We tend to think of churches as the quintessence of timelessness. In reality, they have only become so as a result of an uncomfortable truce between conservation practice and the desire for change. Any material transformation to church fabric or furnishings today requires a ‘faculty’, which is carefully scrutinised by the members of Diocesan Advisory Committees made up of clergy and various kinds of expert – archaeological, architectural, and art historical – as well as specialists in such fields as stained glass, organs, funerary monuments, bells, and natural history. Many people complain about the cost and effort of getting faculty approval to alter a church, but change still happens – often on a large scale, leading to what is euphemistically known as ‘re-ordering’. To those who favour it, re-ordering means stripping out fixed and uncomfortable seating – as Sir Roy Strong put it ten years ago: ‘making bonfires of the ghastly ginger Victorian pews’ – in order to create space for chairs that can be moved to allow the church to serve modern forms of worship and also accommodate yoga studios, nurseries, shops, concert performances, and even gala dinners and fashion shows.
These are just the latest changes to buildings that have undergone many metamorphoses in the past: timber churches were rebuilt in stone in the period that preceded the Norman Conquest, and rebuilt again in the post-Conquest era in the approved Norman style. The Reformation brought big transformations, mainly to remove what were considered by Protestants to be idolatrous images, worshipped in their own right as having miraculous powers. The reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I, and James I brought further radical changes as the pendulum swung between Catholicism and Protestantism. Each change was accompanied by royal Orders, proclamations, and visitations which first, for example, enforced the removal of roods and rood lofts, then their restoration, then their removal again (no wonder some more out- of-the-way parishes failed to comply with such contradictory orders, to our great benefit).
Civil war in the 17th century saw former monastic churches (including Westminster Abbey), as well as cathedrals and parish churches, abused by Cromwellian troops, who deployed them as garrisons and stables, and liked to ‘take down’ or desecrate monuments as a form of proxy war against royalty, aristocracy, and the higher clergy. Meanwhile, 18th-century changes in liturgy and church music led to further evolution, before the 19th century witnessed the beginning of the ‘restoration’ movement (often involving comprehensive rebuilding of the chancel, at the very least) and then the reaction to it (for which William Morris is given much of the credit, though in reality many others were alongside or ahead of him).
So, change has been the norm for centuries, and churches have rarely enjoyed periods of peace, stability, and consolidation. But though war (real and ideological) has often driven these alterations, so have peace and prosperity. That is the subject of Nigel Saul’s latest book, Decorated in Glory (see ‘Further reading’ box on p.45), in which he argues that another great period of change in church-building, hitherto unnoticed by many architectural historians, occurred in the later medieval period, which witnessed ‘a great flowering of artistic and architectural endeavour’. The half century stretching from the late 1290s to the time of the Black Death (1346-1353) was a ‘golden age’ for English Gothic style, which also saw ‘the painting of some brilliant stained-glass windows and the commissioning of some magnificent tomb monuments’.
Nigel argues that this is especially true of Herefordshire and the central Marches, where ‘probably as many as a half of all the churches survive in their present form essentially as fabrics built in this period’. That includes major parts of Hereford Cathedral and Leominster Priory (the county’s most important monastery); the big town churches of Ledbury, Ross-on-Wye, and Ludlow; parish churches at Pembridge and Kingsland; and a host of other parish churches and dependents in Herefordshire and adjacent counties.
The prevalent style of the age was Decorated – given that name in the early 19th century by the architectural historian Thomas Rickman (1776-1841), who devised the terms ‘Early English’, ‘Decorated’, and ‘Perpendicular’ to describe the three main phases of English Gothic architecture. Exuberance is the defining characteristic of the Decorated style. Very large windows replaced the simple lancets of the Early English period, with mullions that start parallel and rise vertically before breaking into geometric patterns that are never vertical (strict verticality being the characteristic of the succeeding Perpendicular style). The architectural elements are also covered in surface decoration, such as ball-flower, diaper work, and foliage, and great use is made of the serpentine ogee (or double arch) shape for mouldings, door frames, and the arches above shrines, tombs, niches, sedilias, and piscinas.
The ornamentation, like a seashore rock encrusted by limpets, lends a richness that has been described as evoking an image of the celestial city.
The motifs characteristic of the Decorated style were partly copied from French cathedrals – think of the flamboyant tracery at Reims or Amiens, for example – and introduced via Henry III’s rebuilding of the eastern end of Westminster Abbey from 1243 (see CA 359). The subsequent unfolding of the style, according to Nigel Saul, ‘was to take a highly regional turn’, with masons and their patrons ‘embracing those elements that were acceptable to English taste while rejecting others that smacked of French inspiration’. Thus, Decorated churches in Yorkshire look very different from those in Norfolk or Suffolk, which in turn differ from those in the west of England or the Thames Valley.
