Monday, February 12, 2024

Ewelme, Oxfordshire


God’s House

Alice de la Pole (1404–75), granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer and Countess of Salisbury then Duchess of Suffolk, was a member of England’s rich and powerful upper class, who had several homes. Her favourite was at Ewelme, in Oxfordshire. Her house has gone, but the church, school, and almshouse she built remain, standing in a tight cluster above the river valley where the village grew up. The almshouse is one of the most beautiful medieval domestic buildings, consisting of dwellings for 13 residents (originally all men), who, in return for their accommodation, were tasked with praying for the souls of Alice and her family, thereby easing their benefactors’ passage through Purgatory into Heaven. In other words, this foundation was a chantry. Henry VIII abolished chantries, but in this case, although the prayers for Alice’s soul ceased, the almshouses themselves remained.

The dwellings are arranged around a quadrangle, which can be entered through several doors, one close to the church, others giving access to the gardens. My first photograph shows a magnificent brick doorway, complete with stepped gable, gothic cusped arch, and buttresses. Its a grand piece of architecture, reminding one of the building’s importance to Alice de la Pole and evoking its serious purpose as a chantry, but the houses themselves, visible to the left, are architecturally quite modest.

This combination of modesty and elaboration is also seen in the quadrangle (below). Here the structure of the building is revealed as a timber framework with brick infill, with access to the individual doors via a lean-to covered cloister onto which the nearby church tower looks down. In the middle of each range is an opening leading to the central cobbled courtyard, and lovely carved wooden Gothic arches top each of these openings, an appealing bit of decoration and visual punctuation. The resulting combination of the domestic and the holy is summed up in the name of the building: God’s House. It’s worth a pilgrimage.


Neil said...

Really lovely.

Hair said...

For some reason this is exactly what my dream home looks like