Tag Archives: Romsey Abbey

The Medieval Mason

 

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Interior Wall, Romsey Abbey

 

Stone buildings and stonemasons went together in the Middle Ages. It took skill and ingenuity to produce beautiful buildings, many of which have stood for centuries. It also took planning and the use of sophisticated lifting equipment.

Stone was an expensive material to use, even if it was quarried locally, and it needed skilled men to cut and shape it.

Different groups of men worked with the stone needed for a castle, a cathedral or a church. The stone had to be quarried first. Quarrymen were not masons. Their job was simply to get the stone for the masons to work on out of the ground. Usually, local stone was used, but occasionally stone could travel long distances, even from other countries. For Winchester Castle, for example, stone was brought from Selborne (18 miles away), the Isle of Wight (30 miles, but half of them on water), Haslebury (70 miles) and Caen (across the Channel in France). Transport costs, as well as the quality of the stone, meant that stone brought from far away was very expensive.

There were different classes of masons and the first two were the rough masons and the freemasons. The rough masons were unskilled and made the rubble walls, which were often used where neither strength nor appearance was considered important. Rubble was a low grade of stone, which could not be cut or shaped. Sometimes rubble walls were dressed so that an inner core of rubble was covered with smoothly-cut and close-fitting stones. This photograph shows a rubble interior.

 

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Arrow Slit, Arundel Tower, Southampton

 

Freemasons could cut freestone to make squared blocks (ashlars) or complex shapes. The interior and exterior walls of Romsey Abbey pictured at the top of the post and below are made of cut stone. The freemasons put the stones in place and carved the decorative parts of a building. Freemasons earned more than rough masons, but they were not at the top of the chain.

 

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Exterior Wall, Romsey Abbey

 

The master mason was in overall charge of the building site. He was the designer, engineer and contractor. He was the man employed by the patron to be responsible for all the building work. There would be a contract between the master mason and the patron which set out what the master mason was to build and how much he would be paid for doing so. He designed the building and took on all the men he needed to get the job done. He was paid by the patron and he, in turn, paid all the other men employed on the building site.

Some patrons wanted more of a say in the design than others and some master masons seem to have reused design elements from one building to another. They might even have been employed specifically to incorporate something that they had done elsewhere and that the patron liked.

Designs for decorative work were illustrated on a tracing floor. This was a plaster-covered surface on the ground onto which the master mason could trace the full-size design. From this he made a wooden template for the freemason to use as a pattern.

The masons worked in a lodge – a wooden structure on the building site that provided some shelter while they worked on the stone. It was also a place for them to eat and rest.

The cut stones were heavy. At ground level they could be moved on wooden rollers, but getting them to the tops of ever-growing walls required more ingenuity. A pulley was used to lift stones. Usually, this was done with the help of one or more men inside a treadmill. A hand winch could be used for small blocks of stone.

Most buildings were designed using squares and circles. The master mason used simple geometry to work out the proportions with a compass and a square. He did not necessarily need to understand the mathematics behind his design.

The working season was usually from the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas (2nd February), to All Saints Day (1st November). At the end of the season the work was covered, often with straw, to protect it from the elements until the next season. Work stopped before temperatures fell below freezing, as the mortar was useless once it had frozen.

Medieval building techniques can be seen at the archaeological project at Guédelon, where a castle is being built using techniques from the thirteenth century. The DVD Secrets of the Castle, which was filmed there, shows these techniques.

 

 

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The Abbey at Romsey

 

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Romsey Abbey

 

Towards the end of last year I wrote about the wall paintings at Romsey Abbey without really mentioning any of the other things contained in the abbey or the history of the abbey. I visited Romsey in October as part of my research for Beloved Besieged, since part of the story takes place there.

Romsey is a small town on the River Test, twelve miles south-west of Winchester. The abbey stands in the centre of the town and was a convent for over 500 years.

The abbey has a very long history, being founded at the end of the tenth century by Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great. The first building was probably made of wood, which was the norm for Saxon churches. The abbey was refounded in the middle of the tenth century and the nuns adopted the Rule of St Benedict.

Ethelflaeda became abbess in 996. She was canonised and is one of the patron saints of the abbey. This thirteenth century tomb is in her eponymous chapel, as is the fifteenth century painting of a priest.

