June 1, 2011 Leave a comment

This bleak barn of a place is so stuffed with atmosphere it’s almost ready to burst. I was last here in hard hot sun: glorious, silent, retained. Returning again with a group, in a thunderstorm, and it’s like a battery overflowing. The febrile concern of the locals with its interpretation only enriches things: and that’s without knowing the churches magnficent, tragic associations with history. But the real reason for posting is the architecture, which at first site is standard mid-C15 perp, but contains much of interest. Firstly, those flying buttresses: they are useless, and with no high vault the designer knows it: not just because that is obvious, but also because they are in any case too thin and tokenistic to support anything. Or was the choir vaulted? The existing mason’s contract specifies exactly where and how far the master can depart from its predecessor, but makes no mention of vaults. Like St George’s Windsor and Kings’ Cambridge then, they are very high-status attempts at playing with the rubric of the great church, of saying ‘this is not a cathedral/greater monastiery, but it’s not a chapel/parish church either. It is in other words, an exploration of the possibility of the idea of the architecture of the Greater College, or (which is almost, but perhaps not quite the same thing), the greater chantry. Not as grand as either of those two, of course, but then this is a ducal foundation not a Royal one (sorry, Yorkists) and more to the point rather smaller in scale than the other two, though still grand enough to have been equipped with a fully glazed cloister. Equally interesting, and harder to explain, is the interior. Christopher Wilson relates it directly to Metropolitan perp models, noting such nods to local practise as the continuous outer moulding of the arch/pier. But he passes over its remarkable bareness, a bareness hinted at in the contract’s request that the clerestory be identical to its predecessor but without the bowtells. Now this is a Perp Shed, the late medieval equivalent of an out of town prayer factory: they are everywhere. But look at its piers, from earlier St Nicholas Kings Lynn to later Lavenham. Niches, cuspings, all kinds of business in the interior elavation: this is so bare it almost looks unifnished. Is this a symptom of the mid-century impulse that asked for less fussy moulding at Oxford Divinity Schools and the first design for King’s? Or what? How does it relate to the extraordinarily rich, and rather aristocratic/courtly, array of hangings and banners the church possesed at the Dissolution. Or are they, with the tower vault and the pulpit, part of a post Edward IV and into-Tudor-era attempt at giving greater richness ot an inappropriately bare structure?

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January 21, 2011 Leave a comment

A series of posts, including many thoughts on the near-lost great church at Glastonbury, over on my main blogsite,

Kingsland, Herefs

July 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Herefordshire spreads out, at once ample and generous and bristling with age. I move across this landscape with indecent speed, pouring disproportionate energy into my quest for the unknown; in the economy of the post-dip freelance architectural historian/writer, a journey like this in search of the aesthetic traces of the Bristol Master is the economic euivalent of a moon landing (though I’m covered for petrol money as far as Hereford). Anyway, this is much more important. Pevsner mentions Bristol influence: that’s enough to make this place, well to the north of Hereford, essential viewing.

It was worth it. A single-build church of the C14, by someone whose watched closely the Bristol masters various tricks, and in Berkeley-relevant Mortimer country to boot. What else is knocking around up here?

The basic footprint is ‘model-church’ simple. Nave and aisles, long chancel, vestry, tower. With one exception, an odd rectangular east-facing extension of the  north porch. That’s interesting already. Outside, rows of two-light windows below; the clerestory a series of oculi. In fact there are oculi everywhere: on the tower, and both ends of the aisles… Apart from this. the lower windows repeat in their essentials, except for a three-light window at the end of each aisle, lighting the altar there, larger and more interesting than the east window to that altar, pushing the roof up in a little gable to make way for it. Very nice: lets by regular but also make original gestures when the brief (emphasie altars and their imagery) asks for it. Bristol fashion. The clerestory oculi play clever games, a sequence of tracery variants the neatest of which alternates straight-edged and curved foils. And they are handled so that they mark a point half way down the bays defined by the aisle windows below, giving the subtlest dancing motion to what is superficially a plainly-affected building. More interesting still; and the combination of apparent simplicity and regularity with little twists is again right for Bristol. And sticking off the chancel there is a two-storey vestry (big secure door opening inwards), joined by an inserted wall to the east end of the south aisle, and with a crude tomb-shaped recess facing the village in it. Is this going to be another Backwell? Another Portbury?

Not quite, or not any more. Inside there’s nothing to say about the vestry (thanks visiting churchwarden for friendly access) except that it was once two-storey and has been much got at. No sign of the external tomb (external tombs: Ashbury, Bishopstone, Lichfield…, all C14; Lichfield particularly relevant, and dateable with the Lady chapel). The insertion between vestry and aisle, disappointingly, is C19, and appears to have been made for the organ. The aisle e window is blocked to make way for it, and the two-light window that lights it (funny emptyhead tracery: see Marden, Hereford) has been moved from the chancel, and there’s a curious rough dip in the e wall—presumably  for some now-superceded bit of organ mechnaism.

