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The Stonemasons and their World

Stoneleigh-in-Arden (Warwickshire)

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New Romsey (Kent)

Apethorpe (Northamptonshire)

East Shefford (Berkshire)

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Pennington (Cumbria)

Worth Matravers (Dorset)

Old Malton Priory (Yorkshire)

Ledsham (Yorkshire)

The Stonemasons and their World

Each church on this website owes its birth and development to the skills of stonemasons. Their work is ubiquitous. No single trade has left such an indelible mark on our landscape. Yet so little is known of the masons - who they were, what motivated them, how they lived their lives, how they acquired their skills. There are, as a matter of fact, quite a few books commercially available. I own most of them. They all suffer from the same inescapable shortcoming: they focus almost exclusively on the masons employed in the building of the cathedrals and great abbeys. They studiously avoid the subject of the humble parish mason for the simple reason that they know nothing about them! Whereas cathedrals and abbeys were managed by literate administrators who left record,, the parish churches mostly were not.

Sadly, by evading the topic completely they imply that the two groups of masons were of a kind. In terms of the challenges they might face and the skills they required that is largely true. That is largely where the similarities end. Think of a "white van driver" and then think of a Grand Prix racing driver. They have skills in common, Perhaps both think time is money! Both can drive a car. But then think of the differences in motivation, skills and what they are paid. That seems to me to be a good parallel when comparing the cathedral stonemason and the parish church stonemason.

Who Were They?

We know the names of precious few stonemasons and amongst that precious few you can probably count on one hand those who worked on parish churches. There were masons working on cathedrals whose names are preserved for posterity. One or two had reputations that spread throughout Europe. That's about it. Today, if you have that good old English surname "Mason" then you will know there was a stonemason somewhere in your family tree. The man would have had his "given" name - let's say Roger. To distinguish him from other men with the same name he would have been called "Roger Mason". Or else he might have been known by his home village or town. "Roger Ashby", for example.

Left: This roof boss at Canterbury Cathedral is believed to be the face of Henry Yevele (c.1320-1400). Probably England’s greatest and certainly most famous stonemason, he worked on Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, Canterbury Cathedral and numerous castles. Right: Possibly, “Ralf of Ryhall” stonemason at Ryhall Church, Rutland and others in the area, early fifteenth century.

Ralf of Ryhall
Yevelle

The Stonemasons Guild

Traditionally, skilled English craftsmen were governed by trade guilds. The classic progression through a trade was to be an apprentice for seven years during which time you received food and lodging and a tiny wage from your "master" until after seven years of training you became a "journeyman", a term we still use today in, perhaps, a less than complimentary way. Then after several more years you might hope to become a "master" of your craft once you had been vetted and examined by the master craftsmen within the guild. It was generally believed that this pertained to the stonemasons.

In 1933, however, two Professors from the University of Sheffield - Douglas Knoop and GP Jones - produced a work called "The Mediaeval Mason". Of course it is decades out of print and it seems to me that the majority of their work has been forgotten.

Amongst their many startling conclusions, Knoop and Jones, found that it was unlikely that a stonemasonry guild existed in England outside London until the sixteenth century. Of course, proving a negative is well-nigh impossible but K&J cited these reasons :

1. Guilds were town-based institutions that governed the trades within their towns. Masons were freemen as opposed to serfs. Studying the freemen rolls that still exist, they noticed the startling absence of masons. That, they felt was hardly surprising: the fact was that homes in mediaeval England were not made of stone. The only stone structure in a mediaeval town was likely to be the church. Masons could not make a living in a town. They had to follow the work and that legislated against belonging to a town-based guild.

2. The few extant records of payments to masons show great inconsistency in rates. Guilds, amongst their many other activities, standardised rates of pay.

London was, as is so often the case even today, the exception to the rule. In 1356 the famous Master Mason, Henry Yevelle, helped to draw up the rules of London's stonemasons guild. Of the cities, towns and villages of England, only London had need for a fixed masonic workforce.

The Lodge

In the absence of a guild, the institution that was important in the world of the stonemasons was the "Lodge". You will probably be familiar with this expression that defines the local meeting places of modern Freemasonry - of which more anon. Suffice to say at this stage that there was no connection between the lodge and Freemasonry in the mediaeval period. The word “freemason” had a much more functional and less romantic connotation.

The Lodge was a physical place on a building site in mediaeval times. One side would have been open to the elements and the lodge might have abutted one of the walls of the building. This Lodge would be the nerve centre of the operation and used for meeting, eating, planning and perhaps for fine carving work.

