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Cambridge

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Just a note on a feeding-frenzy of medieval Cambridge. A few hours with VCH and a map reveals the underlying pattern, at least in outline: the Roman core to the N, by the C12 a castle suburb with three parishes, one at least of A-S origin. The A-S core to the S of the river, in its vesica-shaped enclosure of town ditch and Cam, bisected by the Roman road; parishes suggesting (especially those known to be there by the late C12, which is the dawn of clerkly activity on any scale) a tight series of focuses around the Roman road, leaving space for later Mendicant settlements to the E and clerkly ones to the W. Then that remarkable story, in which the Old Schools come interestingly early; patrons are interestingly varied; the focus around them is set by the mid-C14, but the biggest impression is the great wave of Royal C15 foundations, especially King’s: before this, New and Merton put older, grander Oxford clearly ahead of the game. After that, the story is nowhere near as clear. And the coincidence of the Backs gave each of these – Kings, St Johns, Trinity – room to expand E. As a result the corporate heart of the Uni today is densely medieval, but lacking in grand vistas – unlike Oxford; but the greatest colleges stretch out grand and languid, as impressive as museums of architecture as the more public heart of Oxford is.

Certain compare-and-contrasts to Oxford suggest themselves, too. Both are in strategically vital trading routes, way above average for their significance as meeting-places and mercantile townmaking stuff generally. Both had important castles. Both lacked a single, controlling, dominating religious institution – unusually, for a town of such significance.  In both cases, the Augustinians and soon after the Mendicants took an above-average early interest (Frideside AND Oseney at Oxford; Barnwall AND ?Holy Sepulchre, both developments that can’t have harmed the growth of advanced schools. What of Royal/episcopal power? I’d like to get to grips with this more. The castle, of course. Oxford had Woodstock, too, but did that mattered before HIII? It’s the later C12 and first-half C13 that matters for understanding the birth of the university. And Oxford is unequivocally on the edge of episcopal power, with Winchester and Lincoln both distant after the move from Dorchester; yet interesting once they’ve got a grip the bishops are very interested, often chancellors, often founding colleges. Cambridge colleges are much more varied, and (later) Royal. What of chancellors? And where does Ely fit in, not a bishopric until the early C12, and very aware of its regal grip on the Isle to the N: how much of a grip would it have had on the new addition to its domain in that first 150 yrs? Before that, Cambridge is v as Oxford-marginal, on the edge of Lincoln, not too far from Norwich. And where does the monastic domination of the fenland fit? Oxford was a heavily monasticied county, too, but on a much smaller scale and more piecemeal. Here, everything to the N and E was owned by one (usually ancient) Benedictine house or another; yet the Shire was more ordinary. I think. Much to find here, and the temptation to create big charts of monastic houses and collegiate houses and their development/size over time is a great one.  

More or less N-S

St Peter’s. I thought of Samuel Palmer too. A heartbreaking location, like a lost country church, though presumably originally hemmed in by houses. Roman tile in the tower indicates we are in the Chester. Lovely lateish C12 (1160? 70?) S door – reset from a lost aisle? With some colour intact. Galumphing C12 Norman Merman font: what where they on? I’ve seen another, cruder, in Herts: but perhaps this was just as crude before it was got at. Heads recarved by some antiquarian, methinks. A little arid inside: God has flown, but clings outside.

Holy Sepulchre. Just fascinating: for its location at the meeting of two key routes (and right by the Jewry), for its origins, vague as they are. For these round churches are sophisticated thing. Good stuff, two, with its rib vaults arranged in a circle and a grand false gallery. Hugely redone higher up, of course; the original C15 top might even have added a certain battered something; C15 E end likewise, with good roofs.

St Radegund’s. A well-off nunnery, now Jesus college. So interesting: chapter house interest is not brilliantly executed but very well designed. Those inward-turning concave squares that form the opening of the plate tracery could easily be late C12, experimental early Gothic; though NB this tendency is just detectable thereafter, in a handful of places: eg Wyck Rissington, Gloucs. They crop up in the high-grade secular House of Pythagoras, too. Still, it all suggests a building of some grandeur. Church itself hugely got-at in collegisation: no longer with a parochial function, shorn of much of its nave and all its aisles, big plain simple C15 windows (Alcockised). But the c1200 and before is good: very impressive tower arches with enormous dogtooth and lantern-gallery feature above; likewise the choir, a showpiece of high lancets and shafting; a very clever-clever piscina with rows of linear dying ‘mouldings’: EE is a very linear style. E wall sadly C19, based on some evidence or other. Characterful EE this anyway, something of the Worcester E End about it (also 1220s?). No high vaults though, and one wonders how the elevation worked where aisles were. Indeed the story of vaulting in Cambridge jumps from early, Romanesque rib vaults at Holy Sep straight to the display of tierceron, lierne and fan in the various phases of King’s. 1440-1512. Not a single one in between. Not even, I suspect at Barnwell, the ghost at the feast, much as Oseney is in Oxford: it had a C15 hammerbeam roof, now at Willingham.  Cambridge then had urban variety, and all manner of interesting takes on the priestly community, but little of real ambition.

