The 14th Century Master Mason John Lewyn and the Durham Episcopal Throne

durham-banner-0a-smallA recent visit to Durham was a welcome opportunity to re-examine its Cathedral, one of the finest early Norman buildings in England. Much has been written about its seminal place in the development of English medieval architecture but it was Bishop Hatfield’s tomb which was of interest on this visit because it is also the Bishop’s throne or cathedra. The episcopal seat at Durham Cathedral is unique amongst ecclesiastical memorial monuments in Britain in that it combines both a throne and a tomb. It is located in a prominent position on the south side of the quire between the choir stalls of the convent to the west and the high altar and tomb of St Cuthbert to the east. Even in the late mediaeval period it was described as “sumptuosissime construxit” and stands out as an unusual and highly decorated survival of medieval architectural design. At 12.2m high it is squeezed between the Romanesque piers of the quire and nearly touches the arch of the nave arcade. The fact that the tomb survives at all is because it was largely spared the renovating predations of the 18th century architect James Wyatt but it did not escape modification by others entirely. There was originally some kind of vertical termination to the steps up to the throne at the east end, this was removed at an unknown date, replaced with a copy in the 19th century that included a decorated balustrade (now absent) and had new lower steps, the upper ones are the original medieval. hatfield-tomb-banner-1-small

It’s also probable that the upside down angels on the open cusping of the tomb’s south façade are not original either, but other than these changes the rest of its form is much as it would have been at the end of the 14th century (it was built sometime between 1362 and 1381). As Tracy and Budge note in their “Britain’s Medieval Episcopal Thrones” (Oxbow Books) The tomb comprises three main parts: 1) the tomb chest with the recumbent effigy of the occupant, 2) The canopy with associated wall paintings and 3) the outer façades to the choir and the south choir aisle. These façades are all highly enriched with “Pinched” ogee trefoils (which appear similar to those at the reredos of the Lady Chapel at York Minster) and plentiful crocketting, double cusping, marvellous foliate decoration, heraldry and arms. There are also a number of similarities in the Bishops tomb to micro-architecture at Beverley Minster e.g. the canopies of Beverley’s Sedilia from the 1330-40’s, but while of the same design, those canopies over the Bishop’s tomb are most probably not by the same hand, they are less dextrous in execution. Above the tomb chest is a lierne vault with substantial foliated bosses and the walls of the vault were originally decorated with figurative paintings of Christ, angels and a representation of the soul of Bishop Hatfield. The top of the tomb vault is a flat platform 7 ft x 11 ft in size, which supports the bishop’s throne or Cathedra – in this case comprising a canopied screen of three vertical parts. The whole screen is keyed into the Romanesque round piers on either side. Much of the detail of the screen is reminiscent of the East front of York Minster and it’s possible that one or more York masons were responsible for its execution. However it is significant that the tomb and the screen share few similar decorative characteristics which raises the question – was Bishop Hatfield’s tomb and screen the work of one architect who could design in two different styles (a relatively common skill in architects of the 14th century and later) or was it the work of two architects, one on the tomb, one on the screen? img_9325-banner-5

