understand why you have to think a little about aesthetics and geometry. A group of arches that do not rise to the same height look somewhat peculiar aesthetically. That gives you a problem when you want to use arches with a semi-circular profile as the Normans did. If the archways are not the same width then the radii of the semi-circles will be different; the wider the arch the higher the arch. Nobody can know why the Norman masons built a tower of rectangular profile here but in doing so they presented themselves with the problem of having archways to the north and south that would perforce be lower than those to the east and west which would not be aesthetically pleasing at all. So, remarkably, at a time when the concept was almost unknown in Europe let alone England, they made the north and south arches pointed. This is one of the earliest uses of the pointed arch in England. It pre-dates by more than ten years the completion of the Cathedral of St Denis in Paris which is generally reckoned to be the world’s first gothic church. It leaves us to ponder whether the builders here decided to be daring in their design and then found they had a problem that they had not anticipated; or whether they already knew of the avant garde concept of pointed arches and decided to make use of it. Mediaeval masons were no fools. They would have had little knowledge of classical geometry but they understood its practical application in architecture. The masons at Devizes were surely pushing the boundaries quite deliberately. It is worth emphasising, en passant, that the ability to maintain the same heights of arches even when the widths varied was one of the most important benefits of the “invention” of the pointed arch.
The Norman chancel to the east of the crossing is gloriously intact. I say “chancel” but the Church Guide makes the distinction between chancel and “sanctuary” where the altar itself is placed. “Choir”, “chancel”, “sanctuary”, “presybtery”. Who knows the difference? Who actually cares? They put me in mind of Lord Palmerston’s remarks about the nineteenth century Scheswig-Hostein problem: (paraphrased) “Only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One is who is dead. The second became mad. The third one’s me and I’ve forgotten”! Anyway, to be fair the chancel space at Devizes does arguably have three spaces delineated by the roof vaults. One is the crossing under the tower. The second and third each have a has a quadripartite rib fault with undecorated roll mouldings. I can’t improve on Simon Jenkins’s description: “ ...tunnel-like, a stage set for a Norman drama of incense, hooded monks and drawn swords. Seen from the nave it is a forest of shafts, rising to a low rib vault. This frames the extraordinary east end, a riotous tableau of blind arcading, intersecting arches and zigzag carving...” Nice one, Simon!
Simon overlooks the fact that a significant amount of what we see is not original, however. The east window was removed the eighteenth century and replaced by a reredos. In 1843 the reredos was removed and the existing impressive neo-Norman triple window composition was inserted. Impressive yes; harmonious yes; but a little too elaborate and - of course - too finely cut to deceive for too long. Similarly, much of the lovely blind arcading had to be restored, the east end also sacrificed to the (probably horrid!) reredos. All of “the literature” is coy about the extent of this restoration although the “History of the County of Wiltshire (1975) suggests that none of the arcading on the east and south walls is original. By implication, then, the north side is original!
The transepts are also Norman. They have been marred by the insertion of gothic windows although traces of the originals are clearly to be seen. It is not possible to the detect the extent of the Norman chancel. What we have today is fifteenth century when the north and south porches were also added. The whole nave was close to collapse in 1862 at which point Sir Gilbert Scott replaced the pillars, extended the nave west by one bay and built a new west end.
The chapels that flank the chancel to north and south are respectively dedicated to the Lamb and Beauchamp (pron.”Beecham”) families and are late fifteenth century. The north chapel is now a vestry but the Beauchamp Chapel is a monument to the architectural changes that occurred over the three hundred and fifty years that separate it chronologically from the adjoining chance. Inside the chapel you can still see the Norman corbels that would once have been on the outside wall of the chancel. There is also a short run of corbels visible externally on the north east of the chancel. The tower must be one of the finest Norman towers left in the country, although it must concede supremacy to Castor in Cambs at least. Devizes is both lofty and has its Norman windows intact complete with original ornate pillars and spandrels.