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July 13, 2008

Medieval madness?

My fellow Church Warden and I, in a moment of madness, offered to give tours of the roof spaces of the Abbey. These proved far more popular than we bargained for and I am now exhausted - four trips up the stairs into the roof, round the roof, through the South Transept and down the Night Stairs with parties of between five and ten a time. My fellow CW did as many trips as I.

I would probably have done five trips, but I was asked to show several people the Clarence Vault - and for a small consideration, I agreed. The problem was I ended up with around thirty people wanting to see this small vault that now houses the small glass box containing the mortal remains of George Duke of Clarence (Poor perjured Clarence in Shakespeare) and Isabella Despenser, his wife. The floor of this vault is covered by medieval acaustic tiles, though they are covered by a fine powdering of sediment as the vault floods every time the rivers rise beyond a certain point. The bones themselves have weathered badly with age and - due to the dampness of the vault - have a light covering of mould. We are considering re-interring them in a small stone coffin made for the purpose which will be left in the vault.

The roof is another matter, the top of the beautiful lierne vaulting is not half as attractive as the decorated underside, yet the structure is in itself amazing. The vault is in effect created by a convergence of thin arches and the gaps between these is then filled in using 'rag stone' - undressed stones - in a manner similar to that used for drystone walling. When the stones are placed and the 'key' stone is inserted, the forces are transmitted sideways through each stone to the wall and the vault 'locks' in place. The gaps are filled with lime mortar and the inner face plastered with a lime plaster - and then painted and decoration added. But above rubble is simply piled on the increase the weight and this secures it as an immovable mass, Over the vault the huge timber trusses span from wall to wall, each truss created by mortice and tenon joints and these are locked with wedges and trenails - wooden pegs inserted through drilled holes and then driven home with a mallet. The marks of saw, chisel and even the workmans scored lines for his cut and hole boring are still visible on some of these ancient timbers.

Elsewhere the stones show the signs of workmanship, sometimes revealing that an error has led to a stone being discarded for its original purpose and used elsewhere. Masons marks, graffitti and numerous small 'personalised' details bring the whole thing to life. As one vistor said when faced with beautifully detailed carving on a pillar's concealed face in the clerestory - "Why? Who would know it wasn't carved on this side?"

The answer is "God and the mason would know" and for that reason alone, no mason would ever leave work unfinished.

Madness? It probably was madness that inspired us to offer to do this, but it has been a very rewarding experience. One of the re-enactors left a small posy on the Clarence repository, quietly and without saying anything at all about it. Another man, a carpenter, went into raptures about the beauty of a joint in one of the roof trusses while someone else was moved by a piece of unfinished stone carving simply used as a block in the wall in an unseen part of the building. Everyone apparently found something in what they have seen today that set them thinking.

God does move in some interesting ways to touch peoples hearts and minds.

Posted by The Gray Monk at July 13, 2008 08:00 PM

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