The Towers that Gundulf Built

So: a Bishop. Godly chap, dressed in red or purple, head to toe. Usually has a diocese, and a cathedral; not much power outside their church these days. Nice crook, snazzy mitre. Holy bling.

But it has not always been that way.

The Roman Empire was the epitome of fastidious municipal organisation. Even its far reaches were administered and improved, its subjects taxed.

As the empire waned, the church it had begun to foster was growing in power. And the oddest thing happened: the church leaders began to take over the administration of what had been one of the greatest empires the world had ever seen.

Bishops could be very powerful indeed. Bishop-princes, in fact.

But this is nothing new to us. Thomas Becket was Lord Chancellor. We know the old bishops could be bishop-warriors too,  like old Henry Le Dispenser, the Bishop of Norwich who led a crusade in the 14th century.

But engineer-bishops?

Once upon a time, there was this monk. He lived at Caen, in France, but he must have been good at what he did because when William came over the monk was very quickly at the centre of things.

The monks’s name was Gundulf.

He was brought over from Caen to help William’s new archbishop sort out the English church; he was a bishop by March 1077. And when you look at some of his assignments in those early heady days of Norman custodianship of England, you will see precisely the reason for his lightning-fast advancement; and I am not sure it was because of his godliness, or indeed his holy bling.

Just 12 years after William had arrived, Gundulf was principle overseer on the building of the White Tower of London.

It bears his signature: an uncompromising, seemingly impregnable tall tower with soaring turrets and windows like small dark eyes. Like this:

Image via Wikipedia: Bernard Gagnon

Image via Wikipedia: Bernard Gagnon

in 1087, William I died. Down on the River Medway in Kent, William’s half-brother, Odo, was embroiled in a rebellion and subsequently forced by William Rufus to cough up rather a lot of property.

And one of the bits of land which fell from his portfolio was the old derelict St Andrew’s church at Rochester, and all the lands belonging to it.

And then, under William Rufus, Gundulf was gifted the land on the Medway. And he built, and built, and built. His influence can still be seen in Rochester Castle:

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

But most enigmatic of all is a place I have been saving for you since I saw it on the way back from the pub.

The Swan at West Malling is a charming eatery, but the parking’s a bugger. We parked and ambled back into the village, and on the way what should we spy but the most amazing tower.

Photograph via English Heritage

Photograph via English Heritage

It seemed a strange place to find something so grand. So uncompromising. I have been puzzling over it ever since.

Today I learned the reason. There are two possible creators of this tower. One is Odo, who was forced to turn tail and flee back to France after being disgraced. And the other?

Gundulf the Bishop-Engineer.

Gundulf served three kings: William I, William Rufus and Henry I. And these days he is often acknowledged as the first ever King’s Engineer. The Royal Engineers Corps, based at nearby Chatham, are said to trace a line right back to Gundulf and his buildings, a thousand years ago.

Godly chap. Probably dressed in overalls head to toe.

I wonder if he ever found time for Holy Bling.


22 thoughts on “The Towers that Gundulf Built

  1. Wonderful pictures of the Tower and Rochester Castle. I haven’t visited either of them and I can say the same about nearly every “must see” site in England. On the other hand, I have quite a good portefolio of French sites which probably accounts for my move here. Since the move, however, I have not increased my portefolio by a single site. However, I have seen some interesting Italian places…….:)

  2. gundulf used his talents wisely, and is remembered in your great post, amen, as a wise man once said, the truly wise leave something for the next man, perhaps the tower was another project in the making

    1. And it has stood for so long! He did indeed use his talents wisely. And, I have no doubt, found great joy in finding the one thing at which he excelled, that for which he was made, and doing it beautifully. It’s the one thing I would wish for each of us.

  3. My vote is for Gundulf building that tower Kate, but what’s giving me a stage 3 head cramp is what were the parents thinking when they called one son, William, and the other, Odo? First guess: “We were hoping for a girl.”

    1. Ha! I had not calculated that angle, Virginia. They had some epic names back then. These guys were Norman, but the pre-Norman names take some beating. Especially the Viking ones. There’s Frothi, and Gorm, Odd and Snorri, to name but a few…

  4. Dear Kate, I wonder precisely how holy bling or sacred blang or hallowed bling-blang reveals itself?????? I wonder if the expert use of a talent/gift that causes awe in another is an example of holy bling? I’m just musing here over the sense of Oneness that comes to me when I stand before beauty. Peace.

    1. Bling is “expensive, ostentatious clothing and jewellery” according to the Oxford dictionary: holy comes up as “dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred”. So I guess holy bling is expensive, ostentatious clothing for a religious purpose. As I read your question I was looking at pictures of the man to be our new UK Catholic cardinal on the news. He wore a vivid purple skull cap, a shiny gold cape and about three rings. Take a look at his hat in this BBC picture!
      I rest my case 😀

      1. Dear Kate, yes, he certainly is into “holy bling.” But there so many members of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church seem to be. For so many years that Church was important to me and even today I’m hoping that Pope Francis will bring the curia and the Vatican back to the compassion of the Gospels. But there is so much that is shameful about the actions of many priests/bishops/cardinals that I wonder how long this pope–who thirsts and hungers to return the Church to its earliest commitment–will survive. Peace.

  5. If I read this correctly you spied the tower and then you puzzled for a while to get the information about the possible engineers? Don’t you just love that? I am continually finding temporary dead ends and then I have to dig for a while to discover the clues. I can completely understand how these little stories get under your skin. Incredible towers, Kate!

    1. They are, aren’t they, Debra? The clue collecting is addictive, isn’t it? And if you let a puzzle sit long enough you always find another piece to add to it. History is wonderful.

  6. I was going to comment on the possibility of engineers but can’t stop laughing from the comment above “Odo, what to do, it’s not a girl”

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