The high-vaulted room at Mont Orgueil

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The high-vaulted room at
Mont Orgueil

This article ny John McCormack was first published in the 2006 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

The high vaulted room which has until this article appeared been described as the Medieval Great Hall

The Medieval Great Hall at Mont Orgueil was first so-called by Major N V L Rybot in 1933, a recent terminology that only serves to make an understanding of the building even more difficult than it would otherwise be.

Curious roof

Its roof, in particular, is a curiosity among the larger stone-vaulted structures of Jersey and Guernsey. But the vaulting is only one of its puzzles, another being its entrance doorway, more or less in the centre of one long side. It is a position unknown in any medieval hall, whether of the humblest cottage or the most prestigious manor in the Channel Islands, for entry to a hall was invariably in one corner, at the low end, furthest away from the high table, or from the wall fireplace, if there was one.

Where halls had integral service rooms, external entrances were next to partitions dividing them from the hall proper. But at Mont Orgueil the layout of windows either side of the doorway strongly suggests that this room never formed a hall with attached buttery or pantry, but was one large area roughly symmetrically arranged.

Could it then have been a chamber, rather than a hall? Probably not, for Great Chambers were in fact treated as private halls, and their entries, at least in the Channel Islands, were similarly placed at one end. In the Langlois house at Hamptonne, for instance, what seems on the outside to be a central doorway is seen inside as an entrance alongside the partition of an inner room.

It is also extremely curious, in trying to think of this space as either chamber or hall, that there is no sign at all of a medieval fireplace: the present fireplace is against the end wall of the room, within a substantial chimney breast applied to the walling, not recessed into it properly as any original hearth would have been.

The chimney stack that rises from it appears to be no earlier than the 17th century, probably dating the whole construction, and the fireplace itself has been greatly repaired in recent times. Certainly, in the primary phase of Mont Orgueil, one can envisage a hall with central hearth and louvre above, in the English fashion.

But work over the last ten years in Guernsey has demonstrated very clearly that fireplaces were added even to quite modest early manorial halls by at least 1300, and certainly ordinary houses built new by that time included both hall and chamber hearths in their design, as at Bordeaux Haven, Vale. Where a 12th- or 13th-century house has remained 'fossilised' within the structure of a later one, as at Les Huriaux Place, St Saviour's in Guernsey, it can be demonstrated without doubt that a central hearth was being replaced by gable fireplaces in both hall and chamber, in this instance c1450.

It is therefore inconceivable, even if Mont Orgueil had constructed a hall or chamber with a central hearth c1210, that such a prestigious site would not have installed a fireplace quite early in its history. At Castle Cornet, both plans and illustrations of the Great Hall before its destruction in the explosion of 1672 show that it was very different from this room at Mont Orgueil; a very fine building of an easily recognised type, early 14th century, and like many in France with a lateral fireplace similar to that which survives (though heavily restored) at St Ouen's Manor. The lack of any medieval fireplace at Mont Orgueil alone makes an identification of this space as either hall or chamber extremely problematic.

In any case, there is no example of any medieval hall or chamber having had a stone roof in any of the islands. It is only in the gatehouses and towers of castles, in undercrofts or cellars either military or privately-owned, and at churches and chapels that such construction is known.

The vaulting of undercrofts and cellars is, by its very nature, in a class of its own, much more flattened in profile, as shown by two examples at Mont Orgueil itself and at Samares Manor. Below part of Grouville Court there is a barrel-vaulted cellar, but this too has a flattened, not a pointed cross-section.

High, pointed stone vaults are almost entirely reserved for church work, and it is in the naves of churches and in chapels that side doors are often, if not central, at least well away from each end. Examples are many, but perhaps the little church, replaced in the nineteenth century, at Torteval is the closest parallel to the 'Medieval Great Hall' in plan-form, together with St Martin's, each in Guernsey.

Indeed, the Town Church in that island has its main north door hard up against a transept. At St Saviour's and the Vale, also in Guernsey, the doorway is in the second bay from the west end, as is or was the case at St Mary's, Trinity (as recorded in old drawings) and St Lawrence's churches in Jersey.

