Day-to-day life in early medieval England was a largely humdrum affair, with the majority of people living in modest dwellings built from local materials. Yet between 1290 and 1350, amid the struggle of daily existence, teams of workers overseen by highly skilled artists challenged ideas of what could be accomplished in architecture, and pushed the boundaries to produce some of Europe’s most remarkable buildings.
In his new book, Gothic Wonder: Art, Artifice and the Decorated Style, Paul Binski, professor of medieval art at the University of Cambridge, sheds new light on this pioneering period during which magnificent buildings like the cathedrals of Ely, Norwich and Canterbury were built to proclaim Christianity, and to convey statements about sovereignty with God, the Church and royalty. These constructions, which today dominate city skylines, played a pivotal role in medieval life, and caught the attention of artists and architects across Europe.
Here, writing for History Extra, Binski shares his top five masterpieces from this time period…
I’d point first to Ely Cathedral, because I find the contrast between the isolation of the place in the Fens, and the power and inventiveness of its architecture, so amazing.
Ely seems out of the way, but in the Middle Ages it was one of England’s richest dioceses. So when after 1320 the bishop and monks decided to raise new buildings, they were well resourced. One of these was the new Lady Chapel, which I think is one of the most amazing interiors in medieval Europe because of its carved surfaces and ornateness – as if the stone had oozed and rippled out of the walls like a living thing, telling the story of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary. The craftsmanship is outstanding.
And then you pass into the centre of the church to stand beneath the giant octagon, begun after the central tower fell in 1322 – quite possibly because it was undermined by the digging of the foundations of the Lady Chapel nearby! I found out that the octagon is almost the same height as Rome’s great Pantheon – about 43 metres high – and I suspect this was deliberate. It’s a Gothic dome. Apparently, craftsmen working as far as the south of France knew what the great masons of Ely were doing.
Up the road from Ely is the quite wonderful cloister of Norwich Cathedral, one of the most entertaining and inventive places of its type: the cloister is huge and graceful, but what matters here is that the artisans responsible for it in around 1320 were making the most advanced Gothic arch shapes and patterns in Europe. You can find similar patterns in English embroidered vestments.
At Ely the carvings in the Lady Chapel were smashed after the Reformation, but at Norwich the cloister has a quite amazing, actually unique set of carved vault bosses telling Bible stories or just poking fun – a laundress berates a boy trying to steal her washing while buskers play musical instruments, and an acrobat hangs off the vaults as if about to fall.
For sheer beauty, the cathedral at Wells is amazing: its great west front full of figures and niches was studied by the Lady Chapel architects at Ely, but in the early 14th century the choir and east end were rebuilt in a way that shows the sophistication and subtlety of English art of the time.
A French Gothic church would be very tall and thin, but plain. Here instead every surface is covered in the most beautifully scaled and engineered detailing, including the incredible vaulting that looks like a great net stretched out over the carved under surface. These ‘net’ vaults amazed European architects, and you can find copies of them as far away as Prague. Wells, though obscure as a place, was an art centre recognised across Europe during this period. The English love of pattern triumphs.
I think the choir of Gloucester cathedral is one of the most elegant of all Gothic buildings. Again, like most English structures of the time it isn’t huge, but it is very refined.
In the middle of the 14th century the masons were providing a framework for the tomb of the murdered king Edward II, and used a type of stone cage-work to cover up the old dumpy Norman building underneath – it’s a sort of Gothic botox. You can follow the lines of the old building underneath the sparkling Gothic skin of stone. The effect is beautifully slender and crisp: here, a new style of Gothic emerges, called Perpendicular, which really took off as the form of churches and chapels in England in the later Middle Ages.
The most amazing feature of the choir is the huge window –at the time it was the largest single window in the known world, and it is still largely intact today. The English were brilliant at adapting, and so retaining their older cathedral buildings and breathing new life into them.
In around 1393, right at the end of the period my book covers, King Richard II recast the interior of Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament with a single-span hammer beam roof. It narrowly escaped destruction in the fire that destroyed the old palace in 1834. Even in the Middle Ages it was famous – one writer says that Wookey Hole was as big as Westminster Hall, showing that it was a measure of hugeness.
The miracle here is not just its survival, but its courage – the largest timber span of its type anywhere in northern Europe done by a method that shows how inventive the English were in wood. The point holds true for the timber octagon at Ely, and perhaps even for the panelled effect of the interior of the choir at Gloucester.
The builders of these great structures had brilliant know-how, but also guts. A building fit for a king and, incidentally, one of England’s most important medieval shopping malls.
To find out more about Paul Binski’s Gothic Wonder: Art, Artifice and the Decorated Style (Yale Books, November 2014), click here.