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Uncovering Medieval Recycling: A Spolia Case Study at Wells Cathedral

by Sonia Harvey (ArchiWest)

The reuse of salvaged building materials is a subject well known to building archaeologists and architectural historians, but one that is not particularly well documented. Yet the potential for older buildings to contain recycled medieval fabric, or ‘spolia’, is often surprisingly high. Quality oak timbers and valuable facing stone would certainly not have gone to waste if a building was demolished, and it was only really because building methods & materials changed after the industrial revolution that such practice died out.

The following case study by ArchiWest’s Architectural Historian documents a Grade II listed building, dated as circa 1800 in the city of Wells, which turned out to be considerably older, potentially containing some very significant spolia from a very significant donor building.

Wells Cathedral from The Bishops Palace Gardens
Wells Cathedral from The Bishops Palace Gardens. Photo credit S. Harvey
Spolia (Latin: "spoils"; SG : spolium) are stones taken from an old structure and repurposed for new construction or decorative purposes. It is the result of an ancient and widespread practice (spoliation) whereby stone that has been quarried, cut and used in a built structure is carried away to be used elsewhere.

In urban areas where there is a history of building from 17th and 18th centuries or earlier, finding medieval spolia in historic buildings is expected, although identifying it within the recipient building can be challenging. Reused exposed timbers are often easier to spot by the marks left by forged nails, or by dowel holes and joint holes. The reuse of stone can be harder to evidence, unless there is some outstanding feature that has been left exposed. Often the most evidence is to be found in lofts and cellars, or during building works, such as the removal of render or plaster.

In the city of Wells, Somerset, located just a stone's throw from Wells Cathedral precinct and the old city wall, is an attractive, unassuming 'Georgian' town house that is slightly humbled by its more affluent ashlar faced neighbours. The facade is reasonably typical of late eighteenth century construction, but the symmetry has been unusually compromised compared to the other buildings in the street. The front door is not central between the windows, indicating the builder may have had to work around existing structures. Internally it becomes apparent that some of the features are significantly older than the facade, and other buildings in the vicinity are known to have older elements. Urban buildings and burgage plots are documented in the area from at least the fourteenth century, and this particular building was recorded in the fifteenth century as part of a large tenement containing an inn, shops and dwellings that belonged to the Dean & Chapter of Wells Cathedral.

Simes map of Wells from 1735 showing the Cathedral and close proximity to the recipient building
Simes map of Wells from 1735 showing the Cathedral and close proximity to the recipient building

The current owners of the building rightly felt that some of the features inside the property were not in line with Historic England's Grade II listing dating the house to the late eighteenth century. The internal exposed stone features appear to be unusually positioned and of a much earlier style. After an initial survey was undertaken the building was identified as potentially containing medieval spolia in its construction, making it considerably older than Historic England suggest and worthy of further detailed investigation.

Arched doorway and step casing
Arched doorway and step casing

On entering the building’s reception room it is immediately obvious that the stone features presented are not indicative of a late-eighteenth century building. The rear wall contains the blocked up remains of a moulded ashlar four-centred arch doorway, which in Somerset would suggest a date of late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. What appears to be the step-housing of a winding stone staircase can be seen in the plasterwork around the arch, causing the wall to be curved in its construction.

the curved wall and square topped window
The curved wall and square topped window

Above the sitting room is a bedroom where the curvature of the wall is a clear continuation of that below. The curved feature takes up a significant amount of the west wall of the room, constructed from coursed ashlar blocks of considerable quality, rather than the rubble wall one might expect to see in the rear of a humble dwelling. The curve contains a small rectangular square topped window cut into the stone in the centre. That this is reused salvaged fabric can be ascertained with some confidence, but identifying the donor building required a lot more research.

The below photos show historic roof timbers with coordinated carpenters marks. Evidence of lengthening work is present on all the major A-frame timbers suggesting the reuse of earlier components.


The 16th century witnessed one of the greatest destructive changes in the history of English Christian Religion, with the loss of countless ecclesiastical buildings across the country in the name of Reformation. The remains and ruins of many associated structures are still apparent and have provided historians and archaeologists with research material for centuries. However, the study of 'lost' or spoliated fabric from these ruins has understandably presented a greater challenge, as the full extent of the spread of demolished building material can never be fully documented.

Somerset suffered many ecclesiastical architectural losses though the Dissolution and the Reformation. In Wells the losses included The Great Hall at The Bishops Palace, St. John’s Priory, and Bishop Robert Stillington’s Chapel that stood in The Camery Garden at Wells Cathedral. The Cathedral Church of St. Andrew itself was saved due to its collegiate status. Along with the destruction at nearby Glastonbury Abbey a vast amount of quality building material was released for reuse, and the whereabouts of this fabric is likely to be spread far and wide. However, after an initial period of research the potential to identify material from Stillington’s Chapel became quite clear.

