Whilst Manchester had become a busy market town by the fifteenth century, in ecclesiastical terms it had been usurped by Ashton Under Lyne, once a sub manor of the town but now having seen its chapel gain independence with its own rector for nearly one hundred years.  

Christianity had come to the area during the time of the Romans, the Sator Rotas being discovered during excavations at Castlefield, dated from around 175 AD. After the Roman’s left, one can only surmise whether Christianity continued to flourish in the area.  What we do know is that the site of the present Cathedral was probably a centre for religion, predating the Norman conquest.

Ashton under Lyne was under the domain of the Asshetons who spent much of the fourteenth century vying with their Mancunian rivals and whose rivalry would spill out in the form of ecclesiastical wars.  Manchester’s stone church stood looked enviously at Ashton’s St Michaels with its traceried windows holding over 500 hundred square feet of stained glass.

When Thomas De La Warre became Manchester’s baron in 1381, his legacy to the town was to make it the chief beneficiary of his estate rather than his descendents and alienating his heir Sir Nicholas Griffin from inheriting by a method known as deforcing a levy.  Joan, his half sister the wife of Thomas Lord West and his descendants becoming beneficiaries and this process of collegiatation saw much of his land passing to the church.

The community of priests; the word Collegiate literally means to turn an institution into a college, college in this instance not meaning a place of learning as in the modern way, but more of a community coming together.  In the case of Manchester back in the 1400’s it was a community of clergy that would in time place the town ahead of its rivals in ecclesiastical as well as trade matters.

John Huntington

De La Warre would also acquire the services of John Huntingdon, former rector of St Michaels in Ashton who became Manchester’s first church warden in 1422.  De la warre had assembled a variety of well connected supporters as he petitioned Henry V for the license to be independent.  William Heyworth, the Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry of whose dioscese Manchester was part, as well as the Bishop of Durham Cardinal Langley were amongst its strongest supporters. Upon the payment of 200 marks into the King’s exchequeor the license was granted and the parishoners were summoned to the church by the ringing of  the bell to formally petition their Bishop. The charter was granted, dedicating the Collegiate church to The Virgin Mary and the martyrs St Dionysius and St George and it would be governed by a warden along with eight masters who would live in the college.

There was good reason for the dedication to include those additional saints. The King, having recently emerged victorious from Agincourt had been part inspired by St George of Antioch, whose cult had been revived in the crusades. The spirit of Henry’s campaigns had been sustained by the dragon slayer of Turkey whilst at Agincourt, a battle that the English King should probably have lost, the flag of St Denys carried by the French knights had been defeated by the the longbow.  The two saints were now joined in Manchester, symbolising the joining of the two countries after the treaty of Troyes.

If you visit the Cathedral today, the Oriflamme of France can be seen in the St Denys window and some say the Saint was also immortalised in the famous Manchester Street “Denysgate.”

The scale of the parish church that Huntingdon inherited can still be seen by two surviving arches at the entrance to the tower – these date from 1345 and show that the prior church must have been a grand and substantial building.  Huntington oversaw the rebuilding, which took eighty years but would never see it completed, dying in 1458 harassed by a grievous sickness and buried under the quire. Today his grave, or at least the brass from its tomb is on the floor before the high altar.

“Domine, dilexi,decorum domus tuae – oh Lord how amiable are thy dwellings.”

His rebus, a medieval pun can be found on either side of the arch to the ladies chapel, a hunting scene and a tun or barrel, the same until it was destroyed by the 19th century restoration was also at St Michaels.  The church would continue to rise after his death, increasing in height and splendour with money from the Stanley family.

The Reformation and the Martyrs

Huntington was succeeded by John Booth who earned the displeasure of Edward the fourth and was dismissed from the town; later to be Bishop of Exeter and was followed by Ralph Langley who would be present when the Pope’s Nuncio visited the town selling indulgences.  Later, the right of sanctuary would be granted but this led to such an influx of rogues and malefactors who were disrupting the trade of the town that sanctuary was removed and passed to Chester.

