Far from your average medieval church, the most exquisite spiritual centers in England, Scotland and Wales are a testament to the imagination and meticulous craftsmanship of mankind. These amazing structures can be found in every corner of Britain. Though difficult to narrow down to 10, I have made a list of the very best cathedrals in England, Scotland, and Wales based on historical importance, beauty, and scale.
#1) Canterbury Cathedral, England
Magnificent is the only word to describe this stunning cathedral. Nestled in the small walled city of Canterbury in southeast England, this church is a true wonder. Canterbury is one of the oldest churches in England and serves as the official seat of the Church of England. The church was originally founded by St. Augustine on a mission trip for Pope Gregory the Great in 597. Augustine’s original building was extensively rebuilt and enlarged by the Saxons, and now lies beneath the floor of the modern nave. The cathedral was then completely rebuilt by the Normans in 1070 following a major fire.
Although the church has seen many additions over the last nine hundred years, parts of the quire and some of the stained glass windows date from early as the 12th century. Today, Canterbury Cathedral sees nearly 2,000 services held each year and still stands a towering testament to the power of religion in England’s early history.
#2) St. Paul’s Cathedral, England
Built by one of Britain’s most famous architects, Sir Christopher Wren, St. Paul’s Cathedral is an architectural marvel, and stands as one of London’s most iconic buildings. The site of the present cathedral has housed a church dedicated to St. Paul for over 1,400 years. The present building was built between 1675 and 1710, and serves the city of London as its Cathedral Church of the Diocese of London.
St. Paul is best known for its iconic dome, one of the largest in the world, which dominates the London skyline. Notable highlights of the cathedral include the large underground crypt, which houses some of the nation’s greatest heroes including Admiral Lord Nelson, The Duke of Wellington, and the famous architect of the building himself, Sir Christopher Wren.
Tip: As part of your visit to the cathedral, I would highly recommend climbing to the top of the dome. The 271 step climb to the top is well worth the effort, offering unmatched panoramic views of downtown London.
#3) St. Giles Cathedral, Scotland
The High Kirk of Edinburgh serves as the official principal place of worship for the Church of Scotland. There has been a site of worship here for over 900 years, with the present building owing pieces to different historical periods from the 13th through the 19th centuries. Constant adding and reconstruction has produced one of the most iconic buildings in Scotland, and one of my favorite in Edinburgh. The cathedral’s unique spire, large frontal stained glass windows, and general demeanor stands beautifully apart yet seems so right at place within the cityscape.
Situated right in the middle of the royal mile, St. Giles is always a must visit on your visit to Edinburgh. Always open and always lively it’s never a bad idea to at least poke your head in while taking in the rest of historic Edinburgh.
#4) Salisbury Cathedral, England
Officially referred to as the Cathedral of Saint Mary, this Anglican cathedral is a beautiful testament to early English architecture and stems deep back into English history. Standing at over 400 ft tall, the cathedral’s spire stands as the tallest in the United Kingdom. The cathedral also encompasses Britain’s largest cloister, contains the worlds oldest clock (circa 1386) and the best-preserved copy of the Magna Carta. Not to mention the entire structure was built in just 38 years. An absolutely stunning structure, both inside and out, this wonder of Britain should be on the must-see list of any tour around the south of England.
#5) Lincoln Cathedral, England
This stunning structure was once the tallest building in the world, and from the early 1300s until 1549 stood alone from all others in the world. Lincoln Cathedral is one of my favorites simply because it so unique. Often most cathedrals confer to the ‘Canterbury Archetype’, consisting of the standard long nave with crossing apes making the symbol of the cross. Lincoln’s Norman and Gothic combination of architectural styles spanning over centuries resulted in one of the most unique in Europe. Like many of its contemporaries, the cathedral houses important historical works such one of the four copies of the Magna Carta, and texts from Saint Bede.
Tip: Across from the cathedral is Lincoln castle, which is a fun visit and will give you the very best place in the city to get great pictures of the cathedral.
#6) Winchester Cathedral, England
Sitting in the heart of the historic town of Winchester, this magnificent Church of England Cathedral stretches back fifteen centuries into English history. Winchester was once the seat of the Anglo-Saxon monarchs and thus placed Winchester cathedral at the very center of English spiritual life. With the coming of William the Conquer the already five hundred-year-old cathedral found new life, and began to take on the present form we see today. Along the cathedral’s rich and integral historical significance, the church has the largest nave and overall length of any Gothic cathedral in Europe.
Among the many great treasures housed in Winchester you will find Triforium Gallery, displaying precious works of art, and the Winchester Bible, the largest and finest of all the 12th century English bibles. Winchester Cathedral and the surrounding sleepy little town are absolutely worth the journey on your tour of southern England.
#7) St. David’s Cathedral, Wales
St. David’s lies in a small town of the same name, which lies on the most westerly coast of Wales, offering revelers a chance to awe at the surrounding natural beauty. By the 8th century St. David’s already had enjoyed such a prominent spiritual force in Britain that the Wessex King Alfred once called upon aid from the monastic community during his holdout against the Vikings raids. The present building was begun 1181, but not long after completion and throughout its life the church saw devastation after devastation, including the collapse of a central tower and subsequent earthquakes. Culminating in the cathedral’s misfortunes was the wrath brought by Oliver Cromwell and his forces. The historic building was largely destroyed, not finding restoration until the late 18th century.
#8) St. Magnus Cathedral, Scotland
Built for the Norse Earls of Orkney in the far north of Scotland, St. Magnus Cathedral takes the cake on the most historically romantic and poetic. Red sandstone, quarried from nearby Eday island, stands out as a healthy reprieve from the otherwise green and blue dominated landscape. The cathedral itself is a fine example of typical Norman architecture, studded with large pillars and many small archways. Found in a small cavity during renovation in the early 20th century. the relics of St. Magnus forever rest within the cathedral he founded. Across from the cathedral lies the Bishops Palace, where the local elite Bishops lived and presided over their church. The historic building will be a can’t miss spot as the island of Kirkwall is quite small with only a handful of major historical attractions.
Tip: Make sure to watch the film chronicling the building and tantalizing history of the majestic cathedral.
#9) Ely Cathedral, England
Pronounced ‘Eelee’ this stunning Church of England Cathedral has Anglo-Saxon roots with the first monastery being established in 637 A.D by St. Etheldreda. Work began on the current cathedral by William the Conqueror in 1093. The church underwent constant restoration and addition over the medieval and early renaissance period. This magnificent Romanesque church is absolutely stunning. Before you even walk in the front door you are met with a multi-layered stone entrance carving so precise it takes you aback. Upon entering the cathedral the awe lessens none as you are instantly hit with the high archways and deceptively long nave, one of the longest in Britain. Take a stroll around and you’ll find an abundance of stone staircases and little transepts to explore.
Tip: The cathedral keeps on display a stained glass exhibition, which is well worth the couple pound entry.
#10) Wells Cathedral, England
This romantic cathedral set in the Somerset countryside serves as the seat for the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Wells Cathedral is unique in Britain for the fact that it was the first to be built in the Gothic style, unlike most other British cathedrals which were built during the Norman period. The present building has undergone many extensions and renovations since its consecration in 1239, but stands largely original to the medieval period.
The two most glaring omissions here are Westminster Abbey and Bath Abbey. Both of these spiritual centers are spectacular, but don’t qualify as cathedrals as they don’t serve a Bishop and so had to be left off the list.