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Arbroath and its Abbey
Chapter V - Erection and Style of the Abbey Buildings


IT has been generally supposed that the erection of the buildings of the Abbey of Arbroath was only commenced in the year 1178, but it is probable that the commencement was one or two years earlier. King William, the founder, returned from his eighteen months' captivity in England on 8th December 1174. Thomas a, Becket, an early friend of William's, was killed on 29th December 1170, and was canonized in 1173; and we find that by 1178 a church was built at Aberbrothock, which, in that year, was dedicated to his memory ; and a company of Tyronensian Monks of the rule of St Benedict, with an Abbot, were brought from Kelso, and solemnly installed in the Abbey, in presence of the King, the Bishop of Aberdeen (the bishopric of St Andrews being vacant), with the Archdeacon of St Andrews,—"to bless the Abbey"—the Bishop elect of Brechin, the Prior of Restennet, and many other grandees. All this could not have taken place in the year 1178, as is stated in the Abbey writs, unless the eastern part of the great church, and certain houses for the dwellings of the Abbot and Monks, had been previously erected. Wynton, the Prior of Lochleven, in his "Cronykil," says that the Abbey was founded by King William, on the 9th day of August, although he is otherwise mistaken by placing the event nineteen years too late. His words are:—

Of August that yhere the nynde day,
Of Abbyrbrothoke the Abbay,
The Kyng Willame, in Angus,
Fowndyt to be relygyws.
In the honoure of Saynt Thomas,
That Abbay that tyme fowndyt was,
And dowyt alsua rychely,
Thare Monkis to be perpetually.

By this time the King had conferred on this Abbey of his favourite Saint (whose aid he was in the habit of invoking in the time of his captivity) the village of Arbroath, with the lands now forming the parishes of Arbroath and St Vigeans and the Parish Church. It is probable also that the church and parish of Ethie (Athyn) were granted about the same period. The best idea of the progressive gifts to the Abbey is to be obtained from the papal bulls granted in 1182, 1200, and subsequent years. (Chartulary, vol. I. pp. 151-160.) We also learn from Hollinshed and others that the greatest nobleman of the district—Gilchrist, Earl of Angus—having, under the influence of jealousy, strangled his wife, who was the sister of King William, was proclaimed traitor by the King, and deprived of his great possessions, a considerable part of which was soon afterwards conferred on the Abbey. These gifts probably consisted more or less of the territory of Athenglas (near Kinblethmont), and the estates or shires (now the parishes) of Dunnichen and Kingoldrum, and which, with the parishes of Aberbrothock and Ethie, continued to form the principal part of the Abbey possessions during all its history; for the numerous grants of lands, churches, teinds, fishings, saltworks, tenements in burghs, &c., subsequently made by King William and his nobles, and by kings and subjects in the three succeeding reigns, although very valuable, were not equal to these tracts of fertile lands given by him at the time of the foundation.

year, during the reign of Alexander II., it was again dedicated. It may be remarked that the neighbouring cathedral of St Andrews was in course of construction during no less than one hundred and sixty years, having been begun about the year 1158, and not finished till the year 1318. A comparison of the remains of the Cathedral with the great Church of Arbroath affords a curious confirmation of these dates, and would almost by itself demonstrate, to one versant in Gothic architecture, that the church of St Andrews was commenced at least twenty years previous to the church of Arbroath, and continued a considerable way according to the earlier style, and that its western part was constructed long after the magnificent western front of Arbroath church had been finished. The substitution of what is termed early English for Norman architecture, including as a principal feature the substitution of tall lancet-headed windows (without stone mullions) for round-headed windows, took place during the last quarter of the twelfth century ; and these twenty-five years are accordingly termed in England the transition period. This period witnessed the erection of very many splendid ecclesiastical fabrics, and a great improvement in the style of masonry. Thus the eastern part of St Andrews Cathedral, being planned and commenced before this period, had only round-headed windows (nine of which were in the east gable), according to its obvious original construction, while Arbroath Abbey, not being commenced till the change began, has narrow lancet-headed windows without mullions, intermixed occasionally with the older round-headed arch, from the east gable even to the great west door; shewing that the transition period of intermixture of the two styles had been continued in Scotland later than in England, and during the early part of the thirteenth century. The cathedral of St Andrews exhibits three separate styles in succession—first, the latest Norman, then the early English, and lastly what is termed the decorated style. The style of the Abbey Church of Arbroath, on the other hand, is wholly of the "transition period" betwixt the first two styles here mentioned, and consists of the remains of the Norman style, with the early English prevailing. The church also exhibits a marked improvement in the quality of the masonry during the fifty-five years which elapsed between the erection of the chancel and the western towers, as may be observed on examination of the beautiful masonry of the great buttresses in the court behind the Abbot's house.

At the time of the erection of Arbroath Abbey, Gothic architecture was in the full vigour of its early manhood, The early English style is specially marked by grandeur, dignity, and simplicity in its general design. Its decorations were limited in number, and severe and chaste in character ; and it was not hurt by an overload of meretricious and useless ornaments which have often marred the beauty of expensive Gothic churches constructed in later periods. The Abbey Church of Arbroath possessed most of the grand features which may yet be seen in many of the Abbey and Cathedral churches in England, of which a noble specimen is exhibited in Westminster Abbey, an erection begun in the reign of Henry III.
The small fragment of what had evidently been the Chapter House (vulgarly called the pint stoup) spews that it was erected in a style similar to that of the church, and at the same time. And it is to be supposed that other indispensable buildings, had they remained—such as the refectory and fraters' hall—would have exhibited further specimens of the same style. But every vestige of these buildings has been swept away.

The Abbey Church was finished some time previous to the introduction of what has been termed the third or decorated style of Gothic architecture, of which a modern specimen is supplied to Arbroath in the new Episcopal Chapel. But the remains of the great gate called the Pend, exhibit in several features an approximation to that style, and show that this building was erected some time after the completion of the Church. The vestry (commonly called the Chapter House) was built by Abbot Walter Paniter, betwixt 1411 and 1433, and its south window is in the decorated style, with mullions; and can easily be distinguished from all the windows of the original Church. By this time the fourth or perpendicular style of Gothic architecture had been adopted in England, where many beautiful specimens of it may be seen. But its introduction into Scotland was retarded by the poverty and misery into which the country had been plunged by the wars of independence, which almost put an entire stop to the erection of great and costly churches similar to those founded in earlier and happier tunes,


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