Buildings

Master James of St. George: The Architect of Medieval Europe

Few men have made as significant an impact on medieval European architecture as the Savoyard mason and master of works, Master James of St. George.

Having been responsible for the construction of a range of castles in both the Alps and Britain, Master James is now regarded as one of the most forward-thinking and influential architects of the medieval period; Beaumaris Castle, for example, described by many as Master James’ magnum opus, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

And yet, despite the incredible influence his body of work has had on European history, visual, and cultural life, Master James’ name is surprisingly little-known to many of us. So, just who was Master James of St. George, and what was it that made his castles so special?

Background and Early Career 

As is typical of the period that Master James was born and lived in, contemporary records regarding his origins and life on the whole are somewhat scant. However, it’s generally believed that Master James was born in Saint-Prex, found in modern-day Switzerland, and spent his childhood and the earlier part of his adult life living and working in the alpine region of Savoy, as well as across the south of France. 

Master James
The statue of Master James at Beaumaris Castle in Wales.

It also appears that Master James’ father John was, himself, an architect mason; something that, no doubt, would likely have been a driving factor in James himself taking up that line of work. Indeed, when James first started out as an architect, he was working with (or perhaps for) his father, likely up until the latter’s death.

Designer of Windows

As perhaps a natural outcome of the working relationship between the two, stylistic parallels have been drawn between the Master James’ buildings and those of his father. 

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Of particular interest is one of the windows at Lausanne Cathedral, a structure built by Master James’ father. It bears a striking resemblance to one of the windows in Conwy Castle’s east hall; given that it was Master James himself who was responsible for the construction of Conwy Castle, we can likely infer that his father’s approach to architecture was a source of inspiration to him, and something that he drew upon throughout his career. 

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However, it would be unfair to suggest that Master James was a mere copycat; much of his architectural work was absolutely ground breaking for the period he lived in. For example, James was one of the first architects to construct castles – particularly their royal apartments or accommodation – on a large, palatial scale.

Master James of St. George

In the centuries prior, castles were typically uncomfortable buildings to live in, at least by modern standards. Usually cold, dimly lit, dank, dark, and dreary, castles were primarily valued for their practical, defensive functions; though, naturally, living conditions in castles would be considerably better than what the average peasant experienced in their day-to-day lives. 

Beaumaris 1610
Map of Beaumaris in 1610

But Master James’ approach to castle-building completely transformed the function of these buildings, as well as the expectations people had of them. He pioneered the concept of the castle as an enormous structure with lavish, comfortable apartments for their monarchs or lords.

Comfort

As a result, Master James’ castles were often extravagantly expensive. He developed something of a reputation for this, in fact; however, given the extensive working relationship and patronage he enjoyed in King Edward I’s employ, it’s clear that this wasn’t a major concern for the monarch.

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Despite the cost associated with fulfilling James’ designs, he was also known to have carried out his work as frugally as possible, keeping a close eye on any expenditure and ensuring that none of his budget went to waste.

Master James’ Work in the Alps 

Prior to his time spent in the United Kingdom, Master James worked on a series of castles and other buildings across Savoy. His first major work was the castle of Yverdon-les-Bains, on which the young James collaborated with his father, John. 

yverdon-les-bains castle
Yverdon-les-bains castle in the Alps.

Now a Swiss heritage site, Yverdon-les-Bains is an impressive work, and is regarded in modern times as a fairly typical example of a Savoyard castle. However, at the time of its construction, the fortress was the first of its kind, having been designed and built in a quadrangular outlay now known as the ‘Savoyard Square.’

Fairy Tale Castle

Its large, cylindrical towers, which cap the castle’s four main walls, are both built in a manner widely seen in other, lowland defensive structures in the region. Placed at the heart of the town of Yverdon-les-Bains, the castle has been reworked and renovated extensively since it was first constructed in 1259 and is a remarkably well-preserved structure to this day. 

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While at first glance, the two bear little resemblance to one another, Flint Castle, built by Master James in Wales, is also heavily influenced by the overarching design and layout of the castle of Yverdon-les-Bains.

Flint Castle
The ruins of Flint Castle in Wales.

Subsequently, Master James was responsible for building a number of castles in the south of modern-day France for Philip I, Count of Savoy. These include the fortresses of Saint-Georges-d’Espéranche (from which Master James derived the name ‘Saint George,’ which would form part of his title for the remainder of his life), Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, and La Côte-Saint-André. 

From the Alps to Wales

The parallels between James’ work in the Alps and Wales have been crucial in assisting modern historians in establishing the scope of his career, as well as the fact that he was, in fact, the man behind a great many castles and fortresses in both regions. 

