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Glastonbury Abbey : The Post-1184 Stone Collection preliminary summary, by Jerry Sampson

Buildings Archaeologist and Archaeological Consultant to Caroe & Partners Architects

The Glastonbury Abbey stone corpus consists of 1439 numbered fragments, with a further 80+ unnumbered or duplicate numbers, of which 83 pieces have been described by Ron Baxter in the Romanesque section of the stone report. Of these only a tiny percentage have any recorded context, and even where a find area is recorded this may not reflect the actual origin of the fragment - thus the eastern bay of the Refectory undercroft produced not only fourteenth century sculpture and fifteenth century screenwork (which Bond believed had fallen from the Refectory above), but also an immediately pre-fire Purbeck marble capital and Romanesque carved work.

Descriptions of the excavations suggest that the church was thoroughly robbed of its construction materials, the ground plan being represented largely by robber trenches, so that most of the stonework recovered from excavation is likely to be residual and secondary.

It is also clear that a significant proportion of the higher numbered fragments in the collection bear post-medieval mortars, indicating that they have been reused in post-Dissolution buildings, and were probably retrieved from relatively recent demolition and gifted to the Abbey, and therefore their origin within the context of the Abbey buildings cannot be regarded as certain. Indeed, the first piece catalogued - the overmantel S710 - proved to have originated in a late medieval house at the top of the High Street, whence it was brought to the abbey in the mid-nineteenth century and stood for many years (until 1886) on the sill of the window of St Thomas's Chapel, where the painted decoration which was described by Skinner as existing in 1825 gradually washed off.

Many post-medieval walls in the town incorporate Abbey fragments, and probably the most spectacular example of reuse is to be seen in the summerhouse in the grounds of Edgarley House (the latter now Millfield's Preparatory School), where the son-in-law of the builder of Abbey House appears to have been given the run of the Abbey stone piles and has incorporated into it upwards of 200 carved and moulded stones, most of which rival anything in the Abbey's existing collections.

It is also important to note that several important finds which were reported from the excavations have not been located during the creation of the catalogue. In particular there is no sign of the fragments of black stone, black marble or touchstone reported by Bond as having been found near the site of the high altar and in the Edgar Chapel excavations, the first of which he interpreted as deriving from the reredos, and another fragment of a mailed knight in black stone found a little to the west which he tentatively suggested as a survival of the tomb of King Arthur. The Edgar Chapel fragments could have come from the touchstone slab beneath the gilt bronze effigy of King Edgar which stood in the eastern chapel. It is clear that the fragment of a chain mail effigy or statue (S468) presently displayed in the Abbey Museum is of Doulting stone bearing gilding, and would never have appeared black - furthermore, descriptions of the Arthur tomb show that it bore no effigy.

Not only is touch entirely missing from the corpus, but so is alabaster, despite there being at least one alabaster effigy recorded in the Abbey (that of Abbot Chinnock (d.1420)) and the likely use of the stone in other contexts. No trace has been found of anything which could be certainly identified as belonging to the shrines. Given the apparent destruction of the great rood above the pulpitum prior to the Dissolution of 1539, it is possible that the shrines were also destroyed and cleared away before the monastery was suppressed. Also missing from the corpus is any sign of Early English dog-tooth decoration: introduced at Wells c.1235 in the heads of the west windows it was used extensively in the (?west) cloister there, probably in the 1240s.

This could suggest that the great church was largely complete in or just prior to the 1250s - a contention supported by the erection of the Galilee (integral with the west front, stylistically not later than the third quarter of the thirteenth century, and which would only have been contemplated if the nave were sufficiently complete to allow it to function), and the observation made by Parker that from the time of Michael of Amesbury (d.1253) onwards the Lady Chapel is referred to as the capella, rather than the ecclesia of St Mary. The hypothesis of a relatively early date for the completion of the great church would also appear to be supported by the evidence of the encaustic tiles.

Ball-flower ornament is also rare. Apart from a series of Bath stone fragments bearing ball-flower there are just a few broken pieces, suggesting that little in the way of building was taking place in the first half of the fourteenth century. The group of Bath stone ball-flower fragments are all of limited depth (around 15 cm) suggesting an origin in work applied to a pre-existing wall, and the largest of these pieces has a full bed-height of 50 cm and incorporates the lower half of a seated figure (perhaps of an angel) in a spandrel. The north wall of St Thomas's Chapel has a series of cramp positions cut in at 1 metre intervals, suggesting that the whole wall above a canopied recess was clad with carved work, and if cramps were set at alternate course heights these pieces could derive from the superstructure of a major monument - possibly that of John of Taunton (d.1291) the latest of the abbots known to have been buried in the chapel.

