Wymondham Abbey: Medieval Architectural Design Uncovered

Fellow Roland Harris reported to Salon, the Society of Antiquaries newsletter, about the following discovery from Wymondham Abbey. Current work there, for construction of new buildings at the east end of the church, has been accompanied by excavation and building recording. As anticipated this has revealed more of the plan and detail of the Norman Benedictine priory (founded as a cell of St Albans in 1107), and a few tantalizing details of an earlier church: the origins of Wymondham Abbey probably lie in a Saxon minster on the site. More unexpected has been the sheer quantity of Gothic architectural mouldings recovered from the excavation and from above ground, which is providing new insight into the later development of the medieval priory. The most substantial quantity of worked stone has come from the unblocking of the former opening from the 12th-century nave north aisle into the north transept. More exciting still, this unblocking has revealed a substantial incised architectural design on the newly exposed respond (also forming the rear of the north-western 12th-century crossing pier).

The incised design measures 1.9m x 1.3m and is a scale drawing for a gable and window tracery. The design is largely complete, with gaps in the lines mostly due to surviving patches of later medieval paint, and includes various setting-out lines, circles and points (see the images below).

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The significance of the discovery is threefold. First, the completeness of the design is remarkable—indeed, rather more complete than well-known examples such as those in the Galilee Porch at Ely Cathedral, the Roslin chapel crypt, and Christchurch Priory. Second, the design does not relate to surviving Gothic additions to Wymondham Abbey and, therefore, almost certainly relates to the monastic buildings or, much more probably, the eastern arm of the abbey church, demolished at the Dissolution: as such, it provides an important insight into the lost parts of the building. Third, and more tentatively, the combination of elements suggests a date before the end of the 13th century and raises the question as to whether—like its sister cell at Binham Priory with its precocious west front design of c.1240—Wymondham was at the forefront of bar tracery design in England in the mid-13th century.

Please note that the incised design is not accessible at present, as it is in the middle of a construction site, but visitors will be able to see it from the new room on the site of the medieval St Margaret’s chapel when this opens in the autumn of 2015.

Text taken from Salon, the Society of Antiquaries newsletter. Sign up here.

Published by James Alexander Cameron

I am an art historian working primarily on medieval parish church architecture. I completed my doctorate on sedilia in medieval England in 2015 at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

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