One Nation Under Perp: Gothic architecture and the perils of nationalism

The humanities, even art history, should be responsible enough to challenge xenophobia and racism that might exist in their narratives and theoretical frameworks. But surely something as genteel as the study of English medieval architecture couldn’t be susceptible? However, an unquestioning use of the scholarship of the past can mean even we, pottering around with our Pevsners, could promote ideas of cultural difference that might be very dangerous indeed.

John Hooper Harvey in 1978

John Hooper Harvey (1911-1997), in his post-war career, established himself as one of the foremost historians in English medieval architecture. His bibliography contains a large amount of popular books with pretty much the same title, but within this he has a number of studies which made an important contribution to the scholarly picture, such as Henry Yevele: The Life of An English Architect (1941, 1943), The Perpendicular Style (1978) and English Medieval Architects: A Biographical Dictionary down to 1550 (1954, 1984, 1987).


Harvey seemed to be obsessed about the “great men” in architecture. He longed for a Lives of the Artists of medieval England, and set out to be the Vasari of his nation. Of course, the thing is, England of the 14th and 15th century simply did not have the same culture as Italy, and its artists were not held in any higher esteem than an equally talented butcher, the baker or candlestick maker. This makes the whole idea of writing a “life” of even one of the highest-status masons such as Henry Yevele faintly ludicrous. Indeed, most his “Life of Yevele” is an account of the 14th century architecture that came before Yevele, because there is so little to say about his work and career, never mind his character.

“Hello John!”, “Hello John”, “Hello John!”, “Hello John”, “Hello John!”, “Hello John”, “Hello John!”, “Hello John”…

Harvey’s Biographical Dictionary is even more ridiculous. Harvey scoured all the documentation he could to work out careers of individual masons. What he mostly ends up with a big list of individuals were often probably contractors or the equivalent of company payroll managers. As a side note, it is funny, that despite that the main pictorial art of medieval Europe was figures of saints from diverse backgrounds with their names underneath, that England had absolutely no imagination when it came to male Christian names. In fact, nearly everyone was called John, Thomas, Robert or Richard. But mostly, probably to Harvey’s delight: John. If you’ve studied late medieval English history, it will ring true that seemingly, practically every man in England was called John. Not only did Johns call their first sons John, they named many of their other sons John too. There are literally hundreds of Johns in Harvey’s dictionary,  but only seven Michaels. And not one single person who happens to be female, even though Agnes Ramsey who took over her father William Ramsey’s business after his death in the 1349 plague should be, as a contractor, just as worthy as some of the mostly anonymous Johns who get an entry, Harvey doesn’t include HER. Because as a woman she couldn’t have any agency, of course!!!

The West Front of York Minster, c.1331 (ready for glazing 1338). Bell chambers and pinnacles added 1432-1450s.

While the Biographical Dictionary is intriguing for the evidence for individual artistic minds Harvey has managed to dredge up from medieval England, it needs to be approached extremely carefully. For instance, Harvey is responsible for uncovering the attribution to Ivo de Raghton for York Minster’s west front and famous “heart of Yorkshire” window. It’s fairly likely that attribution is true, since “Ivo the mason” is mentioned in the fabric rolls of the cathedral in 1331, Ivo is a very rare name, and Ivo de Raghton was a very wealthy mason living in York around the same time. But then of course he makes Ivo into the central character of Yorkshire Decorated Gothic, declaring he either designed or influenced just about every major 2nd quarter of the 14th century work from Carlisle to Southwell. All because “Ivo” appears in a medieval receipt book. Just about every “fact” Harvey states must always be scrupulously researched before it’s used in reputable scholarship: his unwavering positivism means he always prefers a building if you can associate a name with it. He will always take documentary evidence over material evidence. In fact some of his attributions are so bizarre and stretch associations to quite ludicrous degrees you wonder whether he was actually even looking at buildings anymore by this point.


The Perpendicular Style is probably taken most seriously of all Harvey’s books for his narrative of 15th century architecture. But it is damaged throughout by an implicit refusal to acknowledge the influence of foreign styles of the formation of Perp, such as the French Rayonnant. He also omits the architecture of the Tudors – which most sensible people would see as a revitalisation of English architecture with the tremendous fan and pendant vaults of St George’s Chapel Windsor, Henry VII’s Lady Chapel at Westminster by the brothers Vertue; and the New Building at Peterborough and King’s College Cambridge by John Wastell – as too contaminated by foreign motifs. Although the book is extremely useful, his value judgements of what’s good and what isn’t can seem perplexing to most readers. But it becomes clearer if we delve into his past.


His 1947 book Gothic England: A Survey of National Culture, 1330-1550 is Harvey’s most eccentric book, and the closest he comes to letting the mask slip post-war. Although most scholars now appreciate the explosion of exuberance in the 14th century Decorated Style, Harvey finds its sinuous ogees rather feminine and debased. He is also not terribly fond of the eccentricity of Early English Gothic in the early 13th century, probably because it’s a period bereft of craftsmen’s names and identities. Although that didn’t stop him later declaring that Wells Cathedral was the “first truly Gothic cathedral” a few times (Take that France!). But what he loved, above all else, was the monumental and rigid Perpendicular Style of that emerged in the 14th century and dominated the whole of 15th-century English building. He never claimed that it was intrinsically superior to any other architecture – indeed he displayed an interest in other countries and eras – but he saw Perp as the ultimate display of the character of “his” nation.