But the porch is where things really take off. A Berkeley arch – I thought I’d seen them all! – marks out this and the vestry door inside. Shades of St Nicholas KL, 300 miles east, 100 years later. The extension opens directly off this, and has a door with a funny shouldered arch, and is brightly lit and externally eye-catching because of a low-set row of completely square but jaggedly foiled windows, set below a flat-topped row of rectangular windows – which would be remarkable before the 1350s; and a parallel row lighting the porch have cusped heads, that is they really *are* panels. Between them these mean a window filled the entire wall of this tiny, low space; the effect when glazed (arms below, weepers or saints above?) must have been remarkable. They face a tomb recess which may have once connected to the chancel Thomas II at Bristol style, though the wall there is pretty substantial and also contains a window, in its current form a work of the C15 or C16. A tomb – and an altar, with a window over it with the only completely potty and wayward tracery in the place. Another one for the Berkeley–circle-variations-on-the-chantry pre-cage-chantry list, this one demanding maximum visibility for the tomb: is Stapeldon in the Exeter w front  a source for that idea? That was designed to be at once exclusive and visible on both sides, but W Joy changed that before completion, rendering it only visible from inside the church, but marked in the w front by little windows. 

The nave is quiet by comparison. Big smooth mouldings and polygonal caps, as one might expect, if a little obstreporously early. The oculi above the points of the arches so that the aisle windows are opposite their openings, creating and from the inside accentuating the dancing effect noted outside. A chancel arch with clever built-in mouldings to support a rood beam (Bristol fashion: design fittings into your scheme, regardless of whether anyone’s done so before or not). And over it two big east-nave-clerestory windows, a feature usually associated with the C15 and even then only with the grandest of churches; indeed I wonder if an earlier example is known anywhere. With the stone rood-beam support, aisle N and S easternmost windows and this, the altars-and-rood zone west of the chancel is hugely emphasised by all this.  And the oculi are repeated on all E and W walls, that is the W walls of the aisles and the E chapel walls of the aisles, the latter leaving large spaces for altars (as the Bristol aisles do); the side-windows-in-gables thus become partly about lighting these fittings. The paired oculi in the central gable are formed as one might call spherical squares; I’m sure I’ve seen this motif elsewhere, but as windows?? And everywhere the cusping is metallic, flat, entirely hollowed out, a distinctive tic I’ve noticed in East Anglian work of this era (Cambridge, Great St Mary’s sedilia; Willingham).

The chancel is architecturally unremarkable, but with a nice sedilia and piscine (the later with a credence and another one-off shouldered arch: Berkeley arches for main door and priest’s door; shouldered arches for porch chapel entry and piscine; and NB not an ogee in sight). There’s some well-informed window tracery: the E window has the near-perp fish-scale reticulation invented by Thomas of Witney at Exeter; the side windows have piled up quatrefoils, another Exeter motif which resulted in the bonkers windows at the E end of the Bristol aisles. And there’s a riot of good C14 glass. Hooray! Christ in Majesty, Coronation (or are they two donors) a couple of minor saints, two big coats of arms.

Externally the chancel is curious, because it has a plinth, which the rest of the church doesn’t, and buttresses, which the rest of the church also doesn’t, big emphatic ones with fake tiling on their stepoffs, and an apparent archaeological disjuncture: it’s not keyed in to the western half of the church, and on the S side theres a relict (but rather redone-in-the-C14-looking) blocked lancet which the chancel for some reason makes way for rather than covering up, even though it involves jiggery-pokery with the chancel S wall. Yet there is no sign of the chancel being by a different designer: two more Bristol fashions: adopt different modes for different functions; make disjunctures obvious, even painfully so.   

All this is so plainly by the same people and of one basic build that it seems to me that this mason, though more polite in his approach and his effect, has been listening hard to the Bristol man; understanding the underlying spirit as well as ripping off a few specific motifs. Apart from the ‘rules’, at once well understood and intelligently reinterpreted, noted above, these are: both the tracery and the formal idea of those altar-lighting windows come from William Joy’s changes to the aisles at Malmesbury. Not to mention the Berkeley arches. And the chancel windows mentioned above. More Bristol master rules: be most outrageously original where a change of mode is required and special attention deserves to be grabbed (the mysteriously named Volka chapel by the porch). Subtly change your language where function, or even patron, change (the chancel: what betting the porch contained the tomb and a chantry altar for the main, aristocratic, patron, and the vestry external tomb is a got-at memorial to a priest); play games with the past (that lancet). Be ornamentally restrained yet do not fear quiet originality when it follows logically from these rules. And there are oddnesses, too. Some windows have roll moulds all the way round them: one in the chancel has these all the way round the inside; one in the nave s aisle has them all the way round the outside. Que pasa? There’s a pile of worked stone here, I’d like to know what from.

Talking of modes, there’s the tower. It’s basically simply detailed, but flat topped – I think the parapet is Perp. But the rest isn’t: all the tracery and doors are apiece with the church. They are plain as a pikestaff, the buttresses are enriched at the top below the step-offs by flat repeated simple blank tracery patterns that if they are original deserve to be noted as pretty impressive precursors of the panel. This must all be original: the SW buttress is not keyed into the tower, but the NW one is, and it steps out a little above ground level on a corbelling angel(?) to make a newel stair, all the masonry of which is contiguous with the tower. So these butts are as C14 as they seem they’re quietly rather noteworthy. There are also stumps of big gargoyles, again rather C15 in spirit, on some corners and central wall divisions of the upper level.

