This afternoon I captured a vision, not on my camera but in my mind. I was standing high on the Staffordshire Moorlands and the late afternoon winter sun was illuminating the hilly landscape before me, casting it in a golden haze. As I looked down into the valley, I could make out a church spire in the fold of two hills, silhouetted black against the fading light. Squinting further, another, taller spire could be seen in the far distance, standing erect above a small town that sprawled itself over the surrounding hilltops.
I could have been seeing a vision of medieval England, perfect in all its details. And, if I listened hard enough, heard bells tolling from the tower of the closer church, perhaps seen the distant figures of a procession moving piously below. For all one knows, a hermit could have been living in his cell somewhere secluded nearby.
Yet, the church nearest to me, named after St Wilfrid, was not built until 1848 and no congregation has prayed within its walls since 2010 when the church was forcibly closed due to a bad case of dry rot. Furthermore, the more distant church, dominating the nearby town of Cheadle, called St Giles’, was not completed until 1846.
The similarities between this view and our understanding of how medieval England may have appeared is not coincidental but rather the deliberate vision of the 19th century architect, polemicist and designer, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.
Pugin (1812-52), a devout Catholic, earnestly believed that rebuilding the architectural environment of medieval England would recreate, what he percieved to be, the medieval utopia that modern Britain desperately needed.
In his writings and daily life he rallied against what he percieved to be the corruption of his times. He looked around 19th century Britain, in the grip of immense social and economic change brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and sought remedy from the past. For instance, he believed, that a lack of concern for, and poor treatment of, the growing numbers of the poor originated in the contemporary impoverished architectural environment.
The dominance of Classical columns and porticos, most unsuitable for the climatic conditions of Britain, according to Pugin, were also unchristian and smacked of the moral destitution and paganism of Ancient Rome.
Rebuilding the Gothic structures of medieval England would reciprocate a society in which architecture constantly reminded people of Christian virtues. For instance, statues of saints could encourage observers to actively support the poor through alms. Pugin laid out this vision for a better society in 1836 with his publication of ‘Contrasts’ or ‘A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages, and Corresponding Buildings of the Present Day, Shewing the Present Decay of Taste’.
Building a Better Britain
Such a weighty title was penned in the sunset years of William IV’s reign but the ideas it contained belonged to a new era that was about to dawn on 19th century Britain. One in which Pugin, through the patronage of the supportive John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, would be able to build, in stone, glass, lead and wood, his vision of a better Britain.
Earl Talbot, based at Alton Towers in the Staffordshire Moorlands, who possessed extensive but not unlimited financial capital, was Pugin’s ultimate patron and one of his closest friends. And it is in Staffordshire, thanks to this patronage, Pugin’s vision of recreating medieval England was realised to its greatest extent in the town of Cheadle.
There was, by the latter 1830s, a need for a Catholic church in Cheadle arising from the success of a local mission that had begun in the 1820s. This was the opportunity Pugin had been waiting for. With his excessively wealthy patron, Talbot, and with a congregation ready in waiting, Pugin set about designing.
From 1839, with incredible care and devotion, Pugin envisioned and aided his builders in producing what Talbot christined ‘Pugin’s Gem’. He scoured East Anglian churches and sought the finest stone from Staffordshire quarries whilst employing the services of craftmen from as far away as Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. During the construction process, the funding available increased considerably resulting in the spire being heightened to 200ft and the interior embellished far more than orginally planned.
It was not until the 31st August 1846 that Cheadle was finally complete and consecrated as a model church of the 19th century Gothic Revival, intended by Pugin to guide all contemporary and future church builders.
Walking through the doors of St Giles’ Cheadle is comparable to entering Pugin’s brilliantly creative mind. The visitor is met with a riot on almost every surface produced according to how Pugin imagined the painted interior of a 13th or 14th century church to have appeared. Colour, light, arches, vaulting, tiles and windows constantly pop and fizzle around the onlooker so much so that one does know where to look or what to focus his attention on admiring.
Minton tiles (produced in nearby Stoke-On-Trent) dance excitedly across the nave floor towards the chancel where they explode in golds and deep reds. A large Doom Painting, illustrating the Second Coming, hovers ominously above the chancel arch whilst, below, a rood screen, carved delicately on site, spans the archway opening below.
Pugin had produced his first revivalist church in Derby between 1838 and 1839. But his original plans, including the addition of a spire on the tower, has been limited by cost. The result had been a church, although dramatic and imposing in a late 15th century manner, that lacked detail in all but the chancel with simple moulding substituting for the rich decorated captials and carvings that Pugin would so earnestly employ at Cheadle. Cheadle, unlike Derby, is true Pugin untrammelled and uncurtailed by cost or circumstance.
Considering being openly Catholic had been illegal until as recently as 1829 and there was still considerable anti-Catholic feeling in popular society, constructing a vast Church that spoke of Catholic tradition and ritual that had existed in the Middle Ages was perhaps deliberately provocative.
But Talbot and Pugin built St Giles’ to demonstrate how the architecture of the 14th century could be made to be directly applicable and relevant to the 19th. Pugin, specifically, wanted to demonstrate how a church should be built in a fashion contary to the popular neo-classical manner that many new churches were being erected in.
Pugin died shortly after in 1852 of illness and overwork. During his short but highly active life, he built numerous churches, chapels, cathedrals, schools, houses and even designed the clock tower for ‘Big Ben’ on the new Houses of Parliament. Yet, Pugin’s visions were often restrained by the limited funds of newly established Catholic communities or by the demands of his clients which meant, as he once lamented to Talbot, ‘I have lived to see almost every building on which I have set my heart either upset or ruined…’.
But, although, even at Cheadle, Pugin was not entirely content, his striking church was, at least, his ‘consolation in all my afflictions’ and a ballast of hope that medieval England could, eventually, be reborn.
Find Out More
You can visit St Giles’ in Cheadle which is regularly open to visitors for a direct Pugin experience. Cheadle is an attractive market town with many Georgian and Victorian buildings. There is also, near the church, the remains of a medieval market cross that Pugin proposed restoring. But I would recommend checking the parish website here before visiting.
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Fisher, Michael, Pugin-Land: A.W.N.Pugin, Lord Shrewsbury, and the Gothic Revival in Staffordshire (Self-published, 2002) – Pevsner, Nikolaus, The Buildings of England: Staffordshire (Penguin, 1974). The pictures are my own.