That physical building, also had a less obvious significance. When a Master Mason moved on he took his lodge with him. By that we don't mean the physical building but the organisation and culture of the Master Mason and those who worked with him. For a Master Mason continuity amongst his workforce would be a big advantage and it is safe to assume that he would be looking for his next job before that in hand was finished. Similarly, we might surmise that Master Masons were not averse to "tapping up" men on nearby sites where the Masters had not yet secured the next job.

This is mainly informed surmise because, unless I've missed it, nobody has studied or speculated what the working life of a mason might have looked like, as opposed to a single project; but my studies into the East Midlands School of Church Carvers were instructive in this regards. Firstly by identifying their very distinctive external carvings we can be confident that in this area at least there was a group of men, probably of shifting membership, that went from church to church in the early fifteenth century extending aisles and raising clerestories. I identified five distinct carvers.

Some of those churches were extremely close together: the distance between Lowesby and Tilton-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire, for example, would be an unchallenging country walk. It is obvious that the same men worked on the two sites and inconceivable that the work was not consecutive or even, just possibly, concurrent.

Even the carving of sub-parapet friezes at all - a very localised phenomenon - suggests a building culture at work amongst the masons, and very certainly amongst one or more Master Masons. Beyond that, however, and most telling of all, is the plethora of "trademark carvings"- notably the mooning man - that are surely products of what we would today call a corporate identity. That identity was surely forged in the closed world of the Lodge.

Recruitment and the Masonic Hierarchy

Lodge1

This drawing from the fifteenth century shows building work on the Abbey of Schonau in Germany. Top left you can see the quarry and a team of oxen is labouring to bring stone to the building site. A man carries a hod of stone up a rather dubious-looking ladderway, whilst stone is hoisted onto the tower top right. To the right you can see the lodge. It;s open to the elements and someone is working on a chunk of stone. Above the man’s head is the master mason’s set square.

What is odd about this picture is that the building seems to be very definitely Romanesque. Perhaps the masons were extending it. That would fit in with what was happening im England in the fifteenth century.

Knoop and Jones found no references in any records to "journeymen" and hardly any to "apprentices". This reinforces the notion of a guild-less trade. So what was the masonic hierarchy?

At the top of the tree, it hardly needs stating, was the Master Mason. He was a very big cheese indeed and would command the whole workforce, not just the stonemasons. On big projects he might have a Clerk of Works. Below him were masons of the ordinary sort. Straight away we are into problems.

In general the everyday masons were divided between  the "hewers" (or "cementarii") and the layers (or "cubitores"). The hewers shaped the stone and the layers set it in place. Hewers were paid around 20% more than layers. So far so good.

In many accounts, however, other terminology emerges. A “scappler” (or batrarii), for example, seems to have been a hewer of a somewhat more humble sort. They would use cruder tools – generally hammers and axes – to roughly shape the stones for their more skilled brethren to work upon. Unsurprisingly scapplers (isn’t that wonderfully onomatopoeic word?) were common in the quarries.

Then the terminology starts to change. The words “roughmason” and “freemason” start to make an appearance. As you would expect, perhaps, the freemasons were more skilled. “Freemason” is such a loaded word I shall discuss it separately.

The we get pavers (“pavours”), wallers (“muratorii”) and image makers (“imaginatores”).

What is very clear is that these terms often refer to the work that a man was performing on the site; not to some “grade” or position in a masonic hierarchy.

Then there were some very few apprentices. K&J came to understand by dint of their scarcity and the fact they were paid considerably more than ordinary masons that they were training not to be ordinary jobbing masons, but to be master masons. They already had mastered the basic masonry crafts. When you think about it, this all makes eminent sense. An apprentice was owed board and lodging. How would an ordinary mason be able to provide this in a craft that was by its very nature peripatetic? How could the ordinary mason afford it anyway? A journeyman tailor, for example, would have his own premises and his own customers and could make payments to an apprentice from his own income. An ordinary mason had no customers of his own. He was paid on a daily basis by the Master Mason or those that commissioned the building project. Those people had no interest in paying for trainees.

It seems likely that the trade was very much a family affair. The Master Mason would probably employ his sons or nephews as soon as they were old enough to handle a hammer and chisel. The ordinary mason might likewise try to  teach his own sons and nephews the basics as part of their upbringing in the hope they could find work as a hewer or layer.

Finally, another source of labour was the quarries. Quarrymen would understand the vagaries of stone and would understand how to cut it. Knoop and Jones found that the same man would sometimes appear on the payroll of the local quarry and then on that of a cathedral or castle. The same could happen in reverse. A stonemason, however skilled, would sometimes have to take work where he could get it. This would be particularly so after the great plagues of the fourteenth century. From then on, shortages of masons led to a significant outsourcing of work to the quarry. The Perpendicular style of architecture was significantly less flamboyant in parish churches and the making of, for example, window tracery in the quarries was no longer unthinkable.

