Herringbone Masonry

Herringbone is a type of masonry formed by laying stones in alternately leaning layers to make a pattern similar to herringbones.  The form first seems to have become established in the Roman era when it was called opus spicatum - spiked work.  It is sometimes claimed to have been employed in the first brick floors in the time of Augustus, but is not common in much of Italy, though being more popular in the north of the country around Verona.  The form is thought to have then spread north over the Alps and has been ascribed to works by Charlmagne (d.814).

This masonry style appears prominently in the upper parts of some of the ‘Roman walls' at Pevensey and Portchester Roman forts.  Whether this work is Roman or later Saxon is a moot point, but Castor Praetorium, the largest in Britannia, and it's baths, were certainly built in herringbone style as too were parts of the second century core of Hadrian's wall and the town walls of Lincoln, Silchester and London, although not in the facing of any of these.  Yet, considering the lack of such masonry in other Roman forts in Britain the latter seems more likely.  The same is true of the herringbone work above the curtain of Lincoln castle west gate which is apparently built on the old Roman wall.  Herringbone is also used in the core of the town wall at Horncastle and in odd sections at Alderney.

Herringbone is certainly not a universal Saxon style as often their work consisted of thin walls decorated by pilaster strip ornament, good examples of this style being found at the churches of Barnack, Barton on Humber and Stanton Lacy.  Quite obviously no building style can be firmly tied down by comparison.  Instead it has been suggested that single courses of herringbone masonry was used as a means for levelling up a wall by changing the inclination of the stones to raise or lower parts of the structure to allow for a level building foundation.  The style may also have been more forgiving of ground slippage on sloping or unstable subsoils.  As such herringbone could also have been used for underpinning.

Below is a list of herringbone masonry found in England and the rest of Europe.  This list is not exhaustive, so please feel free to email concerning other examples.

Allington curtain wall
Benington keep
Bramber gatetower
Brough keep foundations in motte
Colchester single course within keep
Corfe hall
Exeter interior of castle curtain wall
Guildford keep
Knepp keep
Lincoln curtain
Newark foundations of gatehouse and early curtains
Peak curtain
Pevensey Roman Fort tower and curtain
Richmond curtain
Rochester curtain over Roman wall
Scarborough small portion of curtain foundations
Tamworth causeway
West Malling basement
Wolvesey precinct wall
Airvault - Poitou curtain?
Aumelas - Provence inside curtain, chapel gable
Canilhac - Alps keep
Charmes-sur-Rhone curtain
Cornes d'Urfe - Rhone keep rough herringbone
Doue-la-Fontaine - Loire keep
Fecamp - Normandy keep, near herringbone style
Freteval - Loire keep
Ganne - Normandy gatehouse
Ivry - Normandy keep
La-Barthe-de-Neste keep, curtain
Montaner - Gascony shell keep
Montbazon - Loire keep and forebuilding
Montmayeur - Alps keep
Morlanne - Gascony curtain
Plessis Grimoult - Normandy gatetower
Thouzon - Provence rectangular keep, curtain
Vaison-la-Romaine - Provence gate
Vaudemont, Alsace keep
Castra Abusina part of late Roman fort tower
Coriovallum bath house

Manderscheid, Rhine-Palat poor work in keep
Friedau - Grisons keep
Heinzenberg - Grisons curtain
Hohenratien - Grisons keep
Freudenau walls
Innerjuvalt - Grisons keep, curtain
Irgenhausen tower, walls
Klingenhorn - Grisons poor work in keep
Lichtenstein - Grisons curtain
Rappenstein - Grisons curtain?
Riom - Grisons church?
Solavers - Grisons curtain?
Spliatsch - Grisons walls
Splugen - Grisons tower, walls
Ehrenfels - Styria keep
Castello di Ussel keep
Cly keep?
Fingeller walls?
Lodrone walls, keep
Scaligero walls, towers
Torre di Pramotton walls, keep
Avis/Aviz - South walls
Lousa - Central curtain
Leon D tower upper storeys
Zagra curtain interiors of 1350s
Meghri keep, single rows
Proshaberd walls, towers

Religious Sites

There are also many churches in England and a few in Wales which show evidence of herringbone work.  Once again this simple style probably suggests more of Saxon workmanship than Roman or Norman.  Further, it is readily apparent that few Romanesque churches, viz. Ashleworth, Bulmer, Burghwallis, Edvin Loach, Flintham and York, Bishophill Junior show any indications of having once been major structures.  The majority of these churches seem to have herringbone masonry as patches or repairs and not as the main build, like at
Brixworth.  Sometimes this herringbone work seems no more than a levelling course or 2.  Further, as there are over 400 known Saxon churches in England, most of which have no herringbone work, ie. Barnack, Barton on Humber, Bradford on Avon, Bradwell on Sea, Earls Barton, Escomb, Jarrow, Kirkby Hammerton, Reculver, Sompting and Wittering.  Consequently it cannot be taken as proof that herringbone masonry, whether secular or ecclesiastic, dates to a time before 1066.

The churches in ‘England' with at least some herringbone work are Ashleworth, Gloucestershire; Bolam, Northumberland; Bosham, Sussex; Branscombe, Devon; Bredwardine, Herefordshire; Brixworth, Northamptonshire; Broughton, Lincolnshire; Bulmer, Yorkshire; Burghwallis, Yorkshire; Carlton in Lindrick, Nottinghamshire; Chilton Condover, Hampshire; Clee St Margaret, Salop; Colsterworth, Lincolnshire; Corringham, Essex; Debenham, Suffolk; Deerhurst, Gloucestershire; Diddlebury, Salop; Dixton, Gwent; Dodford, Northamptonshire; Doynton, Gloucestershire; Duntisbourne Rouse, Gloucestershire; Eastergate, Sussex; East Leake, Nottinghamshire; Edvin Loach, Herefordshire; Elmley Castle church, Worcestershire; Elsted, Sussex; Flintham, Nottinghamshire; Hadstock, Essex; Hatfield, Herefordshire; Hovingham, Yorkshire; Isleham priory, Cambridgeshire; Kirby Underdale, Yorkshire; Laneham, Nottinghamshire; Letton, Herefordshire; Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire; Little Snoring, Norfolk; Lurgashall, Sussex; Maltby, Yorkshire; Marton, Lincolnshire; Mathon, Herefordshire; Milland Chapel, Sussex; Minster in Thanet, Kent; Monk Sherborne, Hampshire; Monkwearmouth, Durham; Munsley, Herefordshire; Old Cogan, Glamorgan; Ovingdean, Sussex; Patrixbourne, Kent; Pitchford, Salop; Presteigne, Radnorshire; Quarley, Hampshire; Ravenstone, Buckinghamshire; Reedham, Norfolk; Rockbourne, Hampshire; Rushbury, Salop; St Pierre, Mathern, Gwent; Selham, Sussex; Shabbington, Buckinhamshire; Sidbury, Shropshire; Southrop, Gloucestershire; Stanstead, Suffolk; Stanton on Hine Heath, Salop; Staplehurst, Kent; Sutton on Trent, Nottinghamshire; Terrington, Yorkshire; Tibberton, Gloucestershire; Tuxford, Nottinghamshire; Tysoe, Warwickshire; Upton, Yorkshire; Wallingford St Leonard, Berkshire; Westhampnett, Sussex
; West Mersea, Essex; Wigmore, Herefordshire; Wisborough Green, Sussex; Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire, York Minster and York, Bishophill Junior.

If you know any churches or castles to add to this list please email Paul.


Copyright©2021 Paul Martin Remfry

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