The Gothic in England

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The Gothic in England

Sea Change at Canterbury.

Although Gothic architecture developed in the direction of a highly rationalized set of forms responding to a combination of religious, technological, and practical conditions, it was never conceived as a rigid formula or an integrated system that obeyed a set of rules. English architecture during the half century from 1175 to 1230 reveals that it is better understood as a kit of parts, including columns, piers, shafts, pointed arches, and ribbed vaults, that could be selectively combined in endless variations. The rebuilding of the choir of Canterbury Cathedral after a fire in 1174 marked the beginning of this change of direction in English architecture. Designed by the French master mason William of Sens (late twelfth century), and completed by William the Englishman, the extraordinarily long east arm includes two transepts and two choirs that accommodated a community of monks as well as the secular clergy of the archbishop and chapter (the canons charged with administration of the church). With its ambulatory and rotunda on the eastern axis, it also provided a splendid theater for the display of the relics of St. Thomas Becket, who had been murdered in the cathedral in 1170. Although it incorporated portions of the old Norman walls into its fabric, Canterbury is thoroughly French in character. In place of the massive walls of the Romanesque period, the choir rose, as at Saint-Denis, in three tiers of light screen walls carried by slender columns and supported on the exterior by flying buttresses. The constantly varying columns that appear in cylindrical and polygonal shapes, as pairs or enriched with additional shafts, enhance the visual complexity of the building. Complemented by the dark marble shafts and moldings that play over the piers and walls, the polished marble columns of the apse, and the incomparable stained glass and wall paintings, the Canterbury choir emphasizes luxurious variety that was a hallmark of medieval definitions of beauty, intended to achieve an almost literal representation of the Heavenly City.


The importance of Canterbury lay not so much in inspiring a series of copies based on French styles, but in directing English architecture toward new effects of lightness and linearity. This is best illustrated at Lincoln Cathedral, where rebuilding that began in 1192 after the collapse of the crossing tower in the original Romanesque church went on through a series of campaigns and eventually resulted, by 1250, in the replacement of the two transepts, St. Hugh's (the western) choir, and the nave—indeed, everything except the west block and towers. Although the Canterbury type of elevation formed the starting point, and a Gothic sensibility is apparent in the adoption of pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and finely scaled shafts and moldings, the Lincoln design was guided by principles of syncopation and a rich layering of the wall in depth that recalls the powerful three-dimensionality of Norman Romanesque. The dark shafts of the vault are cut off above the level of the arcade and meet the rib at a seemingly arbitrary level in the triforium, effectively severing the relationship between the vault and the piers. Looking upward into the vaults of St. Hugh's choir only aggravates the visual uncertainty. These so-called "crazy vaults" comprising groups of three ribs that converge on two centers at the crown, marked the appearance of tiercerons, ribs that arc from the wall to an off-center keystone. By multiplying the number of ribs and introducing two keystones tied by a longitudinal ridge rib, the Lincoln vaults broke down the clear definition of the bay unit and intensified the sense of continuous zigzag movement down the length of the interior space. However, the vaults were not the work of an eccentric architect, but rather an ingenious solution that permitted an expansion of the windows in the choir to include three broad lights per bay. In this regard, the importance of light and color that shaped twelfth-century developments in northern France as well as Canterbury remain central concerns for the Lincoln master. But rather than pursuing the visual logic of a rigorously integrated structure, the Lincoln builder may have turned to disjunction and multiplicity as the effective means to capture the un-earthly architecture of heaven. The vaults of St. Hugh's choir were elaborated into star patterns in the nave in the 1220s and 1230s through the addition of liernes, short ribs within the surface of the vault that tie tiercerons together. The tierceron and lierne vault was to be repeated in ever more intricate variations throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in such buildings as Exeter Cathedral and the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral.


introduction: In 1174 there was a great fire at Canterbury Cathedral when sparks from burning cottages nearby ignited the wooden timbers supporting the roof, which were hidden between the sheet lead covering above and the painted ceiling below. By the time the fire was discovered, the burning timbers had fallen down onto the choir and set the wooden seats on fire, sending flames twenty-five feet high that damaged the columns of the structure. So severe was the damage to the church that experts were called in to decide how it might be reconstructed. Gervase of Canterbury, a monk at the Cathedral from 1163 to 1210, describes this process in "Of the Burning and Repair of the Church of Canterbury."

