Southwark Cathedral continues to make history by Chloe Hodge


separated from the walled City of London, Southwark Cathedral was once seen as the church of the undesirables; next to the Thames’ first ever crossing point, the church of tradesmen and industry workers; in Shakespeare’s time it stood alongside The Globe and the Rose Theatre as the actors’ church; and now, given cathedral status in 1905, it is open to contemporary London as the most historical landmark of SE1.

Through the Great Fire of Southwark and the religious reformation under Henry VIII, Southwark’s only Grade One listed building has survived as a place of worship for 1,400 years.

Having been the religious centre of South London’s theatreland since the 1500s, it is also a hub for dramatic performances. It was here that William Shakespeare worshipped, buried his brother, and that he would have looked upon the tomb of medieval poet John Gower – whose writings appear in Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The Cathedral pays homage to this legendary parishioner each year through birthday celebrations and the Shakespeare Experience summer camp, yet this November will also host the world premiere of Three Shakespeare Sonnets: a production from Prince Charles’s favourite British composer, Sir John Tavener, performed by the South Icelandic Chamber Choir.

During Southwark Cathedral’s annual Poet in the City event, Sir John Tavener will also provide the musical accompaniment to the UK premiere of George Herbert’s Three Hymns, sung by the multidimensional Great Choir of Southwark. This super-sized event will be followed with a discussion by distinguished poets Gwyneth Lewis, Wendy Cope and Herbert’s biographer, John Drury.

Having been the church of Harvard University’s John Harvard, the Cathedral also holds regular literary talks, previously featuring the Poet Laureate and the Director of The British Museum. The programme continues this 30th September with composer Sir John Eliot Gardiner discussing his new biography: Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach.

These rich evenings of entertainment are open to residents of Southwark, but also to businesses using the Cathedral’s adjoining Millennium Buildings whose conference centre provides a unique central London setting for meetings and receptions. Each of its six rooms vary in size and aesthetics: with direct courtyard access, marquee hire and the option of a bespoke menu, the Refectory is ideal for weddings; the bright Gary Weston Library seats up to 120 for anything from a theatre event to a boardroom meeting; and the cosy interior of the Desmond Tutu room is best suited to intimate dinners or private interviews.

Of course what really makes this such a sought-after space, and which will soon be fully revealed in a BBC 4 documentary, is Southwark Cathedral’s stunning architecture, and its fascinating archaic history.

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“it was here that William Shakespeare worshipped, buried his brother, and looked upon the tomb of medieval

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