SPIRE (O. Eng. spir, a blade of grass, and so anything tapering to a point), the architectural term (Fr. fleche, Ital. guglia, Ger.
spilze) given to the lofty roofs in stone or wood covered with lead or slate, which crown the towers of cathedrals, churches, etc. In their origin, as in the church of Thaon in Normandy, they were four-sided roofs of slight elevation, but soon began to be features of great importance, becoming lofty pyramids generally of octagonal form, and equal in height sometimes to the towers themselves. The junction, however, of an octagonal spire and a square tower involved a distinct architectural problem, and its solutions in English, French and German spires are of infinite variety. One of the earliest treatments is that of the south-west tower of Chartres Cathedral, where, on the four projecting angles are lofty spire lights which, with others on the four faces and the octagonal spire itself, form a fine composition; at the abbey of St Denis the spire light at each angle was carried on three columns which filled better the threecornered space at the angles and gave greater lightness to the structure; long vertical slits in the spire lights and the spire increased this effect, leading eventually to the introduction of tracery throughout the spire; the ultimate results of this we see in the lace-work spires of Strassburg, Antwerp, St Stephen's at Vienna, Freiberg, Ulm and other examples, which in some cases must be looked upon as the tours de force of the masons employed. In England the spires were far less pretentious but of greater variety of form. The spire of the cathedral at Oxford (1220) is perhaps the earliest example; it is of comparatively low elevation, of octagonal form with marked entasis, and is decorated with spire lights on each face and pinnacled turrets at the angles. Those which are peculiar to England are the broach-spires, in which the four angles of the tower are covered with a stone roof which penetrates the central, octagonal spire. In the best examples the spire comes down on the tower with dripping eaves, and is carried on a corbel table, of which the finest solution is St Mary's at Stamford. The angles of the octagonal spire have a projecting moulding which is stopped by a head just above the corbel table, and at the top of the broach is a small niche with a figure in it; the spire lights are in three stages alternately in the front and diagonal faces. At St Mary, Kelton, and St Nicholas, Walcot, are similar designs. Seen, however, on the diagonal, the void space at the angles of these broach-spires is noticeable, so that an octagonal pinnacle was erected, of which the earliest example is that of the cathedral at Oxford, where the broach was of very low pitch. Of later date St Mary's, Wollaston, All Saints, Leighton Buzzard, and St Mary's, Witney, are good examples. As a rule the broach penetrates the octagonal spire about onesixth or one-seventh up its height, but there is one instance in St Nicholas, Cotsmere, in Rutlandshire, where it rises nearly half the way up the octagonal spire. When the parapet or battlement (the latter being purely decorative) took the place of the dripping eaves, the broach disappeared, and octagonal turrets occupy the corners, as in St Peter's at Kettering and Oundle, Northamptonshire, and in All Saints, Stamford, Lincolnshire. The next combination perhaps followed from this; in order to connect the angle tower or pinnacle with the spire, a flying buttress was thrown across, thus filling the gap between them; of this St James's, at Louth, in Lincolnshire, may be taken as a fine type; it belongs to the Perpendicular period and is further enriched with crockets up each angle of the spire; the same is found in St Mary's, Whittlesea, Cambridgeshire. At St Michael's, Coventry, the lower part of the octagonal spire is made vertical with a battlemented cresting round it. In St Patrick's, Partington, Yorkshire, the lower part of the spire, which otherwise is plain, is enclosed with an open gallery like the cresting of a crown. Sometimes the upper storey of the tower is made octagonal, and is set back so as to allow of a passage round with parapet or battlement, as at St Mary's, Bloxham, St Peter and St Paul, Seton, and St Mary, Castlegate, York. The most important groupings are those which surmount the towers of the English cathedrals; at Lichfield square turrets of large size with richly crocketed pinnacles; at Peterborough, a peculiar but not happy arrangement where a lofty spire covers over the buttress between angle turret and spire; and at Salisbury an octagonal pinnacle at the angle and a triangular spire light against the spire. The happiest combination of all, however, is perhaps the spire of St Mary's, Oxford, with three ranges of angle niche-groups set one behind the other, forming with the centre spire a magnificent cluster of spires; the niche gables and pinnacles are all enriched with crockets and the ball flower in the arch mouldings.
