A community archaeology project entirely run by volunteers has made a remarkable discovery in a remote Norfolk priory that could help to shed light upon one of British architectures greatest mysteries. The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (NMGS) was established in 2010 to search for medieval graffiti inscriptions in Norfolk churches. To date they have surveyed over fifty of the county’s 650 medieval churches and already made a number of groundbreaking discoveries. However, the most recent find, made in the Priory church of Binham, a few miles from the Norfolk coast, is set to cause excitement and controversy amongst medieval historians and architects alike.
To historians and students of Gothic architecture Binham Priory already holds an important and, at times, controversial place in the story of the development of Gothic architecture in England. The magnificent West Front, now sadly largely bricked up, is widely regarded as the earliest example of Gothic ‘Bar’ tracery to be found anywhere in the country. Built between 1226 and 1244, the West Front at Binham was a revolutionary architectural design. Documented by the St Alban’s chronicler Matthew Paris, it was created decades before the techniques were generally adopted at sites such as Westminster Abbey and, as a result, it has also become the centre of one of history’s greatest architectural mysteries. Indeed, the question that has long puzzled architectural historians is exactly why did this revolution in architecture first appear in a remote and lonely corner of North Norfolk and, following its construction, why it took decades to appear elsewhere in the country?
At the time that ‘Bar’ tracery was being employed at Binham the technique had only just begun to be pioneered at sites on the continent. It was new and it was revolutionary. Previous tracery styles, known as ‘Plate’ tracery, meant that the windows were, in effect, cut through the stone fabric of the wall. This weakened the structure and severely limited the size of windows that could be inserted. Bar tracery changed all that. Instead of pushing windows through the wall, the new technique involved designing and constructing the window spaces with carved stone mullions. The mullions, often pinned together with iron, allowed the frame itself to become part of the structure, making it far stronger and allowing the windows to be safely enlarged. For the master-masons this development suddenly allowed them to look beyond traditional limitations and experiment with ornate new designs that had never previously been possible.
The tracery design at Binham has always been regarded as both unique and enigmatic. It’s appearance in a remote corner of Norfolk, decades before it was adopted elsewhere in the country, has led to architectural historians questioning its legitimacy. In addition, the design can be seen to have been changed part way through construction, making the master-masons original intentions even more tantalising. It has even been suggested that the design was not the groundbreaking work of the 1220s or 1230s but a later construction. However, the discoveries made by members of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey are likely to raise the tempo of debate further still.
Whilst undertaking a preliminary examination of the site prior to a full-scale volunteer led survey, NMGS Project Director, Matthew Champion, uncovered a series of massive graffiti inscriptions that appear to be the master-masons original working drawings for the West Front of the Priory Church. The inscriptions, which are etched into the very stonework of the walls, appear to be scaled architectural drawings that show the actual planning and design process undertaken by the medieval craftsmen. The largest of the inscriptions so far discovered is over 8 feet (2.4 metres) tall and was inscribed using dividers, compasses and square edges to a consistent scale. “It was difficult to believe what I was seeing at first”, states Matthew Champion, “as it was on such a large scale. Most graffiti inscriptions tend to be relatively small and modest. This was just so big that it wasn’t really possible to see exactly what I was until we had surveyed the whole wall surface. We could see it was a tracery pattern but, it was only after we had carried out the measured survey that we realised it related to the West Front. Large parts of the inscription are still impossible to see”, continues Champion, “as they are beneath large fragments of a surviving 14th century paint scheme. There’s an awful lot more there that we simply can’t get at”.
Inscribed tracery patterns such as the example uncovered at Binham have also been discovered in other cathedrals and churches throughout Europe. Known as ‘épures’, these drawing often represent the architects working drawings. The most famous English example is to be found at York Minster, where the designs were drawn onto a specially treated plaster floor in an area known as the ‘tracing house’. At York the designs were created at full size, allowing the masons to use the plans to create stencils for cutting the stones that would form the tracery pattern itself. However, the Binham Priory designs appear to have been accurate drawings that would need to be scaled up by the master-mason before they could be used to make templates for the stone cutters. However, although the designs appear to relate to the important West Front of the Priory, they are not an exact match. “It is clear”, continues Matthew Champion, “that these are designs for sections of the West Front of the Priory, but they are different from the finished masonry in a number of features. They appear to show that the master-mason, who would also have acted as an architect for the project, was working things out as he went. The changes are subtle, and we can’t see all of the design because of the medieval paintwork, but it is clear”, concludes Champion, “that these are working drawings of a construction that was in progress”.
The Priory at Binham was traditionally established about the year 1091 by Peter de Valoines and Albreda his wife for monks of the order of St Benedict. The cell was to be largely independent in financial matters but was organisationally subordinate to the Abbey of St Albans. The Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Although the nave of the Priory was reserved for use as the parish church, the rest of the structure was largely demolished, with the materials being sold for re-use.
The discovery of one such design is certainly important enough to cause a stir in architectural history terms. However, after the initial discovery the members of the NMGS soon came to realise that it was not alone. “Further survey work”, states Matthew Champion”, which has been limited only to the ground floor area of the Priory, has now uncovered at least two other architectural designs inscribed into the stonework. Neither are as complete as our first discovery but at least one of the designs can be clearly shown to also relate to the West Front. With survey work still continuing at the site, “ he concludes, “who knows what else might come to light”? The discovery has been welcomed by both local historians and archaeologists alike. “It’s absolutely amazing”, states local historian Carolyn Wright, “the Binham Local History Group is delighted and excited about it all and will do all that we can to help (the survey) in any way”.
The survey work at Binham Priory is set to continue over the coming months and it is hoped that analysis of the tracery inscriptions may go some way to solving the mystery of the Priory’s famous West Front. “If these inscriptions do all relate to the West Front”, states Champion, “then they may hold the key to exactly what the master-mason truly envisaged when work began here in the early thirteenth century. They may be the final piece of the puzzle. However, even if they still don’t fully resolve the issue”, he concludes, “they still represent the very earliest bar tracery design to be found anywhere in England”.
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