Abbey Architecture

by F. W. Waller 1898

Proceedings of the Cotteswold Naturalists’
Field Club Vol. XII Part III.

In placing these notes before you I can lay no claim to original research: I fully acknowledge my indebtedness to a most valuable paper by the late Mr. E. A. Freeman, and to an article, with a plan, which appeared in the “Builder,” in March, 1895.

I do not propose to enter into any detailed account of the early history and foundation of the Monastery: this has already been dealt with in various able papers.

The generally received account of the original foundation is that Maeldulph built a cell at Malmesbury; that Aldhelm, a disciple of his, enlarged, in the 7th century, upon Maeldulph’s work, founded the Monastery, and dedicated it to the Holy Saviour and St Peter and St Paul.

Mention is also made of two smaller Churches dedicated respectively to St Mary and St Michael. Aldhelm was transferred to Sherborne, but was subsequently buried at Malmesbury.

The Monastery received many grants of land and other benefactions from various donors, particularly from King Athelstan, who is said to have been buried before the altar in 941.

Passing over the interval between the original foundation of the Monastery and the rebuilding of the Church on its present grand scale, we find that this building is said to have been commenced by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, about the year 1135, but the character of work would hardly bear out this view. Freeman says on this point: “It appears to be generally believed that the present Church was begun by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, about the year 1135.”

“This tradition seems confirmed by two passages of William of Malmesbury, neither of which directly assert it.”

“Certainly the architecture of even the earliest portions of the Church is remarkably advanced for that date, but this is no more than we might reasonably expect in the works of a prelate so renowned for his architectural skill, and whom we might therefore naturally expect to find at the head of the artistic developments of his age.”

“If, then, we accept this date we may recognise in the foundation of this Church one of the most memorable epochs in the history of architecture in this island, for we may safely set it down as exhibiting the first English example, not indeed of the incidental use of the pointed arch, when, any special necessity rendered it desirable, but, what is a very different matter, the first instance of its distinct preference on aesthetical grounds in the main arcades of a great Church.”

“When this point had been gained, the battle between Romanesque and Gothic was really won by the latter; every Gothic detail now followed a natural development in its natural order.”

“Malmesbury, however, happily exhibits the style just after this first and greatest change had been accomplished and no other commenced; every other feature is still Romanesque.”

“In short, while in a history of English architecture, we ought to speak of Malmesbury as the earliest of Transitional examples, it will, in practically describing the building itself, be far more convenient, and indeed far more accurate, to speak of its earliest portions as a specimen of the pure Norman style.”

“One remark, however, I must make. I mentioned 1135 as the date assigned to the commencement of the Church. We must on the one hand remember that great churches were not, least of all in the reign of Stephen, finished in a year or two, and that the west end would probably be the last part finished; consequently Malmesbury nave may well be twenty or thirty years later than 1135.”

This is such an important point in the architectural history of this Church that I venture to quote the words of so great an authority in full.

PLAN On reference to the plan it will be seen that the whole of the main walls are Norman, everything in fact to the Clerestory level except some minor details, and the building consisted of the usual parts of a great Norman Church, the four arms of the cross and a central tower, and the dimensions, so far as they can be ascertained, were as follows: the nave, 150ft. by 32ft.; north and south aisles, each 12ft. by 150ft., the central tower, 28ft. by 28ft. within the walls; the south transept, 39ft., internal projection beyond the aisle, the width probably 30ft. The size of the north transept cannot be determined, nor yet the sizes of the presbytery, and the eastern chapel which is said to have existed.

William of Worcester mentions some dimensions (gresons snos) from which it might be inferred that the length of the presbytery was 110ft. east of the crossing, that is, a presbytery of six bays, with an eastern ambulatory supposing the bays were the same size as those of the nave; but Freeman thinks that the presbytery was a short Norman structure of 3 or 4 bays, as at Peterboro’ or Romsey.”

The large south porch is 14ft. by 12ft.

The cloisters and other buildings were to the north of the Church, as at Gloucester, and in their main features no doubt followed the usual Benedictine arrangement.

Longitudinal Section Through Abbey © Malmesbury Memories

Longitudinal Section Through Abbey © Malmesbury Memories

NAVE The nave is divided into 9 bays, with arcades of slightly pointed arches resting on circular columns about 5ft. in diameter. Above them is a Triforium, with the somewhat unusual arrangement of an arcade of 4 arches enclosed in one semicircular arch, all being Norman; above this again is a Clerestory and vaulting of entirely decorated work, except at the eastern end where the 3-light decorated windows have been inserted in the Norman walls.

The unusual height of the Clerestory (which appears to have been about the same in the Norman work) has a particularly fine effect, and is far more satisfactory in design than that at Gloucester. Freeman says of it: “this whole elevation must have been one of the very grandest in England; it has all the solemn majesty of a Romanesque building, combined with somewhat of Gothic inspiration.”

There is, however, an unpleasing effect in the awkward lines of the long ribs of the quadripartite groining where they join the wall and pass down it.

Note the roof shafts rising off the caps of the columns, the elaborate mouldings of the arches, and the increased richness eastward, the arch labels and their terminations.