The present north doorway of the Town Church in Jersey and the doorway of the south chapel of St Ouen's church are also one bay away from west ends, while at the very grand Rozel Chapel, the side door is actually east of centre.

Layout suggests a chapel

It therefore seems that this so-called Medieval Great Hall is much more likely to have been a chapel, both because of its layout, and because it became stone-vaulted. These observations in fact confirm the terminology prior to Major Rybot's day. E T Nicolle, we must remember had always been convinced that this building was St Mary's Chapel, as were those who discovered the broken statue of the Virgin herself nearby in a wall in 1836 -7.

The medieval building sequence here is also instructive. As with all early church work, what I shall now call the Chapel originally had thin walls to support a wooden roof, and these walls were thickened specifically to strengthen the structure when vaulting was added.

An identical phenomenon is to be seen in the nave of the Castel Church in Guernsey, where an ‘’arc doubleau’’ or vault arch, part of the internal thickening, blocks an 11th-century window, visible externally.

Whilst there are exceptions, very many Channel Island churches exchanged wooden roofs for stone vaults during the 13th century, and it was at this period that new buildings, such as Rozel Chapel, Jersey, or St Martin's Church, Guernsey, were for the first time designed with stone vaulting.

The sequence at the Castle thus confirms a date at the very beginning of the century for an initial build, timber-roofed, with thickening of walling for vaulting not long afterwards, respecting the small Romanesque windows with their rounded heads while they were still not too unfashionable.

There remains a nagging doubt of identification as a Chapel, due to a lack of east-west orientation. Though there are plenty of examples that could be adduced of chapels in awkward places being aligned differently from the usual medieval practice, one cannot easily understand why there should have been any real problem at Mont Orgueil, especially in the early 13th century, in finding space for a chapel ideally orientated.

However, that is because we are only thinking of the Castle as the complex of buildings standing today. Its layout, not only as a defensive work, but as the administrative centre of the island throughout the medieval period, is a study too large for this small article, but just because the buildings we now see on all sides of the Chapel are almost all later, does not mean that they had no predecessors.

Below the site of the Chapel in Castle Cornet, for instance, Ken Barton's excavations were able to prove the existence of a previously completely unknown tower that had disappeared by the 14th century.

I have never believed that the little chambers on either side of the Chapel at Mont Orgueil represented anything but the lowest rank of accommodation in the 13th century, and along with a 'grosse tour', round donjon or keep, I believe the apex of the Castle would have contained, at least by the 1220s, a considerable number of buildings, including a much more worthy hall as well as other chambers, some possibly timber-framed and supplanted in the later medieval period by what we now see.

The placement and size of the Chapel, along with defensive towers perhaps the only other stone structure of the primary build, might in fact very easily have been determined by a layout we are unlikely ever to recover in our lifetimes, since it is only by archaeological investigation to bedrock in the heart of the Castle that answers might have emerged, to this and to many other questions.

Powerful symbolism

But the keep and chapel could well have occupied the two highest points of Mont Orgueil, a powerful symbolism indeed for our neighbours in France witnessing the building of Le Mont St Michel.

Secular halls and chambers of high status, both in England and France, were sometimes, perhaps always, lavishly decorated. The painted walls of 13th-century halls in France, in particular, can be spectacular. We have no Channel Island examples for comparison.

But we do know that all our churches and chapels were frescoed, and the fragments of wall¬painting found at Mont Orgueil may also thus relate as easily to a chapel as to a secular hall, though this detail in itself is not at all conclusive. But what is certainly important is that these fragments are all to be found at a comparatively low level within the building; for the vaulting itself is extremely strange.

Medieval stone vaulting was basically of two types. One, developed during the 12th century in a Romanesque context, but retained and elaborated throughout the Gothic period, had two elements: a network of intersecting vault ribs, nicely carved, and the vaulting proper above, rising and falling with the arches of the ribs.

