William of Sens

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William of Sens

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.

Gothic Architect

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.

His Legacy

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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Sens, William of (fl. 1174–d. c.1180). French architect of the Gothic choir from the main crossing eastwards, including the western transept, Canterbury Cathedral, Kent (1174–84). As his name suggests, he had worked at Sens Cathedral (begun c.1140), which had some elements similar to those used at Canterbury, and he knew Notre-Dame, Paris, and other Gothic buildings in Rheims, Soissons, Arras, Cambrai, and elsewhere in North-West France, notably Notre-Dame-la-Grande at Valenciennes (1171). After he fell from the scaffolding in 1177 he was in incapacitated and was succeeded by William the Englishman who completed the choir vaults, eastern transept, Trinity Chapel, circular chapel at the end of the choir called ‘Becket's Crown’ or the ‘Corona’ (1184), and introduced the triforium-gallery previously used at Laon. Among influential motifs used by William of Sens were shafts of Purbeck marble set against light Caen limestone, and sexpartite vaults which draw the bays into pairs. The prestige of Canterbury ensured the swift adoption of the new style throughout England.


J. Harvey (1987);
Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, xii (1949), 1–15;
Pevsner : BoE, North East and East Kent (1976);
Stubbs (ed.) (1879);
G. Webb (1965)

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William of Sens

Mid-twelfth century–Late twelfth century

Master mason

The Rigors of Direct Supervision.

The sole source of information on William of Sens comes from Gervase of Canterbury's account of the rebuilding of the choir of Canterbury Cathedral following the ruinous fire of 1174. William's expertise and reputation recommended him for the job over other masters who had been gathered to assess the rebuilding project. Not only was he a skillful and subtle designer who incorporated sections of the Romanesque walls into his new structure, but he also fabricated the machinery to lift stones and provided the sculptors with templates for shaping stones. Although his name suggests that he was a native of Sens in France, his architecture shows closer connections to northern France and Flanders. The proportions of his three-story elevation, the use of wall passages screened by arcades, the sexpartite vaults, and the preference for decorative colored marble shafts point to his close affinity with recent building projects in Arras, Cambrai, and Laon. William supervised construction until badly injured in a fall from the triforium in 1178. Although he attempted to supervise work from his bed, he simply was not up to the physical rigor of the job, and was forced to leave Canterbury for France. William's forced retirement suggests that in the late twelfth century construction was not guided by an overall set of plan and detail drawings, and that the master mason's on-site presence was still required. As drawings became more frequently and widely used in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, architects were able to take on several projects at once, leaving workshops in the hands of assistants and directing by "remote control."


Jean Bony, "French Influence on the Origins of English Gothic Architecture," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 12 (1940): 1–15.

Gervase of Canterbury, "Canterbury Cathedral," in Architectural History of Some English Cathedrals: A Collection in Two Parts of Papers Delivered during the Years 1842–1863. Trans. Robert Willis (Chicheley, England: Minet, 1972–1973).

Peter Kidson, "Gervase, Becket, and William of Sens," Speculum 68 (1993): 969–991.

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William of Sens (fl. 1174–d. 1180). See Sens.