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Historian of Medieval Carpentry
Cecil Hewett
on the
Wooden Octagonal Lantern Tower
of Ely Cathedral

(Figure 76 --View a Larger Image HERE.)

[C.A. Hewett, English Cathedral Carpentry (London, 1974), pp. 82-9]

The most spectacular work among the various polygonally planned cathedral structures is undoubtedly the lantern at Ely, which was built between 1328 and 1342, at a total cost of £24,061.34½ --as the Sacrist's Rolls testify. No less than three master-carpenters are recorded as being involved in the work, each of them in supervisory capacities: Master Thomas, Master William de Houk and Master William Hurley the King's Master Carpenter. Other carpenters are recorded as boarded at the Prior's expense, together with numerous sawyers at various times during the long period of construction. The rolls also indicate clearly that the carpenters took over the huge scaffolding that had been used by the masons for the purpose of bringing the octagon up to its upper string-course in 1328, after which date the structural carpentry began. From this masonry octagon it is apparent that a specific design for the timber vault and lantern had existed and been understood by the master mason, since the necessary sill-hooks and squinting-pockets had been worked into the ashlar at the correct situations for the receipt of the timber components. The carpenters therefore inherited a well-equipped site-operation, with "huge scaffolding" and a "great crane for lifting heavy weights", together with a stone carcase accurately built in accord with the same design --evidently the product of a "Medieval architect", conversant with both masonry and carpentry. It seems unlikely that this genius should have been Alan of Walsingham, the Sacrist of Ely, but this is stated; and his portrait carved in stone was placed over the north-west arch of the octagon. Finally the lantern, which incorporated a belfry with peal of bells, was covered with lead as the Sacrist's roll for the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Edward III records.

In July 1757 James Essex the architect made a survey of the Cathedral in which he reported to the Dean and Chapter that the lantern, "being a work of the greatest importance, the neglect of it may be attended with the destruction of the church, and the loss of many lives: For whoever considers the magnitude and weight of this Tower with all its appendages, [p. 85] and the manner in which it is supported, must allow that the greatest care is required to preserve it in the state it ought to be". It is difficult to reconcile documentary evidence with actual structures, and in this case even more difficult to determine what repairs Essex really carried out, since in the same report he said : "The prodigious quantity of Timber and Lead of which it is composed was at First supported by sixteen pieces of Timber only of which number 7 or 8 are now rotten and unfit for supports, so that the whole weight is now unequally supported by those that remain sound." He concludes his report in so far as the lantern is concerned with the remark that "altho' this ought to be the first part that has a general repair, the other part ought not to be entirely neglected for care should be taken in time to prevent any mischief by securing them for the present and at a more convenient opportunity to repair them effectually". My own notes give no indication that Essex, or any other architect, did replace any of the sixteen shores which carry the lantern, since all of them appear to have a uniform age and patination. What he probably did was add the very large quantity of relatively small-timber trussing that now fills the space around the lantern's first and internal storey. All of this subsequent timberwork is omitted from the illustrations as irrelevant. It is, in fact, difficult at the present time to determine the original design of the structure, since this has nor been retained; the architects who have been successively responsible for it have added structures to it, and accurately worked sockets in the masonry are the only clear evidence as to the absence of a large number of very big timbers.

The method originally used to construct the lantern must be conjectured and necessitates an interpretation of the documentary evidence, which in itself does not agree with the structural evidence since the Sacrist's Rolls indicate that the fifteenth year of the work was devoted to the construction of the wooden vault beneath the lantern and the structure itself shows that the vault was complete, with all its 104 timber ribs and the "cobweb" of flooring that surrounds the central octagonal void, before the "exaltatione magnarum postium in novo chore" which seems to indicate the raising into position of the huge corner posts.

The scaffold was inherited from the masons and sill-hooks of stone were previously in position in the masonry, and it was possible to set four sides of the eight-sided [p.89] "ring-beam" in position, each having a triangular side elevation. The radiating beams run from the centre of each side of the "ring-beam" and are tenoned into the angle-posts set into the stone grooves, and those in turn were strained apart by the octagon of rim-timbers surrounding the floor, which was additionally secured by the stone sill-hooks. The other four sides of the structure could then be added, and the cross-halved joints at the ring-beam's corners indicate the precise sequence followed; eight pendentives of timber were thus positioned, and when all were assembled the whole was immensely strong.

The lantern was built on this perforated platform, the tenons at the feet of the great corner-posts penetrating both timbers forming the ring-beam angles. The raking-shores were apparently set in place before the posts were erected and were there to steady them as soon as reared. The great posts are generally stated to be sixty-three feet long (I have not measured their lengths), and in one piece. This is not entirely true; one post is scarfed throughout a great part of its height and secured with a free tenon and pegs every yard, while others have extensions scarfed on at their tops. Notwithstanding this, they are enormous posts and came from "Chikissand" in Bedfordshire, whither Walsingham went with Master Thomas and purchased twenty oaks for nine pounds during the building period.

(fig 74 --View a Larger Image HERE.)
Fig. 74 shows the general arrangement of the ribs, which could not be set in position without the floor, into which each rib is chase-tenoned.

(Figure 75. --View a Larger Image HERE.)
The floor, with the ribs framed in, is shown in Fig. 75, which also shows the eight posts originally set into grooves running the full height of the stone octagon's comers and the lesser posts that were framed into the apexes of each of the eight arches.

(Figure 76. A Larger Image HERE.)
The Sacrist's Entry for the fifteenth year probably refers to the planking of the vault, the fitting of its bosses in some cases, and the painting of its archivolt. The whole structure, vastly simplified by deleting huge quantities of timbers, is shown in Fig. 76, in which the pinnacles surmounting the lantern are also omitted.

Fig. 77 shows the floor at the lantern's base.

(Figures 78-79. Larger Image HERE.)

Fig. 78 shows the pattern formed by the 104 vault-ribs beneath it, while
Fig. 79
gives the pattern of the highest vault beneath the belfry floor- of which the central boss was cut by John of Burwell in 1337-9 and which is situated 152 feet 6 inches above the floor.

Mr. Hewett later expanded on his remarks about the Ely Octagon in a subsequent publication,
English Historic Carpentry (London/Chichester : Phillimore & Co., 1980), focusing on the place of the work in the tradition of medieval English carpentry and the actual process and sequence of construction which was used. We include below the substance of this work and the new drawings with which he illustrated it.

(Figure 146. Larger Image HERE.)

[p. 162]
The first timbers to be positioned were of necessity the eight great posts set within the internal angles of the octagonal carcase, and these were probably retained [p.163] by timber tie-backs set into the sill hooks in the spandrels (fig. 146). The straining tembers [""] at higher levels were probably fitted by chase mortises [""] to facilitate assembly; but since all of this original framing was removed during the 18th century, this must be an hypothesis. When the eight angle posts were in place, tied back and strained apart, the mounting of the internal octagonal void could be undertaken. For this purpose the 'great scaffold' the masons had passed on to the carpenters was used to the full, and the central space was bridged with fir trunks to provide a working platform at the base height of the lantern.

Fig 147. Larger Image HERE.  
Fig 148. Larger Image HERE.  

Fig 149. Larger Image HERE.

Fig 150. Larger Image HERE.


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