Salisbury Cathedral Close Preservation Society

Supporting Excellence in Heritage Estate Management

Elias of Dereham

Autumn Lecture 2015, 19th November 2015
At Sarum College, The Close, Salisbury

By Richard Owen KSG FCA


Research into hundreds of 12th and 13th century legal contracts and documents is giving new insight into the enormous scope of Elias of Dereham’s activities. His services were sought on: architectural design and construction for: shrines; castles; churches; great halls, and monasteries. He was appointed to resolve legal issues and in the execution of Wills. He was executor to William the Marshall, four consecutive Archbishops of Canterbury and many other Bishops and medieval ‘Big Wheels’. He helped negotiate the end of the 13th Century Papal edict with King John and his skills and diplomacy were used at Runnymede on Magna Carta. His principal achievement was the project management of the construction of Salisbury Cathedral for which he was responsible for twenty five years including the fundraising.

Elias of Dereham:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a celibate in possession of a fine brain and abundant energy must be in want of a project” !

Elias of Dereham his Life and Times

Elias’s principal claim to fame is that he is widely credited with the design and management of the construction of Salisbury cathedral.

Elias was born about 1165 and lived until 1245. His life coincided with a time of great advances in administration and government. Some of the contributory factors were that:

  • Henry II ( ruled 1154 -1189 ) was a strong King who ruled from Scotland to the Pyrenees.
  • Phillip II  ( 1180 – 1223 ) of France  was another fine King who: encouraged the construction of Notre Dame in Paris; –  started The Louvre collection & the market at Les Halles and gave Paris University its charter.
  • Oxford & Cambridge Universities were forming in the early decades of the thirteenth century There were great advances in English Law and its documentation;
  • In the church  Pope  Innocent II was a great reforming Pope C his Lateran Council in 1215 attacked corruption and malpractices and brought improvements to the church in England.
  • England was blessed with the strong Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC)  Stephen Langton. The arrival of  The educated Dominicans and the pastorally aware Franciscans were very important developments in the towns.
  • Architecturally the pointed arch was introduced in Paris in the mid twelfth century  


Elias of Dereham was called “Master” which almost certainly meant that he graduated in law at University, probably Paris and perhaps Bologna. His time in Paris could well have coincided with the dedication of the high altar in Notre Dame, Paris.

Elias’s work as an Executor, as a lawyer and judge in English and Canon law and numerous construction contracts has given rise to his name appearing in countless documents as a party to agreements, as a nominee or as a witness and these provide insights into his whereabouts and activities. But Elias avoided personal and political appointments, preferring practical challenges. As a result he is a bit of a footnote in history. Even his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) was originaly in the ‘Missing persons’ section!. However his life has recently been reconsidered and he is now to be found in the main body of the ODNB. From time to time, historians have rediscovered the mysterious but remarkable Elias and been greatly impressed by him. The adjectives they use about him include: Outstanding; Ubiquitous; a versatile genius; many sided; extraordinary industry.


Henry II

Elias came from West Dereham in Norfolk. He had early important connections to a young man in his village called Hubert Walter. Hubert was a ‘de Glanville’. The De Glanvilles were Earls of Suffolk and Hubert followed in his uncle’s footsteps as Chief Justiciar combining this role with being Archbishop of Canterbury. Today’s Historians are unanimous that Hubert and his uncle Ranulph were both great men of state and developers of the law. Hubert Walter was also Bishop of Salisbury from 1188 when he was in his late twenties or early thirties …. It is thought he didn’t spend much time in Salisbury!

Elias’s first serious post, at about the age of 28, was as Steward to Gilbert de Glanville, Bishop of Rochester. Gilbert had studied law in Bologna and had been clerk to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He would prove to be a useful first boss. As steward he was responsible for the buildings of the diocese and this included work on Rochester Cathedral and Castle and the building of a hospital.

Eight years later Hubert Walter who had known Elias in West Dereham was both Chief Justiciar and Archbishop of Canterbury. He was not in good health and poached Elias from his relative, Gilbert. Despite his eminence there are many references to Hubert’s lack of education and he would have been keen to have the educated ‘Master’ Elias on his side. Elias acted as a Papal Judge Delegate on numerous occasions and it’s most unlikely that he would have been so appointed without a formal qualification in Canon Law.

