VI. ENGLISH GOTHIC: 1175–1280

From Chartres and the Île de France the Gothic style swept into the French provinces, and crossed frontiers into England, Sweden, Germany, Spain, at last into Italy. French architects and craftsmen accepted foreign commissions, and everywhere the new art was called opus Francigenum—work born in France. England welcomed it because she was in the twelfth century half French; the Channel was but a river between two sides of a British realm that included half of France; and of that realm Rouen was the cultural capital. English Gothic derived from Normandy rather than from the Île de France, and kept in a Gothic frame the Norman massiveness. The transition from Romanesque to Gothic was almost simultaneous in England and France; about the same time that the pointed arch was being used at St. Denis (1140) it was appearing in Durham and Gloucester cathedrals, at Fountains Abbey and Malmesbury.24 Henry III (1216–72) admired everything French, envied the architectural glory of St. Louis’ reign, and taxed his people into poverty to rebuild Westminster Abbey, and to pay the school of artists—builders, sculptors, painters, illuminators, goldsmiths—whom he gathered near his court to execute his plans.

Of the three periods into which English Gothic falls—Early English (1175–1280), Decorated (1280–1380), and Perpendicular (1380–1450) —we confine ourselves here to the first. The long and pointed form of Early English windows and arches gave the style another name—Lancet. Façades and portals were simpler than in France; Lincoln and Rochester had some sculptures, Wells many more; but these were exceptional, and could not be compared, in quality or quantity, with the portal statuary of Chartres, Amiens, or Reims. Towers were massive rather than tall; but the steeples of Salisbury, Norwich, and Lichfield show what the English builder could do when he preferred elegance and height to dignity and mass. Interior elevation likewise failed to lure the architects of England; sometimes they tried it, as at Westminster and Salisbury; but more often they allowed the vault to lie oppressively low, as at Gloucester and Exeter. The great length of English cathedrals discouraged the effort to attain proportionate height; Winchester is 556 feet long, Ely 517, Canterbury 514, Westminster Abbey 511; Amiens is 435, Reims 430, even Milan only 475. But Winchester’s internal height was but 78 feet, Canterbury’s 80, Lincoln’s 82, Westminster’s 103, while Amiens rose to 140 feet.

The east end of the English Gothic church retained the square apse of the Anglo-Saxon style, ignoring the convenient French development of the polygonal or semicircular apse. In many cases the east end was expanded into a Lady Chapel for the special worship of the Virgin; but the adoration of Mary never reached in England the enthusiasm that marked it in France. Often in England the chapter house of the cathedral canons, and the palace of the bishop, were attached to the church and constituted with it the “cathedral close,” usually surrounded by a wall. In the Gothic monasteries of England and Scotland—as at Fountains, Dryburgh, Melrose, Tintern—the spread of dormitories, refectories, abbey, and cloistered walks formed in one enclosure an impressive artistic whole.

The essential principle of Gothic architecture—the balancing and channeling of pressures to reduce ungainly massiveness of support—seems never to have won full acceptance in England. The old Romanesque thickness of wall was only slightly moderated in English Gothic, even when, as at Salisbury, the design did not have to adapt itself to a Romanesque base. English architects, like the Italian, were repelled by the flying buttress; they adopted it here and there, but halfheartedly; they felt that the supports of a building should be contained in the structure itself, and not in excrescences. Perhaps they were right; and though their cathedrals lack the feminine grace of the French chef-d’oeuvres, they have a firm and masculine power that reaches beyond the beautiful to the sublime.

Four years after the murder of Becket at Canterbury, the choir of the cathedral burned down (1174). The people of the town beat their heads against the walls in anger and bewilderment that the Almighty had permitted such disaster to a shrine that had already become a goal of religious pilgrimage.25 The monks entrusted the work of rebuilding the choir to William of Sens, a French architect who had made a name for himself with the cathedral that he had built for his city. William worked at Canterbury from 1175 to 1178; a fall from a scaffolding disabled him, and the undertaking was carried on by William the Englishman, a man “small in body,” says the monk Ger-vase, “but in workmanship of many kinds acute and honest.”26 Much of the Romanesque cathedral of 1096 remained; round arches survived amid the generally Gothic renovation; but the old wooden ceiling of the choir was replaced by a ribbed vault of stone, the columns were lengthened to a graceful height, the capitals were exquisitely carved, and the windows were filled with brilliant stained glass. Gathered in its cathedral close, and yet towering over its quaint and lovely town, Canterbury Cathedral is today one of the most inspiring sights of the earth.

