Medieval Cathedrals

Medieval Cathedrals

Medieval cathedrals were the central focus of medieval England and much bigger than castles - a representative of how important they were in medieval society, where religion dominated everyone’s lives regardless of rich or poor.

Cathedrals were extremely large buildings and important long term projects, so they were very expensive. Medieval cathedrals were the church’s most visible sign of wealth and the biggest could be found in cities such as Canterbury and York along with Lincoln, Worcester and Chichester. It cost a great deal to build them but the money came from the payments received by the Roman Catholic Church.

Cathedrals were huge buildings - they were major long term building projects and their cost was very large.

York Cathedral - Author: Dudva
York Cathedral - Author: Dudva

The workers used very basic tools and were in conditions that today’s health and safety regulations would not accept. Though their main motivation was to create a stunning building for God’s greater glory.

An architect needed to be found to design the cathedral and he would know the best master craftsmen to hire along with many well trained men.

A master quarryman A master stone cutter
A master sculptor A master mortar maker
A master mason A master carpenter
A master blacksmith A master roofer
A master glass maker

Masters of trades ran their own workshops for a specific trade, meaning a master mason would employ several masons who could be trusted enough to work well on a cathedral - eventually they would also become master masons. The men were skilled and would not do any labouring work - this was left to unskilled labourers living near a cathedral was going to be built.

A lot of the skilled tradesmen depended on other trades for work - a master blacksmith made all the metal tools needed and skilled carpenters made the tools’ wooden handles.

The amount of tools needed for building a cathedral was surprisingly small:

Pickaxe and axe Brace and Bit
Hammer Sledge hammer
Chisel Auger
Saw Mathematical dividers
Plane Squares and templates

A chapter was the group that decided how much could be spent on different areas. The chapter decided the cathedral’s final design and instructed the architect about what they required.

After a plan had been put in place, the basic building work of the cathedral foundations began. Recent renovation work at Canterbury cathedral unveiled that it was built over the original cathedral at Canterbury - so the original building became part of the new one’s foundations. It was not unusual for foundations to be 25 feet deep underground, and the actual foundation building was its own skill as any mistakes could cause weaknesses in the walls above ground, particularly once the roof had been added.

During the laying of the foundations, skilled craftsmen worked in quarries where they produced stone blocks to use in the building process. Up to 50 advanced skilled apprentices could work in a quarry along with 250 labourers and all supervised by a master quarryman. The master quarryman would be provided with templates for the required shapes from cut quarry stone by the master mason. Each stone would be marked to plan where it was to go once the building began.

See also: 

Building a Medieval Cathedral 

Cantebury Cathedral

MLA Citation/Reference

"Medieval Cathedrals". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.