The reason for this is simple – it has spent most of its life as a humble parish church, albeit the fourth largest in England, only becoming a cathedral on 25th July 1882, when the spiritual needs of a rapidly growing industrial population made the eventual separation of Newcastle from the ancient diocese of Durham inevitable.
Very soon after the building of a castle by Robert, William the Conqueror’s eldest son, in 1080, the first parish church on the site of St. Nicholas’s was erected.
In 1194, we have the first reference to the dedication of the church to St. Nicholas. The first wooden building was rebuilt in stone towards the end of the twelfth century and was twice damaged by fire in the first half of the thirteenth century but repaired and extended in the following years.
Towards the end of the fourteenth century, in order to allow more light into the church, the walls were heightened and a clerestory inserted.
Patrons of this improvement work included Nicholas Sabram, three times Member of Parliament, in addition to Roger Thornton who died in 1429, and Robert Rhodes who died 45 years later, two of the greatest benefactors of churches in Newcastle.
By the end of the fifteenth century with the addition of the splendid stone crown and tower, the church was in very much the same form as we know it today.
Becoming a Cathedral
Although an attempt was made in 1553 to create a City of Newcastle incorporating Gateshead and dividing the see of Durham by creating a Bishopric of Newcastle based at St. Nicholas’s, Queen Mary on her accession, reversed the legislation and St. Nicholas church had to wait for 329 years to pass before becoming a Cathedral church.
It was no doubt changes in taste and the express desire of some well-wishers to make this large parish church resemble a cathedral that led to the 1783 proposal to empty the church of most of its furnishings, tombs and monuments.
The visitor will thus find little in the way of tombs and monuments existing before that year.
Following the creation of the new diocese in 1882, the interior, particularly the chancel area, was much altered as befitted its new cathedral status. The work was supervised by the new cathedral architect, Robert J. Johnson, with skills in wood and stone carving provided by Ralph Hedley, Robert Beall and J.S. Westmacott. The whole presents a beautifully integrated appearance, displaying superb artistry and craftsmanship.
Also in the 19th century St. Nicholas was filled with colourful stained glass of varying quality, depicting the familiar northern saints, scenes from the life of Christ and the figure and symbols of St. Nicholas himself.
A hall, library, vestry and subsidiary rooms were added on the north-east side of the cathedral in 1926 to the design of architect W.H. Wood and extended in 1984 by R.G. Sims.
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