Freemasons
The word “freemason” does not appear, according to Knoop and Jones, until 1376. That it does so quite late in the mediaeval period might have something to do with the advance of English at the expense of Latin (and French) in the world of commerce. I am not going to paraphrase Knoop and Jones, but quote them verbatim:

In its origin, the word “freemason” would undoubtedly seem connected with “freestone”, which is the name given to any fine-grained sandstone or limestone that can be freely worked in any direction and sawn with a toothed saw. Such stone can be undercut and lends itself therefore to the carving of leaves and flowers in relief for the purposes of decorating capitals and cornices, to the cutting of tracery and archmoulds, and to the carving of images and gargoyles. Further, it can dressed into practically any regular geometrical shape with a chisel and hammer and is consequently used for window frames, doorways and vaulting, even when no ornamentation is called for.

Thus the skilled worker in freestone would be both an artist in his capacity as carver, and a precision worker in his capacity as cutter of the very exact parts which, when assembled, produced, for example, a rose window or fan vaulting. The high class freemason had to not only to be an adept with the mallet and chisel and in the making of his own moulds or templets, but had to be an expert in the art of setting; if the carving was partly or wholly executed in the lodge before being placed in position it would obviously requite the most careful handling when being set, whilest the slightest slip or carelessness in the matter of too much or too little mortar in setting an elaborate window would destroy the symmetry, if it did not entirely spoil the work.

The skilled freemason, therefore, in many cases set his own work and would thus not only be an artistic carver and exact hewer of stone, but also an expert setter. Beneath these high class craftsmen of varying degrees of skill would be freemasons who were skilled in straight moulded work and freemasons who prepared ordinary square ashlar with a chisel. Straight moulded work and ordinary square ashlar were probably set by the layers (or roughmasons), though the freemasons were no doubt qualified to do the work.”

So we can see that the freemason was not defined by his “freedom” as many assume (all masons were equally free or otherwise) but by his ability to work in the finest stone that was used for the most decorative purposes. Nor was he defined by membership of some mystical “order” of masons with hierarchies, secrets and rituals such as characterise the modern (or, as they would prefer to see it, ancient) institution of Freemasonry.
 

The Master Mason

The published literature is prone to waxing lyrical at the near-mystical status of the Master Mason. By which, of course, they are referencing the Cathedral and Abbey masons again! These establishments would have a resident Master who would not only be very well-paid but would also be given living accommodation, robes and so on.

The masters who built our parish churches would not all have been of this ilk. They would have been well-paid, of course, and we might assume that their pay would have risen still further after their ranks were thinned by the fourteenth century plagues. Perhaps the greatest misconception, however, is that any of these wizards could pitch up and conjure a church from out of the ground.

In reality, as you read the pages on this website, you will understand that most churches developed over a few centuries. Many started life as simple two or three-celled Norman affairs. To be sure, there was nothing straightforward about the construction of, say, a Norman apse but it would be a mistake to look at a mediaeval church with nave, chancel, two aisles, clerestory and west tower and suppose it was all down to the genius of a single man. In reality, several Master Masons would have contributed to this structure over a considerable time.

I became particularly aware of this when researching the frieze carvings of the East Midlands. Time and again it seemed that the carvings had been added at a time when a church's aisles were being widened and its clerestory added. The men who carried out this work were not church builders per se: they were the equivalent of today's local building contractors who will happily provide you with an extension and loft conversion at a price!

We might surmise that all Master Masons were not equal except in the title they carried. Some will have been renowned and employed by the largest and best-endowed churches. Others will have taken work wherever they could find it. By the fourteenth century the number of surviving Master Masons who had ever built a church from scratch must have been vanishingly small.

Having knocked the parish church Master Mason off his pedestal to some extent, I must now redress the balance. The Master needed an extraordinary array of skills. Let us consider the modern architect. He or she will take a commission from a client and then sit down to prepare some designs, sometimes of stunning impracticality. He will consult his client, showing him artist's impressions, extensive diagrams and models. He will specify what materials are needed and will produce some blueprints. Then he will hand it all over to builders and craftsmen to do the work while he hopes for an award from his industry (do I sound a bit cynical here?).

