A Cathedral is a (frequently but not always large) Christian church, the central church of a bishopric.


A cathedral, more correctly "cathedral church" (ecclesia cathedralis), is the church which contains the official "seat" or throne of a bishop. Cathedra, one of the Greek/Latin names for this, gives us the adjective "cathedral". The adjective has gradually assumed the character of a noun.

One of the earliest instances of the term ecclesia cathedralis is said to occur in the acts of the council of Tarragona in 516. Another name for a cathedral church is ecclesia mater, indicating that it is the mother church of a diocese. As the one important church, it was also known as ecclesia major. Again, as the supposed chief house of God in a region, the cathedral church was called the Domus Dei, and from this name the Germanic Dom- prefix for church is derived, and the Italian Duomo.

History and Organization

It was early decreed that the cathedra of a bishop was not to be placed in the church of a village, but only in that of a city. This was no difficulty on the continent of Europe, where towns were numerous and cities were the natural centres from which Christianity was diffused among the surrounding districts. In the British Isles, however, towns were few, and, instead of exercising jurisdiction over definite areas, many of the bishops were bishops of tribes or peoples, as the bishops of the south Saxons, the West Saxons, the Somersætas, etc. The cathedra of such a bishop was often migratory.

In 1075 a council was held in London, under the presidency of Archbishop Lanfranc, which, reciting the decrees of the council of Sardica held in 347 and that of Laodicea held in 360 on this matter, ordered the bishop of the south Saxons to remove his see from Selsey to Chichester; the Wiltshire and Dorset bishop to remove his cathedra from Sherborne to Old Sarum, and the Mercian bishop, whose cathedra was then at Lichfield, to transfer it to Chester. Traces of the tribal and migratory system may still be noted in the designations of the Irish see of Meath (where the result has been that there is now no cathedral church) and Ossory, the cathedral church of which is at Kilkenny. Some of the Scottish sees were also migratory.

By the canon law the bishop is regarded as the pastor of the cathedral church, the parochia of which is his diocese. In view of this, canon lawyers sometimes speak of the cathedral church as the one church of the diocese, and all others are deemed chapels in their relation to it. Occasionally two churches share the distinction of containing the bishop's cathedra. In such case they are said to be co-cathedrals.

Cathedral churches may have different degrees of dignity:

  1. the simple cathedral church of a diocesan bishop,
  2. the metropolitical church to which the other diocesan cathedral churches of a province are suffragan,
  3. the primatial church under which are ranged metropolitical churches and their provinces,
  4. patriarchal churches to which primatial, metropolitical, and simple cathedral churches alike owe allegiance.

The title of "primate" was occasionally conferred on metropolitans of sees of great dignity or importance, such as Canterbury, York, Rouen, whose cathedral churches remained simply metropolitical. Lyon, where the cathedral church is still known as La Primatiale, and Lund in Sweden, may be cited as instances of churches which were really primatial. Lyon had the archbishops of Sens and Paris and their provincial dioceses subject to it until the French Revolution, and Lund had the archbishop of Uppsala and his province subject to it. As with the title of primate, so also that of "patriarch" has been conferred on sees such as Venice and Lisbon, the cathedral churches of which are patriarchal in name alone. The cathedral church of St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of the Pope as bishop of Rome and patriarch of the West, alone in Western Europe possesses potentially a patriarchal character. Its formal designation is Patriarchalis Basilica, Sacrosancta Romana Cathedralis Ecclesia Lateranensis.

The removal of a bishop's cathedra from a church deprives that church of its cathedral dignity, although often the name clings in common speech, as for example at Antwerp, which was deprived of its bishop at the French Revolution.

The history of the body of clergy attached to the cathedral church is obscure, and as in each case local considerations affected its development, all that can be attempted is to give a general outline of the main features which were more or less common to all. Originally the bishop and cathedral clergy formed a kind of religious community, which, in no true sense a monastery, was nevertheless often called a monasterium. The word did not have the restricted meaning which it afterwards acquired. Hence the apparent anomaly that churches like York Minster and Lincoln Cathedral, which never had any monks attached to them, have inherited the name of minster or monastery. In these early communities the clergy often lived apart in their own dwellings, and were not infrequently married. In the 8th century, however, Chrodegang, bishop of Metz (743-766), compiled a code of rules for the clergy of the cathedral churches, which, though widely accepted in Germany and other parts of the continent, gained little acceptance in England. According to Chrodegang's rule, the cathedral clergy were to live under a common roof, occupy a common dormitory and submit to the authority of a special officer. The rule of Chrodegang was, in fact, a modification of the Benedictine rule. Gisa, a native of Lorraine, who was bishop of Wells from 1061 to 1088, introduced it into England, and imposed its observance on the clergy of his cathedral church, but it was not followed for long there, or elsewhere in England.

