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Tag: Early English Gothic

St. Lawrence the Martyr, Abbots Langley (C12-15)

Fig. 1: St. Lawrence the Martyr, Abbots Langley (south elevation). Image: Struan Bates.

The principal features of the church of St. Lawrence the Martyr in Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire (Fig. 1), date from between the 12th and 15th centuries. The church appears to integrate progressive stylistic trends, spanning the Norman and Perpendicular gothic periods, in a way that is characteristic of the region. Richard Morris asks in Churches in the Landscape (1989) whether parochial preferences in church-building followed in the wake of technical innovation, or vice versa; St. Lawrence’s offers support for both sides of this argument, but this article will contend that the most significant factor that influenced its architectural development were changes in liturgical arrangements.

An ecclesiastical building pre-dating the church on the same site is confirmed by the Domesday Book, where Abbots Langley is listed as held by the abbot of St. Albans with a priest in situ. The short nave and chancel also hints at a Saxon structure: an abrupt transition from Norman to gothic arcading along the south aisle corresponds with a short side-return on the north aisle: this suggests a wall may once have divided the nave and chancel, with the chancel possibly forming the original Saxon church.

The principal surviving features, however, are Norman. Most striking are the 12th century semi-circular arcades dominating the nave (Fig. 2). Large circular piers support scalloped and coned capitals, with zig-zag decoration adorning the middle orders of the arches. These features are characteristically late-Norman, dating the arcades to between 1150-1190. Similar rich detailing was brought to St. Albans Abbey during this period under Abbot John de Cella, and its use at St. Lawrence’s and nearby Hemel and Redbourn suggests co-ordinated planning of works at parish level with the mother church.

A single round-headed window in the west wall of the north aisle also suggests that the aisles are Norman in origin. They are particularly narrow, and may be contemporary manifestations of prestige, rather than a response to a requirement for more congregational space. If this was the case, their lack of decoration suggests that, if they did form part of Abbot de Cella’s 12th century vision, their technical implementation was truncated.

Fig. 2: Left: Looking east from nave to chancel, with 12th century arcading to the north and south. Right: The indicated capital from the middle north aisle pier, with scalloping and zig-zag arch decoration. Images: Struan Bates.

The next significant addition was the west tower (Fig. 1) of rubblestone and flint, with traces of Hertfordshire Puddingstone. This was erected in at least two stages: narrow, lancet windows adorn the north and south walls which, together with the pair of low, diagonal buttresses supporting the west face, date the lower half of the tower to the transitional period of the early-13th century. Perpendicular windows above the west entrance date the upper portion to the 15th century, with a modern brick parapet crowning the cornice.

Greater structural consequences, however, were affected by St. Lawrence’s changes in liturgical arrangements from the 14th century. The most significant addition was the Corpus Christi chancel chapel (Fig. 3, Fig.4). From the exterior, the chapel obscures the chancel, incorporating three Decorated windows in knapped flint and Totternhoe Clunch squared chequerwork walls. Roberts notes that clunch, a hard chalk quarried in nearby Bedfordshire, was first used at St. Albans under Abbot de Cella, and was almost universally used in Hertfordshire and South Bedfordshire churches, principally being transported along routes to St. Albans and Windsor. This suggests the guiding hand of higher clergy in planning the chapel, however its origin is uncertain.

Fig. 3: Left: The chancel chapel from the south-west. Right: Totternhoe Clunch and flint chequerboard work on the east wall. Images: Struan Bates.

The religious guild of Corpus Christi founded churches during this period, however the practice appears to have been mainly urban. The chapel also changed its name to the Lady Chapel in the 15th century before later reverting. Paul Barnwell notes that chancel chapels were built to accommodate overspill of the congregation or for chantry reasons, and were often designed to be deliberately ‘showey or elaborate’ in rivalling the chancel. It is notable that St. Lawrence’s chapel’s disproportionate embrace of width, characteristic of the Decorated style’s use of space- and the liturgical importance attached to it – would have a lasting impact on how the church managed its congregation, principally in subsequent modifications to the chancel and nave.

This is first apparent when viewing the chapel through the extended gothic arcading (Fig. 4) separating it from the chancel. The chapel’s greater dimensions position it as the dominant space, with the eye drawn to its fine roof with king posts and curved braces, and the three Decorated windows. Their cusped window heads and reticulated tracery suggest a date of the early-14th century, and deliver the ‘softness and fluidity’ that is the hallmark of the Decorated period. Access to the chapel, however, is awkward.

