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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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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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Portsmouth

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

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?