Category Archives: wonky arches

Carlisle: The Unluckiest Cathedral

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Carlisle Cathedral from the SE, before restoration. Engraving by John Coney, 1822

Carlisle has a cathedral? A real one? Yes, but its well-meaning architecture, along with a propensity for pratfalls, make it the Frank Spencer of the English medieval cathedrals. Its, at times, quite cringeworthy story is rather different to the other cathedrals of medieval England, which were rebuilt in the monumental Romanesque style shortly after the Norman Conquest either on top of an existing Saxon one (e.g., Winchester, Wells), or moved to a new site (e.g. Dorchester to Lincoln, Sherbourne to Salisbury). Carlisle was founded as an Augustinian Priory in 1122 by King Henry I, and was elevated to a cathedral a decade later to stabilise the English Church on the border with Scotland.

Loss of the nave, 1646

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Truncated nave from SW

Okay, let’s get this one out the way first. Not only has Carlisle lost its cloisters, chapter house, and most of its other conventual gubbins, but the first thing you notice is that it lost its nave during the War of the Three Kingdoms after the siege of Carlisle of 1644-5. The town was garrisoned in 1646 by Lord General of the Army of the Covenant Alexander Leslie, and his army pulled down the west front, six bays of the nave and most of the conventual buildings in order to repair the castle and fortify the town. If Cromwell had not ordered them to surrender the garrisons after defeating the Scots at Preston, it is likely that Carlisle Cathedral would have ended up totally destitute like many Scottish cathedrals such as Elgin and St Andrews. The Parliamentarians may have desecrated Lichfield, but ironically it was an army on the Royalist side that ransacked Carlisle (The English Civil War as more complicated than you might think!).

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Daniel King – an agent for Dugdale, author of the great Church history the Monasticon – has drawing allegedly showing its pre-occupation state with the nave complete, but King is perhaps one of the worst artists ever so it’s not really much use. I don’t even think it IS the south prospect like it says: the vessel on the left has the higher roof which would make it more likely to be the east end and thus the view would be the north prospect. It’s impossible to confirm because the windows are just generic and even on the drawing itself both arms have one more bay in the lower windows than they do in a clerestory which doesn’t make sense. I think this was done from an extremely hasty set of notes he made before he did a runner to avoid being beheaded by an angry Presbyterian.

But even before it had lost the nave, the Cathedral managed to make more than enough problems for itself.

Settlement of the original Romanesque building, 1120s-30s

As usual, the first problem was that which plagues so many English great churches: differential settlement.  It is quite spectacular how much the footings of the tower have slipped, particularly the west wall of the south transept, which look like it’s going concertina in on itself any minute.

 

 

Every arm from the crossing is distorted by the sinking piers, even the first bay of the nave has a spectacularly saggy gallery. So different are the levels of the two sides of the bay that when it came to putting the clerestorey on top, the builders did the laziest cop-out of fixing the two levels with a wonky sill. The shafts above the piers terminate below the gallery, advising they were planning on a high vault but gave up on the idea pretty sharpish. Aisle vaults were also abandoned. One suspects the Scots didn’t need to do that much to the nave to topple it.

 

Eccentricities in the Early English east end, 1220s-80s

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Looking west from the presbytery to the crossing.

But subsidence was only the beginning of Carlisle’s woes. The decision was then made to greatly expand the east end with a Gothic replacement, not only longer, but wider. Conventual buildings obviated expanding south, so all the extra width was placed on the north side. Construction started in the 1220s with an aisled north transept and the north aisle wall so the old apse could remain in use for services on the south side until the new extension was almost finished. You can see the lop-sided legacy of this inside. The presbytery sits on top of the Romanesque south aisle wall, but is much wider than the old apse. This means that the crossing arch is not in the centre of the choir anymore, and you can see the old roofline where the old apse aisle used to be. Looks very odd.

We can work out where the apse extended to because of a wonky arch. The fenestration changes on the south aisle, suggesting that work stopped in order to demolish the apse, and then building resume in a different style, with stepped triple rather than double lancets.
Below are south bays 4, 5 and 6. 6 looks odd because it was the original end bay, so the sizes of the arches are uneven so that the right one is fatter to accomodate the east wall. Although bay 5 is a Victorian replacement of a late-medieval perpendicular window (see first picture in this post) with the north-aisle scheme, you can tell it’s probably correct because the right arch of bay 4 “weeps” right because the level of capitals of the triple lancets needs to be lower than the paired ones. Took me ages to work this out. The pedantry of medieval masons knows no bounds.

 

New E.E. east end burns down almost immediately, 1292

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Presbytery arcade, carved capital, first quarter of the 14thc

So, the new choir was finished some time in the second half of the thirteenth century. Then in 1292 the roof caught fire and collapsed in on the furniture causing a lot of damage. As you can see from my above account of them, the aisle walls survived, but the central vessel was extremely badly damaged. Nearly all of the elevation needed to be completely remade: piers, triforium and clerestory. The results are a triumph. Although the east arm at Carlisle Cathedral is almost unknown in the literature, it’s a uniquely proportioned, wonderfully airy and light essay in English Gothic. The triple-window triforium is particularly memorable in the elevation, but most impressive are the capitals, which famously contain lots of animal tomfoolery and general foliage-bound jiggery-pokery.

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Presbytery elevation, first quarter of 14thc (arcade arches and aisle walls 1220s)

But ho! What is this. The arches themselves have dogtooth, which is a 13thc motif! The aisle vaults also seem to be 13thc! Even if you don’t know much about architecture, you can usually be sure that the oldest bits are usually at the bottom. Here we have 13thc sandwiched between 14thc piers and a 14thc triforium! How can this be? The answer is that they must have retained all the voussoirs when they dismantled the elevations, and then reassembled them on top of brand new piers. Why waste good doogtooth? This is confirmed by the extra short bay they put on the end that lacks the dogtooth. The short bay also copies the the aisle dado arcading in a 14thc stylee. But as you’d expect in a building that reuses old fabric, there are pretty obvious mistakes here too.

Mess ups in the new presbytery

The short bays were added but the north one has a curious bit where the arch is too high so the triforium string course jumps up over it. Is it a mistake? Well, did they do it on the other side?

 

Welp nope they didn’t, mistake it is then

The east front, ready for glazing around 1340, so probably begun in the 1330s (except for the aisles, which were completed earlier) is one of the most spectacular essays in the Decorated Style on an English cathedral facade. It has pairs of niches on its big east buttresses, the top ones being ogee and gables as found in parish church Decorated such as Heckington in Lincolnshire. The composition is thrown off symmetry by the big stair turret on the north side – the principal access to the upper levels of the building – which is also elaborated with Dec flourishes such as blind tracery and a wave parapet.

