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Repton, Derbs

March 19, 2010 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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