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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.