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.

The imposing brick gatehouse at Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire

The imposing brick gatehouse at Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire

PERPENDICULAR CHURCHES

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.

St John's Abbey Gate, Colchester

St John’s Abbey Gate, the only surviving part of a rich Benedictine monastery in Colchester, Essex, was built in about 1400 to strengthen the abbey’s defences. The emphasis on vertical lines is characteristic of the Perpendicular style.

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.

Aerial view of Old Wardour Castle

Old Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, was begun in the 1390s for John, 5th Lord Lovell. Although castles retained a military function in the later medieval period, they also increasingly reflected the owner’s social status. Old Wardour’s unusual and innovative hexagonal shape was a vivid symbol of Lord Lovell’s wealth and rank.

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.

Interior of Harmondsworth Barn, Middlesex

Dubbed by John Betjeman the ‘cathedral of Middlesex’, Harmondsworth Barn is one of the most complete, unaltered pre-Reformation buildings in England. Built by Winchester College in 1426–7 as part of its manor farm at Harmondsworth, the timber-framed barn is an exceptional example of medieval carpentry.

TIMBER-FRAMING

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.

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