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The complex of buildings found at Westminster is a little architecturally confusing. We have Westminster Abbey, clearly old from what you see inside it, Westminster Hall and the Palace of Westminster, which look similar, and Big Ben, which screams Victoriana. These buildings can easily blend together if you don’t look carefully and that blending was indeed the intention of the designers.
It’s pretty shocking that in 1834, not that long ago, we lost an enormous historical palace at Westminster which consisted of amazing medieval and early modern buildings. This ‘Old Palace’ was destroyed by a terrible fire and the only surviving buildings are the Cloisters of St Stephen’s, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, the Jewel Tower and most notably Westminster Hall.
The Westminster site was used as a residence for Kings of England since the 11th century and much was built and extended over the course of the next 500 years. The oldest part we can still see is Westminster Hall, which was built by William II. In 1295, the Model Parliament met at Westminster, beginning the tradition for all future parliaments of England.
Because the palace was not designed for intensive parliamentary use, drastic alterations were made to it between the 16th and 19th centuries. The palace must have looked a little dilapidated and in the 18th century there were calls for a new palace to be built. This clearly coincides with the fall in popularity of the medieval gothic architectural style. People preferred classical styles and Palladian additions were made. Most notable, Sir John Soane demolished the medieval House of Lords chamber and rebuilt it in the neo-classical style.
This period saw a backlash against the neo-classical style and this destruction of medieval buildings. Several key thinkers began to mourn the loss of the older gothic parts of the Palace of Westminster. Some architectural writers appreciated the aesthetics of England’s gothic buildings. Horace Walpole built his gothic house at Strawberry Hill in 1747 and described the style as ‘venerable’ and ‘charming’.
The enthusiasm for the style among architectural writers increased and many illustration collections and studies were published, including the influential Essays on Gothic Architecture by Thomas Warton and others, published in 1800. The cause was taken up by Auguste Pugin, who published Specimens of Gothic Architecture (1821) and Examples of Gothic Architecture (1831).
The devastating fire at the palace must therefore be seen in this context. The fire was caused by an overheated stove beneath the House of Lords Chamber and raged overnight destroying almost everything. Many people helped fight the fire, preserving some of the buildings, but many watched the fire with glee, seeing it as a punishment for unpopular politicians. If you want to learn more about the fire itself, I recommend a podcast from the House of Commons – listen here.
Architects saw the fire as an opportunity to get rid of the hodgepodge of architectural styles that cluttered up the gothic. After the fire, parliament decided they needed a building more fit for purpose, but that emphasised the governments historical origins. Therefore, a competition was held for architects to redesign the palace in ‘either Gothic or Elizabethan’ style, to lessen the shock of the destruction.
An architectural struggle raged through the nineteenth century between classic and gothic adherents. In 1884 Robert Kerr gave a paper to the General Conference of Architects detailing this ‘architectural civil war’, describing how
at the moment when Barry in his Club-houses offered us a new version of Wren’s Classic, we threw it over and reverted to Gothic; and at the moment when Street in his Law Courts had brought Pugin’s Gothic to a supremacy, we now cast that aside and return to Classic.
In February 1836, Charles Barry’s neo-gothic proposal for the palace was accepted and he employed Augustus Pugin to design the gothic interior. Construction was finally completed in 1870. It was designed to look medieval and fit into the surrounding medieval buildings, while still providing space appropriate for the running of parliament.
I have often walked past Lincoln’s Inn on my way to Chancery Lane and the Maughan Library. Lincoln’s Inn Fields is a beautiful little park to stroll through to avoid the busy roads and it’s amazing how quiet it is once you step away from Kingsway and High Holborn.
There are several interesting places around the square including Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons with its fantastic Hunterian Museum. As you walk east towards Chancery Lane, it becomes clear you are in London’s legal centre. You can see several legal institutions including Essex Court Chambers, New Square Chambers and of course the Royal Courts of Justice looming over to your right.
The reason that this area is the legal hub of the city is because the original four Inns of Court are situated around this area, Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple, Gray’s Inn and Inner Temple. The Inns of Court were societies for the lodging, training and practice of barristers, however today the buildings are used primarily by members as offices.
The Inns were founded between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and in the early modern period they became, along with Oxford and Cambridge, a necessary part of any high-status professional’s education. For example, famous members of Lincoln’s Inn include Sir Thomas More and John Donne. Inner Temple counts Sir Francis Drake, Mohandas Ghandi and John and Robert Dudley among its alumni. It is also speculated that Geoffrey Chaucer and Oliver Cromwell were also members of the Inns of Court. From the Lincoln’s Inn website:
First, why “Inn”? As well as applying to the houses used by travellers and pilgrims – the usage that usually comes to mind – the term, or its Latin equivalent hospitium, also applied to the large houses of magnates of all kinds, such as statesmen, bishops, civil servants, and lawyers, whose business brought them to town, especially when Parliament and the courts were in session.
