OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

The Beauty of the English Cathedrals

This chapter the last of our series on the cathedrals of England, treats in detail of their architectural aspect. The Welsh and the Scottish cathedrals are the subjects of special chapters by J. E. Morris and I. G. Lindsay respectively.
Pages: <1> 2

The architectural grouping of the English cathedrals is not an easy matter. One cannot classify them according to periods or styles because there is hardly a building which was completed within any one century - and many are the work of several centuries - and it is therefore impossible to label them definitely Norman or Early English or Perpendicular. The vast majority possess features of nearly every style and sub-style. Neither can one arrange them according to their block plans, because the cruciform plan is practically universal. Any divergencies - and they are countless - are to be found in minor details. There may be an especially long choir and a short nave, or an extra transept, or the absence of a clerestory or triforium, or some other peculiarity or combination of peculiarities in a single building; but you will hardly ever find it repeated elsewhere. That is at once the perplexity and the charm of our English Gothic.

In what follows it has been judged best to adopt for the majority of the great cathedrals a simple form of classification by the number of towers or spires they possess. But we must deal first with the four which are in a class by themselves - Westminster Abbey, S. Paul's, Canterbury and York. The first two as our National Val-hallas, and the second pair as the two great metropolitan churches of the country, have a claim to priority, though there may be finer architecture to be found elsewhere.

No excuse is needed for including Westminster Abbey. Strictly speaking, it is not a cathedral. So far as size and exterior architecture are concerned it is not of special importance. But it contains treasures of building within that no other of our churches can parallel, and it would be grotesque to ignore it for purist reasons in this chapter.

The Abbey's West Front is neither appropriate nor impressive. The two flanking towers were designed either by Wren or his pupil Nicholas Hawksmoor, but were not erected until after the latter's death in 1736, and their undistinguished character is hardly worthy even of the master's successor. Wren had a genius for blending the Gothic and Renaissance harmoniously, but the insignificant classic ornament above the circular "clock" openings in those towers rather suggests a parodist. The doorway in the north transept, which is the principal entrance to the Abbey, was also "restored" by Wren about 1719, but has since been completely re-restored by Sir Gilbert Scott and Mr. Pearson. There is a triple portico with a large rose window above it, with flanking buttresses crowned by turrets, and there is some fairly effective statuary above the central door. Generally, the exterior has been so rebuilt that all trace of Henry Ill's church has been eliminated. But at the eastern extremity Henry VII's Chapel still survives, and it is, both outside and inside, the richest example of late Perpendicular work in the country. The external walls have certainly needed much recent restoration, but the work has been intelligently done, and much of the beauty of the panelled and carved surface of wall, window and flying buttress has been preserved. For height and grace there is no nave more impressive than that of Westminster. The triforium (which is continuous throughout the whole building) covers the full width of the aisles, and is arranged in double-arched bays, corresponding to those of the main arcade. The clerestory above is lighted by three-light Early English windows, but their original stained glass has mostly disappeared. One remarkable feature of the nave is the continuity of its style. Although the western bays were not completed till nearly two hundred years after the death of Henry III, the style of the eastern ones begun by that monarch is maintained. There are very few other instances where the medieval mason built otherwise than in the fashion of his own time.

In S. Paul's one has the solitary instance of an old English cathedral rebuilt in the Renaissance manner. Externally, it is a two-storey structure. On the great west facade there are two orders of columns with corresponding pilasters on the flanks, and colonnades are also a feature of the centre stages of the western steeples and the drum and lantern of the dome.

Wren's great church is really a Renaissance building upon a Gothic plan. It has the usual aisles and transepts. There is even a triforium, though it is not arcaded; and a clerestory, very obvious above the austere expanse of dead wall on the south side.

The main constructional feature is of course the dome. It is made up of an inner dome of brick, and an outer one of wood mounted on a high colonnaded drum. Between the two is a solid core of brick, and resting on this the stone-built lantern, fifty feet high. This dome is more than an architectural achievement; it is a unique triumph in engineering construction. The famous "Whispering Gallery" runs round its base, carried by the supporting arches. The crypt embodies the remains of the old parish church of S. Faith and also contains the Wellington monument.

