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Steeple chaser

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Exquisite drawings and authoritative words make this definitive guide to medieval steeples a delight

St James’, Louth, Lincolnshire. 1515
St James’, Louth, Lincolnshire. 1515

For the record, if you are wondering what the greatest medieval spire in England is, it’s that of St James’ church in Louth, Lincolnshire (1515). I know this because architect Julian Flannery tells me in his book, and he came to that conclusion after comparing it with 49 others from a 500-year period. This is comparison not through the stating of ill-informed opinion, but by the most technical qualitative and quantitative means available to him. Flannery’s tome Fifty English Steeples is nothing short of a labour of love; five-years’ worth of weekends spent crossing the central belt of the country armed with theodolite and laser measurer, to physically crawl inside the belly of the beasts and survey them. Plus the evenings spent systematically drawing each one – in detail. The result is this astonishing and handsome book; Flannery’s definitive photographic, drawn and written survey can rightly be considered the bible of England’s finest steeples. Hardback, weighty, and laid out on thick uncoated paper, its spine bound in rich, liturgical purple cloth with ribbon bookmark, it even looks like one.

It’s initially odd to think that the author worked at both Future Systems and Nicholas Grimshaw; less so that he’d been with the Property Services Agency on the 1986 restoration of Hampton Court Palace and numerous conservation projects with Associated Architects before starting his own practice. 

Flannery’s journey down the rabbit-hole of the medieval steeple started innocuously enough with Rosemary Hills’ biography of Pugin, God’s Architect, and Pugin’s glowing account of the steeple at Louth, which Flannery, interest piqued, followed up with a visit. But further research revealed that documentation of the English steeple was scant. Charles Wickes’ 1859 book on the typology was little more than captioned copper plate engravings and Frank Allen’s 1932 Great Church Towers of England seemed predicated on erroneous Victorian structural surveys. So Flannery decided to do something about it. He is keen to flag up Francis Bond’s definitive Gothic Architecture in England (1905), but Flannery perhaps underplays his contribution to the corpus of knowledge. His enthusiasm obviously became contagious. Wardens of every church he visited became party to the work, offering him unfettered access to their steeples. As a mark of the time commitment the book is dedicated to his wife Julia; it is easy to understand why. 

  • South elevation of St Michael’s, Coventry (1429). Restored by Gilbert Scott in 1851.
    South elevation of St Michael’s, Coventry (1429). Restored by Gilbert Scott in 1851.
  • St Botolph, Boston c.1530. West elevation.
    St Botolph, Boston c.1530. West elevation.
  • St James’, Louth. Section looking east.
    St James’, Louth. Section looking east.

Measured and annotated drawings, photos and accompanying text form the body of the book and act as a detailed and broadly chronological account of the development of the form, from Earls Barton’s Anglo-Saxon steeple in Northamptonshire to the far more daring examples that preceded the 1534 break with Rome. It would be enough here to see beautiful Autocad renderings and photographs, but his images are accompanied by descriptive text which, while citing works by other academics, has a charming lightness of touch borne of true observation rather than just historic study. This allows him to offer some confident riposte to expert opinion. At St Botolph’s in Lincolnshire – the ‘Boston Stump’ – for instance, where Pevsner notes ‘flat’ modelling of stonework at its base, Flannery remarks on the enormous relieving arches here as revolutionary, allowing the walls of the 271ft high tower to be little more than 3ft thick – an engineering groundshift whose further development, he claims, was only stopped in its tracks by the Reformation. This constant tension between aesthetics and empirical analysis suffuses the writing and gives the account intimacy as well as (literal) dimension.

One can treat the first section of the book as a primer, where the author states the historical context before entering into more detailed description of the particular characteristics of the typology. Spires, it turns out, are extremely rare, appearing on only one of every 15 medieval steeples. Flannery also qualifies his choice through geology, justifying his choice from the great limestone belt running north east from the towers of St Cuthbert in Wells, Somerset, past the glories of St Michael’s Coventry (1429) and up to the ‘strange and beautiful’ Patrington (early 14th century) in Yorkshire’s East Riding. The belt’s stone, he says, struck the right balance between workability and durability, allowing the artistry and ingenuity to reach its apotheosis. The opening section not only breaks down the types of steeples and spires, their construction and evolution, but offers a wonderful cross reference graphic glossary of geography, height, style and distribution. The learned yet relaxed writing style is as much in evidence here as it is in the main section.

  • St Cuthbert, Wells, Somerset c.1450.
    St Cuthbert, Wells, Somerset c.1450.
  • St Michael’s Coventry. 1429
    St Michael’s Coventry. 1429
  • St Botolph, Boston. C.1530
    St Botolph, Boston. C.1530

I find it hard to choose a favourite. I’m charmed by the familiar muscularity of the West Country churches but you cannot help feeling the author reserves his affection for the floridity, complexity and daring of those Lincolnshire steeples. St Botolph’s, Boston looks like a staggering architectural feat. As indeed is this book, whose genesis in a random visit became a personal project that has spawned a major work of historical research. It’s an endeavour that calls to mind The Glittering Prizes’ young Cambridge hero responding to a comment about his studying in the ‘City of dreaming spires’. ‘Theoretically that’s Oxford,’ he replies. ‘This is the city of perspiring dreams.’ In this book’s Venn diagram of effort and achievement Flannery earns himself the right to occupy both metaphorical territories.

Fifty English Steeples by Julian Flannery, 496pp, Thames & Hudson, HB, £50