‘At Random’ Observations of an Amateur ‘Cathedraphile’
-Mary B. CrowThe sounds, the smells of Europe, the searing heat of Spain in August and the rain and mist of that same month in Great Britain cannot be evoked by a teacher of European history in her American classroom as a type of "sensory" education. One must hear, smell and feel them in their proper and original settings. But a teacher may, by a judicious use of color slides, create a setting, a locale in and through which the student may sense and associate a particular time and place with his textbook facts.
I am grateful to Monmouth College for its faculty development fund. On three different occasions, in 1960, 1962, and in 1963, when I planned to tour in Europe, I received from it money sufficient to cover the major part of the cost of film which I used to take slides for classroom use. My particular plan was to photograph architecture in Europe representative of various areas and eras in western culture. My particular interest and photographic activity seemed to center around cathedral architecture in England from the Norman and Gothic periods. This short paper will deal with generalities concerning the history of English cathedrals--and the history to be found within them--if one seeks it.
In no sense do I intend a technical paper on the subject of the buildings. My paper will be the thoughts of meanderer, a traveler, a tourist and amateur"Cathedraphile."
There are in England today some forty-four Anglican sees. Nine of them are classified as of the Old Foundation; that is to say, their foundation and government was by secular canons. Of them the see of London, St. Paul’s, is the oldest, having a founding date of A.D. 604. Fourteen are classified as of the New Foundation, or of monastic origin, either Benedictine or Augustinian, but largely Benedictine. Of them the see of Canterbury takes pride of the place with the founding date of 597. Finally, there are the sees of the Modern Foundation, whose cathedrals formerly were collegiate or parish churches, and their number is twenty. Of the last group some of the buildings are very old, as, for example, medieval Ripon, St. Albans, and Bury St. Edmunds. Several were erected in the nineteenth century, and a few in the twentieth, as Coventry.
Most sees date from the reintroduction of Christianity into England by St. Augustine in Kent. Far to the north were a few sees which may date from the days of the Roman occupation of the island and the later mission activities of the Irish monastics who spread Christianity into Scotland by way of Iona and into England by way of Landisfarne. Even earlier it is known that a bishop of York was present at the Council of Nicaea called by Constantine to settle the Arian controversy. Incidentally, Constantine was proclaimed Roman Caesar while at York, or Eboracum, as the Romans called it. The mists of time and the illiteracy of man shroud much of this early history of Christianity in England and much must be surmised. Recorded history of some veracity became possible only after the Irish-oriented, or Celtic, and Rome-oriented Christian communities met in synod at Whitby in 664 and Rome emerged the victor. The first English saint actually was a soldier in the Roman legions, Alban by name. He is considered the first English martyr and his memory is kept a live in the cathedral named after him.
One episcopal see has two cathedrals, in a sense, that of the bishop of Bath and Wells. Actually, the throne of the bishop is at Wells and the chapter at Wells elects the bishop of Bath and Wells. The bishop of Bath and Wells is a part of English coronation history that goes back to the days of Richard the Lionhearted, for it is this bishop, along with that of Durham, who support the new sovereign at the coronation. Westminster Abbey, perhaps the most famous of English medieval churches, is not a cathedral and never was except for a brief period from 1543-13, but is has a special and unique place in the history of church edifices as the long-time burial place and the coronation church of English monarchs. It still is the coronation church but long ago St. George’s Chapel at Windsor became the burial place of the monarchs.
I became interested in the Norman (English Romanesque) and Gothic styles when I stood awestruck in Westminster Abbey and later in Canterbury Cathedral in the summer of 1960. Subsequent tours of England in 1962 and 1963 took me to cathedrals in Hereford, Lincoln, Salisbury, Wells, York, Bath, Abbey, Carlisle, Chester, Durham, Ely, Gloucester, Norwich, Peterborough, Winchester, Worcester, Ripon and St. Albans, all built in the medieval styles."New" St. Paul’s of Christopher Wren and the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral make a total of twenty of the English cathedrals which I have visited and photographed in an admittedly superficial manner, but well enough for my teaching purposed.