The Master Mason had little in the way of drawing materials and no means to produce blueprints. His clients would often have been no better educated or any more literate than himself and would probably have little knowledge of what was possible and what was not. Having reached some kind of vague agreement the Master would make a contract with the client and then he would plan and manage the whole project. He would recruit his workforce. He would source the materials needed and arrange for their transport to the site at the appropriate time. He would communicate to his workforce what needed to be done (more of that anon) and make sure they did it. He would manage what we now call "human resources" and have the power to hire and fire. he would work to a budget. Increasingly, he will have been managing the whole project to a pre-agreed amount of money. He would manage his client's expectations in the face of misunderstandings, snags such as bad weather and disease, substandard materials and all the endless disputes with contractors. In short, all of the things that we know can go wrong with the building of a modern house!

Planning and Communicating

Think now of a world without pencils and paper and where most of the workforce was illiterate. How was a Master Mason to plan and how was he to communicate to his men?

Knoop & Jones uncovered evidence that one of the first tasks of the Master was to prepare templates made of wood or sheet metal. If he needed a cross section of a pillar, for example, he would make a template for his men to copy. Similarly for window tracery. Some of these templates still exist in the roof York Minster.

There were writing and drawing available but they were scarce and expensive. Also the plans for a church would call for an impracticably large canvas. The masons, then, were wont to draw in a box filled with sand or plaster. Again, at York Minster the "drawing floor" still exists.

John-Harveys-drawing-of-York-Minster-Masons-Loft-tracing-floor york templates
biglines

Left: Part of the drawing floor at York Minster. The lines inscribed in the plaster are very clear. Centre: A reproduction of lines on the drawing floor at York as created by the mediaevalist John Harvey. Right: Masons templates at York. The pictures to left and right have been reproduced from work by Vicky Sypsa found on the internet. I haven’t been able to trace her for permission to re-use her pictures. I hope she will forgive me!

The Skills

Where, you might ask, did the masons get their knowledge of geometry? To put things into perspective, the Oxford Geometry set I had as a twelve-year-old had something no mediaeval stonemason had: a protractor! He had no knowledge of pi, nor of trignometry. He managed with tee-square, a ruler, a homemade device to measure verticals and horizontals and a pair of compasses. In fact, he had no notion of geometry at all as we would know it. He simply knew how practically to make things work.

In his paper "The Education of Mediaeval Master Masons" Shelby points out that even the Grammar Schools of England provided no mathematical tuition whatsoever. They were "grammar schools" in a quite literal sense. Neither did universities provide such education, even supposing a mason could ever aspire to it.

It may sound prosaic but Shelby concluded that the skills of the mason were simply learnt on the job and that its corpus of knowledge was one that the craft had garnered through oral communication over centuries. It was once fashionable to suppose that there were "secrets" of the craft shared only by Master Masons. Perhaps this was fostered to some extent by the "degrees" and "mysteries" of modern Freemasonry. Shelby believes the contrary: that masons were only too glad to share their knowledge and even regarded it as a sacred duty. He had it that there was not one big secret in the craft but thousands. And they weren't secrets at all.

The geometry of the Master Mason owed nothing to Euclid or Pythagoras. To give some idea of what is meant here I will paraphrase an example from Shelby's paper. This methodology is from a treatise by the German, Matthaus Roriczer, in the late fifteenth century by which time the invention of the printing press was making the written dissemination of knowledge more practicable. Roriczer was describing how a mason might calculate the circumference of a circle which any of us could calculate in seconds using the formula 2πr. The commentary in italics is my own :

"Make three circles next to one another (Roriczer means of equal radius) and divide the diameter of the first circle in seven equal parts with the letters shown h: a: b: c: d: e: f: g.

"As far as it is from h to a set a point behind it and there put an i. Thereby, as far as it is from i to k, equally is the circular line  which stand next to each other..."

Let me paraphrase this. Three circles are drawn side by side, their centre points in a straight line and each with the radius of the circle whose circumference is to be calculated. The mason then draws a line through the centres of all three circles, end to end. Because there are three circles, if he were to measure the total diameter across all three circles end to end, he will have calculated 3*d or 21/7 *d.

But the circumference of a circle is πd and π as a fraction is 22/7, not 21/7. So when the mason adds to the length of his line through the three diameters an extension to the line equivalent to one-seventh of the diameter of one of the circles ("the line from a to k") he ends up with a line that is 22/7 * the diameter: that is 2πr, or if you prefer it πd.

The mason would never have heard of pi and would know nothing of the 2πr   formula. By using just his compasses and a ruler, however he was able to calculate the circumference of a circle. How ingenious is that? This is an example of what Shelby terms "Constructive Geometry". That is a very simple example. Rorizcer goes on to demonstrate, for example, how to design the cross section of a stone pinnacle simply by drawing three squares nested each within the other.

