Medieval Part I: Architecture

For more than a century after the Battle of Hastings, all substantial stone buildings in England were built in the Romanesque style. Known in the British Isles as Norman, it is a direct descendant of late Roman architecture. It was superseded from the later 12th century by a new style – the Gothic.

The early 13th-century east end of Rievaulx Abbey church, North Yorkshire

The early 13th-century east end of Rievaulx Abbey church, North Yorkshire


The chief characteristic of Norman architecture is the semicircular arch, often combined with massive cylindrical pillars. Early Norman buildings have an austere and fortress-like quality. The Chapel of St John within the Tower of London is one particularly early and atmospheric example.

In larger churches, such as Durham Cathedral and the ruined St Botolph’s Priory, Colchester, dizzying sweeps of double or triple tiers of round arches rise above one another, clerestory over gallery over main arcade.

The Norman style appears at its most uncompromising in the great keeps of castles such as Dover and Rochester in Kent and Richmond in North Yorkshire. Surviving domestic examples are far rarer, but include the so-called Jews’ Houses of Lincoln and the Constable’s House within Christchurch Castle, Dorset.

The west front of the church at Castle Acre Priory, one of the finest examples of Norman architecture and decoration in England

The west front of the church at Castle Acre Priory is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture and decoration in England. The doors and lower stages date from about 1140, and the upper stages followed in the next 20 years. The central window was inserted in the 15th century


St Mary’s Church, Kempley, Gloucestershire, serves as a reminder that the walls, pillars and arches of many Norman buildings were richly painted. From the early 12th century carved decoration also became more common, as seen in the chevron vault ribs of the ‘rainbow arch’ of Lindisfarne Priory, Northumberland.

Doorways were flanked by rows of columns, and topped by concentric arches often carved with zigzags, or encrusted with signs of the zodiac or animal faces. The capitals (heads) of pillars were also frequently carved – perhaps with scallops, or stylised water-lily leaves like those at Burton Agnes Manor House in Yorkshire.

Wall surfaces might be decorated with tiers of intersecting round arches carved in low relief, as at Castle Rising Castle and Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk and Wenlock Priory in Shropshire.

The rainbow arch at Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne Priory’s most dramatic feature, the ‘rainbow arch’, is a vault-rib which miraculously survived when the church tower above it collapsed. The zigzag moulding is common in Norman architecture.


In the later decades of the 12th century, a new architecture began to appear. Its pointed arches were possibly derived from Islamic buildings seen by crusaders. The style was regarded with contempt by Renaissance historians, who dismissed it as ‘Gothic’ (meaning barbarous).

Initially, the new arches were simply grafted onto Norman features. At the ‘transitional’ church of Buildwas Abbey in Shropshire, for example, the main arches have shallow points while the windows above them are round-headed.

Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire, and Roche Abbey, South Yorkshire, are key examples of the new style’s rapid progress. By about 1200 a fully Gothic style, christened ‘Early English’ by the Victorians, had developed. Distinctive features included narrow pointed lancet windows, and pillars composed of clustered columns and shafts of polished marble. Whitby Abbey and parts of Rievaulx Abbey (both in North Yorkshire) were rebuilt in this style during the 1220s.

Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire

Byland Abbey church, North Yorkshire, is an outstanding example of early Gothic architecture. Completed in the 1190s, Byland was one of the first monasteries in the north of England to adopt Gothic forms, and its church, remarkable for both its size and its elaboration, proved hugely influential.


The Decorated style was an offshoot of Gothic that developed from about 1290. Its name reflects the elaborate stone tracery of its sometimes very large windows. The west front of York Minster is a fine example.

Sculpted embellishment was also lavished on arches (which were sometimes flattened and cusped, or ‘ogee’) and on column capitals and wall surfaces. Among the most impressive achievements of the Decorated style is the great octagonal ‘lantern’ of Ely Cathedral, raised in 1322–8 above the crossing and invisibly supported by mighty timber struts.

Medieval architecture regularly used wood as well as stone. Leigh Court Barn, Worcestershire, the biggest timber-cruck barn in England, built in the mid-14th century, is as remarkable a building as any church or cathedral.

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