Heritage Festival Tour: Chester Cathedral’s Medieval Architecture by Nick Fry

The Grade 1 listed Chester Cathedral. .

As part of Chester Heritage Festival, this tour of Chester Cathedral lead by tour guide and cathedral expert Nick Fry took us through the architecture of what was the Benedictine abbey (then known as St Werburgh’s) from 1092, when it was founded by Earl of Chester Hugh d’Avranches (known as Hugh Lupus), until 1539, when it was closed by Henry VIII.  The abbey was saved from most of the indignities inflicted on other suppressed abbeys by its conversion to a cathedral in 1541, when the wide-ranging architectural changes being implemented by the abbey’s Benedictine inhabitants were brought to a close.  This tour was the story of the abbey, rather than the later cathedral that underwent its own changes and was particularly fiddled around with in the Victorian period.

Viewed through a later gothic arch, the Romanesque arches just beneath the former roof level, with re-used Roman columns, look very attractive but archaic

Nick talked us through how, between 1092 and 1539, the abbey underwent a number of architectural innovations, from its Romanesque origins, through the innovations of gothic design, to its final days as a monastery. Key Romanesque features are rounded arches, and columns that instead of being incorporated into the arches stand slightly apart from them.  The gothic was innovated in France, specifically notable at Saint Denis in Paris, but spread rapidly to Britain, and its influence is visible in the the increasingly formal, elaborate and technologically more efficient pointed arches, rib vaulting and decorative window tracery.  

The talk was wrapped up with master mason Tom in the abbey garth, the central square garden around which the abbey cloisters were arranged.  Tom was an excellent speaker and talked us through the tools of the trade and the key characteristics of the raw materials used for different parts of the building, demonstrating the use the tools, and his skills, on a piece of ornamental sandstone on which he was working.  Both the tour by Nick Fry and the masonry demonstration by Tom Livingstone were excellent.  

The Romanesque is distinguished by its curves and its monumental solidity.  There are only pieces of it remaining from the former abbey, before the monks started to modernise, but enough to give an idea of the different architectural paradigm of the period.  The north transept is remarkable not merely for its Romanesque arches and windows, but the re-use of Roman columns in their manufacture.  This portion of the cathedral looks the most instinctively old, and gives the best idea of what the rest of the abbey must have looked like, with a footprint not that much different from the cathedral’s.  The small windows were typical of the Romanesque, as bigger windows would have undermined the strength of the walls that was required to support the big arches. Another section that preserves the Romanesque is the cellar (above ground; undercrofts were under ground) that is now used as the ticket office and reception, with great, stumpy pillars with scalloped decoration supporting vast ribs over which many layers of material provided the vaulted ceiling.  Other Romanesque features have been incorporated into the later gothic architecture, primarily doorway arches, in some cases seamlessly, in other cases rather peculiarly.  See Buildwas Abbey in Shropshire for an idea of what St Werburgh’s Abbey may have looked like in its Romanesque phase.  There is also an excellent 3D artist’s reconstruction of a typical Romanesque Church, which is very reminiscent of the north transept at Chester Cathedral, on the Historiographies On the Evolution of Art website.  

Romanesque arches in Chester Cathedral

Looking in particular at the rounded arches of the north transept one can understand why the Romanesque must have seemed suddenly old fashioned and under specified when the senior members of the monastery saw the new gothic features, enabling slender, seamless columns, soaring arches and vast windows with complex tracery.  The photograph to the right shows one of the earliest experiments with the gothic arch, a slight point at the top of the streamlined arch over a more ornate decorative arch below.

One of the earliest gothic arches in the abbey with a curving profile but a pointed tip, sitting over an elaborate decorative feature. The slender columns, however, stand proud of the stonework, a very Romanesque trait.

Nick emphasised that because abbeys were designed as homes not primarily for monks but for God, they had to be the biggest and best that the available money could buy.  The possibilities of the gothic, allowing the light of God to enter the cathedral, and elaborate decorative features to be added, were all in the interest of this celebration of the divine. This is quite different from the Romanesque conceptualization where the darkness of the church, forced by the small windows that could be no bigger due to the strong walls required by the arches, added to the mystery and unknowable nature of the divine.  I suspect that the new gothic designs were probably also in the interests of the incumbent abbots and the abbey, as a place of prestige, pilgrimage and conspicuous display.  The redesign started at the east end and worked towards the west.

The advantages of the gothic were not merely dictated by fashion, devotion and prestige, but were technologically superior as well, meaning that they offered significant improvements over the Romanesque for the master masons who both designed and built ecclesiastical buildings, vaulted spaces using multiple supporting ribs requiring less raw materials to make the magnificent ceilings of, for example, the slype, the vestibule, the chapter house and the Lady Chapel.

