John E. Vigar MA, FSA Scot., FRSA

Crenels and Merlons

Battlements have been a feature of British architecture for over a thousand years.  Many of our iconic buildings feature them as an integral part of their design. Where would our medieval castles be without them – or our church towers? Yet for such a common architectural feature it is amazing how little they have been studied or the vast spread of their influence mapped.

The medieval use of battlements, of course, was firmly grounded in defence. The crenels –the gaps – and the merlons – the uprights – were first employed to create safe places from which to fire on your attackers.  Very soon, though, they became a status symbol and only those on good terms with the Crown were allowed to put them on their houses.

Medieval churches also embraced the fashion and the later in history the more decorative and less defensive they become. The pierced battlements of Gloucester Cathedral, for instance, could never be regarded as defensive.

Throughout that period of history we call the gothic survival – the late Tudor and Stuart period when tradition fought against the Renaissance – battlements were still being used as if to maintain a link with the past. It is no wonder then that when the Gothick style became fashionable the long established battlements came into their own and were used on thousands of new buildings both functional and decorative. Landscaped gardens, too,  used them with abandon but they also found a place in the landscape of the industrial revolution – on a Glaswegian factory!

This lecture looks at the chronology of battlements and explores a selection of buildings both famous and obscure to tell the story of this traditional and quirky feature.

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