During the 10th and 11th centuries, the cathedral clergy became more definitely organized, and were divided into two classes. One was that of a monastic establishment of some recognized order of monks, often the Benedictines, while the other class was that of a college of clergy, bound by no vows except those of their ordination, but governed by a code of statutes or canons. Hence the name of canon. In this way arose the distinction between the monastic and secular cathedral churches.

In Germany, as in England, many of the cathedral churches were monastic. In Denmark all seem to have been Benedictine at first, except Børglum, which was Praemonstratensian till the Reformation. The others were changed to churches of secular canons. In Sweden, Uppsala was originally Benedictine, but was secularized about 1250, and it was ordered that each of the cathedral churches of Sweden should have a chapter of at least fifteen secular canons. In France monastic chapters were very common, but nearly all the monastic cathedral churches there had been changed to churches of secular canons before the 17th century. One of the latest to be so changed was that of Seez, in Normandy, which was Augustinian till 1547, when Pope Paul III dispensed the members from their vows, and constituted them a chapter of secular canons. The chapter of Senez was monastic till 1647, and others perhaps even later, but the majority were secularized about the time of the Reformation.

In the case of monastic cathedral churches there were Dignitaries, the internal government was that of the order to which the chapter belonged, and all the members kept perpetual residence. The reverse of this was the case with the secular chapters; the dignities of provost, dean, precentor, chancellor, treasurer, etc., soon came into being, for the regulation and good Order of the church and its services, while the non-residence of he canons, rather than their perpetual residence, became the rule, and led to their duties being performed by a body of "vicars", who officiated for them at the services of the church. Abroad, the earliest head of a secular church seems to have been the provost (praepositus, Probst, etc.), who was charged, not only with the internal regulation of the church, and oversight of the members of the chapter and control of the services, but was also the steward or seneschal of the lands and possessions of the church. The latter often mainly engaged his attention, to the neglect of his domestic and ecclesiastical duties, and complaints were soon raised that the provost was too much mixed in worldly affairs, and was too frequently absent from his spiritual duties. This led, in many cases, to the institution of a new officer called the "dean", who had charge of that portion of the provost's duties which related to the internal discipline of the chapter and the services of the church. In some cases the office of provost was abolished, but in others it was continued, the provost, who was occasionally archdeacon as well, remaining head of the chapter. This arrangement was most commonly followed in Germany. In England the provost was almost unknown. Bishop Gisa introduced a provost as head of the chapter of Wells, but the office was afterwards subordinated to the other dignities, and the provost became simply the steward of certain of the prebendal lands. The provost of the collegiate church of Beverley was the most notable instance of such an officer in England, but at Beverley he was an external officer with authority in the government of the church, no stall in the choir and no vote in chapter. The provost of Eton, introduced by Henry VI of England, occupied a position most nearly approaching that of a foreign cathedral provost. In Germany and in Scandinavia, and in a few of the cathedral churches in the south of France, the provost was the ordinary head of the cathedral chapter, but the office was not common elsewhere. As regards France, of one hundred and thirty-six cathedral churches existing at the Revolution, thirty-eight only, and those either on the borders of Germany or in the extreme south, had a provost as the head of the chapter. In others the provost existed as a subordinate officer. There were two provosts at Autun, and Lyons and Chartres had four each, all as subordinate officers.