Harvey saw England, after its move away from the Norman yoke, entering the 15th century as the most racially pure and static of the European nations: his diagrams of which look a little bit racialist today. His claims in Gothic England that the royalty of Northern Europe and thus the house of Plantagenet had close “ties of blood” to the “ancient cultures of the East” sound suspiciously close to the irreligious policy of Nazi Germany in which the Aryan Race was the civilising force in Europe. But this is because Harvey was more than an eccentric patriot. He was a bona-fide blood and soil nationalist and a rabid antisemite. I mean, it’s easy these days to throw around the accusation of being a Nazi if someone so much as tells you off for misplacing an apostrophe, but when you were a member of a party that had this as their flag…

Flag of the Imperial Fascist League (active 1928-1939)

Uhh, yeah.

The thing is, that it wasn’t until Graham Macklin, a scholar working on English fascism, published “The Two Lives of John Hooper Harvey” in the journal Patterns of Prejudice in 2008 (that most of the below information has come from, so please consider it as essential further reading) that it was revealed he was a fully-blown goddamn Nazi in the 1930s. It was always known there were slightly dodgy bits in his best-selling school textbook The Plantagenets  (which we will come to shortly), but most people did not realise the sheer enormity of his past politics which underwrote his scholarship. You see, although he had extensive bibliographies and obituaries published at his death, they failed to include all the pieces he’d penned in journals such as The Fascist as, in the pre-digital age, they weren’t going to crop up in Google searches. But Macklin’s research has shown that he was a racist and antisemite of deepest dye.

A characteristically unsubtle cartoon from The Fascist, the monthly newsletter/journal/Jew-hate rag of the Imperial Fascist League, 1937 (via

The thing is, you could forgive someone, in the tumult of the 1930s, without the benefit of hindsight, for falling under the spell of extreme politics. But Harvey wasn’t just sympathetic to Oswald Mosley’s rhetoric and the British Union of Fascists. He joined rabid antisemite Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League, which found Italian fascism a bit too airy-fairy and instead met with the Nazi party and adopted ideas of Aryan supremacy, removal of citizenship for Jews and put a full-blown swastika on their banner. While the British Union of Fascists allegedly hit a high of 50,000 members, the Imperial Fascist League only ever mustered a few hundred. Harvey was not in good company. This wasn’t just right-wing, it was full-on National Socialism with all of the biological racism that went with it. He seemed to see World War II as an opportunity:

If Britain defeat Hitler it is a victory for Jews all over the world, if Britain is defeated by Hitler it is a defeat for the Jews and Britain would have a chance to put herself on the map again.

Of course the war was pretty much the end of a party sympathetic to the regime of the enemy, and during the war, Harvey was investigated by the authorities for his associations. He was a “conscientious objector” not because of an opposition to violence, but because he liked Hitler and all the stuff he stood for. Eventually through his family connections he managed to get a job in the Ministry of Works which set him on his career path in medieval architecture. But read Macklin’s article if you want to learn exactly how close to the line he went with his toxic racist garbage.

Some proud (so proud they blacked out their faces after taking this obviously hurried wonky photo) British racists who put some naff plastic flowers at the former shrine of Little St Hugh at Lincoln Cathedral in 2015. The flag they have draped on the shrine is the “Sunwheel” of the British National Socialist Movement.

The reason Harvey loved late medieval England so much is that he was convinced its national character was improved by the expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward I, a character that was greatly damaged by Oliver Cromwell readmitting them in 1655. One passage in his popular history book The Plantagenets (1948), praising Edward I’s statesmanship in removing the “exotic mass” of the Jewish community which in turn “united the national body”. Additionally Harvey attempted convince his readers of the veracity of the most infamous case of Blood Libel: the accusation in 1255 of the Jewish community of Lincoln ritually crucifying a young boy called Hugh (later given a kind of informal local canonisation as Little St Hugh of Lincoln) upon the discovery of his body in a well. In his most disturbing show of unwavering positivism, Harvey claimed that because he’d read the original chancery rolls, the medieval court’s judgement on the case was “unassailable”. After repeated complaints from Jewish groups and even the Catholic Church in England, his publishers gave him a chance in 1984 to amend the text. He refused, and the book, which had been a mainstay of sixth-form history classes, went out of print.

Possible crypto-portrait of Edward I (dubbed “the Great” by Harvey for his expulsion of the Jews from his kingdom), sedilia, Westminster Abbey, c.1307.

So really, Harvey’s adoration of strong, masculine identities of his nation’s kings and craftsmen is built on a bedrock of “Gothic” being interchangeable with “Aryan”. His admiration of Perpendicular architecture, in its rigidity, seems allied to revival of stark classicism by Albert Speer in Nazi Germany. For Harvey, it really was One Nation Under Perp.

Harvey is an extreme case, but he shows that scholarship should be very careful not to blindly embrace standard narratives of the “progress” of “civilisation”. An understanding art and architecture filtered through multitude of factors is essential: economical, material and climatic. A proper study of English architecture should move away from the masculine power structures of genius artists and admit the influence of learned clergy, women, the art of North Africa and the Middle East flowing into Christendom, and, God forbid: even the French. Harvey is an illustrative case of how extolling cultural difference can belie very dangerous world-views. Even scholars of Gothic should be challenging the foundations of toxic national identity in the age of Brexit and America First.


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