Henry VII Chapel

Henry VII Chapel, Westminster Abbey, London, begun 1503. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris


Ground plan, Henry VII Chapel

Ground plan of the Henry VII chapel, adjoining Westminster Abbey, with the details of the fan vault superimposed over the plan; illustration to the Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain, vol II. 1808 (The British Museum)



[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:08] We’re in the easternmost part of Westminster Abbey. This is an ancient Gothic building. This is a church that, according to legend at least, goes back perhaps as early as the 7th century. Some kings were buried here as early as the 11th century.

[0:21] The king that’s responsible for the chapel that we’re in, Henry VII, created this chapel as a place for him to be buried and for his family to be buried. He has created this incredibly lavish environment as a setting for his burial.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:36] Replacing an older chapel that was here.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] Now, the 1500s means that we’re in the Renaissance, but the English are still building structures in the Gothic style.

Dr. Harris: [0:44] Although the Gothic style is transformed from its early conceptions in the 12th century.

Dr. Zucker: [0:50] We generally believe that the Gothic was born in France, migrated to Germany, migrated to England, and in England, there were three principal styles of the Gothic. The first is simple early English Gothic architecture, which is directly inspired by the French.

[1:06] The second is the Decorative Gothic, and then finally the Perpendicular. That’s what we have here in its most grand flowering.

Dr. Harris: [1:14] This is called the Lady’s Chapel because it’s dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Our Lady. The chapel is most famous for its vaulting.

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] The vaulting is spectacular; there’s nothing like it. When you look at the French Gothic, you see these soaring vertical spaces, these large, open windows. This space has that, but it also has tracery and a structural system that is a complete departure from the French.

Dr. Harris: [1:42] It’s overwhelmingly decorative. Every surface that we’re looking at has fine tracery.

Dr. Zucker: [1:46] You also have these fans. You have these hanging pendants. You have vaulting at the ceiling that seems to defy gravity.

Dr. Harris: [1:55] Normally, when we think about Gothic architecture, we think about a groin vault or a ribbed groin vault, where we can understand how the roof is supported.

Dr. Zucker: [2:04] This is a difficult kind of architecture to describe. One of the things that makes it difficult is that the highly decorative nature of the tracery obscures the actual structural system. You’re absolutely right, in the older French system, the structure is exposed.

[2:21] In fact, the beauty of the building comes from the exposure of the structural system. Whereas here, we actually have layers of complexity.

[2:29] Let’s take this apart and explain how this works. If you look at the interior elevation, you can see massive windows, and clearly there’s no real structural support there.

[2:36] You can see that they’re interrupted by a series of piers. Those are weight-bearing. You can look outside and you can see there’s buttressing that brings some of that lateral thrust outside and helps support the building.

Dr. Harris: [2:46] And open up the walls to more windows, which was a hallmark of the Gothic style.

Dr. Zucker: [2:50] And is fully evident here. What happens is, the windows go beyond where the vaulting springs, which allows for the spandrels to become really distinct. In this case, actually, they have been pierced.

Dr. Harris: [3:03] By decorative tracery. Then if we follow the piers up, we see that they splay out into a fan shape.

Dr. Zucker: [3:13] Those initial fans then do allow for those more complete circular fans that are towards the center of the vaults.

Dr. Harris: [3:20] It’s almost like a decorative covering on top of the vaulting.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] Well, with one exception, which is that you have transverse ribs that intersect with those cones and create a continuous structural system, although a highly decorative one.

Dr. Harris: [3:34] One where the decoration really does hide it to such an extent that you really have to work to locate those transverse arches.

Dr. Zucker: [3:40] This surface is so complicated, you have to work to find anything.

[3:42] We’ve walked outside of Westminster Abbey, around to the east end, so we can look at the chapel from the outside, where the structure is a little more apparent.

Dr. Harris: [3:50] We can see heavily decorated flying buttresses.

Dr. Zucker: [3:55] Those flying buttresses draw the weight of the vaulting from the interior out and down these unique octagonal buttresses.

Dr. Harris: [4:02] They’re beautifully decorated in that typical Perpendicular style, where we have a sense of the thinness and fineness of the tracery.

Dr. Zucker: [4:09] Other characteristics of this late Gothic style known as the Perpendicular are large windows, often made of grids, where the individual units tend to be elongated.

Dr. Harris: [4:20] What’s fascinating about where we’re standing is that there’s a building right across the street that looks like it is also from the Perpendicular Gothic period, but it is in fact Gothic Revival. It was built in the 19th century,

Dr. Zucker: [4:31] Hundreds of years later. This is the famous Houses of Parliament, and it’s the result of a competition that required the use of one of two historical styles, either the Elizabethan or the Gothic. That speaks to the 19th century’s interest in history. It also reminds us that by the 19th century, the Gothic was understood to be fundamental to English history.

Dr. Harris: [4:56] And the language that one could draw on for important public buildings like the Houses of Parliament that had associations to the church, but also to a tradition of fine craftsmanship and a vision of the city that was in sharp contrast to the industrialization that was taking place in England in the early 19th century.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Henry VII Chapel," in Smarthistory, August 1, 2017, accessed April 12, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/henry-vii-chapel/.