This is all rather unlike the other things I’ve found in the Bristol man’s train. It lacks the exuberant-we –love-Dec-baroque lets-try-something-else-new of Dorchester or Cheltenham, but also the striking this-might-actually-be-our-man of Backwell, Urchfont, Minchinhampton, Berkeley. All these apart from Urchfont, which may predate Bristol, are 1330s/50s. Kingsland *understands*, while doing its own thing. So what date is it? From notes in the church which I would love to follow up properly, it seems from a sheaf of rather old notes in a folder inside the church (!) that someone’s worked on this a bit. Apparently the arms in the E window point to the de Broes family, and one Matilda married a Mortimer. The date 1290-1300 is mentioned: is that the twenty years between her marriage and her death? I need to check the arms and check her life and her dates. But also some caution. If 1310 *is* the cut off then Bristol has to be as early as Pevsner and CW say it is – quite a development, that – but I don’t know where the year comes from. And in any case, she only has to have paid for this on her deathbed. Second decade C14 would fit rather neatly, actually – and those arms do, exceptionally, suggest a date can be found. More questions arise: what is her relationship to Roger Mortimer, whose daughter married Thomas III Lord Berkeley; what is dating and detailing do we have for Wigmore abbey? Meanwhile, this building, at first polite and undemonstrative, is a satisfying and subtle and intelligent work of architecture: a combination, indeed that is another Bristol trait. Well done, Kingsland: we have moon rock, and a series of new reseach leads in the never ending quest for extra terrestrial life.

Categories: Medieval churches Tags: ,

Berkswell, Warws

July 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Berkswell The suburbs of Coventry are shattered and strange: abandoned tower blocks surrounded by security fences; a casino covered in scaffolding; rows of terraced housing equipped with classical columns and security cameras, as if the owners suddenly got rich (but not rich enough to move, or just loved it here…).

And then they suddenly vanish, and the landscape has the dense network of lanes and scattered hamlets of the not-so-long-ago forest. And here is a large, wealthy (shop, museum, tea) village with an extraordinary well and a remarkable church; they’re gathering for a Sunday service, and the place is packed, friendly, enthusiastic, full of all types and ages. Impressive.

The church and the well are grouped together in a cluster with the rectory; the church on a pronounced rise; the well in a curious grass covered lane, really a back area behinid houses; it has two sections, one large enough in which to rinse a beast of burden, the other small enough in which to dip your baby’s bum. All of this is cut off from the village, almost shielded from it, the houses look the other way, towards a green and a meeting of lanes; its as if house, well and church are in an enlcosure: minster?

There’s nothing very special about this church above ground, though the chancel’s top-notch parish church work of the mid-C12, with a well-preserved corbel table in orange stone, rows of neatly arranged little round-headed windows, and a lower level of windows peaking up from below ground level, each housed in an odd little thickening of the wall rather like a Victorian chimney flue. Hmm, there’s a crypt (of course, I know that: it’s why I’ve come).

Further west, everything is parish church charm: a very late two-storeyed porch, half timbered in its entirety, could be the gate to the house of a wealthy merchant; aisles one late Dec, with instructive ‘we’ve just heard about this straight-lines thing’ going-on-Perp tracery (actually I’ve now got a dated example of this stuff in the 1320s (Cambridge, Michaelhouse): suck on that, Accepted History. But that’s another story); the other probably mature Perp, though also a little Decish; tower, clerestory.

Inside the chancel is as expected, with its big round-headed entrance arch and the floor stepping up gradually to make way for the crypt – except that the stepping-up starts well west, halfway downn the nave; and here immediately too there are signs of some archaeological complexity – for the western half of the north nave arcade is mid-C12, simple Romanesque, and the eastern half is late gothic, as its its (slightly earlier) compadre on the south. Why is there is two-bay C12 gap between the chancel and its aisle?

A clue comes through the easternmost of the two C12 arcade arches. Here a wide staircase leads down into the crypt, and the church’s great suprise: for one walks into a well-made vaulted octagon the width of the nave above, and peers down its long, vaulted eastern extension, the width of the narrower chancel. This crypt is a C12 roundbut the church, the same plan as Ludlow or Temple Bristol, but underground. Which is where sepulchres should be, after all.

It’s also not a simple building. The eastern extension is older than the octagon. They’re not seperated by much, but the caps in the e half of mid-c12 (1130s-1150s?) and those in the w are waterleaf, ie surely after 1160 probably into the 1170s. Yet the two buildings join perfectly; even the masonry used in the vaulting is identical. And before the building break that seperates east from west there is a mid-C12 arch: either the western octagon was anticipated when work ceased on the eastern chancel-crypt, or something preceded it, something the seperation of which from the current chancel-crypt was worth expressing architecturally. One more thing: in the chancel-crypt there is a neat piscina with, interestingly, a triangular headed arch; and the vault here retains late medeival polychromy: an enormous section of battered script, set among stars. The guide says the big black letters read IHS, which suggests a christological dedication: good, for my holy-sepulchral investigations; but I think it’s just a big M, which means a Marian dedication: even better, for my Lady chapel/tomb of Christ ideas (other current candidates are in Kings Lynn and Hereford, with other possibilities ‘burrowing under’).

