The Middle Ages, starting with the Normans, produced a crop of Romanesque and Gothic Master Builders. They built cathedrals, parish churches, city walls, gates and castles in a property boom not seen in Europe since the Romans. Their names are little known today and don’t tend to trip off the tongue like those of Christopher Wren, Inigo Jones or Hawksmore, but their designs achieve landmark status. Often these buildings are admired. Sometimes sadly they are not, even by those closest to them who cannot recognise what they see when they step out of their own front door.
One of the greatest of these Master Builders was paid wages on a par with a Premier League footballer today. He was Master James of St George 1230-1309, brought to England from Savoy by Edward I in a move to defeat the Welsh. A castle builder of genius, he was supported by a cast of thousands, comprising diggers from the Fens, master carpenters and stone masons. Not only did the castles have to be built, these men had to be housed, fed, paid and protected. All in the middle of a bitter guerrilla war.
Harlech Castle was completed in six years, Rhuddlan Castle within four. Beaumaris Castle was his last. In all he built ten castles in Wales. Often he oversaw the construction of a string of castles, all at the same time. Modern contractors would be hard put to rival this feat today on even one of them.
Canterbury too, boasted Master Builders to rival him. Henry Yevele 1320-1400 and John Wastell 1460-1515 came to work on Canterbury Cathedral. Wastell, the inventor of fan vaulting and the architect of Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, designed and built Bell Harry Tower. When it was half way up the Pope made Archbishop Morton, of Morton’s Fork fame, a Cardinal. To celebrate this Wastell was instructed to double the height. It’s difficult to know what the planners would have made of this today or any modern contractor faced with such a task.
Yevele, fresh from his triumph at Westminster Abbey, where he redesigned the nave and cloister, came to Canterbury a century earlier, to redesign the nave of the cathedral in a completely new Perpendicular style, inventing Gothic Architecture as he did so. He also designed the south cloister. Archbishop Sudbury commissioned Yevele to build a new fortified gate, completed in 1378, to control the entrance into the city. Sudbury, a powerful man, had introduced the Poll Tax. That made him extremely unpopular. In the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, which it provoked, he was seized by rebels in the Tower of London, as Watt Tyler negotiated with the young King Richard II. His head was cut off and stuck on a pike over London Bridge.
After Sudbury’s death, Canterbury was enclosed by Yevele’s city walls in 1385. They were dangerous times. Today 636 years after it was built, Westgate Towers is marooned by traffic, like Eros was once in Piccadilly Circus. When a scheme was first floated for pedestrianizing the road in front of the National Gallery there was an outcry from taxi drivers that they would have nowhere to stop and would be driven out of business. Once there were equally loud and successful cries for the demolition of Hardwick’s magnificent Euston Arch. Today, as even louder cries come for more traffic to pour through the opening in Henry Yevele’s masterpiece, one of the greatest city gates in Europe although you would be hard put to recognise that in the columns of the Kentish Gazette, we should perhaps pause and question. What irreversible damage is that traffic doing to the stone work? Why does no one question whether this is a fit and proper way to treat a Gothic masterpiece by a Master Builder?
January 11th 2014