Tag Archives: medieval

Shrewsbury in Black and White

In Shrewsbury you can, as the British say, start as you mean to go on: the Tourist Information Office itself is in a half-timbered Medieval building

Just how long I’ve been gone from the US hits me once in a while when I find myself forgetting which expressions are British and which are American.  Suburbs in the USA have plenty of houses in a style I think of as Mock Tudor – but is that the American term?  Or the British term? 

Costa Coffee (a British chain competing with Starbucks) in Shrewsbury -- get your morning coffee in a centuries-old shop

Whatever Americans call them, you probably know what I mean: modern houses dressed up with trim in patterns of stripes, grids or herringbones that show up dark against the lighter plaster or stucco spread between them, in imitation of medieval timber-frame buildings.  Here in the UK, the middle-of-the-road term is Mock Tudor; if you want to be more polite you call it Tudor Revival, and if you want to be less polite you call it Tudorbethan, a mish-mash of Tudor and Elizabethan meant to indicate the building didn’t come from any historical period, but is only a cheap fake. 

A view of an optometrists office, showing how upper stories jut out farther than lower stories; this wasnt just because of a need for more floorspace, but was dictated by the complexity of putting one set of framing, held together with mortise and tenon joints, on top of another

But here in England, we also have the real thing, hundreds of half-timbered buildings still in use even though they were built in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or the periods directly following because the technique was used here for hundreds of years.  The Midlands—the common name for an imprecisely defined part of the country made of up the counties in the middle, those not classed as North or South of England, the West Country or East Anglia, if that makes things any more clear—is known for having lots of these, for half-timbering with more ornate patterns, and for using curved braces to make designs called stars. 

On the other hand, sometimes space *is* at a premium; these peoples house is a bridge over the roadway

The technique is called half-timbering, because—depending upon which authority you trust—the timber framing was set on foundations or even a lower story of stone (or later, brick), as opposed to earlier buildings in which the supporting timbers were set in trenches, which made them more stabile than if they had no foundations at all, but also made them more inclined to rot away. 

This one may be crooked, but its good for a few more centuries. (A friend found woodworm in the enormous oak beams of his medieval house. "Yeah", said the pest guy. "In about 500 years, you should start worrying.")

Wikipedia will tell you that the technique is called half-timbering because all the framing is constructed of tree-trunks or -limbs cut in half, but you don’t have to visit many medieval half-timbered buildings (or even look at the pictures in many books on traditional English architecture) to know that just isn’t the way these houses were built. 

Carved finial

 

Now, the English are sometimes more direct in their use of language than Americans, despite their reputation for understatement. These are, after all, the people who refer to retirees as OAPS (old age pensioners) and where, until recently, charities set life-sized figures of children on crutches or in leg braces, with coin slots and signs saying “For the Spastics”, outside stores and pubs. (The Spastics Society changed its name to Scope in the early 90s; you can see a picture of one of the collection boxes here). So, in line with that kind of plain speaking, these wonderful historic places are often just called black-and-white buildings.

Street scene in Shrewsbury, showing buildings of various eras cheek-by-jowl down the street

The Shropshire town of Shrewsbury is known for them, so much so that their tourist information board’s web site says “Shrewsbury’s not all black and white, you know!”—of course it isn’t only black and white; I told you only last week that the Abbey there is red—although other pages from the same site brag that the place is “awash with black and white timber-framed historic buildings”.

This placque appears on the building on the left in the previous photo, which now houses a branch of the chain Edinburgh Woollen Mill. It reads: "Erected by Richard Owen the Elder, Gentleman. AD 1569"

I hope you enjoyed this photographic tour of some of Shrewsbury’s black and white sites, in full colour.

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Brother Cadfael Was Here.

Shrewsbury Abbey

In 1135, King Henry I died, naming his only legitimate child as his successor, but this obvious choice came with two problems: she was a girl, and her husband was on the wrong political side. Who would be the next to rule England? 

From among the possibilities—Henry’s illegitimate son plus a couple of nephews—one emerged as a serious contender, and so began a period of war called the Anarchy, as the followers of Empress Mathilda (the daughter) battled those of King Stephen (her cousin) for the crown.

East end of the abbey, which is Victorian, but the pillars and arches on the sdes are original Norman construction

During the Anarchy, a clever Welsh monk became known for solving murders in a place of no large consequence, known as Shrubstown. Except that he didn’t, really, because Brother Cadfael is fictional. 