As Hubert’s steward, Elias was responsible for all temporalities (everything other than the religious aspects of the diocese) including building development and maintenance. Hubert Walter was ambitious and commissioned a new Great Hall at Canterbury – so grand that two Archbishops later they were still complaining about the millstone of debt caused by this hall. As King Richard 1st spent most of his reign abroad in France or Crusading, Hubert Walter was effectively in charge of England. With his boss being so busy, Elias would have had a pretty free hand with his diocesan building projects and many national responsibilities could have come his way.

When Hubert Walter died in 1205 Elias was his Executor and administered the diocese during the early years of the interregnum.

Elias’s next post was as Steward to Cardinal Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury who spent 7 of 21 years in exile abroad (1207 – 1213) & (1216 – 1218) 

King John was opposed to Stephen Langton’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury and wanted to appoint his own man but the Pope rejected his proposals and this led to the Pope excommunicating John and declaring an interdict in England. Langton and many other Bishops fled to France including Salisbury’s, Richard Poore. Many went to a Cistercian Abbey in Pontigny whence St Thomas a Beckett had fled before them. Pontigny it is situated by the Chablis vineyards of Burgundy; it had its advantages! It was another 5 years before Stephen Langton could take up his responsibilities at Canterbury, and with no knowledge of Canterbury and its diocese, he might well have been keen to engage the highly regarded and experienced Elias as his steward. It is also likely that he had taught Elias at Paris University and may well have recruited him during the interdict while both were in France.

During the early years of the interdict Elias also pops up on documents as Steward to Bishop Jocelin of Wells where the cathedral was under construction. At the start of the interdict Bishop Jocelin stayed in England and along with Gilbert de Glanville, Elias’s previous boss, tried to persuade King John to settle with Pope Innocent, but to no avail. Jocelin later also left for France. Elias remained a Canon of Wells throughout his life.

During the interdict Stephen Langton twice arranged a safe passage for his brother Simon to visit England to negotiate with King John. In all probability this was about ending the edict and the arrangements for their return to England. Simon Langton was known to be a forthright fellow, and was unsuccessful so they sent Elias and shortly after the edict was ended and they all returned home. This is not the only evidence we have that Elias was an accomplished diplomat.


Pope Innocent II

Magna Carta

Cardinal Stephen Langton was one of the movers and shakers of Magna Carta; but why was his steward, Elias also present at Runnymede ? At summit meetings the big guns sit at the top table, smile and ‘pose for the photos’, shake the hands and eat the banquets. The Elias’s of this world work through the night massaging budgets or negotiating the small print in time for their masters to have breakfast, sign the documents and fly home!

Magna Carta started from lists of complaints from the Barons about war taxation and Forestry & River rights and inheritance. It also gathered up other items from the Charter of Henry I about the responsibilities of the King. This takes up much of the document. But towards the end there are the more generally applicable legal clauses including trial by one’s peers before punishment. These are the really important clauses that have made the document of such a timeless significance. Who included these I wonder? We know that one very experienced lawyer present was Elias. Indeed, apart from the Sheriffs, Bishops and Barons, Elias was the only worker mentioned and he was charged with the distribution of ten of the thirteen copies mentioned. Interestingly he went to Oxford to receive six additional copies ……. The Salisbury copy of MC is said by experts to show no sign of haste in the draftsmanship …….. could it be one of these more leisurely penned Oxford copies?

Interestingly, Matthew Parris gives a detailed account of Magna Carta in his chronicles. Where did he get his information from? Elias must be a prime suspect which would also explain why he gets several mentions.

Before Magna Carta John had curried favour with the Pope by effecting a deal which pledged fealty to Rome and promised an annual payment. Immediately after Magna Carta John reneged on the deal protesting to the Pope that he had agreed under duress. The Papal legate was instructed by the Pope to support John. Stepen Langton and a group of influential Bishops and Barons were irate about John’s denial of Magna Carta. They claimed, correctly, that the Pope had been misinformed about the true position and invited Dauphin Louis of France to be King. Whereupon, the papal legate suspended Stephen Langton and others who again had to flee to France.

Elias did not keep his head down. With Stephen’s brother Simon Langton, Elias preached openly at St Paul’s Cross (This was an open air pulpit outside the unconsecrated old St Paul’s Cathedral which was nearing completion.) saying that the Pope had been misled and that as soon as this misinformation could be corrected all would be resolved and Dauphin Louis would be crowned. Shortly after this Elias again had to leave the country for France.

Events then took a sharp ‘about turn’ with the sudden death of King John and Henry III, aged nine, was promptly crowned King by William Marshall who cleverly dedicated the boy king to the terms of Magna Carta. At this point Dauphin Louis saw the writing on the wall negotiated safe passages and amnesties for himself and his supporters and returned to France.

