Story Of London

The Architecture of London: English Romanesque (1066 – 1200)

The Architecture of London: Part One – English Romanesque.
by Stephen Montgomery

Architecture is arguably the most prominent of the great arts. When tourists visit the great sites of the ancient world they spend by far the greatest amount of time looking at the remains of the architectural treasures left to us. London, too, has its architectural treasures which are viewed daily by thousands of tourists. But how many of them really understand what they are looking at ? Like any other artistic or scientific discipline, architecture over the years has developed its own jargon to describe the detail of its methods and structures. However, the leading characteristics of the various architectural styles are so broad that the non-architect can understand them with minimal knowledge of the jargon.

The Architecture of London: Part One English Romanesque (1066 – 1200)

The Tower of London

Nothing of the Roman buildings of London which could be called architecture remains standing above ground in London. The few remains of the third century city wall that can still be seen are all that we have from that era. The Romans in London were followed by the Saxons and the Danes, neither of whom were great builders. It is only from the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) that we begin to find substantial architectural remains in London.

Edward was the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings and was, of course, responsible for the foundation construction of Westminster Abbey in 1055. However, the Abbey was not completed until 1100 and it is usual to include it in the catalogue of Norman Architecture in London. When the Normans arrived in England in 1066 they were already the foremost builders of their time in Europe and many of their great buildings still survive in Normandy and Sicily as well as England.

The great patron of building was, of course, the Church and the principal examples of Norman architecture which can still be seen in London today are, apart from the keep of the Tower of London, all churches. These buildings will be discussed in this article and it is useful to list them, with their dates of construction, here.Tower of London with St John’s Chapel – 1078
Westminster Abbey dormitory and crypt – 1055-1100
St. Bartholomew the Great Smithfield – 1123-1145
St Mary-le-Bow crypt, Cheapside – before 1091 possibly older than the Tower
St John Clerkenwell crypt – dedicated 1185
The Temple church – 1170-1185
Parish Church, East Ham – approximately 1130
Capitals from the Templars Church

They style of architecture which they brought with them to England was already fully developed and is referred to as Romanesque. The roots of this style went back to the early period of Christianity when the Church was no more than a small fellowship which conducted a simple form of worship in an unpretentious building. Unlike the Greek and Roman temples, the Christian Church needed to accommodate its members within its walls. The buildings best suited to this were the small Halls or Basilicas which were used as Roman public buildings.

These consisted of oblong apartments with an entrance at one end and a semicircular recess (the apse) at the other. The presiding magistrate or other official would take his seat in the apse. The larger examples had two rows of columns running lengthways, dividing the span of the roof into three parts. The central span was the widest, was known as the nave and was often open to the sky. The two side spans were narrower and known as aisles. The nave ended in the apse and, in due course, the aisles followed suit and ended in smaller apses. By the fifth century these Basilican churches were oriented with the apse at the east end and an atrium with a porch (narthex) at the west end giving access to the entrance doors.

This simple plan did not satisfy the Church for long. She soon became a great power in the councils of Europe and the expansion of ritual demanded more space in the Sanctuary. This area, known as the bema was duly provided with projections to the north and south. The symbolism which later gave the plan the form of a Latin Cross moved the projections further west when they formed what are known as the transepts or arms of the cross.

The deep-toned bell (the Campana was probably invented as early as the fourth century. The bell was seen as a sacred and powerful missionary for the Church as it added to the authority of its ministers amongst a people who were familiar only with the tinkling of the tintinabulum used in other rites. In order to give the Campana a fitting position a new feature the tower (Campanile) was added. The basic ground-plan of the Christian Basilica was thus established and was ready for any development in its superstructure which the skill of builders could devise. It can be seen very clearly in the plan of St john’s Chapel in the Tower of London.
Plan of the third floor in the White Tower showing St John’s Chapel

However, following the fall of the Roman Empire, there was a sharp decline in the knowledge of the building arts. Pockets of excellence were to b found only in those places where Byzantine art had survived. The architects of early Church aspired to great buildings but there was a great disparity between these and the means which they used to carry them out. Unlike the Greeks, they did not quarry fine marbles and they had so lost the engineering knowledge of the Romans that they were unable to construct great vaults and domes of concrete. They were compelled to experiment with small stones, loose rubble and bad mortar. However, the experiment and the ceaseless fight to correct the instability of their buildings led, in the end, to that ‘live’ architecture where each part of a building owes its stability to another part which stands ready to counteract its tendency to fall. This is in total contrast to the previous Greek and Roman methods of construction.

