an uncomfortable compromise which, as Arthur Burns shows in his excellent chapter, produces all kinds of complications. Moreover, Manchester itself was, of course, changing all around it.

A wonderful history of an important institution, this will be essential reading for all Mancunians and anyone interested in Church history more generally.

The Reverend Dr William Whyte is a Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford and Professor of Social and Architectural History at the University of Oxford.

Manchester Cathedral: A History of the Collegiate Church and Cathedral, 1421 to the Present
Jeremy Gregoire
Manchester University Press £30
Church Times Bookstore €29

Martha J. Finley