Elias returned to England in 1219. Thomas a Beckett’s new shrine was well advanced and this achievement combined with Hubert Walter’s tomb and the impressive Canterbury Great hall prompted Richard Poore to ask Elias to join him in Salisbury? Or, perhaps, as some suggest, Stephen Langton offered to transfer him.

By this time Elias’s experience had included negotiating successfully with King John and also with Barons and Earls, He was serving his second Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton who was a personal friend of Pope Innocent II. Why would he want to move to the backwoods in Salisbury? Richard Poore was a national figure as well as Bishop of Salisbury and it’s possible that he and Elias had studied together in Paris under Langton. But would that be enough to persuade him to leave Canterbury? I think not.


Phillip II of France

I think that it was the opportunity to mastermind a new cathedral that captured Elias’s imagination. Elias, 55, and vastly experienced would have agreed with Richard Poore precisely what his position was to be and he settled for the role of “Master of the Fabric and Common Funds”. From 1220 onwards Cathedral construction would have been the tail that wagged the Dean & Chapter dog. Elias knew that If he controlled the funds he controlled the project. But this post also brought huge responsibilities. Richard also wanted Elias for his wealthy connections. It was surely Elias’s connections and skill as a fundraiser that enabled him to build straight through to his death in 1245 without any breaks in construction.

In St Osmund’s register there is a charming story that makes it clear that Elias held the purse strings. In 1225 after the consecration of the Trinity Chapel a healthy sum had been raised and it is recorded that this is “to be committed to Master Elias because Richard Poore has no confidence in anyone else”!

In the Chapter at the time was one Edmund Rich soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury and later St Edmund …. who couldn’t be trusted! Edmund incidently was noted for his generosity to the poor and his lavish entertaining. But clearly Edmund did not get upset by this aspersion on his trustworthiness; later he appointed Elias as his Executor and called him back to Canterbury to undertake a wide ranging and protracted audit of the Diocesan estates in Kent & Sussex. Elias also spent a great deal of time with Edmund designing a new Cathedral in Maidstone. Not for the first time the ABC had seen the need to move the choice of the next Archbishop away from the rather backward looking band of monks of Canterbury. Sadly this project had to be aborted but not before it had absorbed a great deal of Elias’s effort.


Archbishop Langton.

How much input did Elias have into Salisbury’s original design? He is known to have returned from France in 1219. We are told that by April 1220 the foundations for the whole cathedral had been dug. Those measurements must have been based on some general design.

How much could that outline design have been developed later – probably a great deal. It is also possible that Elias could have discussed the design with Richard Poore during periods of exile in France.

After Richard Poore moved to Durham in 1228 Robert Bingham became Bishop. I wonder who suggested building the Harnham bridge ? Was it Elias the man who most wanted trade and money to flow through Salisbury? I’ve little doubt who approved the design and supervised the work.

Elias nurtured his important fundraising connections by advising on and undertaking construction projects for his wealthy friends. Peter Des Roches was Bishop of Winchester and was one of a number of trustees for the boy King Henry III. We know that Des Roches had been on King John’s side over the Prince Philip of France matter. But that wasn’t allowed to affect his connections with Elias. We know that Elias was involved with the building of the great hall in Winchester castle. The King wanted one of similar splendour to the one Elias had built in Canterbury. We know that Elias had his workshops build altars for churches in Seaborne and Titchfield abbeys and also made windows for Clarendon lodge. He kept in with Lady Ela Longespee by advising her on the building of the Chapter House at Hinton Charterhouse. We can imagine that he also kept close to the local gentry who supplied free labour to the building of his cathedral.

In addition to his fundraising, construction and accounting responsibilities he had numerous important wills to execute. He worked for nine bishops in seven dioceses. Four of those bishops were Archbishops of Canterbury.

Any one of these vast estates could have taken many years to wind up. They must have entailed protracted absences from Salisbury. For example, Bishop Des Roches of Winchester was so rich that his bequests included the founding of two monasteries. Elias’s responsibilities would have included ensuring the fulfilment of these bequests. Let’s take a quick canter through Elias’s timeline.