We can look to another Screen at Durham for an insight on this. The magnificent stone reredos, known as the Neville Screen, divides the sanctuary from the feretory. It is placed a little to the east of the centre of the easternmost bay of the quire. It was a bequest of Lord John Neville, 3rd Baron Neville de Raby (c.1337 – 17 October 1388). Despite the loss of the 107 alabaster sculptures that originally adorned it, it remains intact but without its polychromy. The second and third bays of the south aisle form the Neville chantry and here is the monument of the benefactor Lord John Neville (d. 1386), and his wife Maud Percy (d. before 18 February 1379); the tomb has canopied niches with weepers, all round, separated by trefoiled panels containing shields which bear alternately the Neville saltire and the Percy lion rampant. The screen was made in London between 1372 and 1380, probably by Henry Yevele and was shipped to Newcastle by sea and thence by cart to Durham. It has much in common with the Hatfield throne screen, e.g. the sloping vaults of the weeper canopies and the squared trefoil heads, but is profoundly different in overall design and detail from the diapering and ogee-arches of the Hatfield tomb and the Neville tomb. The Neville screen shows the understanding required for delicate open tracery work whereas the Hatfield screen does not. The Neville screen is of a far superior order of execution and it has been suggested that the designer of Bishop Hatfield’s screen (who was probably local) was possibly less experienced but may have known of or even seen the Neville screen being made in London in the 1370’s. Documentary evidence places the execution of the Hatfield tomb and screen between 1362 and 1381, during the majority of this period John Lewyn (fl. 1364-c.1398) was the foremost master mason at Durham. He was referred to as “the bishop’s mason” and Harvey describes him as “…the most important provincial architect of medieval England of whose career we have adequate details.” He was enormously busy as a professional architect, involved in castle building as well as ecclesiastical work and travelled widely across northern England. However in 1375, right in the middle of the period framing the execution of Bishop Hatfields tomb, John Lewyn was in serious financial dispute with the Bishop and in 1375 a commission was appointed to enquire into monies given to Lewyn to carry out work for the crown at Bamburgh Castle. It has been suggested that this may have affected the relationship between the two men with the Bishop bringing in other craftsmen which would account for the variation in style between the tomb and the throne screen.

img_9363-croppedAs Tracy and Budge state; “There can be little doubt that the detailing of the throne screen [at Durham] was undertaken by a mason who was subsequently responsible for the tomb of John Neville. Given their disparate designs and detailing, the Hatfield tomb was most likely the work of a different mason or supervising architect, one who drew his inspiration, but probably not his workforce from the east end of Beverley.  That mason could well have been John Lewyn, completing or at least starting the tomb in the mid-to-late 1360’s, before his incarceration at the hands of the bishop.” It is also possible that it was Lewyn that was responsible for the design of the support system for the screen but its execution of the detail was left to a mason who had recently worked on the east end of York Minster. Another possibility is that it was accession of King Richard II in 1377 and a renewed campaign of castle building in the north rather than a schism with the Bishop over outstanding payments which may have taken John Lewyn away from ecclesiastic works like the Bishops tomb and throne screen to supervise military work elsewhere. It would have been normal practice for an architect like Lewyn to leave a trusted subordinate master-mason in charge at Durham under these circumstances. Malcom Hislop, an acknowledged expert on Lewyn ( ) has shown that within the area Lewyn practiced in the counties of York, Durham, Cumberland, Northumberland and Roxburgh there were several schools of mason-craft each with its own distinctive characteristics contributing to considerable differences in decorative detailing. He is also clear that very senior maser masons like John Lewyn at the top of their profession would as a matter of course delegate work to trusted subordinates who could come from any number of these schools. It is possible that Lewyn as a master mason acted as a kind of patron with regards to the design establishing an overall schema into which his trusted subordinates would operate in their own style. The point here is that trying to deduce the provenance and authors of ecclesiastical architectural work like this based on stylistic grounds alone is fraught with difficulties because of the plethora of differing artistic traditions or schools, even within one region that existed in England in the fourteenth century and the practice of a master like Lewyn in employing craftsmen form them for executing their own designs and perhaps playing to their strength. Harvey hints at this in his 1954 Biographical Dictionary of English Architects when he states that Lewyn, “…was probably responsible for the throne above bishop Hatfield’s tomb, and he may have had something to with the Neville Screen…Stylistic evidence suggests that the [Neville] screen, which had been put in hand by 1376, was designed by Henry Yevele.” Harvey goes on to say that, “[Lewyn’s] strength lay in his grasp of construction, and the splendour of massive structural work, properly carried out…but although there is little purely decorative detail in his known works, it cannot be doubted that he had beauty as well as utility in mind…

Teasing out the complex procurement of internationally important works of art like Bishop Hatfield’s tomb and the episcopal throne at Durham Cathedral is important in understanding the creative processes of artists and craftsmen of 14th century Europe whose motives and practices were strikingly contemporary. This is important not least because the result of their work has endured and continues to intrigue and inspire another generation of artists and architects 630 years later. A better understanding of how these historic masterpieces were created and by whom can give us much better insights into design that may be useful today. dutham-banner-1-small


About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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