Introduction to the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries

The first century of the Norman rule in England has left behind it more durable monuments of the earnest devotion of the mixed races of the country than any subsequent period of our history. The ecclesiastical distribution of England was scarcely altered from the time of Henry I. to that of Henry VIII. The Conqueror found the arch-bishoprics of Canterbury and York established, as well as the following bishoprics:—Durham, London, Winchester, Rochester, Chichester, Salisbury, Exeter, Wells, Worcester, Hereford, Coventry, Lincoln, Thetford. Norwich became the see of the Bishop of Thetford in 1088. The see of Ely was founded in 1109, and that of Carlisle in 1133. The governing power of the church thus remained for four centuries, till Henry VIII., in 1541, founded the sees of Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford, Peterborough, and Chester, portions of the older dioceses being taken to form the see of each new bishop. The Rev. Joseph Hunter, in his excellent ‘Introduction to the Valor Ecclesiasticus of King Henry VIII.,’ says, “It is indeed a just subject of wonder that in the first century after the Conquest so many thousand of parish churches should have been erected, as if by simultaneous effort, in every part of the land, while at the same time spacious and magnificent edifices were arising in every diocese to be the seats of the bishops and archbishops, or the scenes of the perpetual services of the inhabitants of the cloister. Saxon piety had done much, perhaps more than we can collect from the pages of Domesday: but it is rather to the Normans than to the Saxons that we are to attribute the great multitude of parish churches existing at so remote an era; and a truly wise and benevolent exertion of Christian piety the erection of them must be regarded.” To describe, with anything like minuteness of detail, any large proportion of these ecclesiastical antiquities, would carry us far beyond the proper object of this work; but we shall endeavour in this chapter, and in those of subsequent periods, to present to our readers some of the more remarkable of these interesting objects, whether we regard their beauty and magnificence, or the circumstances connected with their foundation and history. Our series of cathedrals will, however, be complete. Mr. Hunter, speaking of the historical uses of the ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’ (which has been printed in six large folio volumes, under the direction of the Record Commissioners), says, that in this record “We at once see not only the ancient extent and amount of that provision which was made by the piety of the English nation for the spiritual edification of the people by the erection of churches and chapels for the decent performance of the simple and touching ordinances of the Christian religion, but how large a proportion had been saved from private appropriation of the produce of the soil, and how much had subsequently been given to form a public fund accessible to all, out of which might be supported an order of cultivated and more enlightened men dispersed through society, and by means of which blessings incalculable might be spread amongst the whole community. If there were spots or extravagancies, yet on the whole it is a pleasing as well as a splendid spectacle, especially if we look with minute observation into any portion of the Record, and compare it with a map which shows the distribution of population in those times over the island, and then observe how religion had pursued man even to his remotest abodes, and was present among the most rugged dwellers in the hills and wildernesses of the land, softening and humanizing their hearts. .....But the Record does not stop here. It presents us with a view of those more gorgeous establishments where the service of the Most High was conducted in the magnificent structures which still exist amongst us, with a great array of priests, and all the pomp of which acts of devotion admit; and of the abbeys and other monasteries, now but ruined edifices, where resided the sons and daughters of an austerer piety, and where the services were scarcely ever suspended;”

Who can turn over such a record as this, or dwell upon the minuter descriptions of our county histories, without feeling there was a spirit at work in those ages which is now comparatively cold and lifeless? Who can lift up his eyes to the pinnacles and towers, or stand beneath the vaulted roof of any one of the noble cathedrals and minsters that were chiefly raised up during this early period— who can rest, even for a brief hour, amidst the solitude of some ruined abbey, as affecting in its decay as it was imposing in its splendour—who even can look upon the ponderous columns, the quaint carvings not without their symbolical meanings, the solidity which proclaims that those who thus built knew that the principle through which they built must endure—who can look upon such things without feeling that there was something higher and purer working in the general mind of the people than that which has produced the hideous painted and whitewashed parallelograms that we have raised up and called churches in these our days? We shall not get better things by the mere copying of the antique models by line and compass. When the spirit which created our early ecclesiastical architecture has once more penetrated into the hearts of the people; when it shall be held, even upon principles of utility, that man’s cravings after the eternal and the infinite are to be as much provided and cared for as his demands for food and raiment; then the tendencies of society will not be wholly exhibited in the perfection of mechanical contrivance, in rapidity of communication, in never-ceasing excitements to toil without enjoyment. When the double nature of man is understood and cared for, we may again raise up monuments of piety which those who come five hundred years after us will preserve in a better spirit than we have kept up many of those monuments which were left to us by those who did not build solely for their own little day.

In entering upon the large subject of our ecclesiastical antiquities we have found it almost impossible to attempt any systematic division. Our architecture from the period of the Conquest is generally divided into Anglo-Norman, Early English, Decorative, and Perpendicular. We shall endeavour, as far as we can, to make our chronological arrangement suit these broad distinctions. But as there is scarcely an important building remaining that does not exhibit more than one of these characteristics, and as we cannot return again and again to the same building, we must be content to classify them according to their main characteristics. For example, Canterbury, and Lincoln, and Durham have portions of the earlier styles still remaining in them, and these naturally find a place in the present Book; but our engravings and descriptions must necessarily include the other styles with which these edifices abound. A little familiarity with the general principles of ecclesiastical architecture will soon enable the reader to mark what belongs to one period and what to another; and, without going into professional technicalities, we shall incidentally endeavour to assist those who really desire to study the subject. Looking in the same way, not to the date of the foundation, but to the main characteristics of the existing edifice, we shall be enabled to disperse our ecclesiastical materials through some of the subsequent periods into which our little work is divided, not attempting great precision, but something like chronological order. For example, we know that the present Westminster Abbey was not built till the time of Henry the Third, and we therefore postpone our notice of Westminster Abbey, although it was founded by Edward the Confessor, to the period which succeeds the reign of John. Other buildings, such as Salisbury Cathedral, St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, and King’s College Chapel at Cambridge, being the work of one age, and probably of one architect, do not involve the same chronological difficulties that a Cathedral presents which has been raised up by the munificence of bishop after bishop, the choir being the work of one age, the nave of another, the transepts of another, each age endeavouring at some higher perfection. If we are sometimes betrayed into anachronisms, those who have studied this large subject scientifically will, we trust, yield us their excuse. The noblest ecclesiastical edifices which still remain to us, as well as the ruins which are spread throughout the land, were connected with the establishments of those who lived under the monastic rule. This will be incidentally seen, whether we describe a cathedral, with all its present establishment of bishop, dean, and chapter, or a ruined abbey, whose ivy-covered columns lie broken on the floor, where worshippers have knelt, generation after generation, dreaming not that in a few centuries the bat and the owl would usurp their places. We shall proceed at once to one of the most ancient and splendid of these forsaken places—Glastonbury. We shall not here enter upon any minute description of the engravings numbered 491 to 511, which precede the view of that celebrated abbey. Those engravings represent the costume of the monastic orders of that early period, as well as some specimens of the more ancient fonts and other matters connected with the offices of the Church. We shall have to refer to these more particularly as we proceed.