Tomb of Hubert Walter


1219  Return from France
1220  July Dedication of Thomas Beckett’s shrine
    Probable residence in Salisbury but undocumented.
 1222  September First evidence of residence in Salisbury John Leland, a 16 C. historian, says Elias spent 25 years in Salisbury; but did he have any documentary evidence?
 1225   Trinity Chapel dedication and appeal  “ to Elias – I trust no other.”!!
 1226   Chosen to negotiate for Clerical subsidy to the Exchequer … visits Lincoln.
 1228   Busy on Stephen Langton’s Executorship
    Witnesses ABC Richard Grant’s charters in Canterbury.
    Visits Richard Poore in Durham.
    We know that Elias visited Richard Poore in Durham. Richard may have involved Elias in drafting the documents bringing clarity to the relationships between the Monks. and The Bishop.  Richard Poore may well have proposed the addition of the Eastern chapel of Nine altars at Durham cathedral which is remarkably similar in style to the  ‘Early English Gothic at Salisbury and Elias’s design. But we do not know what influence, if any, he brought to bear on the design.
    Durham even sourced a local, fossil bearing limestone called “Frosterly marble” a dark stone that takes a polish similar to Purbeck marble.  The chapel was started after Richard Poore’s death in 1242 but whilst Elias was alive. It was finished in 1280 long after both deaths
    Elias appointed to Brightwalton prebend …… church rebuilding follows!
 1229   Steward at Wells?!  No-one knows quite what his role in Wells entailed.
    Meetings and contracts signed with Adam Lock, Mason of Wells Cathedral
 1231   ABC Richard Grant dies and buried in Umbria – Executorship follows.
    Granted Harrow Church prebend ….from Grant’s Will ?
 1232   Leadenhall has been completed – but perhaps had been long completed.  
 1233   ABC Edmund Rich requires protracted audit of Canterbury Diocese estates by Elias who is now 68. 
    Peter des Roches back from Rome & Crusades!  So King’s projects take off again.
    Great Hall in Winchester …… to be like the Canterbury Great Hall.
    Work at Clarendon Palace – new chapel & tiled pavement.
    King requests an enclosure for an anchoress in Britford  
    Developing monastic houses at Titchborne & Selborne for Peter des Roches
    7 trips to Fareham at £6 per diem budget  … that was about 12 times the cost of a normal guest. I suspect that Elias travelled with a team of assistants, servants and guards.
    Why would the King and other Bishops have sought his services?Good administrators are valuable but far from unique. Elias was an ‘artifex’ with taste and experience, a great sense of proportion and a big reputation.  When huge amounts of money are to be involved people like big reputations.  Did he do the drawings. My guess is that to communicate with masons he sketched and specified formulae for proportions and agreed dimenions. I’d be surprised if he etched on a plaster floor; but then I’d be surprised if Sir Norman Foster spends very long at the drawing board these days!  
    Why did Elias do these jobs ? My guess is because he enjoyed it and because these high level contacts helped with his Cathedral’s fund raising. The one thing that you must avoid when building a cathedral is running out of money.  
 1237   Richard Poore’s Executorship ….. Richard died in Tarrant Keyneston near Blandford Forum.
 1238   Tomb for King’s sister, Queen of Scotland – ultra speedy delivery ….. Effigy 15 years later!
    Was this Richard Poor’s tomb in course of construction and swapped?  
 1239   P des Roches Executorship – includes monasteries in Netley & Tourraine, France. 
    New Maidstone Cathedral plans for Edmund 
 1240   Edmund Rich Executorship 
    Harrow – new vicar installed and major rebuilding
 1242   Jocelin of Wells  Executorship.
    30 marks from King Henry III  for a Pyx for reservation of the sacrament in the cathedral.
 1243   In 1243 when Henry III decided to build another great hall in Dublin, he again stipulated that he wanted it to be like Elias’s Great Hall in Canterbury. Elias was also a Canon of Wells Cathedral and visited his friend and old boss Bishop Jocelin during the building of Wells Cathedral.  
 1245   Elias is ageing. He resigns Litton prebend to John of Dereham.  He had 6 Prebends in:
    Brightwalton, Harrow, Lavington, Litton, Meauton & Potterne

Richard Poore – Statue west front
Salisbury Cathedral


Unless Elias had the reputation of being the architect of Salisbury Cathedral would be just another capable, but pretty anonymous administrator, priest & lawyer and a footnote in history.