Above examples of spolia from Stillington's chapel currently on display in the cathedral cloisters

Aerial view of Wells Cathedral showing the outline of Stillington’s Chapel
Aerial view of Wells Cathedral showing the outline of Stillington’s Chapel Photo credit

The research explored the potential for identifying medieval spolia and evidencing the reuse of ecclesiastical salvaged fabric from Stillington's fifteenth-century chapel, and highlights the probability that large amounts of unidentified fabric from Stillington's demolished Chapel exist within the fabric of the case-study recipient building and other surrounding buildings. This research draws attention to the potential of unexplored dwellings in Wells, offering future opportunities to understand the historical reuse of medieval spolia across the city. The demolition of Stillington’s chapel beginning in 1552 is well documented in the Wells Cathedral Archives and in documents  translated by the Somerset Records Society. Excavation of the Camery by archaeologist Warwick Rodwell unearthed the foundations of the chapel from which a clear idea of the form of the building was gained.

Bishop Robert Stillington's legacy to the City of Wells is certainly not the one he intended. Stillington was Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1465 until his death in 1491, during which time it is recorded that he visited Wells Cathedral just once in 1476 subsequently deciding to have the older Lady-Chapel-by-the-Cloister demolished and rebuilt at his own cost. Construction began in 1477 and the Chapel was in use by 1487. One of Stillington's aims in rebuilding the earlier Lady Chapel was to provide himself with a sumptuous Chantry and a setting for his own tomb as a type of elite pre-reformation endowment policy that left funds for Chantry Priests to say prayers to assist the soul on a smooth passage through purgatory. Stillington didn't see his Chapel completed but was never-the-less interred there, however, his Chapel barely survived for sixty-five years after his death. An apparent period of demise followed and it is suggested that the Chapel was already in a poor state of neglect long before the Chantries Act 1548 forbade its use and deemed it redundant. While other much older associated buildings of less quality and status still stand today, Stillington's resplendent creation does not, its fabric potentially spread across the city and beyond through robbing, salvage and fund-raising sales of recyclable components.

Artist’s reconstruction of Stillington’s Chapel
Artist’s reconstruction of Stillington’s Chapel by Alan Rome

Documentary Evidence

A desk based analysis was carried out and it was found that buildings on the site of the recipient building were documented as far back as 1301. Because the properties were connected with Wells Cathedral, the tenement was regularly documented. The historic documents describe the destruction of the chapel and the spread of fabric between 1552 and 1608, with the key piece of evidence supporting the movement of stone from the Camery to the recipient building found in the Calendar of Manuscripts of the Dean and Chapter. It was noted that on 2nd April 1582 ten wagon loads of freestone from the Camery were given to Bartholomew Haggett. Haggett is recorded as a Tenant of the recipient building between 1568 and 1588, giving a six year window between 1582 and 1588 for Haggett to have rebuilt the property, which also coincides with a gap in the rental records of the site. It was usual practice for the tenant to undertake rebuilding and alteration works, however, Haggett held more than one lease and so the destination of the stone cannot be certain just from the documentary evidence. There is the potential that Haggett used the stone elsewhere, but that he was Cathedral Communar between 1579 and 1590 must have played a part in its procurement, and it would make sense for the Dean & Chapter to allow the stone to be taken free for one of their own properties. However, as further supporting evidence was needed to establish if this really could be spolia from Stillington’s Chapel it was decided to undertake a full measured survey of the building, and gain geological identification of the stone that could then be cross referenced with the archaeological evidence from the excavations at the cathedral 1978 - 1993.

Physical Evidence

The curved rear wall, along with the four-centred arch doorframe, and the small square topped window are the obvious features to examine. On The ground floor the wall is clearly stepped although there are no actual treads present, but the 3 or possibly 4 steps visible rise in an anticlockwise direction, the same as the north stair turret from Stillington's Chapel. The Chapel unusually had a pair of turret staircases and although the ascent direction may not seem particularly relevant, in actuality the possibility is that these stones may be remnants from the north stair turret so the direction becomes significant as it is theorized that this part of the chapel survived for longer. In addition, the radius is irregular and a staircase in this position would not only be very large for a small building, the measurements are in line with spiral staircases found in significant buildings around Britain such as castles and churches, but is also not practical by part blocking the ground floor doorway. It would have taken up considerable space measuring almost 1.7m internally and certainly more in keeping with a substantial high-status building. Stillington’s Chapel was recorded by Rodwell as being built from just two types of Local stone, Doulting and Chilcote, and so a local geologist was consulted.

