1996-Nov seminar

12th November 1996

Reading stones: interpretation of masonry works at Winchester, Canterbury and Salisbury cathedrals

Yoshio Kusaba, Chico State University, CA

Professor Kusaba presented the results of his research into how the evidence that is embedded in the stone fabric of a building can provide us with clues as to the history and sequencing of its design and construction. He used the cathedrals of Winchester, Canterbury, and Salisbury as examples.

The notes here are by John Wilkes.


Construction of the present Winchester cathedral was commenced in 1079. (See the chronology below for more information on dates.) It was first occupied as a church in 1093, by which time it appears that the original design had been altered to add corner towers to the terminals (ends) of the north and south transepts. Evidence for this includes:

  • Capitals of columns that have been partially hidden by the later addition of additional strengthening shafts.
  • Cut-back springers for arches that were either built and removed, or never finished.
  • Columns that no longer provide support for anything. (There is an example in the middle of the right hand wall in the accompanying image.)
  • A blocked-off arch that would have led into the top floor of the completed north-east tower.

Similarly, it is possible to see a disjunction in a stringer above the main side arch at the 3rd bay into the nave from the crossing. This probably marks the end of the building campaign that allowed the monks to move their worship from the Old Minster to the new church in 1093. The 2nd freestanding pier (which still has Romanesque columns) would have been necessary for the support of the crossing.

When the original crossing tower collapsed in 1107, the rebuilding over circa 1107-1110 was performed with a few stylistic changes that allow us to pinpoint the extent of the new construction, and the date of the building. For example:

  • the mortar joints in the pre-1107 work are relatively wide, while the later construction has much tighter joints;
  • tooling on the earlier pieces of stone is much coarser than on the later;
  • new ribs had to be installed in the transept bays nearest the crossing, and these have stylistic echoes of ribs in use elsewhere by this date (e.g., Durham's date from ~1093);
  • more decorated column capitals appear in the new work, including examples of the "Winchester acanthus" - which is similar to, although less exuberant or developed than the examples from Canterbury of ~1100;
  • although now hidden from view by a 15th century remodelling in the perpendicular style, there are still Romanesque details all the way down the nave, such as the shapes of the capitals and shafts above the vault.


  1. John Crook and Yoshio Kusaba. The transepts of Winchester cathedral: archeological evidence, problems of design, and sequence of construction. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians L(3):293-310, September 1991.
  2. Illustration comes from J. Britton Histories and antiquities of the see and cathedral church of Winchester, plate XII, London, 1817, reproduced in Crook and Kusaba [1991].


Winchester Cathedral (of the Holy Trinity, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Swithun) (llth and early 12th century only)

  • 1079 - work begun by Bishop Walkelin to replace the Anglo-Saxon Old Minster.
  • 1093, April 8 - construction advanced enough for the monks of St. Swithun's Priory to move from the Anglo-Saxon Minster to their new monastery.
  • The parts completed by April 8, 1093 include: crypt, choir (5 straight bays, ambulatory and aisles), crossing, transept arms (four bays with aisles carried all the way round) and the eastern bays of the nave (at least 2 to 3 bays; how far west the nave was constructed is a matter of conjecture).
  • Also completed by 1093 are monastic buildings, including at least the Chapter House and the east walk of the cloister.
  • 1107 - collapse of the crossing tower and the subsequent repairs.
  • ca. 1110 - introduction of rib vaults in the transept aisles adjacent to the crossing.
  • ca. 1120 - completion of the construction, including the total of 12 bays to the nave, its aisles, massive westwork (with walls at least 10' 4" thick), the cloister, and monastic buildings (the exact extent unknown).


(Images in this section are by Professor Kusaba.)

The discussion on Canterbury centered on how and when exposed flying buttresses first came to be used in the building by William of Sens. The study focussed on the choir and presbytery, which were built between 1177 and 1179 after the Romanesque church had been destroyed by fire in 1174. In Canterbury's case, we have a great deal of sequencing information from the account of Gervase of Canterbury - but relatively little detailed architectural data. (See the chronology below for more information on dates.)

On the south side of the choir [Fig 1], completed while William of Sens was still in charge, the triforium is roofed by a pointed tunnel vault, stiffened by pairs of rib-like bridges across the vault. It is roofed by a low-pitched, almost flat roof, through which the tops of solid, triangular buttresses that help carry the thrust of the central vault are visible. (Note: this is rather different from the traditional interpretation of the choir, due to Willis [1845], which showed flying buttresses where none exist.)

This transverse barrel vault suggests that William of Sens had been exposed to Notre Dame de Paris, which uses a similar scheme - not just the churches of northeastern France that he is more traditionally associated with.

The north side of the choir [Fig 2] is constructed rather differently: there is no vaulted roof over the triforium. Instead, the buttresses themselves are clearly visible over a rather more steeply-pitched roof. However, the first bay - and only the first bay - has remains of vault springers and changes in masonry courses. This is evidence that the plan had originally been to use the same scheme as in the south side of the choir, but that is was abandoned by the time it came to build the second bay - presumably after the winter of 1176-77. As soon as the need to support a vault was dropped, the transverse arches were made thinner (0.48m rather than 0.74m).

To obtain the required stiffness, and support for the clerestory and its vault, the design evolved to use buttresses with slightly curved top surfaces, but with the space below them filled in with soft tufa-like material [Fig 3]. These were constructed in 1177 - at the time when the gallery level of the choir at Notre Dame was being built, and construction on its nave staring.

The design of the presbytery takes the structure of the north-eastern choir buttresses one stage further by leaving out the infilling, thereby creating the first true flying buttresses in England, only a few years after their use in France. The first couple of bays retain the curved tops to the buttress arches that was used in the choir. These must have been designed by William of Sens: their abutments are an original part of the clerestory wall, and Gervase tells us that these two bays were completed up to vault height by 1179.

