Cathedrals and Monasteries were once symbols of power in locations of importance, but a lot can change over several centuries
OK so our final myth isn’t really a full myth, but it’s certainly something we hear a lot. “If you’re the Centre for Cities you should look at cities like Ely, Ripon, Perth and St Asaph”.
But, there is more to being a city than just having a cathedral.
Compare Wells in Somerset and Reading in Berkshire. One is a city and has been from the medieval times, and the other is the largest and one of the most prosperous towns in England.
Wells, home to a population of just over 10,000, has had city status since the Middle Ages due to the presence of Wells cathedral, a beautiful gothic church erected between the 12th and 15th Centuries.
Reading on the other hand, which became a prominent manufacturing centre during the 19th century, and is now a knowledge-intensive powerhouse, remains a town according to official designation, despite a population of over 300,000 including its built up area, and several attempts to gain official city status from the Queen.
Historically, in Britain and on the continent, the presence of cathedrals and monasteries meant the presence of power, as well as the concentration of wealth and knowledge. This tradition of assigning city status based on the presence of a cathedral has a long history in the UK, and during the reign of Henry VIII was regarded as sufficient grounds for the granting of city status.
This history means there are many examples of the somewhat peculiar and arbitrary nature of official city status in the UK today and good number of them are tiny settlements (most famously perhaps is St. David’s in West Wales, which has a population of around 1,500). While significant settlements such as Milton Keynes, Bournemouth and Slough that are centres of knowledge, creativity and employment are not considered to be ‘proper’ cities.
Luckily for these places having ‘city’ status doesn’t make a difference to their success and prosperity in the modern economy.
What matters today are factors such as the skills of its people, the productivity of firms and workers, the technological and innovative nature of its research institutes, the amenity offer and distinctive character of the built environment, and the strength of its governance institutions. Having a cathedral or a monastery is no longer relevant or important.
This reminds us of how the relative importance of places changes over time in response to changes in society and the economy.
The town of Reading is striving to be designated as a city, based on the prestige associated with this title, but for the purposes of understanding and improving the performance of UK’s economy, Reading is already a city. In comparison the official city of Wells has a much smaller role and significance in the modern economy than it did in the Medieval Ages.
The assignment of city status based on monarchical designation has little relation to the success of places today (or indeed the success of cities since the beginning of industrialisation). Classifying places as cities based on the size of daytime population size in the built-up area, as we do at Centre for Cities, offers a much more useful framework for analysis than what Henry VIII considered to be a marker of urban significance.
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Paul F Cockburn
Sorry to raise this point, but the presence of a cathedral to determine city status is actually a very English approach, rather than British—given that Scotland’s official (and Presbyterian) church doesn’t have cathedrals. (Well, there’s the exception of St Giles in Edinburgh, which retains the name from before the Reformation.) One argument in favour of monarchal recognition as a guide to city status is that it at least works across the WHOLE of the UK. Still, you make a fair point; it’s rather quaint to have numerous towns which have far bigger populations and economies than some official cities. And of course, by those same rules, the UK capital, London, isn’t a city either—it’s actually a massive conurbation which includes two cities: the City of London and the City of Westminster.