Church discovery sheds light on medieval mystery

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A community archaeology project entirely run by volunteers has made a remarkable discovery in a remote Norfolk priory that could help to shed light upon one of British architectures greatest mysteries. The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (NMGS) was established in 2010 to search for medieval graffiti inscriptions in Norfolk churches. To date they have surveyed over fifty of the county’s 650 medieval churches and already made a number of groundbreaking discoveries. However, the most recent find, made in the Priory church of Binham, a few miles from the Norfolk coast, is set to cause excitement and controversy amongst medieval historians and architects alike.

To historians and students of Gothic architecture Binham Priory already holds an important and, at times, controversial place in the story of the development of Gothic architecture in England. The magnificent West Front, now sadly largely bricked up, is widely regarded as the earliest example of Gothic ‘Bar’ tracery to be found anywhere in the country. Built between 1226 and 1244, the West Front at Binham was a revolutionary architectural design. Documented by the St Alban’s chronicler Matthew Paris, it was created decades before the techniques were generally adopted at sites such as Westminster Abbey and, as a result, it has also become the centre of one of history’s greatest architectural mysteries. Indeed, the question that has long puzzled architectural historians is exactly why did this revolution in architecture first appear in a remote and lonely corner of North Norfolk and, following its construction, why it took decades to appear elsewhere in the country?

At the time that ‘Bar’ tracery was being employed at Binham the technique had only just begun to be pioneered at sites on the continent. It was new and it was revolutionary. Previous tracery styles, known as ‘Plate’ tracery, meant that the windows were, in effect, cut through the stone fabric of the wall. This weakened the structure and severely limited the size of windows that could be inserted. Bar tracery changed all that. Instead of pushing windows through the wall, the new technique involved designing and constructing the window spaces with carved stone mullions. The mullions, often pinned together with iron, allowed the frame itself to become part of the structure, making it far stronger and allowing the windows to be safely enlarged. For the master-masons this development suddenly allowed them to look beyond traditional limitations and experiment with ornate new designs that had never previously been possible....

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