English architecture, c 600-1500...

This is the first page in a projected series of brief descriptions of English architectural styles. This page contains a short description of the styles of English architecture current from around the year 600 to circa 1500. It picks out some of the key features of the main architectural styles and mentions some examples – mostly churches, because, in this period, these are by far the most common, and most accessible, surviving buildings. Where an example of a specific style appears in a post on this blog, there’s a link in the text below, so that you can see a relevant photograph and a bit more information about the period and the style.

Saxon: before 1066

The centuries after the Romans left Britain are traditionally known as the Dark Ages, but almost since that term was coined, historians have been telling us that the Dark Ages weren’t really dark. The Anglo-Saxons, after all, fostered Christianity, created the beginnings of English literature and produced stunning illuminated manuscripts. They developed the law and defined the country known as England.

During the centuries before the Norman invasion of 1066, most buildings were of wood and so the houses and working buildings of the Saxon period have not survived at all. What does remain are a number of stone churches (and a single, much restored Saxon timber church) – plus various fragments of Saxon masonry, from carvings to blocked arches, that form parts of churches that have been rebuilt, adapted, and extended over the years.

Saxon churches were usually tall and narrow, had narrow doorways, and had few, very small windows, like Odda's Chapel (photograph above), glass being an expensive luxury. These buildings are therefore usually dark inside, unless the original windows have been replaced with larger ones. Most of them are also on the small side, although there are one or two larger examples, such as the church at Deerhurst and the large church at Brixworth, Northamptonshire, which, with its larger windows and imposing arches, has been compared to the great basilica-churches of mainland Europe. Saxon churches also sometimes had impressive towers, like the one at Wickham.

Compared to later buildings, English Saxon churches are mostly quite plain. The windows are simple openings, usually with a rounded or triangular top and the doorways are similar. But the plain appearance of Saxon buildings may be because the original decoration has not survived the centuries. The carved angels at Bradford on Avon, and the stunning animal head at Deerhurst show the skill of Saxon sculptors.

Although many Saxon churches had plain, decorated exteriors, some were adorned with a form of ornament consisting of narrow moulding in low relief to make patterns running up the wall, as at Bradford on Avon and Wing. The effect of these pilaster strips has been compared to that of the patterns of woodwork in timber-framed buildings, leading some to suppose that they represent a simple attempt to imitate the appearance of the wooden buildings that were so familiar to the Saxons. But the fact that the patterns include arch-like forms suggests that something more sophisticated is going on than mere imitation of carpentry. The stunning Saxon tower at Earls Barton, with its very elaborate pilaster strips, seems to bear this out.

The Saxons were good at other kinds of surface decoration too. The pillars in the crypt at Repton have striking carved spiral decoration running around them. At Deerhurst, on the other hand, there is spiral carving in two dimensions, enlivening the surface of the font.

Norman 1066 to c 1200

In 1066 the Normans invaded England. Historians will always argue about the extent to which they changed the country they invaded, but they certainly transformed the architecture. They brought with them a way of building designed to impress – thick walls, massive columns, small, round-headed windows, rows of round arches. They also developed stone vaulting, some of the finest of which is found in the crypts of English cathedrals such as Worcester, where a forest of round columns with cushion capitals supports the stone vaulted ceiling..

Quite a lot of Norman architecture is still standing, from vast cathedrals such as Durham to scores of small parish churches. Norman domestic buildings are thinner on the ground – most houses were still built of timber – but a handful survive, as do more numerous castles.

The Normans often built on a large scale. Their cathedrals were bigger than anything that has survived from Saxon England. Even non-cathedral churches, like Melbourne in Derbyshire, could be very impressive, with their rows of semi-circular arches. These larger churches, such as the abbey church at Tewkesbury, also often had large towers – these were not tall by modern standards, but massive, chunky, and sometimes highly decorated with arches and carving.

Norman decoration changed between the invasion and the end of the 12th century. Early Norman buildings, exemplified by the twin towers of the church at Reculver, are often quite plain, with features such as arches and doorways getting their effect from simple mouldings and their proportions. But later Norman architecture is often lavishly ands vigorously carved. Even quite small churches, such as Elkstone in Gloucestershire (photograph above), make use of a repertoire of abstract carved patterns – zigzags, pellets, and so on – while some churches, like those of Herefordshire, have figurative carving of staggering complexity and beauty. Doorways are often treated in this way, and stunning Norman doorways often survive in buildings that have otherwise been altered in later periods – there are interesting examples at Buckingham and Sherbourne. Features such as fonts can also be vigorously carved, and some high-status buildings, such as Much Wenlock Priory, have intricate carved decoration on their walls. An aspect of Norman decoration that has survived only in fragments is wall painting; the frescoes at the small church at Clayton, Sussex, give a glimpse of what a decorated interior of around 1100 could look like.