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Thirteenth century tomb in St Ethelflaeda’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey

 

 

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Painting in St Ethelflaeda’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey

 

The abbey has two Saxon roods. A rood is a crucifix, usually life-sized.  One rood is inside, in a chapel, and the other is on an exterior wall.

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Interior Rood, Romsey Abbey

 

 

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Exterior Rood, Romsey Abbey

 

Romsey Abbey has housed some famous women including Matilda, later wife of Henry I and mother of Empress Matilda. She was educated in the abbey at the end of the eleventh century. Mary de Blois, daughter of King Stephen, against whom Empress Matilda fought a civil war, was abbess in the middle of the twelfth century. Mary was kidnapped from the abbey and forced to marry when she became Countess of Boulogne in her own right. This caused a scandal and the marriage was eventually annulled, although not until she had borne her kidnapper two children. After the annulment, Mary entered another convent, where she remained for the rest of her life.

The Vikings burned the abbey in the 990s. Fortunately, the nuns had received a warning and were able to escape. The Normans started to replace the Saxon church in the 1120s. Throughout its early history the abbey was rebuilt and extended several times.

The nuns lived in buildings south of the church, but nothing is left of them today. There were normally about one hundred nuns in the abbey, but it must have varied considerably over the years. In 1327 the bishop of Winchester wrote to the abbess to say that no more women could be admitted without his permission, as there were too many of them. It’s not known how many women were in the abbey at the time, but it must have been significantly more than one hundred.

Like many monasteries and convents, the abbey was badly hit by the Black Death in 1348/9. By the time the plague had run its course, only nineteen nuns remained alive. Their numbers never really recovered, providing sufficient cause to dissolve the abbey in 1539.

The nuns of Romsey always had a reputation for lax behaviour.They travelled as much as they could, thus flouting the Rule, which said that a nun should not leave the convent once she had been admitted to it.  The nuns also dressed extravagantly. Like monks, they were supposed to wear simple clothes. Two nuns were even excommunicated in the fourteenth century, although it’s not known what they had done to merit this.

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Fifteenth century reredos, St Lawrence’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey

 

This last photograph doesn’t have anything to do with the abbey. These are just some swans who were also enjoying the late autumn sun on the River Test a short walk from the abbey.

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Wall paintings at Romsey Abbey

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On a recent visit to Romsey Abbey I was reminded once again of how wrong my view of life in the Middle Ages is. When I went into the abbey I saw that the walls were just grey stone and it’s easy to assume that they’re unchanged since the church was built in the twelfth century, but that’s not the case.

Most churches would have had a depiction of the Last Judgement painted on a wall that could easily be seen. This would have shown Christ enthroned deciding who went to Heaven and who went to Hell. Hell would be shown as a dreadful place, and the demons leading the damned souls into it usually had sharp teeth and claws with which they tormented their victims. Heaven would be full of light, and the blessed would be led there by beautiful angels. This was supposed to make the parishioners consider their eventual fate.

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Wall painting in the Chapel of St Mary, Romsey Abbey

 

This wall painting is from the Chapel of St Mary in the abbey and is thought to represent the life of St Nicholas. It is from the late thirteenth century. Nicholas lived at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth centuries. He was made bishop of Myra and is said to have been one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed in 325. The colours are faded now and it’s hard to imagine how bright the whole church must have been when all the walls, columns and ceilings had just been painted. A church was considered unfinished until the painting was complete.

Not all wall paintings were there for instruction. Sometimes decoration was just decoration. The ribbed vault and the pillar shown below were painted just because all the stone in the church was covered in plaster and then painted. The effect of all the colour on top of the size of the building itself would have struck those inside it with awe. Although wealthy people decorated their own homes in a similar way, frequently with secular as well as religious images, poor people did not. Their homes would have been dull and drab. For them, coming into the abbey would have been a very different experience from their everyday life.

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Painted ribbed vault, Romsey Abbey

 

Paintings were almost constantly being updated as tastes changed or a new patron took over a church. They were not considered permanent.

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Painted pillar, Romsey Abbey

 

In England the paintings were whitewashed over during the Reformation, but most were destroyed by the Victorians. Instead of exposing the pictures by removing the whitewash, they preferred to expose the stone by removing the plaster onto which the paintings had been painted. This was, of course, very far from the intentions of the medieval builders, who had gone to great lengths to cover over the stone, which was no more than the skeleton of the church, even when it had been beautifully cut and dressed.

 

 

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