But the stuff that really gets the archaeological braincells going is above ground, as one tries to work out how all this relates to the church above it. For the eastern half of this is straightforward: chancel and chancel-crypt are a single structure. But the octagon, isn’t. The two-bay C12 arcade is plainly of the same date as the chancel: it’s plain, standard Norman, with none of the up to date late-C12ness of the caps in the octagon. So it predates the current western/octagon crypt, so there must have been crypt of some type there when it was built. Was the chancel crypt built on to an existing structure, which was only rebuilt later? In which case what form did that structure take? As for this western aisle, access to said crypt seems to be its raison detre. For the octagon is lit by two little windows, each of which was originally in the external wall of an aisleless chancel. On the S side this has been entirely replaced by the Dec aisle and arcade, and the window widened slightly and given a pointed arch (guide says this was to allow coffins into what by the C18/C19 was being used as a family burial vault). On the N side the original window remains, in the C14 bay east of the C12 one which provides access to the octagon crypt; and the junction between the C12 and C14 bays is clearly an interrupted stretch of C12 wall. So this was a church with an aisleless chancel and crypt, and an aisless nave and crypt – with a special two-bay north-western aisle the sole purpose of which seems to be to permit spacious access (the staircase is wide, too) to the space beneath it. Something significant preceded this space, something which a lot of people wanted to get at; something the form of which is unknown. On the one hand, the excavation of something radically different to the current octagon beneath an existing nave would take some doing; on the other the addition of a centralised and cult-oriented structure in the 1170s has some form: on the other, the idea had current form not present 20-30 years earlier: is this a response to grander works of the previous decades at (in order) York and Canterbury, with Lincoln on the stocks; and to the rash of circular Holy Sepulchre churches built by interesting patrons (obscure fraternities, crusading orders, proud and pious lords fresh from a trip to Palestine), all of them around this time or earlier? If so, only Canterbury (and York?) among the eastern cult-circular churches had crypts; but among the Holy Sepulchres, Clerkenwell had a crypt, and two in Lincs did, too, and of these only one, that at Temple Bruer extended the crypt under the circular nave. This is not so far from eastern Warwickshire; both belonged to the Templars; Temple Bruer appears to have been a C12 structure, though Aslackby, where a central boss with four sheilds on it was found, may have been rather later: we wouldn’t find this before the C14. All this is powerfully relevant, but Berkswell is different from any of them for not continuing the form above ground. The straight surviving stretch of C12 wall above proves that. This sounds like a good case for suggesting the previous structure was square too, indeed this could be proved archaeologically as the most likely corollary would be that it was of the same dimensions as the nave above and they simply filled in the corners, much easier than carving out a large centralised form from a small pre-existing crypt. One corner of the crypt has an opening in it through which one can view a little of the ashlar facing of the chancel-crypts ‘outside’ wall… And there are A-S precadents, too, though not so strong because they are more distant, both geographically and, where we know anyhing, morphologically: the several circular structures (eg York, Abingdon, Bury, Worcester?) known to have been built with Marian associations in that era, of which St Augustine’s Canterbury had a crypt.

To add to the conundrum, there is seperate access, intriguingly, to the chancel crypt, which has the usual narrow openings running from each side of the chancel arch down a thickness in the wall: an arrangement particularly common in pre-Conquest churches (Repton, Hexham, Ripon) and replicated in several later examples (including Temple Bruer, but from within the circular part of the crypt; also Madley). Now double accoess suggests circulation rather than priestly in-and-out, raising the possibility that the chancel crypt was seperate from the western crypt, perhaps before it acquired its octagonal form, and in spite of the fact that it was built with an arch to whatever was to the west. Perhaps this is a pilgrimage route, in to octagon and out, into eastern crypt and out, screens between them. That would suit the Canterbury analogy rather neatly.

Beyond this we can’t go, exccept that the guide mentions various female Anglo-Saxon names that someone must have dug up to find a cult here: who they are, or why these names come up is unclear. But the whole place is archaeologically fascinating (can we abandon style and date the western aisle-thing with the crypt?), and a prime example of the ever-fascinating adventures of the C12, and the way they can be found in to-us obscure places. I want to know more about Berkswell.

Every churchyard has a little surprise: here, it’s the chapel-like WWI memorial, open on four sides, with little ledges inside for people to sit and remember their loved ones, and weep at the thought of popppies and French mud: a remarkable evocation of the wave of national mourning and monument-making of that era.

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King’s Lynn, Norfolk

June 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Another day, another port. Portsmouth, Bristol, they all offer up something. But these look south and west respectively: KL looks east; the visitors book in S Margarets is full of Latvians, Estonians, Poles; not since the days of the Hanseatic league has so much Marshland wealth been making its way to the Baltic.