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For instance, the castle at La Bâtiaz features strikingly similar garderobes (outdoor toilets on the battlements) to those at Harlech Castle; having noticed this during a trip to La Bâtiaz, the medieval historian A. J. Taylor was able to deduce that Master James had been the principle architect of both structures. 

Conquest of Wales and Fortress Construction Campaign

At the end of the 13th century, King Edward I led a series of military campaigns across Wales that saw him warring against, and eventually overpowering, the forces of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, one of the last-ever native princes and rulers of Wales. 

Edward I
Edward I employed Master James for architectural skills.

Following on from this, Edward I was, to say the least, not hugely popular among the indigenous peoples of Wales. To shore up his position in the kingdom, Edward I recognised that he needed a series of defensive fortresses from which he could both rule and, when needed, assert his dominance; he would eventually go on to have an incredible 17 castles constructed across Wales. 

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And, seeing the seriousness of both his situation and the importance of the work that needed to be carried out, Edward I decided to call on one of the most highly-regarded and well-respected master architects and masons in Europe at the time to oversee these works; none other than Master James of St. George. 

A Royal Appointment

It’s likely that King Edward I had met both Master James and his father some years prior during a visit to Savoy. James would join the King’s employ in 1278 and subsequently remained and worked in the UK until his death in 1309. 

Chillon Window
One of Harlech Castle’s windows designed by Master James

Master James assisted Edward I in constructing 12 of the 17 castles he had built in Wales. It’s clear that James was held in high regard by the monarch; not only did he receive a kingly salary during his time working for Edward I, but he was gifted a house by the king, and was also allowed to rent royal properties for a nominal sum. 

Rhuddlan 

Rhuddlan Castle is one of Master James’ most significant works in Wales. Following a concentric layout, the fortress features a number of clever defensive features that make use of the surrounding natural (and artificial) landscape. 

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For instance, the nearby River Clwyd serves to protect one side of the castle, with the other three being fortified by a moat. The river was also dredged during Rhuddlan’s construction to provide a course for ships to sail closer to the fortress, making it far easier to deliver both manpower and provisions safely to the castle, even when it was under attack. 

Rhuddlan Castle’s inner ward is protected by gatehouses and defensive walls; the outer ward boasts a mighty curtain wall, which is punctuated by both turrets and towers. When it was constructed, the castle was also home to apartments, a chapel, stables, a granary, kitchens, and a great hall. 

Beaumaris

The castle at Beaumaris was the last building that Master James would work on, and is regarded by many as the greatest work of his career. It’s also unfinished to this day; construction on the building was halted and subsequently never completed following James’ death in 1309. 

Beaumaris
Beaumaris Castle was to be Master James last castle.

Perhaps part of the reason that the castle took so long to complete was due to challenges securing funding for its erection; the construction of Beaumaris demanded a workforce of nearly 3,000 men, who, due to budgetary constraints, were paid largely in arrears in the form of leather tokens, as officials could not afford their salaries. Master James noted that it was difficult to retain his workforce at Beaumaris as they ‘had simply nothing to live on,’ a situation that went unchanged for years. 

A Palace

While many of Master James’ castles were built in the concentric style, Beaumaris is regarded by historians to be the most complete and ideal actualisation of this layout. As was King Edward I’s preference, Beaumaris was built on the coast (this made defending the fortress against land-based assault significantly easier). 

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The castle was designed both as a royal palace and a defensive fortification; it has received praise especially for its uniquely symmetrical layout, which was unusual and technically difficult to execute at the time, especially in the context of similar, concentric structures. 

Consisting of both an inner and outer ward, Beaumaris’ main entrance faces the coast and is known as the ‘Gate next the Sea;’ this meant that the fortress could readily be supplied by both land and ships. It was also extensively reinforced with defensive features, like murder-holes, arrow slits, a drawbridge across the main barbican, extensive firing positions for archers, and a firing platform for siege weaponry. 

Deadly Defence

One particularly noteworthy innovation displayed by Beaumaris Castle is the non-aligned orientation of the inner and outer gates, as well as the inclusion of a defensive wall which cut across the outer ward.

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This would force any invader who successfully breached the outer gate to have to travel the entire circumference of the castle to reach the inner gate; heading left would lead the invader to hit a dead end at the outer ward’s defensive wall. All the while, said invader would have been entirely vulnerable to extensive defensive attacks the entire way. It was clearly very well thought out and designed.

Master James of St. George was clearly ahead of his time in his thinking and architectural skills.

We may not know his name as we do Sir Christopher Wren or even Leonardo da Vinci but Master James’ legacy is one that will last for many more centuries. As solid as the rock his castles are built on.

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