Few would deny that the greatest spirituals, communal, and artistic visual expression of the medieval period is to be found in the cathedral building itself, the fruit of the united efforts of generations of laymen, clergy, and craftsmen-artists. The evolution of certain of its basic characteristics is a revelation of man’s own evolving engineering and of artistic development of the time.
An immediate example may be seen in the apsidal east ends of Norman churches. The Anglo-Norman builders first used the simple basilican plan for their structure. It survives today in but three churches; Peterborough, Norwich, and Gloucester. With the increasing popularity of pilgrimages it became necessary that the bodies of local saints buried in the crypts below the altars be brought up from below in order that the shrines be more accessible to the ever-increasing number of pilgrims. The east ends of Canterbury, Winchester, Worcester, and Durham cathedrals were rebuilt for the shrines of St. Thomas Becket, St. Swithin, St. Wulfstan, and St. Cuthbert. That Gloucester and Norwich remain basilican may be due to the fact that there were no saintly remains entombed there. Most cathedral chapters were anxious to have the shrine of some saint for a shrine brought many pilgrims and pilgrims left money and money meant additions to cathedrals. The remains of the Venerable Bede literally were stolen from Jarrow around the year 1022 by a monk named Aelfred who was the sacrist at Durham. His reasoning, no doubt, was that if one saint (Cuthbert) increased pilgrimages, what might not two do? The great central tower at Hereford was paid for by the offerings of pilgrims coming to the shrine of St. Thomas Cantelupe.
The vaulting shows the ever-increasing sophistication and daring of our nameless forbearer-builders. The vaulting points out the lesson of medieval man’s increasing mathematical and engineering skills as his vaults soared higher and higher and covered vaster and vaster space. To begin the study of English vaulting one must go to the great cathedral in its magnificent setting on a high hill at the bend of the River Wear. Sir Walter Scott said of it: "Grey towers of Durham, yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles,
Half church of God, half castle’gainst the Scot."
Durham is wider than any of the other Norman cathedrals and the problem of building a roof was difficult. Many of the Norman builders were content to use a wooden roof over the nave- and two still retain them, Peterborough and Ely. The builders of Durham were revolutionaries for they erected a simple but daring rib-vault of stone; the ribs running diagonally across each bay are semi-circular, but the transverse arches between them are pointed. This is the earliest example of the way in which the pointed arch and the vault of Romanesque Durham gave a glimpse of the Gothic to come to all Europe.
In time an appreciation of stress and strain and thrust and buttressing led to the more complex vaulting that one sees at Winchester and Norwich cathedrals, and eventually to the full development of the pointed arch, the earliest fan vaulting in the cloister walk at Gloucester, and finally to the excesses of King’s College Chapel, Bath Abbey, and the Chapel of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey, a sort of cobwebbing in stone.
Within a few short years after the invasion of the island by Duke William, every Anglo-Saxon bishop save one was replaces by men of Norman birth and heritage. These vigorous prelates much have found the existing Saxon cathedrals poor things indeed for none remains. Within weeks of their arrivals at their new sees, they began to plan for vast new edifies that would do honor to God, to William, and to themselves. They well knew the great structures that William and his wife were building at Caen, the prototypes of the Anglo-Norman churches. And so the great rash of Norman building in England began and in the Romanesque or so–called Norman style.
Architectural and engineering development came not without disaster. Fire led many a cathedral chapter to replace the old wooden ceiling with stone vaulting. The towers often collapsed, as did the square central tower at Ely in 1322. If people were killed in that accident they did not die in vain because to replace the tower a man of genius, Alan of Walsingham, decided to build an octagon at the crossing. This is THE octagon of England, and tradition is that it was studied with care by Christopher Wren before he erected the great dome of St. Paul. Atop the octagon was placed a huge octagonal lantern of wood, a crown that today is being threatened by that scourge of old wood, the death watch beetle. The sight of the octagon is a stunning one both when viewed from outside and when one stands beneath it and looks up and sees that almost unbelievable vaulting.
Ely has another treasure, too, the magnificent Lady Chapel, the 300 small statues of which were all destroyed or defaced by iconoclastic religious bigots. The almost white chapel has been cleaned and restored through the efforts of the American members of the Pilgrim Society. When first built the windows were of colored glass and the stone carvings which cover the four walls were brightly painted and gilded. The color of window and wall is gone The vault of this chapel is one of the widest of medieval England with a span of 46 feet, and the center is only eighteen inches higher than the sides.
