Archive for the ‘Medieval churches’ Category


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: ,

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).


January 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Ugly, unbeautiful, raw, yet emphatically Not Heritage: Pompey, where no self-respecting young man needs a jacket, even when its snowing, and the few historic remains stand separated from functioning shipyards by armed guards, or silent and unvisited, or alone in playing fields and car parks carved from bombsites.

Yet, rather unexpectedly Portsmouth is home to three medieval religious buildings of real formal interest. Each has a high status patron, yet none is a great church, offering insights into how new ideas might play out in lesser churches; they are well dated, and within a crucial, gothic-creating, era-defining, century.

Sitting alone in a corner of 3rd-century Portchester castle is the church of St Mary, built for a short-lived Augustinian Priory (another grand castle-chapel-community), presumably immediately after founding in 1133 (though it seems a church was already there: VCH). The community moved to Southwick where the estates of the former monastic house remain in quasi-feudal hands.

It’s cruciform, shorn of one transept, both transept chapels, and the original east end. Grand west front. Blank remains of wall arcading in the chancel, and, intriguingly, in the surviving transept. Transept E window, like the yet-grander west front, disported with recently-invented chevron, here given a further twist by having its inner order stretched and ended with a flat geometric circlet. The chancel has the wall shafts for a vault, more remarkably the transept does, too, but this cannot have been completed if the current height of the east-chapel arch is right: a mark of the move of the canons elsewhere? Hall like simple nave, big round headed windows, enormous fine crossing arches with big volute capitals, and one of those great show-off C12 fonts, the kind of fitting that never needs replacing, with exhausting flourishes of land-clearing interlace imprisoning struggling beasts and figures. A splayed naked human handled oddly in the nether-regions, like the so-called sheena-na-gig at Winterbourne Basset, Wilts.

Sixty years and an aesthetic away, the east end of my main quarry, one of a series of rule-breaking local churches in planned port-cities; in status not-quite parish churches (the parish church in each case already existed, so these were institutional cuckoos-in-nests made necessary by townmaking) but in architecture not-quite cathedrals: New Shoreham has another (Old Shoreham church nearby), and St Mary Redcliffe in its original form was a third (shared parochial status with Bedminster). All around the same date, all up to the minute emerging gothic, all, as far as on can tell, intended to be vaulted throughout and with ambitious elevations: ie qualities that were then ambitious in cathedrals, let alone not-quite-parish-churches. But then the rulebook of architectural hierarchies is at this moment being redrafted.

Why does the little east end of St Thomas’ ‘chapel’ (founded c1180- east end functioning by 1188; lands from one John de Gisors, of whom one would like to know more, working with Southwick priory, see above), the climax of Portsmouth’s weird, airy, C17/18/19 two-nave cathedral, move so? Is it the openness of the original design, with two arches in the arcade tied by a single arcing semicircle? The sparseness of the low Anglican furnishings? Or the way the wide, much later nave/choir to its west permits it to be viewed as if from the outside, like a toy? In any case, you can see why builders of this era might have thought these for-them perilously thin arches and heavy vaults might have needed new kinds of support, even if the walls remain thick and the windows bigger than heretofore, but by no means enormous. Great single columns of Purbeck; mature stiff leaf and immature water-plant-like forms side by side; the mighty enclosing arches push the gallery up into a pronounced clerestory-level wall passage: is this the latest thing in ripping up the old ways, or an avoidance of lese majeste? Likewise the flat east end, a single great arch containing a low lancet an odd resolution of the ‘Lady chapel problem’: what’s all that about? All this is packed with dating thoughts: the foliage remains this immature for decades, or matures early, depending on how one sees it; and here too are stepped lancets, already in a minor church in the decade of Wells, a decade before Lincoln or Rochester. Indeed while the elevation is heteredox by the standards of the 1120s or 1220s, the vocabulary is entirely what-would-become canonical EE.