Shrubstown, however, is real. That’s a translation into modern English of Scrobbesburh, a name which morphed over the years into Shrewsbury, the name used today and used in the Cadfael stories. American readers may be most familiar with Shrewsbury as the site of the abbey where Ellis Peters’s most famous character carried on his healing work as well as his detecting. 

I first encountered Brother Cadfael when Derek Jacobi played him on television, but the Shrewsbury Abbey of the TV version looks nothing like the real thing.  A set, built in Hungary and based on the chapel at the Tower of London, stood in for the interior of Shrewsbury Abbey.

The upper stories on the south side, plus a bit of the roof.

That televised ‘abbey’ had a flight of stairs up to the front door–for no apparent reason, since just inside the door there’s another flight that goes right back down to ground level again.  This does make for good dramatic effect, since a falsely accused murderer rushing headlong down the steps with a mob after him, then racing up the nave to grab the alter cloth and cry “Sanctuary!”, looks altogether more spectacular with the stairs than it would have done without. 

As for exterior shots, I don’t know whether the film crew used set or location, but their abbey is built of gray stone, and the first thing you notice about the real Shrewsbury Abbey—founded 1083 and officially called the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul— is that it’s redIt’s made of sandstone quarried from a spot a bit lower down the River Severn. 

List of all the abbots over the centuries showing the earliest and including Herebert and Radulfus (here called Herbert and Ranulph), who figure in the Cadfael stories

Due to the wrath of kings, the ire of rebels, and the disregard of road builders, the abbey is now half the size it used to be. Modern buildings crowding the abbey reduce the grandeur of the building, too, and make it difficult to get a good angle for a photograph, which is one of the reasons the TV people didn’t film Cadfael there. 

The font's cover is Victorian Gothic, but the font itself is a Roman column

Once inside, though, you can forget about the modern town, although what you see isn’t all as old as you might first think. Little of the original Norman architecture survives; the whole eastern end is Victorian, a product of the Gothic revival rather than truly Gothic, built to take the place of what Henry VIII demolished. The baptismal font is probably the oldest of all, being an inverted Roman column, probably from nearby Viroconium (see my last post). 

Ellis Peters (real name Edith Pargeter) is known for historical accuracy, so if she said the monks at Shrewsbury Abbey took care of the lepers at a place called St Giles, you can be sure they did (St Giles is less than a mile away), and if she said the bones of St Winifred were moved to the abbey in the 12th century, then they were; I only had to find out whether they were still there. 

Fragment of the shrine of St Winefride, with a bit of the text explaining her legend so that you get a feeling for the size of the carving

Sure enough, carved stone from St Winefride’s shrine in the north aisle presumably means her dust is nearby.  She is considered a martyr, although in the legends she died to preserve her chastity rather than to preserve her faith, and she didn’t actually stay dead.  When her betrothed found she wouldn’t marry him but wanted to become a nun instead, he beheaded her. Fortunately her brother, St Beuno (can’t have too many saints in the family), put her head back on and miraculously brought her back to life. A spring appeared where her head fell, and people still make pilgrimages to the healing water, about 60 miles away, close to Liverpool. 

The St Winefride window

A modern window above the shrine dedicated to St Winefride (the abbey’s preferred spelling) shows her with palm fronds and other symbolic objects; Wikipedia says she’s the patron saint of payroll clerks, but I doubt that history or religious teaching would bear that out. Or maybe whoever added that remark  is a payroll clerk, and decided to adopt St Winefride as patron, there being no saint already assigned to the job.  

In any case, it’s clear that St Winefride still inspires people; there is an active Guild of St Winefride supporting various good works including upkeep of the abbey. Henry VII licensed the original guild (one of the tasks of the Guild at the time being to pray daily for the king), but Henry VIII abolished it; the current group dates from 1987, and welcomes new members. 

exterior, taken from the east

But is there anything of Cadfael here? There is. The window over the door shows St Benedict with symbolic images and Latin phrases; a banner reads “pray and work”, while he holds a book reading “Listen carefully, my sons, to the words of the master” (the first line of his Rule of St Benedict, the text that dictated how Benedictine monks live every day).  But in the bottom right corner, there’s another book, and on it is written only “Cadfael”. 

Detail of the St Benedict window; the book reads Cadfael, and the initials EP show up in the red area. The blue teardrop is a bottle, though I can't decide whether the shape rising from it is the fumes of some noxious concoction or an almost-transparent quill. The wording at the top of the square reads "Remembering the life and writing of Edith Pargeter (Ellis Peters) 1913-1995"

Oh, and in case anybody isn’t up to speed, King Stephen beat Empress Mathilda and took the throne. I figure that’s not a spoiler, since it happened about 900 years ago.

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