First Published in 1950
By Bernard E Jones
Past Assistant Grand Director of Ceremonies
The Saxons, on becoming Christians, built some churches, usually if not always of wood, but the Venerable Bede tells of the building of stone churches in the county of Durham about 680, this being regarded as the starting-point of the history of architecture in England. There were stone churches at York, Ripon, and Hexham late in the seventh century.
Saxon church builders went back to the Temple of King Solomon for some of their ideas, the buildings being preserved and ornamented by the use of plates of precious metals, and in particular of bronze. (Centuries later Glastonbury had its church of wood covered inside with plates of gold and silver, and outside with plates of lead.)
Until late in the seventh century there were few English buildings that were not of wood and thatch, and not until about the year 1000 did English architecture evolve into anything very definite – a sturdy form of Romanesque, having over – thick walls and columns and semi-circular arches-but something better was to develop before the Conquest. Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great, late in the ninth century, and Canute, a few generations later, visited Rome, and it is more than likely that they were influential in bringing to England foreign craftsmen; masons may have come from Germany, Burgundy, and France, and carvers from Italy. Says one writer with great truth, “The world was surprisingly small in those days, notwithstanding the difficulty of travelling.”
The work of the builder suffered a setback in the tenth century owing to a general belief among Christians of the day that the world was to come to an end in the year 1000. Before the Conquest there was in England a style which we may call the Anglo-Saxon or pre-Conquest-Romanesque, and even after the Conquest, for some years, churches were being built in that style.
Norman masons occasionally worked on English churches during the pre-Conquest period, and it should be remembered that it was probably easier to travel from Normandy to England than to make any long journey by road in England itself.
Following the year 1000 an enormous number of churches and monasteries began to be built in Italy, France, and England. Canute, coming to the throne in 1017, restored the monasteries and built churches, his work being carried on by Edward the Confessor, who started the building of Westminster Abbey, not completed until after the Conquest.
The Norman masons were more skilled than the Saxons, but had no thorough grasp of constructional principles. The thickness of the masonry joint tells the story of one age or style succeeding another. In England and Northern France the joint is wide and badly made in eleventh century work, but there is a great improvement in the following century. The early Norman masons apparently knew very little of the use of the sculptor’s chisel, and did their decorative cutting with an axe; as the cutting grew deeper the chisel was used.
William the Conqueror
The coming of William the Conqueror, and with him of great numbers of Norman churchmen and skilled operatives, led to a most astonishing increase in the building of churches, unparalleled in number in any similar period in any other country. The existing Saxon churches were rebuilt under the auspices of Norman ecclesiastics. For example, Canterbury Cathedral, started by a Saxon king, had much of the work razed to the ground and rebuilt in the period 1096-1110.
The use of the freestone of Caen, Normandy, was one of the causes of Normandy’s leading the revival of building in the eleventh century, it being easier to send stone from France to riverside towns in England than to send it by road through France, and often easier to get sea-borne Caen stone at English cathedral sites than horse-drawn stone from English quarries. When we call ourselves freemasons we may be harking back over all the centuries to the importation and use of French freestone.