England has a long history visible in its architecture. From magnificent cathedrals to large fortresses, the country has hundreds of amazing medieval buildings that offer a look back in time to what it was like to live and worship in the region from the 11th to 15th century.
Romanesque Period of Architecture
Medieval architecture in England began with the Romanesque period, which started at the beginning of the Norman era in the 11th century. This style was named because it copied the proportion and patterns of Roman Empire architecture. Romanesque-style buildings are characterized by barrel vaults, thick piers, round arches, and very few windows. The round arches are easiest to see in window and door openings.
Medieval Romanesque churches were very common in England and many examples still exist. When they were built, they were decorated with brightly colored tapestries and paintings, although they seem very gloomy and solemn to modern visitors. The walls, arches, and pillars of many buildings — especially churches — were painted with rich colors. It was common for doorways to have arches carved with zigzags or encrusted with animal faces with the heads of pillars were usually carved with scallops or another design.
Gothic Style of Architecture
The Gothic style of architecture began in England in the 12th century. This style originated in France and was originally called “the French Style,” but Renaissance critics called it “Gothic” because it abandoned classical lines and proportion. To them, the Gothic style of architecture showed a lack of imagination common among barbarian tribes like the Goths that ransacked Rome before it fell.
English Gothic architecture has a very graceful and light style with pointed arches and ribbed vaults. Instead of the thick Romanesque piers, Gothic architecture featured thin clusters of columns with very large windows and tall vaults and spires. It was during this time that sculptures in buildings became free-standing, not incorporated into columns. Gothic churches of the time were known for their beautiful and elaborate decorations and stonework supporting tall stained glass panels.
Medieval Church Architecture in England
In Medieval England, churches were a major point of civic pride for the community and towns tried to outdo each other with the most magnificent church. The sale of indulgences (a way to reduce temporal punishment after death in Purgatory), fundraising relic caravans, donations from nobles, and contributions from the parish were used to pay for church construction. In many cases, town guilds were pay for stained glass windows that depicted their trade. Townspeople sometimes volunteered labor for church construction as well.
Many medieval English churches were built on important pre-Christian sites to take advantage of existing spiritual devotion to the site. Churches were constructed with the main altar at the east end of the church toward the rising sun.
The medieval cathedrals of England date between 1040 and 1540. There are 26 of these buildings remaining that vary a great deal in style. A unique feature of English cathedrals is that the history of medieval architecture can sometimes be seen within a single building.
Construction of the Durham Cathedral began in 1093 and was completed within 40 years. The cathedral is considered one of the best examples of Norman or Romanesque architecture and the only remaining cathedral in England to retain nearly all of its original Norman workmanship. The current cathedral was built under William of St. Carilef, who was the first prince-bishop appointed by William the Conqueror. While there have been many additions to the cathedral since then, most of the structure retains its Norman architecture.
Durham Cathedral was famously featured in the Harry Potter movies as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The spire was digitally added to the tops of the towers.
The iconic Westminster Abbey in London is one of the most famous examples of medieval architecture and it’s important in English royal history. Westminster Abbey has been the site for every royal coronation since 1066 and it is the final resting place for 17 monarchs.
Westminster Abbey is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture that’s also home to medieval artwork, including the oldest altarpiece in England that was rediscovered in 1725 in the Abbey’s storage area. It was here that Edward the Confessor originally developed the Norman or Romanesque style and where Henry III began his Gothic rebuilding of the site, a project that continued for almost 300 years.
Between 1042 and 1052, King Edward the Confessor began rebuilding the site of St. Peter’s Abbey to give himself a royal burial church. It became the first church in England in the Romanesque style. It was completed in December 1065, just one week before Edward’s death. He was buried the church and William the Conqueror was coronated later the next year.
The present Westminster Abbey was built by Henry III between 1245 and 1272 in a massive rebuilding project. It’s believed that Henry built Westminster Abbey to gain the favor of the long-dead Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor. Henry adopted Edward as his patron saint and hoped Edward would support him while he lived and shepherd him into the next life.
With a history spanning more than one thousand years, Westminster Abbey receives over one million visitors every year.
When William the Conqueror defeated King Harold II and was crowned at Westminster Abbey, he granted the Honour of Berkhamsted to his half-brother, Robert. Robert oversaw the construction of Berkhamsted Castle, which was completed in 1066.
The castle was later expanded in the 12th century before it was besieged in 1216 during a civil war. After it was retaken by royal forces, it was given to Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who redeveloped the castle as a palace. By the 15th century, the castle fell into decline and eventually turned into ruins. Stones were even taken from the castle to build homes and buildings in the surrounded town. It was nearly destroyed during construction of the London and Birmingham Railway in the 19th century and became the first British building to receive statutory protection. The ruins are now protected by law as an ancient monument.