Ball or ball-flower ornament is found on several vaulting voussoirs which bear a generic relationship to a series of voussoirs bearing stiff-leaf trails - themselves probably deriving from the double-roll voussoirs of the eastern arm of the great church and its nave aisles. This tends to confirm the documentary evidence that the vaulting of the nave was delayed into the abbacies of Geoffrey Fromond (d.1322) and Adam of Sodbury (d.1334) - though the lack of ball-flower in other constructional contexts suggests that only the vaulting was wanting in a functional church which probably possessed a wooden roof to that date.

The use of a form of voussoir dependent upon a design from the previous century could be a response to the need to replicate elements of a partially built vaulting system, but could also be representative of the architectural retrospection visible in the standing fabric of the Abbey. While this is most obvious in the immediate post-fire reconstruction (and has led to demarcation disputes with the Romanesque corpus) [1] - particularly in the Lady Chapel, where round-headed arches and arcading are the norm - it is also evident in the complete reuse of twelfth century windows and masonry from the C12 east end in the choir extension under Abbot Monington in the mid-fourteenth century.

Several masons' marks have been located on stones from the collection. One resembling a mark from Yeovil, St John (building c.1380-94), may help to date several related fragments of screenwork, possibly from a cage-chantry (although at that date no abbatial origin for such a structure seems likely). Another mark belongs to a mason who worked on the three bay choir extension at Wells Cathedral (1333-7) and at Ottery St Mary collegiate church (1337-45) under the direction of William Joy, and whose mark is found (with others of the same work-crew as Wells and Ottery) on the Abbots' Kitchen (probably begun by Adam of Sodbury) - perhaps suggesting a workshop connection with William Joy. The loose stones with his mark belong to an ogee arch - could they derive from Adam of Sodbury's tomb of the early 1330s in the nave?

Numerous fragments bearing curving and diverging 2 inch diameter roll mouldings probably derive from the cloisters built by Abbot Chinnock, and reported by Bond.

Amongst the most remarkable of the fragments of figural sculpture from the Abbey are a group of 19 carvings in a hard white porcelanous stone, probably from Beer (Devon). These include 9 figural fragments, 8 foliage fragments, and two architectural pieces including a capital with remnants of a lead pour for fixing it to a shaft - suggesting that the shaft was load-bearing. These carvings are of the highest quality and date from the third quarter of the thirteenth century. They bear a strong stylistic relationship to the head-stops in the centre of the internal screen at the base of the west front of Wells Cathedral and to the foliage band set in the voussoirs of the west door; furthermore these are executed in the same exotic stone. Also closely related to the Wells west front sculptures is the effigy of an abbot (almost certainly that of Michael of Amesbury (d.1253)) which resembles the upper tier ecclesiastics of the south tower (such as S163) probably carved shortly before 1242.

When the sculpture workshops at Wells closed c.1243 it is likely that the carvers had to seek work elsewhere, and there are stylistic connections with the west front school as far afield as Ireland and Scandinavia. In this context it is of interest that in 1249 [2] Roger and William de Buneton were purchasing messuages and lands in Glastonbury in a deed witnessed by Thomas [Noreys] cementarius, the master mason of Wells Cathedral, while in the reign of Edward II another William de Buneton 'sculptor' grants twelve houses in a street in Glastonbury called Boneton Street. A wealthy family of sculptors having a direct connection with the master mason of the west front of Wells Cathedral suggests that the Bunton's could have been the sculptors in charge of the work on the west front c.1235-43, who then removed to Glastonbury Abbey (an obvious centre for their talents) and executed the effigy of Michael of Amesbury and the magnificent white stone sculptures - the latter possibly associated with the superstructure of Amesbury's monument.

  1. Dundry stone appears to be entirely restricted to the immediate post-fire phase of reconstruction (1184-9), the pieces recorded in the Romanesque corpus being stylistically Romanesque, but deriving from the retrospective style of the new church and its Lady Chapel. Its presence in the Monington choir extension is further confirmatory evidence of the reuse of twelfth century masonry at this time.
  2. This is probably the year in which the west front was finally complete (the fall of the tholos from a high place recorded by Matthew Paris in this year perhaps being part of one of the high pinnacles). The de Buntons may have remained at Wells after the west front sculpture workshop was disbanded to work on the cloister spandrels.


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