NormanCategory: Architecture + Painting
Whether it is the result of propaganda in old history books or not I do not know, but most people have the impression that when William the Conqueror arrived he brought civilization and fine stone buildings to a benighted people.
This is not quite true. The Saxons were a peaceful agricultural people when the Normans came in 1066. They were much finer artists than the Normans and they were better builders. At any rate they were better builders than were the first Normans to arrive.
The Saxons built in the round-arched style known as Romanesque because it was the style used throughout Christendom. It was meant to look like the round-arched architecture of ancient Rome. Romanesque is generally called “Norman” in England, but quite a lot of what we think is Norman may possibly be Saxon. What must have happened was that, as the comparatively few Normant and the many native Saxons and Celts settled down, the Saxon gifs for stone carving and masonry was used in buildings, so that one would be hard put to it to say who was a Saxon carver or who was a Norman one. The very imaginative carving on the church at Kilpeck in Herefordshire was done with a chisel, probably by Saxons. The more regular and mechanical-looking carving that one sees in East Anglia and in Kent, with the zig-zag moulding that is characteristic of early Norman, was done with an axe, probably by Normans.
The Normans drove the chief men of the Saxons out of the big houses and took over their land. William the Conqueror, who could neither read nor write, was what is today much admired — “an able administrator”. Part of that administration, for which the Norman kings seem to have had a gift, was Doomesday Book, which is the only guide we have to what Saxon and early Norman England was like. It survived because it was written on skin. Had paper been invented, we would never have seen it as p’aper would not have lasted so long.
The total population of England in the Xlth century is unlikely to have been more than one and a half million. When William the Conqueror arrived by far the biggest city was, as it still is, London. It then had only 10,000 inhabitants.
Houses were built of wood. The only exceptions were those which belonged to the very important, and those in stone districts on the limestone belt which stretches from Yorkshire down to Somerset and Dorset. Alfred the Great’s palace had been a wooden building.
Villages must have looked rather like the primitive settlements you see in missionary magazine photographs — that is to say they were clearings in the forest or islets in the marsh or a little shaved part of the moor and scrub; and in this clearing there would have been a large house of wood and the other large timber building would have been the church; and there would have been a series of modest hovels made of branches leant against one another, and walled between the branches with mud and roofed with thatched grass or turf. Smoke came out of a hole in the middle of the roof from a fire in the middle of the floor, as I have seen it coming out of a “black” house in Foula, the westernmost of the Shetland Islands.
These primitive houses were arranged either along each side of a confluence of roads or round a green, and the track to the next settlement might have been through forest or wild country. Behind the houses stretched fields which were cultivated by a communal rota system; in the’street in front and beyond the open drains was the market place. To this day one can get a faint idea of the traditional growth of a town if one goes into a small country town which has as yet been spared development. Very often the houses in the High Street still have long gardens stretching out behind them and into the open fields. And the open fields in Saxon times would have been called out-fields, and beyond them would have been forests.
In some country towns you can still see fields and trees at the end of the roads from a market hall which stands on stilts where the roads meet. I should not think any of the wooden houses survive from Norman times, although in districts where half-timber constructions is the traditional style of architecture, as in Worcestershire, East Anglia, Kent and Sussex, some older cottages follow the principles that the Saxons and Normans used for timber houses. In a stone district, a pefect example of a medieval (actually Norman) town house is the building known as the Jew’s House in Lincoln.
The first buildings the Normans erected in England were castles set at strategic points. Many of these were of wood. The best preserved stone one is Castle Hedingham, in Essex. The most famous is the White Tower in London. The castles, whether they were of stone or wood, were where the Norman barons lived, and with the aid of knights and retainers kept the Saxons and Iron Age Celts in subjection.
