If you want foreboding old buildings that dark lords and werewolves are bound to frequent, look no further than Britain’s enviable Gothic architecture. From Strawberry Hill in London with its twisting corridors and glaring pinnacles, to ruined abbeys and cathedrals such as St Andrews and Jedburgh, darkness seems to thrive in these places – the perfect location for a Halloween party if you’re lucky enough to be invited.
What is often not appreciated is that this style had two distinct periods of glory, with a long time out of favour in between. And it’s not just their tall spires and endless corridors and gargoyles that brought these structures supernatural associations. The dark reputation they gained in their wilderness years helped, too.
Gothic was in its pomp in medieval and Tudor Britain. Famous examples include Salisbury cathedral in southern England, Caernarfon castle in Wales and Melrose castle and Brodie castle in Scotland. The style was used by church, state and universities, Oxford and Cambridge especially. It was certainly not associated with terror in this period – more with the potential perils of sin and Purgatory, or the rigours of academia.
Gothic waned in the 17th century, replaced by the round-arched and rationalised style of Classicism. Imported from the continent and inspired by ancient Greece and Rome, the new style came to prominence in London public and private works such as the Banqueting House, Whitehall and The Queen’s House, Greenwic Classicism continued to spread in the 18th century, while Gothic came to be seen as barbaric. It was intentionally connected with the Goths by critics who favoured Greek and Roman architecture. These included the Renaissance artists Raphael and Vasari, and Georgian intellectuals such as John Evelyn and architects like Isaac Ware (Ware would later introduce certain Gothic elements into his work). These people often argued that when the Goths sacked Rome in the fifth century, they destroyed “proper” Classical architecture and introduced a backward, coarse style – Gothic – in its place.
In the first half of the 18th century in particular, almost all the major architects promoted Classicism. As the Scottish minister and writer Alexander Gerard put it in 1759:
the profusion of ornament, bestowed on the parts, in Gothic structures, may please one who has not acquired enlargement of mind … where refinement is wanting, taste must be coarse and vulgar.
Worse still in those days, Gothic was associated with the Catholics. Catholicism in the 1700s was viewed with suspicion and concern, thanks partly to the Jacobite risings. Both were considered a threat to the Hanoverian and Classical order – never mind that the great medieval abbeys spared destruction in the Reformation had been put into the service of the Protestant church.
Interesting scary bit..