Lincoln’s Inn has some of the most imposing and impressive buildings which can’t be missed when walking through the park. The origins of the Inn are not fully known – the extant records of Lincoln’s Inn open in 1422, but it is thought the Inn was in existence before then. It it also thought that it was named after Henry de Lacy, third Earl of Lincoln who may have been patron.
In the late sixteenth century, Lincoln’s Inn consisted of the Old Hall, some chambers and the chapel. The Old Hall was built “in the fifth year of King Henry VII” and was used as a dining hall and court of justice. The Hall features as a setting for the opening scene of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
A new chapel began to be built in 1620 after the original fell into disrepair. John Donne was preacher at the time and not only laid the foundation stone for it, but also led its consecration on Ascension Day in 1623. In the 1880s the chapel was enlarged and the roof rebuilt in the Gothic revival style of the time.
In 1843, the Great Hall was built to relieve the pressure on the smaller Old Hall. Before this new hall was built with a new entrance to the Inn, the main entrance had always been the Gate House on Chancery Lane. The Gate House as built between 1517 and1521 and the present oak doors date from 1564. Since this entrance is no longer in use, it is too easy to walk down Chancery Lane and completely miss this historic site. It was restored in the 1960s and now you can see above the door the arms of Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln; Henry VIII; and Sir Thomas Lovell above a stone recording a 1695 restoration.
Lincoln’s Inn still performs all of the functions of an Inn of court, offering education, training and services for lawyers. Its buildings are also historical attractions and function rooms however, so the society offers room hire for functions and weddings and a variety of guided tours for tourists. I haven’t yet been on a tour inside the Inn but the areas around the buildings are open for pedestrians to stroll around from Monday to Friday, 7am to 7pm. There are also regular services for the public in the chapel as well as special events.
The new Mary Rose Museum opened this year, and while I haven’t had the chance to visit yet, it’s a good moment to look back at its fantastic history. BBC News broadcast a short documentary about the raising of the ship and the years of conservation work and this one is really worth a watch because you get some great behind-the-scenes access. It’s really made me consider conservation as a career – if I could only go back to uni!
In the first few decades of Henry VIII’s reign, he devoted a great deal of time to building up the English navy from its weak position, in order to enter the global military stage. Henry wished to relive the glorious victories of England’s past by engaging in war with France. He oversaw the construction of several new ships, including the Mary Rose, the Peter Pomegranate and the Henry Grace a Dieu.
The Mary Rose was built in Portsmouth and launched in July 1511. She was built primarily of oak and weighed 500 tons. While it is a common story that she was named after Henry VIII’s sister Mary, historians assert that it is much more likely that the name was based on the Virgin Mary.
Immediately after construction, the ship engaged in battles with the French in the First French War, first in 1512 and then in 1513. In July 1514 she was placed in reserves for maintenance and subsequently took part in the Second French War, before being kept again in reserve from 1522 to 1545.
The last battle of the Mary Rose was the Battle of the Solent against the French in July 1545. The ship was not sunk due to damage, but right at the start of the battle a malfunction caused it to lean heavily to the right, allowing water to enter. This could not be corrected and the ship began to be damaged by water and falling equipment. The Mary Rose sank very quickly, giving men trapped by nets and equipment no time to escape.
In 1985, three years after the ship was salvaged, Patrick Wright wrote about the Mary Rose in his book On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain:
The fact that it sank due to what one commentator admits must have been ‘gross mismanagement’ before even engaging with the threatening French fleet does not appear to have prevented this from being recognised as the real stuff of history by the thousands who followed and celebrated the recovery.
Secretary of State William Paget ordered the ship to be salvaged soon after its sinking and while some guns, rigging and other equipment were retrieved, the hull could not be raised. The Mary Rose then lay forgotten on the bottom of the Solent for nearly 300 years until in 1836 it was rediscovered by fisherman.
The Victorian period saw many objects retrieved from the wreck and while some deteriorated due to inadequate preservation techniques, sketches were made of many objects and interest in the Mary Rose grew.
Modern efforts to salvage the ship were instigated by the Southsea branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club in 1965. The Royal Navy and the Committee for Nautical Archaeology in London were also involved in the project. By 1974 the Committee had support from the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Navy, the BBC and Prince Charles.