The walls describe a long circuit beside the Ouse, enclosing the Millfleet and the Purfleet, making three parishes, All Saints, St Margaret, St Nicholas. Not all emerged at once; and only one, All Saints, is really an ordinary town church. St Margaret’s, by the Tuesday market, had a parochial function (fulfilled originally by a monk, no less), but is mainly the Benedictine daughter house of the monks of Norwich, and thus the main monastic community in the town and also the main church connected to the bishop in what medieval people knew as Bishop’s Lynn.

It is one of the strangets, least beautiful, churches in the country; like roaming inside a personality twisted up slightly by its own history.  Even from the outside, this is clear. The east front, a weird amalgam of the C15 and the C18, its Gothick rose (Pevsner says it is C15: really??) somewhow a bit of both. The truncated tower, once topped by a mini-Ely octagon. Not the only one in Lynn, it will turn out. The Odd Thing stricking out of the north tower, facing the tower, with a strangely stilted arch: is this *meant* to be a porch? Or the way in to a lost outer aisle? And the west front, twin-towered, trumeau-doored, a show-off statement undermined by its collisions of style: the north tower is Norwich romanesque going on early gothic going on Dec – three hundred years in a single stone sandwich – the central portion with a grand window by the builder of St Nicholas, the south tower perp too.

Inside it is a vast, plain very long vista, the size perhaps a function of combining parochial functions in a busy, growing town with a monastic one. The east end is c1200, presumably replacing something smaller, but there are Norman arches – 1110s-30s? or even 1090s? – holding up the north tower, so the footprint of the nave must always have been as it is – big. But the tower-nave transition is as outside a bewilder of stuff, leaning bunches of Romanesque columns colliding with early gothic and later. And the nave?? The nave had always ready been rebuilt in the late c13 or early c14, but in the C18, after the tower demolished its predecessor, it was rebuilt, the masons, taking the arcade down but leaving their Dec bases standing, from which they built up again; and doing a fair impression of late Perp but not quite able to give their low arches barbaricgothic points. The rather unlovely depressed arches that result sap all the visual energy from arcade, clerestory, windows, and make them somehow prosaic, municipal; a fair reflection of C18 small town Anglicanism, perhaps?

The crossing a mish mash again, and then the east end, early EE; and here the scale is grand, big arcades, attached columns, clerestory; stiff leaf caps and little quatrefoils in between the spandrels of the arches; but the execution is appalling, cack-handed stiff leaf, the spandrel quats too small, containing ungainly little heads and figures; and to make things worse/odder, the clerestory has been done over again in the C18 by Mr Deppressed Arches – depression brought on by Suppression? – and the e wall is C18, I presume, with a bloodless but enormous C19 reredos.

This would all bring one down a bit, where it not for the content. They start a fair way down the nave, where a really first-rate rococo pulpit prepares one for a series of black wooden Jacobean screens/stalls beneath the crossing; and these continue into the choir in a complete set of wooden C14 screens and stalls (the latter may be C15); I wonder how many lesser-great-church sets survive like this. And this battered, thrilling woodwork separates off the two side chapels, giving a maze-like feeling to exploring the chronological labyrinthes of mismanaged design with which this church is filled. One is inaccessible, but in the other, this churches one great work of art, the two C14 Flemish brasses to Adam de Walsokne and Robert Braunche. With clear light falling on all this the prospects are a little exhausting.

First the screens, with tracery of the c1330-50s in the south but quite possible in the 1370s and 80s too in East Anglia;  different sets as if not quite contemporary; one lot, a little later, in the SE bay has surprising slightly raised canopy work over the ach opening, like a wooden sedilia. Big imitation oak and vine crockets, wood carved to imiate wood, crawl up the arches, very reminscent of Winchester; the carpenter there was East Anglian, I recall. The SW corner has tracery covered on little High Dec grotesques, lttle oaken gems, one of which I’m delighted to discover shows a man anally penetrating himself. Never let it be said that the medieval church was not catholic in the truest sense. It’s also another one for my emerging theory that truly obscene images in English chuches are usually in choirs, whose inhabitants of course had abandoned gender altogether and thus could cope, ha ha.

And in the choir, the windows of the screens double up as canopies, for beneath each is a stall with a misericord, and in front a form for choristers, these perhaps Perp. And a beautifully lit set of really well-carved misericords (later?), including a splendiferously unhappy green man, and lots of heraldry and kings.

Now for the brasses, the man and his two wives looking more like a transfiguration of aristocrats into saints than an image of a local merchant/mayor, a vision intensified by the tension between their plain, beautifully drawn faces and folds, and the carpet-intensity of what’s behind them, astonishingly completely undamaged, Christ and the saints and weepers and tapestry like patternings containing elegant beasts and little wild men. Indeed a wild man with his tongue out, a very early depiction, wrestles an eagle between the legs of the central figure. And beneath them, like the margins of a manuscript, the delicious Peacock Feast, the long table serving girls and paired lordly figures vivid; the other brass has a sadly less well-preserved series of equally chivalrous/secular scenes; one would love to know what of: there’s  miller, a hunt, but also it seems some things more mythological. This is a very early Wild Man; the extent to which chivalric culture suffuses the memorial of this layman and wider lay culture suffuses an object in a church is eloquent of the tastes of C14 merchants at the top of their game; one wonders how many saw this as a little outré for people of their class. 