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One confusing thing in the new presbytery is this at the east end of each aisle. It’s a vault spring from the respond of the nave arcade that goes nowhere. Instead the vault springs from a corbel further up the east wall. What’s it about? Is it a plan to revault the whole aisle that was abandoned in favour of reusing the 13thc ribs? Is it, as Billings forwarded in 1840, because they realised would obscure the main arcade mouldings? (Seems a bit petty to me) Is it a flying rib? Clearly something’s not gone to plan because the south aisle has separate headstops for the wall transverse rib and the cross rib, while both those spring from the same corbel on the north, and the headstop holding the main arcade label is clearly visible on the north side but buried in the wall on the south.

If you understood all that, maybe you can help me understand what the hell all that’s about because quite frankly I’m stumped.

Tower falls down almost immediately after the east end is completed, 1380

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N transept, choir entrance with masonry break from collapse of crossing tower

Anyway, no time for that because in 1380 the tower fell down *sad trombone*. Thank goodness it didn’t fall onto the just-rebuilt choir, that really would’ve been a Swamp Castle tragedy, but it did land on the north transept basically destroying all the Early English work there. You can see the remnants of the east arcade springing into the wall where the east chapels used to be. It was probably the tower collapse that left the voussoirs of the chapel entrance frighteningly slipped out of place.

 

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N choir aisle entrance, from W, showing springing of N transept arcade

The opportunity was not taken to build a new tower that would line up with the new presbytery, probably because the idea of building a new, bigger tower was a stupid idea given all the subsidence. So they perched this thing with a funny diaphragm arch on the side where it fell down on top of the old low Romanesque crossing.

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Rebuilt crossing from NE.

Postscript

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Nave, from the N aisle (From Winkles Cathedrals, 1836)

Then little mischief befell Carlisle until the aforementioned pesky Presbyterians. After their penny-pinching truncation of the nave for cheap stone, the remaining stump became St Mary’s parish church, and was cruelly given a ceiling, which I’d like to think was a joke on the vaulting shafts terminating at the gallery, but that’s probably unlikely. Preliminary restorations were carried out by Ewan Christian in 1852-6, and then Street cleared all the crap out of the nave in 1871-80. Sadly Stephen Dykes Bower filled it up with junk again in 1947. But despite being the cathedral missing off so many southern softies’ lists, you should go. It’s great. I bet you any money it’ll be bloody raining while you’re there though.

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Bad art in cathedrals

Cathedrals used to be depositories of some of the finest works of art in the world. Then the pesky Reformation came round and stripped many of them back to the walls. What has filled the place of the original medieval artworks has, over the years, been subject to changing tastes. While the Victorians despised all classical additions, the twentieth century in turn, had a bit of a clear-out of what they found dowdy and gloomy.

So what tat should be chucked out in a fantasy aesthetic Reformation? Let’s dispense with the polite introduction that pretends this is anything other than just a list of things I don’t like, and find out!

The café paintings in Worcester chapter house

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Worcester chapter house is an immensely important monument. It’s the first in a long line of English centrally-planned chapter houses. The walls retain traces of painting, and the stone vault once contained a complicated sequence of Biblical scenes showing the typology of the New Testament foreshadowed in the Old. These are gone now, so when they put the café in there, they thought the best way to make up for this massive loss to English art it was by putting some paintings up on the dado that they look came for free with the frames from Wilkinsons.

South presbytery aisle screen, Ripon Cathedral,

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I’m surprised this thing survived one night without the cleaners chucking it out. It looks like it’s made out of giant pipe-cleaners. Glitter and Pritt-Stick also involved. Really all it needs is some dried pasta, paper plates and split-pins to really finish it off.

Piper Tapestry, high altar, Chichester Cathedral

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Now, actually, this one is by a proper artist, John Piper, who I actually really like. He’s one of the few artists who can capture the gritty drama of a parish church rather than just making it look like something out of The Darling Buds of May. But not everything in his name is brilliant. His south aisle windows in St Margaret, Westminster, are some of the few in England that can give abstract continental glass a run for its money in sheer grimness. This thing too, I don’t like. It’s trying to hard to be modern and groovy. If it was commissioned for Whitbury New Town Leisure centre, it’d be fine. Worse thing is though, is what it replaced.

A fine altarpiece by Somers Clarke, which had been, shockingly kept into the triforium gallery for half a century until it was finally brought back downstairs only last year apparently.  If you’re going to get rid of art you find old and outdated, you best be sure you are conjuring up something REALLY inspired. Like when Michaelangelo got the go-ahead to destroy some Perugino frescoes for The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. Which this is not. The Last Judgement is still unequalled in its terribilità. The Chichester tapestry has been equalled by a Fruitopia bottle.

Various creepy stuff in Durham Cathedral

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There’s loads of weird stuff in Durham. Of course I don’t have any of my own photographs of any of it because I’m not going to be risk being told off by a custodian for the sake of one of these. I found this one on Google images though. Just look at it. It looks like Gumby’s fallen over and a house ornament from seconds at TK Maxx doesn’t look very interested in helping him up.

Basically everything from Westminster Abbey

Regular viewers will remember I don’t like Westminster Abbey much. This of course it is famously filled to the brim with rubbish that distracts from the architecture. Pearson’s mutilation of the north front, Scott’s ugly choir screen, the overbearing reredos, that out-of-place goldback altarpiece on the south side of the sanctuary (seems to have gone now), loads of Hugh Easton glass, the banners in the Lady Chapel which obscure the architecture, Blore the bore’s choir-stalls (makes for a great rhyme though)… WESTMINSTER ABBEY

But worst of all are all the soapy bloody eighteenth-century monuments of admirals ascending into Heaven or a viscount knocking over a pyramid or some lady crying over a pillar that’s fallen down. There was actually a plan in the nineteenth century to build a Westminster “camposanto” for all these and give them the heave-ho from the medieval abbey church. It fell through, of course. Someone needs to treat Westminster Abbey like an elderly parent who’s been hoarding things around their house in plastic bags on the floor, kindly sit them down and say “Mother, we need sort this out”, then hire a skip and get the lot in there.

New Bishop’s Throne, Leicester Cathedral

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P1180013Oh dear. After the excitement of exhuming Richard III and reordering the whole place as a tourist trap, uh, pilgrimage site, Leicester went a bit overboard and decided to redo the liturgical furniture in the crossing. Even though they had a fine carved Neo-Gothic Bishop’s Throne already (in the background there), they decided they needed to replace it with something a bit more “down wit’ the kids”. So they got this thing that looks like the least exciting Transformer ever, made out of MDF (Magnet-tron: ha ha!). As well as looking naffer than a branch of C&A, it also has the disturbing effect of looking like it’s suddenly going to collapse in on itself, crushing any occupant into a perfect cube.