Finally, we all wonder at "what they could do then" without modern tools. This is understandable but we habitually underestimate our forefathers. In reality they had mastered the science of levers, pulleys, fulcrums and so on in at least the last three millennia BC, as the Pyramids of Egypt amply attest. Five thousand years is a very short period in the evolution of a species. Our forefathers did not lack our intelligence: they did lack the means to share their knowledge. Hence the importance of the oral tradition of the masons' craft.

Decorative Carving and the “Imaginator”

So far we have discussed the topic of structural construction: how the work was designed and how it was executed. When we visit churches, however, it is often the decorative work that impresses as much or more than the building itself. We might make a crude distinction between “architecture” and “art”, neither of which would have meant anything to a church mason.

This is not the place to discuss the problematical subject of how and why the artistic elements, if any, were decided upon. We can safely say, however, that few churches in the history of England were constructed with no decorative elements at all. Who did that work? The hewer? The layer? The master? All of those? None of them?

Let’s step back a thousand years and consider the Norman era. The Normans liked decoration. They liked to carve fantastic images on tympani, fonts, chancel arch capitals and corbel tables. The meaning of much of that imagery is totally impenetrable to us today. What is very obvious, however, is the remarkable differences in the quality of the execution. Take a look at the some of Norman fonts and tympani shown on my “Dawdle through Derbyshire page. Now look at, for example, the font at Eardisley in Herefordshire, the chancel arch capitals at Wakerley in Northants. It is like comparing a child’s doodles with Leonardo’s drawings! Corbel tables where carvings are numerous are, with few exceptions, quite crude and repetitious.

This tells us, I think, that some were executed by skilled decorative artists, probably of considerable renown, and some were hacked out by masons whose skills were primarily in construction work. If you want tiling done in your home you can employ a handyman or you can use a man who makes his living from laying tiles. We all instinctively know who is likely to do the better job, albeit perhaps at a higher price.

So I think the answer to my earlier question is likely to be “any of the above”! Decorative carving demands both the imagination to conceive the design and the manual skills to execute it well. It seems unlikely that any type of mason was precluded from a building role by an inability to do these things. On the other hand we might surmise that a man with those skills would be a
more attractive proposition to a master.

It is known from the few remaining records of mediaeval building work that there were men called “Ymaginators” who had exceptional expertise in decorative work and who could command a huge wage premium. We have to be very careful again because these records were mainly from abbeys and cathedrals. They had the money to pay for the best. Most of the work on our parish churches is under-valued artistically but we cannot compare the quality of the cornice friezes at Ryhall or Adderbury Churches, for example, with that of the “leaf” carvings in the chapter house at Southwell Minster. There is no evidence, however, that the Ymaginator role was a formal one within the masonic hierarchy. We do not know if they were peripatetic or whether they found long-term employment in great cathedrals but the latter seems much more likely.

It would seem likely that amongst the peripatetic masons’ lodges there might be one or men who could turn their hand to decorative carving. They would, it seems, have enjoyed the status of “freemason”. It is obvious that within the Demon Carver lodge there was generally more than one because most of the churches exhibit more than one quite distinctive style. On some churches this carving is in copious quantities but overall there is not enough and the quality is not high enough for us to seriously contemplate the possibility that they were executed by professional decorative carvers or “Ymaginators”.

Just as masons could move between the roles of hewer, layer and quarryman, however, it is not inconceivable that a mason could at times be employed primarily in a quasi-imaginator role. The mason I call “John Oakham” in my book had a quite remarkable output of carvings on as many of sixteen churches between Leicester in the west and the east Lincolnshire port of Boston. Some of those churches such as Grantham, Sleaford and Boston were rich ones and the quantity of carving was copious. Others, on the other hand, had few carvings. Those at Brant Broughton in Lincolnshire were works of considerable imagination. Those at Oakham itself and at Boston were distinguished by their quantity and not their quality. It is possible – even likely – that the man carved on chancel arches and Easter Sepulchres inside these churches and most of these are admirable. He certainly carved the rather odd font at Muston in Leicestershire where the similarities with his frieze carvings perhaps define the limitations of his imagination.

John Oakham’s work suggests that a mason could carve himself out a role (pun intended!) as a decorative freemason without ever being able to make a permanent career of it. I believe his skill (and possibly his speed) were generally recognised as an asset and that he was sometimes able to command a wage premium. At Brant Broughton and Heckington in Lincolnshire he may even have worked as a full time ymaginator. At other sites, such as Billingborough in Lincolnshire, his corpus of work was small in scale and mediocre in imagination and execution and I am sure that it was just a diversion from a role on that site as a hewer or layer. In general, with exceptions, his output did not demonstrate enough imagination for him to have been thought of as career “Ymaginator”!