Lime Plaster


Geological inspection was difficult because of the amount of calcified lime present, which due to the constant carbonation had become the surface of the stone, a characteristic of the self-healing properties of lime. The degree of calcification is significant and the lack of plaster residue on the mortar between indicates the possibility that the lime was present on the surface before reconstruction, very similar to the fifteenth century the library staircase still in use at Wells Cathedral.  This is further evidenced by the tool-worked surfaces, the dressing of the stone is quite poor quality and undisciplined which contradicts the quality of the curved wall and window reveal. The random orientation of chisel marks suggests the work was done on the bench rather than in situ as it was easier to work on and always intended to be lime treated, coordinating with Rodwell's testimony that the interior of Stillington's Chapel was lime-washed. Where identification was possible, for example the door mouldings in the sitting room, the fabric is undoubtedly Doulting stone, and consistent with the masonry from Stillington's Chapel.

Stonemasons’ marks

In England stonemasons' marks have been studied for some time and identified as a useful tool to help work out the different phases of building, but naming a stonemason along

Wells Cathedral Library Staircase
Wells Cathedral Library Staircase

with his mark is problematic, and it has not been possible to identify such marks associated with Stillington's Chapel. Warwick Rodwell noted a distinct lack of masons' marks on any of the excavated material from the Chapel, although the Master Stonemason has been confidently identified as William Smyth. Furthermore, the surface of the faced stone found in the recipient building is calcified with historic lime making identification of any marks difficult, although not even questionable marks have been found. This avenue of research proved very quickly inconclusive, however, the lack of marks in both buildings supports rather than discredits the concept in this case.          

The North Turret

The foundations od the chapel in the Camery garden
The foundations od the chapel in the Camery garden

What should also be considered is a second build phase of the north stair turret with the bridge linking it to the south triforium of the main Cathedral building. The bridge is relevant because it is this element that lends itself to the possibility that the fabric from the North Stair turret was still in the Camery in 1582, thirty years after the demolition had begun, thus this being the stone given to Haggett for the construction of his building is possible. The bridge gives the north stair turret greater purpose, creating a potentially important connection between the triforium and the Camery without passing through the main south transept of the Cathedral. The functional space above had all manner of uses from possible relic storage to class rooms to the masons' tracery floor. With the rest of the Chapel demolished the door from the stair turret would now lead directly outside and as Stillington built his Chapel between the south transept and two masons' workshops the retention of this access would have been sensible. If the staircase was detained for use by the masons’ then the stone given to Bartholomew Haggett in 1582 could have been curved in shape with small square headed windows and a four-centred arch doorway, in line with what is observed in the rear wall of the proposed recipient building. In addition, the dimensions of the stair turret base uncovered during excavations and still visible measure 1.7mm, in line with the reused fabric in the curved wall.

The archaeological excavations of the Camery 1978-1993 showing the base of the north stair turret
The archaeological excavations of the Camery 1978-1993 showing the base of the north stair turret


Given the correlation between the documentary and physical evidence it appeared very plausible that the recipient building may have indeed contained salvage from Bishop Stillington's Chapel. In a broader context it could therefore also be concluded that the architecture of the Chapel has influenced the architecture of this part of the city. A significant amount of building material would have been released for local developers to take advantage of and so the potential that the architecture of other reconstructed buildings in the vicinity may also have been influenced by the demolition of Stillington's Chapel offers the opportunity for greater research. Additionally, the salvaged fabric within the recipient building is consistent with the demolition material from the north stair turret of Stillington's Chapel and it is possible it remained intact for longer for access to the triforium, in which case the stone acquired by Haggett in 1582 may have been just that.


Not all recycled building fabric will be quite as significant as noted in this case study, but any identified spolia can help understand a building’s development, and can be important in the wider context. Research into medieval and post-medieval recycling of building fabric should be approached with an understanding that above ground archaeology may have been moved, and that building elements may have been reused more than once. There is always the very strong possibility of features noted in the fabric of a recipient building coming from a completely different donor building.

If you have any questions regarding this research, or would like more information about ArchiWest’s heritage services please get in touch.

(Note: the recipient building in this case study has deliberately not been identified to protect and respect the privacy of the occupants).


The driving vision behind ARCHIWEST is our passion to improve existing unique buildings, firstly through thorough understanding, and through conversion, alteration and extension. Our design philosophy is grounded in the practice of building conservation with sustainable energy principles and the strong desire to adapt/reuse in favour of replace


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