I didn’t really believe this thing was real so I went round the back to try and process it. Then I saw it was attached to the crossing pier, so it’s not going anywhere soon, folks.

The apse clerestory in the Abbey of St Denis, Paris

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I could probably dedicate a whole post to terrible glass in continental cathedrals, but it would probably be so tedious that it would only be worth reading if you got stoned and pretended it was a lava lamp. Anyway, the stuff at St Denis, really takes the cake. All you want to do is deliver Abbot’s Suger’s ecstatic speech about “delight in the beauty of the house of God” but the apse is full of gaudy crap. Worst of all is this terrible pictorial one of Napoleon of all things.

 

Both sides of the west front of Liverpool Cathedral

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1552114_db13328a[1]I love Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. It’s the last gasp of the Gothic Revival. It is truly sublime. It’s almost that the space inside surpasses the mass of the object in its sheer volume. I recommend any medieval cathedral enthusiast visit: it might be a white elephant, but it’s a miracle it was finished, and it’s incredibly moving. However, the problem is that this green thing greets you on your way in. It’s supposed to be the Risen Christ, but it’s hardly Piero della Francesca: it’s more the sort of thing you make out of blu-tack in a boring meeting then crush when the coffee trolley comes in. And then you have some sentimental bit of tripe by Tracey Emin on the counterfacade, that I thought was temporary but it never seems to go away. I’m getting tired now, so time to wind it up. This list isn’t in any particular order, except for comedy potential, and of course I’m going to end on the worst. And most of you won’t be surprised by my top choice.

Statue of the Virgin Mary, Ely Lady Chapel

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So, yes. Ely Lady Chapel’s foundation stone was laid on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1321, but since the crossing tower of the cathedral collapsed the following February, it’s unlikely much was done except the site dug and some bits of the raft laid out. The building was resumed in the late 1330s, and perhaps benefited all the more for it, as this was really the apex for English sculpture. And the plan for Ely Lady Chapel was to have it in spades. The “nodding-ogees” of the wall arcades are vivaciously organic to the point of eroticism. Indeed, since the vescias contain statues of the royal ancestors of Christ, one might wish to hazard that it’s supposed to be quite that suggestive: Honi soit qui mal y pense and all that. It’s an incredible work of art, quite simply a masterpiece of Gothic. With its full sculpture, altars and stained glass, it must have been ravishing. Makes things like Giotto’s Arena Chapel seem like they done on a budget.

Ooh! Do your o

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Ely Lady Chapel as Holy Trinity parish church, before 1938

It is of course, hacked about. The narratives of Mary’s early life and her divine intercessions have been pedantically decapitated by a Reformation busybody, and the whole east wall with the culmination of the devotion to the Mother of God has of course been utterly wrecked. It was, until the early 20th century, kept as a parish church, and all the later paraphernalia such as pews and wall monuments taken out in the late 1930s. In its stripped, naked vulnerability, it has a uniquely eerie, poignant beauty, showing the preciousness and transcendence of art.

Then of course someone thinks “ooh, it’s just missing something” and ruins it by putting this load of old shite bang right in the sodding middle of it.

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I mean, sculpturally it’s pretty poor, I’m never really sure if she’s supposed to be accepting the incarnation of Our Lord through the Holy Spirit, saying “I JUST CLEANED ALL THIS MESS!” or receiving an incoming message from The Big Giant Head.

And there’s also the white-washing, that she looks more like a caucasian Disney Princess than a girl from late-antique Palestine, which wouldn’t be so bad if she was classically recognisable as the classical Virgin Mary. Instead she looks more like the homonymic Queen of Pop circa Ray of Light.

It’s made of Portland Stone, not that you’d know, because it looks like it came from one of these sets:

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Right down to the crappy water-based primary colour paints applied all over the porous surface with no shading or highlights. I mean at least he didn’t go over the lines.

Have you some tat in a big church you love to hate? Tell us below in the comments! Or, if you’re a Russian bot, post some alt-right nonsense! Up to you!

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.

The Conspiracy of Westminster Abbey

If you’re reading this blog you’ll probably have at least heard of Westminster Abbey. Most of you are likely to have more of an idea about it than say, Ripon Minster or Selby Abbey. However, if you’ve been, I bet you remember the stuff in the building, not the building itself. If you’ve studied English medieval architecture, you’ll have been told that it’s one of the most important, influential buildings of the Middle Ages. Well, I’m here to argue that it ain’t. The Abbey is run as a revolving door of a church versus tourist attraction, never feeling like both at the same time (there is the usual hourly enforced moment of stillness and prayer, although this doesn’t stop the ringing of the cash registers). It’s choked with people wandering round with audio guides glued to sides of their heads, shuffling clockwise round the ambulatory like it’s the Tunnel of Love. It’s hard to feel spiritually uplifted in what is a tourist rival to the London Dungeon. But I’ve been the Abbey for Holy Communions, Matins(es?), Sung Eucharists, I’ve been in the upper galleries, in the Confessor Shrine, the chapter house crypt and been on private visits. Even when I have stunning music, colleagues, or solitude: I STILL HATE THIS BUILDING. And I’m going to try and sum up why it’s just not that great. Not that its had settlement, or tower collapses, or badly-planned aisles like most of my beloved wonky arches, but why it’s just a bad, cold piece of design.

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The Romanesque Westminster Abbey, begun 1040s,  from the scene of the burial of King Edward, The Bayeaux Tapestry, 1070s.

Some background. The Abbey at Westminster (as opposed to Eastminster, that is, St Paul’s Cathedral over in London) was first made architecturally preeminent through the benefaction of King Edward the Confessor, who begun what was essentially the first proper Romanesque building in England: Norman before the Norman Conquest. We have almost nothing of this building left. There its representation in the Bayeaux Tapestry, which obviously has a bit of artistic licence (since it depicts the gap between the church and the Palace of Westminster as being narrow enough for a giant man to traverse it on a ladder in order to put a cock on the east end – no really, look at it), but is confirmed by both a medieval description of the church and archaeology under the high altar and nave.

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Westminster Abbey, south transept, east arcade

This Romanesque church stood, probably largely unaltered, until in 1220 the monks of Westminster decided to append a Gothic Lady Chapel (totally demolished to make way Henry VII’s famous fan-vaulted replacement), with the foundation stone laid by a celebrity guest, King Henry III. In 1245, Henry III turns his attention back to Westminster, and gives them more than just a bit of ribbon cutting. Instead, he basically writes them a blank cheque to rebuild the whole damn building. With the royal coffers at their disposal, the east parts of the Confessor’s Abbey were demolished, and an ambulatory with four radiating chapels, double-aisled transepts, two walks of the cloister, and three bays of the nave (which actually functioned as the monks’ choir) are built to connect with the recent lady chapel. This campaign, that took about 25 years, is essentially the building we see today. Overall, around £45,000 was spent on this project, which is a phenomenal amount of money from one patron, even a king. It is like one person bankrolling the £1.2 billion for the Shard entirely from their personal wealth. Henry did this no doubt of piety, but also to rival the projects of his brother-in-law Louis IX of France, by sprucing up the English coronation church into a family mausoleum and also a shrine to kingship by his devotion to his ancestor, Edward the Confessor.