[1174] However, amongst the other workmen, there had come a certain William of Sens, a man active and ready, and as a workman most skilled both in wood and stone. Him, therefore, they [the monks of Canterbury], retained, on account of his lively genius and good reputation, and dismissed the others. And to him, and to the providence of God was the execution of the work committed.

And he, residing many days with the monks and carefully surveying the burnt walls in their upper and lower parts, within and without, did yet for some time conceal what he found necessary to be done, lest the truth should kill them in their present state of pusillanimity.

But he went on preparing all things that were needful for the work. … And when he found that the monks began to be somewhat comforted, he ventured to confess that the pillars [piers] rent with the fire and all that they supported must be destroyed if the monks wished to have a safe and excellent building. …

And now he addressed himself to the procuring of stone from beyond [the] sea. He constructed ingenious machines for loading and unloading ships, and for drawing cement and stones. He delivered molds for shaping the stones to the sculptors who were assembled, and diligently prepared other things of the same kind. The choir thus condemned to destruction was pulled down, and nothing else was done in this year. …

In that summer [1178] he [William of Sens] erected ten piers, starting from the transept … five on a side. … Above these he set ten arches and the vaults. But after two triforia and the upper windows on both sides were completed and he had prepared the machines … for vaulting the great vault, suddenly the beams broke under his feet, and he fell to the ground, stones and timbers accompanying his fall, from the height of the capitals of the upper vault, that is to say, of fifty feet. Thus sorely bruised by the blows from the beams and stones he was rendered helpless alike to himself and for the work, but no other person than himself was in the least injured. Against the master only was this vengeance of God or spite of the devil directed.

The master, thus hurt, remained in his bed for some time under medical care in expectation of recovering, but was deceived in this hope, for his health amended not. … But the master reclining in bed commanded all things that should be done in order. Thus the vault between the four main piers was completed; in the keystone of this quadripartite ribbed vault … the choir and the arms of the transept seem, as it were, to [converge]. … Two quadripartite ribbed vaults were also constructed on each side before winter. Heavy continuous rains did not permit of more work. With that the fourth year was concluded and the fifth begun. …

And the master, perceiving that he derived no benefit from the physicians, gave up the work, and crossing the sea, returned to his home in France.

source: Gervase of Canterbury, "Of the Burning and Repair of the Church of Canterbury," in Gothic Art, 1140–c. 1450. Ed. Teresa G. Frisch (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971): 17–19.

Wells as Modern Architecture.

A glance at the interior of the Wells Cathedral nave, begun around 1190, reveals the way in which English architects used Gothic forms as independent bits and pieces. Pointed arches and ribbed vaults do not work together as parts of a unified skeleton, but appear as repeating forms arranged in three distinct horizontal zones stacked on top of one another. Vertical connections are reduced to a fragmentary clasp between the two upper levels, leaving the vault in a tenuous, hovering relationship to the lateral walls. With its brawny piers and thick walls with passages, Wells might be seen as an old Norman structure dressed in fashionable new Gothic clothes, but its mantle of sharp forms, increased luminosity, and restless linearity demonstrate the creation of an architecture that is divorced from the forms and effects of the classical Roman tradition. The singular west front, at once majestic and delicate, rearranges the French type by shrinking the portals and emphasizing the stout mass of the towers. Row upon row of statue niches evoke the "many rooms in my Father's house" mentioned by Jesus in the Gospel of John (14:2) and created more than 500 places for the residents of heaven, prophets, apostles, kings, martyrs, virgins, bishops, and abbots. Choirs hidden in the singing galleries within the thickness of the west wall would have brought these statues to life during liturgical ceremonies throughout the year. Rather than relying on quotations of models and forms from the past to create meaning, Wells is a fully realized example of the Gothic invention of an architecture of persuasive symbolic power drawn from a formal repertory that was both completely original and infinitely flexible.


Jean Bony, "French Influence on the Origins of English Gothic Architecture," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 12 (1940): 1–15.

L. S. Colchester, ed., Wells Cathedral: A History (Shepton Mallett: Open Books, 1982).

Gervase of Canterbury, "Canterbury Cathedral" in Architectural History of Some English Cathedrals: A Collection in Two Parts of Papers Delivered During the Years 1842–1863. Trans. Robert Willis (Chicheley, England: Minet, 1972–1973).

Dorothy Owen, ed., A History of Lincoln Minster (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Nikolaus Pevsner and Priscilla Metcalf, The Cathedrals of England: Midland, Eastern and Northern England (New York: Viking, 1985).

see also Visual Arts: Political Life and the New State

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The Gothic in England

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