Just round the corner is the long low warehouse of the Hanseatic league and the exceptionally elaborate guild hall. And not far away, suprisingly central, one of the few standing pieces of an English mendicant church, its chancel large in proportion to the nave; the characteristic thin space with processional access to the cloister beneath the tower – which stands, and is octagonal again, and handled inside as a little C15 Ely octagon, to be added to Peterborough and St Margaret’s (and, for its Lady chapel, Fordham) in the list of east Anglian buildings to be so very impressed by Ely.

And further N vast and empty in its silent corner by the Saturday market, is St Nicholas, as ridiculous as a chapel of ease as St Thomas Portsmouth, another overblown merchant’s church to put next that one and to St Mary Redcliffe and to Shoreham. Which is why it’s so fascinating to see that the mason knows the Bristol Master’s work: he too can quote from earlier architectures (the trumeau door, several semicircular openings); he likes window traery in which imaginery smaller windows are placed inside larger ones (Bristol E window); he likes little theatrical gestures, like the way the door steps up into the w window above (quoting in particular St Mary Redcliffe porch north door here?). More diagnostically he too uses hexagonal arches (the doors) and in the priest’s door to the chancel he adds to them a minature starburst canopy, of which the only other examples in the country are at Bristol (and St David’s). Amazing. Of course this is a design of the very late C14 – it is reasonably well dated – and a reminder that the sobriety of Perp and the court/SW idea that the old style was to be rejected rather than incorporated, never happened in e anglia. Ely has no true Perp at all!

This is a work of real quality, like St Mary Redcliffe preserving a c1200 corner tower and spire and otherwise a complete rebuild, a great empty barn-hall lit by some of the best Perp tracery in the country, and in the clerestory intersecting ogees, which at first sight look very Bristol too, until one remembers this is a standard early-mid C14 tracery pattern round here, here simply kept alive late. It has a delicious wide roof full of angel-musicians; it has a great brass lectern with a delightfully spirited thick-feathered eagle; it has a couple of pews – the best are in the V&A – with first rate earlier C15 carving, including a beguiling and beautifully preserved St John on Patmos, and a hermit emerging from a shell And it has a show-off porch to the town, with a lierne vault covered in untouched bosses a la Peterborough parish church and Walpole St Peter – are the doors original here? – and the most splendid display of anti-sober-Perp panelling and patterning, little raised lines in ferocious cusped grids.

The guide points out the complex of doors and sacristies at the E end, suggesting processional access behind a large reredos to which the starburst door is the most important; and a long and evocative struggle of the rich local merchants with St Margaret’s over baptismal rights, only resolved in the C17 – from which the font dates (but what is the wannabe font-like stoup thing next to it?). It was not a simple town/tonsure tension: Margary Kempe, whose dad was a parish grandee, sided with St Margarets.

But Lynn’s most remarkable medieval structure has to be the Red Mount Chapel. Here we are outside the medieval walls, and almost next to the former course of the Purfleet; and I’m very grateful to conservation officer David Pitcher for opening it up and generously showing me around; also for the good company of the coincidentall-met (or possiby Mary-supplied) e-pilgrim Father Simon, en route from Edinburgh to Walsingham.

We are atop a marsh bank that may be very ancient, and which at some point and for some reason had a barrow-sized platform attached to one side. A platform that at some point and for some reason became associated with the Virgin Mary, and which also belonged to the townsmen. So that in 1485 when the prior of St Margaret’s wanted to do something to this intriguing place/thing, he had to negotiate permission (with the thing half built). What went up first was not done especially well, but it was strange. A brick octagon on the mound, which was greatly enlarged and given a retaining wall for the purposes. One way in: straight into the mound, along a dark passage, to a bare room facing east where the ground is left to slope up, two rectangular openings perhaps for wooden niches, and a great empty tomb recess. Another way in: outside, at the top of the mount, up the octagon, to whatever was originally on top. This could have been quite elaborate, as it was surely the main chapel, and there are little openings – for lights? – in the exterior buttresses that have carving, showing there was decent freestone in a not always convincingly executed structure. And finally a third entrance leading to stairs up and down and a middle storey presumed preiest’s room: narrower stairs but still with built-in brick handrails, this entrance presumably for the priest/staff; there is a little guard’s room by the main door, too.

Whatever the chapel at the top was originally like, it was replaced in 1506 by a little gem. The upper floor of the octagon rises to and then part-circulates an inner chapel shaped like a cross, which is entered on the n arm; it has a little rosette oculus window in each arm, and little openings from the stair to excite approaching pilgrim/manage glimpses of crowded events. And inside, a tiny cruciform chapel, with a high platform for an image at the e end (replaced but on good evidence) raised above the stairway curling round the building beneath, and richly panelled tunnel vaults in each arm, like those at Henry VIIs chapel vestibule, coming together in a delicious tiny fan vault with an empty ringlet where a boss should be (was?); there’s a string course all round filled with paterae, and these jump over the very slender and elegant attached columns (now removed) and capitals on the four inner corners of the crossing. This last element, combined with the oculi, gives the whole a lightness of touch that may just be another case of Marian architecture; the rest is womb0like and rich, but not in architectural anything more than  a miniatured Peterborough New Building/King’s (it is between these two in time) work out.

