Carol Davidson-Cragoe

title.none: McAleer, Rochester Cathedral, 604-1540: An Architectural History (Davidson-Cragoe)

identifier.other: baj9928.0106.007 01.06.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carol Davidson-Cragoe, Institute of Historical Research,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: McAleer, J. Philip. Rochester Cathedral, 604-1540: An Architectural History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pp. xxiv, 314. $70.00. ISBN: 0-802-04222-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.06.07

McAleer, J. Philip. Rochester Cathedral, 604-1540: An Architectural History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pp. xxiv, 314. $70.00. ISBN: 0-802-04222-8.

Reviewed by:

Carol Davidson-Cragoe
Institute of Historical Research

The title of this book is somewhat misleading, as it focuses almost entirely on the period between the late 11th and mid-thirteenth centuries, with only relatively brief chapters devoted to the (entirely lost) Anglo-Saxon cathedral and the renovations and additions made in the later middle ages. Such quibbles should not distract us from its significance, though, as the book takes on and attempts to demolish virtually every existing theory about the architectural history and chronology of Rochester cathedral.

McAleer's most important arguments concern the form of the 11th- century choir. As they stand today, the nave and west front of the cathedral are Romanesque in style, while the choir is early Gothic. Later modifications are largely limited to the addition of the upper stages of the crossing tower, the insertion of a new west window and replacement of the clerestory in the nave, and the addition of a Lady chapel (never completed). Although the cathedral was founded in 604, the only earlier fabric now visible is the solid walls separating the western part of the central vessel of choir from its aisles. There are also two bays of a late 11th-century crypt below the eastern section of that part of the choir enclosed by these solid walls. There is no above-ground evidence for the form of the eastern termination of either the crypt or the choir.

Most of what has hitherto been known about Rochester derives from several nineteenth-century studies, notably those of Arthur Ashpitel in The Journal of the British Archaeological Association of 1854, and W. H. St. John Hope in several issues of Archaeologia Cantiana, especially those for 1899 and 1900. Although there has been some 20th-century debate about the form of the east end, Hope's contention that, as begun in the 1080s, the cathedral's eastern arm was of 6 or 7 bays (the 4 western bays with the surviving solid walls, the eastern bays with now-lost open arcades) terminating without an ambulatory in a flat east wall with a small, square projecting chapel (also now lost) was accepted by Eric Fernie in his new book on The Architecture of Norman England (Oxford, 2000). As Fernie points out, such an arrangement has parallels in several mid-11th-century Lotharingian buildings and in a number of English buildings dating to the mid-late 12th century. But as McAleer notes, the best parallels for this arrangement in England are some 70 or 80 years after Hope's proposed choir at Rochester is supposed to have been built, making this a highly unusual building if Hope was correct.

McAleer entirely reinterprets the archaeological and standing fabric evidence to argue that the additional arcaded eastern bays suggested by Hope never existed and that the choir was of only 4 bays, all with solid side walls, and ending in a conventional late eleventh-century arrangement of 3 apses in echelon. The crypt would have had a similar eastern termination. Such an arrangement would have been virtually identical to, though 2 bays longer than, the choir built at nearby Canterbury cathedral in the 1070s. If this choir was ever extended in the form that Hope proposed, this was, McAleer contends, only done in the period after a fire in 1137 destroyed much of the cathedral and city, making it an early, though not usually so, example of its type. Thus according to McAleer, Rochester, far from being a highly precocious example of a much later type, was a fairly conventional building when it was constructed.

No cows are sacred to Professor McAleer, who also (among other things) suggests that the small, apsidal church discovered in the nineteenth century under the west facade of the present cathedral was not the (only) Anglo-Saxon cathedral, and that the Anglo-Saxon cathedral rebuilt after the Conquest must have lain elsewhere on the site, although probably not directly under the present cathedral as was suggested by C.A. R. Radford in the 1960s. He reinterprets the evidence for the construction sequence of the nave, arguing that the present nave was built in the mid-twelfth century, not the early twelfth century, and for the Gothic choir, which he argues was largely built not in the early 13th century, but in the late twelfth century immediately after the fire of 1179, although some work on the major transept continued into the 1230s and early 1240s. The so-called 'Gundulf's tower', which nestles in the angle between the choir and the northern arm of the major transept is also reassigned to the period immediately after the Conquest and a few years before Gundulf became bishop. This overturns both the suggestions of Hope and others that the tower dates to 1180s and more recent suggestions, adopted by Fernie, that it was built in the 1150's. Contrary to received wisdom that almost no major structural work was carried out on the cathedral between the mid-13th century and c. 1500, McAleer argues that the major transept was vaulted (partly in wood) in the second quarter of the fourteenth century, and finally it is suggested that the Lady chapel was not constructed de novo in the early sixteenth century, but that it is a rebuilding of an earlier structure in much the same position. Thankfully from the reader's perspective, most of these conclusions, and the evidence which supports them, are reasonably clearly signposted throughout the text!

McAleer's reinterpretation of Rochester slots it much more comfortably into the tradition of English medieval architecture, especially that of the later eleventh, twelfth, and early thirteenth centuries. It was a forward looking building, using in the later eleventh-century an east-end plan similar to, though larger than, the nearby Metropolitan cathedral at Canterbury; adopting for the mid-twelfth-century west facade contemporary French forms such as column figures and archivolt sculpture, and, more importantly using a stepped arrangement without full western towers which prefigured the screen facades so popular in England a century or so later. Later in the century, it took up the new Gothic style in the early 1180s, even as other churches such as St. Frideswide's in Oxford (now Oxford cathedral) were still being built in a largely Romanesque style. Despite this, Rochester was, in McAleer's view, neither so advanced nor so unusual as Hope's proposed long eleventh-century choir and strange, small transepts would suggest.

This will be a highly controversial book as it attempts to overturn views held dear by many in the establishment of English medieval architectural history, but I found many McAleer's arguments quite convincing. In particular, his proposed eleventh-century choir design has a logic which does not require any of the strange and convoluted twists normally taken by architectural historians to explain any of the other proposed designs. His dating of the early Gothic choir makes sense stylistically, and his proposal that 'Gundulf's tower' pre- rather than post-dated the present cathedral clarifies the very strange spatial relationship between the tower and the choir.

One of the strengths of the book is the author's willingness to admit when he is not sure about something based on the evidence that he has to hand, but there are, however, occasions when one feels that he was perhaps overly cautious in his approach, especially to some of the archaeological evidence. In particular, although he suggests that the foundations usually thought to be those of the east end of the late 11th-century choir may in fact relate to an extension of the choir following the fire of 1137, this is presented as only one of several possibilities. Similarly, I felt that the foundations, uncovered in 1968, of a putative east-west wall just across the entrance to the north transept were not entirely satisfactorily explained by redating them to the mid-12th-century (as opposed to late Anglo-Saxon period) and then dismissing them with the comment, "it is incautious, even futile, to attempt to speculate about their possible significance" (p. 73). This is a worrying loose end which may suggest a slightly cavalier approach to some of the evidence that did not fit into his theories.

The publishers (University of Toronto Press) should be blamed for making the book rather reader unfriendly by binding the plates as a single section at the front of the book. Even if fully integrated illustrations could not be afforded, distributing the three gathers of plates more evenly through the text would have made it easier to cross-refer between text and image. Despite this, the quality of the image reproduction is usually good, even where one suspects that the original image may have left something to be desired.

Such a radical, yet seemingly entirely sensible, reinterpretation of this interesting building deserves to be widely considered. Let us hope that this book will engender more debate about Rochester and raise its status above that of historical oddity.