It was the ribs that were constructed first, and they served to support wooden planks on top of which the actual rubble stonework of the vault was put in place. The planks were removed after the vault had solidified, and the two elements thereafter could each stand independently of each other, as can be seen at Waverley Abbey, Surrey, where the rubble vaulting still stands but the ribbed network has been robbed out, and at Ourscamp Abbey, east of Paris, where the network of ribs remains but the vaulting has disappeared.

Examples of this type of construction are rare in the Channel Islands, being found in a Romanesque context only at the Vale and Lihou Priories in Guernsey, and much later, in a Gothic milieu, in the Hamptonne Chapel at St Lawrence's church in Jersey. The 'groined' vaulting of the undercroft below the Castle Chapel is a variant of the type, formed without ribs.

The other type of vaulting had a much more ancient ancestry, having been used by the Romans throughout the length and breadth of their Empire. This was the solid barrel vault without ribs, semi-circular and tunnel-like (not domed), depending upon the effectiveness of its lime mortar to create a vault as strong as concrete and also upon extremely massive side walls for stability. However, in parts of Anatolia, in the East Roman Empire, there developed during Byzantine times, possibly under Islamic influence, a refinement of the technique.

Pointed vaults replaced the rounded form of Antiquity. Such pointed vaulting was soon recognised as superior in that it transferred weight more efficiently to side walls. Sideways distortion which had threatened every semi-circular vault, whether ribbed or not, causing collapse at Lihou and threatening it at the Vale, now became far less of a problem.

This revolution in vaulting was encountered by the Crusaders after the establishment of the Frankish kingdom and principalities in the Holy Land, and was widely used there for their new churches from 1100 onwards. It is known in France as ‘’voute en berceau brise’’ and it was the French who brought this design home with them.

During the 12th century it became widely dispersed in Provence and the south of France, and also in Spain. The really important pilgrimage church of St Jacques de Compostella in Spain employed it, as, later on, did the Chapel of Benedict XII at the Palace of the Popes in Avignon (though it had been started by his predecessor, John XXII). It was also used throughout one of the largest churches ever built, at Cluny, in Burgundy.

Mont Orgueil in the 17th century

From Gascony

It is no surprise, then, to find it also in the English king's dominions in Gascony, examples being noted as far north as the Saintonge, and it is almost certainly from this region that it made its way to become the distinguishing vaulting of the Channel Islands.

We are unlikely to discover for certain who exactly brought the technique here. There was a cont¬inuous traffic of traders from Gascony and Spain, of pilgrims and crusaders throughut the late 12th and 13th centuries. Talmont-sur-Gironde, vaulted in this way, was a favourite embarkation point for pilgrims to Compostella. But it is surely significant that Drogo de Barentin, thrice Warden of the Channel Islands (1235-1239, 1240-1252 and 1258-1260) and three times Seneschal of Gascony (1247 - 8, 1253-4 and 1259- c.1263) chose to make his home at Rozel, with its great stone-vaulted Chapel, before 1240.

If de Barentin was the innovator, its use at the Castle might be expected. We know that both at Mont Orgueil and at Castle Cornet, repairs were ordered from 1226 onwards, demonstrating that the castles themselves had been standing long enough to be already ageing, and this chronology fits extremely well with the structural evidence at St Mary's Chapel.

Dr J N L Myres may well have been correct when he put forward the view that use of this vaulting in the Channel Islands was a response to the unsettled times at the beginning of the 13nth century when churches needed to be made fireproof against French attacks.

That argument certainly applies to the exposed Chapel at Mont Orgueil, even if not every parish church throughout the islands followed suit. And pointed stone vaults had certainly not been present in pre-1204 work, which accounts for their absence in the neighbouring parts of Normandy.

They are nowhere to be found in the Cotentin in 13th-century churches. In England they are just as rare and of the 13th century onwards, having been noted so far only in the diminutive and derelict chapel of St Michael on the outskirts ofTorquay and at Boltongate in Cumberland.

In Wales they occur just in a highly distinctive group of churches in southern Pernbrokeshire, with a lone example as far north as the Priory of St Dogmael's next to Cardigan, in its infirmary. In Scotland they appear occasionally, mostly during the late 14th century, for instance at Seaton, White Kirk, Creighton or Dunglass in Midlothian, with a last spectacular use on a large building by the cosmopolitan St Clairs in Rosslyn Chapel, in 1446-50. In the Channel Islands, too, it was still being used until the Reformation in additions to island churches.

