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What follows is a letter from the Master Mason, ( Master of the work ), Robert of Beverley, written to his brother Gilbert, Scrivener and Notary to the Bishop of Aix-en-Provence.

My Dear Gilbert,

My heart is warm within me this summer evening.  I have finished my task of building the Choir, the Crossing and the Transepts of this Cathedral Priory or Minister (Monasterium), at Edgeley in the Archdiocese of York. Tomorrow I leave for London to join the household of one of the King’s Master Masons.

I have come far since I left the Abbey school at Citeaux to so plague the quarrymen with my questions and importunities, that he found me a place among his stones. You who should have become a Knight-at-Arms never recovered from your accident, and found your life work among books and documents, deeds and chronicles.

I who was always in love with stones, with what they could do to man, and what man could do to them, remained five years with the quarryman, asking questions and dreaming dreams. He was a good Master and taught me well. Thirty years ago I found myself in England, and made my way to the Cathedral at Litchfield where the south transept was being repaired.  From a rough mason I was soon passed to finer work – for I know my craft.  I was made free of a band of English freemasons and received into their fellowship; I was made privy to their secrets.  Soon I was no longer Robert of Burgundy, but Robert of Beverley.

I was still a questioner, still reaching out beyond the present task.  And so at last to Westminster  where Henry III was rebuilding the Abbey.  The Master Mason was an Englishman, Robert de Freyns, his assistant was John of Gloucester.  When John of Gloucester succeeded Robert de Freyns, he chose me as his assistant, and at the close of the work I was myself the Master Mason.

From there the King sent me to Edgeley  to build a Cathedral priory dedicated to St. Wilfred who had been the Patron Saint of the old Saxon Diocese, vacant since the conquest. But the manors, lands, endowments and other revenues of the See were maintained by the King’s officers.  The King himself, whoever he may have been down the years, applied the revenues to his own uses.  It has been quite customary for the Kings of England to allow Sees  - particularly if  they be rich - to stay vacant, and themselves to enjoy the revenues.  The Saxon church at Edgeley was fallen into ruins, the Saxon monks scattered, and the Abbey buildings rebuilt and occupied by a Cistercian foundation from Fountain Abbey.

There would have been no change had not the King’s sacrilege put him under an obligation to the Pope.  And so I was to build a Cathedral for them both with the Cistercian Abbot of Edgeley as my superior.  The Abbot was full of friendship to me, as he was humble in himself, and did not complain that he should have been deprived of his natural birthright to the bishopric.

The Abbey is deep in the countryside, and the common people have been moved, or have moved themselves, towards the coast, where a new harbour for wool ships is to be made.    My building is close to the people and some miles from the Abbey.  The country is rich and fertile, with many sheep and cattle and with well tended crops.  The Abbey lands are a picture of good husbandry.

My first task was to choose a site, with room for buildings, with water, clay, wood and stone ready to hand.  Anxious days followed for me and for my assistants, Geoffrey and Ralph.  There were days of bargaining with land owners and their tenants for rights of way back to the Abbey, to the quarry, and to the nearest high road.  At last all this was settled.  The King’s forester granted us leave to cut down so many oaks, and his verderer allowed us to take so many deer each quarter, for we had to have timber and we had to have food.  Had we not had the King’s own writ in our hands things would have gone much less smoothly.

The matter of the timber was the most difficult for us - no one had needed to be reminded of Bishop Wakelyn of Winchester, to whom the King had granted as much timber “as his men could cut down in four days and four nights.” Wakelyn summoned ‘an innumerable troop of carpenters” who  in the time allowed cleared the whole forest.  The King’s anger was hardly to be appeased.

In all these matters the Abbot was behind me with help and with advice.  He had in hand a generous amount of money from the King - a token of the King’s contrition.  The revenues of the Diocese were to be paid to the Abbot so we had money to spend.  The Abbot also sent me twenty Lay Brothers.  The Cistercian lay brothers are untonsured, they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  They do all the outside work of the abbey and possess many skills.  They are excused the stricter usages and customs of the Order.  I put these twenty to work in making shelter for myself and my assistants, and for our gear.

Two of them I put in charge of the pack train which brought our food each day from the Abbey. The other eighteen lay brothers I talked with one by one, drawing from each his particular skills and experiences.  I had carpenters, smiths, and masons and also an infirmarer, I found one lay brother whose hobby had been carving wood.  Him I put carefully aside and saw that his hands remained protected.

And now came my master quarryman, Simon of Norwich, my master smith, Hugh of York, and my master carpenter, Alexander who had been with me at Westminster. Simon approved of the quarry, and of the red sandstone.  He immediately clamored for a wooden lodge at the quarry and I set the carpenters and lay brothers to fell the chosen trees and to prepare the beams and planks. The Abbot had engaged charcoal burners  and lime burners from the forest and the smith had ways and means of getting coals and iron from York.

