History of stonemasonry

Three different masons marks can be seen in the stonework of the Chapter House of Fountains Abbey.

The medieval stonemason was usually a countryman, as very few stone buildings were built in the towns and cities, where most houses were built of timber. He was also a wage earner; at a time when most craftsmen were selling a product he was selling his labour. These two facts are often cited as possible reasons why masons did not form guilds until in 1356, considerably later than most of the other guilds.

There was in Saxon England almost no tradition of building in stone, and few of the wooden structures from this time have survived. Following the Norman Conquest the many building projects the invaders initiated would necessarily have been directed by master masons from the Continent. We know the names of a few of them, such as William of Sens who was appointed to oversee the rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral following a disastrous fire in 1174. He had previously been Master of Works at Saint-Etienne de Sens. Although he is remembered now for his work on Canterbury Cathedral, among his contemporaries he was renowned for his skill as a cutter of stone and for his knowledge of carpentry. He is also said to have devised a faster and more efficient method for loading and unloading boats. Given the paucity of roads in that era, water transport was vitally important. This shows something of the range of skills required of a Master Mason of that era. However the use of French masons was a matter of choice rather than policy, for when William of Sens was incapacitated by a fall from a scaffold he was replaced by William the Englishman.

From the beginning of the craft in England, the rough and unskilled work was done by Englishmen, who with time and practice learnt the trade and eventually became skilled and capable craftsmen. Most of the training took place in the quarries, where much of the stone was finished, at least partially, before being transported to the building site. As this happened, unskilled workers rose to positions of responsibility. It is possible to trace the careers of several men as they were promoted from the quarries to work on the actual buildings as layers or setters.

If the medieval mason was working on a project for the king he was probably a "pressed man". Such was the scale and extent of the building work of the period that there was usually a shortage of craftsmen. In these situations the crown used its prerogatives to impress the men that were needed. The Sheriff of each county was instructed to select a certain number of masons and other tradesmen and send them to particular building operations. About 140 were impressed in this way to work at Westminster in 1253, Beaumaris Castle employed 400 pressed masons in 1295, whilst at the same time the builders of Caernarfon Castle were trying to get hold of another 100 men.

When William of Wykeham used the Crown's authority to recruit men to work on Windsor Castle in 1359, he was said to have impressed nearly every mason and carpenter in England so that there were no good craftsmen available for other work. This was probably the largest assembly of masons there had ever been in England. John of Sponlee in Gloucestershire was the Master Mason and Robert of Gloucester the Warden of the masons, so the code of practice would probably have been based on that in the west of England. When all these men dispersed they would have carried away both the further skills they had acquired and a knowledge of the mason's customs in most areas of England. We should not think of the medieval mason as being parochial.

Some 9000 parish churches, abbeys, monasteries and cathedrals were built in England during the Middle Ages. The "disease of building" as it was called began in Europe after 1000 AD, out of relief that the world had not ended, and continued until the decades after the Black Death in 1348.

If it was suitable, local stone was used. In Northern France and the South of England including London they largely used a material called freestone. This is a form of limestone which is quite soft and easy to work when it is first quarried and then hardens with time and exposure to air. The men who worked the freestone were often called Freestone Masons. The earliest known use of the name Freemason was in 1376 in London. Four men were chosen to represent the city's builders on the Common Council of Trade. They were originally listed as Freemasons although the word is then crossed out and replaced with simply Mason.

-- Wiki

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