PLATE V. West front of church - Newstead Priory.
PLATE V. West front of church - Newstead Priory.

The west front of the church is still one of the most beautiful examples of the work of its epoch. It consists of three compartments, the middle one of which corresponds to the nave behind, while that of the north was a screen-wall to the north aisle. The southern compartment, as it now stands, is purely symmetrical, and, by an arrangement elsewhere unparalleled, screens the buildings at the north-west angle of the cloister, with the outer parlour on the ground-floor. This illogical and deceptive treatment of the building, with a view only to splendour of architectural effect, may be condoned for the sake of its beauty. The general effect wants height and, in spite of the tall vertical buttresses, horizontally of line is rather prominent; but the detail, in which simple elements are skilfully combined, is throughout remarkably fine.

The elevation may be due to necessary causes, and its general proportions indicate that the design was adapted to the height of the earlier nave, which was probably left standing while the new west front was in process of construction. This, as will be said later, may explain the unusual relation of the work to the buildings at the back. It is possible that there was an earlier north aisle, as such aisles were often built before or shortly after 1200; but this is quite uncertain.

The middle and principal compartment is divided from those upon the north and south by rectangular buttresses of bold projection, which are repeated at the north and south extremities, where they are doubled by buttresses of similar design at right angles. A stringcourse between the heads of the doorways and the windows of the front is carried round the buttresses, the faces of which are set back above it, and tall canopies for images, with cusped arches and crocketed gables, are placed on the off-sets thus formed. The buttresses end in gables above a string-course which touches the heads of the windows, but large octagonal pinnacles with crocketed spires were added above them, apparently after a short interval. The arcading of the lower part of the west front is carried round the buttresses, with cusped arches on the broader sides at right angles to the wall-faces, and with acute triangular heads on the narrow outer faces.

The principal and north doorways are approached by a flight of steps, which projects in front of the middle compartment. The main doorway is recessed within a deeply moulded arch with jamb-shafts, the capitals of which show a profusion of sculptured foliage. It is divided by a middle shaft into two arched openings. The spandril in the head has a sunken quatrefoil with the seated figure of our Lord, round which the surface is delicately carved with relieved foliage. On each side of the doorway, between it and the buttresses, is an arch enclosing a window-like arrangement of two smaller arches divided by a shaft, with a quatrefoil in the spandril. Above the string-course the whole middle space is filled by the west window, originally of five lights, filled with geometrical tracery. The tracery is now broken, but the enclosing arch with its jamb-shafts and stepped sill remains.

Above the west window the middle compartment ends in a plain triangular gable, in the apex of which is a trefoiled niche containing a statue of our Lady with the Holy Child. To give room for this, the window which lighted the interior of the roof has a flat head with a hood-mould curved at the ends. It consists of four slender trefoiled lights of equal height, and is flanked near the foot of the gable by two lower and broader trefoiled lights.

The northern compartment contains in its lower stage the doorway into the north aisle, a pointed archway within the middle and broadest arch of three cinquefoiled arches, forming a blind arcade. The stage above this, corresponding to that filled by the west window in the middle compartment, is filled by a blind window of four cinquefoil-headed lights, with a sexfoiled circle in the head and a quatrefoiled circle in each of the lateral spandrils. Above this, between the pinnacles, is a parapet of open quatrefoils with low battlementing and a rather heavy stepped base. Buck's view shows the large blind window as pierced; but, as may clearly be seen from the housing-course of the sloping north aisle roof, which crosses the back of the wall, this compartment of the front simply masked the lower building behind it.

The south compartment, in the lower part of which the original doorway of the outer parlour was retained, was very similar in design to this and has been restored in uniformity with it. The place of the doorway in the lower stage is now filled with a two-light window.

