Despite anticlericalism and heresy, religion was still sufficiently fervent and opulent to raise English architecture to a minor peak of excellence. The growth of commerce and the spoils of war financed cathedrals, castles, and palaces, and glorified Oxford and Cambridge with the fairest homes ever built for learning. From the marble of Purbeck and the alabaster of Nottingham to the forests of Sherwood and the brick of any shire, the building materials of England were transformed into noble towers and lordly spires, and wooden ceilings almost as strong and handsome as Gothic stone vaults. The ugly tie beam that had crossed obtrusively from wall to wall was replaced by hammer-beam projections supporting with massive shoulders of oak the soaring arch above; in this manner some of England’s finest churches spanned their naves. So Selby Cathedral received an oak ceiling of ribs and bosses rivaling the lierne and fan designs that vaulted the abbey church at Bath, the choir at Ely, and the south transept of Gloucester with complex webs of stone.
Patterns in window tracery, wall paneling, and choir screens gave their names to successive architectural styles, overlapping in time and often mingled in one edifice. Geometrical Decorated Gothic (c. 1250–c. 1315) used Euclidean forms, as in Exeter Cathedral. Curvilinear Decorated Gothic (c. 1315–c. 1380) abandoned definite figures for freely flowing lines that anticipated with restraint the Flamboyant style of prance, as in the south rose window at Lincoln. Perpendicular Gothic (c. 1330–c. 1530) stressed horizontal and vertical lines within the usual Gothic ogive, as in Henry VII’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey. The intense colors of thirteenth-century stained glass were now softened with lighter tints, or with silver stain or pale grisaille; and in these windows the pageant of dying chivalry competed with the legends of Christianity to let Gothic art reach its final splendor and decline.
Seldom has England known such an ecstasy of construction. Three centuries (1376–1517) labored to build the present nave of Westminster Abbey; in the long gamut of those years we may weakly sense the toil of mind and arm that went to make an unrivaled mausoleum for England’s best-behaved geniuses. Only less impressive was the reconstruction of Windsor: there Edward III rebuilt on a massive scale the great Round Tower (1344), and Edward IV began (1473) St. George’s Chapel, with its lovely choir stalls, fan vault, and stained glass. Alan de Walsingham designed in Curvilinear Gothic an exquisite Lady Chapel and “lantern” tower for Ely. Gloucester Cathedral received a central tower, a choir vault, a gorgeous east window, and spacious cloisters whose fan vaults are among the wonders of England. Winchester extended its immense nave, and dressed its new front in Perpendicular. Coventry built in that manner the cathedral that saved only its stately spire in the second World War. Peterborough raised its dizzy fan vault; York Minster completed its nave, west towers, and choir screen. Towers were the crowning glory of the age, ennobling Merton and Magdalen colleges at Oxford, Fountains Abbey, Canterbury, Glastonbury, Derby, Taunton, and a hundred other shrines. William of Wykeham used Perpendicular in designing New College, Oxford; William of Waynflete, another nonagenarian, followed suit in the Great Quadrangle at Eton; and Kings College, Cambridge, capped the age with a chapel whose windows, vault, and choir stalls might reconcile Caliban to education, and Timon of Athens to prayer.
There was a secular and matter-of-fact spirit in Perpendicular Gothic that perfectly suited the civic architecture of colleges, castles, fortresses, guild and city halls. It was in this style that the earls of Warwick, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, raised their famous castle near Leamington. The Guildhall of London, fane of the capital’s mercantile pride, was built in 1411-35, burned down in 1666, was rebuilt by Christopher Wren, and received in 1866 the new interior that succumbed to bombs in the second World War. Even the town shops took on, in their mullioned windows, a Perpendicular pattern that conspires with carved lintels, cornices, and projecting balconies to bewitch us with the charm of a departing glory.
English sculpture maintained in this age its reputation for mediocrity. The statuary made for church façades, as at Lincoln and Exeter, fell far short of the architecture it was intended to adorn. The great altar screens in Westminster Cathedral and St. Alban’s Abbey served as matrices for statues, but these are of too modest merit to add to the burden of our tale. The best sculpture was on funerary monuments. Fine figures were carved, usually in alabaster, of Edward in Gloucester Cathedral, of Dame Eleanor Percy in Beverly Minster, of Henry IV and Queen Joan at Canterbury, of Richard Beauchamp at Warwick. English sculptors were at their best in representing the flowers and foliage of their verdant land. Good carving was done in wood: the choir stalls of Winchester, Ely, Gloucester, Lincoln, Norwich stop the breath with their laborious beauty.
Painting was still a minor art in England, lagging far behind contemporary work in Flanders and France. Illumination remained a favorite devotion; Edward III paid £66 ($6,600?) for an illuminated volume of romances,44 and Robert of Ormsby presented to Norwich Cathedral an illuminated psalter which the Bodleian Library ranks as “the finest English manuscript” in its collections. After 1450 the art of the miniature declined with the rise of mural and panel painting, and in the sixteenth century it faded out before the novel miracle of print.