The other, perhaps greater, revelations about the career of John Oakham its apparent longevity and the extent of his travels. He survived the hazards of the building site and of the plague sufficient to be have worked on at least fifteen churches – and it could have been more if we suppose that his decorative work was not always called for. Geographically his wanderings were not terribly ambitious to our eyes but John shows the extent to which a mason might have to travel in order to stay employed.

Pay

Knoop and Jones pointed to the lack of consistency in pay rates between sites and over the centuries. Indeed, this lack of consistency is one of their arguments against the notion that Stonemasons Guilds were widespread before the sixteenth century.

In general, hewers were paid more than layers but men were paid according to their skills and not just according to their line of work. Thus, at Caernarvon Castle in 1316, hewers were paid between 27d and 33d (old pence) per week, while layers were paid between 14d and 28d. The predominant rate was about 4d or 5d per day. Data on average wages in mediaeval times in notoriously unreliable but a "journeyman" mason seemed to earn a wage, as a rule of thumb, about double that of a labourer.

The Black Death led to a general increase in rates, despite the efforts of Richard II to peg wages by statute. Wages for ordinary masons rose to about 6d per day and were able to outstrip the price inflation that also followed the Plague. London, even then, enjoyed a wage premium. Some things never change!

There is ample evidence that daily rates sometimes - perhaps always - varied between seasons. This simply reflected the hours of daylight available for work. Masons were generally expected to work from dawn until near sunset. They would get an hour for "dinner" and probably a quarter of an hour in the afternoon for "drinking".

When we evaluate masons' wages we need to be aware of the many Saint's days and holy days that might be observed. The number would generally be between twenty and thirty. There was no hard and fast convention as to whether the masons would be paid for this down time but Knoop and Jones felt it would be very much the exception. Wages on royal works were sometimes marginally higher but by no means was this always so. What does seem to be the case if that the wages paid for royal projects were less responsive to market forces. This is hardly surprising: as we shall see, if the King couldn't find enough masons he had them pressed into his service!

Some masons on big royal projects were occasionally provided with lodging, but I think we have to assume that would not pertain to jobbing masons.

In all of this you will note that hourly rates and annual "salaries" as we know  today were unknown in the mediaeval masonry trade.

There is ample evidence that in the later mediaeval period it was quite common to sub-contract a whole project to a master mason. I would go as far as to say, intuitively, that this was the norm where parish church alterations were concerned. It seems inconceivable that the parish would wish to be concerned with the minutiae of, for example, procuring and transporting stone. The master was paid a contract price by the patron and got on with the whole job. Knoop and Jones do not speculate on how this might have changed the pay and conditions of the lesser masons.

Hazards

The incidence of injury and death on building sites in mediaeval times would probably have been horrific by modern standards. Hard hats, goggles and reinforced toe caps were not part of the wardrobe of a mediaeval mason. Yet, nor were they when I was a child! And how many of us have those wonderful photographs of American building workers casually seated on girders eating their lunch with the streets of New York several hundred feet below? They were mainly "Native Americans", by the way. So the health and safety rules demanded by we softies of the twenty-first century are a very recent phenomenon. It is said that Ceucescu's monumental folly the People's Palace in Bucharest cost three thousand lives or one a day. So we need, perhaps, to keep some sense of perspective.

We can't know how many were killed and maimed in the building of churches. We can assume, however, that these incidents were not taken lightly. Without making a political point, that sort of carelessness seems to have been the historic monopoly of royal and state projects where one dead man was easily replaced by another. Death and injury affected the master mason directly and we must suppose that a master mason who was careless of his men's safety would not have the pick of the masonic workforce.

All that said, there were hazards that would have been peculiar to the masons. How many hewers and quarrymen, for example, were blinded by flying stone chips? How much microscopic stone dust was retained in the lungs? The preparation of lead for roofs is known to have produced toxic fumes that must have killed plumbers and caused collateral damage to others in the workforce.

Commonsense tells us that even on the best-regulated mediaeval sites the incidence of death and injury would be catastrophic by modern standards. Falling masonry, slipping off barrow runs, falling from towers; these things must have happened with only the most primitive and painful surgical remedies available.
 Never forget, however, that the biggest perils had nothing to do with building safety: disease and starvation at a time when the average life expectancy was under forty years of age. These would have been the preoccupations of the masons. Few masons were likely to have lived long enough to die of lung disease or the long term effects of lead fumes. Of course they cared about safety but it would hardly be surprising if they were much more sanguine about the dangers than we would believe possible. That, gentle reader, is still the reality of much of the world we live in today.