Westminster Abbey, north transept, north facade. The portals are a semi-archaeological reconstruction by Scott in the 1870s. The rose window and gable were essentially redesigned by Pearson in the 1880s.

Now, I don’t want to focus on the tombs, or the shrine of the Confessor, or any of the stuff that you’ll get on the Audio Guide about all the bloody awful self-important monuments of marble admirals in wigs fighting skeletons or some rubbish like that. I want to talk totally about the architecture. And why Westminster Abbey is not a very good building. It doesn’t help, that the main entrance to the Abbey, the north transept that everyone too tight to pay the entrance fee takes a picture of, is not very inspiring as it’s basically been ruined by callous rebuildings. It had its main portal hidden by a porch as early as the 14th century, but it underwent a really disastrous 17th-century Classification after the Civil War, which Christopher Wren undid as well as he could. George Gilbert Scott came along and fixed up the portal zone to be something more proper-Middle Ages, and if it had stopped there, it would have been fine. But for some reason the Abbey let the next surveyor of the fabric, the respectable architect John Loughborough Pearson, totally unnecessarily, rebuild the upper half of the north front. He scandalously replaced the medieval gable, and needlessly dismantled Wren’s rose window, replacing it with something that looks more like a pub dartboard than the flower of flowers. Indeed, the whole of the exterior of Westminster Abbey has been redone so many times there is not a single medieval stone left outside. It is essentially a replica. However, inside is very well preserved, and this is what we will focus on.

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From Colvin et al, A History of the King’s Works. Looks complicated, but note how the Abbey looks like 3, but with big buttresses in place of the outer aisles.

It is well-known that the Westminster Abbey is unusually French, and it is usually said this import of French sensibilities kicked off a whole new attitude in English architecture. The former is definitely true, in that it has the tallest high vault in English medieval architecture. However, at 31.75 metres, by French standards, it’s pretty pathetic. Amiens was being vaulted at about the same time with a 43 metre high vault, and Beauvais would go on to have a dizzying 48 metre one. Now, I’m not saying size is everything: but then I’m not French. Problem is, the achieved height is so constrained by English design, that its effect is negligible. The quest for height causes a major aesthetic problem: the church is so narrow you can’t really read the elevation from the floor. It has been argued that the proportions of the elevation imply a design with double aisles each side. This would explain why the whole thing feels so claustrophobic.


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Rheims Cathedral, looking E to the apse.

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Westminster Abbey, looking E to the apse. Note the small size of the clerestory.

It’s often said that Gothic – in contradiction to received opinion about gloom and doom – is about light. But Westminster Abbey is, let’s be honest, pretty bloody gloomy as received opinion would have you believe. What causes this? It’s primarily because the clerestory – the top “clear story” of windows – is so damn dinky. The clerestory windows of Rheims Cathedral are of very similar design, and the master mason of Westminster was referred to as Henry of Reyns, so it’s very likely that’s where they’ve copied them from. But the windows at Rheims are much taller, allowing much more light into the main vessel. Why couldn’t they do it right at Westminster?

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Westminster Abbey, inside the presbytery gallery space, S side

The answer is in the second storey, which is key to so many of the building’s aesthetic drawbacks. Despite what the Abbey keep calling their new exhibition space, the second storey is a gallery NOT a triforium. A triforium is a second storey that is essentially nothing more than a wall with a passage in its thickness. You can’t really walk down it, unless you have a harness and hard hat. A gallery is much safer: I’ve been in the gallery in Westminster, as well as many English Romanesque Cathedrals. You can too, if you go to Stained Glass Museum at Ely, which is the gallery over the cathedral’s south nave aisle.

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Westminster Abbey, N transept W elevation. Notice the “spherical triangle” windows of the gallery which cannot be seen from the floor inside.

One of the ways you can tell if a building has a gallery is does it have windows on the outside that you can’t see on the inside? See here, the outside of the Abbey has this great honking second storey with the so-called “spherical triangles”, essentially a triangle with three curved sides, taken from a similar idea in the undercroft of the Saint Chapelle in Paris. By this period any church in France (and most in England, for that matter) would have a lean-to roof over the aisle, which looks a lot neater, but more importantly, provides window space that actually lights the inside of the building, rather than what is essentially attic space. This gallery may have been included to help increase the capacity of the Abbey for monarch’s coronations, or as a Romanesque hangover, either way, it’s a lead weight round its neck.

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Westminster Abbey, chapter house. Begun 1246, restored 1860s by G.G. Scott. Glazing a rearrangement of bomb-damaged 1860s Clayton and Bell scheme by Joan Howson, 1950. Image © English Heritage

The matter of illumination is very different in the Chapter House, by far the best part of the building. An inscription on the pavement recounts “as the rose is the flower of flowers, this is the house of houses”.  Monk and chronicler Matthew Paris of St Albans described it as “a chapter house beyond compare”. They are right to be proud of it – even if later it was utterly spoilt by being converted into a records office, and about 80% of the masonry inside (all of it outside) is from the heroic rescue of the building by George Gilbert Scott. If only those magnificent four-light windows could have crowned the second storey of the church. Never mind, that would have taken some proper flying buttresses which the English were always a bit suspicious of.

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Westminster Abbey, north chapels of ambulatory. Note the big buttress between them on the left.

The ambulatory chapels are very confused. They form neither their own distinct spaces like a French cathedral’s, but nor are they very good at unifying with the main space. Their interiors, are again, gloomy, which considering they have no Victorian stained glass to blame, is a poor do. Maybe if they didn’t have these enormously over-engineered buttresses outside which block the windows. The whole eastern arm is tremendously squashed because it had to connect with the now-lost Lady Chapel, which is tremendously confusing as to why it was built so far away from the original Romanesque east end. One wonders if the monks started the Lady Chapel with the intention that they would get Henry III to pay for the rest of the church. But if the 1220s Lady Chapel was built freestanding (or connected to the Romanesque church by an ambulatory or extended axial chapel we have no archaeology or documentation for), this might have been the first spanner in the works for Henry of Reyns making anything that would even pass at Café Rouge for being authentically French.

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Ely Cathedral, presbytery, 1234-52.

