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Architectural Development of Gloucester Cathedral
by Stephanie James

G L O U C E S T E R   C A T H E D R A L
An Abbey of Innovation

Gloucester Cathedral frrom the North

As most great buildings took many years to build, the changing tastes influence many aspects of the building's design. The Abbey (later Cathedral) at Gloucester was no exception. The degree of architectural experimentation in the Abbey Church is one of the factors that make it a notable building of this period. There were six major phases of construction: the crypt and eastern arm under Abbot Serlo, 1089-1104; the perpendicular modifications under Abbot Wigmore, 1329-1337; the cloisters under Abbot Horton, 1351-1377; the south porch and the alteration of the west end of the nave under Abbot Morwent, 1421-1437; the central tower under abbot Seabroke, 1450-1457; and the Lady Chapel under Abbots Hanley, 1457-1472, and Farley, 1472-1499.

The crypt at Gloucester was much larger and more versatile than the Anglo-Saxon predecessor. The crypt is provided with altars and chapels and does not seem to have been constructed simply to house relics. This is the fifth Anglo-Norman example of this type of crypt. The eleventh century crypt is also described as unusual outside of cathedral churches. The second phase of construction began after the accession of Abbot Wigmore. In 1327 Abbot Thokey, Wigmore's predecessor, accepted the murdered body of Edward II. The abbots of Bristol, Kingswood, and Malmesbury had all refused the dead king burial within their precincts. Thokey sent a chariot to Berkeley Castle to receive the dead king. Edward II was buried in the north aisle by the high altar. The cage that surrounds his effigy spawned a style in Detail of Effigial Monument to King Edward II the architecture of the choir, the church and ultimately the country. The rise of perpendicular tracery has been associated with the taste of Edward III. Edward was tutored by an influential Orientalist which may have influenced his tastes in art. It has been suggested that the new style was not only aesthetically pleasing to Edward III, but that he was impressed with the philosophy of the use of space and light as a more suitable shrine for his father.

English art and architecture was becoming increasingly insular from the mid-thirteenth century as a result of war with France, thus encouraging new styles and experimentation in church design and decoration. The Severn Valley school of masons of the early 14th century, can be seen in the details of the choir and transepts. This school of masons was particularly creative. At Gloucester, they experimented with a style of surface decoration. The panelling/mullion was put on the windows in a perpendicular fashion. The south transept at the Abbey Church in Gloucester is considered the earliest example of the perpendicular style, dating from 1337. The perpendicular style did not evolve, but was created by a mason for the south transept of the Abbey Church and then caught on. The west-midlands show some transition architecture between the decorated and perpendicular styles, but throughout the rest of the country, there is little contemporary transition architecture; however, there are perpendicular modifications to existing decorated churches. The perpendicular tracery would draw the eyes up towards heaven as well as the intricate vaulting.

Lierne Vaulting in the ChoirFan Vaulting in the CloisterThe masons at Gloucester pioneered two types of vaulting at the Abbey: lierne and fan. The earliest known example of lierne vaulting comes from the south transept and choir vault at Gloucester, dated ca. 1337 and the first fan vaults can be found in the south walk of the cloisters, dated ca. 1351. The earliest extant vaulting at the Abbey is in the north aisle of the nave, which is twelfth century Norman. Much of the thirteenth century nave vault was probably built by the monks themselves as it is not up to the same standard of other contemporary work in the nave. The main nave vault is too low and as a result the clerestory windows are also small and divided. The height of the vault was likely decided by the existing Norman roof which protected the workers and below from the weather. The south nave vault dates from the early fourteenth century.

The nave of the Abbey Church at Gloucester is the area where most of the experimentation took place, and this is a general trend that can be seen in other churches such as Tewkesbury and Exeter. The Master in charge of Gloucester has employed continuous roll-moulded arches around the clerestory windows, openings to the chapels and ambulatory windows. This feature is extremely rare for Anglo-Norman architecture. Precedent for this feature can be seen at St. Nicholas at Caen and Cerisy-la-Foret. Another of the innovations of the western arm include a reduction in the size of the gallery and triforium. There was an attempt to make a single large arcaded tier, rather than the traditional two, but the effect was less than harmonious; although, it was eventually adopted throughout the country. The reduction in the height of the gallery was a result of compensating for the large bays below, but the importance of the gallery was diminished. Relatively, the triforium is too small for the massive bays below, giving the appearance of imbalance. This is a result of the distinct change in tradition, both English and Norman, with the exclusion of galleries in the nave but their inclusion in the choir. Architect Hugh Braun describes the gallery at Gloucester "the strange experiment". He also describes capitals of the piers as "a remarkably naive experiment" that resulted in a "sad muddle". Braun's Norman Columns in the Nave dislike for the Abbey may be justified if he is basing it on the symmetrical value and overall unity of style. It is his opinion that Gloucester was built on a Byzantine model thus making it "ludicrous" and the "crowning example of [the] folly". The importance of such experimentation is the evolution of distinct architectural styles.

