Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alan of Walsingham
ALAN of Walsingham (d. 1364?), a celebrated architect, is first heard of in 1314 as a junior monk at Ely, distinguished by his skill in goldsmith's work, and for his acquaintance with the principles of mechanics. He afterwards turned his attention to the study of architecture, and in 1321, when subprior of his convent, designed and began to build the beautiful St. Mary's Chapel (now Trinity Church) attached to the cathedral. At the same time he was engaged in the erection of Prior Cranden's chapel, the new sacristy, and many minor works.
In December 1321, he was elected sacristan, with sole charge of the fabric of the cathedral.
In February 1322, the great central tower of the cathedral fell, and carried with it the choir and other attached portions of the structure. Instead of rebuilding the four piers which carried the square Norman tower—a weak point in cathedral construction from that day to this—Alan advanced the supports, to the extent of one bay, into each arm of the cross; and by so doing he not only distributed the weight upon eight piers instead of four, but obtained a magnificent central octagonal hall, which he roofed with a dome surmounted by a lofty lantern.
The result was not only supremely beautiful, but in every sense original. It is almost certain that Alan never travelled beyond the limits of his convent, and that he was not acquainted, except perhaps from hearsay, with the domed churches of the East, whose principles of construction, moreover, differ essentially from those employed by Alan. His work remains to this day unique amongst the cathedrals of Europe. He subsequently rebuilt the bays of the choir which had been ruined by the fall of the great tower, and these are admittedly amongst the most beautiful examples of ‘Decorated’ or ‘Second Pointed’ English Gothic.
In 1341 Alan was elected prior of his convent, and in 1344 to the bishopric of Ely, rendered vacant by the death of Simon de Montacute; and it would appear from the epitaph given in Dugdale that at this date Alan, as might have been supposed, ceased to hold the office of sacristan. He was then bishop-elect, and the works connected with the fabric of the cathedral had been conducted to a successful termination, leaving for his successor only the decorations and fittings.
His election to the vacant throne was, however, set aside by the pope in favour of Thomas L'Isle, a Dominican friar, who was at Avignon with the pope at the time.
A similar honour was destined for Alan in 1361; but the choice of the convent was again overruled, and Simon Langham, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury and cardinal, was consecrated bishop of Ely in his stead.
The possessions of the convent were said to have increased under his wise and capable administration. The date of his death is somewhat uncertain, but it is believed to have taken place in or about the year 1364.
[Dugdale's Monasticon, ed. 1817, i. 468; Thos. Walsingham, Hist. Anglicana, Rolls Ser., ii. 104; Wharton's Anglia Sacra, i. 684; MS. Cotton, Tit. A. 1.]