Mariolatry was a characteristic of the church universal during the High Middle Ages. To the men and women of that period, Mary seemed to be more human and approachable than ever her son. Evidence of the worship of Mary is seen in every Roman Catholic country in Europe where countless great and small churches are dedicated to the Virgin, or Notre Dame, Nuestra Senora, or Santa Maria. In England, at least half of the cathedrals I visited had a so-called Lady Chapel, evidence visual of the great hold Mary had on medieval worshippers. That the Marian cult developed later than the founding dates of the cathedrals is seen in the placements of the chapels, nearly always as an addition to the apsidal or east end of the church, almost as an afterthought or addendum.
In the English cathedrals a portion of the history of the land can be read by the initiated. For example, why are the interiors of English cathedrals so uncluttered in contrast to those of Spain? The answer is found in the history of the days of England’s religious turbulence with its Protestant bigots and Oliver Cromwell’s hymn-singing soldiery who oftentimes used a cathedral as a stable for horses and who felt piety rising within them as they defaced religious statuary and effigies and smashed glorious windows of colored glass as idolatrous. But the great churches suffered most in the reign of the greedy and petulant Henry VIII. He ransacked the shrines of such as St. Cuthbert, St. Thomas, St. Alban. On is hard pressed to find any evidence that Canterbury was once the greatest of all English pilgrim churches when Becket was buried there and Chaucer’s pilgrim company was whiling away the time by the telling of tall tales.
The important periods of violent damage to the cathedral structure were: (1) in the days of Henry VIII; (2) in the days of his young son Edward VI and Somerset, the guardian uncle; (3) in the time of the Civil Wars. Neglect in the Georgian period took its toll in the decay of the great fabrics as too many political bishops and deans were either in absentia or indifferent to the fate of their charges. German bombs in World War II destroyed medieval Coventry and damaged Canterbury and Wren’s St. Paul.
For Carlisle and Durham the Scots were a constant menace and trail. After the battle of Dunbar in 1650, some 4,000 prisoners were crammed into Durham. There everything that was moveable and of wood was burned by the chilly Scots. There is a legend, certainly believable, that the only thing they spared was the great clock case and then only because it bore a carving of their beloved Scottish thistle. Carlisle’s cathedral witnessed Robert Bruce swearing fealty to Edward I in 1997, the oath being sworn on the stone of Thomas Becket. After the failure of Prince Charles Edward’s attempt to size the throne of his house in the famous uprising of "the ’41," Carlisle, too, became a prison for Scottish captives and much damage resulted.
Speaking of destruction, it is interesting and a little sad to note that many cathedral experts believe that amongst the greatest destroyers were the architects of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who, breathing the air of the Romantic Movement in England, set out to restore the fabrics of the churches in the light of their own concepts of the Gothic medium. Their work was not done in malice, however, for all were well-meaning men.
A case in point is the restorative work performed by the first Baron Grimthorpe. In the guidebook of St. Alban’s, a building he admittedly saved from ruin, a canon of the chapter writes of Grimthorpe: "He was an amateur architect and an enemy of all professionals, medical and architectural; a habitual restored of churches, a millionaire, a man of what are politely called in ecclesiastical circles, pronounced views. This meant that he hated deans and chapter, Puseyites and statues (which he always called idols). This did not stop him from allowing his own features to represent St. Matthew on a carving on the west porch. He arrived one day in St. Albans when a committee was sitting to discover ways and means of repairing the abbey. He came to the rescue and restored the building at his own expense, and, naturally, to his own specifications… many hard things have been said about him… His west front, his native pulpit, his transept windows, his pepperpots and his alpine treatment of the outside of the Lady Chapel survive. But he saved the church from falling into ruins."
In the Salisbury guidebook one reads:"…and finally in 1789-92 James Wyatt, architect of Fonthill Abbey and Wilton House cloisters, was called in to restore it. This he did…very drastically."