Wooden supports

The construction of these solid vaults was rather different from those with ribs. A continuous centring of wooden planking supported on substantial temporary timber arches had first to be built up on beams spanning across the wall heads, and the closely-spaced holes for housing these horizontal beams can still be seen at St Saviour's and St Brelade's Churches in Jersey, where restorations have removed all interior plastering, and at St Lawrence's Church, where similar holes have recently been left exposed: they were not intended to be visible within a completed church.

Plank-marks on the underside of stone vaults from such timber centring are also sometimes to be seen, the most accessible example being in the north porch roof of the Vale Church, Guernsey. It was a widespread technique, found several times within Mont Orgueil itself.

Holes for such centring can be seen, for instance, very clearly in the Well Tower and in the remains of a tower above and beyond the Iron Gate, both of which have very fine pointed vaults of this kind, as, in fact, does the fore building of the Iron Gate itself.

However, the Chapel seems to have no such closely-spaced holes for vault supports, and its extremely peculiar shape would have been very difficult to construct in this traditional way, for it is virtually straight-sided and each end is hipped.

I know of no hipped vault in medieval work in England, Wales, Scotland, France, Palestine, or, more importantly, the Channel Islands. Neither does any medieval vault have the aesthetically unsatisfying straight sides of the Castle Chapel.

The sides of our medieval vaults are always nicely rounded in section. Moreover, although contemporary timber roofs of ordinary houses, whether thatched, slated or tiled, and whether in town or country, are sometimes hipped, both in England and France, depending on the traditions of different localities, there are no such hipped roofs on medieval houses surviving in any Channel Island: our tradition was always for stone gable ends.

There is only one possible exception, and an exception that might indeed have been due to post-medieval re-roofing. This appears on the Legge Survey of 1680, on one wing of a house along St Aubin's Bay that might possibly have been La Haule Manor (not the present building but its predecessor). All other houses on this Survey, both in Jersey and Guernsey, are gabled.

Hipped roofs in domestic buildings first appear around the middle of the 18th century, such as at Rohais Manor, St Andrew's, in Guernsey, a medieval house re-roofed c1750. Various examples of it can be seen in the views of St Peter Port by Joshua Gosselin in the 1790s. But the fashion had largely disappeared by the 1840s. Its history in Jersey is similar. Hipped roofs always remained unusual in both islands, up to the present time.

Strange design explained

What then accounts for the strange design of the vault in the Chapel? The answer is not far to seek, and lies in the careful cross-sections included in the military report commissioned by Lord Dartmouth in 1680 and in Manson's drawing of 1755, both of which clearly show the Chapel without any vault at all.

Revealingly, the cross-section of 1755 is deliberately drawn to show one of the two doorways into the Chapel. Because of other details, it is clear that this is the older, central doorway, and the section is hence across the middle of the space. (The more southerly doorway was added, either in the fourteenth or early fifteenth century to give private access from the Residential Block.)

It is obvious from the quality of these drawings that they cannot be dismissed out of hand as any sort of mistake, and we therefore have to come to terms with the fact that although the walling of the Chapel was thickened to take vaulting in the medieval period, and some wall-painting has survived, presumably from that era, the upper part of the vault was at some time replaced by the much flatter roof shown in 1680.

The present vaulting must, therefore, be largely a reconstruction, employing different techniques from those of the 13th century, and using a hipped design virtually unknown locally before the 18th century. Since it certainly does not look like a medieval vault and we are distinctly told on the 18th¬century cross section, 'Offices Arch'd in Ruins', we might come to the obvious conclusion that it dates from no earlier than the end of that century.

Are there any parallels? No doubt there will be some who will want to see in the chapel vault similarities to the 'hipped' roof Oratory in the Dingle Peninsula of Southern Ireland, or to the corbelled cells of the Dark Ages on the Great Skellig, but first they must demonstrate some continuity of tradition not only in Ireland, where there was none. but in the Channel Islands, where the only other stone-roofed structures we have from the medieval or immediately post-medieval period are pigsties, corbelled, domed and underground.