“Okay, okay, I know Westminster Abbey is really crap at French stuff, you’re hardly the first person to say that” you say. “But,” you continue, eloquently, “I read Nicola Coldstream’s The Decorated Style once and apparently it kicked off a whole new attitude to the illuminated interior in England!”
Okay, well let’s have a look at the wonderful choir of Ely Cathedral, often thought of as the last gasp of so-called “Early English” before Westminster. It has piers of coloured stone with beautifully carved and restless “stiff leaf” capitals. The arcade spandrels are decorated with pointed trefoils, in between which are the vegetative corbels for the high vault, which touchingly burst into bloom around the site of St Ethelreda’s shrine. The arches of the arcade are trimmed with dogtooth, and little leaves cover the gaps between the gallery shafts. Yes, it does still have a gallery, which makes it a little gloomy (so although they stuck a glazed triforium in in the fourteenth century to light Ethelreda’s feretory) but it’s an absolutely ravishing, electric space.

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Westminster Abbey, detail of the arcade and gallery, showing diaper ornament. Notice that there’s no real system on whether they should go right up to both the shafts and the arcade arches or not.

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Westminster Abbey, nave, junction between 3rd and 4th bays showing break between 13th and 14th-century campaigns.

So what decoration does Westminster have? Oh, diaper. Yes, every spandrel of the arcade, and a lot of the dado, has these little flowers-inside-squares carved directly into the facing masonry. And the thing is, the thing is, it can’t even do that properly. Famously, the north transept has finer, smaller diaper, and the south has bigger squares, presumably to save time. However, it does look bloody awkward when the two sizes meet incongruously in the spandrel of the north arcade of the ambulatory. The parts on top of this have the bigger diaper, which proves they were later (in the absence of any other evidence). There are loads of bits where the diaper isn’t finished because it was clearly such a pain in the arse to do. In fact, such a pain, that when the nave arcades were resumed by Henry Yevele in 1387, he was probably was so pleased when the monks accepted his “no more sodding diaper” design.

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Westminster Abbey, south transept counter-facade. Detail of glazed triforium of gallery zone and base of rose window.

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Westminster Abbey. Censing angel in spandrel of S transept counterfacade.

So apart from some very limp foliage in the surrounds of the gallery arches, that’s it. So where are the stiff-leaf capitals? Where’s the ludus? Where’s the damned dogtooth, for pete’s sake? There was some clearly quite wonderful sculpture in the dado arcading, but only small amounts of this are left – what hasn’t been obliterated by ridiculous tomb monuments (some of which are medieval) is hidden behind the admissions tills. But even so, a dado is only for up-close examination, it has minimal effect on the building itself. All this would be fine if it had beautiful proportions, and left its surfaces bare to accentuate this, but as we’ve seen, it doesn’t. It did however, have some beautiful statues, such as St John the Evangelist handing the ring to Edward the Confessor on the south transept counter-facade, with absolutely breathtaking angels censing the holy scene. This sculpture is helped by the fact that the transept terminal walls have glazed triforia linking the two galleries above the chapels, which brings us closer to the French wall-of-glass than anywhere else in the building other than the chapter house. The south rose is also a beautiful design; in fact slightly more advanced than the contemporary window in Paris Cathedral’s south transept, showing that some up-to-date French ideas were getting to Westminster.

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Binham Priory (Norfolk), W facade, 1226×44.

So, what about the influence of this so-called pivotal monument in the development of English architecture? It is said that it introduced bar tracery (that is, thin bars of stone at the tops of the heads of windows) to England. But then there’s the perennial “problem” of Binham Priory, which originally had a great eight-light west window. This facade, added to a Romanesque nave, we are told by Matthew Paris (and he should know, since St Albans was the mother house of Binham), was at the behest of Prior Richard de Parco. Since his priorate spanned 1226-1244, wherever you put it in his term of office, it has to be started at least one year before Westminster. Often you will see it dated as late as possible at 1244, as if it’s unthinkable that anyone could beat the royal abbey to bar tracery.

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Collegiate church of Howden (East Yorkshire), N transept, c. 1270.

Except, it’s not a problem. Westminster didn’t start anything, it was part of something. Bar tracery pops up all over England in the 1240s. Despite that Henry III’s chapel at Windsor almost certainly had it, Lincoln Cathedral had a big west window put in (since replaced). The transept chapels at Ely are also clearly direct from France too, even if we don’t know that they date before Westminster. Yorkshire Rayonnant – like the massive honking transepts at the collegiate church at Howden – again may be later, but clearly independent of anything going in London. I can tell you, however much you might think it, no one in the North gives a monkey’s what’s going on in London.

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Lincoln Cathedral, the “Angel Choir”, 1256-80.

One of the much-touted “spin-offs” of Henry III’s supposed magnum opus at Westminster is the Angel Choir at Lincoln Cathedral, a huge extension that lopped off the weird wedge-shaped apse of St Hugh’s choir, ironically in order to house his shrine. So close are the links, allegedly, that the Judgment Porch at Lincoln can be used to reconstruct the lost north portal at Westminster (apparently the much-restored Lincoln Christ’s gesture to His side wound has to do with the Holy Blood relic at Westminster: lost-prototype nonsense that most art historians got over in the 1970s). So look at this elevation of the Angel Choir. Does it look like Westminster? No. Not at all. Does it look like anything else you’ve seen in the last five minutes? Yeah, that’s right, it’s basically Ely presbytery with bar tracery instead of lancets, but with proportions that match an existing Gothic choir rather than Romanesque transepts. In an excellent article which no one seems to read (Journal of the British Archaeological Association), Mary Dean convincingly argued this bar tracery came from continued connections to the Continent, not via the Royal Abbey.

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Hereford Cathedral, N transept, 1260s.

So did Westminster Abbey influence anything? Well, there were the royal abbeys built at Hailes, Battle and Vale Royal that all had polygonal ambulatories, but since we’ve lost their elevations to demolition, how close they were to Westminster in aesthetics is anyone’s guess. At Hereford Cathedral, for reasons that are only apparent to himself, Bishop Peter Aquablanca replaced the Romanesque north transept with what can only be described as a parody of Westminster Abbey. It has diaper. It has spherical triangles. It even has a great whopping gallery over the chapels rather than a triforium. It has very strange arcade arches, and a clerestory of spherical triangles stepped back into the thick wall to the point they’re almost invisible. No one would really want to call it a success. A bit of fun, at best.

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Lichfield Cathedral, nave, 1260s.

