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The Three English Graces - Simon Jenkins

Blog | By Simon Jenkins | May 10, 2022

Once the tallest building in the world: 13th-century Lincoln Cathedral

Simon Jenkins travelled across Europe to find the best cathedrals, but his heart still lies with Lincoln, Ely and Wells

The English cathedral is one religious institution in rude good health.

Parish churches die by the week. Congregations shrink. The young are vanishing. But, lockdowns apart, most cathedrals are booming. Their worshippers have increased by a third over the past two decades, and that does not include tourists.

The reasons are variously attributed to the cathedrals’ promotion of music, their secular activities in the community and even their relative anonymity. As one dean confided to me, ‘We try not to bang on about God.’

But the chief reason must be their sheer beauty. For four centuries at the end of the Middle Ages, kings, bishops and city magnates decided to erect structures so colossal and so sensational in their design that, as the canons of Seville told their architects, ‘Build such that men will think us mad.’

Today these structures still constitute the supreme works of European art and architecture.

Two years of pilgrimage and study has left me, though not a practising Christian, both astonished and exhilarated. What in truth motivated these ventures, and among them which were the finest?

When I set out, I was biased, largely from familiarity, towards those I knew best, the cathedrals of England. Almost all built by the conquering Normans, they attracted the best builders in Europe, assisted with money and labour almost without limit.

Now older and wiser, I find my head is still buzzing with Chartres and Amiens, Toledo and Seville, St Basil’s and St Mark’s. Comparison between them seems odious and I can only plead with friends to see them all before they die. Yet familiarity won the day.

Back home, I remain drawn to what I called my Three English Graces – Lincoln, Ely and Wells. They are for me in a class of their own.

The chief reason is that they possess, like few continental cathedrals, a sense of evolving over time and in style, of wearing their history on their sleeves, and their personalities with it.

Thus Lincoln is an ageing aristocrat, wizened and partly unrestored. Its domain once stretched from the Humber to the Thames. Its principal patron was an eccentric Carthusian, Hugh of Burgundy, who sought sainthood by kissing lepers and chewing a piece of Mary Magdalene’s arm. He built the bulk of his cathedral in the 13th century behind the old Norman west front. The central of his three towers grew to be the tallest structure in the world – taller than the Great Pyramid of Cheops – until it collapsed during the reign of the Tudors.

The interior of Lincoln is a perfect display of Early English Gothic, transitioning to Decorated. Hugh’s most bizarre creation is the ‘crazy vault’ of the choir, its ribs at no point forming a symmetrical pattern. The black Purbeck shafts, the transept rose windows, the undulating wall arcades and verdant stiff-leaf capitals show engineers, masons and carvers working in perfect harmony.

The east end is Lincoln’s splendid Angel Choir, erected in Hugh’s memory. It is a gallery of Decorated art, from the devilish Lincoln Imp to the erotic Adam and Eve, with serpents eating their genitals. When it was opened in 1280 with Edward I in attendance, the entertainment was so lavish that ‘the bishop’s palace gutters ran with wine’.

Today, Lincoln is calmer. The northern cloister contains Sir Christopher Wren’s library, with its old book presses and chained leather volumes. In its arcade below rests surely England’s most sublime teashop.

Ely, like Lincoln, is a cathedral dating from a grander age than its surrounding settlement. Also built to deter Danes and overawe Saxons, it rises today over the mists of the Fens like a galleon at sea. Its west end is a fortress of Romanesque towers, while to the east rises a stupendous late-Gothic pile, rebuilt after a collapse in the 14th century. This rebuilding produced Ely’s jewel, a central lantern tower erected on 16 colossal oak beams brought from Bedfordshire – how it was done is a mystery.

Ely’s nave is a Norman army drawn up on parade, an arcade of round arches with, on its exterior, two elaborate 12th-century portals. One depicts Christ attended by angels with enormous hands and feet, like figures borrowed from East Anglian mythology. Where the nave meets the crossing, the view of the roof explodes upwards into a vault of unparalleled drama. Giant curving ribs arc upwards to the lantern opening, where windows illuminate a second vault. To lie on the floor beneath Ely’s crossing is to sense the greatest of Gothic experiences. Ely’s other joy is its Perpendicular Lady Chapel, the walls lined with exquisite carved stalls sadly defaced by iconoclasts. Oh, to see them restored.

Lastly Wells, its mammoth bulk lurking under the Mendip escarpment but leaping to life when a setting sun gilds its west front with gold. Like Ely’s chapel, its tiers of eroded and unrecognisable sculptures cry out for restoration, but even its wind-blasted stone stumps seem curiously lovable. Inside rise Wells’s famous scissor arches propping up the crossing, looking faintly 20th century but dating from the 14th. They shelter a little-known gallery of some 200 pier capital carvings. These are not biblical scenes but a gazetteer of daily life in medieval Wells. A cobbler mends a shoe, a farmer chases a fox, boys steal fruit from a tree and a man has toothache. It is a miracle of Gothic art.

Medieval toothache: Wells Cathedral

Beyond is Wells’s retrochoir and Lady Chapel, the latter’s ceiling the work of Thomas of Witney, who deserves to rank with the greatest of English architects. A keen geometer, he designed a Gothic cat’s cradle of ribs, forming to Pevsner ‘a pleasing confusion as intricate and thrilling as German rococo or polyphonic music. It is architecture designed by Bach’.

Finally, Wells’s Chapter House is reached up a curving staircase. Composed at the turn of the 14th century round a single central column, it is like the umbrella of a great palm tree, its 32 ribs splaying outwards to fall onto an octagon of windows. This is the most serene of chambers.

The great churches of France, Spain, Italy and Germany all have their moments, but I happily sit back and rest among my favourites, those old friends the cathedrals of England.