The Saxon parish system already existed and was taken on by the Normans. They rebuilt many of the wooden churches, and that is why so many parish churches in England have Norman remains in them. But chiefly the Normans encouraged monks and nuns to come over and settle — the Benedictines first and then the Cistercians. With Caen stone floated over from France they started to rebuild Canterbury, the centre of southern English Christianity. Most of the medieval cathedrals of England were Norman in origin and so wTere many other fine abbeys which have never become cathedrals, such as Malmesbury, Tewkesbury and Romsey in the South and Selby and Cartmel in the North.
Monasteries were the refuges of learning and devotion — which is one reason why the abbeys are such a prominent part of the Romanesque architecture of England. Nature loomed larger than man. Human life was cheaper. If you wTere in the forests an enemy might be hiding waiting to kill — an Anglo-Saxon if you wTere a Norman, a Norman if you were an Anglo-Saxon, a Celt if you were either. In addition to fear from man, there was a fear of wild animals, of being lost, of-ghosts, and there were many terrifying survivals of paganism.
That remarkable writer John Harvey, in his book English Cathedrals, gives a memorable description of the spirit in which Norman architecture was built in Britain:
The dark world of outer barbarism was still present in men’s minils. Not until the fresh knowledge and the new Gothic spirit swept Europe in the succeeding century were men to feel that they lived in a bright and open world. The sombre %gloom of cave-dwelling and cave-worship hangs over the monk’s choir of St. Albans, the long nave of Peterborough; flickers like a grey shadow glimpsed from the corner of an eye in the transept of Winchester. Dark enough now, but with the opacity of early glass midnight must have reigned at noon.
These Norman churches had very small windows high up; only the most important abbey churches, like Canterbury, could afford stained glass. Other buildings had stone grilles perforated for the light to come through, or there may have been linen soaked in oil to let in the light and keep out the weather. The monks made their offices behind high screens, and you can see that arrangement surviving in St. Albans Abbey today.
The abbeys were constructed with very thick walls, but the Norman builders were not so skilled at laying foundations as the Saxons had been. They used to build cross-shaped buildings with central towers designed to dominate the district and increase the prestige both of the Church and the Normans. Many of these central towers collapsed because of faulty foundations. Indeed, the fall of the central tower at Ely resulted in that splendid lantern being put in its place later in the Middle Ages.
The walls of the Norman churches were painted inside — generally brownish, with red lines in squares and patterns. Where the light fell on an inside wall coloured figures of saints and angels might be painted, and an attempt was probably made at the east end to give the effect of the mosaics of an Eastern basilica. Several examples of Norman painting survive, the most perfect probably being that of St. Paul in St. Anselm’s Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral.
To begin with, Norman churches and abbeys were generally round-ended at the east — that is to say, apsidal. The nearer to France the more there were these round ends. But the Celts in England liked a square east end where the altar is. As time went on round- ended churches were squared off at the east end, and sometimes they were built, even in Norman times, with a square end.
The Norman churches of England, whether they are cathedral churches or parish churches, but particularly the cathedral churches, differ from those on the Continent in their variety and in their size. In England they are longer and larger than in France, particularly the cathedrals, but they are not so tall.
Different parts of the country have different styles of Romanesque. In the naves at Gloucester and Tewkesbury there is a very distinctive West Country Romanesque style — immensely thick cylindrical columns and rather small round arches on top of them. At Peterborough, a late Norman building, the columns in that splendid nave are very tall. The most perfect of all the Norman buildings of England is undoubtedly Durham Cathedral. Here the columns have zig-zag patterns and other designs incised on them, rather as though they were painted in that dark red paint the Normans liked to use. At the west end of Durham there is the Galilee porch which is in a late Romanesque style, and unique in England.
We all of us. have our favourite Norman buildings. Durham comes first with me, but for mystery and a sense of endlessness I cannot make up my mind whether I prefer the crypt at Worcester Cathedral, with its cushion capitals and many vistas, or that under Canterbury Cathedral, which is part of an early Norman building where Becket must have walked.
(From A Pictorial History of British Architecture by J. Betjeman)