The development of the aisled basilica into what was to become the grandeur and beauty of the Romanesque church was achieved by tow or three simple stages. The first concerned the development of the nave. This was often higher than the side aisles and its walls were supported by the two rows of columns which separated the nave and aisles. Very often the columns themselves were taken from the ruins of classical buildings and were placed close together in order to support a continuous entablature in the traditional manner. However, they soon found it easier to construct arches from one column to another to arrive at the structure now know as a nave arcade. That of the Old St Paul’s was a very fine example as can be seen in the drawing by Hollar which was made before the Great Fire of 1666.
The nave from Old St Paul’s

The architects at first hesitated to allow the arches to spring from the capitals of the columns themselves and they were therefore built over the entablature. However, they were soon brought onto the columns which therefore demanded a change in the shape of the capital. This gave birth to the cushion capital which was to become the most characteristic feature of the Romanesque style. It can be seen to excellent effect in St John’s Chapel in the Tower of London.
The south aisle in St John’s Chapel

The next development was to vault the roofs of the nave and aisles. The method adopted was the construction of a semicircular barrel vaults of stone. This worked well for the smaller aisles but was less frequently successful in the nave. St John’s chapel again provides a good example of a successful attempt. The technique involved the construction, beneath the line of the main vault, of walls which were pierced with small round-headed windows. Whenever the height permitted, the wall between them and the nave arcade was again pierced by a second series of openings into the aisle roof. These two ranges of openings are called respectively the clerestory (clear story) and triforium.
The nave and apse of St John’s Chapel

The Nave arcade, clerestory and triforium form the three divisions into which the height of the nave walls were divided into the Gothic period. The external walls of the aisles had to be of a great thickness in order to support the stone vault and whenever there were windows the opening were kept small so as not to reduce the strength of the masonry. The difficult problem of roofing the portion of the church at which the nave and transepts intersected was evaded rather than solved by raising a square tower over the crossing and roofing it with wood and lead. Towers also frequently flanked the main entrance at the west end of the nave.

The slow development of church architecture before the beginning of the eleventh century is in stark contrast to the rapid changes which followed in the new millennium. This can be explained, at least in part, by the widespread belief throughout Christendom that the year 1000 would see the end of the world and the translation of the Church on earth. When this did not happen there appears to have been an awakening of a new enthusiasm for the temporal power and glory of the Church. When combined with the energy, determination and vision of the Normans this proved a fertile foundation for the glories of Church architecture, which were to follow throughout the medieval period.

But there was another ingredient, namely the organisation of he Church herself. Heir to the Roman empire, which had seen every phase of political life between the extremes of popular power and personal tyranny, the Church of Rome inherited a large measure of political acumen and wisdom. The hierarchy which it established combined the elements of wide democracy and unrelenting absolutism. Its officers (including the Pope) were men who had risen from lowest the ranks of life but yet, once in office, their power was supreme. She won here greatest triumphs by channelling the energies of those who yearned for change within into extending her borders and strengthening her cause with their pioneering vigour. Thus were born the great monastic orders.

Each of these was founded and led by a commanding personality who gathered an army of adherents and laid down strict rules by which the community was to live. One of the first was the order of St Benedict which was responsible for the unremitting spread of the Christian arts throughout all of Europe. As Imperial Rome sent her armies to plant her colonies in hostile lands, the Church sent here convents of disciplined clergy to become the outposts of the Church. The mission of the great orders was not only reflected in the achievements in conversion and proselytising, it was reflected immediately in their architecture as their buildings took on the grandeur and magnificence expected from the envoys of a conquering people.

In short, the Church was THE great power at this time and her buildings were to inspire reverence and admiration as well as instil allegiance and homage in the faithful. Mission statement of the early medieval Church was a claim to empire in which 2one rule, one life, one faith – the same in all nations – would conquer the anarchy and ferocity of barbarous warfare”. For eighty years there flourished, at the hands of the Benedictines, an imperial building art whose style of masonry was independent of nationality. Yet, in the 12rh century, thanks to the Normans, England became the centre of a great movement in architecture.
Plan of the benedictine priory of St Bartholomew’s the Great

The greatest Benedictine establishment in London was the Abbey of Edward the Confessor at Westminster. However, very little of the original building survives today. Much better survival is to be found in the church of the Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew the Great at Smithfield. The Norman arcade and triforium of the choir are a striking example of the sturdiness of the Romanesque style. The reconstruction of its ground-plan demonstrates how the basilica plan was enlarged to the full Benedictine model. Here are the aisled nave and choir, the transepts forming the cross and the apse with a diameter equal to the width of the church. The latter allowed the aisles to surround the altar and form what is known as the ambulatory which is shown in the relevant image below.

