The tragic tale of St Alban’s Abbey

St Alban’s Abbey, St Albans, is not your usual case of wonky arches. It doesn’t have much in the way of alarming settlement, poor setting out, or desperate solutions to prevent collapse. What it does have is the worst west front of any English Cathedral. This is the result of two disastrous architects they employed: the first a medieval cowboy builder; the second a bullying nobleman, who was endowed with a vast ineptitude for architectural design, and a huge fortune enabling him to inflict it upon this poor historic building.

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Aye, we’ve still got our original tower. Not too tall so we don’t lose too much heating up there. We ur on White Meter, ye ken!

The story of St Albans starts, as with basically all wonky arches, with the Normans. Despite not being a cathedral until 1877, it was one of the most important abbeys in England at the time of the Conquest and was rebuilt in the Romanesque style pretty sharpish: before some of the cathedrals. In fact, it’s one of the earliest bits of Romanesque architecture we have left in England, much of it not being replaced by Gothic rebuilds. It never suffered a central tower collapse, nor was any of it, quite surprisingly, demolished to make it more manageable as a parish church. Instead, it comes off a church that was rather parsimonious with its fabric, seemingly always waiting till the last minute to get the builders in, with disastrous results.

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Verulamium Park, St Albans, Roman wall, 3rd century Aye, why spend ye spondoolies on rocks when all these bricks sittin’ abit fur free!

To be fair, the monks of St Albans cultivated its ramshackle appearance in order to emphasise how old it was. Much of the Romanesque work is built out of bricks salvaged from the Roman town of Verulamium. You can see what’s left of it if you walk through the town’s park: great walls and gatehouses, all taken down to what would have been the ground level to make a great church from.

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Nave N arcade. Daein us weel since the 1090s.


Even by early Norman standards, the interior elevation is extraordinarily plain, almost brutally so. What it lacks in ornament it makes up for in size, with a nave at least nine bays, the longest church in the country after Winchester Cathedral. This length is what makes the late 12th-century extension of the church under Abbot John de Cella all the more perplexing. At this time, with the Gothic style coming in from France, great churches were demolishing their pokey apses and putting great stonking presbyteries on the east end. St Albans however, chose to leave its presbytery alone, and add another three bays on the west, and necessarily with it, a brand-new facade.

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Western extension of nave, 1190s, into early 13th century. We thooght abit a vault but ‘en we cooldnae be arsed.

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The central porch of the W front in 1870, as executed by Hugh Goldcliff, 1195-1214.

This is where the first cowboy rides in. Famous resident and chronicler of the Abbey Matthew Paris tells us of Hugh de Goldcliff (even his name makes him sound dodgy), a builder who, like a good conman, managed to convince John de Cella what he wanted was a big fancy west front with two massive flanking towers and lots of bits of fiddly ornament that would conveniently keep him and his hand-picked team of masons busy for many seasons, even though the abbey couldn’t afford it. It was so badly built the west front fell down, and people came from miles around to come to point and laugh at it. Paris described him as “vir quidem fallax et falsidicus, sed artifex praeelectus“. He was dismissed without pay, so at least the monks would have been pleased about saving a wee bit of money there.

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South elevation of presbytery. Note how the clerestory is still in Verulamium brick despite the late 13th-century fenestration. Dinnae wanna tae waste those bricks, they’re only a thoosain years auld!

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Presbytery, W bays, S elevation, last quarter of 13th century. Looks new, but we didne spend a lot ay bunsens oan it.

Another mason called Hugh, much more promisingly-surnamed Eversholt, was called in to complete a scaled-back version of the new Gothic west front and complete the new west bays of the nave. In 1257, probably because the groin vault was cracking, the monks finally bothered to replace the east end. However, the new work is really just a recasing of the Romanesque end with the apse lopped off, as you can still see the brickwork outside (which would have originally have been rendered as to be invisible). The first three arcade bays are filled in, presumably because they were desperate not to risk any money on the tower falling down.

About the only solecism that the decidedly Ready-Salted architecture of the presbytery allows is when they get to the corners and there’s no plain spandrel space for the vault corbel to go in, so they decide to bend out the arch mouldings to catch it. It looks kinda gross.

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E bay of presbytery arcade, N side, detail of junction. (The wooden construction is the watching loft to check no cheeky wee bairns nick anythin’ at the shrine)

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Lady Chapel, 1310s, restored by George Gilbert Scott. Braw.