The wreck was extensively surveyed and more objects retrieved. Plans for the salvage of the surviving section of hull began to be prepared, drawing on lessons from the salvage of the Swedish warship Vasa in the early 1960s. The methods of raising the wreck were highly contested due to fears that it would not hold together out of the water.
In Spring 1982, the plans began to be put into action. The frame was attached to the hull and slowly eased away from the seabed, before being lifted by a crane onto a specially designed cradle. On 11 October 1982, the full salvage began and the ship broke above the surface at 9.03am. Patrick Wright:
The Mary Rose is raised into the present social imagination, and it makes its entrance from the parallel realm of ‘nature’. It comes into society as if from nowhere.
The notion of the time-capsule situates the Mary Rose in a narrative structure which comes up again and again in various and diverse fables of nationalism.
The conservation process began immediately after the ship reached the surface. The hull and its objects were very sensitive to deterioration after air exposure due to their long rest underwater and so each artefact was immediately stored according to the material it was made of.
The initial aim of most of the conservation was to ensure that none of the material was allowed to dry out, before more permanent methods of preservation could be achieved. So the hull was constantly sprayed with water and kept at a low temperature. Then between 1994 and 2010, the hull was sprayed with polyethylene glycol, a substance commonly used for preserving old wood. Over the sixteen years, this substance replaced the water in the timbers with wax. Since 2010, the hull has been in a phase of controlled air drying.
The hull was on display to visitors during this process, however it was only visible from behind a glass barrier in a covered dry dock. A separate museum was opened in the 1980s to explain the history of the ship and display artefacts. The new museum opened in May this year, finally uniting the hull with its objects and the history of the ship and its crew.
Efforts have been made to reconstruct the lives and physical attributes of the lost crew members, to make the ship and its era seem more real to the public. Even though only part of the hull remains, the museum reconstructs the other sections to give a better impression of the entire ship. Patrick Wright:
Is the Mary Rose still the Mary Rose? While the actual planks remain the same, there can be little doubt that, like the Ship of Theseus, this is a boat which has been thoroughly remade.
With so much reconstruction necessary and so much of our modern own historical consciousness applied to the Mary Rose, there is some truth in Wright’s words. However he was writing long before this new museum was opened, so I hope that when I visit I will find that his cynicism is proved wrong.
I haven’t been watching much television recently, but one thing I have managed to keep up with is Tudor Monastery Farm. I was a big fan of the original Victorian Farm, but didn’t really get into the later series, Edwardian and Wartime, simply because they seemed too similar to the original, in terms of farming techniques and home life. However, when I saw that they were doing a Tudor version, I thought this would be much more interesting – and it has proved to be.
The team show us how farming and home management were approached in a time before industrial techniques and mechanisation. Historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold experience life as tenant farmers working on the land of a typical monastery in the early Tudor period. They show us all of the techniques used in this era to grow crops and livestock, manage the home and manufacture products.
The programme covers many early crafts that I have wondered about for ages – how on earth did people convert ore to metal tools? How did they manage to create enormous stained glass windows in this era? How did they make all the woollen cloth that made England so rich?
What you learn from the programme is that in this era, everything that we take for granted now was mind-numbingly time-consuming and their innovation and patience was incredible. Here are a few highlights from the show so far:
Peter and Tom mine lead ore, before building an enormous smelting fire on a hill and place lead ore on top of it so that it trickles down to produce molten lead. They have some problems with the wind, but when they return the next day they pick up pieces of metal from the ash. They then purify the lead and cast it into bars using sand moulds.
It’s incredible the amount of physical labour that went into creating every piece of metal around in the Tudor period. Some have criticised various aspects of the process (see these comments), but it gives me a bit of an insight into how people got from mining rock to solid metal tools.
They harvest honey and beeswax directly from the hive, using a feather to brush away the bees without getting their legs caught. Ruth then melts the wax and dips a string repeatedly into the wax until a tall candle forms around the wick.
These candles would have been expensive and used only in churches and monasteries, since they burned cleaner and smelt sweeter. The poor would have used only tallow candles made of animal fat – these would have spluttered and smelled bad.
The method used to create paintbrushes is incredibly ingenious, considering the complexity of attaching bristles to a handle. Instead, they take a single feather, cut it in half, and feed the barb through the hollow shaft so that a small section of soft feather pokes out to provide bristles. The simplicity of this idea makes it so brilliant.
Yeast is another thing that we just seem to take for granted now – when somebody is making bread or beer, they just add yeast. Wild yeast grows on the skins of fruits and grains, so Ruth shows us how this would have been harvested. She prepares a bowl of flour and water and leaves it in a field of grain and when she returns, the substance appears slightly frothy, indicating that yeast is present.