It seems that there were two apsidal or side chapels which also had apses and a Lady Chapel was added at the east end at a later date. On the south side of the church lay the conventual buildings which surrounded the cloister. The latter was a direct descendant of the courts of the Basilica and the Roman house and was the scene of the daily life of the priory. The plan seen here was the standard Benedictine plan in which the domestic buildings followed the style of the church. The whole establishment was closely interrelated in all its parts and formed on harmonious and dignified whole. Even the dormitory was planned to enable the monks to reach the church easily at night for their prayers by passing over the entrance to the chapter house and down a stair to the south transept.
The choir of St Bartholomew’s the Great

Details of the Norman design are evident in the view of the choir shown above. The great arches of the main arcade are raised upon massive cylindrical piers and are crowned with a series of capitals of the cushion type. The arches are once recessed in rings called ‘orders’. Compare this to the nave of Old St Paul’s where they are twice recessed and St John’s Chapel at the Tower of London where they are not recessed at all. St Bartholomew’s also has a billet moulding which follows the curve of the arches and connects them over the capitals which restores proportion to the design. Above the arcade, the great size of the triforium arches is worth notice as is the division into four subsidiary arches with small shafts and cushion capitals, which restore proportion to the design. In the surviving fabric the clerestory has been replaced by 15th century windows where a single round-headed light formerly pierced each bay or division of the wall.
The ambulatory of St Bartholomew’s the Great

The main vault of St Bartholomew’s is absent but the early type of barrel vault may be seen at St John’s chapel where it spans the nave and ends in a half dome over the apse. This is the feature of Romanesque architecture which kept Romanesque architecture to the sturdy and massive proportions from which it was only released with the introduction of a lighter stone roof. The great change from Romanesque to Gothic was helped by nothing so much as new inventions in the construction of stone vaulting. As far back as the Classic period, the Romans had known how to intersect two barrel vaults when at right angles to one another, although they often avoided the problem. The result of such an intersection is the plain groined vault which is seen in both the aisle and ambulatory of St Bartholomew’s where the angles of the vaults, as they cut one another, form two diagonal arch-lines from one extreme angle to the other. This construction was massive, heavy and difficult to build.
The porch and doorway of the Templars Church

The church of St John’s Clerkenwell was originally a round building with an apsidal chancel which corresponded with the central aisle of the crypt below. Then crypt, however, demonstrates that this chancel had a square end which was added with the with the side aisles in the 13th century. There is a similar arrangement in the circular church of the Knights Templars which is one of only four or five round churches which remain in England. Here a fine Norman porch and doorway lead to the circular nave. Built in 1185, this exhibits the mingled features of the Romanesque and Gothic styles typical of the transitional period. The entrance door is an example of the luxurious carving which was inspired by the Crusade-spread fashion for Eastern carving and design. The arcade of inter-lacing Norman arches that encircles the church at the triforium level is quite beautiful and the only surviving example of this characteristic Norman feature in London (there are mutilated portions in the parish church of Mary Magdalene in East Ham). The font, also, displays carving of this interlacing. The simple round-headed windows also survive and the circular window over the porch (restored) is a free treatment of the wheel window of which the Normans were very fond. In this, the ‘spokes’ were small columns with capitals, connected by round arches that touched the outer ring of the circle.
The interlacing arcading Triforium in the Templars Church

The parish church of St Mary Magdalene at East Ham is an almost perfect example of a small Norman parish church with its eastern apse, west doorway and tiny round-headed windows. The apse has the flat Norman buttresses which were used before the new constructional methods required a greater depth and width. The interlaced carving along the chancel walls has signs of the chevron ornament just visible.
The parish church of St Mary Magdalene, East Ham

The Norman remains of the crypt of St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside show part of the plan of the early church. The columns have cushion capitals and the vaulting of the side aisles (partly altered by Wren) provide an excellent example of the this early period of church building. This church may be the earliest in London and probably derives its name from the arches of the crypt. It was one of the thirteen peculiars in the City owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury and exempt from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London. The Archbishop’s Court of Arches took its name from the crypt and sat her until the peculiars were abolished in 1847.