The space inside Norman churches has its own characteristic atmosphere. Thick walls, broad, round pillars, and small windows produce dark interiors dominated by stone. Repeated elements, such as the massive arches at cathedrals like Peterborough or churches like Melbourne, create patterns of light and shade, an effect redoubled on a small scale with the Norman’s use of carved patterns around doorways and windows. Shafts of light through small windows illuminating patches of zigzag moulding and throwing masses of masonry into relief are what give Norman interiors their atmosphere and power.

The Normans were also famous for building castles, and their thick-walled, narrow-windowed style was actually very good for structures that needed to be defended against armed attack. Norman castles –like the White Tower at the heart of the Tower of London and the big square keeps at Rochester and Castle Hedingham, Essex – are much less ornate than late-Norman churches, and writers about architecture sometimes say that they’re purely functional buildings. But the more people look at castles, the more they see that there are decorative elements – the carved arches and capitals in the hall at Oakham Castle are a particularly ornate case in point. Kings and lords built castles to impress, as well as to be military strongholds.

Gothic, c 1200 to c 1500

For centuries after the Norman invasion, England kept strong links with the rest of Europe. For much of the time the country’s rulers were from families originating in Normandy, and many ruled over parts of France as well as England, or asserted claims to the French throne. These political ties also encouraged artistic ties, and the next major development in English building also came from France. This was the Gothic style, which spread across the Channel to England in the years on either side of 1200.

Briefly and simply, Gothic architecture uses the pointed arch, has thinner walls than Norman, and generally larger windows. The biggest churches have stone vaulted ceilings supported from the outside by flying buttresses. Everything about the style – pointed arches and windows, pointed vaults, tall towers and spires – seems to direct the eye heavenwards, and the decoration, in the form of stained glass, wall paintings, and carving, reinforces the Christian message by illustrating stories and characters from the Bible, and the host of Christian saints and churchmen. Much of this decoration survives in fragmentary form typified by the small bits of medieval stained glass preserved in some churches, but even these fragments can be enthralling.

Gothic is not one style, but a continuously changing, dynamic series of answers to the question ‘How shall we build?’ in which the forms of vaults, windows, doorways, and decoration were constantly evolving. For convenience, the Victorians, great enthusiasts of Gothic, named three phases or styles of English Gothic: Early English (13th century), Decorated (14th century), and Perpendicular (15th century). It’s not a perfect scheme, and the dates are very approximate – new styles took hold gradually over decades and old ones lingered. But it helps to understand it, in order to get a mental picture of the variety and broad development of Gothic building in England.

Early English Gothic buildings are distinguished by narrow windows called lancets, slender columns that often have still thinner columns (known as shafts) bundled around them, mouldings around arches, and decorative carving that often takes the form of stylized foliage. This was a great age of figurative carving too, but few figures have survived – there are notable exceptions on the great west front of Wells Cathedral. The simple lines of the lancet windows and moulded arches can lend Early English buildings a rather severe beauty, and the simplicity of the style appealed to the monastic orders, especially the austere Cistercians. This kind of architecture reaches its peak in great cathedrals, such as Wells, but is also evident in parish churches such as Uffington (photograph above), in the foliate carving in the church at Eaton Bray, and in the multiple shafts and intricately moulded arches of Abbey Dore. This ornament was not universal, though. Early English buildings can be very plain indeed, like the church tower at Bosbury, which looks more like part of a catle than our usual idea of an ecclesiastical building. Other buildings that survive from this period include stone barns such as the one at Great Coxwell.

As time went on, Early English architecture became more complex, especially in the way the windows were designed. Instead of single or grouped lancets, there were larger windows in which the upper part was filled with patterns of stone glazing bars called tracery. The church at Wyck Rissington has a chancel with both lancet windows and windows in which pairs of lancets are combined with other shapes to produce a basic kind of tracery. Another early tracery design is called Y-tracery, because the glazing bars form the shape of a Y. More elaborate tracery made of up regular patterns of shapes – circles, trefoils, quatrefoils, and so on – has been dubbed geometric tracery by architectural historians. It is seen to beautiful effect in buildings such as the Angel Choir in Lincoln Cathedral.

