Historic records and architectural histories: Printed sources and Chichester Cathedral

By Tim Hudson (guest blogger)

What types of historic documents do architectural historians use? Continuing with our guest written series, the once Editor of the Sussex Victoria County History and co author of the updated Pevsner guide to West Sussex, Tim Hudson, will be exploring the types of records used when researching built heritage. Each blog, Tim will look at a significant West Sussex building through a variety of historic documents available at the Record Office.

Today we look at printed sources for Chichester Cathedral.


Chichester Cathedral from the south, copyright John Crook

The extensive reference library of the West Sussex Record Office isn’t as well known as it should be, though all its books and pamphlets are included in the online catalogue. Many items are on open access in the Search Room; the rest are ordered like documents. The historian of buildings will find this resource well worth exploring, as the case of Chichester Cathedral shows.

The story here starts in 1861, with the first of four lengthy published descriptions. This is the magisterial Architectural History of Chichester Cathedral by Robert Willis. Willis was one of those Victorian polymaths whose superhuman energy is exhausting even to contemplate. Though Jacksonian Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge, he spent his spare time on architectural history, investigating nearly every English Cathedral.

Lib 2849 – Colour-coded plan to show construction dates for the different parts of Chichester Cathedral, from R. Willis, Architectural History of Chichester Cathedral (1861)

A vibrant ingredient of the Chichester volume is a plan colour-coded to show construction dates for the different parts of the building.

Victoria County History, Sussex, Volume 3 (1935): colour-coded plan showing part of the Close

Willis’s text also includes an account of the fall of the spire, which happened in the very year of publication.

The Victoria County History, founded in 1899, reached Chichester in 1935. Volume 3 of Sussex contains a 42-page account of the Cathedral, followed by 15 pages on the buildings of the Close. Another colour-coded plan is included, this time showing the Close as well (unfortunately it appears only in black and white in the 1973 reprint of the volume).

Ian Nairn, copyright Pevsner Architectural Guides

The VCH’s authors were Walter H Godfrey and J W Bloe. Godfrey, a resident of Lewes, was an outstanding conservation architect of the time and the first Director of the National Buildings Record, the basis of today’s Historic England Archive.

A description of the Cathedral and Close together made up by far the longest section of the entry for Chichester in The Buildings of England: Sussex, by Nikolaus Pevsner and Ian Nairn (1965). Largely the work of the crusading architectural journalist Nairn, this was discursive and hard to follow. One canon of the Cathedral at the time claimed to have found multiple errors in it!

The recent revision of the West Sussex section of the Pevsner volume, The Buildings of England: West Sussex, edited by Elizabeth Williamson, gave the opportunity to replace Nairn’s description with a very much better one by John Crook, an archaeological consultant and architectural historian who had previously revised Winchester in The Buildings of England: Hampshire, Winchester and the North (2010).

Pevsner volumes always describe fittings and fixtures of churches and other buildings. Nairn’s poetic account of the two large C12 stone reliefs in the south chancel aisle, one showing the Raising of Lazarus, has been almost entirely retained.

Also illustrated is the magical C13 wall painting in the chapel of the Bishop’s Palace, which is sometimes on view to members of the public. However, Nairn’s wording about the corbels of the chapel vault (‘gorgeous and generous foliage carving … the effect given in other circumstances by a firm full-bodied woman’) inevitably fell to the editorial blue pencil.

Commemorative plaque to former County Archivist Francis Steer in Chichester Cathedral, copyright Ann Hudson

Chichester is lucky to have three series of research-based pamphlets covering aspects of the city’s history and architecture, besides another series specifically devoted to the Cathedral and Close.

The Chichester Papers, inaugurated by County Archivist Francis Steer and running to 53 pamphlets published between 1955 and 1977, include several relating to the Cathedral and Close. Steer was also Cathedral Librarian, and is suitably commemorated by a plaque in one of the Cathedral chapels.

The successor series of New Chichester Papers, started in 2010 and still running, has so far nothing specifically on the Cathedral. But the series of Otter Memorial Papers (1987-date), usually multi-authored and a collaboration between the Cathedral and Chichester University, has explored particular fixtures and fittings (paintings, stained glass, tapestries, misericords), as well as devoting one pamphlet to the fall of the spire. The latest volume, on the Cathedral’s chapels, will unfortunately be the last.

Chichester Cathedral, ed Hobbs, page 238, copyright Jill Atherton Bowen

Meanwhile, the Chichester Cathedral Journal, published continuously since 1958, has in the last 30 years included several detailed articles on the Cathedral and Close illustrated with plans, photographs and reconstruction drawings. Some of this research appears more accessibly in the excellent compilation Chichester Cathedral: an Historical Survey, edited by Mary Hobbs (1994).

One bizarre feature of the Cathedral surroundings is that the east range of the Vicars’ Close, once facing the west range across a central open area, now looks the other way, to form shops on the west side of South Street. Medieval masonry, part of this range, can be inspected by anyone visiting No. 21 (currently The Webb Street Company).

No. 21 South Street, Chichester (in the centre), copyright Ann Hudson

Even the published material described here doesn’t exhaust the resources of WSRO’s library for the study of Chichester’s Cathedral and Close; there are also articles from learned journals and a formidable collection of tourist guidebooks. For other West Sussex buildings there are treasures to find here too.


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