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Adrian Green, Building for England: John Cosin’s Architecture in Renaissance Durham and Cambridge (Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2016)

Adrian Green, Building for England: John Cosin’s Architecture in Renaissance Durham and Cambridge (Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2016). ISBN 978-0-88844-863-7.  xvii + 151 pp. £45.

Reviewed by Graham ParryAdrianGreenBuildingforEngland

[1] In recent years John Cosin’s career as one of the leaders of the High Church movement in Stuart England has begun to attract the attention it deserves. His innovations in the conduct of services and in the furnishing of churches in the diocese of Durham during the 1620s and 1630s proved rancorously controversial but established his reputation as a bold churchman determined to reject the austere Calvinism of the reformed Elizabethan Church, both in its visual aspect and in its harsh predestinarian theology. He espoused the liberal doctrines of Arminianism, that were gaining many followers in England in the 1620s. These gave prominence to the role of free will in the search for salvation, and argued that Christ had died to redeem all men, not just the elect, as Calvin believed. Salvation could be attained by works as well as by faith, and by reverent worship. To some critics, Arminian beliefs seemed like a turning back towards Catholicism. In 1627, Cosin’s Collection of Private Devotions aroused a storm of protest because it appeared to be trying to reintroduce the canonical hours of prayer associated with Catholicism. He was at the centre of the movement to establish Laudian modes of worship in Cambridge in the 1630s, when he was Master of Peterhouse. After 1660, when he became Bishop of Durham, Cosin became an important figure in the re-establishment of the Church of England, helping to ensure that it developed along lines that had been laid down in Laudian times. He also undertook ambitious building schemes in and around Durham that would restore the authority and prestige of the Church in its northern stronghold.

[2] Adrian Green, who is based at Durham University, now offers this analysis and assessment of Cosin’s building activities in order to explain what motivated them and what religious and political messages they could convey. His book gives by far the fullest account of a complicated history, which enables us to appreciate the integrity of his intentions across five decades during which he sought to advance and justify the authority of the Church in English life. The aesthetic aspect of his work is not neglected in this account, for Green explores at length the implications of the styles that Cosin employed in his architecture and woodwork. The combination of unorthodox neo-classicism with a quirky form of gothic always makes a distinctive impression on those who visit his buildings.

[3] Cosin never wrote about the purposes that his architectural schemes served or offered any reflections on his achievements, but Green is certain that the assertion of authority is the key to understanding Cosin’s schemes, in all the stages of his career. He built and restored and furnished to affirm the controlling power of the episcopal Church of England in unstable times, and after 1660, with his work at Durham and Bishop Auckland, to affirm his own power in his unique role as Prince Bishop. Given that he had been raised in the mainstream of the High Church movement, first by the patronage of John Overall, Bishop of Lichfield, and then by Richard Neile of Durham, he had come to share the view that the Church needed to fortify itself against the destabilising effects of Puritan dissent, with its ambition to introduce Presbyterian forms of government. Cosin had experienced the full force of Puritan vitriol after his first innovations at Durham in the early 1620s, when he had helped to introduce new ceremonies at the altar and install a towering font cover. He was abused and denounced in sermons and in print by the Puritan Peter Smart and persecuted by law suits that went on for years. The Church needed to bear itself with confidence against those who rejected its doctrine and discipline. It needed to assert its belief in the principles of hierarchical government and well-regulated worship. Rule by bishops and worship by the Book of Common Prayer were central to those principles. There was a growing conviction amongst churchmen that the Lord should be worshipped in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 96), befitting His majesty. Cosin held to this conviction throughout his life. Order, discipline, ceremony, conformity were necessary to the stability of society and to the peace of the Church. ‘Untune those strings, and hark what discord follows’, as Shakespeare wrote in Troilus and Cressida (Cosin owned a First Folio), and the chaos and destruction of the civil wars showed what happened when the authority of Church and Crown was overthrown.