Herefordshire went for relatively simple window tracery – sometimes a simple Y shape that starts as a two-light window with a central mullion that divides at the top to create a third light, shaped like an elongated diamond. The three arches created at the top of the window are sometimes left plain, sometimes decorated with cusping. By contrast, intense use is made of ball-flower decoration, a purely ornamental feature with no functional role. It consists of a central ball, enclosed by three lobes that resemble the petals of a rosebud. Applied to window arches and doorways, it breaks the flat stone surface into scores of points of light and shade, like a seashore rock encrusted by limpets, lending a sense of richness to the surface that has been described as evoking an image of the celestial city.
The final feature of Herefordshire Decorated style is the less-tangible one of an airiness, or a ‘feeling for space’, that was achieved by building tall arcades with widely spaced piers and big aisles, as at Pembridge, Kingsland, and Bodenham. These are the features that have survived. What we have lost are the wall-paintings, stained glass, and use of colour on statues, niches, tombs, and roof timbers that added further brightness and exuberance to the interior, creating a jewel-like effect so different from today’s plain white plaster or scraped stone walls.
This architectural vocabulary was adapted to suit local circumstances, and scaled up or down by the masons working in Herefordshire at the time to suit the tastes of patrons. We do not know the names of any masons, but their signatures can be read in the moulding profiles that they used to frame doorways and windows. Few of these are unique to an individual – one mason might well produce the same mouldings as the mason who trained him – but teams or schools can be identified from an analysis of moulding profiles, and used to track the movement of masons around the county – a technique for tracing the dissemination of building influences pioneered by the late Richard Morris, who made a detailed study of Herefordshire examples.
Morris concluded that most of the commissions carried out in Herefordshire between c.1300 and 1340 were the work of some four or five teams of masons, and that one man in particular might have been responsible for the distinctive Herefordshire Decorated style. This anonymous individual, he suggested, was recruited from Wells Cathedral to work as the principal architect of the new tower and aisles of Hereford Cathedral, and trained a generation of successors before moving on to work at Gloucester and Tewkesbury.
The unknown mason’s legacy is marked by the mouldings that those who worked under him at Hereford went on to produce at Leominster, Weobley, and Ledbury, all showpieces of the Herefordshire Decorated style, as well as at Richard’s Castle and Marden, and across the Shropshire border at Ludlow. Nigel Saul comments that while the general effect of all these buildings is much the same, the host of differences in detail between them suggests that many masons were involved in their construction.
By contrast, the differences within a second group of churches, in the Wye Valley to the west of Hereford, are so slight as to ‘leave little doubt that all the buildings are the work of a single mason’. His moulding profiles link together the churches at Madley, Eaton Bishop, and Allensmore, and though his choice of moulding profiles and window tracery is ‘distinctive enough to be instantly recognisable’, they can all be traced to forms used in the Hereford Cathedral workshop in the 1310s.
Another mason or team – this time responsible for rebuilding the church at Pembridge, among others – shows a strong knowledge of the Herefordshire regional style, but combines it with moulding profiles used in the choir of Tewkesbury Abbey. A fourth group of churches combines an even wider range of influences from other cathedrals in the west of England and the Midlands – their work at Kingsland church, for example, includes distinctive cusped door- heads that are otherwise unique to the Bristol Cathedral workshop. Finally, there are churches all over the county that do not fall into one of the four main groups but that show a knowledge of their work, all of which goes to suggest that there was no shortage of competent masons in the area at the time who could be called upon by patrons.
The mention of patrons brings us to the question of who paid for all this new construction work, and why? Although Nigel’s book focuses on the 22 major churches that were substantially rebuilt or extended in Herefordshire and the central Marches during the Decorated period, he also tells us that there are hundreds more that had an aisle added, a side chapel built, or a new chancel constructed. He believes this reflects the weakening of the monastic monopoly on prayer for the deceased, and the consequent establishment of chantries at a parochial level.
By the 13th century, monasteries had thousands of names in their books of remembrance, people for whom they regularly said prayers designed to shorten the period that souls spent in Purgatory, atoning for their sins before being admitted to Paradise. Wealthy individuals were increasingly turning from this form of mass monastic prayer at the abbeys that their forebears had helped to establish and redirecting their patronage to the local church. By donating money in their lifetime or making a bequest at their death, they could pay individual clerics to pray for them and their family members exclusively. In the early 14th century, it was possible to purchase intercessions on a sliding scale, ranging from a prayer on the anniversary of one’s death to daily perpetual remembrance.
Those who could afford it went further and paid for a physical chantry at which prayers could be said by one or more chantry priests – who might even live in a building on the site set aside for their accommodation, like the Chantry Priests’ House at Llantwit Major in the Vale of Glamorgan. Chantries could take the form of a simple altar, a purpose-built miniature chapel within the larger building, or a brand new aisle or chapel attached to the main body of the church.
