Architecture in Great Britain and Ireland

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Profesor indrumator / Prezentat Profesorului: Dorin Ionescu

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Domenii: Arta, Engleza

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Historical background

Britain in Anglo-Saxon times was divided into numerous separate kingdoms, seven or possibly more of them in England alone. The shift op power between their various rulers and the scope of their authority are too complex to discuss, but a general outline of the history of the period will provide a context for an examination of our very limited knowledge of its architecture.


The Anglo-Saxon style

Since no secular architecture has survived from this period, a definition of the Anglo-Saxon style must be limited to the characteristics of the very few extant ecclesiastical buildings. Saxon churches are tall and long in relation to their width. They have thick walls with small narrow doors and windows and steeply pitched roofs. Doors have flat lintels or arched heads, often made of a single piece of stone. Window openings are deeply splayed. Early mouldings are few, and square in section; columns have simple block capitals. In the later Saxon period, triangular-headed doors and windows became popular, as did multiple openings, their apertures divided from each other by short squat pillars. Crudely carved decoration appears, for example on columns and capitals. Masonry is often of a high standard, with a ‘long-and-short work’ quoins strengthening corners and ‘lesenes’ or pilaster-like strip used to decorate flat wall surfaces, especially on towers. These are common for the tenth century onwards and have rows of distinctive openings high up to let out the sound of the bells.

Religious architecture

-continental origins-

The church established in Britain under the Romans based its buildings on the early Christian churches of Rome. Some of these were circular, but the most popular form was the basilica or rectangular aisled hall. The building was entered form the east through a portico, and at the west end there was a semi-circular tribune or apse. Roman-British churches which survived into Saxon times would have been this type, as we can see from the little fourth-century example, excavated at Silchester (Hants).

The Roman missionaries who reached Britain in the sixth and seventh centuries had an uneasy relationship with the established Romano-British church.

Christian conversion in Britain

It was the Irish church, directly descended from the Romano-British Christians, which brought the faith to Scotland and the north, when St Columba established his missionary headquarters on the island of Iona in 563.

The Christian faith established in the south in the late sixth century came directly from Rome to Kent. The south adopted the Episcopal system of Roman Christianity, dividing the country into dioceses presided over the bishops. The abbeys and monasteries founded by the Anglo-Saxons in southern England were the forerunners of our present cathedrals.

The early Saxon period

The most remarkable survival of all is the only wooden Saxon building still in existence, the little church of St Andrews at Greensted. The chancel was added in the sixteenth century, but the nave still has its original walls of splitoak logs set vertically in an oak sill.

Plans are simple with a nave, chancel (square-ended or sometimes apsidal), projecting chambers and sometimes a crypt under the altar. The proportions of the building are tall and narrow and may be geometrically subtle.

Walls are built of stone, with the single exception of the split oak logs used at Greensted. Masonry is often shaped, coursed and jointed with a great care. Reused Roman stone or bricks are sometimes found.

Doors are small and narrow, with either a flat lintel or a simple arch which may be made of a single block of stone.

Windows ar either square or round-headed, and both types may be found in the same building. They are set on the outer surface of the wall, their openings splayed on the inside to let in as much light as possible. The rarity of glass at this period may explain such a small window area, though it is not clear how often glazing was used, particularly in humbler churches. Alternatives were hide, horn, linen or simply wooden shutters.

Roofs were steeply pitched. Although none has survived, it is often possible to see traces on the walls which indicate their original shape.

The interiors of these very plain churches were evidently richly decorated and furnished but little ornament has survived. Architectural detail is simple, with mouldings of square section and rectangular block capitals. Arches may have voussoirs which are non-radial, made up of bricks or stone.

The later Saxon period

Church buildings seems almost to have ceased during the period of the Viking invasions. When it began again, from the late ninth century onwards, the native style of buildings was strongly influenced by Carolingian architecture, for instance it features like the polygonal apse.

During the later Saxon period Britain was in contact with the mainstream of European culture, and the Norman Conquest was therefore far less significant architecturally than is often supposed. While a gap of a hundred years or more separates the latest of our early Saxon churches from the start of the great period of church building at the beginning of the tenth century, the later Saxon style actually overlaps with Norman from around 1050 onwards, each to some extent influencing the other. It has been argued that the late Saxon churches themselves constitute and English version of early Romanesque, while the first Norman work carried out in England, the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey by Edward the Confessor, was French in both design and execution.

Compared with the starkly simple early buildings, later Saxon churches show a growing sophistication of design, increased use of ornament and a greater feeling of space. They must have been very dark, for windows remained small, presumably so as not to weaken the structure or to let in the weather. But it now became common to set them in the thickness of the wall, with openings splayed both to inside and outside, as at Bradford-on-Avon, so as to admit as much daylight as possible

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