Finding the medieval in Manchester
Better known as the Cottonopolis of the Industrial Revolution, ‘medieval’ isn’t a term frequently associated with the city of Manchester.
Today’s Manchester Evening News article about the City Council’s plans for the revitalisation of ‘the Medieval Quarter’ poses the questions: since when was it the Medieval Quarter, and what’s medieval about it?
One simple answer is that the area was the locus of the medieval town that existed after Roman Castlefield and before the industrial city – the ‘middle ages’, literally. So although ‘the Medieval Quarter’ is a relatively new name, the area bordered by Chetham’s School of Music and Library, the National Football Museum, Manchester Cathedral and the Corn Exchange has always been the medieval quarter of Manchester.
But the medievalness of the area isn’t immediately obvious (at the moment).
The three easiest places to see medieval Manchester in the Medieval Quarter today are Chetham’s Library, Hanging Bridge, and Manchester Cathedral. All are open to the public, with free admission.
1. Chetham’s Library was founded as a library in 1653 – making it ‘the oldest surviving public library in Britain’ – but the building is even older, dating to 1421.
The beautiful medieval building is also home to an impressive collection of medieval manuscripts. (Manchester can boast a second medieval manuscript collection in John Rylands Library – which is a great example of neo-gothic medievalist architecture in Manchester; see also the Town Hall!).
2. Hanging Bridge, the remains of which can be found in the lower ground floor of the Cathedral Visitor Centre (underneath Propertea café), was built around 1421. When archaeologists explored the site in the ’90s they found medieval shoes, sword scabbards and leather-working tools and offcuts, suggesting a small leather-working industry in the area. Many of these objects are currently on display at Manchester Museum. You can read about the Bridge’s history here.
3. While the exterior of Manchester Cathedral is Victorian, much of the former medieval church is preserved inside. There is a timeline of its history here.
The medieval quire, a carved wooden structure in the centre of the building dating to c. 1500, is the most impressive of the Cathedral’s surviving medieval features. Yet some of the interior is older, c. 1200-1300s. On display in the nave is a single piece of decorated masonry known as the ‘angel stone’, thought to have survived from an earlier Anglo Saxon church.
Grumpy dog is still my favourite ‘medieval Manchester’ spot, so far.
The date 1421 crops up repeatedly because it’s the year in which Henry V gave permission to Manchester to establish a collegiate church where Manchester Cathedral now stands. Around the major new building of the collegiate church, there was the building of new accommodation for the priests (now Chetham’s Library) and rebuilding of the Hanging Bridge as the main approach into the church – collectively a sort of medieval ‘regeneration’ of the town’s centre.
The 600-year anniversary is coming up in 2021.