Impressment

If you thought that the Royal Navy invented the notion of "pressing" men for service during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, then think again. Throughout mediaeval times monarchs could and did impress stonemasons into work on the royal projects. Knoop and Jones - in a separate paper - found a remarkably close correlation between the amount of royal building projects and the numbers of orders for the  impressment of masons. As you might expect, the peak of impressment was during the Plague-blighted second half of the fourteenth century. In 1361 alone Knopp & Jones found evidence of no fewer than thirty four such orders. There were one hundred and thirteen in the four years 1360-3. Yet in the first decade of the fifteenth there were only two in total.

Certainly in the churches of my own part of the East Midlands this is very revealing data. The work described in my book "Demon Carvers and Mooing Men" seemed to have been carried out in the last part of the fourteenth and early years of the fifteenth centuries. Even outside this corpus of churches one sees again and again churches that acquired widened aisles and clerestories during these decades. There are several circumstances likely to have contributed to this; but it is impossible not to believe that there were decades of demand suppressed by the lack of availability of masons due to Plague and impressment.

The majority of royal work was in London which explains why masons were far more likely to be impressed in counties close to the city. Their wages and expenses were met during travel to the project. Count Sherriffs were often given quotas to meet from their counties. And in case you were wondering, impressment meant just that: there was no escape!

Impressment was almost invariably for royal projects. Only the Crown could create an order for impressment. Occasionally, it seems, the Crown might do so for the benefit of a non-royal project seen as particularly desirable but this was very rare.

Who Paid the Piper?

It is an enduring myth that churches were and are built by “The Church”! As any modern vicar or member of the Parish Church Council will tell you, The Church gives little and takes a very great deal.

Most churches you visit today will be the legacy of patrons and the parish itself. In Anglo-Saxon times a ceorl who wished to become a thegn might enhance his chances by building a church or two. Effectively they remained the property of the patron who would allow the locals to worship there. In Norman times, again, the builders or expanders of churches would be the Norman aristocracy.

That pattern changed little until the feudal system gradually broke down after the Plague of 1348. Former serfs were able to become prosperous either on the land or as tradesmen. Ordinary people of the parish could now individually or collectively bankroll improvements to their local churches and it seems that they were remarkably generous. Perhaps they valued their “immortal souls” as highly as did the aristocrats. If the local worthy financed a chantry chapel for his family in the south aisle, so might the parishioners fund a Lady Chapel in the north aisle. Increasingly the local worthy might now be a rich wool merchant rather a knight or an earl. Indeed, the word “wool church” is used today to denote a church - often of improbably scale and lavishness - that was enriched by those engaged in the sheep trade.

This pattern has continued over the ages and is still with us – except that the landed gentry are no longer, perhaps, willing to support their local church financially. The Reformation put paid to any notion of seeing a return on their investment in terms of the health of their immortal souls! Now it is the parish that finds the wherewithal to keep the rain out and the walls standing! After, that is, they have paid their “share” to the diocese!

The exception to this pattern was the monasteries. They, in particular, owed their foundation to endowments of the uber-rich. As time went on they were able to acquire even greater wealth from the scandalous (to our modern eyes) practice of extorting money from pilgrims to shrines housing holy relics of provenance that varied on a continuum from the extremely dubious to the downright dishonest!

In a practice that – again – we would find dubious today, monasteries were gifted parish churches either by their founders or, latterly, by the Pope! Parish churches came with entitlements to tithes and so the monastery would acquire these with the church. Sometimes in the early days the monastery might set out about improving the church. The pattern that emerged was that the Church (the Monastery) would pay for the upkeep of the chancel and the parish would pay for the upkeep of the nave.

This whole system fell into disrepute in the century before the Reformation. Monasteries found that funds from rich patrons dried up, not least because the monastic establishments became bloated and declined morally. Moreover, funds were just as well invested in chantry chapels that gave more direct benfit. Their remedy to an imbalance between income and expenditure was all too often to seek to acquire churches and their tithes. They would often keep most of the income and replace the resident priest with a monastic “rector” who may or may or not give a fig for the welfare of the parish. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was primarily a money-raising scheme of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell as popular fiction and TV is only too glad to inform us. Sadly, however, many of the monasteries got their just desserts. Even amongst the pious population, the Monasteries had fallen into disrepute. The supposedly cosseted monks were compared unfavourably with the orders of mendicant friars whose members had assumed the old monastic mantle of simple piety in the service of the community.

