Lincoln Cathedral: tall tales and mischievous imps

Visiting Lincoln a few weeks ago, it was impossible to miss the Cathedral that dominates the city’s skyline. By any standard it’s a massively impressive building, but even so I was surprised to learn that in the 14th, 15th and early 16th centuries it was the tallest manmade structure in the world (around 160m), having claimed the title previously held by the Great Pyramid of Giza!

The Cathedral dominates Lincoln’s skyline

A brief history of Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral was originally commissioned by William the Conqueror, who was anxious to stamp his mark on the territory he had captured from the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Work began in 1071 and after just 20 years the Cathedral was consecrated, but a couple of decades later it was ravaged by fire. More shockingly, in 1184 the building was partially destroyed by an earthquake.

One of England’s finest Gothic cathedrals

Earthquakes are very rare in England, and when they do happen damage is usually minimal. Not so in Lincoln in 1184, when the unprecedented event caused massive damage to a building that was not even 100 years old. Paradoxically, however, the earthquake was the making of Lincoln Cathedral.

The Sanctuary of St Hugh’s Choir, the most sacred part of the Cathedral

Undaunted by the scale of the challenge facing him, the incumbent bishop – Hugh – oversaw the building of a magnificent new Gothic-style cathedral. Although it included some surviving sections of the original building, it was altogether much larger and grander than its predecessor, and incorporated state-of-the-art architectural features such as flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and pointed arches.  Thanks to the earthquake and Bishop Hugh’s response to it, today’s Lincoln Cathedral is reckoned to be one of England’s finest Gothic cathedrals.

Stained glass window in the Chapter House

The Cathedral became the world’s tallest building in the early 14th century, when a wooden spire was added to the stone central tower originally commissioned by Bishop Hugh. The record held until 1549, when a hurricane – almost as rare in the UK as earthquakes! – caused the spire to collapse.

View across part of the Cloister garth towards the central tower, which supported a wooden spire between C14 and 1549.

Had the spire survived, Lincoln Cathedral would have remained the world’s tallest building until the construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1889. The full-height tower and spire must have been a remarkable sight in medieval Lincoln, an otherwise unremarkable English provincial city.

The Cloister

The legend of the Lincoln Imp

Even without its record-breaking central spire, Lincoln Cathedral remains a magnificently imposing structure, a monumental masterpiece. And yet perhaps its most famous feature is – relatively speaking – tiny. The Lincoln Imp is a grotesque, a small carving situated at the top of a soaring stone pillar supporting two arches. Just 12 inches (30cm) in height, it would be easy to overlook if you didn’t know it was there.

Legend has it that one day Satan was feeling particularly mischievous, and decided some devilment was in order. To do his work he sent some badly behaved young imps out into the English East Midlands. One made its way to the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield where it made a mess of the local church spire (I wrote about the twisted spire of St Mary and All Saints Church in Chesterfield here), while two others were despatched to cause mayhem at Lincoln Cathedral.

Spot the imp!

The naughty imps lived up to the Devil’s expectations. They forced their way into the Cathedral and started to cause havoc by smashing windows, breaking furniture, dancing on the altar, throwing rocks and tripping up a priest.

An angel intervened and told the imps to behave themselves. But the imps were having a good time and decided the angel could safely be ignored. Wrong! The angel promptly turned one of the little devils into the stone image that visitors to the Cathedral still seek out today, thereby reminding all who see it that good will ultimately triumph over evil. The second imp did a swift risk assessment, didn’t like the answer it gave him, and made a run for it.

Who’s been a naughty boy?

Despite – or perhaps because of – its rebellious nature, the imp has become the unofficial emblem of the city of Lincoln. Locals have taken it to their hearts, nicknaming the city’s professional soccer team The Imps. Some pubs and bars in and around the city are named in honour of the imp, while the Cathedral shop sells various items, from fridge magnets and greetings cards to socks and earrings, all depicting the Devil’s tiny sidekick.

The legend of the Lincoln imp is just a piece of harmless fun. But its impact should not be underestimated, as it encourages people who might otherwise have little interest in architecture to explore the city’s magnificent Cathedral. Lincoln Cathedral may no longer be the world’s tallest building, but it is still an awe-inspiring structure that’s well worth a visit.



  1. Laurie Graves · September 14

    Magnificent! And to think it was once the tallest in the world. I loved the story of the imp. Do you suppose it comes to life on one day a year and causes trouble? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · September 17

      Definitely. I’m sure mayhem reigns at least once a year, and when the caretaker opens up the next morning and sees the wreckage the imp simply looks down at him and whispers innocently “Nothing to do with me, mate!” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ms. Liz · September 14

    Fascinating cathedral! Very grand and beautiful, and I love the stained glass round window and the imp story/presence is adorable 😀 I’ve shared a link on twitter. Wonderful post Mr P, TY!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · September 17

      Thank you, Liz. Glad you liked the cathedral and its story. These days Lincoln is a bit of a provincial outpost (“on the road to nowhere”) and its cathedral deserves to be better known.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Paddy Tobin · September 14

    Earthquake, hurricane and imp! How fortunate the cathedral survived!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. tanjabrittonwriter · September 15

    I had never heard of the Lincoln Cathedral, which is definitely a gap in my education. What an impressive building. Though Romanesque churches are very attractive, Gothic architecture has always held a special appeal with its pointed arches reaching for the sky (or heavens).
    I guess we are still waiting for good will to triumph over evil, though, petrified imp or not. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · September 17

      Yes, Gothic architecture at its best – Lincoln Cathedral, for example – is spectacular. The effort that it took to build places like this all those centuries ago, with the limited technology and resources available at that time – is staggering. I find it difficult to understand how they felt able to commit themselves to projects like this, but I’m glad they did as the results are breath-taking.

      Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · September 17

        I think the effort and money invested in those buildings show the central role the Church still occupied in people’s lives.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. WOW , just Wow. It is sometimes difficult for those of us Down Under to comprehend such history. Thank you for sharing:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · September 17

      Glad this fired your imagination. A building of this epic scale and quality offers us a glimpse of a world that is almost completely unfamiliar. Gazing around Lincoln Cathedral made even me – a Brit – feel a bit like a stranger in a strange land.


  6. Carol Ann Siciliano · September 17

    I’ve always heard of Lincoln Cathedral. Now I’m filled with awe. I love that it was the tallest building in the world for a while, and the first photo is spectacular. Earthquake and hurricane and a magnificent cathedral. No imp could stop that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · September 18

      To be honest, I’m impressed that you’d heard of it. It’s not one of our better-known cathedrals, and even most Brits probably have little if any knowledge of it…Lincoln’s out-of-the-way provincial location is likely to be a factor here. However, it’s a truly magnificent building (albeit rather accident-prone!) and definitely possess the “wow factor” as well as a very naughty imp.

      Liked by 1 person

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