Lincoln Cathedral


Figure 576
576.—Lincoln Cathedral.

The first view of Lincoln Cathedral obtained by the approaching traveller is something to remember for a lifetime. One of the most beautiful of English structures is certainly at the same time one of the most nobly situated. As we advance towards it from the south by the London road, we suddenly arrive at the brow of a steep hill, leading down into a fertile valley extending far away to the right and to the left, and through the centre of which the river “Witham glides along, whilst immediately opposite rises a corresponding eminence to that on which we stand, at about the distance of a mile or so. In that valley, and stretching up that hill to and over its top, lies outspread before us like a panorama the beautiful city of Lincoln; and crowning the whole stands the glorious Cathedral, its entire length, four hundred and seventy feet, fully displayed, with its two western towers rising at the left extremity, and the grand main tower, truly worthy of its name, lifting itself proudly up from the centre to the height of some two hundred and sixty-seven feet. Such is the first view obtained of Lincoln Cathedral; such the impressions excited by it: and a nearer inspection enhances even the warmest admiration. The architect finds in it the history of his art during two centuries, and those two of more importance (we refer to England only) than all other periods put together, written in styles that make those of words appear tame indeed to his eyes. The sculptor in Lincoln Cathedral looks around him with astonishment at the loftiness of design, as well as consummate beauty of execution, which much of the works that pertain to his own province exhibit. The antiquary finds the blood quickening in his veins as he thinks of the rich storehouse of material that here awaits him, and on which he may exercise, if he pleases, his industry, talents, and zeal for years together; no fear that he will exhaust them. But we are now before the western front, a perfectly unique and stupendous work; simple even to a fault, perhaps, in the generally level character of so large a surface, but still sublime in expression, most richly elaborate in ornament, and in the highest degree interesting from the manner in which it tells us, as we look upon it, how it was gradually completed in different eras. There, above all, we perceive in the central portion, including that series of recesses with semicircular arches rising to so many different heights,—the original Norman front of Remigius, the founder of the earliest structure; the pointed window and arch of the central recess alone excepted, which have been substituted for the ancient round ones (Fig. 576). The date of the erection is the reign of the Conqueror, with whom Remigius came over from Normandy. He appears to have been a most enterprising, able, and benevolent man. William of Malmsbury says of him, “that being in person far below the common proportion of men, his mind exerted itself to excel and shine.” To show the labourers the spirit that actuated him in rearing the mighty pile, he is said to have carried stones and mortar upon his own shoulders. Of his benevolence it may be sufficient to observe— and the fact is interesting as affording a glimpse of the domestic customs that in some degree ameliorated the frightful misery wrought by the Conquest—he fed daily, during three months of each year, one thousand poor persons; and clothed the blind and the lame among their number, in addition. Such was the Bishop of Dorchester, who, having removed the see to Lincoln, then one of the most important places in the kingdom, founded the see of Lincoln, and the Cathedral, with the adjoining Bishop’s Palace, and other buildings for the residence of the ecclesiastical officers. Unfortunately one pleasure was denied him, that he must have looked forward to with no ordinary emotions; he died the very day before the grand opening of the Minster; to which—warned of his approaching dissolution—he had invited all the most distinguished prelates of the realm to assist in the solemn art of consecration. One of these, the Bishop of Hereford, curiously enough, had excused himself from attending the ceremony, on the ground that he had learnt, by astrology, that the church would not be dedicated in the time of Remigius. Of this early fabric the central portion of the west front is all that now remains; as to the remainder, it has been supposed, by an authority competent to offer an opinion, that it did not materially differ from the present structure in arrangement or size; except that it ended eastwards about sixty feet within the present termination, and that the eastern front formed a semicircular tribune; therefore very unlike the present one, of which it may be said, that if any one desires to see an example of the Gothic, so perfectly beautiful that it is impossible to conceive any more exquisite combination of architectural forms and architectural decorations, let him look upon that eastern front of Lincoln Cathedral.

