Saturday, April 02, 2016

Where Did the Stones Go?

  In the course of pottering through photographs and antiquarians' accounts to see and reassemble some changing patterns of how our ancestral societies have used and changed the built environment in the middle ages and beyond, I have become intrigued by the scale with which building materials, particularly stones, have been shifted around. It is possible to see where they have been, and where they have disappeared from, but seeing where they have gone to can be tricky.

  This is the site of Leicester Abbey, a substantial Augustinian house with significant historic connections. It has an ancient wall around it. Some of the pillar bases look like the real thing, but much of the rest of it looks not even like proper foundations, rather lines of stones laid out to show where walls were, or were likely to have been. It's bare, empty and extraordinarily vacant in spirit as well as substance.

From Mrs T. Fielding Johnson 1906 Glimpses of Ancient Leicester: Leicester
  After the dissolution of the monasteries, the fabric was pillaged to build a grand mansion, which explains the wreckage, but the mansion itself eventually became derelict. Either the owners were not of the school that retained a romantic ruin in the grounds, or the remains of the abbey and most of the mansion were later removed lock, stock and barrel to build roads, or rebuild the Civil War damage in the town, or build the stocking factories of Leicester, or the railway stations or some other purpose.

  Stone shifting and re-use has been going on since people first thought of putting one stone on top of another. Hadrian's Wall, here shown near Birdoswald, is nowhere its former self. Drystone walls and stone farm buildings are abundant in the rugged north and those neat little squared Roman building stones are just so handy. And there was road building. It's easy to imagine plenty of uses for them without having to take them very far. Roman stones and tiles found their way into later buildings in various places.

  The church of St Nicholas in Leicester has Roman stones and tiles embedded in its fabric. As it is right beside the Roman Jewry wall and public baths, they didn't have to be brought very far.

  Monastic ruins in locations that are difficult of access, such as Fountains Abbey above, have retained substantial ruins, probably because it wasn't worth anybody's trouble and expense to cart the raw materials away. Then they became part of the high class garden furniture of the aristocracy and were preserved because they could be, but not entirely.

  The houses of the wealthy landowners became bigger and more elaborate, explaining some of the existing holes in the monastic ruins. Fountains Hall is not part of the medieval Fountains Abbey, or is it? These stones have had another life.
  Town churches became redundant in the middle ages as parishes were consolidated, and no doubt there was cannibalism as the materials were recycled to enlarge and adorn the ones that survived. Churches did keep getting bigger on the whole. Ecclesiastical Darwinism.

From Mrs T. Fielding Johnson 1906 Glimpses of Ancient Leicester: Leicester
  In Leicester in the 16th century a large town mansion and a free grammar school were built using materials from the redundant church of St Peter. The mansion was rebuilt and altered many times only to succumb to demolition in 1902 to build the railway station, which is itself no longer in that location. The grammar school still exists as a structure, having undergone changes of purpose. (The VCH on British History Online gives it as a carpet warehouse. Google maps shows a restaurant on the site.) This all seems like recycling and churning as a town's needs change over the centuries, but there is a bit of an anomaly.

  Prosperous medieval towns supported large religious institutions with large buildings, expansive cloisters, rambling outbuildings. The above is the former Dominican Priory in Norwich. The friaries and some collegiate churches acquired ever increasing amounts of land within the towns and built big things all over them. The complex in Norwich is a rare survival as by some incidents or accidents of history the buildings were re-used over the centuries for a variety of purposes without totally destroying their integrity. There is a lot of building material in this structure. In this case, because it is Norwich, it includes a lot of flint which may not have seemed so worthy of pillage as other stone. Not sure about that. Most complexes of this type gradually vanished from the town landscape.

  What is far more likely to be found in a modern town is some fragment which has survived the destruction, like this scrap of the Franciscan friary in Lincoln. Last heard, the future of this building was in doubt but the latest proposed incarnation was as a community centre run by the local diocese, having previously served as a museum. This is an interesting evocation of changing community needs, but it doesn't explain where the rest of the materials of the fabric of the entire religious complex went to. The friars didn't remain propertyless mendicants for long, or at least, they had substantial homes to go to.

