We caught up with Emma Wells ahead of her talk, Fawlty Towers or Heaven on Earth?: How to Build a Cathedral like York Minster, at our York History Weekend…


Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?

A: Stories – human stories ultimately. I will be taking the audience on a journey through the history behind these majestic architectural marvels – Europe’s great medieval cathedrals – to discover the lives, legends and scandals of the extraordinary cast of characters who built them. I hope to provide the audience with a sense of walking through this glorious Age of Faith. And some of these tales are the most epic sagas in history – this is the real Pillars of the Earth!

The exterior of York Minster in York, England. (Photo by Andrew Holt/Getty Images)
The exterior of York Minster in York, England. (Photo by Andrew Holt/Getty Images)

Q: Why are you so interested in this area of history?

A: Because not only do the fascinating stories behind medieval cathedrals contain a bit of everything – drama, betrayal, rebellion, ambition, etc. – but the history of the Middle Ages as a whole shaped the modern world. From the foundation of western civilization, constitutionalism, the university, to the modern curriculum – our identity as a western civilization was formed during this time. And yet there is still so much material to be explored: we still do not understand who joined certain religious movements and why, or understand who commissioned many of the devotional objects of the time. In fact, we do not particularly know what language people were communicating in. It’s still very much up for grabs!

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York History Weekend 2017.

Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this period of history…

A: That the medieval church was not, in fact, the sacred preserve it is today. Although the church building was the spiritual focus of medieval life, it wasn’t necessarily commonplace for townspeople to adopt a disposition of hushed awe when inside its walls. The east end – the choir and chancel – hidden from the laity by one or two large screens remained holy, but in the nave, ordinary folk made themselves at home. They would socialize with friends, bring in their dogs and hawks, merchants might conduct business and tout their wares, arrange trysts, and eat snacks. The poor might even bed down for the night in the gloomy recesses!

Q: What is your favourite ‘little-known fact’ from history?

A: As a QI obsessive and Twitter #OTD-er, I could recite these all day. However, one of my personal favourites is the tale of Sir Walter Ralegh’s wife, Bess Throckmorton (c1565–c1647). After Ralegh was executed for treason, Bess had his head embalmed. For the remaining nearly 30 years of her life, she purportedly kept it by her side at all times in a little red leather bag.

Walter Ralegh. (Photo by National Portrait Gallery)

Another little-known fact: in July 1439, kissing was banned in England due to an outbreak of the plague. The ban had been petitioned by parliament as an attempt to limit the plague’s impact, and was approved by Henry VI.

I’ve been writing about the construction of Europe’s great medieval cathedrals for my next book, and people always seem astonished to learn that any piece of architectural sculpture on a building – whether animal, creature or human – is not necessarily a gargoyle. Strictly speaking, gargoyles are decorative waterspouts that preserve stonework by diverting the flow of rainwater away from the building. Their purpose is therefore not necessarily to ward off evil spirits from entering the church. The word, gargoyle, derives from the French gargouille, or throat, from which the verb 'to gargle' also originates. Grotesques are figures that do not feature a water spout, and those that do, are gargoyles.

A gargoyle on top of the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral, Paris, France. (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)
"Grotesques are figures that do not feature a water spout, and those that do, are gargoyles." says Emma Wells. (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?

A: English historian Gervase of Canterbury (c1141–c1210) would be my number one guest. He was a 12th-century Benedictine monk, member of the cathedral priory of Christ Church, the author of seven historical works and best known for his account of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket. I’d want to ask him all about Becket and that fateful December evening; what medieval monastic life was really like (and Becket’s shrine) and whether the fire that ripped through Canterbury Cathedral on 5 September 1174 was an act of God or one of arson.

Next up, the Spanish humanist and educational theorist who strongly opposed scholasticism: Juan Luis Vives (1492–1540). He is utterly fascinating. His treatise on the education of women dedicated to Katherine of Aragon is the first systematic study to address, explicitly and exclusively, the universal education of women, for which I would like to thank him greatly.

And, finally, every party needs a bon vivant, and mine technically is a cheat with a two-for-one deal: the enigmatic Ladies of Llangollen, otherwise known as Sarah Ponsonby (c1755–c1831) and Lady Eleanor Butler (c1739–c1829). No doubt my questions about their purported elopement to the 18th-century Welsh countryside would dominate the conversation, but I am fascinated by these so-called “social rebels” and their encounters with the intellectuals and socialites of the day, which included everyone from Anna Seward, Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron, Arthur Wellesley to Josiah Wedgwood, Thomas De Quincey and even Wordsworth, who is said to have composed a sonnet in their garden.

Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?

A: It’s got to be the Dutch Golden Age: a time of prosperity, cultural sophistication and modernity. This was a seafaring nation of traders who rewarded skilled work and respected ideas; status was afforded less to birth right and more according to contribution, intelligence and virtue. The Church receded from public life during this time; an interest in intellectual freedom and rational thought from the sciences to philosophy was promoted; and an emerging class of merchant bourgeoisie was favoured. Even the clothes were tremendous!

Q: Which history books would you recommend?

A: I’m very fortunate to be a regular reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) so have read some fascinating books over the last year – just recently, Thomas Asbridge’s short Penguin Monarch biography, Richard I (2018), which is a captivating insight into the evolution, manipulation and, oftentimes, hyperbole that Richard’s memory has encountered.

Anything by Dan Jones or Simon Sebag Montefiore – you cannot go wrong with their writing. They both write sublime, vivid, pacy and thrilling narrative history, entirely based on very sound scholarship.

The sensory historian in me has been enthralled by Sasha Handley’s Sleep in Early Modern England (2016) and Matthew Beaumont’s Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London (2015). Finally, for those who want to know why I got into and love my subject: read Eamon Duffy’s Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (2003). You will then understand.


Emma Wells will be speaking about medieval cathedrals at our York History Weekend on Friday 19 October. To find out more about her talk and to book tickets, click here.