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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.

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