Freemasons and rough masons, smiths and carpenters came looking for work, many of them with their own tools.  They guarded these tools jealously  and there were many arguments.  In a few weeks the whole force was settled in.  The stone was being cleared of overburden, the smith had set up his smithy and anvil under shelter; the carpenters and their assistants were busy with the timber and with buildings; the gardeners were planting a garden.

And then I called together my assistants and my master workmen and we walked over to where the church was to be built. The Abbot was with us, and together we dedicated ourselves, and the building we were to make, to God and St. Wilfrid.  As we stood in the spring sunshine I unfolded for the first time my plans for the church. Here was to be the High Altar, here the square end (after our Cistercian style),  of the Apse or Choir;  here the crossing and there the transepts; and away to the west the great nave yet to be built.  As I walked and talked, dug my heels into the turf, pointed with my finger or held out my arms as if in wide embrace, I lost myself in visions of wall and window, arch and pillar, almost feeling the hand of the Great Architect upon my shoulder. When I ceased the silent company broke into a gale of  talk, the Abbot came to me, took me by the hand and led me away, leaving the others to their high argument. And so the cathedral was born.

There was plenty to be done.  I had marked out the High Altar, and as the Saint’s day was coming near we prepared to set the axis of the church. Accordingly on the morning of St. Wilfrid’s Day I stood with a pole at the centre point of the High Altar, Ralph and Geoffrey stood before and behind me - and as the sun rose we set our poles so that each year when the sun rose on the Saint’s Day it’s rays should shine directly down the line of the church.

Simon, the quarryman, and Hugh, the smith worked well together; it needed to be so, for each depended on the other. They soon sorted out the craftsmen, or fellows, from the rough smiths and rough masons.

Freemasons already had some loose countrywide organisation.  They moved freely about the country; and when word of a new building was in the air they collected their tools and singly, or in bands, made their way to the site.  Freemasons, fellows, craftsmen, they were called; they had means of identifying themselves as fully trained, to myself and my assistants, to the quarrymen and to one another.  They brought learners with them, younger brothers, sons, friends, who in due course would qualify as fellow freemasons.  Other helpers came to us from nearby farms, some looking to learn a trade - mistery - they called it, from our French mestier, a trade or calling.  Some sought a by-occupation only for the sake of the wages, being allowed to go to their plots of land at tilling, planting and harvest.

I remembered my own career, and I was determined that we should be a company of teachers and taught. Those who wanted to learn, those who asked questions should be drawn out; those who had higher skills should be ready to teach. The motto of the Cistercian Order is Laborare est Orare’: “To labour is to pray.”  I worked them all hard, lay brothers and workmen.

Simon, Hugh, and Alexander, quarryman, smith and carpenter were of a like mind. Not so all the workmen, but in these six years we did fashion some master tradesmen and even some future masters of the work.  My assistants, Ralph and Geoffrey will very soon be masters in their own right.

Not everything went smoothly; there were spring floods and fallen stacks of timber; iron and stone took their toll of skin, muscle, and sometimes bone.  Not everyone was sweet tempered all the time, there were many fights, especially when food was short.  We kept few feast or holy days, but when we did the Abbot or Monk came to us and as many as wished gathered to have read to them he stories from the Book, of Adam and the Garden, of Noah and his Ark, of the Tower of Babble, of Solomon and his Temple, of the child Jesus and his Mother, and many others.

Winter was coming and we feared for the road to the quarry.  All work stopped while we strengthened  the soft places. From early morning until it was too dark to see we brought brushwood and fallen branches to make fascines , and pounded broken stone into the ruts made by the Ox-wagons .   By weekend we had a reasonably all-weather road.   The quarrymen saw that stone was stored in his lodge to keep the freemasons working during the winter.  Sleeping quarters were strengthened  and enlarged.  Later, when building had got under way, straw was to be brought to cover the unfinished work or materials, channels were to be dug to turn aside surface water.

In the meantime the site had been cleared and leveled and the lines pegged out;  there were poles and markers everywhere.  Some workmen went home each winter to take their wages to their families, to cultivate their plots of land, and sow and plant for the coming year.

The first winter passed and when the spring came we started to work on the foundations.  I was determined that these foundations should be firm and deep.  I had seen more than enough walls and roofs collapse because of faulty foundations.  In one church I used to hear this prayer  “And, dear Lord, support our roof this night, that it may in no wyse  fall upon us and styfle us.  Amen.”

Year succeeded year, and we built in the New English Style ( how far off the Norman churches seemed, and how little of them remained ); we spoke and wrote English.  Saxon, Norman, Frenchmen of whatever descent, all rejoiced in their Englishry.  Our King,  Henry III, carried in his veins the blood of two Henry’s, The Conqueror, Athelstan and Alfred.

We lost some workmen, we gained others, always we kept the best.  As the timber for the interior work was seasoned, I set my carver lay brother to make and ornament the choir stall and to build and carve the Bishop’s stall.  The High Altar was fashioned, and the shrine of St. Wilfrid.  The Abbot, dear soul that he was, gave us what Saintly relics he possessed and so let us make a place for pilgrimages.

