The antiquarians who first noticed marks in the 18th and 19th centuries assumed that marks belonged to individual masons and that it should therefore be possible to trace these itinerant workers from one building to another. It soon became apparent that this was not true, but it is a view that is still sometimes voiced. Marks from Bronze-Age Knossos (c.2500 BC) look very much like marks from 13th-century Southwell Minster and co-incidences are very common. An unwary collector of marks could outline a career for the mason whose mark was a five-pointed star that began at Winchester in the 1080s and ended at Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire in the 1620s, taking in Buildwas abbey, a building at Kenilworth priory known as the barn, and Santiago de Compostela and Lincoln cathedrals along the way. Clearly this cannot be true. Later writers concentrated on the more complex marks and tried to use these to connect dated buildings with marks with those that had the same marks but were not dated. This approach has much to offer, but it needs refining.
Look closely at the walls of many medieval churches and, if the light is right, carefully inscribed marks can be seen. These are masons’ marks and they were madeby the stonemasons who cut the blocks that make up the walls, piers, arches and windows of the churches. There are a lot of other marks on the walls as well, mostly made by visitors or other people for a whole variety of reasons, ranging from the simple desire to record a visit through to complex systems of working out where processions are to start, or particular clergy are to stand. Masons’ marks stand out from this background of visual ‘noise’ by their repetition, as there are usually several examples of the same mark in close proximity, and by their decisiveness in cutting, since they were cut by people evidently skilled in using sharp tools. That much is clear, but what remains to be discovered is what purpose these marks served.
" A mason's mark is a symbol often found on dressed stone in buildings and other public structures. "
Scottish rules issued in 1598 stated that on admission to the guild, every mason had to enter his name and his mark in a register.
Layout marks, which delineated the position of a piece of stone in the overall design. Since stone was usually worked at the quarry or in the masons' yard, rather than in situ, such marks were necessary for efficient operations. Medieval carpenters also used this sort of mark.
"Signature" marks that pertained to a particular mason or workshop. This is what is generally meant by the term. Merchants also had such marks, used to mark their goods.
The exact purpose of mason's marks is unclear, although it is generally assumed that they mark the working of a piece of masonry by a particular mason, in order to claim payment. Others are assumed to indicate the position in which a stone should be laid. It has also been suggested that marks indicate the origin of the stone, or the location in which it was worked.
Freemasonry, a fraternal order that uses an analogy to stonemasonry for much of its structure, also makes use of marks. A Freemason who takes the Mark Master Degree will be asked to create his own Mason's Mark, as a type of unique signature or identifying badge. Some of these can be quite elaborate.
Gallery of mason's marks
The great churches and cathedrals of medieval Europe were built by a group of skilled artisans about whom we know a great deal. Documents survive in large quantities in which names, rates of pay, types of work done and other details are recorded. Contracts tell us about the nature of the projects the masons carried out, the tools they used, their conditions of employment, and in sections that seem more modern than medieval, sometimes even include reference to penalties for over running. From these, and from other documents, we can tell where the masons came from, how many days they worked and how many holidays they were allowed to take. We also know that most only worked on the site between the spring and the autumn and that works departments were scaled right down in the winter when it was not possible to build for fear of frost damaging the partially complete structure. In some cases this meant that a skilled workforce was disbanded, and at Lichfield the master of works made an impassioned plea to the Dean and Chapter to be allowed to pay his key workers over the winter since they had skills that it would take some considerable time to teach to new masons in the next season.
Marks in the Post-Medieval Period
The masons whose marks we have been considering used a variety of chisels and axes to square off the stone before they cut their marks and these tools left characteristic patterns across the surface of the blocks. Once we leave the medieval period, and in some cases before it, some masons were smoothing the tooling marks off to leave a perfectly flat finish on the stone. In buildings like Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, from the late 16th century, mortar joints were also reduced to a minimum and the walls of the building were presented as single surfaces, interrupted only by windows and doors. It might be expected that masons’ marks would disappear at this stage, but surprisingly this is not the case, marks are still to be seen and in fact they stand out better against the smooth stone, and are more visible. Marks are also to be found on fireplaces on the interior of the Hall, prominently sited where everyone can see them.
This trend can be seen on 17th-century buildings as well, at Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire from the 1620s, for example, which has large-scale marks on the exterior stonework and prominently-sited marks on the fireplaces and on the sculptural work of its porches.
By the 18th century, however, marks were only placed on the joint-beds and non-visible faces of blocks used for churches and houses, although stonework on bridges continued to be face-marked. Revival of medieval traditions in the 19th century brought marks back to prominence, co-inciding with antiquarian interests in discovering the meaning of medieval masons’ marks. Marks are still is use today, although they are usually hidden on joint faces, and are made by masons who wish to continue a tradition that is as old as building in stone.
Masons’ marks provide evidence for the working practices of the highly-skilled and able men who constructed the magnificent stone churches and country houses of the past. The marks were put on the stone for entirely practical reasons, in answer to the particular needs of the industry. Many of the master masons are recorded in the documents and we can admire their design and engineering skills when we visit their buildings. Masons’ marks enable us to gain insights into the world of the masons working for the masters. We may not be able to identify, or name, the masons from their marks but we can use them to deepen our understanding of their work and appreciate more the buildings that they helped to create.
This is an extract from: Jennifer S. Alexander, 'Masons' Marks and the Working Practices of Medieval Stone Masons', in P.S. Barnwell and Arnold Pacey, (eds) Who Built Beverley Minster?, (Reading, Spire Books, 2008)