Lichfield nave is another matter. Possibly one of the best buildings erected in England in the 1260s, according to Prof. Christopher Wilson. This also has bar tracery galore, a similar paired two-light middle storey (although a false gallery, with a lean-to roof behind), and spherical triangles. The thing is, rather than being used inconsequentially like Westminster’s gallery portholes, the spherical triangle windows at Lichfield ingeniously fill up the clerestory space, the two upper curves matching that of the vault. Lichfield nave really is one of the finest compositions of the second half of the 13th century. It’s well-composed, bright, has beautiful sculpture, and oodles of dogtooth. In fact, it’s everything that Westminster Abbey isn’t.

So, there isn’t really a conspiracy at Westminster Abbey. I just gave this article an intentionally provocative title. It’s just that people think too much about the centres and don’t rethink engrained theories. It’s a building by an English master mason who spent some time in France and brought back a few ideas from the coronation church at Rheims, the huge passion reliquary of St Chapelle and the royal mausoleum at St Denis in order make a great mash-up of form and function that turns out not to be very good at either. Very few subsequent buildings were directly influenced it, so as far as innovation and experimentation go, it was a bit of a spectacular dead-end. So if you’re planning to take the kids to Westminster Abbey, if you want them to experience great architecture, my advice is to spend the entrance fee on a train ticket to Lichfield instead.

A footnote. Westminster Abbey does not usually allow photographs under any circumstances inside the building, which makes posts like this very difficult to illustrate. It would have been impossible to do so without the visit to the church during the British Archaeological Association conference in 2013 when Warwick Rodwell, the Abbey archaeologus got us permission. It seems to me that if people are paying tourist prices to enter, they should be able to record their experience as tourists (or pilgrims) in the usual way, as well as permitting people like me to study the building. Photography is just another way of looking, and in that way, can even be used to aid prayer.

Selby: the wonkiest abbey in Yorkshire

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The original wonky arch: the eastern bay of the north arcade, early twelfth century. The third storey was added in the third major campaign to finish the nave a century later.

Selby featured at the very top of my infamous great mistakes post which may prove to be the early highlight of my career. While most of the “great mistakes” were due either to changes of plan, or the medieval building process of establishing decorative systems rather than designing a whole building down to the last detail, Selby’s most alarming semi-collapsed arch is due to bad planning and surveying. I re-visited the Abbey a few weeks ago, and discovered that the bad land caused the Abbey problems well into the fourteenth century, and also that it has some of the most eccentric architectural designs you will ever find in medieval England. It also seems to be the only church in the world to make such a comic turn out of a choir aisle vault.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The west bays of the nave south arcade, showing not-quite-as-severe, but still rather alarming differential settlement

Selby is a crap market town in the West Riding. It doesn’t even have a Marks and Spencer, that’s how grim it is, people. Yet it does have one of the few abbey churches of a great monastery that has survived largely complete despite not being upgraded to a cathedral. The earliest parts of Selby Abbey date from the beginning of the twelfth century, when across the country the Norman conquerors were consolidating their power by bulldozing Anglo-Saxon cathedrals to make way for colossal Romanesque arcades. We know from a local monastic chronicle that it was the second abbot of Selby, Hugh, who decided to move the monastery across town and construct something approaching the scale of what was going up at Durham Cathedral. It claims that he even rolled his sleeves up and helped the workmen out by carrying stones and mortar. Whether that’s literally true or not, it shows that he certainly was decisive in getting Selby Abbey a church among the top rank. Problem is that Hugh did not get very far with his thumping great Romanesque arcades. In the nave today, you’ll see only two bays of the nave were completed in the Romanesque style, along with the standing piers of the next bay. The reason for this is that as soon as they started building up the central tower, the west piers of the nave began to sink into the high water table under Selby, leaving the arcades showing what architectural historian Roger Stalley called “a spectacular example of differential settlement”. The open arches of the elevation of the nave were blocked in, and basically much of the twelfth century must have been spent by the monks looking at what had been built whilst sucking air through their teeth.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The Early Gothic/Transitional Romanesque gallery of the north arcade, with “carousel” pier in the centre, 1180s. Here constructed over Romanesque piers from the early twelfth century.

Towards the end of the twelfth century, probably the 1180s, is when the monks finally regained the confidence to call the builders back in. Architecture had obviously changed a lot in that time. But unlike what was going on at Ripon with fancy Frenchified Gothic, what Selby got was a lot more along the lines of old-fashioned Romanesque to match what had been built already: still very much big round arches and old motifs such as that old chestnut zig-zag. The most curious feature is in the gallery, where the massive yawning openings over each bay are connected by lots of freestanding piers around a core, which look bizarrely like a merry-go-round. Putting something basically so fiddly, clunky and let’s be honest here, downright daft into a building would have reduced a French architect at this time, accustomed to accentuating height and slenderness, to hysterics (although there are weird compound piers in the gallery of Noyon, they’re not this weird).

You’d think at this point everything would go well and they could finish off the nave. However, for unknown reasons, these builders stopped before they’d started the galleries on the south side. This means that the nave must have left looking very odd for a good number of years. It’s difficult to explain so I’ve gone and done a picture. The arcades on the north of the Abbey church would be raised to gallery level, but only to first-storey on the south, making it absolute puzzle how they would have put a temporary roof on, if indeed they did.

The Abbey Church (I've sort of ghosted in the cloisters that would have been there) in the early thirteenth century after the departure of the second campaign. It is not a cutaway. The north gallery is roofed, as is the Romanesque bay of the south, the rest is open. The tower was definitely not that wonky but since this isn't being peer-reviewed I thought it might be funnier if it was.

The Abbey Church (I’ve sort of ghosted in the cloisters that would have been there) in the early thirteenth century after the departure of the second campaign. It is not a cutaway. The north gallery is roofed, as is the Romanesque bay of the south, the rest is open. The tower was definitely not that wonky but since this isn’t being peer-reviewed I thought it might be funnier if it was.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The hybrid elevation of the south nave arcade – Early Gothic arches of the 1180s and Early English gallery and clerestory, 1220s-30s.

So it would be around another half-century until the next lot of builders came in to finish the job. By then Gothic architecture had become established in England; but not as Early Gothic in the French sense, but as the peculiar national style we call Early English. In the 1220s or 30s (not documented, we’re going off style here), this lot added a second-storey gallery to the south side, and then a third storey all the way round. The weird thing about the new south gallery, is that for reasons difficult to fathom, they decided to superimpose a great whopping drainpipe-like pole that slices through the elegant subdivided arches and their quatrefoil spandrel to support the ceiling. This vertical articulation is essentially the sort of thing that French architects were always trying to do with their vaults. This is an unhealthy combination of English horizontality combined with French verticality. But you don’t really need to know that to realise it somehow manages to look even more daft than the carousel piers on the other side.

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Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The south choir aisle, looking east, probably c.1310s

Their nave finally complete, the Benedictine monks of Selby did not rest on their wonky laurels. Instead, possibly because a passing Cistercian made an unkind remark about their totally out-of-date apse and how they need to get to the times with a square ambulatory, the monastery embarked on yet another drawn-out campaign. The interior aisle walls of the choir are one of the most spectacular survivals of medieval vegetative carving outside of Southwell Chapter House. Every arch of the pointed dado arcade rests on a capital of stunning undercutting, a forest in stone. Yet the cohesive feeling you get is misleading. The windows above show subtle changes in style. Those in the north aisle are of the late thirteenth century, with what was then rather up-to-the minute bar tracery of slender quatrefoils. The windows of the south aisle however are reticulated – a net-like pattern of the same motif spread over the head of the window – a date in the early decades of the fourteenth century. The east window and great arcades that wedge through the choir however, are of the most pure Yorkshire Curvilinear Dec of the 1330s. Essentially, much like the nave, there are at least three different sets of contractors working here on the choir, but with much shorter gaps. What is left is a slightly uneven mix of styles, as if you’d got dressed so slowly that you put some flared bell-bottom trousers on in the 1970s, but not got round to your top half until you could afford to put a Nirvana t-shirt and plaid flannel jacket in the early ’90s.

This is really quite fascinating because it again needs an “artist’s” “impression” of what it would have been like. Presumably the aisle walls were built around the old apse, which was kept in use and not demolished until the main arcades were built inside. The north aisle in particular must have stood as a completely useless wall doing nothing for a good few decades, as I show here, with commencement of the south aisle.

Selby Abbey, from the east in the early fourteenth century, with the north aisle wall standing and the south aisle in slow progress, behind is the aisled Romanesque apse and apsed chapels of the transept, all later demolished

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The real north aisle and completed choir

N aisle vaulting

A totally exaggerated and completely unmeasured demonstration of the potential problem with the vaulting of the north choir aisle

This is what no doubt led to the following problem in which quick thinking averted a complete cock up. Presumably because the north aisle had been standing free for so long, it appears to have settled into the water table again – it can be seen from the outside to be rather wonky. When the final workshop came in in the 1330s to build the arcades, demolish the apse, refashion the Norman transepts and top off the aisles it posed a huge problem.

Aesthetic concerns about things being straight are all well and good to dismiss, but it really matters for vaults. If the two essential arches that make up a rib-vault are not equal, you’re going to have problems in the two balancing each other out. Because the north aisle wall is not perpendicular with the choir arcades, it’s fine in the middle bay, but in the west bay, the vault overshoots the wall responds, and in the east bays, it undershoots them.

What to do? Rebuilt the wall and start again? Well, since this is Selby Abbey, which couldn’t even be bothered to demolish those horrendously semi-collapsed arches of the nave, they’re not going to lose all those lovely windows and capitals. Instead they came up with an ingenious solution: vault it as if the wall was straight, but just alter the responds.

In the west bays, it’s not too bad. The vault sits towards the back of the respond. Sure, looks a bit disconnected, but no one will notice.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The “overshot” western bays of the north choir aisle vault

In the eastern bays, if you shot the vault over from the choir it would miss the capitals completely, and land on the floor inside. So what the masons did is send out a curve to catch the vault on tiny ickle capitals, then start a new arch from there that would accurately cover the space. Now, you might not find this as funny as I did, but you have to admit it is pretty funny.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The “undershot” bays of the north choir vault, with miniature capitals “catching” the ribs

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

North aisle vaulting, arcade side – vestigial mini-capitals

On the arcade side of the springs, the masons have put vestigial little rings intended to balance out the mushroom-like eccentricities on the other side to try and convince you it was supposed to be like that all along. Now I’ve pointed it out, it looks completely ridiculous. But it’s rarely noticed. Even Pevsner does not mention it. It’s all somehow incredibly stupid and extremely clever at the same time.

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Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

Looks cool no? Unfortunately it was completed in 1912, so like a good medievalist we’re going to have pretend it isn’t there

Selby had no major rebuilding after the magnificent Decorated choir was finished, except for some fifteenth-century tidying-up of the north transept with a honking great Perp window. The central tower finally gave way in 1690 and toppled to the south-east – ironically totally away from the most famous wonky arch – taking out the south transept and part of the south aisle. The Abbey had a plethora of work done to it by the Victorians. The south transept was rebuilt in a pure 1330s Dec style that undoubtedly never was and the humble 18th-century belltower was re-medievalised. A fire ripped through the Abbey church in 1906, causing enormous damage. Despite what the church might say in their guide books, in the east window – which had previously been one of the most magnificent Jesse Tree windows in England – not a shred of medieval glass remains. What we have now is what stained glass specialist David O’Connor called a “very clever fake” made by the stained glass firm Ward & Hughes in 1909. Anything that looks old has been artificially aged with acid pitting: all that survived the fire were figures that Ward & Hughes had taken out in their 1891 restoration (hence why they knew the window so well), and some panels that had been pinched earlier (preserved in the Nelson collection held by National Museums Liverpool). So although you have a good (but still altered) facsimile of the programme, and indeed many of the figural compositions are accurate, the true jewel-like quality of the medieval glass is gone forever from Selby’s east window. It is a great shame that the church continue to pretend (or quite frankly, flat-out lie) otherwise, as it does both the original glass and the restorers’ work a disservice.

The west front in 1816, by the very reliable Buckler. British Library.

The west front in 1816, by the very reliable Buckler who is a better draftsman than I. British Library Add. MS 37121. You can see the ickle gable of the then much lower-pitched nave roof behind.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire

The west front today

The west front was also mucked up a bit. Before it was a very stumpy thing that was intended to have flanking towers but never received them, and had been tied up as best it could with a bit of crenellation. After George Gilbert Scott raised the roof pitch and added a funny Salisbury-lite gable (which Pevsner actually thinks is medieval, ho hum, Selby is not one of his best accounts), the idea came around to raise the towers up. After the fire his son J. Oldrid Scott built some Dec-lite towers (preserving the Perp pinnacles on top) that give the west front a cathedral-like grandeur. Problem was, it’s still in Selby. If only he could have built them a Marks and Spencer too.

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Now this is the product of a two-hour visit to the Abbey (that’s how long you can park for free at Sainsbury’s) and an afternoon in WordPress. Don’t cite it, but check out these folks who’ve looked at it way more than I have.

