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Bury St Edmunds

July 27, 2011 Leave a comment
Domestic houses colonise Bury's massive west front

Domestic houses colonise Bury's massive west front

Christ plays peek-a-boo in the Nottyngham porch, St Mary, Bury St Edmunds
Christ plays peek-a-boo in the Nottyngham porch, St Mary, Bury St Edmunds

History turns places inside out. By the time of the Conquest, this was, with nearby Ely, one of the most rich and powerful institutions of any kind in the country; also like Ely — and, indeed, Glastonbury and Durham — it dominated a great swathe of land which it both owned and provided a kind of spiritual protection to. For this was the seat of no ordinary cult: beheaded kings are not obvious saints, at least to those with a simplistic idea of medieval religion; and the Dane-martyred Edmund of the East Angles was a kind of spiritual patron for the entire region, a ongoing marker into the high medieval era of its special identity, just as Cuthbert was up in former Northumbria. The not-very-Christian king’s crowned head, sitting between the legs of a protecting wolf (as if in a mid-packhunt game of ‘fetch’), is the striking image that graces perhaps hundreds of bench ends, corbels and screens in this part of the world.

Also like its peers, Bury got heavily embroiled with the powers of bishops. After some turmoil at both places, ancient Anglo-Saxon saint-holder Ely abbey got cathedralised, while ancient anglo-saxon Durham minster got monks; Bury (and much later Glastonbury), in turn fought off nearby grasping bishops, of Bath and Thetford respectively: if they’d not been sucessful, we might today have no fallback Wells or Norwich cathedrals. But Bury and Glastonbury cathedrals might be with us still.

In 1066 Bury already had a French abbot; yet by the 1080s Baldwin was up there with the best of them, carving up the pre-existing town and building an imperial-scaled church on top of the very heart of the previous town centre. As per Norwich and Peterborough, it’s quite clear that the enclosure for the new building simply cut in two the previous town’s main street and marketplace.

What replaced it was unusual in various ways. The gridiron plan was nothing new: there are towns like it in England (Ludlow) and Normandy. What impresses is its relationship with the church. A central political-religious axis folds the town in half — literally, as it seems to occupy a shallow east-west valley running down to the river Lark. From the chord of the apse through the abbey gate and down Churchgate Street is a single straight line, with the saint’s shrine on the axis like an anchor to the place’s power. The other streets fold off this axis, a stepped and ordered rorschach grid, a trigram of politico/spiritual order.  Two pre-existing chuches had to be moved to make this possible: St Mary’s and St James’s thus both straddle the abbey precinct and the town, the latter associated with a second gate that was also the main route of lay access to the abbey. A new town market as set up, in the NW corner of the grid, far from the church: this survives.

This is how Bury was for the ensuing five hundred-or-so years: a collossal romanesque church, like Norwich and Ely and Peterbrough (and many smaller houses in this neck of the woods) patched-but-preserved church in the eloquent and muscular East Anglian version of the style, speaking truth to its own power. Two large new chapels added off the transepts in the later C13, one a lost link in the chain of great Dec East Anglian lady chapels. New towers. And an extraordinary west front, the widest in England, with three massive central arches, collossal polygonal towers off a western transept, a stone skyscraper of a western tower: Ely + Lincoln squared. The swaggery C12 tower beyond, fulcrum in the axis that runs shrine – high altar – church – western tower – western gate – Churchgate St: to its E, the closed world of the monastery; to its W, the open one of the town. St James’s gate, meanwhile, was damaged in a riot of 1327 (Shades of Norwich’s Ethelberga gate) and swiftly rebuilt as an enormous keep-like block draped rather unconvingly with elegant chivalrous Dec inventiveness. The rebuilding was so swift, so security conscious, that its preceding gate stood next door intact until the job was done, and the resulting strcture, today’s main entrance to the ‘Abbey Gardens’, has been off-centre in the C11 grid even since.

But the layman’s voice in this town was as ever at its most vociferous in the decades before the Reformation. Both St James’s and St Mary’s were completely rebuilt, the latter still one of East Anglia’s better late Perp town churches (which is saying something): roofs, intriguing Nottyngham porch (inventive vault, special access to parish graveyard?), first-rate inscribed cadaver and adjacent bright celure, studded with star-like glass beads; two grand tombs of the (very) late 1530s. There’s also a guildhall, already with a stone door in the C13, presumably belonging to the most influential of many town guilds.