The normal constitution of the chapter of a secular cathedral church comprised four dignitaries (there might be more), in addition to the canons. The dean (decanus) seems to have derived his designation from the Benedictine dean who had ten monks under his charge. The dean, as already noted, came into existence to supply the place of the provost in the internal management of the church and chapter. In England the dean was the head of all the secular cathedral churches, and was originally elected by the chapter and confirmed in office by the bishop. He is president of the chapter, and in church has charge of the due performance of the services, taking specified portions of them by statute on the principal festivals. He sits in the chief stall in the choir, which is usually the first on the right hand on entering the choir at the west. Next to the dean (as a rule) is the precentor (primicerius, cantor, etc.), whose special duty is that of regulating the musical portion of the services. He presides in the dean's absence, and occupies the corresponding stall on the left side, although there are exceptions to this rule, where, as at St Paul's, the archdeacon of the cathedral city ranks second and occupies what is usually the precentor's stall. The third dignitary is the chancellor (scholasticus, écoldtre, capiscol, magistral, etc.), who must not be confounded with the chancellor of the diocese. The chancellor of the cathedral church is charged with the oversight of its schools, ought to read divinity lectures, and superintend the lections in the choir and correct slovenly readers. He is often the secretary and librarian of the chapter. In the absence of the dean and precentor he is president of the chapter. The easternmost stall, on the dean's side of the choir, is usually assigned to him. The fourth dignitary is the treasurer (custos, sacrisla, cheficier). He is guardian of the fabric, and of all the furniture and ornaments of the church, and his duty was to provide bread and wine for the eucharist, and candles and incense, and he regulated such matters as the ringing of the bells. The treasurer's stall is opposite to that of the chancellor. These four dignitaries, occupying the four corner stalls in the choir, are called in many of the statutes the quatuor majores personae of the church. In many cathedral churches there were additional dignitaries, as the praelector, subdean, vice-chancellor, succentor-canonicorum, and others, who came into existence to supply the places of the other absent dignitaries, for non-residence was the fatal blot of the secular churches, and in this they contrasted very badly with the monastic churches, where all the members were in continuous residence. Besides the dignitaries there were the ordinary canons, each of whom, as a rule, held a separate prebend or endowment, besides receiving his share of the common funds of the church.

For the most part the canons also speedily became non-resident, and this led to the distinction of residentiary and non-residentiary canons, till in most churches the number of resident canons became definitely limited in number, and the non-residentiary canons, who no longer shared in the common funds, became generally known as prebendaries only, although by their non-residence they did not forfeit their position as canons, and retained their votes in chapter like the others. This system of non-residence led also to the institution of vicars choral, each canon having his own vicar, who sat in his stall in his absence, and when the canon was present, in the stall immediately below, on the second form. The vicars had no place or vote in chapter, and, though irremovable except for offences, were the servants of their absent canons whose stalls they occupied, and whose duties they performed. Abroad they were often called demi-prebendaries, and they formed the bachcrur of the French churches. As time went on the vicars were themselves often incorporated as a kind of lesser chapter, or college, under the supervision of the dean and chapter.

There was no distinction between the monastic cathedral chapters and those of the secular canons, in their relation to the bishop or diocese. In both cases the chapter was the bishop's consilium which he was bound to consult on all important matters and without doing so he could not act. Thus, a judicial decision of a bishop needed the confirmation of the chapter before it could be enforced. He could not change the service books, or "use" of the church or diocese, without capitular consent, and there are many episcopal acts, such as the appointment of a diocesan chancellor, or vicar general, which still need confirmation by the chapter, but the older theory of the chapter as the bishop's council in ruling the diocese has become a thing of the past, not in England only, but on the continent also. In its corporate capacity the chapter takes charge sede vacante of a diocese. In England, however (except as regards Salisbury and Durham), this custom has never obtained, the two archbishops having, from time immemorial, taken charge of the vacant dioceses in their respective provinces. When, however, either of the sees of Canterbury or York is vacant the chapters of those churches take charge, not only of the diocese, but of the province as well, and incidentally, therefore, of any of the dioceses of the province which may be vacant at the same time.

All the English monastic cathedral chapters were dissolved by Henry VIII, and, except Bath and Coventry, were refounded by him as churches of secular chapters, with a dean as the head, and a certain number of canons ranging from twelve at Canterbury and Durham to four at Carlisle, and with certain subordinate officers as minor canons, gospellers, epistolers, etc. The precentorship in these churches of the "New Foundation", as they are called, is not, as in the secular churches of the "Old Foundation", a dignity, but is merely an office held by one of the minor canons.

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