  • Nicola Coldstream ‘The Development of flowing tracery in Yorkshire c.1300-1370’. Ph.D. thesis, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 1973, 32 ff.
  • Eric Fernie ‘The Romanesque Church of Selby Abbey’ in Yorkshire Monasticism, Archaeology, Art and Architecture British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 15, ed. L. Hoey, 1995
  • Stuart Harrison and Malcolm Thurlby ‘Observations on the Romanesque Crossing Tower, Transepts and Nave Aisles of Selby Abbey’ in Yorkshire Monasticism
  • Charles Clement Hodges ‘The architectural history of Selby AbbeyYorkshire Archaeological Journal 12,1893
  • David O’Connor and Henrietta Reddish Harris, ‘The East Window of Selby Abbey, Yorkshire’ in Yorkshire Monasticism
  • Nikolaus Pevsner and Enid Radcliffe, Yorkshire West Riding, 2nd ed., Buildings of England Series, 1967, pp.435-442 [As noted, this description is far from satisfactory when compared to the cathedral accounts of the BoE, treating the building almost as a large parish church rather than the extremely significant monastic surviva that it is. A revised description will be included in the new West Riding: South volume, which appears to be perpetually a way off being finished]
  • Roger Stalley ‘Choice and Consistency: The Early Gothic Architecture of Selby Abbey’ Architectural History 38, 1995, pp. 1-24

Although do check out my Flickr album from my daytrip up the M62 to Selby and other sundry Yorkshire locations

Garuniad-esque erratum: Because basically I think in the country in terms of Pevsners, I originally said Selby was in “West Yorkshire”. It is actually in North Yorkshire. I meant of course, it was the pre-1974 administrative county of “County of York, West Riding”. You can stop sending me angry comments about this now.
Also yeah Selby isn’t that bad. There are much worse towns. The Morrisons is quite good. You can park there for free and cut through for the Abbey, then bugger off and go to Howden or something. Wait, that probably didn’t help. Never mind.

Ripon Minster: Gothic disasterpiece

Ripon MinsterRipon Minster, North Yorkshire is the sort of building you could only find in England. In the Middle Ages, it operated – along with Southwell and Beverley Minsters – as a kind of pro-cathedral for the massive diocese of York, and only became head of its own diocese in the nineteenth century. It’s quite dumpy for a great church, but still on a legitimately cathedral scale. But a casual visit belies the series of quite catastrophic structural failures it had.

Under the current church is the crypt of the original Anglo-Saxon minster: the only pre-Norman Conquest fabric surviving in an English cathedral. However, it was not immediately bulldozed by the invaders for a Romanesque juggernaut. Instead, it wasn’t rebuilt until late in the twelfth century, in the soon-to-be fashionable French Gothic style, almost certainly taking after York Minster’s choir, which was taken down and replaced in the later Middle Ages. Quite ahead of the crowd, then.


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Ripon Minster

Oh yes, we’ve got the builders in indeed – and look at this: pointed arches! Yeah, yeah, it’s what hot in the Île-de-France right now! No, in fact these guys are surprisingly competitively priced!

Therefore little Ripon has the rarely-recognised distinction of being the one of the earliest pure Gothic buildings – pointed arches, grouped lancets – still standing in England, possibly earlier than Canterbury or Wells. That is, if much of the original job by these twelfth-century Franglais cowboys actually stayed up. Even though the stone rib-vault was clearly given up on by the time they reached the upper storey, there were a series of complications: the three north-west bays are all that survived of the original five-bay Early Gothic choir.


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Ripon Minster

Yeah, that’s… …that’s absolutely fine. No one said a tower needs be square. I’m sure our Lord in his boyhood made tables just the same shape. Are you okay for tea lads

The first cock-up, one with repercussions for nearly three centuries was the clueless setting-out of the central crossing tower. Ripon was aiming to be a mini-York Minster, and York had at this time an unusual unaisled nave: no open arcades as is common in every church. Nevertheless, someone clearly thought that having the nave wider than the choir was a good idea. So they built the foundations of the north-west pier further north than its eastern companion, meaning that the tower is not a square.


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Ripon Minster

Oh.. yes.. I do see that now that you mention it. No I’m sure no one will notice either! It’s fine, no, really… We wouldn’t want to trouble you to make it match on the other side: I’m sure you builders know best!

It also means that the west wall of the transept is shorter than the east wall, meaning they have to embarrassingly squash the third series of arches in the upper gallery because they didn’t fit (they did do it correctly on the other side). After finishing the nave, these builders packed up and thought they’d got away with it.


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Ripon Minster

Oh, yeah, you’re right – can’t be too careful! The big buttresses are fine. No we like really like them. You need them for that proper stone vault you’re putting on..! You… you are going to put a stone vault on, aren’t you?

When the west front was built up around the 1230s, part of the central tower was taken down because, well, it had really slender piers and it was skew-whiff: what did you expect? Then, at the end of the century the choir was in such a state the whole east end had to be rebuilt. The new east front is perhaps the closest you can get to what the choir of Old St Paul’s in London looked like, strictly Geometric, like what was going on in France at the time, except it has absolutely enormous buttresses. And still they ended up chickening out putting a stone vault on it in case it all fell down.


Ripon Minster

Hmm, well Master Simon, you don’t seemed to have matched the mouldings so much as stuck some heads over the join and hoped that we wouldn’t notice

As was usual in extensions to great-church architecture, care was taken to match the proportions of the new work to what could be preserved of the now century-old choir. However, some parts of the matching between old and new were better than others, as is some of the architectural sculpture. Ripon’s canons however, probably just pleased that the choir was now stable and their problems were over.



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Ripon Minster

YES YES THAT’S ABSOLUTELY FINE NO IT DOESN’T LOOK STUPID AT ALL THEY’RE ONLY TOTALLY DIFFERENT

Then of course what was left of the tower fell down, taking with it two crossing arches, the south side of the choir and part of the south transept. These were rebuilt in the Perpendicular style – meaning the choir has three different elevations – and the piers encased to an absolutely ludicrous degree, except that misplaced north-west one (because it was the only one not supporting a rebuilt tower arch), which is why when you look down the nave now, the crossing looks hilariously wonky.



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Ripon Minster

LOOK MR SCUNE, WE DON’T CARE IF LOOKS LIKE A BLEEDIN’ BARN, AS LONG AS IT DOESN’T FALL DOWN YOU’VE GOT THE JOB – NO YOU CANNOT HAVE A BLOODY CUP OF TEA JUST GET ON WITH IT

Wait, I haven’t finished yet. Remember that unaisled nave? Yep, that fell down too around 1500, and was all but replaced, except by some tantalising fragments at each end, by arcades that are only two stories tall. They’d clearly got a parish-church architect in – a good one mind – and one who could do ENORMOUS BUTTRESSES which were becoming rather familiar at Ripon.

So there you go. The blokes who did the Minster at Ripon in the late twelfth century may have seemed like a cheap way to a get a fancy French-style cathedral, but they were clearly dealing in the sort of Gothic that fell off the back of a lorry.

Here’s all my pictures of Ripon from my recent visit: it’s a lovely place, and I promise that it’s very unlikely anything else will fall down while you’re there.