The dissolution of the institution that defined this place was of course the next great reinvention. Here, unlike Glastonbury and Walsingham (for example) the spiritual and physical gap at the core of the town has not enabled recolonisation by ‘new’ spiritualities; instead it is a polite municipal garden, studded by ancient  rotten teeth of towering flint, to which soundchecks by Lulu and Shakin’ Stevens block my access. The town has sunk into regionally-important market-town status, its twin foci of power ironically reflecting patterns first defined in its previous makeover in the late C11.

For the market place, put here when the abbey squashed the preceding centre, remains today the commercial core of a bustling town, looked over by the strikingly upmarket C12 Moyses Hall. As a result of this refocusing of the town around commerce, Bury’s psychological centre has moved off-grid, and the great power-axis that is designed to be at its heart, like a great battery of power for the Liberty of St Edmund, is barely noticed, a polite series of pleasant, quiet brick terraces, an isolated gate that hides a battered west front that hides a public park: disconnected, defused. Even more arse-over-tit, in 1914 the bishops finally ‘took’ Bury, colonising St James’s church in the process. Edmundsbury cathedral is thus Bury’s other main attraction, off centre to but also a creation of the core grid: both this church and the market are where they are because of the post-Conquest dislocation of their predecessors. The cathedral is an odd place, with a C15/16 parish church core that has been stripped of all content, doubled in size to make it cathedral-like, even with a cloister, and its central tower only recently completed; everything here has the open polite vacancy of much modern Anglicanism.

So here is another town violently recast by the Normans, who must have been amazed to find themselves at once so suddenly enriched and placed in a land in which the levers of power actually worked, with another remarkable plan that has been sundered and dislocated by Dissolution, leaving a pleasant market town with a large park where once Edmund, and his head, and his wolf, glowered protectively over the labourers and lords of Suffolk.

Stone valve on the access of power: the abbey gate and Churchgate St

Stone valve on the access of power: the abbey gate and Churchgate St

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St John’s Clerkenwell

July 20, 2011 2 comments

I’ve been trying to get in here since I was a teenager. Now it’s open: and what a strange thing it is. The English headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers, the Military Order (a strange thing in itself) that became today St John’s Ambulance. Or something. Apparently a C20 office front facing a small square in Clerkenwell, central London; cut off from it, on the other side of the Old Street, the former precinct gate, still intact C15 gatehouse in flat grey London stone (Kentish?).

The C20 office front turns out to be a post-Blitz structure that bizarrely is a church, though it looks utterly unlike one. On the inside, a bare white space hung with oil painting, a big battered hall. One wall looks C18, the other three look medieval, beneath the white paint and around the dull, renewed big Perp windows a veritable feeding frenzy of battered mouldings, conjoined walls and other arcane clues to an ancient and obscure cultural history.

This over-restored shed, battered beneath the brightness, was once the east end of the headquarters of a major order: big and flat — once arcaded, or just a shed? — as for the western half of the church, I fear to guess: perhaps only as long as the square outside, which then is its ghost result, a Reformation Rachel Whiteread opposite doppleganger?

In any case its more curiousity than treat: the treat’s downstairs. The stumps of a circular nave, an image of the Holy Sepulchre/Dome of the Rock like so many C12 (oh, Cambridge, Temple, Northampton…) and like so many (Temple, Bristol the obvious example) later replaced more conventionally. And then a complete-as-you-like crypt, bizarrely in two phases. The first is early-mid C12, just thick romanesque rib vaults and each bay seperate by a broad unmoulded tunnel like arch. This, attached to whatever lay beneath the nave, would have been very close to the crypt at Berkswell, Warws, I’ve blogged about before. But the two east bays are very fancy work of the late rC12, plain as is appropriate to a crypt, but with simple curved capitals as light-footed as waterleaf, attached shafts on bases that stick their feet out wittily at angles, ballet first position. Thinner ribs with something approaching the deep mouldings of the C13: c1180, I wonder?  ‘… consecrated in 1185’ says a guide talking to a group. Smug satisfaction. Though such facts may mean many things to the unitiated.

