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Master James of St George

Above: King Edward I instructs James of St. George.

s far as Edward I's crucial late 13th century castle-building programme in Wales was concerned, the architectural power behind the throne was James of St. George. James, a little-known but none the less important historical figure, was a master mason summoned from the Continent to implement the king's plans. Born around 1230, he worked on a number of great European castles including the fortress of St. George d'Esperanche (in Savoy on the French-Swiss-Italian border) from which he took his full name.

Master James was directly responsible for at least 12 of the 17 castles in Wales which Edward either built, rebuilt or helped strengthen. Rhuddlan was James' first venture, Beaumaris his last, by which time he had perfected the symmetrical, concentric "walls within walls" design which was to characterize the castles of the period.

Labor costs could be enormous, since skilled workers were essential to stone castle building. Specialists were often brought in from all parts of the kingdom to work on a castle, including: the master mason, quarrymen, woodcutters, smiths, miners, ditchers, carters, and carpenters. At times, as many as 2000 men were conscripted or hired for a particular project. The following quote gives us a glimpse into the building requirements for the splendid Welsh castle at Beaumaris. Addressing the king's Exchequer, Master James wrote:

In case you should wonder where so much money could go in a week, we would have you know that we have needed - 400 masons, both cutters and layers, together with 2000 less skilled workmen, 100 carts, 60 wagons and 30 boats bringing stone and sea coal; 200 quarrymen; 30 smiths; and carpenters for putting in the joists and floor boards and other necessary jobs. All this takes no account of the garrison mentioned above, nor of the purchase of material, of which there will have to be a great quantity... The men's pay has been and still is very much in arrears, and we are having the greatest difficulty in keeping them because they simply have nothing to live on (McNeill, 1992).

The king evidently appreciated his work - and knew the worth of such an irreplaceable employee, for he paid James the handsome daily wage of two shillings, an amount which an ordinary craftsman would receive for a whole week's work. In 1284, it rose to three shillings a day for life. In later years, James worked for Edward in Scotland, though he continued to live at a manor in north-east Wales, granted by the king. He died about 1308.

 

Information on the castle builders who assisted Master James
More information about the castles of Edward I
Learn more about Edward I's bastide towns in north Wales

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas