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Patterns of cathedral-building

There are all kinds of intriguing patterns among the English cathedrals: the distinction between those with monastic chapters (mostly Romanesque/late C11/episodically added to) and those that were secular (mostly Gothic/wholesale rebuilds of the late C12-late C13) is one of my favourites. But there are others, too. For example, though they have very different characters and histories, all the ‘minnows’ — the poorest sees, with the smallest churches — are on the fringes. There’s Rochester and Chichester on the south-east coats, both the ghosts of lost (in Rochester’s case only posited) Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; and Hereford and Carlisle in the west and north-west, the one a sizeable and ancient see, the other a small but rugged one, an outpost of civilisation in a kind of medeival ‘third world’ in the English north-west, and also the last see to be created before the Reformation.

And then there’s the Northern Giants, Lincoln, York, and Durham: dramatically different — an end to end gothic rebuild, a series of grand projects extending over half a millenium and a substantially Romanesque church respectively — but all colossi, in exceptionally wealthy and powerful dioceses, and all along the north-east coast.

What I’d not noticed before is the pattern of rebuilding in the south west. Two gothic seculars, Salisbury and Wells, were rebuilt there around 1200, to be joined by 1280 by Exeter; the many parallels between the three ‘model’ secular cathedrals added to by the overlap of personnel in their Chapters and, in some cases, their builders and the fact that none had a true in-house saint’s cult, at least until Osmund at Salisbury was canonised in the fifteenth century. Exeter would be the last end-to-end rebuild (C12 towers excepted, as at Lincoln the C12 west front was kept and at Wells and Salisbury aspects of the preceding church encoded in the design) before the Reformation — were it not for Bath, still underway when the monastery there was dissolved. So every cathedral west of Worcester/Winchester had an end to end gothic-era rebuild, two of them later by some distance than any others in the country.

The contrast with the situation in the far east is particularly remarkable, for here, at monastic Norwich and Ely and (though these were not at the time cathedrals) St Albans and Peterborough, not to mention a host of other monastic sites, from Bury to Wymondham, colossal churches in a near-indistinguishable muscular Romanesque survive. It is as if local one-upmanship affects west country ambitions dramatically, while an equally powerful regional tradition in the east says that great churches should look romanesque, righ up until the Reformation. Oddly, this pattern turns the underlying geological one on its head: the great gathering of ancient churches in the far east, stands on the youngest rocks, in the flattest landscape; and the hilly, ancient geological palimpsest of the south west attracts the newest cathedrals, the fashionable and experimental rebuilds of the gothic era.

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