This building is often talked of as a one-off (when it’s talked of at all: David’s article in BAA Journal a major step in this respect), but it’s not that simple. The upper, later part can be placed alongside St Winifred’s Well, Holywell (and, to a lesser extent, the outer part of the Booth porch at Hereford) as a Marian cult-related structure of the Tudor era by top masons: this chapel has understandably been attributed to John Wastell and this Holywell shrine is clearly by someone close to the king’s works. All these can to different extents, give or take a nearer Octagon or two, be tied formally, functionally and conceptually back to the outer north porch at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, probably of the 1320s (and before that who knows where). And the mid/late C15 upstairs/downstairs Christ’s tomb image is precisely that seen in my Westbury crypt, and possibly awaiting discovery elsehwere too. So it is fuel to several fires; and even today, as invisible children peer in at the roughcast brick of Christ’s imaginery Norfolk tomb; or one climbs the shoddy stairwells to face the sudden footings of well-cut ashlar, then turn to enter this tiny bare battered enclosure of cervical delicacy, richness and cut stone fecundity, it is a shock in this town-edge municipal park.  

And here are five medieval churches, four of them extraordinary; one overblown and battered priory-cum-parish church (what kind of complex lay around it?); one of the two or three best preserved examples of that lost class, the mendicant churches; one of England’s half-dozen truly lesee majeste merchant’s churches; and one more cultic Lady chapel for my Lady chapel bag, full of clever Marian/Christological associations (a cross inside an octagon; a bare lower church with a recess).

Repton, Derbs

March 19, 2010 Leave a comment

One wonders about the wider landscape: about the way the overwintering Danes used the building, and how to trace their enclosure; about why the close wall of the priory apparently claims the chancel as part of its own (and left a church whose chancel was apparently almost a separate room intact for many centuries, apart from some simple windows of the C13). The guidebook, which both benefits and suffers from being written by the Expert, tells us nothing of this; indeed the overwintering itself, which places Repton in a dramatic historical story, is left unexplained.

The main church is instructive mainly for its plainness: this is not so much Boring Dec as Underfunded Dec: an architecture without capitals or mouldings, knowing only Y tracery; yet the S chancel chapel has a window full of ‘X’-shaped tracery patterns, Deccish in their angularity, Perpish in their interest in straightlines; one comes across this in the C14 in the E midlands (Youlgreave, Kettering) and one would love to get dates for it.

Perp clerestory and good roof. Important fragments in the porch: a big boss – was the priory vaulted? which part? Could be just a gatehouse or undercroft, I suppose. A goodish early stiff leaf cap, also surely from the priory. It had a relic of Guthlac, and so a memory of the A-S; and the parish church crypt had a new access route direct from the outside – within the close I think – created  in the medieval period and has an inserted pointed-arched opening so it could be glimpsed looking E from the nave. So the priory is an important consideration in the question of the crypt’s medieval afterlife.  

And so to the A-S/pre-Conquest – in the porch, loose, a simple window-head (two more apparently by a grave in the churchyard), a couple of enormous Romanitas columns, some very, very fine carving: a cross base with an elegant, noduled figure very like those at Breedon; a first-rate hogsback tomb affixed to the nave wall. And – no pre-reading had prepared me for this – the A-S extends around the E end of the nave, suggestive of portici, the columns are from an A-S arcade that survived into the early modern era (a true arcade, not rows of arches punched through walls: architecturally ambitious/suggestive of lateish date insitelf) and includes pilaster strips up the chancel walls with curious splayed tops to them high up. The altar surely raised almost to the sill of the current E window: see the scars of the A-S crypt windows, which reach up almost this far. The square windows there today are C17? Who put them in then, and why?

The crypt. It’s not large – nor would one expect it to be – but no description prepares one for the complexity of this, and what that says about the spatial/formal scope of A-S architecture. These are people who can not only carve spiral columns, but bead that spiral with a cable moulding, and arrange the four columns  so the spiral of each curves inwards to the central space. Who can devise (why are these not better known? They’re not in the guide, nor in Pevsner) unique pilaster-like columns on the walls with fillet-like mouldings and their corners standing out. Who can disburse abaci logically, and arrange subsidiary spaces so the curve of their vaults gives a relative hierarchy without detracting from the unity of the building as a whole. None of this is done to the highest standard: carving is blocky, the vaults roughly done with large pieces of stone, somehow more-than-tunnel but less-than-groin. But done it is, and that is enough. And nothing about it suggests that this is a one-off, though it is surely top-end. The kind of subtleties described above can only be part of a tradition; the very blockiness might argue that this might have been done better elsewhere (though it’s normal for A-S architecture: they seem to have reserved a higher register and by implication different craftsmen for ‘pure’ stone carving as seen on tombs, crosses, the occasional fragment of shrine or narrative sculpture). At Wing, too, the far more primitive crypt is divided into spaces with a central space, again suggesting that both are part of a (mausoleum?) tradition.

