When I think of the Queen, the image in my mind often includes the ceremonial backdrop of her life, the buildings where she lives and performs her duties. From Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s to Holyrood, these symbols of our monarchy also symbolize Great Britain. They shape not only the image that others have of our country, but also ours. As Churchill said, “we shape our buildings, then they shape us”.
Some of these buildings are part of the great mainstream of European architecture. But others form their own special tributary. Westminster Abbey and Windsor Castle, in particular, feature a style of construction – the so-called Perpendicular – which is unique to this country.
This Jubilee weekend is a good time to linger, because Perpendicular is the only “royal style” in this country. It was created by the English monarchy and supported by its public works department. Yet it is somehow overlooked. There is only one book on this and it was written in 1978. There are only three pages in David Watkin’s standard work on Western architecture. It is often treated as a minor part of the larger story, nowhere near as interesting as the early growth of Gothic in northern France, more so than its almost decadent last achievement in the late Middle Ages.
Yet it dominated the buildings of this country for two centuries. Ask a child to draw a church steeple and they’ll probably draw a perpendicular one (my home town of Derby has one of the greatest examples). It is part of our mental furniture, so familiar that its individuality is not appreciated.
English architecture followed its own path at the beginning of the 14th century. The first three Edwards wanted their equivalent of the Sainte-Chapelle of the Kings of France in their own palace at Westminster. What they achieved, under the supervision of genius Michael of Canterbury, was something quite new. St Stephen’s Westminster Chapel was the new style in germ. This would take English building in a totally different direction from the Continent.
Sadly we lost most of this chapel in the Westminster fire of 1834. The crypt that remains today, heavily restored, gives no real idea of its qualities. So you have to go to Gloucester to see the first truly perpendicular architecture, almost certainly designed by Michael’s son, Thomas of Canterbury. There, we do not see an elaborate decoration but a simple form: straight lines, rectangular panels, an accentuation of the horizontal as well as the vertical.
Gloucester also began to show that modern churches could be shaped by columns alone, with walls increasingly replaced by glass, as seen in its remarkable east window. And here, too, we see a new form of vaulting characteristic of Perpendicular and of nothing and nowhere else: in its cloisters, familiar today from the Harry Potter films, the columns flourish in delicate interlacing, the first fan vaults.
Medieval architects seem to have been nervous about using these fans on a large scale in a cathedral vault. Hence the next house halfway up the Canterbury nave, irresistibly reminiscent of an avenue of giant oak trees, designed by Henry Yevele, another Derbyshire man, who became the king’s architect and built the great beamed roof gavel of Westminster Hall.
But the architects took confidence and everything was linked to St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, Henry VII Chapel in Westminster, and of course King’s College, Cambridge. Here the interior columns have disappeared, the walls seem entirely of glass, and the fans of the vault have blossomed and grown, even in the Abbey as pendants, for the whole world like lilies falling from their branches.
The royal prestige spread perpendicularly across the country. Parish churches have been remodeled – see the masterpieces of Norwich or Malvern – thanks to the proceeds of English cloth or the spoils of French wars. Perpendicular chantry chapels were endowed so that prayers could be said for the souls of the men who conquered half of France, lost it again, and then descended in the bloodshed of the Wars of the Roses.
But the economy also played its part. After the Black Death, labor became scarce and therefore expensive. Productivity had to increase, like today. Simple and repetitive Perpendicular shapes could be produced easily without highly skilled workers. Even so, these simple forms and mass-produced materials did not make for ugly buildings – a lesson we could well learn today.
And then, all of a sudden, it was over. The Reformation and the destruction that followed broke the continuity. Medieval buildings were considered part of the “Dark Ages”. Renaissance and Classical forms slowly entered the country, although Perpendicular had a centuries-old afterlife in the forms characteristic of the great Tudor houses and Oxbridge colleges. But the masterpieces remain, in Westminster, Windsor, Gloucester, Canterbury, York and beyond. The same goes for their echoes across the country. They are one of the reasons England ‘seems’ different from the Continent.
And the supreme echo remains, in perhaps our country’s best-known building – the perpendicular Gothic chambers of Pugin’s Parliament, showing continuity from medieval to modern, like our evolving constitution under our constitutional monarchy. So let’s thank this Jubilee not only to the Queen for her service, but also to the Monarchy for giving us the stability we needed to enable change – and for giving us our own genius architecture to boot.