Medieval 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 It was superseded from the later 12th century by a new style – the Gothic.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

Norman style

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.

Rochester Castle has one of the most spectacular keeps in England, begun in 1127
Rochester Castle has one of the most spectacular keeps in England, begun in 1127. A masterpiece of Norman architecture, it is the tallest such building to survive in Europe


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 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

The rise of Gothic

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 (called 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.

Decorated style

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

Perpendicular churches

In northern Europe, the Decorated style developed into the convoluted and florid Flamboyant style, but the Perpendicular style that developed in the later 14th and 15th centuries in England is distinctively English. It is characterised by soaring vertical lines, huge narrow-traceried windows, far more glass than stone, and exuberant fan-vaulted, hammerbeam or ‘angel’ roofs.

Perpendicular churches are among the greatest glories of English architecture. Tall and light-filled, they were expensive to build. Many (though by no means all) of the finest stand in areas made prosperous by the booming cloth trade, especially East Anglia and Lincolnshire, the Cotswolds and parts of the West Country.

St John's Abbey Gate, Colchester
St John’s Abbey Gate, the only surviving part of a rich Benedictine monastery in Colchester, Essex, was built in about 1400 to strengthen the abbey’s defences. The emphasis on vertical lines is characteristic of the Perpendicular style

Manifest piety

Some of the biggest churches built or reconstructed in the Perpendicular style served village populations which could never have filled them. They are manifestations of piety and local pride, rather than need.

Many Perpendicular churches contain lavish tombs, erected to ensure that their founders and benefactors would be remembered. Generous souls further secured their salvation by adding almshouses, schools or ‘colleges’ (communal residences for priests) in a matching style, as at Ewelme, Oxfordshire, Tattershall College, Lincolnshire, and Chichele College, Northamptonshire.

Aerial view of Old Wardour Castle
Old Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, was begun in the 1390s for John, 5th Lord Lovell. Although castles retained a military function in the later medieval period, they also increasingly reflected the owner’s social status. Old Wardour’s unusual and innovative hexagonal shape was a vivid symbol of Lord Lovell’s wealth and rank

Fashionable mansions

Nobles and rising gentry – like the Heydons of Baconsthorpe Castle – also proclaimed their wealth and status by building lavish mansions. These were often built in the style of castles, and surrounded by moats, but were not seriously defensible.

During the later decades of the 14th century there was a fashion for corner-towered rectangular castles like Bodiam in Sussex, Farleigh Hungerford Castle in Somerset and Bolton Castle in Yorkshire. Old Wardour Castle in Wiltshire is, unusually, hexagonal, while Nunney Castle in Somerset is a compact ‘tower house’ in the French style.

Great 15th-century mansions include Tattershall Castle (Lincolnshire) and palatial Wingfield Manor (Derbyshire), both built for Lord Treasurer Ralph Cromwell and significantly embellished with his badge of a bulging purse and his motto, ‘Have I not the right?’

Tattershall Castle is built of brick. This material became increasingly popular in eastern England, where it was also used lavishly for Thornton Abbey Gatehouse, Kirby Muxloe Castle and much of Gainsborough Old Hall. At first imported from Flanders, building bricks were soon being made in England.

Timber framing

Medieval builders regularly used wood as well as stone, and in many parts of England, the main tradition remained timber framing throughout the Middle Ages. 

Timber was used not only for modest dwellings and agricultural buildings but also for ambitious town houses and guildhalls, like those in the Suffolk wool town of Lavenham and for the upper storey of York’s Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. The mighty timber hammerbeam roof added to Westminster Hall in 1395–9 by Hugh Herland and Richard II’s master-mason Henry Yevele has a 21-metre span. It is one of the most daring feats of carpentry ever achieved.

Harmondsworth Barn, Middlesex, of 1426–7, one of the largest timber-framed barns ever built in England, must also rank among the architectural wonders of this period.

Interior of Harmondsworth Barn, Middlesex
Dubbed by John Betjeman the ‘cathedral of Middlesex’, Harmondsworth Barn is one of the most complete, unaltered pre-Reformation buildings in England. Built by Winchester College in 1426–7 as part of its manor farm at Harmondsworth, the timber-framed barn is an exceptional example of medieval carpentry

Medieval stories

More about medieval England

  • Medieval: 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 was superseded from the later 12th century by a new style – the Gothic.

  • Medieval: Religion

    The Church was a pervasive force in people’s lives, with the power and influence of the Catholic Church – then the only Church in western Europe – reaching its zenith in England in the Middle Ages.

  • Medieval: Warfare

    The Norman Conquest was achieved largely thanks to two instruments of war previously unknown in England: the mounted, armoured knight, and the castle.