Westminster Cathedral, also named the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, was only built recently when compared to the rich history of the British Isles.
After the Church of England separated from the Holy See and was established in 1534, centuries of persecution followed under the political tyranny which followed. Churches (such as Westminster Abbey down the street) and their relics were seized, some of which were destroyed. The persecution resulted in hundreds of martyrs of both the Catholic and Protestant faiths, with St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher being the most celebrated Catholic saints of the British reformation.
As a side note, this affected different parts of the British Isles differently. The Catholic and Protestant divide fueled continued conflict in Northern Ireland until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
In England and Wales, Catholics weren’t allowed to publicly worship until The Catholic Relief Act of 1791. Catholics were finally given the right to vote and run for public office to have a voice in the public sphere in 1829. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church was restored in England and Wales in the following decades later, accompanied by the desire to build Westminster Cathedral.
Land for the church was acquired in 1884, and the church was constructed between 1895-1903. Due to canon law at the time, churches could not be consecrated while in debt, so it wasn’t until 1910 that the church was consecrated.
Today, Westminster Cathedral stands as a monument to Catholic emancipation in the UK, and as a hope of Christian unity. Upon entering the church, one can see vast concrete walls left unfinished. The church’s interior is deliberately unfinished as the intention is for each generation to add to it. The finished side chapels are adorned with beautiful mosaics from floor to ceiling.
Chapel of St. George and the English Martyrs
One of the most recently completed works is the Chapel of St. George and the English Martyrs. The glorious mosaic ceiling, designed by Tom Phillips, CBE, RA, commemorates forty martyrs who died in England and Wales during the English Reformation. Flames contain the names of each individual of this group of saints.
In the centre of the chapel on the ground is an English Rose which represents England as her national flower.
A medieval devotion refers to the Virgin Mary as a rose without thorns. A five petal rose symbolizes the five joys of Mary, and equivocal to the five letters which make up her name in Latin – Maria.
On the main wall of the chapel is a carving of St. George. St. George was a soldier who was martyred for his faith in the early 4th century. There are 3 panels on each side of him, listing names of Catholic servicemen who died in battle.
Behind altar is a wall carving of a triumphant Christ, with two of the most celebrated British Martyrs. St. Thomas More stands to the physical right of Jesus, and St. John Fisher on his left. This was Eric Gill’s last carving.
St. Thomas More was a Lord Chancellor of England who opposed the Protestant Reformation. After refusing to take an Oath of Supremacy, he was tried for treason, then executed on Tower Hill in 1535. He was canonized as a martyr saint 400 years later in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.
St. John Fisher was a cardinal who served as a bishop for the diocese of Rochester. He was executed by King Henry VIII for refusing to accept him as the supreme head of the Church of England on June, 22, 1935. Canonized at the same time as St. Thomas More, both share Fisher’s execution date as their feast day.
On the other end of the chapel is a marble-tiled wall creating an image with symbolic references. St. George’s Cross in the background, which is the symbol on the flag of England, and part of the Union Jack.
The “Tynburn Tree” sits above this which was a wooden frame used in at a site in Tynburn for public execution by hanging. This was portrayed in a 2-dimensional way which frames a Y-shaped cross (also known as a Robber’s Cross), a common Gothic representation of the crucifix also found on heraldry. The forked cross and frame of the Tynburn Tree holds up two golden ladders connecting earth to heaven.
Text on this image reads, “Two miles beyond this wall our martyrs gave their lives for the faith.” Beneath this is marked by 1535-1681, dates of the executions of Tynburn Martyrs who died alongside criminals. The imagery and symbolism between the Tynburn Tree and the Passion of Christ create rich parallels.
The site of the Tynburn Tree is located at the northeast corner of Hyde Park, a radial distance of 2.4km away to the north, which is only 1.1 old English mile. However, if you head east by a radial distance of 4.5km, equivalent to 2.1 old English miles, you’ll find the execution site of Tower Hill.
Tower Hill Memorial Site
The execution site on Tower Hill is marked by a small courtyard with plaques listing those executed on this site. Executions were usually done by beheadings using a block and wood axe.
This site on Tower Hill sits beside a decorated war memorial, but a notable place for pilgrims to visit while in London because this was the site where both St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher were martyred. Of the 5 plaques in the cobblestone courtyard, John Fisher and Sir Thomas More are listed on the same one.
Be sure to check out our Catholic Wonders on London’s oldest church, located directly across the road from the Tower Hill memorial. Or, if you’d like to stop in one place to eat, pray, and sightsee all at once, check out this unexpected location in central London.