The Early English gothic Lady Chapel, painted during the 1960s in the colours that would have adorned it when it was built c.1270

There are three main periods of British gothic architecture – Early English (roughly 1190-1260), Decorated (c.1260 – 1360, itself sometime subdivided into the Geometrical and the Curvilinear) and Perpendicular (c.1350 – 1500s).  Nick made it clear that although they are traditionally assigned to certain date spans, there are really no clear divisions between them. Although the Early English is broadly earlier than the Decorated, which was itself followed by the Perpendicular, there were overlaps, with older styles sometimes maintained in the face of new fashions and innovations.  There are examples of all of these in the cathedral, although the perpendicular is confined to one window; the fashion-conscious plans for St Werburgh’s Abbey were cut off in their prime by Henry VIII.

The Early English is exemplified by the Lady Chapel, where a daily mass was held in honour of the Virgin Mary at a period when her cult was particularly popular.

The Decorated is most evident in the quire stalls, each one unique, made of thousands of pieces of beautifully carved oak, which took twenty master craftsmen a mere two years to complete in situ. The craftsmen were probably also responsible for the quire stalls in Lincoln Cathedral, to which they are very similar.  There are also windows in the south transept chapels and the south wall of the nave that feature elaborate tracery from this phase.  The glass is all modern, the Medieval stained glass having been destroyed, but the finely worked tracery reflects the taste for increasing decorative complexity.

The Perpendicular is confined to the big stained glass window at the west end of the cathedral, with mullions (upright stone dividers) that extend all the way from the base of the window to its top, the emphasis on long, tall shapes that soar heavenwards.

A window in the Decorated style at right (south wall) and Perpendicular style (west end, over main entrance)

The abbey was designed and built by master masons, who had at their disposal a repertoire of ideas and visualizations that they could build into stone.  There are portraits of two of them high in the quire, one of them bearded with his plans folded in his lap.  Abbeys on this scale take decades to build, and as fashions change are almost always under reconstruction, with older sections being replaced and new sections added.  Matters were complicated during the gothic period of the abbey by Edward I, who had his own priorities.  Although Edward was conscious of the role of abbeys in Medieval society, compensating Welsh abbeys for the damage inflicted during the conquest of Wales, this respect did not prevent him raiding the master masons of Chester Cathedral for his castle building projects in the late 13th century.  Similarities between the abbey architecture and that of Caernarfon castle considered to be indicative of the presence of the same master masons at both.  This discontinuity of design and build shows in a number of  flaws and oddities in the cathedral today, which give the building real personality.

The arches on the right (south) were built in around 1360, 130 years earlier than those on the left (north).

One of the remarkable features of the cathedral today is to be found in the abbey nave, where the two parallel lines of arches flanking the main body of the nave, which at first glance appear to mirror one another, were in fact built 130 years apart.  The interruption between them was thanks to the Black Death of the mid 14th century, which plunged the nation into both humanitarian and economic crisis.  Only 130 years after the first set was built on the south side could the project be completed on the north side, which says something about the attitude of the abbot.  The abbot and master mason between them, as Nick pointed out, could have decided to implement an entirely new design in order to put their own personality on the nave, but they decided to emulate the original design, with only some of the decorative flourishes on the capitals showing major differences.   The earlier decorative details on the south side are simpler and more subtle, those on the north side more elaborate.

We finished the tour in the garth (the garden at the heart of the abbey complex), where mast mason Tom Livingstone gave us an excellent lecture on how the Medieval masons designed the stonework in the abbey, and how this work was then implemented.  The range of tools, including chisels and mallets, was remarkably small given how sophisticated the carving needs to be.  Tom said that the essential skill in a mason’s armoury was being able to chisel perfectly straight lines.  The question of whether a circle is a curve or a million straight lines is not one a mason needs to worry about – the answer is always a million straight lines.  Tom showed us how different methods of quarrying created different marks on the stone, and why different grain types were more suitable for certain architectural roles.  Tom’s own kit contains chisels reinforced by tungsten carbide and nylon as well as pear wood mallets, because without a blacksmith to hand, the original tools, blunting constantly, would require frequent repairs that would be very inconvenient.  I would really like to see more of the team’s work in action.  You can follow Tom and the members of the team on Twitter at https://twitter.com/chesterworks

If you get the chance to go on one of Nick Fry’s guided tours, I recommend him.  There is nothing dry about his talks, which are both informative and humorous and stuffed full of fascinating details about architectural quirks and unusual features.

Thanks too to Green Badge Guide Katie Crowther, who let me know that this tour was being organized.

My previous post about Chester Cathedral, under Katie’s guidance in March 2022, takes in the Anglo-Saxon origins, the Benedictine abbey years and the cathedral years.


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