Down Cathedral, Co. Down
Written on July 13, 2016
Down Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, is a Church of Ireland cathedral located in the town of Downpatrick in Northern Ireland. It stands on Cathedral Hill overlooking the town. It is one of two cathedrals in the Diocese of Down and Dromore (the other is Dromore Cathedral) in the County of Armagh. The cathedral is centre point in Downpatrick.
History of Down Cathedral
In the period following St Patrick’s death in 461 AD the Hill of Down came to be regarded as his traditional burial place. There are references to early Celtic monasteries on this site from 6th / 7th century onwards. It is an ancient site with a church dedicated to the Holy Trinity recorded in the 12th century. In the early 12th century an Augustinian House was established here.
In 1124 St Malachy became Bishop of Down, and set about repairing and enlarging the Cathedral. In 1183 John De Courcy invited Benedictine monks from St Wenburgh’s in Chester to come and establish a monastery here. (Chester had been established by monks from Bec in Normandy) and expelled Augustinian monks settled there by St Malachy.
With the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century the monks left here in 1538 and the building gradually fell into ruin. By 1220 this building was in ruins and was further damaged by an earthquake in 1245. The Cathedral was burned by Edward Bruce in 1315 and subsequently rebuilt and destroyed several times. In 1538 the monastery was suppressed and then destroyed in 1539 by Lord Leonard Grey, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, who stabled horses there. The destruction of the Cathedral was one of the charges for which Grey was executed for in 1541. For two centuries after that it lay in ruins.
In 1609 James I granted a Charter to establish a Dean and Chapter here and although still a ruined site, bishops were consecrated within the walls.
Towards the end of the 18th century Dean Annesley, along with Willis Hill (of Hillsborough) and many of the notable families of County Down raised funds to completely restore this building.
In 1778 John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, visited and described it as a noble ruin.
Restoration of Down Cathedral
The cathedral incorporates parts of the 13th-century church of the Benedictine Abbey of Down (Black Monks).
The restoration of the ruined 14th century cathedral of Downpatrick was initiated after an Act of Parliament of 1790 granted £1000 for the purpose. The Earl of Hillsborough donated a further £568 and £300 a year of the deanery. The long chancel from the late medieval cathedral was repaired and transformed into an aisled nave and chancel for the new cathedral. Charles Lilly directed the restoration, but it was so drastic that many details of the original building disappeared, as he aimed at reproducing an overall medieval effect. Work was completed and the cathedral was ready for use in 1818. An octagonal vestibule and a Perpendicular Gothic tower were added to the west end in 1826.
Crosses from the 9th, 10th and 12th centuries are preserved in the Cathedral. The building today is mainly the original chancel from the 15th century with a vestibule and tower added. It had a second major restoration from 1985 to 1987 during which time the Cathedral was closed.
It houses an 11th-century granite font discovered in use as a watering trough in 1927 and installed in the Cathedral in 1931. In the Cathedral grounds is the reputed burial place of St Patrick, thought to have died in 461. However, the inscribed stone of Mourne granite allegedly marking the grave was actually put in place in 1900. Outside the east end of the Cathedral stands a weathered High Cross made of granite and dating from the 10th or 11th centuries. It used to stand in the centre of Downpatrick, but was moved to the Cathedral in 1897.
Two small stone crosses now built into a wall in Down Cathedral appear to be 12th century work and are carved with ecclesiastics with books.