The glorious exception at St Albans is the Lady Chapel, which was added on to the completed presbytery ambulatory shortly after it was completed, probably in the 1310s. It is the most sumptuous space, even though it was used as a school after the Reformation, still retaining a multitude of saints under nodding-ogee canopies in the window jambs. A lot of it seems quite precocious for its date: it’s actually pretty special. But for the most part, the monks of St Albans liked to play up their antiquity. It’s like your neighbour who won’t replace his rotting garden fence even though you know he’s loaded because the flash git has a fancy car in the drive. A Ford Fiesta or something.

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Nave, middle bays of S arcade, late 1320s. Hud tae be dain.

Possibly because of something a pissed-off Goldcliff had done to the new south arcade, the Abbey had its second disaster in 1323 when, quite exceptionally, in the eastern part of the nave, part of the Romanesque south arcade simply flat-out collapsed. This leaves St Albans nave in the bizarre position of having three different elevations: 11th century on the north, 14th on the south, and the late 12th/early 13th at the west end. And except for new fittings, such as the late 14th-century rood screen and gigantic reredos of around 1480, that was basically it for the medieval architecture of the church.


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Purbeck marble shrine base of St Alban, 1308. All the auld bits meticulously sorted and put back together, good as new, by Gilbert Scott. Bit he wears naethin’ under his kilt.

The picture so far is that St Albans is interesting yet unremarkable. However, in the 19th century, a ne’erdowell would descend on the building that made Hugh de Goldcliff look reputable. This menace was Edmund Beckett, better known as the first Baron Grimthorpe. Lord Grimthorpe might sound like a Saturday-morning-cartoon villain, and indeed his megalomania wasn’t far displaced from one. Although he was known for creating the clock mechanism of Big Ben’s tower, he will above all be remembered for absolutely ruining St Alban’s Abbey. Sir George Gilbert Scott clearly had a soft spot for St Albans, allegedly saying that it was his favourite building. He carefully restored the Lady Chapel in the early 1870s from its interim use as a school, saved the tower, and prevented the nave S wall from collapsing (again!). His reconstruction of Purbeck marble shrine base of St Alban from fragments found in the dividing wall between the Abbey and the Lady Chapel he thought to be one of his proudest achievements, and indeed it is an absolutely stunning object. Perhaps saving the best till last, he died in 1878 having never done a full restoration of the building’s fabric.

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South elevation of the nave, which would have originally interfaced with the monastic areas. You can see the three stages of medieval work in the clerestory – 1190s / 1320s / 1080s – but note how Grimthorpe has just slapped buttresses through the fancy remains of the cloister as if they arenae theaur! Whit a bawbag.

Scott having done all the difficult and important stuff, Lord Grimthorpe offered to pay for the whole restoration under the stipulation he could do whatever he wanted. The St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society made a visit in 1889 while he was still wreaking havoc on the building. They note that he’d ruined the south side of the nave by whacking windows in it and sticking buttresses through the arcading. The nave ceiling had be broken up and was used as construction hoardings.

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SW prospect of the Abbey from Verulamium Park. Note Grimthorpe’s five lancets in the S transept. Inside there is a flat ceiling at the height of the outer pair that cuts off the tops of the middle three. Bastart’s aff his heid!

Often our view of great cathedrals misses out that many of them had their fenestration modernised in the late Middle Ages with Perpendicular-style windows. Like pretty much anyone, Grimthorpe hated Perp for its rigidity and tedium, but unlike most restorers, he just stuck in whatever he fancied, rather than something he had evidence for, or even something that feasibly might have been there. The south transept he smacked a poor copy of the “Five Sisters” at York Minster, without the slightest bit of understanding of the proportion and elegance that actually makes those good architecture. On the outside, Grimthorpe’s lancets ascend in height to go right up into the gable, but on the inside (where the gable is cut off by the ceiling), they’re all the same height. This mismatch between interior and exterior is deeply dishonest.

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N transept, N elevaaaaaaaaaahhhghzf..

The north transept is even worse. The Eccles Soc, in the best sarcasm they could muster, said that the “design appeared to have been evolved by laying on a sheet of paper a Jubilee sovereign, and surrounding it by a row of three-penny pieces, with outer rows of shillings and sixpences of the same class”. It’s a trypophobic’s nightmare.