Reference has already been made to two of the French spires, at Chartres and St Denis; there is nothing like the diversity of design in France, however, when compared with those in England, and there are but few on the crossing of nave and transept; the towers were built to receive them, as at Amiens, Reims and Beauvais, but for some reason not carried above the roof, possibly from some doubt as to the expediency of raising stone lanterns and spires of great weight on the four piers of the crossing; on the other hand their places were taken by constructions in timber covered with lead, of immense height and fine design. There was a 13th-century fleche on the crossing of Notre-Dame, Paris, taken down soon after the beginning of the 1pth century, of which the existing example by Viollet- leDuc is a copy. The same fate befell that over the Sainte Chapelle, Paris, being reconstructed about 1850 by Lassus. The fleche at Amiens, though of late date (c. 1500), is still in good preservation and is a remarkable work; above the ridges of the roofs of nave and transept, and octagonal in plan, are two stages, the upper one set back to allow of a passage round, and, above the cresting of the latter, a lofty octagonal spire with spire lights at the base on each side, crockets up the angles, and other decorations in the lead work with which it is covered. Including the vane, from the ridge of roof the height is 182 ft. Of timber fleches covered with slates there are many examples in the north of France, those at Orbais (Marne) and the abbey at Eu (Seine Inferieure) being the best known. Returning to stone spires, those on the west front of St Stephen's, Caen (Abbaye-aux-Hommes) , are good examples with lofty octagonal turrets and pinnacles at west angle and spire light between, and among others are those of St Pierre at Caen, Senlis, Coutances, Bayeux, and many others in Calvados, and at Soissons, Noyon and Laon in Picardy. One of the most beautiful spires in France, though of late date, is that of the north-west tower to Chartres Cathedral. In the south of France, in the Charente and Perigord, the stone spire takes quite another form, being of much less height, of convex form, and studded with small scales, giving somewhat the appearance of a pine cone, with small pinnacles also with scales, and carried on a group of shafts at the angles of the tower. The west tower of Angouleme Cathedral, the central towers of Saintes Le Palud, and Plassac in the Charente, and the tower of St Front, Perigueux, and Brantome in Perigord, have all spires of this kind, of which a small example crowns the Lanterne des Morts at Cellefrouin. The German towers are generally covered with roofs only, of varied form, but at Ulm, Strassburg, Freiburg and Cologne is a remarkable series of traceried spires in stone, of great elaboration and showing great masonic ability, but wanting in repose and solidarity, and the same applies to the spire at Antwerp. In Spain there are not many examples of note, the spire at Burgos suggesting in its outline and want of height the influence of the Perigordian spires, and that at Salamanca the influence of those in the north of France.
Looking upon the spire as the crowning feature of a tower, those of the Renaissance period must be included here, though as a compromise they are often termed " steeples." Of these the finest and most varied are those by Wren in London, among which that of Bow Church and St Bride's, Fleet Street, are the best known, the former with two stages of lanterns with detached columns round, and the latter octagonal on plan with five stages, set one behind the other, with arches in centre of each face and pilasters at the angles. St Antholin, now destroyed, was the only example based on a Gothic prototype; it consisted of an octagonal spire with Renaissance spire lights and angle finials resting on the upper octagonal storeys of the tower. St Margaret Pattens somewhat resembles it, but the tower has a balustrade round and the angle pinnacles are in the form of obelisks, a favourite Renaissance interpretation of the Gothic finial, which is found in other churches, as in those of St Martins-in-the-Fields by Gibbs and St Giles-in-the-Fields by Flitcroft. Hawksmoor apparently based his spire of St George's, Bloomsbury, which consists of a series of lofty steps, and is crowned with a statue of George I., on that of the mausoleum at Halicarnassus. In France, Italy and Spain, lanterns usually terminate the towers. The spire of the Seo at Saragossa in design somewhat resembles those of Wren, being one of the few examples worth noting. (R. P. S.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)