St Michael A really interesting Dec parish chutch, all the better for having some dates (patron buried in incomplete chancel, 1327), and for all this work to be directly associated with its conversion to a (mainly) college chapel. Here as many registers of Dec are on display as can ever be found in grander churches: wilful/advanced (the E and W windows, especially the W one, with its clever combination of ogee curves and pre-Perp straight lines); standard/enriched (the sedilia and the rich door – cf the de Lacy tomb/door at Ely – leading to the presume side-chapel for the founder, with two big rich sub-Ely niches either side of the altar; plain/boring (the tower arches, just capless chamfers, and tower above, big butts, smooth forms). We should remember this willingness to be several things – several modes – at once, appropriate to function, is not just confined to the Great Buildings.

St Mary the Great At first a standard John Wastell perp town church, almost identikit: what interests as much as anything is the clear differences in visual hierarchy between here and the early phase of Kings across the way. Fits the Perp bill, as prescribed by Henry VI: ‘in large form, clean and substantial, setting apart superfluity of too great curious works’. Tracery little more than the Perp version of stepped lancets. But also: Dec E end (does this suggest the W half was paid for by the parishioners?); what can we trust of the interesting but very redone (Pevsner says entirely so) sedilia and piscina? They have cusps (eg) as thin and flat as if cut out of sheets of metal, and with a wilful combination of straight and curved lines to boot. Very similar in spirit to the remarkable (anchorite’s?) room at Willingham. Interesting that such motifs at all are around in this part of the world. Willingham too seems to know about ways of thinking I normally place firmly in the W country. And then at the other end of the scale, the tower stops dead before the Reformation and starts again – exceptionally – a few decades later; how to date the tunnel/panel-vaulted lower stage, with doors N and S to galleries (the galleries themselves C17 or even 19), and a little window looking into the church? I’m trying to collect interesting/unnoticed functional areas built into the W end of Perp churches: is this another, or something post-Ref?

St Edward’s A crowded city church, and the only place in Cambridge where something indefinable stilled the air. Interesting architecturally, too: for the steep, steep lancets of the aisle arcade, surely (see the caps) if surprisingly Perp; for the dated C14 and (not very) Perp C15 interventions (all the aisles) as part of college-isation, for the early pulpit, for its status as a peculiar, which allowed a liberal approach to preaching, which made it a seedbed of the Reformation. Good Perp font. Nice metal IHC’s in a sun, like an ad for the insurance company, nailed C19 into the wagon roof of the chancel.

Holy Trinity A big church with a spire; all plain and Perp inside, but good: cruciform, with a wide-panelled crossing, good roofs, lots of small stone angels, bright clerestory. Bizarre W end where big panelled butts jut into the church and behind them a very wide ?Dec arch spreadeagles.

St Bene’t The tower doesn’t need introduction: and Pevsner notes even long and short walk in the famous A-S tower arch. C15 collegisation doesn’t seem to have done much, though Corpus Christi itself is ambitious enough. C14 chancel, its sedilia and piscina and earlier blocked window nothing but scars. Mad late C18 or C19 roofs.

St Mary-the-Less More dated Dec! Underway 1340, consecrated 1352. And again associated with collegisation: an intriguing story, in which a big C12 church (perhaps even with aisles) is turned into a single academic-collegiate hall: a very early example of same. The commitment to repetition, eg in the sub-Ely lady chapel petal-motif windows, is good, too; decent E end with two niches, sedilia and psicina. The two niches (inside and outside NB) are common everywhere, but seem to be espcially standard for Cambs: almost every church in this city has them, for example. Battered arches to two lost and late chantry chapels, presumably adjacent to the screen separating ante-chapel (or parochial element) from choir. Again, the relationship is to local practise, especially at Ely a decade or two earlier.

St Botolph’s nice late med figures of evangelists-as-pinnacles on the tower.