The freemasons were my special care, for I was a fellow and brother to them all.  They had adopted a learned lay brother and drew from not him only the principles of Arithmetic and Geometry, but stories of Euclid and of the Egyptians, of Athelstan and his love for the mason craft.  These and more of the history  and legends of the craft he wrote down for then, also usages and customs, articles and points for the government of their fellowship.  The freemasons who could write copied for themselves and for the others, so that over the five years  they had a good store of charges.

In the third year we overspent our money and the King had gone to Aquitane.  So our good Abbot and his secretary ambled on their pads up and down the cathedral parish seeking revenue.  Some Lords and Knights gave out of thanksgiving, some out of penitence, some out of fear for their souls hereafter.  One wealthy Baron endowed the Lady chapel, for which I had made space in one of the bays of the choir.  Several paid for a chantry, a mass recited at an altar for the well-being of the founder during his lifetime  and for the repose of his soul  after his death.  The endowment of a perpetual chantry usually took the form of lands, tenements, rents and other possessions. And so the work went on.

Nearly four years passed before the walls of the quire were as high as a man could work.  The designs were drawn for the windows, ( in the New English Lancet pattern ), and for the vaulting. Now we needed the carpenters, and much timber for the scaffolding, for false-work between the  pillars to support the arches, and for form-work to support the vaulting, so that all should be ready for a burst of building the next spring.  We had laid in a store of Alder and Poplar trees.

That fifth year was our hardest year, with no rest for the masons, smiths or carpenters. The lay brothers said their offices and prayers as they worked.  My assistants Geoffrey and Ralph, and I sat far into the night, drawing on our tracing boards.  Geoffrey worked with the freestone carvers, planning, designing, giving each that for which his hand was most cunning.  Ralph did the same for the carvers of wood. These carvers had set up a lodge close by the work, and worked through the winter.  All exposed work was thatched against the frosts by trusses of straw.  A regular watch was set up because the country people would steal stones, mortar, wood or tools, as they did at York Minster, to the disgrace of the master mason and the Chapter.

And now we were ready to marry the vaulting with the stone roof ;  to clear the floor; to set in place the shrine of St. Wilfrid and the High Altar. Geoffrey rode away to bring back the painters and glaziers.  Ralph set our best wood carver to make the Bishop’s chair.  He saw that the rows of choir stalls were put in place, and closed off the choir with the rood screen.  The transept towers were finished, and strengthened against the day when the Nave should be built. The gap between the ends of the West walls of the transepts was filled in and a great wooden door made through which the new Bishop should enter upon his See.

My dear brother, you must be tired of all this gossip, and gossip it is, written partly to tell you  what sort of a life I have lived, partly to go over and set firmly in my mind memories of these past six years. I can truly say that I have worked well, by the help of God, and the support of a loyal band of artificers and craftsmen.

On Corpus Christi Day when the last of the clearing up was being done, but the workmen had not gone away, the freemasons made a pageant at the high end of a meadow against a wood. There they played their own mistery play.  I had never heard of this play in the south of England.  I was told that a squire  had brought back the story from the Holy Land.  The story spoke of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, so the squire said.

The workmen, the lay brothers, the country people, gathered before the pageant. King Solomon came on to the pageant, dressed in all his glory, paint, fur feathers, coloured cloths. He called for his master mason. This player had been made so like me that for a moment my breath stopped. The same clothes, the same crooked gait, (three times that leg had been broken ),  the same restless hands. There was a howl of recognition from the crowd, then a tempest of laughter and cheering. Solomon handed a scroll to his master mason and left the stage.  Three outlaws  from the wood came on to the stage, demanded the scroll, were refused, and after much mummery and violence, they laid the master dead – struck by one of his own instruments.  As you may imagine, the crowd jeered, hissed, and booed.  The body was immediately discovered by the craftsmen, Solomon summoned, and a hue and cry ordered.  Noise and shouting from the crowd  followed the freemasons as they rushed into the wood.  Presently they returned with the three ruffians whom the King ordered to be thrust into Hell, which had opened on one side of the pageant, complete with demons and pitch forks. The dead master mason was carried reverently away and the play was over.  The play was over, but not quite, for I found myself taken up onto the pageant,  and presented to the throng, which was  cheering and weeping at the same time.  King Solomon presented me with the scroll, the Abbot appeared, and we all knelt to receive his benediction.

The scroll was a letter of gratitude and affection, signed by the dear Abbot, the lay brothers, the master craftsmen, and all on the fabric roll.  It is beside me as I write and my eyes fill with an old man’s ready tears of pride and satisfaction.

 

Robert of Beverley
Master Mason & Master of the work
Cathedral Priory of St. Wilfrid, Edgeley.
Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Anno Domini 1272