|From rudimentary beginnings to Gothic splendour - find out how the Church grew in wealth and importance, and how its values were reflected in its architecture.|
Early Christianity was a localised affair and reached people through their local lords and leaders. Communities worshipped in small stone buildings, and monasteries were founded where people could dedicate their lives to Christ in isolation from the secular world.
'The country was divided into two archdioceses - Canterbury and York ...'
From these modest beginnings, a network of monastic houses and places of worship began to develop. It survived invasion from the Vikings, and even found converts among the ninth-century Danish settlers who had re-introduced pagan practice to their conquered lands. By the middle of the tenth century, it is possible to talk of an organised English church, with bishoprics, parishes and recognition of the Pope’s authority in Rome.
By the time Edward the Confessor ascended the throne in 1042, the hierarchical structure had become firmly established. The country was divided into two archdioceses - Canterbury and York - each headed by an archbishop. The archdioceses were subdivided into bishoprics, under the authority of a bishop, and their boundaries reflected the former Saxon kingdoms in which they originally developed.
The bishop's seat, his 'cathedra', was located in the kingdom's main town, where the principal place of worship - the cathedral - was constructed. The link between secular and ecclesiastical administration extended all the way down to grass roots, as each diocese was divided into parishes that had its own local place of worship, the parish church.
They quickly set about putting their stamp on them, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the places where people gathered to worship - the churches.
Normandy in the 11th century was an aggressive and competitive place, where the aristocracy went to great lengths to build bigger and better monasteries, abbeys and churches than their rivals. This was in addition to what was happening in western Europe in general, where there had already been a widespread surge in church building, as apocalyptic millennial fears, spurred by biblical prophesy of the end of the world, gripped the people in 1000 and again in 1032. The French chronicler [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#1] Ralph Glaber described parts of France being rapidly covered in a 'white mantle' of churches in 1032.
'The Anglo-Saxon Church was dismantled and rebuilt from scratch.'
In comparison to those in Normandy and parts of France, the Anglo-Saxon churches were small, and the method of worship was depicted as increasingly backward and old-fashioned. Indeed, one of the reasons put forward by Duke William in 1066 for his campaign against Harold Godwinson, King of the English, was the reform of the English Church.
As a result he received papal blessing for his enterprise. Thus the outcome of the Battle of Hastings was portrayed not only as a verdict on William's claim to the throne, but also as a licence for reform.
The Anglo-Saxon Church was dismantled and rebuilt from scratch. Within 50 years of the conquest, all English cathedrals and most of the monasteries were rebuilt, and only a few smaller churches remained as they once were. Men trained in Norman monasteries replaced Anglo-Saxon bishops and abbots, and the liturgy employed in continental Europe was introduced throughout the country.
In 1079 the existing Anglo-Saxon building was demolished. The old irregular mosaic of compartmentalised spaces, which had grown up gradually, was replaced by a much simpler aisled [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#2] , cruciform [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#30] plan, representing the body of Christ on the cross. There was a generously sized choir [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#20] for the monks, and a crypt for the shrine [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#81] so that pilgrims could come and go without disturbing services.
'Norman architecture conveyed power through sheer size.'
The architecture was plain and simple, even severe, but provided large amounts of functional space inside. The style is known as Romanesque [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#76] , and was typified by low, rounded arches, massive stone piers [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#60] and simple nave [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#53] vaults [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#92] .
Despite the limitations imposed by contemporary building technology, Norman architecture conveyed power through sheer size. Winchester Cathedral was only slightly smaller than St Peter's, in Rome, and it was only one of many such ambitious buildings throughout the country. The construction of a cathedral usually went hand in hand with the establishment of a castle, emphasising the dominance of the new Norman regime over the conquered people.
'... Norman masters increasingly employed the skills and building techniques of local masons and craftsmen ...'
The short space of time in which the Norman conquerors changed the face of English ecclesiastical architecture was breathtaking. Yet successive generations of Normans began, slowly, to mix with the indigenous population. The Norman masters increasingly employed the skills and building techniques of local masons and craftsmen, who in turn introduced the English love of rich ornamentation into later Norman churches.
The interiors of these buildings contained a high level of decoration, with both carved and painted ornament. These incorporated elements of regional styles, such as the chevron design and other pagan symbolism, which have their roots in Anglo-Saxon times, or even earlier.
Experimentation with new ideas about geometry heralded a revolution in ecclesiastical architecture and a new look emerged which we now know as Gothic [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#42] .
In England, a defining moment came, in 1174, when the early 12th-century choir at Canterbury was gutted by fire. Over the next 11 years it was rebuilt as a suitable setting for the shrine of the recently murdered archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#86a] , but the architectural language employed was different from the heavy Romanesque style used in the past.
'No marble columns were there, but here are innumerable ones ...'