The whole work of the west front, with the exception of the parapet and pinnacles, may be attributed without hesitation to the decade 1280-90, which is fixed by a comparison of the architectural forms employed with work which can be definitely dated. The tracery is bar-tracery still under the influence of strictly geometrical circular forms, but showing an advance in freedom upon the same type as employed in the Angel quire at Lincoln, which was completed in 1280, but designed earlier, and approximating to the design of the chapter-house windows at Salisbury, and those of the north aisle at Grantham, which were probably designed a little before 1280. The cinquefoil cusping employed in the arcades of the front and the minor lights of the blind windows does not become common until after 1280, as in the Lady chapel at Exeter, built between 1280 and 1291. The sculptured foliage, which is of extreme beauty, shows the development from conventional to naturalistic forms which achieves an early perfection about 1290 in the chapter-house at Southwell, to the sculpture of which the work at Newstead shows an occasional approximation. The pinnacles and parapet were probably not added till 1300: the pinnacles have their gables carved with the acutely shaped trefoils which were employed frequently between 1290 and 1310, and the general form suggests the later rather than the earlier date. It is noteworthy that during the period covered by this work the convent was steadily getting deeper into debt. Although the offerings of the faithful were doubtless responsible for much of the work which we now see, yet in any case an architectural venture of this kind could not have been entered upon without some expense to the house; and there can be little doubt that it helped to swell the load of debt which by 1310 had become critical. It should be noted also that, although the rule of prior John of Lexington, who resigned in 1288, was not an unmixed success, he was nevertheless commended for his zeal in promoting the business of the house.1 This zeal may well have found one of its objects in the rebuilding of the church, which must have been well advanced at the time of his resignation; and, if he was a member of the well-known house of Lexington, nothing is more appropriate than that a member of a family whose name is closely associated with the building of the Angel quire at Lincoln, should have done his best to further what in point of time was the next great work of art in the eastern midlands.

It may be added that careful consideration of the design of the west front leads to the conclusion that the intention of its builders was to reconstruct the whole nave, as at Repton, with north and south aisles. Otherwise, it is difficult to give a satisfactory reason for the adoption of an elevation which masked part of the adjacent cloister buildings. Probably lack of funds led to the abandonment of the contemplated south aisle, with the alterations involved in the cloister, and the west front is the memorial of an unfinished scheme.

The western respond of the arcade between the nave and north aisle is left. It is a half octagon in section with three-quarter circular shafts, with keeled edges or fillets, attached to each face. The capital is covered with foliage of the transitional type already noted, undercut and producing a very luxuriant effect. The mouldings of the abacus and base show convex forms without water mouldings. The springing of the arch above shows that it was of three orders, with keeled rolls and filleted rolls of the flattened section found towards the end of the 13th century, between deep hollows. The flattened roll with fillet occurs again in what is left of the ribs of the aisle vault.

The width of nave and aisle together was 40ft. 8in., the nave being 25ft. wide from the south wall to the middle point of the respond. The inner width of the west doorway is 8ft.; that of the north-west doorway 4ft. 3in., the inner arches of both being of the drop form composed of two similar segments which is common in the reign of Edward I. The nave does not seem to have been vaulted: the tall angle shaft which rises from floor to roof in the south-west corner, and the corbelled-out shaft high up in the south wall, a bay further east, may have been intended to receive vaulting-ribs, but are somewhat inadequate for the purpose, and there is no trace of springers above them.

The western processional doorway from the nave into the west walk of the cloister is blocked; but the archway remains on the side next the cloister. This is of the date of the western part of the church. Like the earlier doorways in the cloister, it is tall and narrow, the opening being 4ft. wide, with a sill 2ft. 3m. above the cloister level. The arch was of two orders. The outer order has been cut away, but the inner has delicate naturalistic carving and springs from coupled jamb-shafts. Apparently the outer order was destroyed to make way for a two-leaved door opening towards the cloister: the iron staples on which it was fastened are fixed upon the outer jamb shafts.

Of the eastern doorway which formed the ordinary means of access from the cloister to the church no certain traces are left. At this point there is a blocked space in the wall, 11ft, across, which seems too wide for the original doorway, unless it was deeply recessed with several orders. This blocking seems rather to represent a post-suppression doorway on the site, which may have been filled up at a later date when the broad stone stair, leading from the eastern corridor on the first floor, was made into the site of the nave, to which it now forms the direct means of access from the house. It has already been noted that there was probably a doorway for the convenience of processions between the transept and cloister: this, which was required by the plan of the church, did not preclude the use of the neighbouring doorway in the nave wall for ordinary purposes.

In default of evidence, it is impossible to say more with regard to the arrangement of the church, and we shall now proceed to describe the conventual buildings attached to it.

East and South Walk of Cloister - Newstead Abbey.
PLATE VII. East and South Walk of Cloister - Newstead Abbey.

The cloister, measuring 60ft. square, was surrounded, as was usual, by a covered walk, at the back of which stood the buildings necessary for the common life of the convent, and from which they were entered. In the alleys round the cloister court much of the daily life of the brethren was spent: here they sat at stated times for meditation and study, and the north walk, adjoining the church, was altogether set apart for this purpose. At Newstead the cloister alleys were entirely reconstructed in the course of the 15th century. It is probable that by 1424, when, according to the visitation mandate issued by the dean and chapter of York, the priory in every respect showed grievous signs of decay, they had fallen into disrepair, and that the present work was begun under prior Cutwolf, as soon as the money affairs of the house allowed. If so, it was apparently not taken in hand until the close of his rule, as the details belong to the later rather than the earlier half of the century.

