A History of Art in England (6): Westminster Abbey

Sir John Rothenstein recorded in An Introduction to English Painting (1965) that
“During the second half of the 13th century London became the principal centre of English painting… [and, in contrast to our previous Ramblings, that] the school of London was the product not of monastic but of royal inspiration”.

[It is worth noting though that there had been precedent to this ‘royal inspiration’: Aethelstan is regarded as the first ‘King of England’ (927-939) – his household apparently becoming a centre for English learning as he centralised government and had numerous ruling charters written. He also commissioned Bede’s “Life of St Cuthbert” and there is even a portrait – the first depiction of an English king – of Aethelstan ‘presenting’ the manuscript to the Saint].


Frontispiece of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert (30), showing King Æthelstan (924–39) presenting a copy of the book to the saint himself. Originally from MS 183, f.1v at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

However, it is Henry III (1216-1272) that Rothenstein considers was “of all the kings of England the greatest patron of the arts”.

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Coronation of Henry III [13th century; anon; British lIbrary]

“[Henry’s] passion was for the Gothic. When he visited Paris in 1254 he spent much of his time in churches. ‘He would have liked’ says a contemporary poem ‘to have carried off the Sainte Chapelle in a cart’.

Rambling 1

Begun some time after 1238 and consecrated on 26 April 1248, the Sainte-Chapelle is considered among the highest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic architecture. It was commissioned by King Louis IX of France to house his collection of Passion relics, including Christ’s Crown of Thorns—one of the most important relics in medieval Christendom.
What we now call Gothic, was the called “French Work”.
It was principally the widespread introduction of a single feature, the pointed arch, which was to bring about the change that separates Gothic from Romanesque. The technological change permitted a stylistic change which broke the tradition of massive masonry and solid walls penetrated by small openings, replacing it with a style where light appears to triumph over substance. With its use came the development of many other architectural devices, previously put to the test in scattered buildings and then called into service to meet the structural, aesthetic and ideological needs of the new style. These include the flying buttresses, pinnacles and traceried windows which typify Gothic ecclesiastical architecture.

[on BBC i-player: Civilisations]

And it’s with these Gothic ideas in his head that Henry III returned to London and directed his energies to the rebuilding and decoration of Westminster Abbey.

It is said that Westminster Abbey stands on the site of a Roman Temple to Apollo, shattered by an earthquake in the 2nd century.
Then in the 7th century, Sebert, son on the Saxon King of Essex Sledd, built a Christian church there. On the night before the church was dedicated, St Peter himself appeared to a fisherman and was ferried across the river from Lambeth… the venerable figure crossed the threshold of the new church and all at once it was illuminated by a light brighter than a thousand candles.

Left: Edric the Fisherman who rowed St Peter to Thorney Island; Right: St Peter arrives to consecrate the church [from 13th c. La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Roi]

It was Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) who, making London the capital, with Westminster at its heart, built the Abbey on the site of Sebert’s Church.
Edward died just a week after its completion – and would be buried there; but the Abbey so astonished everyone who saw it that it’s even depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry (excellent link this, “page by page” as it were of the Tapestry) .

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This is the scene of Edward’s funeral and the depiction of ‘his’ Westminster Abbey.

Throughout this period there arose numerous stories – miraculous events – surrounding the life of Edward the Confessor and his tomb in the Abbey where it is said, for example, that a blind bell-ringer and a hunchback were both cured.

In 1102 the tomb was opened – a sweet fragrance filled the church, the body hadn’t decomposed – and by 1161 Edward had been made a Saint.

Henry III was besotted by the cult of St Edward, and it is in Edward’s name that he rebuilt Westminster Abbey, starting in 1241:

“a magnificent shrine to be made out of the purest refined gold and precious stones, to be constructed in London by the most skilled goldsmiths, for the deposition of the relics of the blessed Edward’ [quoted in Kingdom, Power and Glory by John Field, p.27].

There’s an image in Matthew Paris‘s Chronicle of Henry ‘supervising’ the building work:

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Matthew Paris was a monk at St Albans. Rothenstein describes him as “by turns churchman, historian, painter, sculptor and goldsmith”. And note his style as a Pictor the line drawings (with elsewhere a colour wash) is seen as “very English” by “the sinuous flowing quality of the line [and] the sense of human emotion they reveal.”

Over 400 workmen were on site and, although it wouldn’t be properly completed for 200 years, the Abbey was consecrated on St Edward’s Day, October 13th 1269; Edward’s tomb was positioned behind the high altar – “not buried, placed high as on a candlestick to enlighten the church” (Field, p.30).

; Edward the Confessor's Shrine, Westminster Abbey

Edward the Confessor’s Shrine, Westminster Abbey (or ‘Church Interior – Tomb of Edward the Confessor, Westminster’) by Ernest George (1839–1922) [c/o artuk.org] Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

And there was also an ornate altarpiece made for the occasion – lost and rediscovered eventually as the top of a cupboard! – “It is the Abbey’s greatest single treasure. It continues to proclaim the glory of both Henry III’s creation and the magnificence of a native artistic tradition of which it is the sole survivor, radiant in its ruins” (Field, p.32).

Details c/o Westminster Abbey: “Christ Holding a Globe of the World” and “St Peter Holding the Key of Heaven”

A further painting from about this time is also mentioned by Rothenstein: a representation of St Faith which, he writes, exemplifies “the severe attenuated character of early Gothic form, and the intense exalted belief which inspired it”.

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There is no knowing who painted it, but on another wall-painting in the chapel is a monk, suggested to be Master Walter of Durham, the king’s beloved painter – pictor regis – who was employed in the Abbey and (as we’ll see in Part 7) Westminster Palace.

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We might also note that Henry III was present when the remains of Thomas Becket, St Thomas of Canterbury – the Archbishop assassinated by Henry II’s followers – were moved to a shrine at Canterbury Cathedral in 1220. This ‘translation’ was a huge, symbolic event in the Medieval English Church and inaugurated a Feast Day.
Interestingly, at St James the Less Church in Hadleigh, there is a wall painting of St Thomas made, according to British Listed Buildings :

“Circa 1200 painting of St. Thomas A Beckett to easternmost window arch…

Hadleigh wall painting

  Other paintings were found during C19 restorations but are not now visible”.
Doesn’t that note of “other paintings” sound intriguing? The lovely people at St James the Less have been doing their own researches and are going to let me know more (watch this space!)
Only slightly further away – and you may have seen this on twitter @Essex_VCH – there was an anchorite nun living at Dovercourt, Harwich in the Middle Ages, as portrayed in the manor roll c.1280:

Rambling 9
(Feels very familiar somehow!)


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (6)

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About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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