Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

St Giles in Edinburgh

Today is the Feast of St Giles. 

He is a saint to whom I have a special devotion having been baptised in the church of St Giles in Pontefract and that was the church where I was Parish Clerk from 1987-1993. One of the things I did there was to draw up a contact list of all other churches dedicated to St Giles so that we could send greetings on this day to them. I also presented to the church copies - courtesy of the National Galley shop - of two of the scenes from the fifteenth century St Giles altarpiece in their collection and also one of the fourteenth century figure of St Giles in the choir clerestory at Wells Cathedral. That interest in his cult and devotion to him has continued in my subsequent life as a Catholic.

By far the most famous church dedicated to him in this country is, of course, St Giles in Edinburgh.

Recent work on the bell frame in the tower has assigned dates for felling the timber used to 1453/4 and 1459/60 and that it came from the Forest of Darnaway in Moray. This research is reported in  New research unlocks the past of Edinburgh's St Giles’ Kirk and St Giles tower 'could have been built to gain the Pope's favour'

This information has helped refine the dating of the tower - the one part of the exterior of the cathedral which retains its original character, whereas the rest of St Giles was heavily restored and refaced in the mid-nineteenth century.

The rebuilding of the church began after the English raid and burning of the city in 1385. The lower part of the tower was apparently complete by 1416, when a pair of storks nested there and achieved a mention in the Scotichronicon. This new dating of the bell frame would suggest the upper storey was built in the years 1460-67, and the suggestion, based on documentary references, is that the distinctive Crown Steeple was being constructed in 1486 and 1491.This was repaired in 1648 and slightly modified at the time.

The source for the design of the Crown Steeple appears to be the church of St Nicholas in Newcastle upon Tyne which is dated to 1448. If the work at St Giles is assigned to 1486-95, then it ties in all the more with the chapel tower at King’s College in Aberdeen, founded in 1495 and built 1498-1505.

A similar feature on St Michael’s Church tower at Linlithgow presumably can be dated to after a fire in 1424 leading to the church being rebuilt and completed in 1540. That crown was removed in 1821 but replaced by an aluminium version in 1964. A similar feature appears to have been planned for the central tower of Haddington Abbey and also for the parish church in Dundee, but in neither case was the work carried out. In the early seventeenth century the Glasgow Tolbooth Tower received a similar top in 1626-34.

In England the only other known medieval example was the tower of St Mary le Bow in London, built in 1505-6 and destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666. I wonder if that design reflects the influence of the London-Newcastle coastal trade, or the claims of the church as a Canterbury peculiar and seat of the Court of Arches.

The Scottish adoption of the design, and in churches such as St Giles and the Aberdeen chapel with links to the monarch, may be an expression of concepts of sovereignty. King James III (1460-88) was the first monarch in either England or Scotland to be depicted in a  realistic coin portrait, and wearing a closed crown, and his son and successor King James IV (1488-1513) is shown wearing a closed crown in his Book of Hours. The present Scottish Crown, remade in 1540 for King James V is arched, but what its predecessor was like is unknown. The crown worn by King James III in the Trinity Panels is an open circlet. The date of the painting is a little uncertain - perhaps the end of the 1470s, and not later than 1482. If the King did adopt such a new style of crown what better way to celebrate its implications than in the tower of the parish church - a collegiate foundation from 1467 - in the chief city of the realm?  King James III’s policy of friendship towards England might come into play here with the design from Newcastle, although the architect earlier in the century who rebuilt Melrose Abbey - also sacked by the English in 1385 - drew upon the design of York Minster for his work. National identity was no barrier to good or striking design.

St Giles Cathedral’s website is at St GILES' CATHEDRAL and the Wikipedia account of the building, which is very good indeed and has valuable illustrations, is at St Giles' Cathedral

St Giles Pray for us 

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