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Chapter XXIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1


Saxon Architecture.
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Few subjects in mediaeval art have led to so much controversy as that of Saxon architecture; one party of writers claiming for it a place as a distinct and separate style, and another totally denying its very existence.

It was usual for writers on architecture before Rickman's time to denominate all buildings in which the semicircular arch or the zigzag moulding prevailed as "Saxon," no matter how highly finished or how richly carved they might be; and, consequently, all our fine Norman churches are in their works described as Saxon.

When this designation was proved to be incorrect, a reaction took place, and some of our writers went so far as to deny the existence of any building of a date anterior to the Conquest. It was argued by these writers that the Saxons built with wood only, and that, consequently, all their erections had long since perished. But though it is true there is evidence to show that the usual material for building was wood, and that it was sometimes overlaid with lead and other metals, yet we find, on the other hand, in the works of early writers, indubitable proofs to show that stone was also used, particularly in rebuilding the churches and monasteries which had been destroyed by the Danes. Alfred set aside a sixth part of his income for this purpose, and we are told by Asser that "he built the houses majestic and good, beyond all the precedents of his ancestors, by his new mechanical contrivances."

It was first pointed out by Rickman, in his valuable work, that there were a number of churches in different parts of the kingdom which could be proved to be of very early date, and which did not agree in character either with the Roman remains or with the earliest of the Norman churches; and that, in some instances, early Norman work had been built upon portions of these early buildings, thus affording conclusive evidence that these buildings must be of a prior date to that of the earliest Norman buildings.

Strong confirmatory evidence is also offered when we find it stated, in a contemporary manuscript, that a church was built on a certain spot by some well-known ecclesiastic at a stated time, and still find standing on this spot a building, or portions of a building, of a style which cannot be referred to that of any subsequent period. We are justified in considering this the building so mentioned; and when we find all these buildings agreeing in certain general features, we are also justified in considering these as constituting the style of the period.

Of this documentary evidence the following are examples. The venerable Bede, who was born and resided at Jarrow, in Durham, and who died a.d. 735, mentions the building of a monastery at that place by Benedict Biscopus, a.d. 687, and we now find standing on the spot a church, of which the chancel is of the rudest construction, and evidently of earlier date than the tower, which, from its style, cannot be much subsequent to the Conquest, and in which portions of the earlier building are built into the walls. The east window is of later date, but the side windows of the church (now blocked up) are of the rudest possible construction - round-headed, with the heads formed of a single stone. These are undoubtedly the work of Benedict.

The church of Monk's Wearmouth is also mentioned by Bede as having been built by the same Benedict, a.d. 676. This church still stands, and bears indubitable proofs of its early date. The windows are divided by balusters, and have ether features peculiar to the period.

A convent existed at Repton, in Derbyshire, in the -seventh century, and was in the year 875 destroyed by the Danes. The church was afterwards rebuilt, and such portions as were not destroyed were built into the new erection, and they may still be distinguished by the peculiarities of their style. The original crypt under the church still remains in a tolerably perfect state, and is a very remarkable specimen of the style.

There are also curious crypts of this date still remaining under the Cathedral of Ripon and at Hexham. The latter is particularly interesting, from its having been constructed of materials taken from the Roman Wall which passes within a short distance of the place, and Roman inscribed slabs have been used in forming its roof.

In the Anglo-Saxon MSS. in the British Museum, the library of Salisbury Cathedral, and particularly the Paraphrase of Caedmon, in the Bodleian Library, at Oxford, buildings of stone are distinctly shown in the illuminations, and these buildings, moreover, exhibit "the long and short work" and other distinctive features of the existing remains. This, therefore, may be taken as strong and conclusive evidence that these buildings are of Saxon origin.

The characteristics of this style are as follow: -

Towers. - These are without buttresses, generally of the same dimensions from the foundation to the top, but sometimes diminishing by stages. They are generally built of rubble, the stones being very irregular in size, with quoins at the angles, which are formed of long stones set perpendicularly, and shorter ones laid horizontally alternately with them. (This is termed "long and short work.") They re sometimes divided into stages, and the surface interacted by upright projecting ribs of stone, as if the builder had before him for a model a tower constructed of timber and plaster, and that he had endeavoured to imitate this in stone. The finest example which we have of this kind of ornament is the tower of Earl's Barton Church, Northamptonshire; other examples also occur at Barton-on-Humber, and at Barnack.