King’s (and see also below) I’ve never given this extraordinary place real time before, and much flows from doing so. For example, although it hangs together inspite of its long gestation and last-minute vault initiative, this is partly a side-effect of the survival of its fittings: that enormous screen is a reminder of how all these places would have been, an effective pulpitum; you can see why the transepts at Merton and New where deemed surplus to requirements: all you need is a choir and a gathering-place, an antechapel. Without it the design gap between the E and W halves would be painfully obvious. The survival of the first-rate fittings, right on the cusp of Reformation, is of course a la Westminster an indicator of its Royal status (but was there more architectrural polychromy? The rich centre of a fan vault survives in one chapel). These side chapels are a delight now opened up, especially in the Wastell phase, where they have screens a la Gloucester/cage chantries, and fans. Good glass: is that a courtly-female zone (glass: the mystic hunt, iconography on the door, linkage to Royal Catherines and Margarets) in the S choir chapel-aisle? Good bosses, especially in the phase one Reginal Ely tiereceron vaults in the N choir chapel-aisle. Incidentally, it is hugely over-engineered: they surely could have hollowed out the buttresses and made real aisles if they had wanted to. Or perhaps they did’nt want to? Is this a pre-planned series of chantry-type chapels, predicting (A) that Fellows would require to say daily private masses and (B) these spaces would fill up over time with memorial foundations? Fascinating. And the very good exhibition suggests the Fs only spent an hour-a-day in worship: so what of the Offices, which take 8 hours a day? Did they have vicars of some kind? If so, the balance of their lives is firmly on the scholarly. But the main thing is to emphasise just how remarkable it is, in its Henry VII-and-after form: the elevation of the W half is just to die for, every inch perfectly rendered. But it also masks the interesting debt to (and contrasts with) the Ely lady chapel, Reginald Elys home after all. That was the nearest breathtaking, rectangular wall of glass; of course Henry VI’s prescription could be read as saying ‘like that – but not Dec’; and there are Ely-like details in the way phase one handles the vault responds and their transition to the wall: little arches that are almost nodding ogees that support responds; little vertical features in the E corners coming down behind, like the niches and wall arcades at Ely. Anyway, remarkable. With St George’s Windsor an exercise in a new kind of building, the collegiate-chapel-as-Great-Church, with license as a result to try new things: at St George’s in the plan, here in the scale. Quite apart from the quality of execution and unity of experience within, this thing would have dwarfed everything else in the city, and no other academic-college-religious building anywhere before St John’s in the C19 came near it in ambition.

Colleges to the visitor the early (C14 on) colleges, of which much survives at Cambridge albeit much changed, are almost impossible to distinguish: a single close containing rooms, Carthusian-like (but also an earlier collegiate tradition, only now evidenced in vicars’ closes? But early vicars’ closes are not coutyards) a gatehouse a hall, sometimes a chapel (I don’t think there’s a single medieval chapel extant apart from the parish churches that were college-ised, and of course King’s; and their footprint where they existed is everywhere small in scale, often smaller than the hall, and nowhere all-dominating as their role in the life of the community ‘shoud’ suggest: one never sees this ambivalence in monastic churches), always a hall and a master’s lodging. Everything goes up a gear, in general height and grandeur, in the C15; some even get two courts. The gatehouses start to be features, with good vaults and a façade, with their own intra-Cambridge story but all ulimately Perp versions of Michael of Canterbury’s St Augustine’s abbey, c1300, with its enormous towers. Queens’ is the most charming college; but everywhere – in the hall at Queens’, in the prioress’s room at Jesus, in the little oriel for Madge Beaufort at Christ’s – there are first-rate medieval secular interiors off-limits to the public. Then King’s comes and the Tudors follow. King’s in some senses always a fish out of water: no college anywhere had such a chapel, designed to be this size if not this perfectly enriched, from the off, and starting a trend for super-grand C15/C16 colleges that spread well beyond the academic, and gave rise eg to Cardinal, Oxford (now Christchurch), as well as St John’s. What’s lost is the original plan, which revealed its founders’ debt to New college, Oxford, and would have been by far the most interesting and advanced medieval college plan in the town – indeed the only place where pre-1500 Cambridge architecturally got close to Oxford, where after New there are I think several good plans, and both Merton and New set a standard from the earliest times for grand chapels that was invariably risen to. I would love to reconstruct how Oxford relates to the growing town; it seems to me Cambridge is a bit more violent with it, or at least King’s is; but that it also establishes a corporate architectural ‘centre’ to the uni quite early, certainly by 1350. What a time to be founding colleges! Yet there are several.

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