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Re-constructing Medieval Construction

Dr Jenny Alexander, History of Art, is a specialist in medieval and early modern building design and construction. Her research into masons’ marks on building stone featured in the Guardian newspaper. Her unique combination of training and interests in art history and archaeology means that Dr Alexander brings a fresh perspective to the aesthetic and structural aspects of the buildings of medieval and early modern England.

Dr Alexander has worked with various partners to examine the remains of medieval and early modern buildings. She collaborated with the Leicester Archaeological Unit on the remains of Leicester Abbey, well-known as being the location where Cardinal Wolsey, advisor to Henry VIII, died in 1530. Recently, the surviving abbey walls needed consolidation and the archaeological unit was called in to monitor the reinforcement process. The builders discovered original stone, and Dr Alexander was called in to identify the origins and dating. She discovered that the stone dated from the cloister of the medieval abbey, and she was also able to figure out how the cloister had been constructed. In doing so, Dr Alexander discovered much about the appearance of the original abbey building that had been previously unknown.

Located in a public park, the remains serve an important function in the history and current livelihood of the community. Community groups in Leicester are taking steps towards developing a better awareness of the importance of the abbey and its physical structure.

Dr Alexander’s work will feed into museum displays, inform the further development of park facilities, and also be incorporated into the information displayed at the abbey site. Her work will have benefits for Leicester City Council by enabling them to make better-informed decisions about the conservation needs of the abbey and the park itself. This will, in turn, result in benefits for the general public who use the park, as well as creating a greater engagement between the people of Leicester and their physical surroundings.

Dr Alexander is also interested in the construction industry in medieval England – how the industry was organised, how masons were trained, and how buildings were designed. During her PhD, she developed a methodology for examining standing fabric to discover the order in which buildings had been put together.

Over a period of 6 months, Dr Alexander applied this methodology to the physical remains of Apethorpe Hall, an English Heritage property near Oundle, Northamptonshire. By examining the marks made on the stone works, she was able to record how the building was constructed.

Project beneficiaries: English Heritage who manage the Hall have learned more about it's construction as a result of Dr Alexander’s expertise and innovative research methods. Other project beneficiaries include visitors to Apethorpe Hall, the local community and the British public.

Dr Alexander communicated her findings to her target audiences by distributing a report and by delivering public lectures. Her audiences will benefit from a better understanding of the history behind the Hall’s construction, which will facilitate better decisions about how to best maintain the Hall for future generations to enjoy. 

 In 2012 Dr Alexander worked with the educational department at the Tower of London to develop workshops and materials for school children. These workshops brought Dr Alexander’s research methods to students in Key Stages 3 and 4 who visit the Tower. By engaging students with the physicality of the building, her work will add a new dimension to the students’ experience of the Tower. There are also discussions to extend the project to working with students at art colleges.

Researcher Benefits: Dr Alexander has found that collaborating with non-academic partners has enhanced her own research. She has been able to use the research findings for academic publications. Additionally, she has found that applying her research methodology into different spheres has given her a new perspective on her research and allowed her to re-assess her methodology. Lastly, she has made contacts which can be called upon for further research or for teaching.