All this really climaxes in the ineptitude that is the west front. As you may remember, the original west front from the turn of the thirteenth century had been a medieval bit of jerry-building and had originally partially collapsed and vastly scaled back from its initial ambition. As it was, it had come down to the Victorians essentially as a late medieval encasing of John de Cella’s folly, with only the interior of the porches hinting at the planned splendour of the original design. Preliminary investigations by Scott revealed the mark of one of the original gables over the porches, clearly visible on the south side:

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The west front shortly before restoration in the early 1870s, Victorian autochrome photograph. Looks braw tae me.

All that the current west front owes to the original design, as conceived by Goldcliff, are the proportions of the gables of the three porches. About everything else is a barely-competent Gothick pastiche. It’s very shallow, which gives it a cardboard feel like a cheap street facade of an urban non-conformist church. The medieval front was originally designed to have two full-sized flanking towers, and in this sense it would have been a true west front – a separate block on the end of the building, not just a representation of the building behind. Grimthorpe’s front links together two turrets that just seem inconsequentially silly, with the two bands of bland [sic] arcading wrapping around. It has neither noble simplicity nor decorative invention. It makes you realise that designs of the Middle Ages aren’t celebrated just because they’re old, but because they’re good.

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St Albans Abbey, west front from the SE, 2015. Crivvens.

In sum, Grimthorpe’s work managed to ruin almost every single vista of the historic building. The only positive outcome of this is to make you realise how sensitive to the historic fabric often unfairly maligned Victorians like Scott were. If Matthew Paris found the aborted west front of 1214 embarrassing, he’d be mortified to see what was wreaked on his edifice in the 19th century. If you visit the cathedral, the interiors of the porches are still indicative of the craziness of the original medieval vision for St Albans, although the central porch has had its design altered the most with an extra-superarch on the side arcades. Grimthorpe even had the temerity to add a portrait of himself as Matthew in the Evangelist cycle he added here. It would have been more appropriate if he’d posed for Luke. And not the head, either.

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5 thoughts on “The tragic tale of St Alban’s Abbey

  1. David Gouldstone

    Every now and again I think to myself that Beckett/Grimthorpe can’t really be as bad as memory and everyone says. I go back to St Albans with the intention of being a revisionist, and ‘discovering’ that he’s actually unfairly maligned and that he can be championed as a …. well, I don’t know, a proto-modernist, or something. But when I get there I find, every time, that he IS as bad as memory and everyone says. His work has no redeeming features. (Though I do quite like the stained glass in the N transept rose window, which he’s sort of accidentally responsible for.) He made a mess of the west of St Michaels, by the Verulamium museum, too.

    Reply
    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      Oh no, exactly. He was just an awful person, plain and simple: even Scott, who was used to negotiating with difficult people about architecture (e.g., convincing the dean of Exeter to retain the Cathedral pulpitum), found him insufferable. His designs are basically middle-of-the-road “lovable rogue” Gothic, the sort of High Victorian that the postwar period dismissed as wilfully ugly which we perhaps today could call interesting or bold if it was in some North London new-built low church, but on a historic building it’s essentially egotisical vandalism. He was a complete arsehole, at least by this point in his life. Hopefully he has a special place in architectural Hell next to James Wyatt.

      Reply
      1. David Gouldstone

        It’s certainly hard to resign oneself to what Wyatt (in my haste I first typed ‘Twatty’, which I suppose is appropriate) did at Durham and Hereford, but he did at least have redeeming features, unlike Grimthorpe. Ashridge House is rather fine (in a stage set kind of way), and Fonthill Abbey must have been even more wonderful. I’m rather fond of a nice bit of Gothick myself.

  2. John Hawes

    Grimthorpe was also a menace when he gave advice on bells.Big Ben is the most appalling old dustbin, although he tried to shift the blame onto the founder. Most of the big jobs where he gave gratuitous advice, such as Doncaster and Worcester have long since been consigned to the melting pot and replaced. The authorities at St Paul’s also listened to him but fortunately the founder made a “mistake” about the key the ring was to be in and provided a tenor in B-flat rather than Grimthorpe’s recommended D-flat. Although some people love St Paul’s bells I find them harsh and unmusical: not a patch on York which are a similar size and cast by the same founder half a century later.

    Reply

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