[4] When he became rector of Brancepeth, a rich living near Durham, in 1626, he set about restoring and refurnishing the church in an exemplary way. He added a clerestory to give more light, and filled the interior with an astonishing display of carved and crocketed woodwork. The rows of dignified pews with their florid bench-ends were overseen by a tall commanding pulpit surmounted by a fantastical crested tester. The style is a unique combination of gothic, Jacobean and Netherlandish elements, a mixture that would become the distinguishing mark of Cosin’s involvement in the refurnishing of churches in the Durham diocese. The woodwork is always of dark, almost black, oak. In this elevated, imposing frame Cosin would appear more as priest than as minister. In the nave the congregation was separated into groupings of men and women divided by the central aisle, and arranged ‘according to their several Degrees and Qualities’, with the gentry to the front and the servants to the rear. A richly decorated openwork screen divided the nave from the chancel, again in dark oak, with slender canopies in spiky gothic over its three sections, canopies reminiscent of those on the Neville screen in Durham cathedral. Cosin wanted to bring back chancel screens, which had often been pulled down in Reformation times, to mark the division of the nave from the more sacred space of the chancel, which contained the holiest place of all, the altar. To enhance the holiness of the chancel, its ceiling was gilded and painted with stars and furnished with angels holding scrolls of praise. The east window was glazed with a painted crucifix. Another notable feature of the church was the font with a towering gothic spire some twelve feet high. This canopy was to honour the site of baptism, the first of the two sacraments of the Church of England (the other being the eucharist). The font was set by the entrance door, for spiritually it marked the admission of the individual soul into the community of the Church. The whole interior was a carefully planned progression up to the holy exaltation of the sacrifice at the altar. Alas, Cosin’s spectacular scheme was entirely destroyed by a disastrous fire in 1998.

[5] Here was a model church for the sacrament-centred mode of worship that was favoured by the Laudian movement. With its plate on display, and candles, hangings and embroidery, it must have looked a scene of beauty, dignity and mystery. It was expressive of reverence and order. And it needed a priest rather than a minister to set in motion and control the ceremonies of Anglican worship that the innovatory Laudian movement wished to disseminate. Variants on the Brancepeth model can be found in a dozen nearby churches where John Cosin exerted influence.

[6] When Cosin went to Cambridge as Master of Peterhouse in 1635, he found several new opportunities to enhance the setting of worship. The college chapel had been built by his predecessor Matthew Wren, the leading Cambridge Laudian, but it fell to Cosin to decorate the chapel. This he did with his well-practised skills, though the woodwork here is more restrained than the examples in County Durham. Painted glass filled the windows, with a powerful, lowering scene of the Crucifixion above the altar. Gilded sunbursts exploded in the compartments of the roof. Cosin increased the provision of music for the chapel, gathering in new work from composers who were responding to the needs of the more elaborate services favoured by the Laudians. When he became Vice-Chancellor in 1638, he commissioned ‘a beautiful and lofty screen with a canopy and spire-work’ for the University Church, similar it would seem to the one at Brancepeth. This screen was an early casualty of the iconoclasts’ attack on Cambridge churches and chapels in 1643. Cosin also began to venture into secular projects, by getting involved in a scheme to build a university library and senate house next to King’s College, a scheme that was frustrated by the outbreak of war.

