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A History of British Architecture

british architecture

By Adrian Tinniswood

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The Middle Ages - 1066 and all that

The great cathedrals and parish churches that lifted up their towers to heaven were acts of devotion in stone.

However, the truth is not as simple as that. Romano-British culture - and that included architecture along with language, religion, political organisation and the arts - survived long after the Roman withdrawal. And although the Anglo-Saxons had a sophisticated building style of their own, little survives to bear witness to their achievements as the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon buildings were made of wood.

Even so, the period between the Norman landing at Pevensey in 1066 and the day in 1485 when Richard III lost his horse and his head at Bosworth, ushering in the Tudors and the Early Modern period, marks a rare flowering of British building. And it is all the more remarkable because the underlying ethos of medieval architecture was 'fitness for purpose'. The great cathedrals and parish churches that lifted up their towers to heaven were not only acts of devotion in stone; they were also fiercely functional buildings. Castles served their particular purpose and their battlements and turrets were for use rather than ornament. The rambling manor houses of the later Middle Ages, however, were primarily homes, their owners achieving respect and maintaining status by their hospitality and good lordship rather than the grandeur of their buildings.

Fitness for purpose also characterised the homes of the poorer classes. Such people didn't matter very much to the ruling elite and so neither did their houses. These were dark, primitive structures of one or two rooms, usually with crude timber frames, low walls and thatched roofs. They weren't built to last. And they didn't.

Buildings of the Middle Ages

White Tower. at the heart of the Tower of London, was begun by Bishop Gundulf in 1078 on the orders of William

the Conqueror. The structure was completed in 1097, providing a colonial stronghold and a powerful symbol of Norman domination.

Durham Cathedral was begun by Bishop William de St Carilef in 1093 and completed about 1175. The choir was extended in the Gothic style between 1242 and 1280. Muscular pillars and round-headed arches make Durham one of the most imposing Norman buildings in England.

Haddon Hall. Derbyshire, was probably begun in the 12th century, but was remodelled and adapted at various times right through to the 16th century. It was then carefully restored in the early 20th century. Haddon shows the quality which characterises the great medieval house, in which function dictates form.

King's College Chapel. Cambridge, spans the period of transition between the Middle Ages and the Tudors. Its foundation stone was laid in 1446 by Henry VI and the structure, with its lacy perpendicular fan-vaulting, was completed by 1515 during the reign of Henry VIII. The windows were installed in 1546-7.

The Tudors - stately and curious workmanship

In a sense, the buildings of the 16th century were also governed by fitness for purpose - only now, the purpose was very different. In domestic architecture, in particular, buildings were used to display status and wealth, as William Harrison noted in his Description of England (1577):

This stately and curious workmanship showed itself in various ways. A greater sense of security led to more outward-looking buildings, as opposed to the medieval arrangement where the need for defence created houses that faced inward onto a courtyard or series of courtyards. This allowed for much more in the way of exterior ornament. The rooms themselves tended to be bigger and lighter - as an expensive commodity, the use of great expanses of glass was in itself a statement of wealth. There was also a general move towards balanced and symmetrical exteriors with central entrances.

Source: www.bbc.co.uk
Category: Architecture

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