We have now to consider the two great metropolitan churches, and of these the church of the Primate must come first. Canterbury's towers are impressive owing to the exceptional lowness of the main church; and the central tower has a special grandeur because the western towers have been skilfully subordinated to it. The fine "Angel" or Bell Tower at the crossing, which is the dominating feature of the whole building, is good Perpendicular work of the late fifteenth century. It is built in two stages, with two-light windows in each stage, and an octagonal turret at each angle. The Angel figure that once crowned it has long since disappeared.

Very remarkable monastic buildings enclose the cathedral, and the late Perpendicular Christ Church Gate remains to tell of the massive wall that encircled the entire monastery. The Chapter House belonged to the fourteenth century.

The Late Norman Baptistery or Lavatory Tower and the fine old staircase in the Close retain their original features.

Inside the main structure one notices the comparatively great height of the nave aisles, so that from the outside the clerestory is almost hidden; and the fine "lierne" vaulting in which the main ribs are tied together by short transverse sections. The triforium is formed in an unusual manner by prolonging the clerestory windows downwards into panels and piercing the latter with openings. The old Norman nave was re-fashioned by Bishop Chillenden in Perpendicular style. The Early English choir, which was built by Prior Conrad and improved, after a fire, by William of Sens, is the longest in England (180 feet); and the great Norman crypt beneath it is practically the same as it was left by Ernulf, William's predecessor. The level of the choir is several steps higher than that of the nave.

Becket's Crown is the name given to a circular space at the extreme east; but Becket was murdered in the north-west transept. The windows of Holy Trinity chapel record the miracles of the Martyr in some of the finest of the thirteenth century stained glass, for which Canterbury is famous.

Just as glass of this period is one of Canterbury's most precious possessions, so at York Minster the great lancets at the end of the north transept, known as "The Five Sisters," remind us of this cathedral's unrivalled treasures in fourteenth century glass. York has the further architectural distinction of being the widest Gothic church in the kingdom. There is no need for its West Front to attempt to exaggerate the dimensions of the nave, as occurs in some instances of cathedral design.

The great Minster is high as well as broad, and although both central and western towers have a quite respectable elevation (about 200 feet in each case) they appear a trifle stunted. The West Front is a combination of the Decorated and Perpendicular styles. The only sculptured figures on this facade are the statues of Archbishop Romeyn in the centre over the main entrance, and those of Percy and Vavasour (who gave the wood and the stone respectively for the cathedral's building) occupying the outside niches.

Of the twenty-two cathedrals now to be glanced at, Wells, Bristol, Lincoln, Ripon and Durham come within the three-tower group; Lichfield is the one example of three spires; Exeter, Ely and Peterboro' have two towers each, and St. Albans, Southwark, Winchester, Gloucester, Hereford, Worcester, Chester and Carlisle, one. The one-spire group comprises Rochester, Chichester, Salisbury, Oxford and Norwich.

To begin with Wells: its chief glory is the incomparable West front, 147 feet across and 70 feet high, flanked by towers of the Perpendicular period. Across the whole front stretch three tiers of sculptured figures in their niches, 305 statues more than life-size. In all there are six rows of sculpture superimposed on this facade. The central tower, which really binds the whole design together, has graceful turrets at each angle, the complete structure being an harmonious blend of Early English and Decorated. An unusual feature in the internal construction is the double arches; that is to say, an inverted arch springs from the apex of a lower arch, the spandrels thus formed being filled in with circles of stonework. The object of this ingenious construction is to afford extra support to the piers which carry the great central tower.