Yet this survives. Is it the most impressive architectural remnant of the Anglo-Saxon era? Everything we have tells us something we otherwise wouldn’t know. St Martin-by-Canterbury tells us that the Gregorian mission built churches equivalent to their greater contemporaries in the Roman sphere. Ripon and Hexham that ambitious churches with (underground) tunnel vaults could be built in the C7, and that the much vaunted wealth and Roman connections of Wilfrid are a historical fact. Jarrow that monastic complexes could be planned. Escomb that smaller churches, too could be carefully made, if extremely simple (and building something out of recycled Roman stone is an art in itself); Brixworth that real basilican buildings, with arcades (albeit as plain as a pikestaff in form, and interrupted by stretches of walling) went up in the C8; Deerhurst of the kind of quality possible on such grand buildings perhaps a century later; Bradford, perhaps most uniquely of all, gives us a real architectural experience of such quality. Wing I’ve mentioned. And archaeological discoveries at Winchester, Canterbury, Lichfield reveal stone carving of the highest order; even more complex buildings; and (at Canterbury) a church that by the C10 could look in the eye anything north of the Alps. Earls Barton supports the emerging picture that the C10 rebirth of architecture is considerable, capable of creating lesser churches of a scale and ambition (if not refinement of execution) that would look their post-Conquest partners in the eye. Hundreds of smaller fragments elsewhere – doorways, windows, arches – support this. But nowhere else can one walk into, inhabit, a space of anything like this sophistication. The implications are enormous: it’s as eloquent of the power and regal ambition of the Mercian kings as the Staffordshire hoard. The echoes for later architecture are something, too. Having seen the entrance and egress routes at Repton, C14 MadleyX looks even more like a conscious A-S throwback; having seen the arrangement of spiral columns around the central space, the possibility that this feature (along with many more minor ones) at Durham is a conscious reinvention or aggrandisement of a pre-existing A-S structure surely increases, especially as here we are within the cultural reach of Northumbria. And more locally, one wants to know more about later use. Why does the priory close embrace the ancient E extension of the church? For what function were medieval modes of access (from within the close, I note) and view (from the W, inside the church) cut through? What is the significance for its understanding of its own history that the priory had a small relic of Guthlac? What do we know about its church?

And what of the accepted story about the crypt itself? I can’t fault Taylor’s archaeological analysis, but his linkage to historical events needs a moment’s caution. We are asked to believe that this is the creation of a king, not a saint, and a creation that had already had two phases of existence; that the saint’s cult only added some corridors to it. Well, this fits the archaeology, but the implications are considerable, especially for what it says about the power and cultural associations of such a king. What else do we know about King X? This is major stuff for our understanding of this world. But it’s not unimpeachable: all we have are phases, and the inherent improbability of cutting access routes through solid rock very shortly after having built an elaborate vaulted crypt that lacked them. Nevertheless, if we argue that the crypt is a creation of the cult of X, a lot of other things fall into place: the earlier phases don’t need to stretch back in time without explanation: one becomes the Royal mausoleum. The design of the crypt itself, especially the St-Peter’s-shrine quoting spiral columns, makes much more sense as the setting for the cult of a martyred king than just the tomb of a king; though Wing could be taken to argue the opposite, that even non-Royal figures might build burial mausolea crypts of real ambition, making Repton relatively explicable. Perhaps no one expected such pressure for access – we know very little about the extent of popular devotion to A-S saints – and the ways through took place a decade or two later: such possibilities are at least worthy of discussion; indeed the historical and cultural implications of either option are so considerable that to avoid this discussion is an issue of itself.

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Towcester, Northants

March 19, 2010 Leave a comment

As so often, the visual impression is of a C14/C15 building, with only clues to indicate that one of only slightly lesser scale – still aisled N and S, for example – existed here in the C13 and probably before. The chancel is a well-cut thing (nice overhangs on the buttresses) of the mid/late C14, with an excellent Dec/Perp E window (how one wishes one had a date) and Perp clerestory stuffed in later with little regard for its predecessor. An unusual, smooth-formed C12 column to the S chancel chapel; a nice arch here has great little C14 peasants holding it up and some battered wall-painting (female saint): also a niche containing a later wall painting. Was this a Lady chapel?. The high altar rises up and there is a space beneat (in its current form?) for C19 heating equipment. The rest is now C15, but the arches reuse C12 caps, lucky they were polygonal and thus fitted future taste; one can even see the extra bands of whiter stone inserted to lengthen the columns. The simplest, Perp-stepped-lancet tracery; clerestory; tower plain as a pikestaff too, but a fine w door with  ironstoneniches and panels, and an intriguing blocked arch reveals something of this period stood in the NW corner, that nearest Sponlee’s grammar school. Inside, the S chapel window has fragments of good C14 canopywork (in one light) and C15 Sponlee-stuff in another: and here he is, his expansive and expensive cadaver, thin and smooth-faced Archdeacon above, Dead Body below, all on a handsome, open, wide-arched table. Each of these is a one-off, patrons comparing notes rather than masons; in this case, with Chichele’s college not so far away, one wonders if the communication went via that grand old man of the cadaver tomb.

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