“Gothic’s wonderful, Mummy!” I thought I overheard the young girl say, enthusiastically, as she gazed up at the west front. “Yes, Violet, I…” her mother began, before I interjected, politely, to explain that although the façade bears many hallmarks of the Gothic style, there are also several clear clues that Lincoln was in fact an early Norman building project; indeed one in which William the Conqueror had had his hand. “Observe the three characteristically stocky, unshakeable Romanesque doorways, for instance”, said I. The loquacious young Violet replied – before her rather bemused mother was able – reiterating her previous exclamation, more clearly now: “Goth, itsth wonderful… A really thooper fathade!” I glanced a stiff smile at Mrs Bott, doffed my flat cap, and walked hastily on.
I have travelled to Lincoln by train today. During the first leg of my journey I meet retired Londoners, Shirley and John, on their way to Wolverhampton to pick up an American motorhome. I ask whether they will travel far afield? “We have a soft spot for Yarmouth and Felixstowe”, Shirley replies, before her husband asserts, “I’d like to take it down Hampshire way”. The cross-country scope of my knavish initiative had evidently stoked John’s own ambition. “Until Winchester, then!”, I quip as we part.
My connection from Peterborough is less sociable but affords me the opportunity to sit down with Alec and see what he has to say about Lincoln:
I have never been able to make up my mind which one cathedral I consider the finest, but I feel able with some confidence to name the four finest: Durham, Lincoln, Wells and Canterbury. Yet all four suffer from substantial defects. So, as we visit and revisit each, we are not only delighted by the beauties but shocked anew by the deficiencies.
And I thought I was a perfectionist! As I take note of his opinion of the west front – “nonsense was made of the central arch”, he excoriates – the cathedral looms into view through the train window; I set Alec aside for now and prepare to form my own opinion.
Lincoln dominates its town and the surrounding landscape for miles, in much the same way as Ely. The cathedral here sits terrifically atop a hill entirely anomalous to the flat fenlands to the south and twenty miles from the gentle, low-rolling Wolds to the east. Eagerly, I alight the train and find my way through the modern town, beneath the cathedral, to Steep Hill.
The sharp, cobbled ascent leads me straight into the thirteenth century…
1280 to be precise! The Angel Choir has just been dedicated and marks the end of 140 years of calamitous ill fate for the cathedral. Old Bill (the conqueror) had first instructed his stalwart Benedictine supporter at Hastings, Bishop Remigius, to take up the episcopal seat at Lincoln in 1072. From here Remi ruled the largest diocese in England, spanning from the Humber to the Thames. The story of this cathedral begins in 1088 when he first commissions Norman.
Norm starts work here before both Ely and Norwich, but by the time the turn of the century is in sight, business is booming across the Eastern Angles and he decides he can only spread himself so many ways. Thus, Romanesque Incorporated is born: a national company of which Norman elects himself Chief Executive Officer in 1096. Norm trains up each new apprentice himself with only the most rugged and committed making the grade. Those who do are proud to call themselves ‘Normans’.
The first iteration of this palimpsest of a building was completed in the late 11th century – records suggest 1092 – before being gutted by fire around 40 years later and then almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake in 1185. (Space and your patience, reader, will barely permit me to cover the implosion of the central tower – a la Ely – in 1230 and the collapse of the 528ft spire in 1548!) Life was genuinely cruel in early medieval times – trial after tribulation after trial after tribulation…
…naked humanity is forever caught in the coils.
Wrote T.S.R. Boase in English Art, 1100-1216.
Hell, in fact, was often on earth.
The stoic, resilient labourers and craftspeople of the town built to Heaven whilst living in Hell. Kudos to them all. My thoughts turn, too, to Hugh of Lincoln – Bishop (1186-1200), builder, Saint. He carried a hod amongst the workman, so records say – now that’s putting your money where your mouth is.
At last, I’m inside!
The light is astonishing. It pours through windows, far higher and wider than those of Norwich or Ely, to illuminate vaults proliferate – not a semi-circular arch or wooden ceiling in sight! For Hugh had chosen not to employ Romanesque Inc., feeling that they had become to staid; too traditional. No, no Normans for Hugh. In their stead, our be-mitred hoddie boldly commissioned the young English arm of a fast-growing French company, Early Medieval Gothic.
EMG’s tagline was ‘vaulting ambition’. The firm quickly established a reputation as a highly competent outfit that put an emphasis on technical innovation; their knowledge of geometry and science allowing them to vault far wider spaces than Normans had ever been able to. Their style was particularly experimental, as is evinced by Lincoln’s ability to boast six entirely distinct forms of vaulting.
EMG would go on to build a large client base over the following four centuries.
The business of cathedral building is awe-inspiring. Lincoln’s is the third largest in England (after Wells and York) and there is absolutely no doubting the magnificence of its achievement. However, my eyes rebel restlessly at the work of early medieval gothic. I find it all too often over-ornamental, fussy. EMG declaims its genius loudly; it lacks the subtle intensity of Romanesque Inc.
I am less focused on my thoughts in these surroundings – they dart around like my eyes, as I sit in the choir, notebook on my lap. Reflection, which offered itself more generously in the naves of Norwich and Ely, is more difficult to find here. I close my journal acquiescently, for now. I’ll be back.
 …Clifton Taylor, the aforementioned author of The Cathedrals of England (1967), which I’d picked up for £1.49 in the Norwich Oxfam last weekend. Remember?