We’ll never know precisely what Elias did. It’s a game of probabilities. Elias could not possibly have fulfilled all his responsibilities without considerable support from other able people. In my view Elias was CEO of “Elias of Dereham Professional Services”: architectural designers and advisers; fundraisers; project control specialists; lawyers and accountants. He must have had many able assistants and clerks in addition to the cathedral workforce – sadly I have not come across any mention of his protégées. We know he was custodian of the fabric fund and you can be sure that he was as meticulous about payments out as he was about fundraising. There were 300 men on the payroll plus transporters and suppliers. It was a big job. There is also much evidence and logic that he had artistic flair and was someone who liked to get involved … otherwise I think he would have sought his career fulfilment in powerful appointments which he probably rejected.


St. Edmund (Edmund Rich)

What have historians said about him?

Around the end of the 19th Century Elias was discovered yet again and lauded as the Architect of Salisbury Cathedral and his newfound fame snowballed with claims of his involvement in countless other churches, cathedrals and major buildings on the flimsiest of evidence.

In 1941 Historian Hamilton Thompson set about dismantling much of this flimsy evidence and concluded that he was just a lawyer and administrator; but it is now thought that Thompson went too far in the non-architect direction. Incomprehensibly, Thompson concluded that he was a fine lawyer but that no-on could be expert in two or more areas. I find this a very weak argument; Thompson clearly had not heard of Leonardo da Vinci or Christopher Wren …. who was a Professor of Astronomy who specialised in medicine, microscopy, mechanics and physics …… as well as an architect.

Next, Professor Nicholas Vincent wrote Elias’s first entry in the ODNB and concluded largely along the lines of Thompson. But Nicholas Vincent ( now head of Medieval studies at the University Of East Anglia, and a regular visitor to Salisbury Cathedral’s library ) had, I suspect, been bitten by the Elias of Dereham bug. So he went on to write a Reassessment inclining heavily towards the view that he might well have had a hand in the Cathedral’s design.

It is undoubted that Elias was a highly influential fellow who worked and negotiated successfully in the highest circles. He had risen there on his own ability. He was steward to bishop after bishop and much of his work from age 25 to 80 revolved around major building projects.

I can’t believe that Elias would have moved from Canterbury which entailed much work for the Crown for just another administrative job in Salisbury. His title of Master of the Fabric and Common fund makes it clear that he was to carry the principal responsibility for the build and its funding. But did this include design?

His new boss, Bishop Poore was a man of National even International Stature but there is no evidence that he had any building experience or any design flair. Richard would have been well able to specify the spaces that he needed for his liturgy.

I would like you to consider the West Front as evidence of Elias’s design hand. Elias had been dead 12 years when they built the West front and I suspect that he is still turning in his grave because. Whilst it is superb, it is, in my view, out of keeping with the nave that it abuts. If you stand about twenty yards North of the North Door’s porch you can see where the nave joins the West Front there is not one line or level that fits. The West Front is far more ornate than the rest of the cathedral. Elias had probably been influenced by the austere Cistercian style that he had lived with in Pontigny. It has been noted that Elias was fond of the quatrefoil and that his buildings are peppered with them. I think this is a bit OTT. There are only half a dozen on the face of the transepts and a few on the North porch but very few elsewhere. But, whoever designed the West Front noticed that Elias liked quatrefoils and so they incorporated a staggering 61 quatrefoils on the West Front. Was this some misconceived tribute to Elias. I see the design of the West Front as an indication of absence of Elias’s steady design hand. The West front’s design divides informed opinion; I have never heard any adverse opinions of the rest of Salisbury cathedral. It’s uniform style and proportions are applauded.

When you are about to commit to spending a spectacular amount of money you need someone with an established track record of sound aesthetic judgements and a good grasp of dimensions and the likely cost. Elias gained this knowledge and reputation from the innumerable monuments and halls and the many major alterations he had supervised. His sound judgement in legal matters would also lend him a gravitas and a confidence which his clients and their funders would value. He was consulted on innumerable major building projects that must surely have been because of his architectural know how rather than his administrative good order.

Elias’s Will gives us one last insight into the man. It was drawn in 1232, 13 years before his death, and stipulated that: the next occupant of his Leadenhall Canonry should pay 100 marks half to the Cathedral and half for other specific purposes stated in his Will; the next occupant should pay fifty marks and the third, twenty five marks. Also, on each anniversary of his death the occupant should feed 100 poor persons at the rate of 1d of bread and one gallon of ale each together with a dish of meat, fish or other agreeable viand. The executor supreme knew that without specifying in detail there could be backsliding; he liked good order and wasn’t afraid of detail.

His house, much altered, was later occupied by Archdeacon Fisher who entertained John Constable and his family Summer after Summer. I think that Elias of West Dereham, artifex incomparabilis would have liked that very much.


Richard Owen
November 2015