Apart from such parallels seeming inherently ludicrous, such corbelled techniques, relying upon overlapping courses of stone laid flat and, if anything, sloping a little outwards, were entirely different from those employed on major medieval vaults, as we have just seen.


However, a handful of pigsties in Jersey which emerge above ground, so to speak, at the end of the 18th century, such as those opposite the Devil's Hole, do have straight-sided and high¬pitched stone roofs, rather like the Chapel vault in miniature.

The only other constructions in the Channel Islands also to be given pointed vaults, after a lapse of 200 years or more, are the watch-houses and small powder magazines constructed around the coast as part of the precautions against a French invasion at the end of the 18th century.

Whether they imitated the pigsties, or the pigsties copied the powder magazines, is arguable. Most are gabled, both in Guernsey and Jersey, for instance that known as La Caumine à Marie Best, at St Ouen's Bay which, though much restored, is almost certainly of the same design as when first built.

But all have solid pointed vaults, occasionally in brick, but usually in stone. A good and easily-noticed example of a small magazine in Guernsey is that at Vazon Bay, and others are at Fort Pezeries and Fort Grey in Rocquaine Bay. Larger and even more relevant works in Guernsey are the watch-houses of Le Guet at Cobov of c1780, and Mont Herault, dated 1804, on the south coast near Pleinmont.

These both have fireplaces and are reminiscent, though smaller, of the Chapel at Mont Orgueil. In each case, moreover, vaulting is straight-sided, completely so at Le Guet. Mont Herault is slightly curved at the base of the vault, but is otherwise straight. Neither do they seem to have any holes, blocked or otherwise, for wooden centring.

So, however it was that these late vaults were constructed, the technique was substantially different from all medieval examples. On the outside, they were usually covered in 'Roman cement’ though many have been re-roofed since, either in red tile or stone slate. The 'Roman cement' found above the vault at Mont Orgueil thus also needs to be considered as primary dating evidence for the top of the vault.

Slightly later, dated 1835, is a structure at La Crete Fort in Bonne Nuit Bay, which is both hipped and with a high, pointed stone vault beautifully made of ashlar on the outside. This vault is slightly different from that of the Chapel in being rounded at the corners, but sufficiently similar to give pause for thought at its use in a military context.

Pointed vaults in brick were carried on into many Victorian fortifications, especially in Alderney, but it is precisely during the 1780 -1800 period that examples of vaulting are found with steeply pointed profiles and almost straight sides. They are the nearest parallels to the vault at Mont Orgueil, and there can be no serious doubt that the Chapel vault in its present form is a reconstruction of that date.

As for the method of construction, a look at the ruined works outside the postern gate at Mont Orgueil, towards Caesar's Tower, shows that late vaults were indeed differently¬constructed from earlier examples, with continuous setbacks, and without any of the tell-tale holes of their medieval predecessors. These vaults, had they survived, might well have been like that at the Chapel.

Thomas Philips portrayal of the castle in 1680

Unique roof

Having thus, I hope, dispelled some misapprehensions about the date and nature of this vaulting, one has to admit that the Chapel roof appears in some ways unique, if only because of its scale, dictated by the pre-existing size of the structure to which it was added.

It was, after all, individually designed by knowledgeable engineers for a specific building. In spite of the medieval thickening of the walls, it is just because of the wide span that a decision is likely to have been taken to build hipped ends, in an effort to distribute some weight from the roof onto the end walls, themselves 'buttressed' by surrounding structures, rather than to produce the more usual gabled ends with all weight resting on the sides.

Moreover, a hipped design must have been perceived as rendering it a little less susceptible to destruction by artillery fire. It is now ironic, all other large early medieval buildings at the Castle having been lost except for their undercrofts, that the reroofed Chapel really does produce the superficial effect of being a medieval hall, as we have been encouraged to think of such rooms.