AISLES These were lighted by single round-headed windows, with arcades beneath them, many of these remain with later perpendicular tracery inserted, and some have been entirely replaced with large decorated windows.

Note the treatment of that on north side — those on the north side are higher than those on the south, being above the cloisters. The vaulting is quadripartite.

WEST FRONT The treatment of this was unusual in Norman work, at each angle was a large staircase turret, oblong on plan, with a wall connecting it with the west end of the nave, thus forming a facade which screened the terminations of the roofs westward. This facade was richly arcaded and divided into four storeys horizontally.

Freeman calls this facade ” simply a sham, “the prototype of that at Salisbury.”

Lincoln and Wells were similarly treated, there was a fine Norman west doorway, which has now a perpendicular insertion within it, and above is a window of similar date.

A great western tower was added in the perpendicular period.

The construction of this appears to have been altogether exceptional and reckless: instead of being built onto the west end of the Church, as was the usual plan, it was actually built over the last two bays of the nave, the western wall of the tower resting on the western wall of the nave.

Leland speaks of it as a “great square” tower, and Freeman suggests that such towers were to carry bells — the central towers acting as internal lanterns — and that the arrangement adopted at Malmesbury may have arisen from a desire not to injure the fine west front already existing, and because the form of that front would not have harmonised with a tower built out in the ordinary manner.

In carrying out this tower, so completely was it supported on the existing work that even the Clerestory and cornice on the south side were not disturbed, nor the decorated Clerestory and vault interfered with internally, an arch being thrown across above the vaults between the second piers westward, on which the east wall of the tower rested, and some additional support being obtained by strengthening the wall and pier, and by flying buttresses outwards: thus a fine west front was obtained, and no material alteration effected internally.

But this piece of reckless construction, though standing in Leland’s time, fell subsequently, and in its fall destroyed the west end of the nave and north aisle.

SOUTH PORCH This is a magnificent specimen of Norman work, with a subsequent casing in the decorated period. Possibly this is the most remarkable feature of Malmesbury, and, as such, merits a paper all to itself, especially as so much of the interest would naturally centre in the sculptures.

Professor Cockwell has treated of these in his work on the sculptures of Wells Cathedral.

There is a Norman doorway in the north aisle which gave access to the cloisters. This has a perpendicular insertion with groining of the same date over.

CENTRAL TOWER AND LANTERN The north and west arches of the central tower still remain, the latter being blocked by the later masonry. The effect of these great arches is extremely fine, and when complete, this lantern and tower must have been grand indeed. The tower is said to have been surmounted by a lofty spire — these fell previous to the Dissolution, and were not rebuilt.

Freeman says: “the character of the central tower which these arches supported we can only conjecture — perhaps we shall be nearest the truth in imagining a rich Norman tower crowned with a timber spire of later date.”

The Ritual Choir, as may be seen by the inner faces of the eastern and western arch of the tower piers, was under the crossing — as these faces have no projection, whereas those north and south have, and the arches above are stilted to compensate for the difference in width, and bring the arches level.

A perpendicular vault was subsequently introduced and cut off the lantern — the springing of this can still be seen.

Leland speaks, in 1540, Of two steeples, one having a “mighty high pyramis,” and which stood in the middle of the Church, and fell dangerously, within the memory of man. (webmaster’s note: approximately 30 UK tons of lead covering a timber spire)

Transverse Cross Section Through Abbey © Malmesbury Memories

Transverse Cross Section Through Abbey © Malmesbury Memories

TRANSEPTS Of these a great part of the west wall of the south transept remains, and a small piece on the north side — they had no western aisles — and that on the south projected two bays beyond the aisles of the nave.

PRESBYTERY Of this only sufficient remains to show that the general character of the work was similar to that of the nave, but richer.

EXTERNALLY Of the external changes from the Norman work now apparent are the pinnacles and flying buttresses, which the decorated stone vaults over the nave, rendered necessary by the new Clerestory with stone vaulting and the parapets of the same date.

INTERNALLY There are some points of interest which should be noted. The perpendicular rood screen still remains within the present church, and forms an altar screen; and stone screens of the same date, but with decorated tracery, exist at the ends of the aisles.

The tomb of Athelstan, so called, is now placed on the south side of the altar.

There is a curious projecting gallery on the bays of the south Triforium, and Freeman suggests that this may have been a watching place of some kind.

As before pointed out, the cloisters and buildings were on the north side, and the ground here slopes rapidly down to the river. The effect of the whole group of buildings from this side must have been very fine. Some remains of the old buildings may be seen forming a basement to the old house to the north-east of the Church.

There is one point to which I should particularly like to direct attention, and that is the wonderful similarity with much of this Church with that of certain of the Romanesque Churches of the South of France.

The decoration on top of the abacus of some of the nave columns closely resembles that on a string at the Chapel of St Croix de Montmajour. At the Cloister at the same place are arcades of four arches beneath one.

The T+ is on an abacus in the Chapel of St Gabrielle, and at St Trophime (Arles).

The ornament over the north door is similar to that on the capitals of the columns in the cloisters of Vaison, and also at Montmajour.


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