The building of the Cathedral occupied somewhat more than two centuries; but this did not, as we have partly seen, arise from the circumstance that it was unfinished for so long a time, but that accidents, among them a fire and an earthquake, did great damage to the pile at different periods; another circumstance that no doubt delayed the final completion of the structure was the desire to improve it from time to time as the new and admired Gothic continued to develop fresh beauties and excellencies. Among the bishops to whom, after Remigius, the Cathedral was largely indebted, we may mention Hugh de Grenoble, to whom we owe much of the present fabric, erected by him between 1186 and 1200, no doubt in consequence of the earthquake of 1185. The east or upper transept, with the Chapel attached to it, the Choir, Chapter-house, and east side of the western transept, with parts of the additions to Remigius’s west front, are all attributed to Bishop Hugh. Even in this collection of examples of the architecture of but fourteen years, the progression of the art is clearly visible; beautiful as is the Choir, for instance, a pure unmixed specimen of early Gothic, it is far surpassed by the Chapter-house—with its most airy and elegant of interiors—where, in the centre of the lofty octagonal building, rises a stately pillar formed of a group of slender pillars, and which, at a certain height, branch off in all directions, still rising, over the roof. This Bishop, as his name implies, was a native of Grenoble; and so distinguished for his austere piety, that when he died, in 1200, and was brought to Lincoln for interment, the Kings of England and Scotland, who were then holding a conference in the city, went to meet his body at the gates, and bore it on their shoulders to the Cathedral Close, whence it was carried to the Choir by a multitude of the most distinguished personages of the realm, and finally buried at the east end of the Cathedral. Such a man was of course sure to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church—that ceremony took place in 1220; and sixty-two years later his remains were taken up and deposited in a shrine of pure gold in the Presbytery. The enormous value of this memorial may be conceived from a statement of its dimensions—eight feet by four. The shrine was plundered at the dissolution of the Monasteries, as well as the Cathedral generally. The inventory of jewels, of articles of gold and silver, and of costly vestments taken from Lincoln, fills several folio pages of the great edition of the ‘Monasticon.’ The Nave, unequalled, it is supposed, in the world for its combined magnitude and beauty of proportion, and the curious Galilee porch, so richly decorated, are among the next additions; the use of the last-named work has been thus explained by Dr. Milner (‘Treatise on the Ecclesiastical Architecture of the Middle Ages’):—“There were formerly such porches at the western extremity of all large churches. In these public penitents were stationed, dead bodies were sometimes deposited, previously to their interment, and females were allowed to see the monks of the convent who were their relatives. We may gather from a passage in Gervase, that upon a woman’s applying for leave to see a monk, her relation, she was answered in the words of Scripture, ‘He goeth before you into Galilee, there you shall see him.’ Hence the term Galilee. It is well known that at Durham Cathedral women were not even allowed to attend Divine Service except in the Galilee.” To a greater man than any we have yet mentioned, Grosteste, we are indebted for the lower portion of the main tower. What powerful kings strove in vain to do, was accomplished by Bishop Grosteste; he opposed successfully the Papal power in its very palmiest days. The Pope and he, it appears, did not agree about various matters, and no wonder, since he was accustomed to talk about the inordinate ambition of the Pontificate, and to speak disrespectfully of some of its convenient, but not very just, customs—for instance, that of appointing Italian priests to offices in the English church. So Grosteste went to Rome, to see if he could not come to a better understanding with his spiritual superior. His ill success was made apparent on his return, by his publication of a letter in which he animadverted in no very measured terms upon the gross perversions of the Papal power, and instituted a most unflattering comparison between the living and past possessors of the chair of St. Peter. The wrath of the Pope may be imagined: “What!” he exclaimed, “shall this old dotard, whose sovereign is my vassal, lay down rules for me? By St. Peter, I’ll make such an example of him as shall astonish the world.” He accordingly excommunicated Grosteste; who astonished him. whatever he might have done the world, in return, by proceeding quietly with his episcopal duties, making every one speak of him with reverence for his wisdom and piety, and dying at last, eighteen years afterwards, not a jot the worse in any respect for the Pope’s thunders and excommunications. The only other portion of the structure that we need particularize is the east end, including the Presbytery, or space beyond the Choir, and the eastern front, of which we have spoken with so much admiration: all this appears to have been built in the latter half of the thirteenth century; and formed a suitable termination to so grand a work, surpassing, as it did, all that had been previously erected. In these—the earlier parts—a very gradual progression of improvement in the style forms the chief characteristic; but in the Presbytery and east front, while with consummate art we see all the essentials of the former preserved, a striking air of novelty is superadded, and the whole becomes markedly richer, airier, more delicate and stately, without any diminution of grandeur or strength. The buttresses almost cease to look like buttresses, so profusely are they decorated with crockets, creepers, and finials, with clustered columns at the angles, and with brackets and canopies for statues on the faces. The windows now cease to be mere single lights, they are divided into several compartments by mullions; they begin to revel in all the luxuriant variety of geometrical tracery. From the highest to the lowest details, a very “shower of beauty” seems to have suddenly fallen over all; and Time has in most parts dealt so gently with them, that the very freshness of that early period seems to be still preserved.