Ely’s guidebook has this to say: "The destruction wrought by Cromwell’s Commissioners was the last of the changes made to the cathedral in the name of ‘pure religion,’ but unfortunately further changes did occur. By the year of 1770 ‘true taste’ was held to require some lamentable alterations."
Sir Gilbert Scott"restored" at Salisbury, Lincoln, Peterborough, Durham, and many others. In Durham’s guidebook we read, "He put up the marble and alabaster screen which still stands at the entrance of the choir. The best that can be said of it is that it might not look so bad anywhere else."
Of Scott (and the others) the summation appears in the Hereford book."He may well be criticised from the artistic standpoint, but he saved the cathedral."
If one compared photographs of the English cathedrals with those of France of the period, one would discover several things. The English churches are wide, long, and low; the French buildings soar ever higher as though, in a great ecstasy there was a reaching toward heaven. St. Alban’s cathedral has a total length of 520 feet and a height of 70 feet in the nave. Winchester’s length is 526 feet and it is eight feet higher than St. Albans. The greatest interior height of any Norman or gothic structure in England is 99 ½ feet measured in the nave of York Minster. York also is the largest in point of space covered by these building. It has a total of 60,952 square feet, twice that of such cathedrals as Chester, Gloucester, Hereford, Ripon, or Wells. The Notre Dame of Parish reaches an interior height of 115 feet, Rheims reaches upward to 125 feet, Amiens to 140 feet and Beauvais soars to 157 feet.
An awesome sight is the towering spire of Salisbury, so heavy that when one stands beneath it and looks upward one sees the slight bend in the stone pillars supporting the great weight of the tower and the spire at the crossing. The columns were not originally designed to support a weight estimated to be over 6,400 tons, hence the bend.
Salisbury is the only medieval cathedral in England built entirely in one architectural style, Early English, a form of English Gothic. This was possible because of the great speed in which it was erected, a mere thirty-eight years, a trice in terms of cathedral building. All of the other medieval structures in England are a meld of styles. Peterborough has remnants of a Saxon foundation of the 9th century, a Norman nave with early Perpendicular additions. In the 13th century the west front was added in the Early English style, and in the southeast corner is found mature Perpendicular with fan vaulting similar to that of King’s College chapel and built around 1500.
Nothing prepared the viewer for the huge and delicately carved reredos behind the high altars of both Winchester and St. Albans, the statuary in the intricately carved screens being 19th century replacements of the originals, victims of Cromwell and his men. Just so, nothing was preparation for the ethereal beauty of the chapter house stair at Wells, its steps worn by generations of monks as they approached their great chapter house with its single pillar and its delicate ribs soaring up the pillar and then out across the ceiling of the room.
The tombs, with their occupants recumbent and in effigy atop, are found in all of the cathedrals and vary in artistic excellence. Crusaders, family groups, mitred bishops galore are frozen forever in stone. One pauses a long moment before the recumbent figure of King John in Worcester Cathedral. Did those two tiny carved figures of saints between whom he lies help to shorten his soul’s stay in purgatory? As he clutches his sword is he forever thinking of those recalcitrant nobles who forced the Magna Charta from him?
A short distance from John’s tomb is the elaborate last resting place of fifteen-year-old Prince Arthur, older son of Henry VII and dead after six months of marriage to the Spanish Catherine, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. A memento to the betrothal of these two children is to be seen in the east window of St. Margaret’s Church, the parish church of the British Parliament, that nestles close to the great Abbey. The window, a product of Flanders, was a part of Catherine’s dowry. One thinks of that lonely tomb in a side aisle of Peterborough, the last resting place of the bride Arthur left and who was fated to marry Arthur’s younger brother, Prince Hal. Catherine of Aragon lies alone in the crypts of Peterborough and far from the royal tombs of England. Her only royal companionship in those crypts was a brief one. The beheaded Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, lay there until her son, James I, had her body transferred to the Abbey where she lies alien amidst the royalty of England. It is one of the small ironies of history that Catherine’s only child, Mary Tudor, lies in the same grave in Westminster Abbey with Anne Boleyn’s daughter, the great Elizabeth I. Mary’s husband, Philip II, lies buried in far-off Spain in his Escorial. Personal tragedy was the lot in England of these two of Spanish blood, both rejected by their royal consorts. How different the lot of another royal Spanish-born consort, Eleanor of Castille, beloved wife of Edward I. Her memory is kept alive by the beautiful Eleanor Crosses ordered erected by her grieving widower. These crosses commemorate the successive stages of the funeral procession toward Westminster Abbey. Three of the original twelve still stand and are seen in Geddington Northhampton, and Waltham. Eleanor’s statue is to be seen over one of portals of Lincoln Cathedral.
