When a fire ravaged a large part of Canterbury Cathedral in England shortly after the death of Thomas a Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, during the twelfth century, it was the Frenchman William of Sens (died 1180) who was commissioned to repair the structure. He brought with him the Gothic style of architecture that was popularized first in France and then spread quickly throughout Europe.
The exact date and location of William of Sens's birth are unrecorded, but he is associated with the town of Sens in northern central France on the Yonne River. Sens has a rich religious history as an uninterrupted archiepiscopal see (a cathedral town under the authority of an archbishop) from the eighth century until 1622, when the city became a separate archdiocese. In the early sixteenth century, it was a bastion of the Holy League, a union of three Catholic powers (Spain, Venice, and the Roman papacy) that fought Turkish dominance in the Mediterranean.
William of Sens is credited with being largely responsible for the construction of one of the oldest Gothic cathedrals, the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne, which was begun in 1140. In addition, his name is associated with Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, as well as with cathedrals at Reims and Soissons. As a master mason and architect, William is also identified with other buildings in France such as Valenciennes.
William of Sens lived during the period when Gothic architecture flourished, a period that stretched from the mid-twelfth century through the end of the fifteenth century. He is identified as the true mason of the Gothic Age, working with wood as well as stone. In his designs he used the pointed arches, flying buttresses, and rib vaulting so well known in Gothic architecture, emphasizing vertical lines of tall pillars and spires to create greater interior heights. It was his mastery of this style that brought him to the attention of those seeking to repair Canterbury Cathedral.
Thomas a Becket
Were it not for a confrontation between Archbishop Thomas a Becket and King Henry II, William of Sens would not have journeyed to England, and Canterbury Cathedral might be a much different building than it is today. In December 1170 Becket quarreled with King Henry II. Later that month, on December 29, four ambitious knights interpreted this quarrel as a sign from Henry to do away with the archbishop. They killed him in the cathedral. Immediately following the murder, miracles were reported to have occurred at Becket's tomb. Four years after Becket's death, a fire destroyed the quire (choir) and apse (recessed section) comprising the entire east wing of the cathedral except the outer walls. Much of the cathedral was already in a state of disrepair, and the monks took advantage of the situation to contract for major repairs so badly needed.
William of Sens was already a well-known architect and was one of several contacted to examine the cathedral and make proposals for its repair. He made the startling recommendation of tearing down the damaged area and replacing it with something new. William was subsequently chosen to complete the work, and he elected to use the new Gothic style to replace the older Norman style of architecture. According to the records of the monk Gervase of Canterbury, "Dismissing the rest they chose him for the undertaking…. He made the most ingenious machines for loading and unloading ships, and for drawing the mortar and stones. He delivered also to the masons models in wood for cutting the stones." William's design for Trinity Chapel included a new shrine to Thomas a Becket. The design featured a chapel off the quire with a circular chamber at its eastern end. This chamber is referred to as the Corona, named for the relic of Becket's head.
Work on Canterbury Cathedral
In 1175 William was given the task of repairing the foundation of the choir and extending it eastward. The original Romanesque style was replaced by one of the first Gothic expressions in England. William is credited with planning the entire quire and surrounding structural alterations. This included the flying buttresses similar to those in the Notre Dame Cathedral. The repairs are most notable for their length and height, culminating in the Trinity Chapel at the east end of the quire. The quire and chapel were completed with a three-story elevation with vertical shafts and horizontal stringcourses. It is here that William introduced vaulting in six parts forming the high arcades. He also introduced stone columns in contrasting colors.
A Tragic Fall
In 1178 or 1179, during the reconstruction of Canterbury Cathedral, William of Sens toppled from the scaffolding above the altar. He was injured seriously. Although he attempted to direct work from his sickbed, he soon had to give up the project and return to France. William of Sens died in France on August 11, 1180, as a result of the injuries he had sustained in his fall. His successor, William the Englishman, appears to have remained true to Sens's plans, completing the eastern portion of the church in 1184.
Although William of Sens did not live to see the cathedral completed, his work was naturalized as "English Gothic," taking its beginnings from French design and French materials. His design for the shrine of Thomas a Becket remains one of the most visited sites in the world, known both for its historical significance as the place of Becket's death, as well as for its beauty and serenity.
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