Medieval Part II: Architecture
The English architectural style of the later 14th and 15th centuries was Perpendicular. This was a marked change from the previous Decorated version of the Gothic.
In northern Europe, the Decorated style developed into the convoluted and florid Flamboyant style, but the Perpendicular is distinctively English. It is characterised by soaring vertical lines, huge narrow-traceried windows, far more glass than stone, and exuberant fan-vaulted, hammerbeam or ‘angel’ roofs.
Perpendicular churches are among the greatest glories of English architecture. Tall and light-filled, they were expensive to build. Many (though by no means all) of the finest stand in areas made prosperous by the booming cloth trade, especially East Anglia and Lincolnshire, the Cotswolds and parts of the West Country.
PIETY AND PRIDE
Some of the biggest churches built or reconstructed in the Perpendicular style served village populations which could never have filled them: they are manifestations of piety and local pride, rather than need.
Many Perpendicular churches contain lavish tombs, erected to ensure that their founders and benefactors would be remembered. Generous souls further secured their salvation by adding almshouses, schools or ‘colleges’ (communal residences for priests) in a matching style, as at Ewelme, Oxfordshire, Tattershall College, Lincolnshire, and Chichele College, Northamptonshire.
Nobles and rising gentry – like the Heydons of Baconsthorpe Castle – also proclaimed their wealth and status by building lavish mansions. These were often built in the style of castles, and surrounded by moats, but were not seriously defensible.
SHAPE AND SUBSTANCE
During the later decades of the 14th century there was a fashion for corner-towered rectangular castles like Bodiam in Sussex, Farleigh Hungerford Castle in Somerset and Bolton Castle in Yorkshire. Old Wardour Castle in Wiltshire is, unusually, hexagonal, while Nunney Castle in Somerset is a compact ‘tower house’ in the French style.
Great 15th-century mansions include Tattershall Castle and palatial Wingfield Manor (Derbyshire), both built for Lord Treasurer Ralph Cromwell and significantly embellished with his badge of a bulging purse and his motto, ‘Have I not the right?’
Tattershall Castle is built of brick. This material became increasingly popular in eastern England, where it was also used lavishly for Thornton Abbey Gatehouse, Kirby Muxloe Castle and much of Gainsborough Old Hall. At first imported from Flanders, building bricks were soon being made in England.
In many parts of England, however, the main building tradition remained timber-framing.
Timber was used not only for modest dwellings but also for ambitious town houses and guildhalls, like those in the Suffolk wool town of Lavenham and for the upper storey of York’s Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. The mighty timber hammerbeam roof added to Westminster Hall in 1395–9 by Hugh Herland and Richard II’s master-mason Henry Yevele has a 21-metre span. It is one of the most daring feats of carpentry ever achieved.
Harmondsworth Barn, Middlesex, of 1426–7, one of the largest timber-framed barns ever built in England, must also rank among the architectural wonders of this period.