Finally, the post-Reformation period was a disaster for the fabric of the English parish church. Henry VIII, although a Catholic until the day he died, was forever in his role of Head of the Church in England messing about with the new-fangled state religion. The distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy became increasingly arcane and the common man or woman hardly knew what it was safe to believe from one day to the next. Henry’s son Edward VI turned the country into a Protestant one and, as most of you will know, England was in a state of religious turmoil for another two centuries or so with kings and queens (and Oliver Cromwell) shifting religion first one way then the other. Kings fell for the merest suspicion of Catholic sympathies. Men were prepared to blow up King and Parliament to restore “The One True Church”. Statues, rood screens and chantry chapels were amongst the visible casualties of these religious quicksands.

In this febrile atmosphere, is it surprising that both aristocracy and parish were reluctant to invest in their churches? What was orthodox today could be heresy tomorrow. Being a benefactor to a church made your allegiance all too obvious. Better to lie low. If yours was a Roman Catholic family you would hardly want to support the newly-Protestantised parish church and just receiving the sacraments in private might condemn you. If you were a Protestant family Mary I would have terrified you, James I would have worried you, Charles I would have made you distinctly nervous, the Commonwealth period would have unsettled you and James II would have had you sharpening your sword! 

It was not until the days of Queen Victoria that the country felt secure enough in its beliefs to put significant money into the parish church again. By then it was often a case of saving a church from a state of rack and ruin. The man (it was almost always a man – don’t blame me!) who funded things would now be one of the industrial nouveau riche who fancied a bit of posterity for himself and his family. Many of the old families had quietly remained Roman Catholics. They retreated to their estate chapels and left the parish churches to the plebs and the new money.

The era also marked a change in the whole model of church building. If you were to peruse the pages of Pevsner you will often see the name of the “builder” or rebuilder of a Victorian church. The master mason was no longer the designer. We now had “architects” who would hand the plans over to a construction company who would do the work. Ironically we still don’t know the names of Victorian master masons any more than we do those of their mediaeval counterparts. The names of men like Gilbert Scott however, will be preserved for posterity – whether the work was sublime or, as was too often the case, an abomination!

Mason’s Marks

Mason’s marks can often be seen in churches. On a piece of stone that mark identified the mason so that the master mason could keep track of who was responsible for what. I think it is important that we understand that they are unlikely to have been of use once they had been laid in the church. Quality control would be of little use at that point in proceedings. My belief is that they were checked before they were laid within the church and that the mark identified the hewer of that stone and not the layer. Imagine a building site. One can only surmise that the layers of the stone were not there waiting around for each stone to be cut. It is far more likely that they were drawing on a supply of stone already prepared by the hewers. Mason’s marks would allow any rejected stone to be traced back to the culprit before it was laid.

Mason’s marks can create quite a lot of excitement in Church Guides. I suppose this is inevitable since they are taken to be the “signatures” of the masons within a church. Some point to the same mark being seen in a church nearby and see it as evidence that a single mason served at both.

There is a problem with this notion. A big problem. How many thousands of masons must have worked in English parish churches over the centuries? How could all of these men have chosen individual personalised marks safe in the knowledge that a mason just down the road was not using the same one? The modern signature that uses combinations of names (or initials), sizes of script, flourishes and a thousand other distinguishing factors could not be condensed down into a few hurried strokes of a hammer and chisel!

Almost certainly the master mason at any given site allocated these marks for the duration of the project. The marks were re-used again and again. It is certainly possible that within a peripatetic lodge a mason could keep his mark for some time but when the time came to move elsewhere that mark might well be lost to him if another was already using it on his new site.

Summary

Everything in this article (and heavily influenced by Knoop & Jones and Lon Shelby) points to the mediaeval stonemason working in a craft where the hierarchy was fluid, the training unsystematic, the availability of work uncertain. With masters increasingly becoming contractors – and needing capital to do so - we might see here a trade that is surprisingly in tune with the employment environment in England today.

The masons were unique also (along, it must be said, with the other building tradesmen such as carpenters and smiths) in their relative rootlessness and in the liability to be ordered to London or elsewhere at the command of the King.

It seems then that it was prosaic trade in many ways. Of course, its output was anything but prosaic but notions of trade “secrets” and rituals seem wide of the mark.

Amongst all of this information unearthed by the tireless Knoop and Jones we still struggle to piece together a comprehensive view of the life of a stonemason. They could not even speculate how much of a mason’s life might be spent in alternative employment or unemployment. We have no idea how well they lived and how well they ate. It was a trade that was perhaps more than most subject to the vagaries of the economy.
 

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