These towers seem always to have been coated with plaster between the ribs of stone, and this gives them still more a timber-like appearance.

Some towers have not this ornament, and are quite plain. The kind of masonry called " herringbone" is frequently used, and Roman bricks taken from the ruins of earlier buildings are of frequent occurrence.

The upper portion of these Saxon towers has been destroyed, and replaced by later parapets; so that it is not easy to say in what manner they terminated. But the very remarkable tower of Sompting, in Sussex, offers a valuable solution of the difficulty. In this tower each side terminates in an acutely pointed gable, from which the roof is carried up, and, meeting in a point, forms a sort of short square spire, such as we still see in some of the churches in Germany. All these towers are without staircases, the different storeys being only to be reached by ladders. The circular or newel stair turret seems not to have been introduced till the twelfth century.

Windows. - These are either round-headed or triangular-headed, and are frequently surrounded by a sort of framework of projecting stone. They are usually - but not always - deeply recessed on the outside as well as in the inside, the narrowest part of the window being in the centre of the wall. When the window is of two lights, it is divided by a small baluster, or shaft, set in the middle of the wall; this supports an impost, which is generally one stone reaching through the entire thickness of the wall. Sometimes the heads of both single and double-light windows, instead of being arched, are formed of two straight stones meeting at the point, and forming a triangular head. The single lights are frequently little more than mere openings in the wall, frequently without ornament of any kind, the whole window being cut out of a single stone, as at Caversfield, and the jambs are often inclined, making the opening wider at the bottom than at the top. Ornament is not often attempted, but at Deerhurst the shaft and jambs are ornamented with a rude kind of fluting, and the imposts are cut into a series of simple square-edged mouldings. Roman bricks are sometimes used both for the jambs and for turning the arch, as at Brixworth. All these varieties of windows are very characteristic, and are not to be found in the later styles.

Doorways. - These, like the windows, are either round or triangular-headed. The arches are generally turned of plain stones, without any moulding or ornament whatever - sometimes simple, and sometimes recessed; but the projecting framework of plain stone is not unfrequent, as may be seen at Earl's Burton, Stanton Lacy, &c. The imposts are in general plain, but sometimes ornamented with a series of singular mouldings, generally square-edged and plain, as at Barnack, or with a kind of fluting, as at Earl's Burton. At Sompting, it is ornamented with a kind of scroll-work, though sculpture is seldom attempted. A cross is sometimes introduced above the door, as at Stanton Lacy, and it is remarkable that whenever the cross is used it is of the Greek form - that is, with the limbs of equal length, in contradistinction to the Latin type, in which the lower member is the longest. The triangular heads of the doorways are formed either by two stones placed diagonally, and resting one upon the other, or partly of horizontal stones cut obliquely. Both these varieties may be seen at Barnack. Doorways are also sometimes built of tiles, taken from Roman buildings, as at Brixworth.

Mouldings and Sculptures. - There are very few mouldings belonging to this style, the strings and other members being mostly square-edged and plain, though, as at Dunham Magna, they are sometimes alternately notched on the edges. The capitals and bases of the shafts and balusters which divide the windows are moulded chiefly with round and square moulding. The sculptures are few, and very rude, as at St. Bene't's, Cambridge, where two lions are sculptured at the spring of the tower arch.

Capitals. - The abacus seems in all cases to be a plain, square-edged, flat member, without chamfer (in which it differs from the Norman). The bell of the capital is either globular, as at Jarrow, or moulded, as before mentioned, or cut into a rude imitation of foliage, or of the Corinthian volute, as at Sompting.

It is curious to observe the evident imitation of Roman work in these capitals. The beautiful capital of the Corinthian order seems to have attracted the attention of the rude Saxon workman, and his first attempt at sculpture seems to have been to copy it. Its delicate and complicated foliage was too difficult for his hand, but he could make an imitation - rude though it be - of its more prominent feature, the volute. This partiality for the volute was condemned in the next century, through the early and late Norman, until, in the transition to the Early English, it produced those magnificent capitals of which we have a few examples in England, and so many on the Continent.

It must not be expected that all these peculiarities will be found in one building; but wherever any of them occur, there is a reasonable presumption that the building is of early date, and is deserving of further investigation.


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Pictures for Chapter XXIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

Sompting Church
Sompting Church >>>>
 Deerhurst Church
Deerhurst Church >>>>
Jarrow Church
Jarrow Church >>>>
Barnack Church
Barnack Church >>>>
Barton Church
Barton Church >>>>

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