During the Reformation the collegiate was dissolved in the first year of the reign of Edward VI, its lands passing into the possession of the Earl of Derby, who did provide some preachers for the town.  Its charter was restored under the reign of Catholic Mary when John Bradford would arrive in Lancashire and tell the people that the play of Robin Hood should be performed in the parish churches.  He would die at the stake on a July morning at London’s Smithfield in 1555, his final words at the age of 45, “O England, England, repent!” and turning to the nineteen year old John Leaf, who was about to suffer the same fate in the cause of Protestantism said, “Be of good comfort, brother, for we shall have a happy supper with the Lord tonight”. Then, embracing the wood of his execution, he repeated our Saviour’s words, “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leads to life and few there be that find it”. “Thus”, says Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, “like two lambs, they both ended their mortal lives … being void of all fear”

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Bradford had been born in Manchester around 1510, training as a law student at the Temple of London in the reign of Edward, but later giving up his studies, devoting himself to God, going to Cambridge University to study the scriptures in 1548. There he was  described as a ruddy, tall and slender man with an auburn beard.  Said to sleep four hours a night, eating sparingly, and never feeling an hour well spent unless he had done some good by writing, study, or instructing others.  He would write down his faults, because he wanted to feel a “chest-beating” regret for sin, and to groan with true brokenness of heart when he came to private prayer. His life from then on one of daily repentance and heart-felt prayer.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations tells us that it was Bradford who originated the saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” Seeing a group of criminals led out to their execution he declared, “But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.”

He was close to Edward VI and when Mary came to the throne, found himself tried for heresy alongside Latimer, Ridley and Archbishop Cranmer.  For a brief time, they shared the same cell together in the Tower.

“We consider how pious and wholesome it is to rebuild what is pulled down and to restore and increase divine worship.” said the 1557 charter decreeing that there should be a college of one master, eight fellow chaplains, four clerks and six choristers”. Whether this was carried out is unknown for Elizabeth decreed the college as having been dissolved or of doubtful foundation.

But it continued with the decree saying that there shall be a college of Christ in Manchester, a warden and a priest. Elizabeth would appoint George Collyer as warden, he had previously been in that position under Edward and a succession of wardens would follow, all bringing something to the town.  William Birch who would give protection to Flemish refugees along with their weaving skills, Thomas Hesle, appointed to sort out the finances of the Collegiate and most famously John Dee, perhaps the most extraordinary man to be associated with the church, who was succeeded by Richard Murray in the dying embers of Elizabeth’s reign, a man who lived in constant fear of being poisoned by his parishioners.

Civil war and after

Under Charles I, a new charter would be granted in  1635 under which the church would be governed until 1847.

Charles appointed Richard Heyrick as its first warden, a staunch Puritan whose actions along with John Bradshaw in petitioning the king at York would contribute to the start of the civil war.

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During that conflict, the picture that was painted for the church was bleak. There was not enough to pay the stipends and the church suffered much damage during the civil war with soldiers breaking into the chapter house in 1649 and stealing many of the deeds, taking them to London, where they would perish in the Great Fire. ”Such danger imposes upon those who enter it that most of the parishioners scarcely dared to seek the spiritual food of their souls by reason of the peril of their bodies.” wrote one observer.

On the Restoration, Heyrick was reappointed as governor, despite his doctrines on the legitimacy of the sovereign and the church enjoyed nearly two hundred years of relative calm, interspersed with the odd dispute with the Bishop Of Chester and the rise of Jacobinism.

From Collegiate to Catherdral

With Manchester’s status rising, 1847 saw it converted to a Cathedral, transforming its warden and fellows into a Dean and Canons.

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The cathedral we see today is very different from Huntingtons vision.  In 1792 whilst a peal of bells was being rung a gust of wind was said to have struck the tower bringing it crashing down onto the church.  It was left in its dilapidated state until 1864, when what was left of the old tower was demolished and the new one erected.  

A Luftwaffe land mine exploded over Christmas 1940 on the North East Corner of the building, blotting out or wrecking The Ely and Lady Chapels, the latter considered a gem of early English architecture, as well as the Fraser and Jesus chapels.  Next to Coventry Cathedral it suffered the most damage than any other cathedral in the country and the bomb damage revealed faults and frailties that had been formerly hidden and would needed extensive repair regardless of the German bombs.