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A Thousand Years of History
Medieval Cathedrals as Time Machines


Report of the lecture given by Jon Cannon
on November 28th 2012


Winchester Cathedral



Our speaker today was Jon Cannon, an architectural historian and university lecturer with an in-depth knowledge of the history and development of the great European religious buildings.

A bishop's church houses a bishop's seat, known as a 'Cathedra'. Hence a bishop's church is called a Cathedral.

In the years following the Norman Invasion of 1066 every bishop's church in England developed in stages in a massive rebuilding exercise.

Lincoln Cathedral was for several years the largest building in Europe.

The older Romanesque style of building with round arches was superseded by the Gothic arches, having a pointed top, following their development in northern France in the middle of the 12th century. This Gothic construction was stronger and lighter and could be built taller. It allowed much more light into the buildings.

Estimated overall architectural activity at the English cathedrals
(Church building only)

1060  1100                 1200                                                                       1540

The rebuilding program for the cathedrals is illustrated in the graph opposite. The cost of the work was mainly borne by the bishop's estates and also by donors seeking some favour in the afterlife. The construction time was dependant to an extent upon the flow of finance.

The new cathedrals were not only about the might of God but also the power of the invaders. By 1090 every major settlement in the country became a building site. Norwich obliterated its market place houses and churches which were replaced by a castle and a cathedral - twin examples of the invaders might.


The naked mermaid at Exeter

Most cathedrals formed the life centre of vast agricultural estates which provided living for the local communities.

The design and building works were in the hands of the master mason who was the medieval equivalent of today’s architect. Most
of the masons started their working lives in one of the quarries where blocks were cut and prepared to the master mason’s exact requirements. The blocks of stone had to be cut from natural layers of variable quality as found in the quarry. This minimised the transport requirements to the building site.

The cathedrals were rebuilt or extended many times over the centuries. At Canterbury, England's mother church, we know almost every stage.


There were many skills displayed by individual masons who developed by moving from one project to another until they were sufficiently knowledgeable to become masters and take on projects of their own. These men were highly paid and became rich and respected in their society.


Jon gave us an intriguing insight into the art involved in the decoration of buildings with stone carvings and pictures and the many tombs and memorials. This altar screen is from Winchester and illustrates the amazing detail in the stone carvings of statues and their surrounds.






In many cases cathedral art emphasises the power of the bishops. Here, on the 12th century font at Winchester, bishop-saint Nicholas performs an act of charity outside his cathedral.




Jon concluded his talk by referring to his recently published book upon the great English cathedrals. This is a well laid out and sumptuously illustrated volume. An excellent, if bulky, guide to future visits to our English cities.

Several members took the opportunity to purchase a copy.


Frank Illston



Jon Cannon