Bizarrely, this crypt extension (intriguingly the time gap compares to the later changes amde at Berkswell) curls round the back of the older one, making a two-bay north aisle and a single bay southern extension. The east windows feature C19 or later stepped lancets: on what evidence? If originally, they become one of the very earliest dated examples (…Portsmouth St Thomas?…). As the bay curls around, even more oddly it leaves the former outer wall of the earlier structure intact, so there are slim round-headed near-lancets and slim pointed headed even-more-near-lancets, two phases of outer wall, in a single space.

Amazingly a few bits and bobs have survived. The museum has an average quality but big mid C13 historiated boss: high vaults somewhere. Glass, mainly late. Tiles, mainly C14. Why do you always get these two things? Excellent C15 crocketing from a monument. And stuffed in the crypt are a french/German/low countries effigy, an interesting import, and a first rate cadaver, possibly in solid purbeck, lieing on a carved straw roll. An antiqaurian engraving reveals this a part of a two-tier tomb to a prior: the effigy was behind a very high and open screen; the upper level was flat, but with brasses on the rear wall; above this again was elaborate and very late cresting. Apparently on the N side of the high altar above originally. An easter sepulchre, then, and both the C12 architecture and C15/16 tomb are more fuel to the fire of my current fantasy ‘images of Holy Sepulchres’ research theme. All in all, worth the wait, then.

Pictures are on my phone, but I can’t work out how to  transfer them, being a bear of medieval brain.

Gothic Gardens

July 8, 2011 Leave a comment

If you built a cathedral — the most expensive and complex creative project a society could conceive of — would you then leave its setting entirely unlandscaped? I think not. But what kind of planting and shaping of the land went along with the making of such great churches? It’s a question suprisingly rarely asked, and the answers are tantalising.

We know quite a lot about medieval formal gardens, of course. They’re depicted in illuminations, mentioned in literature, their expenses listed in surviving accounts rolls. Recreations of them even exist. We know too that cloisters might be planted with elaborate formal herb gardens. But what of the wider setting of the great church? Was the surrounding graveyard simply a well-tended lawn, as it is today? If so, who cut the grass, and was it green, or studded with carefully chosen, even symbolic, flowers, like the gardens of Our Lady depicted in medieval paintings?

‘Our Lady’s arbour’: that’s the name given to the cloister garth at Hereford cathedral in late medieval sources, a very popular place of burial for the local laity. But Mary and gardens and architecture are linked in more intriguing ways. I can think of two gardens that were apparently positioned directly next to major Lady chapels, at the east end of Norwich cathedral and Westminster Abbey respectively. They would thus have been located adjacent to both a major work of architecture and the exclusive burial ground of the monks. Did they play a commemorative role? How did they relate to the building and the burials?

And what of the sense we get, in the 1240s, that the landscape around the newly-completed Wells cathedral is being designed to some extent: clerks, lay and canons burial grounds seperated out, with the laity ‘in the churchyard towards the west, begining by the small elms planted there by the place where the guest chamber used to be’, that is, somewhere hard by the new west front. Of course, simply building Wells involved substantial landshaping, flattening and terracing a large plot next to the old Saxon cathedral — which itself responded to and channelled the ancient St Andrew’s Pools beyond.

All these thoughts are thrown into striking relief by a new article by John Goodall ‘The chantry chapel at Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick’ (in Coventry: medieval art, architecture and archaeology in the city and its vicinity’, BAA Conference Transactions XXXIII, Leeds 2011), in which he describes the secular ‘cult’ of the hermit/knight  Guy of Warwick, with its chapel by a cliff next to a river and not far from a meadow containing a ‘fayre spring’. It’s a beguiling landscape setting, and Leland tells us that Richard, Earl of Warwick in the C15 ‘enclosed the silver wells in the meadow with pure white slike [sic] stone like marble, and there set up a pretty wood, antra in Saxo, the river rolling with a pretty noise over the stones’ (307). Goodall makes it clear that this particular Earl probably wasn’t in fact responsible for the work, but what sticks in the memory is the sense of an already charged landscape being improved and shaped, presumably in a fashion that didn’t look too artificial. If this was possible, what else might have been?