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Octagons of the East

The Ely Octagon rises like some medieval fantasy above the fens, an apparent one-off. Yet once its kin where everywhere: not only in the (much earlier) round towers that are such a feature of East Anglian churches, or the possibility recently suggested that it itself recreates a circular or polygonal predecessor — but in a direct chain of influence that is testament to its power as an idea and traces a medieval East Anglian architectural ‘sphere of influence’. King’s Lynn St Margaret had one; Peterborough abbey (now cathedral), too. Whoever did churches for the mendicants in the later C14 and into the C15 loved them: the surviving example at King’s Lynn greyfriars means there were two in that town, three if your count the Red Mount Chapel; a lost example is at Norwich blackfriars.  We only know about the interior of one of these — the King’s Lynn greyfriars example — but it goes out of its way to replicate in miniature the vertiginous effect of its 1321 alma mater at the other end of the Wash/marsh/fen. Much the same could be said of the remarkable interior to the square tower at St Gregory Pottergate, Norwich, which its been suggested is partly a preservation of an anglo-saxon west-towers/upper-chapel/porticus arrangement. Indeed interior effects are part of the brief here: witness the vertiginous lantern to the Boston Stump, with its octagonal top; the rich fan vault added to the comparable, if lower, tower at the Yorkist college at Fotheringhay. From Northamptonshire to the North Sea, Octagons are everywhere! Go, Alan of Walsingham, go!

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  1. June 1, 2011 at 11:36 am

    And now I know who Alan de Walsingham is.

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