The reason lies in the arrangement of the gothic arcading. The easternmost pair of two-centred arches, with double-chamfered moulding and octagonal piers and capitals, date to the late-14th or early-15th century, and documentary evidence confirms the chancel was rebuilt at this time. The chancel also appears to have been lengthened during the same works, fitting with a wider trend of chancels being enlarged in the 14th century to distance the altar from the laity. These changes indicate that the chancel and chapel may have co-existed as largely separate rooms or buildings, with a wall subsequently removed between them.

Fig. 4: Left: Looking through the chancel arcade into the dominant 14th century chancery chapel. 16th century skew arch in the foreground. Right: Decorated windows and kingpost roof in the chapel. Images: Struan Bates.

West of the two-centred arches is a larger, four-centred arch, incorporating a hood mould in the Tudor style (Fig. 4), with two smaller pointed arches beneath. The larger skew arch dates to the 16th century, with the apparent purpose of further integrating the congregation. Positioned at the juncture of nave and chancel, however, it awkwardly connects the Norman and gothic arcading, upsetting their rhythm and the harmony between the church’s principal spaces. The liturgical consequences of the Corpus Christi chapel, therefore, had architectural implications. Once the Decorated chapel was complete, a decision appears to have been made to further integrate the congregation in a way that complemented the chapel’s growing status and fluidity of space.

To an extent, the second phase of later-medieval renovations can be seen as a response to the architectural questions the chapel posed. The works from this next period are in the Perpendicular style (Fig. 5), and were begun by Abbot Moote of St. Albans in the early 15th century. The chancel received larger east and north windows with Perpendicular tracery. The upper part of the tower was reconstructed, with a parapet added, in keeping with a movement towards greater angularity. The aisle walls were also rebuilt, and the nave roof and clerestory raised.

Fig. 5: Left: When viewed from the east elevation, the Perpendicular chancel again appears dominated by the Decorated Corpus Christi chapel. Right: Grotesque corbel of pig in a cowl in the nave roof. Images: Struan Bates.

Also embedded in the nave roof were a series of grotesque corbels, some depicting friars as pigs. Was this Chaucerian satire a response to the excesses of the neighbouring King’s Langley Priory? If so, the corbels may suggest a local rivalry between between the priory’s mendicant Dominican order and the Benedictine house at St. Albans, the product of which possibly accelerated Abbot Moote’s Perpendicular improvements at St. Lawrence’s.

By the 15th century, St. Lawrence’s had reached its maximum medieval areal extent. The Perpendicular phase, however, appears to have been insufficiently accommodating, as between the 16th and 19th centuries the chancel was employed as a mortuary chapel, with a funerary monument in the place of the high alter, whilst the taking of communion moved to the chapel. How clergy and laity were arranged for worship in this later period, when there was effectively a dog-leg between nave and chapel, requires further investigation.

Fig. 6
: Plan of medieval phases of St. Lawrence the Martyr, Abbots Langley (2021). Image: Struan Bates.

This article has shown how some of the key stages in St. Lawrence’s development between the 12th and 15th centuries were the product of stylistic visions instigated by senior ecclesiastical institutions, or by the rivalry between them. If works decisions were made at a parochial level, evidence for this is limited.

These visions, however, were often truncated, with only the 14th century Decorated Corpus Christi chapel achieving a coherent form and function of its own. The chapel’s exterior use of conspicuous vernacular techniques and materials also suggests a confidence to embrace technical innovations. The more significant consequences of changes in liturgical arrangements and subsequent architectural responses promoted by the chapel’s success, however, would be far longer-lasting.


P. Barnwell. ‘The Community and the Individual: Worship and the Late Medieval English Parochial Church’, Barnwell (ed), Places of Worship in Britain and Ireland 1350-1550  (Donington, 2019)

F. Bond, An Introduction to English Church Architecture from the Eleventh to the Sixteenth Century, vol. 2 (London, 1913)

J. Bony, The English Decorated Style: Gothic Architecture Transformed, 1250-1350 (Oxford, 1979)

J. Harvey, The Perpendicular Style 1330-1485 (London, 1978)

R. Morris, Churches in the Landscape (London, 1989)

N. Pevsner and B. Cherry, The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, Second edition (Harmondsworth, 1978)

E. Roberts, ‘Totternhoe Stone and Flint in Hertfordshire Churches’, Medieval Archaeology 18:1 (1974)

R. Wilkinson, The Church and Parish of Abbots Langley (London, 1959 – many thanks to the Peter Waddell, vicar of St. Lawrence’s, for the loan of this book)

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Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury (1850)

The other morning I caught Christ the King, Bloomsbury bathed in dramatic light. Pausing to take the photo below, I had another go at applying the skills learned on my course to the church’s exterior.

Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury

Early English Gothic revival was my first guess. Why? Firstly, age: the honey-coloured ashlar is insufficiently weathered, so it’s plainly not old enough to be a medieval gothic church. We haven’t yet reached the Victorian period on our course, so I don’t yet feel confident identifying the nuances that would place it firmly of that age, though from earlier studies of the variations of gothic architecture, Christ the King seems be Early English Gothic in style.

What makes it so? Most apparent are the narrow, plain, lancet windows with little-to-no tracery, typical of the Early English Gothic style of the late 12th and early 13th centuries (see my previous post on Wells Cathedral). Supporting the structure’s weight are a series of external buttresses, an invention from the same period. However, the south transept rose widow, uncommon in England at the time, nods to the later English Decorative style, though its design here seems a little perfunctory, another clue perhaps to this being an imitation of an earlier style.

And the answer is (according to Wikipedia)…

Early English Neo-Gothic in style and cruciform in plan, the church was built by Raphael Brandon between 1850 and 1854 (with Brandon’s interior designed in 1853) for the Victorian church movement the Catholic Apostolic Church (also known as “Irvingites”). It is built of Bath stone, with a tiled roof.,_Bloomsbury

So I wasn’t too far off (though if I had to put a year on it I’d have probably said nearer 1900). The article also notes (citing the church’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography) that:

‘… this extremely large church was criticized by a contemporary for its lack of originality of design. Recent scholars, however, have drawn attention to the combination of 13th- and 15th-century Gothic precedents in its design,’

Both points of which tie with my initial impression … so I must be learning something!

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Wells and Bourges cathedrals: a comparison

One of the second week tasks from my course was to look at the interiors of two gothic cathedrals, Wells in England (1180) and Bourges (1195) in France, identifying the stylistic differences that make them representative of Early English and French gothic. I’ve included my answer below some zoomable Google maps images, and also had a crack at describing the west fronts first.

Above: Wells Cathedral (1180) – west front

The western elevation features none of the large gabled porches to be found in French gothic structures of the period, with the small doorways dwarfed by the columns and niches displaying around three hundred sculptures. The string course above the frieze of simple quatrefoil tracery draws the eye horizontally rather than upwards, a facet of Early English Gothic that continues inside. The arched lancet window are tall and narrow, without the elaborate conjoined tracery of the later English Decorated style.

Above: Bourges Cathedral (1195) – west front

In contrast to Wells, the emphasis at the west front of Bourges is on the five large portals with their recessed pointed arches and twin towers. There is also an early introduction of the rose window, though smaller in Bourges’ case, and not yet the dominant feature of the west front, when compared to other French cathedrals started over the next half-century, such as Laon, Amiens and Reims.

Impressive though the front is, there’s a curious lack of windows, with blind arcading where one might expect lancet glazing. This, together with the large entrance portals, elaborate tympanum sculptures, and the dearth of outside space (you can see from the Google image that it’s hard to take a complete photo of the eastern elevation due to the proximity of nearby housing), suggests that the glory of this end was intended to be experienced when entering the cathedral, and not from standing back and admiring it, which could be said of of the east, north and southern facings.

Above: Wells Cathedral – nave looking east

Moving to the interior of Wells, we see the gallery arcades running the length of the nave with the gallery and clerestory above as distinct sections – a strong indication that the cathedral was built in the Early English Gothic period, with the emphasis on horizontality rather than height. There are no floor-to-ceiling shafts, as typical of the French gothic style that English builders took inspiration from. The nave ceiling is lower than found in French cathedrals of the same period, with the vaulting shafts beginning from beneath the clerestory rather than from the floor. The later addition of the spectacular strainer arches (1330) show that architecturally we’ve moved into the English Decorated Gothic period.

Above: Bourges Cathedral, nave looking east

The interior of Bourges is a strong case study of gothic as “an aesthetic of line rather than mass”1. The thin vertical arcade shafts reach uninterrupted to the beginning of the vault ribs, emphasis the height of the nave: at 121 feet it is almost double that of Wells. The huge east window and clerestory windows allow light to flood in, creating a luminous interior that must have astonished its early worshippers.

There are no transepts at Bourges: instead a double set of aisles run the length of the building, forming an ambulatory at the east end, with the inner aisle vault taller than the outer one. The necessity to build vertically rather than horizontally in this period was a constraint faced more by French than English masons, as the preceding Norman/Romanesque structures were more likely to be situated in areas of more highly concentrated housing (see west front, above).

1 Sutton, I. Western Architecture (1999) p.74

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