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Castle Acre

Castle Acre west front

Castle Acre west front

It’s easy to get blase about East Anglian Romanesque: however impressive the grand clarity of Ely, Peterborough, and Norwich, they can seem (sorry) pretty alike. As one approaches the extravagant blank arcading on the west front of this little gem, it’s not hard to imagine that what we should expect is more of the same. Great, but also same-old, and on a smaller scale. Enjoy instead the frozen-in-time C12 landscape: the castle that has been gradually decaying since the Anarchy, the town that never really took off, the fields and snaking river by the cut-off monastery site, its dorter, frater, reredorter and chapter house all of lavish scale for a comparitively small house. And all battered but surviving, roofless but clear.

But look again: on the stumps of the transepts, there are great intersecting arcades at gallery level. The inside of the west front is a stuffed with loping arches as the outside. This was once a richly decorated building, its small size making its richness all the more impressive.

And look at the columns, down at the bases, where a few lines of coursing survive before the broken-tooth-nubs-of-flint appear. Alternating compound and circular, the circular with attached shafts to N and S, in turn suggesting a church that was fully vaulted within a decade or less of that possibility becoming possible, assuming this is a design of the 1090s or early 1100s. Well cut, too: the surviving spiral column at the w end suggests close inspiration from Durham’s masterful stonework planning; surviving diamonds elsewhere suggest this was Durham’s mighty riffing repeated and expanded.

There’s a whole chunk of elevation preserved, where the west front hits the former S tower, and here both the gallery and the arcade continue the inventive chevrons seen all over the w. front, where one stubby run of blank arches actually has no apparent outer arch at all, turning the chevron into a kind of starburst-arch.  And the vaults look as if they were interesting, too: the aisle windows are enclosed by the scars of great parabala, like the narrow end of an eggshell, which must have given a real tense energy to an interior presumably stuffed with such forms: the aisles less a sequence of hollows than a rich Cluniac egg carton.

But most of all, in the remaining portion of the E end (the presbytery, a la Ely, was rebuilt in the C13) there starts a lavish arrangement of patterned stones, Northants limestone alternating with an ironstone, perhaps Norfolk Carrstone. Some are cautious about seeing such arrangements as decorative — wasn’t it all going to be whitewashed over? Aren’t they just spreading stones out to even out any inherent weaknesses? – but surely this is done too carefully to be merely a mason covering his back; and surely the fact it occurs in the e but not the w half of the church suggests it is a deliberate upping of the ante. Certainly the design just outlined, when added to these diapers and stripes of green/brown and cream/white, would start to really get quite intense.

castle acre w front II

castle acre w front II

And then one of my students notices the chequerboard pattern on the remaining stumps of eastern columns exactly parallels that on the Warrene arms. Now surely this is mad: presumably, we can’t even be sure such arms had beeen *coined* in the 1090s: its very early for heradlry. But this *is* a ducal family. And more to the point, the arranging of patterns in the columns of the  east end at Durham, so obviously an inspiration for much of this, is convincingly said to do precisely this, to convey a message about the meaning of the church, about the identity between the offices performed in the east end and its role as a shrine-church to Cuthbert. Would a family foundation such as this not identify similiarly with prayer for Warenne souls? It’s not quite as crazy as it sounds …. yet such a crazy notion would place it a solid century or more before the next appearance of heraldry in permanent form decorating a church interior (Westminster abbey, and not in the choir or on columns), and even that doesn’t go so far as to stick it all over the columns, filling the very choir itself with lordly pride and piety. Another possibility is that the Warenne chequerboard is somehow derived from this church, but for that one would need to know more about their other foundations. This is their main east anglian seat, surely, but there’s Lewes, and possibly others too…

Whatever, this is the plan of Cluny II with the decorative intent of Durham, an East Anglian lordly Cluniac intensity of the highest order.

Update, July 2011: Just noticed that Eric Fernie goes into some details about the piers: in the nave, for example they are in fact a) all different — everry one of them – b) arranged in echoing patterns that face each other in pairs c) as a result the overall rhythm is strikingly asymetrical. How all this might have played out higher in the elevation is anyone’s guess, but it extends my sense that this is a building of extraordinary, casket-like variety and richness; for the 1090s, it pretty well outdoes anything in England that’s standing — or becomes a tantalising hint of what might have been going on at other Cluniac houses, perhaps even suggesting that places like Ely and Norwich, or even Durham, might have been playing for a self-conscious grandeur and sobriety by comparison.


Update, August 2014. I no longer believe this is a design of the late C11. It surely cannot be earlier than the 1110s and is happier a decade or two after that. I have seen nothing to indicate that much documentary evidence for the process of foundation and setting up survives; the process can be a slow one and involve temporary churches etc — Lewes being a case in point. The design is still remarkable, though, and a remarkableness that’s been overlooked. More to the point, I’ve had the opportunity this year to get to grips with the (fragmentary) evidence for Lewes, with its grand plan based on Cluny III, and it seems to me that Castle Acre, as its chief daughter house, could almost be said to provide stronger evidence than anything surviving from Lewes itself to argue that that was, like Cluny, a building of exceptional richness and sophistication.

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