There are, of course, many matters of interest connected with the erection of the Cathedral, which we have not even referred to, and many others of its general history, or of its individual features, upon which our space either forbids us to comment at all, or but slightly. The Bishop’s Porch, at the eastern corner of the southern side of the building, was originally one of the most sumptuous and admirable specimens of mingled architecture and sculpture that even Old England itself could furnish; and, mutilated as the porch now is, more than traces of its superb beauty yet remain. The principal part is the alto-relievo above the doorway, representing the Last Judgment in a style of the loftiest design, that fills one, like the beautiful statue of Eleanor in Westminster Abbey, with astonishment and perplexity: how could such works have been executed in England in the thirteenth or fourteenth century? The various chapels and monumental remains of Lincoln are in themselves a wide field for study and observation; but we can only here remark, that among the latter are those of Bishop Remigius, Catherine Swynford, wife of John of Gaunt, and sister of Chaucer’s wife, and the remains of a monument, covering the stone coffin of little St. Hugh, a boy alleged to have been crucified by the Jews in derision of the Saviour—a charge absurd enough in all but its consequences; these are painful even to relate. In 1255 one hundred and two Jews were taken from Lincoln to the Tower; and eventually twenty-three were executed in London, and eighteen at Lincoln. The explanation, frightful as is the wickedness it involves, if true, seems to be partially given in the existing record of a commission to Simon de Passeliere and William de Leighton, to seize for the king’s use the houses belonging to the Jews who were hanged at Lincoln. Knowing what atrocities were perpetrated, avowedly to make their victims, the Jews, submit to spoliation, there is but little difficulty in believing, however reluctantly, that the spoilers were glad to avail themselves of any conceivable means of directing against that unhappy people the greatest possible amount of popular odium. A painted statue of the boy formerly existed here, bearing marks of crucifixion in the hands and feet, and blood issuing from a wound in the side. The story has been commemorated in the ballad of ‘Sir Hugh, or the Jew’s Daughter;’ and in the ‘Canterbury Tales,’ where Chaucer, in the Prioress’s Tale, alludes to

O younge Hugh of Lincoln slain also,

With cursed Jewess, as it is notable,

For it n’is but a little while ago: &c.

Great Tom of Lincoln must have a passing word. The old bell, having been accidentally broken in 1827, has been since recast, with the additional metal of the four lady bells that also hung in the great tower; and it now deserves more than its former reputation. Its size and weight are enormous. The height exceeds six feet; the greatest breadth is six feet ten inches and a half; the weight is five tons eight hundredweight. As to tone and volume of sound, the imagination can conceive nothing more grandly, musically solemn.