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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 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.
The phrase ‘motley crew’ derives from the eighteenth century. ‘Motley’ is a medieval word meaning mixed in colour and often referred to clothing. The Motley was therefore the court jester due to his multi-coloured costume.
The meaning of the word then developed to mean ‘mixed bag’ or ‘various things’ so the phrase ‘motley crew’ began to be used to mean ‘a roughly-organized assembly of characters’. The first use is found in 1748 in George Anson’s Voyage Round the World:
With this motley crew (all of them except the European Spaniards extremely averse to the voyage) Pizarro set sail from Monte Video.
By the nineteenth century, ‘motley crew’ was an well-used cliché. It refers to a mixed group of unlikely heroes coming together to overcome adversity. It most often referred to pirates and is now a common archetype for sports and science fiction stories.
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.
This is one of my favourite documentary series of all time and I have been quite happy to watch episodes over and over again! Each episode sees restaurant critic Giles Coren and comedian Sue Perkins spend a week experiencing the food and lifestyle of an era together. I have written about episodes before, particularly the Seventies, the Victorian era and the Restoration.
It started with a one-off show called Edwardian Supersize Me in 2007 where Giles and Sue dressed up and trialed the food of the Edwardian era for a special season of BBC programmes.
Since then we’ve had two series: The Supersizers Go… (2008) covering the Second World War, the Restoration, the Victorian Era, the Seventies, the Elizabethan era and the Regency; and The Supersizers Eat… (2009) which covered the Eighties, the Medieval era, the French Revolution, the Twenties, the Fifties and Ancient Rome.
I love seeing the variety of food they get to try, some of it awful, some of it quite tasty. Their chemistry is pretty good and I particularly like their reenactments of historical events an journeys in modern locations and with modern transport.
Almost all of the episodes are available on YouTube and this playlist puts them in chronological order starting with ancient Rome and ending with the Eighties.
Margaret Thatcher: Prime Minister
A relatively topical one here – there were many TV documentaries about Margaret Thatcher after her death last month but this was one of the main ones from the BBC. It’s narrated by Andrew Marr and was clearly recorded long before her death.
For someone who wasn’t around while she was Prime Minister, it is a great detailed overview of the events of her reign which is often difficult to get when people around you have such strong views about her. The tone is respectful since she had just died, but I would say the documentary seems relatively neutral (of course there will be many who disagree with me there!) but it is the best you’re going to get.
The talking heads included Ken Clarke, Lord Patten, David Cameron, Geoffrey Howe and all of the main figures from her time in office. Its a pretty conventional documentary format, but to be honest that’s exactly what I want from a doc about an era I know little about.