A bit of Anglo-French history is seen in Winchester where across from the elaborate chantry of Cardinal Beaufort stands a statue of St. Joan of Arc, erected in 1923, three years after her belated canonization. Cardinal Beaufort, one of the participants in the trial of Joan, must rest uneasy these days under her fixed gaze. In Canterbury lies the"temporary" tomb of the French Cardinal Odet de Coligny, who one surmises from his name and time of his death in 1571, was a Catholic turned Huguenot and therefore refugee from France and the Guises. He never knew of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572 which took the life of his great kinsman and Protestant leader, the Admiral de Coligny.
A monument in Hereford Cathedral attests to the burial place of the man who was bishop of Hereford from 1746 to 1787. Lord John Beauclerk, bishop, was the grandson of the passion of King Charles II and Nell Gwynn. Perhaps in assuming the cloth this son of their love-child atoned in part for the sins of his grandparents.
The town of Bath has been a spa since the days of the Romans and the people of England have flocked there for centuries in quest of health and well-being that presumably comes from the curative waters. Just across the square from the building that holds the premier spring as well as the world’s premier Pump Room, is Bath Abbey, last major Gothic building of medieval England. Some 614 memorial tablets are attached to the inside walls of the great abbey. Of them Henry Harrington wrote his famous epigram: "These walls so full of monument and bust, show how Bath waters serve to lay the dust."
In the south transept of Chester Cathedral is a bit of Americana, the tattered flag of the Cheshire Regiment in which the body of General Wolfe was wrapped after the Battle of Quebec and which also was carried in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Along with the development of architecture came a rise of other specialized crafts as wood workers and stone masons carved with more grace and lightness. The glazier had his role, particularly in the days of the late Gothic innovations that had their historic beginnings in that French building of Abbot Suger of St. Denis. It is at St. Denis that one sees the entry of true Gothic characteristics into the ecclesiastic structural idiom of Europe and the islands. A color slide cannot do justice to the vast east windows of York, Gloucester, and Carlisle, beautiful in their exquisite color. These windows are glowing and glittering proof positives of the development and evolution of medieval architecture. A wall of sheer glass could not have been built by the builders of Durham, innovators in their own time though they were. The pointed arch had triumphed at last over the round arch of Rome and the glass proved it. Along with the pointed arch, the flying buttresses and rib-vault constituted a new vocabulary in spatial motion, the Gothic style.
The Norman style with the round arch, massive walls, enormous piers, small windows and gloomy interior no longer sufficed. This was the style that symbolized the pride of the monastic orders at the height of their power. The Gothic style was urban and perhaps was a part of the growing secular spirit associated with the revival of trade and town life that presaged the approaching close of the Middle Ages. Otherworldliness rapidly was giving place to and increasing worldliness that is reflected, to a degree, in the transition from the spare and heavy Norman to the light and lively Gothic.
My photographic equipment was modest as befits an amateur photographer. Quantities of high speed Ektachrome and Kodachrome X file, a tripod, two cameras, one of which has a semi-wide angle lens from architectural photography. And last but not least, my long suffering camera-bearer-husband who does not share my enthusiasm for cathedrals.
Editorial note from 2002: Mary Crow was among Monmouth's academic pioneers in enhancing her classroom presentations with slides. She was a first-class photographer who understood that in addition to careful study and a sense for composition and color, one has to take multiple pictures from which to choose later. In time she had many thousands of slides from from annual trips to Europe, and her presentations to college and civic groups were very popular. Mary's own irreverent sense of humor enlivened every occasion. Appropriately, after her death her husband, Ernie Crow, provided funds to renovate the classroom in Wallace 204 for audio-visual use, and the room was named in her honor, the Mary Crow Room.