Call the cathedral coppers
It might sound like the most peaceful place to be, but cathedral constabularies face their own challenges. Andrew Martin goes on the beat with the bobbies from ‘the ministry of welcome’
Andrew Martin goes on the ecclesiatic beat
IT’S a winter’s afternoon in Canterbury and I’m strolling through the cathedral close, the beauty of the cloisters heightened by a fine sheet of misty rain. At my side is Jim Morley, head of the cathedral constabulary, and we’re walking part of the beat of his 18 officers. This is one of four cathedrals in Britain with its own force and I suggest that the policeman’s lot here in Canterbury must be rather an idyllic one. ‘It’s a lovely place to work,’ confirms Mr Morley. ‘There’s a peacefulness about it that gets into your blood. Although we’re police, we’re part of the ministry of welcome.’
It feels as if the most frightening event likely to occur here in Kent is a sighting of the ghost of Nell Cook, a servant reputedly buried alive as punishment for murdering her employer, a cathedral canon. However, five years ago, one of the Canterbury officers was commended after saving the life of a man found in the cloisters stabbing himself with a variety of knives. ‘This place naturally attracts people with mental issues,’ Mr Morley explains. ‘They’re welcome, because they’re seeking help.’
There are about 50 cathedral constables in the UK and, besides Canterbury, they are at York, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral and Chester. These are the heirs of a venerable tradition—at one time, all police were answerable to church wardens as parish constables. The most historically significant constabulary is at York Minster, which, until 1839, had the status of a Liberty with its own coroner, Justice of the Peace and a prison.
The Cathedral Constables’ Association (CCA) states that it is ‘the oldest continuing police service in the country and possibly the world’ and, when Robert Peel was conceiving the idea for the Metropolitan Police, founded in 1829, he drew on the example of the Minster force—his sister was married to the Dean of York, the Very Rev William Cockburn.
Since April 2016, the Minster Police has been lead by Mark Sutcliffe, who, so far, has dealt with only a handful of definite crimes: ‘Two burglaries, a theft and drug misuse in the Dean’s Yard.’ What’s more often required is a word in a tourist’s ear. ‘We have a huge number of visitors and some of them think the Minster’s a sort of grand museum,’ Mr Sutcliffe ponders. ‘They might ask “why are there chairs here?”, looking at their ipads and drinking Coca-cola, but they’re always very polite and horror-struck at the idea they might have given offence.’
I wonder aloud whether he’s much troubled with harassed characters turning up and claiming sanctuary. ‘I looked up the law of sanctuary when I came here,’ responds Mr Sutcliffe. ‘You must be pursued by an “unlawful element” to claim it—and the regular police hardly count as that.’ The ‘regular police’ only enter the Minster ‘if they are in hot pursuit of a criminal or at the invitation of the Dean and Chapter. That’s the protocol and
Preceding pages: Jessica Cooke, one of about 50 cathedral constables, checks York Minster’s nave at the end of the day. Above: Head of York Minster Police Mark Sutcliffe