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The Glory of the Cathedrals

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The present chapter is introductory to our more detailed study of the English cathedrals, set forth in subsequent chapters, by J. H. Wade, who writes of their history, and F. J. Maclean, who deals with their architecture. The Welsh and Scottish cathedrals are the subjects of special chapters by J. E. Morris and I. G. Lindsay respectively.

The richest artistic treasure of England is found in her ancient churches, and especially those which, as the seats of bishops, are called cathedral churches and which own the central monuments of each diocese. Time has enriched their beauty and given them innumerable tender and unexpected touches, and although much of the original work was needlessly destroyed, alas! by the ruthless and clumsy hand of the nineteenth-century restorers, nothing but complete demolition can destroy the wonder of their beauty.

Sometimes restoration was needed because stonework had actually perished, and costly repairs in the foundations, roofs and walls of old buildings are often necessary; but the era of destructive restoration is over, and (great as was the harm) our cathedrals have actually suffered far less than those of France or Germany, which were made "national monuments" and put in the bureaucratic hands of the State. There are now strong agencies for protection. William Morris, half a century ago, founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings; and to-day there is a Central Committee for the Care of Churches, which has offices in the Victoria and Albert Museum, with Mr. F. C. Eeles as honorary secretary, and diocesan committees now in every diocese except that tiny entity which is called Sodor and Man. Restoration has become an art, and there are most ingenious devices for strengthening and revitalising old buildings without touching the freedom and grace of the original mason's work.

Our cathedrals are therefore pretty safe for the future, and gradually the harsh work of the last century will be replaced. At the same time, innumerable touches are everywhere being added to their interiors, which are increasing their richness and home-like charm without detracting from their simple grandeur. For every great building must retain a certain severity if it is not to be spoiled by trivial accretions. Many churches abroad are ruined in this way, while in the England of a hundred years ago the fault lay rather in a marked blackness and dullness and a tendency to block up the choirs with pews. The chief remaining interior defect of our churches-including the cathedral churches- is the bad stained glass of the last century, and the recumbent effigies of bishops and other monuments. But there has grown up a realization of the danger of monuments (which constantly increase, in the nature of things, unless there are strong rules about them) and the worst windows will be gradually removed. It will not be difficult for our English cathedrals to be the most beautiful in the world; perhaps they are already so, as certainly their continued round of fine music is not equalled in any other country, and this also is improving as new collections of hymns and anthems are adopted by one cathedral after another.

English cathedrals are also more fortunate than others in the sites they occupy. The half-dozen greatest French cathedrals, such as Chartres, Amiens, Rheims, Bourges, and the glorious fragment of Beauvais, are supreme examples of Gothic; but most foreign cathedrals are crowded round by other buildings, whereas in England the cathedrals generally lie apart. Salisbury has its lovely close. Wells is surrounded by parks and gardens, Durham spreads in splendour upon a hill, and Ely towers gorgeously above a sweep of flat meadows. They and the other old churches are, indeed, almost the only thing which make it worth while for the traveller to visit provincial English towns; for it must be confessed that the vestryman of the last century (still surviving) did his best to make our cities mean and commonplace. We have nothing like the provincial towns -of France, Italy, Spain or Germany - little, indeed, beyond Oxford, Cambridge, York or Bath (for Englishmen cannot claim Edinburgh) in the way of towns that are worth visiting for themselves; but we can hold our heads up again when we remember our villages, our countryside, our country houses, great and small, our gardens and our great cathedrals. They still stand, for the most part, near the meadows and hills; they are all worth visiting, and some of them supremely so. They are the best of England, and they represent the true heart of English character.

Let it be added, lest we give the impression that the art of thinking and building greatly has perished, that the new cathedral of Liverpool is as nobly designed and as finely placed upon its hill as almost any of the old ones.

Cathedrals are now being increasingly thrown open to the public without vexatious fees for visiting choirs, ambulatories and chapels, and the public have responded by producing more money in voluntary offerings than they used to give, perforce, in fees. A new life is coming into these old buildings; they are more and more visited and used by the people of the diocese, and are becoming centres for all sorts of societies and groups of people. They are, in fact, moving with the times, and the feeling of chill, that the last century could never shake off, is departing from one cathedral after another. They are coming to their own again, and it is having a subtle and profound effect upon their very stones. The great piers and vaults and walls seem to rejoice to see so much young life flowing into them. Some indeed still look a little gaunt and desolate, but the number of such is reduced every year. An old building may look well as a ruin, but it always seems to me a little forbidding when it is in good repair but unused. It needs either the tender, pitying hand of wild nature, or-which is a thousand times better-the warmth of manifold human activity for which it was designed.