The later bays of the presbytery were completed by William the Englishman, who took over as master mason after William of Sens' fall from the scaffolding in 1178. He adjusted the design slightly to have straight tops to the buttress walls, but retained the same basic structure as in the first two bays [Fig 4].


  1. Yoshio Kusaba. Some observations on the early flying buttress and choir triforium of Canterbury cathedral. Gesta XXVIII/2:175-189, 1989. Published by the International Center of Medieval Art.
  2. Robert Willis. The architectural history of Canterbury Cathedral. London, 1845. (Cited from Kusaba 1989.)


Canterbury Cathedral (Cathedral Church of Christ) (l1th century and 1174-1184).

  • 1067 - Saxon Cathedral destroyed by fire.
  • 1070 - rebuilding undertaken by Archbishop Lanfranc (commonly referred to as Lanfranc's church).
  • 1096 to ca. 1100 - choir extension by Archbishop Anselm (known as Anselm's choir and also referred to by the prior's names Ernulf, 1096-1107, and Conrad, 1108-1126.
  • 1130 - dedication of the choir by Archbishop William of Corbeil.
  • 1174 - Anselm's choir destroyed by fire (as described by Gervase of Canterbury).
  • 1174-1179 - William of Sens's work in the choir and presbytery (i.e., the crossing and the first sexpartite bay east of it).
  • 1179 - fall of William of Sens from scaffolding, and subsequent return to France.
  • 1179-1184 - William the Englishman's work on the Trinity Chapel, its crypt and the Corona.


Professor Kusaba's work in Salisbury is still preliminary, so will not be described here in detail. It will appear in The Art Bulletin. He did point out that it will take issue with some of the conclusions in Blum [1991]. (See the chronology below for more information on dates.) The basic approach he is taking is to look at discontinuities (or their lack) in the masonry coursing. For example:

  • There is a "roll" detail just below a small bench that runs continuously along the walls of the interior except for the west wall, despite a 40 year period of construction. (It's continuity is such as to make it easy to detect when a later doorway was added.) Does its continuity imply that the building was constructed up to this level throughout? Unlikely - but it does at least imply that the design was all of one piece.
  • A similar detail travels the length of the exterior wall too - including the chapter house.
  • Changes in the coursing of the masonry (the use of one thick stone rather than two thinner ones, or the lack of continuity in the coursing levels) suggest breaks in construction: one at the eastern end of the NE transept; another in the western side of the north transept, and a third at the end of the second bay of the nave.
  • 1246 was marked by the arrival of a new bishop William of York, who seems to have brought a new master mason with him. The last construction break above may well represent the end of the building campaign of 1225-1246, and the start of the new, since the masonry courses are completely non-aligned here.


  1. Pamela Blum. The sequence of the building campaigns at Salisbury. The Art Bulletin, LXXIII(1):6-38, March, 1991.
  2. Thomas Cocke and Peter Kidson. Salisbury Cathedral: perspectives on the architectural history. Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. London: HMSO, 1993.


Note: Professor Kusaba's work in Salisbury is still preliminary, so, at his request not all of the dates he provided in his handout are included here.

Salisbury Cathedral (of the Blessed Virgin Mary) (1220-ca. 1260) (in part based on information supplied by Tim Tatton-Brown, archaeological consultant to Salisbury Cathedral)

  • 1079-move to Old Sarum from Sherborne (Dorset).
  • 1218, March 29 - Pope Honorius III issued authorization of the formal removal of the cathedral from Old Sarum to Salisbury (as recorded by William de Wanda, precenter and dean of Salisbury in 1220, in his Historia Translationis veteris ecclesiae Beatae Mariae Sarum ad Novam).
  • 1219, April 8 (Monday after Easter) - temporary wooden chapel of St. Thomas built, and cemetery dedicated on Trinity Sunday (June 2, or 8th Sunday after Easter, movable depending on the date of Easter Sunday). Cathedral plan with cloister and separate bell-tower) laid out on the ground, under Richard Poore (bishop 1217-1227), Elias de Dereham, `custos' of the fabric and Robert of Ely, master mason?
  • 1219, All Saints' Day (November 1) - actual move of the cathedral clergy to Salisbury.
  • 1220, April 28 - five main foundation stones laid, and many other stones added (for plinth and lowest ashlar courses?). Helias de Dereham, a canon of Salisbury was rector of the new fabric of the church for 25 years (1220-1245). Robert was the mason for 25 years, and Alice Bruer provided all the marble for his church for 12 years from Downshay Manor, Isle of Purbeck.
  • 1225, September 28 - three altars consecrated by bishop Richard Poore to the Holy Trinity and All Saints (the Lady Mass was to be said here daily), St. Peter and the Apostles (north), and St. Stephen and the martyrs (south).
  • 1248 - new Bishop, William of York (1246-56) allows cloister to be enlarged by one bay on south.
  • 1251, June 24 - 20 oaks from four forests (5 each), Melksham, Chippenham, Doiley and Finkley given for making 20 rafters (copulas).
  • 1252, April 29 - 10 oaks from Melksham and 10 oaks from Chippenham were given to Bishop William for building at his cathedral.
  • 1253, May 5 - 10 good oaks and 10 oaks each from Melksham and Chippenham forests. (These oaks from 1251 to 1253 are perhaps for trusses for the nave roof.)
  • 1258, September 30 - consecration of the cathedral.
  • 1261, 25 January and July 13 - 18 more oaks, fit for timber for the works given to Master Ralph of York, from Clarendon and the bishop of Winchester's wood at Downton. For chapter house and cloister roofs?
  • 1266, March 25 - cathedral finally said to be completed, after an expenditure of 42,000 marks (i.e., £28,000).