The thoughts continue in the Royal Garrison church nearby, ‘God’s House at Portsmouth’ a hospital pure and simple unless someone can publish (VCH doesn’t) evidence of its much-vaunted pilgrimage connections. Big though. Boring Dec nave (I don’t mean it’s boring; this is shorthand for a particularly undemonstrative brand of Dec that is rarely noted), now roofless; tiny two-bay chancel is Peter des Roches, ‘recently built’ in 1214 (VCH), and so same patron and date as, for example, St Mary Ouverie; not to mention the decade-or-so-old Winchester retroquire. If the windows can be trusted the stepped lancets sometimes have cusps, or are grouped tightly under single arches, or have good plate tracery: interestingly early signs of the ideas that would be tracery, given that simple displays of enormous lancets are the norm in even the most ambitious projects well into the 1230s. The usual crisp classicality of the emerging ‘episcopal style’ (or is it a Southern style? Or somehow an Elias de Dereham style? The debate rages on… ) in spite of some slightly second-rate carved bosses and corbels, and again both real stiff leaf and not-yet-taboo variants side by side. By 1220 stiff leaf is the *only* foliage and the EE canon is set. And the usual sudden I-am-following-my-logic-rigorously scholastic eccentricities, a decade before Salisbury, such as the way the enclosing moulding of the east windowX suddenly steps outwards to follow the different trajectory of the vault’s wall-ribs.  

And most pointed of all, at a period I normally think of as rather restless, how much of the vocab is in place in a comparatively unimportant building in 1180, only tightened and refined 30yrs later.

These are the three: but Portsmouth is also a happy hunting ground for religious buildings of the C18 and C19: just for example the strange, rambling, chapel like St George’s church in X; St Agatha’s, ‘cathedral of the car parks’ with its extraordinary Heywood Sumner decorative scheme and now run by a more-Anglo-Catholic-than-thou community: next stop Hambledon Hill; the later phases of St Thomas itself; and of course the Victory, which is to all intents and purposes presented as some kind of sacred site.

Parish church problems – reflections

December 31, 2009 Leave a comment

Two thoughts, since publishing this:
Site This is an archaeological problem, and much more clearly open to further research and synthesis than some of the others. Indeed it is an area in which many are working. Richard Morris’s Churches in the Landscape has already done much synthesis; and every year more analyses of specific sites are published in which landscape analysis reveals very much indeed.

Inexplicable archaeologies This is an extra one. Parish churches often contain archaeological discontinuities that are hard to understand. In mine, for example, one column of the north arcade has been lengthened by, say, 8-10 inches by simply inserting a stretch of wall in mid-capital/column. This presumably is a response to a setting-out error, and is also a neat proof that the (simple) north arcade is a decade or two later than the (more complex) south one. Perhaps, too it means that the masons started at the east and west ends simultaneously and only realised their error when the two side met. So this one, at least, is not inexplicable. But they often are. For example a whole group of local churches have odd extensions at the west end, towards the tower, which must be to do with construction of the tower but which don’t happen elsewhere and don’t really make sense. 9 out of 10 of such problem areas are presumably, like mine, the result of bodges; but the problem comes when a whole group of misalignments/cut back walls/etc defy explanation, and that some of these may be clues to lost structures rather than incompetent/rushed workmanship. Here, again, there may be room for further investigation, for example in the patterns of use and abandonment of doorways, which when drawn together may reveal patterns hitherto unnoticed.

Parish church problems

December 31, 2009 Leave a comment

I probably should have had my mind on higher things during the Christingle service in our local parish church, but it only takes a few waterholding bases and a hint of reticulation in the east window to make my mind wander…

This, it must be stressed, is a very ordinary building; over-restored, and entirely lacking in really notable features. Yet it struck me that the church exemplifies a whole series of problems that are common to a great many parish churches. It may be that these problems are beyond solution, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to address them. Each relates in important ways to the wider project of understanding medieval architecture; each applies to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of standing buildings across this country (… and how one would love to know whether and how they can be mapped onto comparable buildings in other countries).

So, what are these ‘parish church problems’, at least as they currently present themselves to me?

1) Origins Our village has a (partly) pre-Conquest name; the church stands on a pronounced rise that might suggest a long period of activity on the site before it was constructed. The oldest dateable part of the building is late C12, late in the 2-300-year period of parish creation; and one could make a good argument for our parish having been carved from a much larger parish or minster territory whose epicentre was in another village two miles to the south. So when was a religious building first created on this site? Where there preceding Christian sites elsewhere in the vicinity? What kind of structures, architecturally, preceded the current one?

