If you’ve watched the Harry Potter films, you’ve seen Gloucester Cathedral, or at least its cloisters. With my slight obsession with beautiful cathedrals, Gloucester Cathedral has been on my ‘to visit’ list for years – I was so excited when I got the chance to visit it.
In its 1300+ years of continuous worship, Gloucester Cathedral has witnessed several rebuildings, a coronation, multiple notable burials, seemingly imminent destruction (at some points), and the filming of several movies and TV shows. As such, it is a must-visit cathedral in England.
History of Gloucester Cathedral
If you know anything about this blog, you know I can’t write anything about a location without exploring its history. What started as quick research for a blog post on Harry Potter filming locations in the cathedral turned into hourslong sessions of research into the history of Gloucester Cathedral itself.
Early History: The Beginnings of Gloucester Cathedral
King Osric, the Anglo-Saxon King of the Hwicce, founded the Abbey of St. Peter in Gloucester on top of Roman foundations between 678-679 AD. It remained a modest wood or stone church until 1058 when the Bishop of Worcester rebuilt it to be much larger and grander. Gloucester Cathedral was called the Abbey of St. Peter until 1541 when it officially became a cathedral.
In 1072, William the Conqueror named Abbot Serlo, a monk from Mont-Saint-Michel, the Abbot of the Abbey. William the Conqueror himself commissioned the Domesday book from the Abbey in 1085. Because the Abbey of St. Peter was far from thriving, the new Abbot Serlo worked to build up its wealth so that the Abbey could be refurbished to befit its status. Construction of a new abbey in the Norman style started in 1089.
The turning point
Not much of note occurred in the centuries that followed. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 14th century that Gloucester Cathedral would become known throughout the country.
Following his suspicious and gruesome murder in 1327, King Edward II was buried in the Abbey. Pilgrims flocked to his tomb, upon which his son commissioned a shrine-like monument. The Abbey received extravagant gifts and donations from pilgrims and royals alike, the results of which kickstarted 20 years of new construction beginning in 1331. It was during this period that the Abbey was redone in the Perpendicular Gothic style, making it the earliest and best example of the style in England.
Turbulent Times: From Abbey to Cathedral to Potential Destruction and Back to Normal
In 1540, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, King Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey. By 1541, the Abbey became Gloucester Cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of Gloucester.
During the English Civil War in 1649, Oliver Cromwell moved to have the Cathedral destroyed. Thankfully, the mayor and burgesses of the city of Gloucester saved it. In 1660, King Charles II returned things to as they were before the English Civil War, and how they remain today – with the Dean and Chapter running the cathedral. Since then, the cathedral has undergone restorations and repairs, survived World War II, and become a popular filming location for British movies and TV shows.
Filming at Gloucester Cathedral
Not surprisingly given its beauty, many notable TV shows and movies have used Gloucester Cathedral as a filming location. Perhaps most famously, the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral appear in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Other shows and movies filmed at Gloucester Cathedral include Sherlock, Wolf Hall, Doctor Who, The Hollow Crown, The Spanish Princess, A Discovery of Witches, and Mary Queen of Scots.
What to see in Gloucester Cathedral
We spent about one hour wandering around Gloucester Cathedral, but I easily could have spent longer there. It has so many highlights that make it a must-visit cathedral in England.
The East Window
The East Window was installed in Gloucester Cathedral in the 1350s, possibly to commemorate the Battle of Crecy in 1346. It measures 22 meters in height and 12 meters wide, making it as big as a tennis court. At the time, it was the largest window in the world. Today, it is the second-largest medieval window in Britain behind York Minster’s East Window.
If you can get a close look, you’ll see that the window depicts medieval society hierarchically. At the bottom are commoners, followed by nobility, bishops, abbots, saints, and apostles, and angels as you move up the window, with Mary and Jesus at the top. An image at the bottom of the window even depicts one of the earliest images of golf (over 300 years older than the earliest images from Scotland).
During World War II, the glass from the East Window was removed and stored in the crypt of Gloucester Cathedral. The labels they had used on the glass got mixed up, so restorers after the war had to piece the window together using old black and white postcards to figure out where everything went.
The Lady Chapel
The Lady Chapel was the last addition to the cathedral. Constructed in the 15th century, this chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The stained glass dates to the early 1900s and the screen covering the altar has scars from the Reformation and English Civil War.
Inside the chapel, you’ll find a statue of John Powell, a Gloucester-born judge who presided over one of the last witch trials. In 1712, Judge Powell dismissed the case against Jane Wenham who was accused of being able to fly, remarking, “there is no law against flying.”
Edward II’s Tomb
Edward II’s tomb is one of the few monarch’s tombs found outside of London. Commissioned by Edward’s son, the tomb was constructed in the “English Court” style and is one of the first examples of an alabaster effigy. When it was built, it was gilded, brightly painted, and decorated with jewels. Today, it is less opulently decorated but has its original limestone canopy. It is said that the presence of Edward II’s tomb in Gloucester Cathedral might have saved the cathedral from destruction by Henry VIII in the early 1500s.
I give a more detailed history of the cloisters in this post, but suffice it to say that they are well worth a visit for the beautiful fan vaulting alone. Be sure to visit the garth, the garden in the middle of the cloisters, which has the best views of the cathedral tower.
The two cope chests at Gloucester Cathedral were made in the 1360s to store valuable ceremonial robes worn by medieval abbots. Of the seven that survive in the UK, two are at this cathedral.
Robert of Normandy’s Effigy
Robert of Normandy became the Duke of Normandy when his father, William the Conqueror, died in 1087. His brother, Henry I, captured Robert in 1106 and sent him to Cardiff Castle, where he spent the rest of his days until his death in 1134. He was buried in Gloucester Cathedral and this wooden effigy was made around 1240.
Gloucester Cathedral images and fun facts:
- The cathedral not only has surviving Norman architecture but also features nearly every type of Gothic architecture.
- Look out for stone carvings of a ball game, possibly one of the earliest images of medieval football.
- The crypt dates from 1087 and is the oldest part of the cathedral.
- King Henry VIII founded the King’s School in 1541. It’s housed in old monastic buildings on the property. The school can trace its roots back to the 12th century at Gloucester Cathedral.
- Young Henry III was crowned at the Abbey in 1216 when he took the throne at age 9. He is the only king to be crowned outside of Westminster since 1066.
- The organ was made in 1666 and its case is the only surviving one in England from that time.
- The cathedral has a tomb to King Osric, who founded the original Abbey.
- Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn stayed at Gloucester Cathedral for a week in 1535.
Getting to Gloucester Cathedral
We drove to Gloucester from Cheltenham, which is about a 20-minute drive. Because of its location, Gloucester Cathedral makes a perfect stop on a trip to the Cotswolds if you love cathedrals or Harry Potter.
Gloucester is about a 2.5-hour drive from London and about a 2-hour train ride from London. When I had planned on visiting Gloucester as a day trip from London, the train tickets always became too expensive for me to justify.
The cathedral is about a 10-minute walk from the bus and rail station. If you arrive by car, paid parking is available near the cathedral. This guide shows legal parking throughout the city.