Art, architecture, politics and power

Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets - 900 Years
September 29, 1995

The earlier abbey church at Westminster was begun by Edward the Confessor in about 1045; in conscious rivalry with London's cathedral church a few miles away, it was originally dedicated to St Peter. Nothing now remains visible of Edward's Romanesque work.

The bulk of Thomas Cocke's book is the catalogue of an exhibition held earlier this year to celebrate the conclusion of the current restoration campaign of the past 30 years. Though a well-presented collection of sculpture fragments, paintings, and architectural drawings, it oddly failed to include an account of the abbey's history.

The introduction to the catalogue lucidly supplies this history, although in order to justify its grand title, it has to stretch the meaning of "restoration" to cover Henry III's rebuilding of most of the Romanesque fabric of the Confessor's church.

The final section, provided by Donald Buttress, present surveyor of the fabric and successor to distinguished architects including Wren, Pearson and Scott, describes the 20th-century restorations, the most recent of which he directed. The abbey authorities seem slightly nervous about the public's reaction to these, and seem to hope to deflect possible criticism of this campaign by placing it in a context of nearly a millennium, during which many more drastic things have happened than the controversial recutting of some of the exterior ornamentation of Henry VII's chapel.

While its compass is the whole period of the Plantagenet dynasty, Paul Binski's contribution to the beautifully produced series in the Mellon Centre's Studies in British Art chiefly describes Henry III's remarkable embrace of the cult of the English-canonised Confessor as patron and exemplar of a particular ideal of kingship: passive and patient, temperate and cooperative. This is interwoven with the racily told history of the king's unprecedented and very expensive attempt, inaugurated in 1245, to rebuild completely the Confessor's abbey to house a new shrine and establish the church as a mausoleum for kings, their consorts, and members of the court. Henry's Plantagenet successors did not share his enthusiasm for the fabric, and while they were content to follow convention and to be crowned and buried near the Confessor's shrine, they were unwilling to provide money for continuing the building work.

Binski's first aim is to show that the character of the new architectural work was not merely a paraphrase of contemporary French practice, but that it derived in its essentials from the cathedral at Reims, and that its extravagance and its particular architectural features and eclectic usages were as much the result of the king's patronage and personal involvement as of the Anglo-French training of its architect, Henry of Reyns. While France provided the models for the building, other influences were felt in some of its decoration, and the discussion of the significance of the Cosmati work which brought contemporary Roman craft and materials to England (but whose New Age inscription the author wisely refuses to confront) is particularly stirring. In the generally disembodied world of art history it is only relatively recently that materials themselves have been considered capable of carrying meaning, and the imported and costly mosaic and porphyry of the Cosmati's pavements and the Confessor's shrine are linked both to the abbey's diplomatic connections with papal Rome, and to broader associations with the former empires of Rome and Byzantium.

His second objective is to rubbish what he dismisses as the old-fashioned, art-historical notion of a pervasive "court style", developed by Lethaby, Hastings, and for France by Robert Branner, with which these scholars hoped to account for the French provenance of the abbey's architecture. He firmly proposes Reims as the model rather than Sainte-Chapelle which the court style's adherents advocated, and dismisses the proposal that Henry's establishment of the abbey as royal mausoleum was an imitation of the similar institution at Saint-Denis. Only those qualified to follow the author in his highly technical discussion of the eclecticism of the abbey's architectural details - mouldings, crockets, bosses, diaper work and responds - and his comparison of these with contemporary work at Reims and Amiens, will be able to judge his success.

The book is fashionably organised thematically, a theme per loftily titled chapter, each dealing with artefacts in a particular medium, starting with architecture, and continuing through manuscripts, both written chronicles and their illustrations, wallpainting and furniture. This format used to be called a collection of essays. Its problem is that the history of the abbey over the author's chosen period is never supplied chronologically in one place, but is distributed through the chapters, some parts having to be repeated.

For the linear history, Cocke's book is a useful complement. While it starts with a grand and detailed exposition of the differences between the architecture of Reims, Sainte-Chapelle and the abbey, subsequent chapters deal with progressively less substantial material, concluding with a discussion of the tombs of Edward III, Richard II and Henry V, the last to be placed following Henry III's example near the Confessor's shrine.

Although Henry named his son Edward, as king the latter did not share his father's devotion to the saint or the building housing his shrine, and the work of completing Henry's unfinished nave started again only in 1356, by the incumbent Abbot Simon Langham. By then St George had replaced the never very popular Confessor as national saint. The last Plantagenet, Richard II, is represented in the abbey only by his formal and enigmatic portrait. Henry VII's chapel was completed about 1510, but the completion of the nave, without benefit of further royal funding and with no attempt to complete the west end, dragged on until the 1530s. The task of restoring the abbey then began.

Christopher Woodward is an architect and co-author with Edward Jones of A Guide to the Architecture of London.

Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets: Kingship and the Representation of Power 1200-1400

Author - Paul Binski
ISBN - 0 300 05980 9
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 241

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