20th September 1258. ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
Today in 1258 Salisbury Cathedral was consecrated. It was built in the Early English style at a time when many cathedrals were being constructed. It is the home of a copy of Magna Carta.(1)
What was the imperative behind the construction of these buildings which have survived to this day: how were they financed?
In the beginning booty, from pillage, was distributed to the tribe and on death it was buried, thus being lost to any further economic use.
Then came the rise of kingship, as the semi-divine mediator between God and man thus attracting wealth and the power of ‘gift-giver’ to the almighty through religious foundations.
However medieval kings needed to control the realm; administration, martial abilities and much travel became paramount. The settled sacerdotal role now became the province of a priestly caste, headed by powerful and literate abbots and bishops who became the new controlling administration.
A wealthy church now became the gift-giver’ as guardians of the sanctuary, the new mediator on earth who would curry God’s favour and nothing was too opulent to satisfy this desire.
So the monasteries originally based on the ideal of austerity, became centres of wealth as benefaction increased, it was an opulence demanding the skills of the mason and joiner, art and artist, all employed in buildings expressive of power and legitimacy to rule.
The monastic Regular Orders gradually yielded to the Secular Cathedral whose great wealth streamed from tithe, pilgrimage and Chantry Chapels.
Bishops, abbots and kings vied to create to the ‘Glory of God’ buildings seen literally as ‘heavens on earth’. As the medieval philosopher John Scotus Erigena said: ‘we can only understand the wood and materials when we see God in them, they are literally ‘stepping stones to heaven’.
It was a powerful thought which all could bask in including the medieval peasantry who under-pinned society as food producer and when called upon, to bear arms.
Ignoring the Biblical parable concerning building on sand, many of our cathedrals were built on poor foundations as with Winchester, which was built on a shallow raft of timber. It was only saved by diver William Walker who spent years under water, pumping in concrete.
(1) It was Elias of Dereham, master stonemason who died in 1246, who brought the Magna Carta to Salisbury as he was present at Runneymede. He was a canon and oversaw the Cathedral construction which was actually founded on 28th April 1220.
William Clark. 2006. Medieval Cathedrals.
Robert A Scott. 2011. A Guide to Understanding Medieval Cathedrals.
wikipedia.org/winchester-cathedral/Pic of Longespee.