Chantry endowments formed such a useful source of income for the church that one of Henry VIII’s first acts on severing his link with the Pope and Rome was to close all chantries and divert their wealth to his own coffers. Even before the Reformation, you needed a royal licence to establish a perpetual chantry, and the royal chancery rolls record all the new ones established at this time: from 36 in the period 1280-1299, the number rose to 934 between 1300 and 1349, before slowly decreasing from 670 between 1350 and 1399 to 290 in the remaining period until their abolition.
Thus, the period of the perpetual chantry’s greatest popularity coincides with the heyday of the Decorated style. It led to the progressive enlargement of parish churches to create extra altar space through the addition of aisles, transepts, and chapels, with notable examples at Clehonger, Westhide, Dilwyn, and King’s Pyon. This was a nationwide phenomenon, but in Herefordshire there was an additional reason for the growth in chantry provision: the cult that grew up around the tomb of Hereford’s former bishop, St Thomas de Cantilupe (1218-1282), who in 1320 became the last Englishman to be canonised before the Reformation. Even before that, though, miracles began to be reported by those who visited his tomb, and for a brief period his cult was the second most popular in England, with more than 400 miracles attributed to him (exceeded only by the 700 attributed to Thomas Becket).
It was possible to purchase intercessions on a sliding scale, ranging from a prayer on the anniversary of one’s death to daily perpetual remembrance.
The cult put Hereford in the first rank of cathedrals, with a prestigious income-earning shrine. The cathedral’s new heavily ornamented central tower was largely paid for by pilgrims’ offerings, and they made a substantial contribution to the costs of new aisles, new towers, and a new west front: in 1290/1291, no less than £178 10s 7d was received in offerings, about two-thirds of the sum spent on building work that year. Beyond Hereford, the cult fostered the era of heightened religious sensibility in which church- and chantry-building flourished. Two knights who witnessed supposed miracles went on to pay for work to their local church in gratitude: Sir Miles Prychard, cured of injuries sustained in a tournament, rebuilt the church at Almeley, and Sir John de Havering likewise contributed to the new work at Vowchurch.
The founding of perpetual chantries was not just the prerogative of the leading families: wealthy members of the clergy were active too. John de Ross, canon of Hereford and later Bishop of Carlisle, gave money for a priest to say mass every day in perpetuity at his home town, Ross-on-Wye, where the south chapel was rebuilt for that purpose with rich ball-flower decoration. Philip Talbot, another Hereford canon, added the now lost north chapel at Credenhill for his chantry, with a stained-glass window bearing Cantilupe’s image (this survives on the south side of the chancel). John Boter, Hereford Cathedral Treasurer, established a chantry at King’s Pyon (his chapel was later taken over as the burial place of the lords of the manor).
The building activities of leading clerics and grand families like the Mortimers (whose several branches, and especially the female side, contributed to the rebuilding of a dozen major churches – notably Pembridge and Kingsland) are more likely to have been recorded in official documents, but the gentry and townsmen were no less active, albeit on a more-modest architectural scale. The church at Kinnersley was entirely rebuilt by the de Kinnersley family and their successors, the de la Bere family. The chapel at Amberley, in the parish of Marden, was rebuilt by the de Lingens in the grounds of their home, Amberley Court.
The splendid timber roofs of the nave and south chapel at King’s Pyon were partly paid for by Sir Gerard de Eylesford, whose family later adopted the south chapel as their preferred burial place and commissioned the insertion of new windows. At Little Hereford, the de la Mare family, whose moated manor house stood close by, rebuilt and enlarged the chancel, again to accommodate family burials, while Sarnesfield gained a new roof and stained glass thanks to the de Sarnesfields.
The costs of such building activity were met largely from the profits from wool, rents, and crops. Wool from the sheep-grazed hills of Herefordshire was prized and commanded a high premium: in a table of prices dating from 1337, the county’s wool was worth 12 marks per sack, compared with 10.5 marks for Shropshire wool and 10 marks for Lincolnshire. Those who shared in this bonanza used the proceeds to build magnificently; the lesser landowners were less well-placed to accumulate the necessary cash surpluses, which is why Herefordshire churches tend either to be large and grand, or much humbler, with little in between.
The Black Death then took its toll on landlord revenues, which were down by at least a half and as much as two-thirds as the income from rents and leases collapsed and wages rose. Wool prices held up, but were now subject to the heavy burden of royal taxation and a decline in demand. Those parts of England where cloth manufacture continued went on to build magnificent churches in the Perpendicular style, but Herefordshire had little by way of a cloth-making industry and there are few Perpendicular churches as a consequence – few of what Nigel Saul calls the ‘glasshouse’ churches that grace the East Anglian landscape. But the compensation, he concludes, is the rich legacy of Decorated architecture of the sort rarely encountered in the east of England. In England’s rich and varied landscape, Decorated churches can claim to be Herefordshire’s own architectural speciality.
Nigel Saul, Decorated in Glory: church building in Herefordshire in the 14th century (Logaston Press, £10, ISBN 978-1910839461).