Each alley is divided by external buttresses into five bays. The buttresses, 11in. wide, are of two stages divided by a chamfered offset, the upper stage having a projection of 8in., and the lower of 1ft. 3in. In each bay are two rectangular-headed windows, each containing two trefoiled lights, the width of each light being on an average 1ft. 2in. The bay in the east walk, however, opposite the chapter-house doorway, is filled by a large four-light window with a transom, the head of which rose to the level of the eaves. This was evidently intended to throw extra light upon the beautiful details of the doorway.2 In the westernmost bay of the south walk, the place of the eastern window is taken by a doorway with a flat ogee head, which gives access to the open court.

The window openings of the north and west walks, although not differing essentially in design from those of the south and east, are smaller and plainer. As repairs in the north walk, which was in constant use, and at the entrance of the cloister would probably be taken in hand first, it seems likely that the work was begun upon these sides as economically as possible, and that, as time went on, the improving resources of the convent enabled the other two sides to be finished somewhat more elaborately.

Originally the cloister walks must have been covered with sloping roofs beneath the upper storeys of the buildings at the back. After the suppression, when the monastery was converted into a dwelling-house, these roofs were removed and an upper stage added to each walk. The galleries thus formed are on three sides open corridors communicating with the rooms behind; but the upper stage of the north walk, next the church, is the library, entered by a doorway from the east corridor near the head of the garden stair, and by another from the west corridor close to the head of the north-western staircase. These additions necessitated the construction of flat ceilings for the cloister walks below in place of the old timber ceilings; and this naturally led to the mutilation of the heads of the doorways of the cloister buildings where they were higher than the wall-plates of the 15th century walls opposite them.

It is not proposed to give any account here of the post-suppression additions to the building; but it may be noted that the picturesque fountain or conduit-head, in a hybrid Gothic and Renaissance style, which now stands in the middle of the cloister court, probably on the site of a similar mediaeval structure, and bears, with various shields and monograms, the initials and date "W.B. 1720," formerly stood west of the house near the lake on that side, where it is shown in the old painting now in the billiard-room. The earlier conduit-head is said to have been moved to this site soon after the suppression of the monastery.

The cloister walks vary slightly in width. The south walk is the widest, 10ft. 3½in. The west walk is 9ft. 7½in. wide, the east walk 9ft. 3½in. Owing to the projection of the lower courses of the church wall, the width of the north walk is only 8ft. 9in. The features of the church on this side have already been described. There are now no traces of any division of the part of the north walk next the cloister court into carols or studies; but wainscoted partitions may have existed here, as in other places, for that purpose.

The east side of the cloister was overlapped, as already noted, by the west wall of the south transept of the church, extending 34ft. to the outer angle of the south-western buttress. At the foot of this wall, between a modern buttress south of the doorway of the billiard-room and the original angle-buttress, is a stone bench 2ft. 6in. high, and 1ft. 7in. deep. The seat, much restored, projects with a chamfered lower edge. Above this, in the north part of the wall, is a tall blocked recess, 3ft. 3in. wide, the head of which is cut off by the ceiling, with chamfered jambs. It was apparently divided into two parts by a transom or ledge, now replaced by a modern stone. The lower part, at any rate, may have been used as a book-cupboard.

Close to the end of the transept wall is the doorway of the inner parlour, which was also the passage to the churchyard. This is a high pointed arch, 4ft. 6in. wide, with two chamfered arches and a roll hood-moulding, most of which is now cut off by the ceiling. The jamb-shafts stand upon a plinth, ift. high, with a chamfered top. The inner shafts have a semi-circular projection from the wall: the outer shafts are slender detached cylinders. The capitals, somewhat heavy in detail, with a strong accentuation of vertical lines, and a large roll half-way down the bell, intersect with continuous mouldings: they are plain without foliage. The bases, with water-mouldings between the rolls, have been restored, but are probably faithful copies of the originals.

The parlour is now divided into two stages by a floor above the level of the cloister, giving headway to a door on a flight of steps leading to the present coal-cellar, formerly a tank said to have been used as a bath by the poet Byron. The upper portion of the parlour, entered by steps from the chapter-house, now forms the household gallery of the chapel. It retains its rib vault in two bays, corresponding in design to that of the chapter-house. There is a modern three-light window in the east wall.

(1) See p. 72 above.
(2) Cf. the large window in Tunstall's gallery at Durham castle, in front of the fine doorway of the 12th century hall.