Wool was England’s most important export in the Tudor period – it formed the basis of Britain’s economic prosperity in the next few decades. Therefore, a great deal of labour was devoted to wool production and it certainly was a labour-intensive process.
Peter and Tom learn how to shear the sheep, then Ruth spins the wool into yarn before being shown how a weaving machine is set up. After the cloth is woven, it is hung up on tenterhooks, providing the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’!
When I see stained glass windows in cathedrals, I always wonder how they managed to make them so big while keeping them secure. Ruth practices the techniques they used to make stained glass windows and it is surprisingly quick. The design for the section of window is drawn onto the glass with charcoal before being carved and chipped away at with flint to remove the edges of the design.
The sections of glass are then held together and secured with lead. To make the lead easier to apply, it is melted over reeds to provide flexible lengths of metal to place in between he sections of glass. This is then melted on, providing a secure glass window.
If I have any criticism of the programme, apart from the small inaccuracies that may be present, it is that the weather is always great and the people involved seem to show some element of nostalgia – this is pretty common when people talk about the Tudor era. The awful living conditions, social inequalities and disease are not mentioned, but of course that is not really the aim of the programme. The phrase ‘merry old England’ is even spoken at one point.
The Tudor Monastery Farm Christmas Special will be broadcast on BBC2 at 9pm on Tuesday 31st December.
The Great Hall is one of the most interesting buildings to visit in Winchester as it has an incredible history and is the last remnant of Winchester Castle. Winchester had a castle since the eleventh century, when it was built for William the Conqueror in 1067 as a defensive stronghold. A royal palace was also added soon afterwards.
These buildings needed repair in King John’s reign and so the Great Hall that stands today was built by Henry III between 1222 and 1235. The painted round table that hangs on the wall encapsulates the legend of King Arthur and was said to be the table that he and his knights used.
However the table was actually created around 1290 to celebrate the betrothal of one of King Edward I’s daughters. Henry VIII then had it painted with a Tudor rose in the sixteenth century.
Winchester was an important royal and administrative centre in the medieval period and the castle was a focus for this. The Treasury and the Exchequer were both based there and monarchs spent a great deal of time at the palace. Empress Matilda’s army was besieged by King Stephen at the castle in 1141, Henry III was born there in 1207 and Edward I and his wife, Margaret of France were nearly killed by fire at the palace in 1302.
The round table hanging on the wall today began as a standing table with 12 legs and a central support. It was built from English oak and weighs 1200kg. It is not known how it was used or displayed originally, but it is thought that it has been hung on the wall of the great Hall since at least 1540.
This was probably the point when the table was painted to portray Henry VIII as King Arthur on his throne, with the Tudor rose and 24 spaces for the Knights of the Round Table.
During the later medieval period Winchester lost significance as London became the centre of government, however the Great Hall was still an important location for court business. The Castle was captured by Parliamentary forces in 1646 and was demolished by Oliver Cromwell. The Great Hall was spared from this fate as it was useful for assemblies and the County Assizes.
After the Restoration, Charles II planned to rebuild the palace as the King’s House, designed by Christopher Wren. However the plans were abandoned by James II. In 1900 a new King’s House was built with the same design, and now the buildings contain private flats and Winchester’s Military Museums.
The Great Hall now contains a small but brilliant exhibition, showing the history of the castle and hall. Outside the hall is a recreation of a medieval garden, Queen Eleanor’s Garden, named after Queen Eleanor of Provence and her daughter-in-law Queen Eleanor of Castile, who may have used the garden.
The Hall also contains several monuments, including a bronze statue of Queen Victoria and two enormous stainless steel gates, designed by Antony Robinson to commemorate the Royal Wedding Charles and Diana in 1981.
I visited Winchester again last weekend for the first time for many years and its still as good as ever. On my trip I managed to fit in the Cathedral, the Great Hall and castle museum, Winchester College, the City Museum and the Christmas Market which opened a couple of weeks ago. Had a wonderful tour around Winchester Cathedral from a tour guide called Joanna Pope – so thanks to her for reminding me of all the great stories!
Winchester Cathedral began as a royal Anglo-Saxon church known as Old Minster, the brick outline of which you can still see on the lawn outside the cathedral today. It became the most important royal church in the country and many kings were buried there, including Alfred the Great. It was also a focus for pilgrims coming to see the bones of St Swithun.
When William the Conqueror invaded in 1066 he took over the cathedral and eventually it was rebuilt using the original stone and consecrated in 1093. Over the next 400 years, the cathedral flourished with new works of art including a new illuminated bible which you can go to see in the library and museum housed in the cathedral.
