Summer exhibition at the Cathedral: a look at constructing a Cathedral

In August, Worcester Cathedral hosted an exhibition all about its construction through the ages, from its first incarnation in Anglo Saxon times right up until today. The first iteration of the Cathedral was started in 680 as a church dedicated to St Peter, with a church dedicated to St. Mary being built a few centuries later when St Oswald of Worcester founded the monastery. The Cathedral as we know it was started in 1084 by Bishop Wulfstan.

The Library holds a wealth of  books and archive material relating to the construction of the Cathedral and also to building and engineering more generally. The earliest example in printed form appears in the Library’s oldest printed book, Rudimentum Noviciorum, from 1475. It contains a hand-coloured woodcut depicting how earth was gathered to make mortar, as well as the pulley & hoist system that would have been used to get stones in place. This doesn’t relate specifically to the Cathedral, but is representative of how such impressive buildings would have been put together in the medieval period.


Inc.13 f212r

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The Nuremberg Chronicle has an equally striking image of a medieval crane, impressively laid out to take up nearly half a page. Imagine seeing something like this in life size! While we don’t know exactly what equipment would have been used to build the Cathedral, it is likely that it was similar to this. The construction of the Cathedral must have had quite an impact on the residents of Worcester.


Nuremburg Crane 1493

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


We do know a little about the masons and architects who would have been involved with constructing the Cathedral, with details of a range of Master Masons from the 13th century onwards. Below is stonemason Walter Drew’s contract from 1591. Drew was contracted to “looke unto all suche ruinous and decayed places as nowe are or here after shall fortune to be….”, and was paid only £1 6s 8d for his technical stonemason skills plus some additional cleaning. He was also contracted to clean the whole church roof once a year, though he was paid extra for that.


Stonemasons contract.

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Of course, a variety of tools were needed to carry out the extensive work to the Cathedral. This included scientific instruments that aided with the geometrical side of building or planning. In the woodcut below, you can see a demonstration of someone using a quadrant; this would have been used to measure the height of buildings. 


woodcut of achitect using equipment

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Other instruments such as compasses would also have been used to make sure schematics were detailed and accurate. The tools used actually to execute the plans were probably much simpler, possibly just an axe, saw and chisel throughout many of the centuries of construction.


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


With such tools and workmen (and their successors as centuries have passed), the Cathedral has gone through several transformations, but has also retained elements from each era. For example, Edgar’s Tower was completed in 1368. Prince Arthur’s Chantry was constructed in the early sixteenth century. A large portion of the north transept was repaired during the 18th century, while the Victorian love of medieval history ensured that the Cathedral was fully restored and brought up to the standard of the times, including the introduction of gas lighting.

Given the scale and constantly changing role of the Cathedral in the city, it is no surprise that changes continue to be made today. The great West window is currently undergoing major work, generously funded by the government’s First World War commemoration scheme to help repair cathedrals in the U.K.. This should allow the original beautiful workmanship to continue to be enjoyed for many centuries more.


 Jennifer Howard



2 thoughts on “Summer exhibition at the Cathedral: a look at constructing a Cathedral

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s