The White Tower was built by William the Conqueror as a way to subdue the locals and secure his new hold on London. Located at the heart of the Tower of London, the White Tower was built between 1070 and 1100 and it was the first example of Norman architecture ever built in England. It was constructed by Norman masons and William even imported stones from Normandy for the construction of the magnificent tower. At an impressive 27.5 meters tall, the White Tower would have been visible for miles when it was built.
The building features square towers at the western corners with a round tower with a spiral staircase in the northeast. The southeast corner has a projection of the St. John’s Chapel. The unique chapel architecture is still unparalleled in castle architecture. It originally had Caen stone imported from France in the tower’s facing, but it was replaced with Portland stone in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The White Tower was meant as more of a fortress than a palace with a design for defense, not comfort. Fortifications of the White Tower were updated many times throughout the medieval period and it doubled in size under Richard the Lionheart. During Richard’s reign, his brother John attacked the White Tower and tried to seize the throne during Richard’s absence. While the tower held, the forces who defended it needed to surrender because they ran out of supplies. The tower was also used as a prison. It’s believed Guy Fawkes was interrogated in the basement of the tower and Richard II was imprisoned in the White Tower when he was forced to renounce the throne.
In 1240, Henry III ordered the tower to be whitewashed, possibly because it was in fashion in Europe at the time to paint prestigious buildings a gleaming white. Decoration was also added to the chapel inside, including statues and stained glass.
The White Tower or Tower of London has been called one of the most complete 11th century palaces in Europe.
All Saints Church
All Saints Church in East Meon, Hampshire is one of the most beautiful examples of early Norman architecture in England. The church was built it the shape of a cross with a square Norman tower in the center and clear Romanesque arches. The impressive Romanesque friezes on the sides of the church were carved by Flemish masters and depict the creation of Adam and Eve on the north face, the Expulsion from the Garden on the east face, and animals and dragons on the south and west faces. It’s unknown exactly when the church was constructed as parish history lists 1080 while another source dates it to 1130 to 1140.
York Minster began as a small wood church but transformed many times during the medieval period into the Gothic cathedral it is today. York Minster began as a small wooden building in AD 627 before it was replaced with a stone church in AD 640. The church survived a Viking invasion in AD 866 and was ransacked in 1069 by the forces of William the Conqueror. After it was destroyed, William appointed a Norman archbishop of York and construction began for a large Norman Cathedral.
The cathedral was rebuild in the 13th century when Walter De Gray decided to redesign the cathedral in the Gothic style with a massive arching roof. It took more than 250 years to complete the new Gothic cathedral, but it was finally finished in 1472. The Great East Window of York Minster, which was glazed between 1405 and 1408, is the largest remaining piece of medieval glass in all of Europe. Some of the stained glass in the Minster dates to the 12th century.
The nave or main body of the cathedral was built between 1291 and 1350 and features the Gothic style. It’s the widest Gothic nave in England with a wooden roof painted to resemble stone with the Great West Window or the Heart of Yorkshire to the west. The east end of York Minster was constructed between 1361 and 1405 in the Perpendicular Gothic style. The two west towers have bells, a concert carillon, and clock chimes. The Great Peter bell in the northwest tower weighs almost 11 tons.
York Minster is the 2nd largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. It’s also one of just 7 cathedrals in the world with its own police force.
Sometimes called the “key to England,” Dover Castle is a defensive fortress with a long and interesting history. This castle stands at the spot of the shortest sea crossing between England and the continent and it’s been an important strategic location in defense of the region.
Most of Dover Castle was constructed by King Henry II in the 1180s and it was built not only to defend England from invaders but to entertain guests. The defenses of the castle were tested in 1217 when it came under siege by French troops, but it held up to 10 months of bombardment.
Dover Castle is the largest castle in all of England.
Also known as the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln, the Lincoln Cathedral is regarded highly by architectural scholars, including writer John Ruskin who called it “the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles.” The Lincoln Cathedral was built between 1185 and 1311 in the Gothic architectural style but has been extended and upgraded several times.
One of the most eye-catching features of the Lincoln Cathedral is the stained glass. The cathedral has two large stained glass rose windows — the Bishop’s Eye and the Dean’s Eye — which were added in the Middle Ages. These rose windows were very uncommon in medieval European architecture. The cathedral also has 13 bells in the southwest tower, five in the central tower, and two in the northwest tower. One stone carving in the cathedral is the Lincoln Imp. According to a legend from the 14th century, two imps were sent by Satan to do evil. After heading to Lincoln Cathedral, an angel appeared and ordered the imps to stop. When one imp sat atop a pillar and began throwing rocks at the angel, he was turned to stone. Legend says the stone imp can still be seen sitting atop the column in the Angel Choir of the cathedral.
The Lincoln Cathedral was the tallest building in the world its construction and and 1549, making it the first building to hold this distinction after the Great Pyramid of Giza. It’s also the third largest cathedral in Britain in floor space after York Minster and St Paul’s.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Medieval Buildings & Architecture" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/medieval-buildings-architecture/, February 10, 2017