Proceedings 7        11 March 1988        the Danson Room, Trinity College

THE FIRST BUILDERS AT 11TH CENTURY ELY: An illustrated lecture by Dr Sarah Ferguson of Wake Forest University, N.C.

The start of the lecture was a little delayed as members settled to their chairs after discussions following the business of the AGM. Introducing Dr Ferguson, the President congratulated her on her work in the archaeology of standing buildings and welcomed her choice of an architectural theme as one of special interest to many members.


Dr Ferguson began by saying that she would be addressing not the hard technology of medieval building techniques, such as tools, quarrying methods, and so forth, but the problems presented by the building of massive structures in late 11th century England

Begun shortly after 1081 by Abbot Simeon, cousin to the Conqueror, Ely cathedral was one of several colossal buildings begun in England in the immediate post-Conquest decades, but very much larger than anything thus far completed in East Anglia. Indeed, the plan was more ambitious than anything in contemporary Normandy. The scale caused problems of design so that the final structure, essentially complete by 1139, owed as much to design revision following mistakes as to~: an initial master concept.

The idea for Ely's 4-bay transept derived from Winchester where Simeon's brother Walkelin was bishop. But while the Conception was close, the execution was not. The building work at Ely was frankly 'a mess'. This was in part because it was too ambitious, aiming for a tribue, alternation of supports and a 4-bay transept. Study of the choir and the northern section of the N. transept showed how much the scheme was altered and evidence of problems being worked out during the progress of building, evidence was found in other parts of the cathedral. For example, the addition of walls between the transept chapels reduced the problems cause by vaulting. The west wall of the south transept was given no vertical articulation, drainpipes being the only verticals on the east wall of the same transept. However, this has been corrected.

A distinct change in design thinking was revealed in the upper portions of the south transept which was far more sculptural. At first, the course of construction seems to defy logic until it is realized that according to the Liber Eliensis the Anglo-Saxon church was finally demolished only in 1102, during the on-going construction of the new Norman building. Crop marks revealed the line of the former church as so close to the transept as to prevent the use of scaffolding.

However, if the building was 'wonky' the superstructure modelled on St. Etienne of Caen, was a genuine achievement. Nevertheless, here too adjustments had to be made. Using drawings and slide illustrations, Dr Ferguson showed how pier placement in the south transept was adjusted to match superstructure with bna base. In the north transept new pier bases were placed in the e west arcade and the piers enlarged on all sides from 160 cm to 240 cm, with the result that the upper area now fitted. The design of the superstructure itself belonged to a third building phase. In this third phase of the design on the north transept both the facade and the alternation problem were cleaned up.

Turning to the nave, Dr Ferguson showed that the design was both more unified and also better worked out in structural terms. Yet even here the builders continued with their variations. Showing views of the south nave interior, the speaker demonstrated that it was separated from the rest of the fabric by a bareak--an array of new types of base moulding and of capitals. These factors have generally been used to argue for slow progress on the building works; however, other detail indicates that this may not have been the case. Detail from the north nave gallery and the back of the piers showed that the masonry no longer joined the face of the arches. The same thing could be observed on the exterior of the building.

On the exterior of the clerestory it was found that the stones failed to match up and that this was the case at every bay something more than coincidence must lie behind the fact. The speaker proposed that what was being observed was the result of a more rapid form of construction with two building crews working in, one from one side one from the other. 'In short, where it would seem that we are dealing with sloppier work, we may in fact be dealing with a more rf efficient use of labour.'

The reality was not too bad. A stable structure, efficiently built, all that remained was to finish up at the west. But not even this was straightforward. The builders embarked on a colossal western transept which created still more problems. They were not able to complete the job and it fell down:

Dr Crombie thanked the speaker for her detailed and lucid account of the building sequence at Ely and the evening ended with debate from the floor.