History hangs thickly about our old cathedrals- history and the romance which we cannot help associating with past customs, events and personalities. Scientifically it is wrong to be romantic about the past: to the people of a past age that age was as prosaic as ours-more so, in fact; and no one would care to endure for a week the limitations, ignorances and brutalities of our ancestors. We have to be careful not to invent spurious history out of the ingredients of sham romance. But, being human, we cannot resist the wholesome sentiment which clings round old buildings and refuses to consort with new ones. The Black Prince was a ruffian, no doubt, but -there hangs his armour still over his tomb at Canterbury; Edward the Confessor was one of our most inefficient kings, but his bones lie within that shrine behind the high altar at Westminster, and have been there for nearly a thousand years. We should not like to have King John for an intimate, but we cannot see his tomb at Worcester without a thrill, or that of the futile Edward II at Gloucester. What associations crowd upon us, not only in the inexhaustible Abbey and in St. Paul's, but in every cathedral in the country. There are always books in the shops of a cathedral town, and it is always worth while to buy one, in addition to the late Francis Bond's marvellously compact and accurate "Cathedrals of England and Wales"; and the more alert deans and chapters often now provide leaflets and pamphlets of their own.

London is fortunate in having found, after the Fire, that finest of our architects, Sir Christopher Wren, a great English gentleman who ennobled everything he touched, from a cathedral to an almshouse. But in England a Renaissance cathedral is the exception. Most of our cathedrals are Gothic. It was a marvellous way of building-scientific, vital, restless- or, rather, always growing. We cannot build Gothic now, and our architects no longer try, though naturally they use Gothic motives when they wish to. It is not, of course, an ecclesiastical style, but was just the way that everybody built from the end of the twelfth to the end of the sixteenth century-and indeed in England it lingered till Inigo Jones killed it in the seventeenth. No style is ecclesiastical, but Romanesque is really more so than Gothic, for the two centuries before Gothic were pre-eminently the great age of church-building.

We have two kinds of Romanesque in England: the rude Anglo-Saxon which moves us by its antiquity and is found embedded here and there in some cathedrals, as in the Late Norman Christ Church, Oxford. The other kind of Romanesque we call Norman, and rightly, for the Norman Conquerors were pious in their ferocious manner, and great builders of churches. Many of our finest cathedrals are Norman, like glorious Durham, the vast nave of Norwich, the nave and-even still surviving-the wooden ceiling of Peterborough, and the substance of Gloucester, whose chancel has a lovely web of Perpendicular Gothic drawn over the massive Norman piers and walls. Indeed, most of our cathedrals are still really Norman; the walls, and often much more than the walls, are of the older period; and then fire, or enlargement, or the desire to lengthen the eastern link (as with the Norman cathedral of Ely), or to be up to date (the quickly changing " date " of the Gothic period), led to marvellous Gothic extensions and enrichments, as at Lincoln, Exeter, Chester or Winchester, changing with each generation as one form of the never-resting Gothic grew into another. One cathedral, Canterbury, belongs in its more important substance to the moment when Norman was in transition to Gothic, but the nave is Perpendicular of the fourteenth century. Some others, also, like St. David's in Wales, and particularly Wells, are rich in transitional work, markedly Gothic in character. But only one cathedral, Salisbury, was planned and built in one style from beginning to end, because the bishop's seat was moved-and even when Salisbury Cathedral replaced that of Old Sarum the style could not stand still, and the lovely Early English has become Geometrical Decorated in the cloister, chapter-house, and the lovely soaring spire.

In the development of Gothic, also, England excels all other countries. France, like Italy, was more fickle, and some of her finest churches were never finished. So it is that no country has such a large number of cathedral churches of the first rank, in the best Gothic architecture. France made a magnificent start in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with Notre Dame at Paris, with Chartres, Rheims, Bourges, Amiens, Beauvais; but then stopped, and her styles are only three-Transitional, Early French, and then after the Hundred Years' War (and through English influence) Flamboyant. The French tracery never developed as did the English, and Gothic capitals in France are hard and heavy.

In England, inferior to France in figure sculpture, the carving of details, and especially the ever-varying designs of capitals, are far finer; and English Gothic moved steadily in the great sequence of Transitional, Early English, Geometrical Decorated, Flowing Decorated, Perpendicular (peculiar to our country), Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean. In this wonderful development of a singularly free and fertile beauty our cathedrals assumed the shape and character which made them unique in the world of to-day.

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