I’d be the first to admit that Southwark Cathedral doesn’t have the immediate appeal of Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral, but there’s something likeable about this church on the south bank of the Thames.
Ok, maybe there’s not the same amount of architectural or historical interest as the other two, but what it does have is free entry and a really warm welcome – and if you want to take photos just buy the souvenir guide for a pound and you can take as many as you like.
The Cathedral stands close to the oldest crossing point of the River Thames at London Bridge, which was literally the only way to get across the river from the south for hundreds of years.
It’s thought that there was a religious house here during Saxon times, but it was after the Norman invasion that a priory was built dedicated to St. Mary. It became known as St. Mary Overie (over the river), a name that is still included in its official name of ‘The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Saviour and St. Mary Overie’. The dedication to St Saviour came about when it became a parish church after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
When I first saw the Cathedral some years ago it struck me that it wasn’t particularly old, but I now know that it’s only some 19thc restoration work that makes it appear like that in places. This was a church used by dramatists using the nearby Globe Theatre, and William Shakespeare’s brother, Edmund, is buried here.
There’s also the tomb of John Gower, poet to King Richard II and Henry IV, lying on three of his most famous works – and my favourite one is of an unknown 13thc knight whose effigy is carved out of wood.
Our American friends may be interested to know that there’s also a chapel commemorating John Harvard, the first main benefactor of Harvard University, who was born nearby and baptized here.
Before you leave, check out the medieval roof bosses near the Font. One of them shows the Devil swallowing Judas Iscariot. Whether I should have done or not I don’t know, but I particularly liked that one.
In the grounds of the cathedral there’s a sculpture which has an interesting story to tell. It was installed in memory of Chief Mahomet Weyonoman, a Native American of the Mohegan tribe of Connecticut.
In the 1630s the Mohegans (not to be confused with Mohicans) were one of several Indian tribes occupying an area on the eastern side of the Upper Thames River in Connecticut, an area which was to attract English settlers.
The Mohegan’s chief at the time was Mahomet’s great grandfather, a man called Uncas, a name which translates in tribal language as ‘Fox’, which seems appropriate somehow as this wily old chief decided to join forces with the new English settlers instead of fighting them.
The plan seemed to benefit both the Mohegans and the settlers. The Mohegans became the most powerful tribe in the area, and the settlers were protected from the other tribes by the Mohegans.
Of course, this cosy arrangement didn’t last. As more and more settlers arrived, then more and more of the tribe’s land was taken.
In 1735 Mahomet Weyonoman sailed to London with three supporters to petition King George II for the return of their stolen land. One of those supporters was Captain John Mason, a descendent of one the settlers who joined forces with Uncas a hundred years earlier.
While awaiting their audience with the King, both John Mason and Mahomet contracted smallpox and died in their accommodation in the City of London.
Being a foreigner meant that Mahomet couldn’t be buried in the City of London and was instead buried in an unmarked grave in the church of what is now Southwark Cathedral.
At the request of the Mohegans a stone was brought from their homeland which Peter Randall-Page turned into a sculpture in which his carvings represented ancient customs of the tribe.
The sculpture was unveiled on 22nd Nov 2006 when Chief Bruce Two Dogs Bozsum presented Queen Elizabeth a Peace Pipe decorated with 300 year old Eagle feathers taken from Mahomet’s headdress and a copy of the petition that he failed to deliver to the King in 1736.
This story illustrates to me how different life was for people on either side of the river, and why it took until 1905 for the church to be granted status as a cathedral. It may not match the grandeur of Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s, but Southwark is different to Westminster and the City of London, and with the famous Borough Market right next door, there’s no excuse not to come and see this friendly, welcoming cathedral for yourself.