An innovative architectural style developed at the Abbey Church in Gloucester was known as perpendicular tracery. It is a type of tracery that emphasizes the vertical lines in the panel. The mullions remain perpendicular when they meet the arch. The tracery is carried over the windows and on to the walls, which creates a dramatic effect emphasizing the vertical. Light was also used to enhance the effect. Piers were made as narrow as structurally possible to allow more light in from the ever increasing window sizes. The south transept and the choir are early examples of the perpendicular style, dating from 1337-1350. The area is well lit by the clerestory and the great east window fills the entire east end of the building. The window is so large that it was built in a bowed fashion to lend it greater wind resistance. The scenery includes a heraldic commemoration of the men who fought at the Battle of Crecy, and is considered to be the first war memorial in England. The east window was the largest window in Europe when it was glazed ca. 1350. It is 72 feet high and 38 feet wide. The window is crowned by an exceedingly complex lierne vault embossed with angelic figures playing musical instruments. Contrasted to the angelic figures of the vault are the carvings on the choir stalls. The stalls are richly carved and represent works of art. The carvings are of folk tales, bear bating, jousting, hawking and mythological figures such as mermaids.

The eastern arm of the church uses the ambulatory plan whereby a semi-circular ambulatory was created around the central apse. There are two chapels that are appended to the ambulatory. This style was found in combination with other Anglo-Norman buildings throughout England, but was the favoured model in the west- midlands, and one of the most notable examples. The central tower was started in about 1450, the Lady Chapel shortly followed. The central towers were added to impress: they have no liturgical or ecclesiastical value. The Lady Chapel is to the east of the ambulatory between the appended chapels. It was built ca. 1470 and is surrounded by walls of glass and topped off with lierne vault. The transepts include an upper gallery for musicians. The cruciform shape of the Lady North Transept of Lady Chapel with Muscians' Gallery aboveChapel is fairly rare but the inclusion of a chapel dedicated to the Virgin that stood almost completely independent of the main church building was not. Other segments that were added to the main Church building include the cloisters, which are notable. They were constructed between 1351-1377 under Abbot Horton. The continuous fan vault may be the first of its kind constructed, certainly the first in England. A wall of 20 carrels in the cloisters called a scriptorium also survives. That area would have served as the desks for the writing monks. The cloisters at the Abbey of St. Peter also house an example of the most complete lavatorium in England.

Architectural historians have commented that despite the proximity between Gloucester and Bristol, there are no stylistic similarities in the tracery or mouldings. The diagonal buttress on the central tower contrasts with the paired buttresses of the Bristol tower. These fundamental differences show the independence of the Gloucester Abbots and creativity of the masons. The creativity was afforded by the revenues from the shrine to Edward II and the prestige and importance of the site itself. The future Archbishop Laud was dean of Gloucester from 1616 - 1621 and he had Jacobean panelling put in the Old Deanery (now Church House). The Old Deanery, like the rest of the Abbey, includes a blend of architectural styles that can easily be seen dating from the Norman period to the Jacobean. Bishop Hooper ordered all wooden screens to be removed from the Cathedral and destroyed. Hooper was later burnt at the stake for heresy, and ironically, the burning took place at Gloucester, February, 1555. Restoration work carried out on the building also contained some unprecedented tactics. In 1956 the cloister roof was reconstructed with pre-stressed, light weight concrete: believed to be the first reconstruction of this type in England.

Gloucester remained an important city from the Roman period due to its trade links, river location and its natural resources such as wool, timber and iron ore. It was an important centre for Mercian rulers, and later Norman rulers as well. Norman influence brought new architectural techniques and the Anglo-Norman hybrid was developed. The shrine of Edward II brought pilgrims and money to the Abbey. Edward III also showed an interest in his father's shrine, and encouraged development of the perpendicular style and King Edward III visits his father's Tomb the use of large windows. The money brought by the pilgrims to Edward II's tomb and the gifts from Edward III allowed much development in the church. The innovations were a result of available funds and the desire to create a memorable shrine to Edward II. The increasingly insular nature of English architecture forced designers to be more creative and the result is a change in the vaulting and window tracery techniques. St. Peter's Abbey in Gloucester is a show piece for some of the early innovations. The significance of the architectural features incorporated in the Abbey Church may not have been recognized by Henry VIII when he decided to spare this building from destruction, but his interest in the tomb of Edward II did. This could be counted as one more miracle to the credit of Edward II.

The Abbey at Gloucester has seen much since it was founded in AD 681. From its Mercian beginnings through the Saxons, Danes, Normans. It has seen a religious reformation, iconoclast destruction, civil war, political revolution and a secularization of society, yet it is still visited by modern pilgrims. Pilgrims came during the Medieval period, and they still come, but for a different reason. Today, they come not to pray, but to admire the beauty of this fine building. Many famous church buildings exemplify the qualities that have taken many years to develop. Many of these architectural innovations began at the Abbey Church at Gloucester. It is a magnificent building in its own right, but it is even more awesome when it is realized that most of the great English cathedrals can trace some part of their design to architectural or stylistic innovations that were developed at Gloucester. The origins of the breathtaking fan vault at King's College Chapel in Cambridge can be traced back to the cloisters at Gloucester. The complex lierne vaulting in the cloisters at Canterbury also can trace its roots to the south transept at Gloucester. The perpendicular technique of the cloisters at Westminster Abbey were born in the south transept at St. Peter's Abbey, Gloucester. It makes one think that there is a little piece of Gloucester Cathedral in all great English churches.

Related Pages:
History of Gloucester
Tour of the Ancient Severn Vale
Tour Gloucester Cathedral
Gloucester City Page
Places to Visit in Gloucester

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