In the late-13th century, Gothic architecture became still more ornate as the Decorated Gothic style evolved. Windows became more elaborate, with a wealth of intricate stone tracery, some of it making up much more complex patterns than previously, sometimes dominating entire walls of a parish church. The extraordinary range of these patterns is illustrated not just by the windows themselves, but by carving imitating window tracery, as for example on the delightful eight-sided font at Brailes. Decorative carving became more naturalistic and mouldings, like the tracery, were more curvaceous, with arches sometimes taking the double-curved form called the ogee. Windows, like those at Ledbury (photograph above), could be encrusted with ornamental ballflowers, and interior details could be covered with carving of great beauty and fluency, as in Bristol Cathedral. In such high-status buildings the effect could be one of virtuoso carving running riot, but the riot was interrupted in 1348 when the Black Death hit Britain. With the huge death toll, many commercial and artistic activities, including building, slowed down or, in some places, stopped completely for many years.

In both early phases of Gothic, Early English and Decorated, the architecture seems to point skywards. This effect is enhanced by quite steeply pitched roofs, pointed windows, the widespread building of spires, and the addition of other upward-pointing features such as pinnacles. Because of the increase in window size, interiors are usually lighter than those of Norman churches. Gothic churches were also originally colourful places. Sadly, few of the medieval wall paintings survive, but those that do give a hint of the vibrant colour present in these early Gothic buildings. Their builders were also resourceful in the use of different coloured stone, as in the beautiful arcades of Lincoln Cathedral.

Stimulated by landmark buildings such as Gloucester Cathedral, 15th century architecture changed direction. What became known as the Perpendicular style was much more rectilinear than Decorated. There were vertical mouldings everywhere, and the mullions (the vertical glazing bars in windows) ran from top to bottom, dividing windows into a series of panels, as in the parish church at Ewelme (photograph above). Arches were still pointed, but flatter, and in high-status buildings, ceilings took the form of intricate fan vaults. In the 15th century, which saw prosperity for the English wool trade, many churches were built in the Perpendicular style, from East Anglia to the Cotswolds. Perpendicular Gothic was also the style of the wonderful church towers of Somerset, such as those at Chewton Mendip, Isle Abbots and Huish Episcopi, the celebrated 'wool' churches such as Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, and of landmark buildings such as the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. There are more surviving secular buildings from this period, too, including ornate ‘market crosses’ like the one in Malmesbury.

With their flattened arches and less steeply pitched roofs, Perpendicular Gothic buildings often have a more box-like structure than the heavenward-pointing churches of the early Gothic period. They are also much airier, because their windows are often so big that the walls seem to have dissolved completely in an ocean of glass. Though much of England’s medieval stained glass is lost, a church like Fairford, Gloucestershire, where it is preserved, shows the colourful glow of these windows. In spite of this dissolution of the walls, though, the mason's and carver's arts were still strong – as shown by the preponderance of gargoyles and grotesques, and by the fact that ornate stone details such as pinnacles (also a great feature of Decorated Gothic) were still a prominent feature of towers and parapets. 

The overall effect of Perpendicular architecture is seen at its best in King’s College Chapel, where the windows are topped with an intricate fan vault. Parish churches were not always vaulted, but had beautifully made timber roofs, sometimes adorned with a host of carved angels. Such churches may seem structurally like stone boxes, but from stained glass to carved roofs they are truly boxes of delights.

Buildings of the Gothic period generally did not always conform to the stylistic rules. Although Gothic was essentially a way of building in stone, some medieval buildings are made mainly of timber. The vast majority of medieval houses were timber-framed. Among the most impressive of these are in Tewkesbury, where a late-medieval group includes small shops built by the nearby abbey and a separate house, recently restored with pink-coloured infill between the timbers. Another impressive medieval timber-framed building is the vast black-and-white so-called Booth Hall in Evesham, which was probably originally an inn. There are also timber-framed church towers in the West Midlands and in other places, such as the extraordinary belfry at Brookland in Kent.

Although relatively few medieval houses survive (there is an outstanding fortified manor house of c 1280 at Stokesay Castle) there are still lots of medieval castles, which naturally draw on a different set of design and structural conventions. From beginnings in the Norman period with tall square stone keeps, castle-building developed with the creation of round and polygonal towers, as at Conisborough, and, in the later Middle Ages, castles that consist of a group of buildings in a small courtyard – there is a small example in the castle at Nunney. Castles, often reduced by time and warfare to a series of ruined walls, are fascinating buildings to explore.

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Now click here for the story of English architecture from c. 1500 to c. 1700.