[7] The war destroyed the world in which Cosin and the High Church party flourished, and eventually brought down the Church of England. He was expelled from his office, and years of impoverished exile in France followed. He acted as chaplain to the exiled English community in Paris, with the modest compensation of a cramped apartment in the recently-built Louvre. A reversal of fortune, the Restoration, brought him back to England and saw him promoted to the see of Durham. Once again he had authority and wealth, and so set about renovating his cathedral after the ravages of war and Scottish prisoners, and improving the two seats of his power: the Castle and his episcopal palace at Bishop Auckland. The Church must entrench itself more firmly after the experience of the civil war, as the material setting for the expression of the Anglican faith, and as an instrument of social harmony and order. The massive quantities of dark woodwork that now flank the choir and high altar at Durham, the stalls and screens, mostly date from the 1660s, as does the monumental font canopy at the west end. There was once an ‘effusively carved’ choir screen and organ case, but they were moved to the Castle in the 1840s. The restored bishop’s throne radiates the aura of ‘episcopacy by divine right’. Cosin took care that the body of St Cuthbert, that had survived the Reformation, was preserved – for reverence now, not for worship – and that Bede’s tomb was also honoured. The presence of these figures emphasised Durham’s link with the earliest phase of the English Church in the north. Anglican divines liked to profess the ancient origins of their Church in the time of primitive Christianity as much as they liked to demonstrate its continuing strength in the present.

[8] Adrian Green’s chapters on Cosin’s work at Durham and Bishop Auckland are most illuminating, for they show how he created a centre of episcopal authority at the former and a private memorial at Auckland Palace. He remodelled the interior of Durham Castle as a civilized fortress worthy of a prince bishop. In addition to a new suite of rooms, he installed the great black staircase which is an architectural event in itself. As Green remarks, it is designed to dramatise the movement of well-dressed people from level to level. Around Palace Green, the square between the cathedral and the Castle, he erected administrative buildings, an almshouse, and most notably, an admirable library. Cosin was a bibliophile, who had built up collections at Durham, Cambridge and Paris. The new library at Durham was intended as a resource for scholarly clergy and gentry (possibly modelled on the Bibliothèque Mazarin at Paris, Green suggests). It was ‘a beacon of learning in the North’, ‘created to provide the governing class . . . with the necessary resources for a learned elite to exercise authority and understand their role in the world beneath God’. Cosin took great care to stock it well and furnish it handsomely, and it has remained a major intellectual resource, now appropriately integrated into the University.

[9] In his reconstruction of Auckland Palace, the bishop’s residence a few miles from Durham, Cosin renovated the fortified area as his domestic quarters and as a place for hospitality. Almost as an act of personal gratification, he decided to create a new chapel out of the ruins of the medieval banqueting hall. He retained the tall, elegant arcades of c.1200 as his nave, added a high clerestory for extra light and to enhance the building’s profile, then filled the interior with his characteristic woodwork. On this occasion, the last of his ambitious projects, the woodwork is more open and airy than usual, especially that of the grand screen that divides the ante-chapel from the body of the chapel. The brightly painted roof commands attention, for in the compartments are carved Cosin’s coat of arms (a diamond fret) alternating with a bishop’s mitre. These powerful emblems declare undeniably that this is John Cosin’s chapel, and it is also his mausoleum, for he chose to be buried in front of the altar under an inscribed marble ledger stone.

[10] Cosin was sometimes accused of over-building, and there is some truth in this, though posterity has many reasons to be grateful for his zeal. Green argues quite persuasively, however, that his activities should be seen as local contributions to a national endeavour to strengthen the authority of the Church at a time when confident new leaders were emerging. These men were offering a new liberal theology, dignified, formal modes of worship in settings of some splendour, and imposing tighter discipline on congregations. The Laudians were overthrown by the civil war, but they returned with the Restoration, and effectively took control of the Church. Their task was made easier by the separation of the nonconformists from the national Church. Never before have Cosin’s building schemes been so thoroughly investigated and explained. Adrian Green has given them a context, produced a chronology for these numerous works, identified craftsmen and designers, traced sources for designs, and understood many of the signals they send forth. This is a most illuminating and thought-provoking book, that brings forward John Cosin as one of the shapers of the seventeenth-century Church. Whether you accept that he was ‘Building for England’ or believe that he was primarily driven by a personal obsession to renovate, restore and create beautiful settings for worship remains an open question. But Cosin rightfully merits the recognition he receives here.

University of York, January 2017

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