The West Front of Bristol falls far short of that of Wells in magnitude and richness of detail, but the two flanking towers have been capably restored in the fourteenth century manner (Geometric Decorated) by Street. The central tower is Perpendicular in style. At Lincoln there are two vastly impressive external features; the central tower and the West Front. The former is the highest in England and carries the fourth largest bell, the "Great Tom of Lincoln." The two lower storeys in the tower are Early English, and the uppermost one is Decorated. The arcaded West Front is a massive cliff-like wall, without any of the graceful ornament that gives distinction to that of Wells or Exeter. It has a tall, pointed arch in its centre, Perpendicular windows in the recesses, and towers with steeples at the flanks, but the bulk of the masonry is Norman and the ensemble has all the severity of that early style. From the west side of the Early English Great Transept projects a Galilee Porch (a.d. 1230) with a "Muniment House" above it; and one notices the separate Chapter House with its quaint conical roof and flying buttresses. Flying buttresses also connect the nave with the clerestory.

There is a fine rose window at the end of each transept. But the most notable feature of the interior is the Early English "Angel Choir" or Presbytery, east of the altar screen; in which the sculptured figures of angels fill the spandrels of the triforium arches.

Ripon, while not of imposing size, possesses considerable architectural distinction. The West Front, for instance, with its two rather squat towers, is pure Early English from pinnacles to doorways. The central tower, also low, is rather curiously made up of twelfth century Transitional elements and fifteenth century Perpendicular, its north and west sides being of the former date and style, and the other two of the latter.

Durham Cathedral doubtless owes much to the picturesque grandeur of its site. But the church is in itself one of the most interesting to the lover of Norman and Early English Architecture. Nave, choir and transepts are all Norman, mostly of the eleventh century. The western towers are Transitional, and the central and tallest one, which is 213 feet high, is Perpendicular. Attached to the western front is the Galilee Chapel, with round arches covered by zigzag moulding which springs from the decorative capitals of comparatively slender piers - a rarely beautiful combination of Norman and Early English. The second transept at the easternmost^ end takes the place of the Norman apsidal ending which existed prior to 1237, when the transept was built. The latter is no less than 160 feet long, and is a perfect specimen of Early English building. From its nine bays or divisions it goes by the name of "The Chapel of the Nine Altars."

As the one old English cathedral with three spires, Lichfield is the next to claim attention. Its central spire, 260 feet high, is taller than its companions which rise behind the West Front. The feature of this front is the main doorway, a cusped arch, richly moulded. Within is a supremely beautiful grotto with statuary on the side and centre walls. Across the front, as at Wells and Exeter, run tiers of canopied statues. At each angle is an octagonal turret. Unfortunately Lichfield is one of the red sandstone churches, and, owing to the effects of weathering, very little of the original stonework is left. Hence the exterior has a certain newness.

The interior of the nave presents a fine effect of length, which is enhanced by the comparative narrowness of the aisles. Here the style is a blend of Early English and Geometric, while that of the choir is Decorated.

Our three two-tower cathedrals are all famous architecturally and otherwise. None more so than Ely. The pride of Ely is its central octagonal tower, built by Alan de Walsingham in place of the original Norman one. The Early English Galilee Porch has been described as " the most gorgeous porch of this style in existence." There is a profusion of dog-tooth ornament, very characteristic of early Early English. Contrary to the usual practice, the Lady Chapel is on the north side of the choir instead of being placed at the eastern end.

Strictly speaking, Peterborough boasts three towers, but the third is incomplete. However, as it stands to-day this is one of the noblest and most satisfying of our Norman cathedrals, with its magnificent West Front and great length of nave (eleven bays). The West Front may be described as pure Early English on a Norman foundation. The three great arches, surmounted by gables and enclosed by spire-crowned towers, are among the finest of their kind. There is a Perpendicular feature in the central porch, with the Parvise chamber (used as a library) above it; but that is the only departure. The central tower with its pinnacled summit, rebuilt with the old materials in 1884, is sufficiently impressive. There are Perpendicular windows at the ends of the transepts. Otherwise there is little but Norman building in the walls, and the vista of that great Norman nave is of the very finest.

>>> Next page >>>
Pages: <1> 2

Pictures for The Beauty of the English Cathedrals

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About