Its example, seen by countless prelates and pilgrims, spread the Gothic style through Britain. In 1177 Peterborough fronted the west transept of its cathedral with a splendid Gothic portico. In 1189 Bishop Hugh de Lacy built the handsome retrochoir of Winchester Cathedral. In 1186 an earthquake rent Lincoln Cathedral from top to base; six years later Bishop Hugh began its reconstruction on a Gothic design by Geoffrey de Noyers; the noble Grosseteste finished it about 1240. It stands on a hill overlooking a typically beautiful English countryside. Seldom has sublimity of mass been so well reconciled with delicacy of detail. The three great towers, the broad façade with its sculptured portal and complex arcades, the lordly nave, seemingly light despite its mass and span, the graceful shafts and carving of the piers, the rose windows, the palmlike vaulting of the chapter house, the magnificent arches of the cloisters—these would have made Lincoln Cathedral a credit to mankind even had there been no “Angel Choir.” In 1239 an old Norman tower fell and crushed Bishop Hugh’s choir; a new choir rose in 1256–80 in the nascent Decorated style, ornate but exquisite; legend ascribed its name to the angels who were said to have built it, since no human hands could have compassed such perfection; but probably the name came from the smiling angel musicians sculptured on the spandrels of the triforium. On the south portal of this choir English sculptors almost rivaled the carvings of Reims and Amiens. Four statues there, beheaded and otherwise mutilated by the Puritans, can bear such comparison; one representing the Synagogue and another representing the Church are the finest English statuary of the thirteenth century. A great scientist, Sir William Osier, thought this Angel Choir the fairest of all products of human art.27

In 1220 Bishop Poore engaged Elias de Derham to design and build Salisbury Cathedral. It rose to completion in the unusually short space of twenty-five years; it is Early English throughout, and breaks the rule that English cathedrals mingle several styles. The unity of design, the harmony of mass and line, the simple majesty of the transept tower and spire, the grace of the vault in the Lady Chapel, and the lovely windows of the chapter house redeem the squat heaviness of the nave piers and the oppressive shallowness of the vault. Ely Cathedral still has a wooden ceiling, but not unpleasing; there is a warm and living quality in wood that never comes to architecture in stone. To Ely’s fine Norman nave the Gothic architects added a pretty west porch, or galilee (c. 1205); a presbytery with handsome column clusters of Purbeck marble; and, in fourteenth-century Decorated Gothic, a Lady Chapel, a choir, and, over the transept crossing, a gorgeous lantern tower—the “Ely Octagon.” Wells Cathedral (1174–91) was one of the earliest examples of English Gothic; its nave was not too well designed; but the west front added (1220–42) by Bishop Jocelyn “narrowly escaped being the most beautiful in England.”28 In the niches of this façade were 340 statues; 106 are missing, victims of Puritanism, vandalism, and time; those that remain constitute the largest collection of figure sculpture in Britain. We cannot say as much for their quality.

The culminating achievement of Early English Gothic was Westminster Abbey. Henry III, who had made Edward the Confessor his patron saint, felt that the Norman church built by Edward (1050) was unworthy to house Edward’s bones; he ordered his artists to replace it with a Gothic edifice in the French style; and for this purpose he raised by taxation £750,-000, which we may diffidently equate at $90,000,000 today. The work began in 1245, and continued till Henry’s death in 1272. The design followed Reims and Amiens, even to admitting the Continental polygonal apse. The sculptures of the north porch, portraying the Last Judgment, were influenced by those of Amiens’ west front. In the spandrels of the transept triforium are remarkable reliefs of angels; one angel in the south transept offers to the centuries a tender, gracious face rivaling the cherubim of Reims. Over the doorway of the chapter house are two figures representing the Annunciation, and showing the Virgin in a charming gesture of modest deprecation. Even finer are the early royal tombs in the Abbey, and, best of all, that of Henry III himself—an ideally handsome and well-proportioned improvement upon the stout and stunted King. The crimes of a score of rulers are in those splendid tombs forgotten, and half redeemed by the English genius that lies buried under the stones of this sovereign sepulcher.

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