The monk and chronicler Gervase of Canterbury described the contrast between the old and new work:
'There the arches and everything else were plain, or sculpted with an axe, not a chisel. But here almost throughout is appropriate sculpture. No marble columns were there, but here are innumerable ones ... There, there was a ceiling of wood decorated with excellent painting, but here is a vault beautifully constructed of stone.'
The Architectural History of Canterbury Cathedral by R Willis (London, 1845)
The new work at Canterbury was similar to French architecture of the same period, such as the cathedral of Chartres. The rediscovery of Eastern architectural styles and construction techniques, and indeed Islamic decoration, by Crusaders on their way back from the Holy Land, had made possible the development of a new form of architecture.
'The new choir was designed to accommodate both the monks ... and the ... pilgrims who flocked to Becket's shrine'
The use of rib-vaults and pointed arches permitted larger window spaces, providing greater access to light. Furthermore graceful columns [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#24] replaced the massive Romanesque piers, with flying buttresses [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#39] introduced to support the weight of the building.
The division of interior space was an important feature of the cathedral at Canterbury. The new choir was designed to accommodate both the monks (and their constant round of services, beginning at midnight and going on throughout the day) and the vast numbers of pilgrims who flocked to Becket's shrine.
The choir screen was under the eastern bay [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#9] of the crossing [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#28] , a conscious decision to provide pilgrims with easy access to the north transept [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#90] , where Becket's martyrdom had taken place. Yet the whole choir and Trinity chapel [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#18] were surrounded by an ambulatory [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#4] , so that pilgrims could move around without disturbing the monks.
During religious festivals, when the congregation participated in the ceremony by joining monks and clergy in processions around the church, the entire building was transformed into a huge 'machine for worship'.
In the late 12th and 13th centuries, England developed its own form of Gothic quite unlike that in France. Whereas French masons built ever higher with relatively simple forms, English masons preferred lower buildings with more elaborate detailing.
'... Lincoln's nave and Canterbury's choir contain many of the same elements ...'
One of the best examples of this Early English [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#36] Gothic style is Lincoln Cathedral. An earthquake damaged the Romanesque cathedral in 1185, just as Canterbury's choir was being completed. It was rebuilt over the next century, leaving only the west front from the old cathedral.
Whilst Lincoln's nave and Canterbury's choir contain many of the same elements, such as dark marble shafts [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#79] , foliate capitals [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#15] , moulded arches and almost identical rib vaults, the designer of Lincoln has taken them to an extreme level, introducing more shafts and more mouldings.
In general, the effect is to introduce a visual complexity, which both masks and enhances the overall structure of the building.
One of the first and finest examples was Henry III’s reconstruction of Westminster Abbey to house the shrine of Edward the Confessor. It was also, ostentatiously, a declaration of the place of kingship in the divine order of the world.
'Another characteristic of the Decorated style was to reduce large architectural motifs ...'
At Westminster, the diamond-shaped 'diaper' patterning in the spandrels [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#82] of the arches imitated contemporary bronze tombs, including that of Henry III himself. All wall surfaces were probably once painted and gilded, with the result that the whole building sparkled like an enormous precious metal casing for the Confessor's shrine.
Another characteristic of the Decorated style was to reduce large architectural motifs and use them for small objects. Screens, choir stalls [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#21] , tombs, and monuments like the Eleanor crosses [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#36a] were designed as micro-architecture with tiny arches, gables [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#39a] and pinnacles.
In part this was just a way of extending decoration across surfaces. But it could also make a statement about the spiritual and social hierarchy. For instance, the tomb of Edmund Crouchback, in Westminster, has a three-gabled canopy, supported by miniature buttresses, which rests on a chest with a row of weepers in gabled niches [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#54] .
If the canopy represents a quarter-size representation of a real building, then the weepers in their niches depict real people standing in doorways. The scale therefore makes the man in the effigy about 7.5m (25ft) tall - perhaps a suitable height for Henry III’s younger son.
This is another component of the idea of the church as a ‘machine for worship’. This quest is epitomised in the glass-box churches of the late medieval English Perpendicular [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#59] style.
'The crowning glory was a vast east window ... which filled the choir with pure light. '
Perpendicular (or 'Perp') is an extension of Decorated style. Rather than using flowing ogees [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#56] to disguise surfaces, Perp uses a rectangular grid of tracery [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#89] . The idea had its first full-scale outing in the choir of Gloucester Abbey, now Gloucester Cathedral. Here plans to harmonise the existing Norman crypt, aisles and galleries [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#41] with a brand new eastwards extension of the choir, begun in around 1337, required a radical redesign of the old interior.
The grid patterns in the large clerestory [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#22] windows were extended down over the former galleries and arcades [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#7] , concealing them behind a new cage of tracery. The crowning glory over the top was a vast east window, the largest in medieval Europe, which filled the choir with pure light.
'The glory of the building is its pendant fan vault, covered in spider-web fine tracery.'