2) Site The precise location of parish churches vis a vis other elements in the landscape, especially centres of settlement and power, can change radically, making a superficial analysis of the modern landscape a poor guide to that in which the building was created and developed. This is particularly true of our church, which is distinctive, if by no means unique, in one way: it stood adjacent to a small priory whose mother house lay in Normandy. And there is much about its site that raises questions. The presume site of the priory cuts the church off from the village; indeed the village’s primary feature may be the wide curve of the priory site, which today contains nothing but the manor house and its gardens, rather cut off from the main focuses of settlement in the modern village itself. And the church is even further from the village. So was its main function originally monastic? And did that emphasis change when the priory was dissolved, in the early fifteenth century? These are pretty specific issues, it must be admitted, and in many ways the most interesting aspect of the building, but the general question of sites and their developments remains of potential interest in almost every location.

3) Development over time By this I don’t mind the simple fact of development, which is a given; more the patterns of it. When was the greatest parish church building boom? The mid C12? The late C15? How do the patterns of when and where resources were devoted to parish churches relate to the comparable patterns for great churches? The latter, at least can be reconstructed – I do so in my book – but establishing a comparable picture for parish churches is rather more of a challenge, given the lack of documentation, and the extent to which one phase of development tends to obscure another. Something like this can, however, be done for my church: an apparent new-build of the later C12, resulting in a nave, two narrow aisles, and a square-ended chancel; the tower is unknown. A substantial refurbishment in the C14, possibly including a tower, and a wholesale updating of the chancel: possibly only, however: the one completely diagnostic surviving feature, the east window, may be C19. And then a Perp-ification: all the other surviving windows, all the parapets, a clerestory, widened aisles, a porch, a tower: the result is a building whose bones precede the C15 but which visually is externally entirely of that century. The timing in our churches case is particularly interesting vis a vis the dissolution of connections with its mother house – which was replaced by an English Royal college; yet the architecture that results is no different from many standard parochial churches.

4) The late C12 a particularly interesting subset of this. It is of course a period of the greatest significance in great churches: this is when galleries and crypts and apses are abandoned, when east ends and axial Lady chapels begin to be created everywhere, and when gothic emerges. Comparably radical developments are hinted at at parish churches: a great many new east ends here, too; but what is one to make of the countless buildings that contain two arcades, one (often the north?) a decade or two later than the other, or perhaps just more plainly detailed, and built contemporaneously and with little mutual co-ordination?

5) Dull Decorated a particularly undemonstrative brand of C14 architecture is frequently encountered. Formulaic tracery: reticulated, or triple lancets cusped and placed under an arch. Arches with simple detailing: little more than double-chamfered mouldings, sometimes given a wide wave; the only firm clue to date is the lack of capitals, and the fact that a C15 attempt at the same thing would feature different arch profiles (for example). This overlooked brand of Decorated is disturbingly common – my churche’s chancel arch and tower arch both fit the bill, and arguably the much-redone windows and simple sedilia in the chancel, too. It is also hard to date confidently, raises worrying questions about style – can one really be sure it is C14 at all? – and undermines received wisdom about the aims and concerns of architecture between the death of stiff leaf and the birth of the panel.

6) Understanding Perp Dull Decorated exists in a context where there are a great many other models for how architecture can be. Early English is only ‘fixed’ for a couple of decades. By contrast the Perp ‘makeovers’ that so many churches – including mine – underwent can be extraordinarily formulaic. There are, for example, a couple of Perp/reticulated tracery types (and associated detailing) that can be seen replicated in countless churches across the country. Is the date range for these really a wide as it seems, ie late C14-Reformation? If so, where does the burden of change really lie, and is the apparent dominance of Perp really as great as it seems, or merely a side-effect of architectural repetition over a long period?

Herefordshire churches

December 30, 2009 Leave a comment

I’ve just created this blog, to try and disagregate the detailed-architectural stuff from the more general musical/place-ological/rhapsodological stuff. But sometimes the two are un-disagregateable: one such is a recent visit to Herefordshire. So, for Madley, Kilpeck, Marden and Abbey Dore, see the recent post at