  An even more enigmatic fragment from Lincoln is this old water conduit, made from a miscellany of carved stones taken from the Carmelite Friary site.That site also eventually disappeared under a railway station, which subsequently vanished to be eventually replaced by buildings of the University of Lincoln. I guess there is some parallel between educational institutions and religious ones in the psyche of a town, but the new institutions are not built from old friary stones.
  Lincoln became very down at heel in the later middle ages and beyond. Daniel Defoe writes of it in the late 17th, early 18th century:

  "Lincoln is an antient, ragged, decay'd, and still decaying city; it is so full of the ruins of monasteries and religious houses, that, in short, the very barns, stables, out-houses, and, as they shew'd me, some of the very hog-styes, were built church-fashion; that is to say, with stone walls and arch'd windows and doors." Daniel Defoe 1928 A Tour Through England and Wales, Vol. 2: London and New York

  You could make quite a few stables and hog-styes out of a bunch of friaries. The description also doesn't suggest much urban renewal in these religious sites, more rural encroachment on the town. It makes you wonder how much of this stone material made its way into the railway stations, art galleries, theatres, post offices, schools and other vital ingredients of the modern urban revival.
  In areas where good quality building stone was rare, it was probably worthwhile to shift it considerable distances. There seems to have been a good bit of shunting stone around along the Ouse, Derwent and Humber river system in Yorkshire, where the white limestone from Tadcaster was favoured for fancy buildings.

  Not a stone remains visible above ground of the East Yorkshire Cistercian Abbey of Meaux, near Beverley. The Google satellite image shows some suggestive marks on the ground. Click here. The whole shebang was shipped down the Hull river to build Henry VIII's  harbour defences at Hull. These are now completely vanished.

  The former abbey church of Selby is built of Tadcaster limestone. Now a handsome parish church, its cloister and all the conventual buildings have completely disappeared.

  Beverley Minster, a formerly collegiate church, got into a drastic state in the 18th century due to the fact that St Mary's was in use as the main parish church of the town, so that it stood largely unused and neglected. The north transept nearly collapsed, only rescued by a man of great ingenuity and confidence with a nifty grasp of engineering physics. It is claimed that stone was shipped from the ruins of St Mary's Abbey in York to assist in its repairs.

  There certainly isn't a great deal left of the stone work of St Mary's. York Minster itself, meanwhile, has required periodic major surgery over many years to keep it glorious and functioning. 

  Meanwhile, most ancient English towns have demolished, partially or wholly, their medieval walls and gates for purposes of modern convenience, but York has not only retained but maintained and renovated its defences of Tadcaster limestone. You can hardly tell where they breached the walls to let the railway in when that was the ultimate in urban modernity, although not a trace remains of the friary that lay underneath the station. The station has, of course, been banished again to the outer regions. The walls of York have undoubtedly gathered in some stones from other sources.
  It is hard to get your head around how these massive stony urban complexes could vanish so completely. There is reason to believe it took a long time in many cases and that ruins lay around in the heart of the cities for years, even centuries. The stones of many buildings, ancient or more modern, may have led many lives and travelled considerable distances. Some may have gone from noble buildings to perform more humble purposes, as roads, docks, walls. Some may have been incorporated into new buildings engendering civic pride. Some of humble origin may have been elevated to more elegant uses. They are effectively alive and part of evolving organisms.
  There is a tendency for folks to discuss the authenticity of ancient buildings. They are all palimpsests; repaired, renovated, beautified, reconceptualised. The idea of a building can live, as with the great cathedrals, or die, as  with the vanished friaries. The stones have many tales to tell. I still find it hard to imagine where that tonnage of stone from the medieval institutions of the towns has gone, but it's out there somewhere.

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