In the fourteenth century, the cathedral was remodelled in the Gothic style. Round arches were raised higher and redesigned with Gothic points, new windows, screens and vaulted ceilings were built and the cathedral became infinitely more ornate, as it looks today.
This can be confusing at first, because the cathedral is described as Norman and yet it looks so quintessentially Gothic. Our guide explained that this redesign which began in the fourteenth century covered up the Norman pillars and these pillars are still structurally at the centre of the Gothic pillars. In the transepts and in the crypt you can still see the Normal style and the difference is breathtaking.
Our guide also drew our attention to the chantry chapels in the nave. One reached right up to the top of the arch and another reached only half way. This is because one was built before the arches were raised during the Gothic redesign and the other was built before.
Winchester suffered upheavals during the Reformation, but the Cathedral was not too badly damaged, however the Benedictine monastery, St Swithun’s Priory was shut down and the cloister demolished.
One of the most amazing parts of the cathedral that hits you as soon as you come in is the west stained-glass window. It is made up of tiny fragments of glass and you can see bits of faces and arms in the fragments, which is pretty unnerving. It looks like this because it is reconstructed from the fragments of the original window which was smashed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces during the Civil War.
On our tour, our guide explained this story with real feeling. During the Civil War the cathedral was used as a stable and as waste was swept out of the cathedral, glass fragments were swept out with it. The local people collected these fragments and saved them until the monarchy was restored and the window was reconstructed from the pieces as a mosaic.
Our guide mentioned that in 2000, organisers had considered replacing the window with a specially-designed window to celebrate the millennium. She expressed her relief that this never happened – and I agree – it is one of the most wonderful stained-glass windows I have ever seen.
Other interesting aspects of the cathedral are the memorials and tombs of some famous people including notably Jane Austen. When I was there they also had a small exhibition about her life.
I was unable to on my visit myself, but you can also go on a tour of the crypt which our guide said was certainly worth it. You can see part of the crypt by going down some steps in the north transept. This part includes a Antony Gormley sculpture of a man, who is left standing in water when the crypt floods.
At the moment there is an excellent Christmas market and ice rink on the south side of the cathedral which will be running until Sunday 22nd of December.
Blackadder Rides Again
This is a fantastic run through of the history of the sitcom Blackadder, broadcast at Christmas 2008 to celebrate its 25th anniversary. For those who don’t know the programme, it covers in four series the medieval period, the Elizabethan period, the Regency and the First World War, with Edmund Blackadder as the protagonist. It has become very influential in the historical knowledge of many British people – it’s even used in school lessons (it was in mine!). It’s also a great documentary with extra unseen material and interesting interviews with the key players.
A History of Britain
If you want to learn about British history, I think this is definitely the place to start. Simon Schama made 15 episodes in 3 series covering the entirety of British history, broadcast between 2000 and 2002. He also published three accompanying books. Of course it is a very broad overview, and some have complained at the overemphasis on the history of England at the expense of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but I would say Schama does cover these areas in quite a lot of depth compared to some historians! Schama is a very captivating presenter and the use of music and imagery in the doc make it a very relaxing watch.
There have been some great documentaries on TV recently, including the wonderful Archaeology: A Secret History, which at first sight I thought might be more along the lines of Time Team, but turned out to be really innovative and fascinating. I’d never thought about the history of archaeology itself and it turns out that there are some great stories behind it.
It’s presented by Richard Miles who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney and has presented history docs for the BBC before. He is an excellent presenter with a seemingly genuine interest in everything he’s talking about (the sequence where he gets to see the Neanderthal 1 skeleton is particularly good), but he does take every opportunity to show he he is fluent in Italian!
The first programme starts with the search for biblical relics, spurred on by Helena of Constantinople, patron saint of archaeologists. The next focus is Ciriaco de’ Pizzicolli, 1391 — 1453/55, an antiquarian from Ancona known as the Father of Archaeology He noticed a ancient Roman arch in his town which inspired him to start documenting the ancient remains around him.
It seems bizarre to us now with all our museums, monuments and guidebooks, that the physical past hasn’t always been important, hasn’t always needed to be interrogated. But in Pizzicolli’s age the past was just there – it’s all around you and that’s why what he tried to do was such a revelation.
This struck me as very interesting as, while we do have museums, monuments and guidebooks, the past is still all around us in a city like London and people still ignore it! The programme then explores William Camden’s mapping techniques, John Aubrey’s surveying techniques used at Avebury and cabinets of curiosity from the eighteenth century.
There are three episodes available on BBC iplayer here.