In fact, however, it resembles medieval halls hardly at all: in such a noble context, a hall, during most of the medieval period, would have been even higher, better-lit, and would have related more obviously to all the service rooms and stores that kept its chief purpose, as a ceremonial dining area, functioning. It would, indeed, have been palatial, justifying the term Le Palais by which the whole of the Inner Ward at Mont Orgueil was known in the 15th century.

In addition, careful examination will reveal that soon after this vaulting was reconstructed, a cross-wall was added within it, for which a wide scar exists on the vaulting itself, between surfaces that seem to have been re-plastered towards each end. This space therefore became two rooms, each probably containing a fireplace, the outlets for whose flues in c1800 brick are clear at the apex of the vault.

One fireplace also served an oven, lined with brick of the same date, a part of which is still to be seen in the outer wall, though the oven floor was lower than the section presented and only a portion of its diameter is visible.

Dating problem

The exact date of this insertion is problematic, but the nature of the two areas of brick surviving, as well as the lime mortar between them, make it clear that they are not Tudor features. indeed, as the vault was not there for at least a hundred years, the twin flues can only date to a period after it had been reinstated, and only after it became normal to build chimneys with individual, tiny vents.

Oldfield makes it quite clear, writing in the 1830s, that d'Auvergne created a kitchen within the space now re-roofed as a 'Great Hall', gone by his time; and that the Chapel itself was a large, empty space. But he specifically mentions a sort of louvre on the roof, which can only refer to the outlet of these flues.

Like the curved recess in the adjoining chamber of the Corbelled Tower and the strangely slit-like aperture in the 'east' wall of the Chapel itself, that in no way resembles the convincing medieval side windows, the exact circumstances that produced the cross-wall and its oven cannot now be pinned down.

So much that has happened within the walls of Mont Orgueil has been of a transient nature over the centuries. But certainly d'Auvergne's creation of a kitchen elsewhere does not preclude another room serving as a bake house.

Most farmhouse establishments of any size in the island at this time had a kitchen within the house and a separate ‘’boulangerie-laverie’’ outside. It is clear that d'Auvergne entertained on a lavish scale during his heyday at the Castle, and his constructions here and at La Hougue Bie have one characteristic in common: that all were ephemeral. In fact almost everything that d' Auvergne created during his extensive use of the Castle during the Regency period was swiftly swept away when, burdened with local debts, he failed to obtain in 1815 the Duchy of Bouillon.

In later times, when the Chapel was used by coastguards, they also had cooking ranges, but these in turn have disappeared. What evidence there is then, strongly suggests that the oven functioned only during d'Auvergne's occupation of Mont Orgueil, after its use as a temporary barracks during Conway's time had in turn passed: and that its memory by the time Oldfield wrote, as being 'the old church', was a correct folk memory accounting well for such medieval features as still remain.

For what is more important than folk memory is that all the evidence adduced above creates a solid basis for dispelling any modern description of this room as a hall or Tudor kitchen. In its plan-form, as we have seen, it is not like any other medieval hall or chamber, whereas it correctly resembles many church buildings in the islands.

They, also, had early vaulting added, for which their walls were often thickened up; and they were normally painted throughout, not only with religious subjects but with foliage and other decoration in intervening spaces, not specifically religious in appearance.

Close to Rozel Manor, the original vaulting was probably added by the Seigneur of Rozel in the 1240s, imitating examples he had seen while Seneschal of Gascony, as he did on the Manor Chapel. Not only, then, did it look like a chapel, but it is in exactly the correct place adjoining the Rochfort Postern as is the Castle Chapel mentioned in the 1463 Enquiry.

However, it is likely that this chapel had already lost its medieval high vault before the end of Elizabeth's reign, and it was certainly covered by a flat platform in 1680 and 1755. We have seen that the present vaulting, with its straight sides and hipped ends does not represent any local style surviving before the middle of the eighteenth century, being almost certainly constructed by General Conway for his barracks.

Later in the Napoleonic period, it probably became a bake house/wash-house for d'Auvergne's household, accounting for the relatively modern brick flues through the roof and the segment of oven in the wall, and it continued to be called by such names as 'the old church' all the way through the 19th century. There can be no serious doubt that this was the 13th-century Castle Chapel.

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