Saturday 24 March 2018


purbeck marble columns Temple Church. (I am the distant
figure in the brown skirt at the back!). 
Purbeck Marble, is not actually a marble, but a sort of limestone that can be polished and is characterised by being composed of the tightly packed fossil shells of the water snail viviparus carinfer. It comes in a wide variety of shades including blue-grey (as in the columns of theTemple Church) red-brown and green. The vein of this limestone is between 18 and 24 inches thick and was quarried from the surface.  As a building and embellishment material it was very highly prized in the Middle Ages.  It could only be obtained from one place and that was the area around Corfe on the Isle of Purbeck in south-eastern Dorset, hence the name.  It did have rivals and substitutes such as stone from Tournai, or more local Petworth Marble, but by 1200, Purbeck was the material of choice.

During the medieval period from 1170 and through to the mid 16th century, Purbeck was highly prized and thousands of architectural objects were crafted by the marblers of Purbeck and London. The aforementioned columns at the Temple Church are a fine example (although the current ones are replicas and a second set of replacements following bomb damage in World War II). William Marshal's tomb effigy is carved from Purbeck Marble.  There was once a fine Purbeck fountain that stood outside the private apartments at the Palace of Westminster.  In the 12th century, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and brother to King Stephen used Purbeck for wall shafts, capitals and bases at Wolvesey Palace, and also for elaborate collonettes at Hyde Abbey. The cloister shafts at Canterbury Cathedral are Purbeck marble, as is King John's tomb effigy.

Working the marble was tricky because of its density and its craftsmen had to be experts. It was not usually worked in fine detail because of the difficulty, and only the expert master marblers had the skill.

Purbeck was successful in part because of the coastal location of the resource, which made transportation easy.  In 1175, columns were shipped from Corfe to Durham Cathedral.  Capitals and bases went to Norwich, to Westminster, to Vale Royal.  In 1375 a ship called the Margarite out of Wareham was listed as transporting cargoes of Purbeck to London, including two high tombs for the Earl of Arundel, and a large slab for the Bishop of Winchester. In 1386 the same ship transported Purbeck from Dorset to London for the tomb of Edward III below.

The London crafstmen of Purbeck orginally came from Corfe but settled in their own community in the capital.  The biggest influx of craftsmen seem to have arrived during Henry III's drive to build and beautify Westminster Abbey from 1245. By 1253 there were 49 marblers at work on the site, all cutting and polishing the Purbeck blocks and shafts.  It is likely that there were marblers at work on other cathedral sites such as at Salisbury.  The latter was sending worked marble down to Southampton in 1231-2.

The most successful Purbeck items for the mass market during the 12trh and 13th centuries were tomb slabs and effigies and these can be found in numerous locations round the country. William Marshal, Henry bishop of Winchester, King John, Hubert Walter Archbishop of Canterbury, Giles de Bridport, Bishop of Salisbury, Edward III.
tomb of King John 

Purbeck marble continued to be in high demand during the fashion for effigies depicting funeral brasses as it was used as handsome background slabbing to offset the brass.  It also continued to be used for panelled tomb chests and large canopied wall tombs.

Today, Purbeck is no longer quarried on former sites except for specialist projects for restoration - as in the case of the heat-damaged Temple Church columns.

Elizabeth Chadwick is an award winning best selling author of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages and a member of the Royal Historical Society.  Her novel Templar Silks, the story of William Marshal on pilgrimage was released on March 1st 2018.

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