The ultimate Perp building - perhaps the ultimate English medieval building - is the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey. It was built c.1503-9 as a combined Lady chapel and shrine chapel for Henry VI. Literally every square inch of the building, inside and out, is covered with decoration that completely and entirely disguises its structure. Because the chapel is connected to the choir of the main church only by a low passage, it has clerestory windows on all four sides
The effect is like walking into a huge birdcage. The glory of the building is its pendant fan vault, covered in spider-web fine tracery. The tracery is made up of endlessly decreasing rows of tiny arcades and little curved loops. It is so deeply under-cut that it looks as if light is shining through it. Looking up, it is as if the building has dissolved, leaving only the celestial light all around.
Stone had to be quarried or imported, and wood cut down, to build elaborate scaffolding, winch systems, gantries and all the labourers' huts that accompanied a medieval building site. None but the foremost architects, craftsmen and sculptors in western Europe were employed to work on these projects.
'... a shortage of cash often meant that work stopped for months, if not years.'
The design process was primarily carried out in advance between patron and master mason, and no architect’s drawings, as such, were drawn up. The geometry of the building site [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#41a] was passed down from mason to mason, generation after generation, by word of mouth and by example.
The unskilled labourers, who undertook the bulk of hauling the stones onto the site and into place, were often unpaid and drawn from the local community as part of the manorial service to their ecclesiastical lords. Work was seasonal. Coverings were put up during the winter to permit progress to continue, albeit at a slow rate, and work would increase during the summer as weather permitted faster and safer work. An equally important factor in the pace of the work was the amount of money available. A shortage of cash often meant that work stopped for months, if not years.
In most cases (aside from showpiece buildings such as Westminster Abbey), cathedrals and monasteries paid for their own rebuilding work. The largest source of revenue was from rent due on land that the Church had accumulated through gifts and donations from the laity [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#48] . This provided significant sums of money, as by the later Middle Ages the Church controlled or owned about one third of all land in Britain.
In addition, cathedrals and monasteries received revenue from associated churches or shrine offerings. Churches who owned the relics or shrines of popular saints widely reported miracles that were associated with them to attract more visitors.
At Durham, the construction of the Galilee Chapel came at a time when the popularity of St Cuthbert, whose relics were buried in the cathedral, was being challenged by St Thomas at Canterbury. This somewhat dispels the thought that the link between the Church and the benefits of tourism are a modern creation.
On occasion they also acted as crown officials in the locality. The most extreme example is that of the Bishop of Durham, who was the head of an entire county palatinate [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#57] , and operated a Chancery, Exchequer and law courts that were entirely separate to the royal equivalent that existed throughout the rest of the country. This unusual situation arose after the Conquest, when only the Bishop could retain the loyalty of the local population.
'The ruins that remain fail to give a realistic impression of the monastic contribution to art, learning, literature and ... history ...'
But most monasteries were associated with a more altruistic role in society. Within the monastic compound were houses specifically built to offer hospitality for travellers, especially on pilgrimage routes. Care of the sick and poor was administered on site as well. It was seen as part of the monastic duty, and bishops often sent commissioners round on visitations to check that these were being fulfilled.
Similarly, monasteries were integral to medieval education. The ruins that remain fail to give a realistic impression of the monastic contribution to art, learning, literature and the writing of history, all of which took place within the walls of many monasteries.
Historians talk of 'chronicles' as one of the main sources for political, social and economic information. And it was monks who were responsible for writing the vast majority of these, which were also often beautifully illuminated works of art. Monasteries also became centres of education for those who wished to learn how to read and write, and younger sons of large families often found a monastic career preferable to a life without land or inheritance.
In addition, Renaissance ideas were finding expression in secular buildings, such as Hampton Court Palace. But this well ordered and very Norman world was about to come to an abrupt end. By the dawn of the 16th century there were increasing reports of great laxity in many monastic institutions.
'... the powerful position of the Church was also attracting the attention of the Crown ...'
At Wigmore Abbey, Herefordshire, records show that the house was constantly in need of sorting out. Buildings were allowed to fall into disrepair, lodgings for travellers were not maintained, canons conducted trade with the outside world as though they were secular men, others ‘despoiled’ local women, and one canon was forced to leave ‘because he feared death’ from one of his brothers. Although Wigmore was a particularly bad example, the abuses were seized upon by an increasingly vocal element in society who clamoured for reform.
As if that was not bad enough, the powerful position of the Church was also attracting the attention of the Crown and, in particular, a king who was very short of money, and who was in dispute with the Church in Rome over his need for a divorce.
Both problems were resolved in a single cataclysmic act - the Dissolution of the Monasteries [/history/trail/church_state/pre_reformation/early_church_goth_fact_file.shtml#33] . What followed had dramatic implications for the future relationship between Church and state and sent shock waves throughout continental Europe.
Published on BBC History: 2005-02-02
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