English Gothic architecture

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English Gothic architecture
Lincoln Cathedral Presbytery, Lincolnshire, UK - Diliff.jpg
Cambridge King's College Chapel Vault.jpg
Years activec. 1175–1640
Country Kingdom of England

English Gothic is an architectural style that flourished from the late 12th until the mid-17th century. [1] [2] The style was most prominently used in the construction of cathedrals and churches. Gothic architecture's defining features are pointed arches, rib vaults, buttresses, and extensive use of stained glass. Combined, these features allowed the creation of buildings of unprecedented height and grandeur, filled with light from large stained glass windows. Important examples include Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral. The Gothic style endured in England much longer than in Continental Europe.


The Gothic style was introduced from France, where the various elements had first been used together within a single building at the choir of the Abbey of Saint-Denis north of Paris, completed in 1144. [3] The earliest large-scale applications of Gothic architecture in England were Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Many features of Gothic architecture had evolved naturally from Romanesque architecture (often known in England as Norman architecture). The first cathedral in England to be both planned and built entirely in the Gothic style was Wells Cathedral, begun in 1175. [4] Other features were imported from the Ile-de-France, where the first French Gothic cathedral, Sens Cathedral, had been built (1135–64). [5] After a fire destroyed the choir of Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, the French architect William of Sens rebuilt the choir in the new Gothic style between 1175 and 1180. The transition can also be seen at Durham Cathedral, a Norman building which was remodelled with the earliest rib vault known. Besides cathedrals, monasteries, and parish churches, the style was used for many secular buildings, including university buildings, palaces, great houses, and almshouses and guildhalls.

Stylistic periodisations of the English Gothic style are

The architect and art historian Thomas Rickman's Attempt to Discriminate the Style of Architecture in England, first published in 1812, divided Gothic architecture in the British Isles into three stylistic periods. [8] Rickman identified the period of architecture as follows:

From the 15th century, under the House of Tudor, the prevailing Gothic style is commonly known as Tudor architecture. This style is ultimately succeeded by Elizabethan architecture and Renaissance architecture under Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603). [9] Rickman excluded from his scheme most new buildings after Henry VIII's reign, calling the style of "additions and rebuilding" in the later 16th and earlier 17th centuries "often much debased". [8]

Architect and art historian Edmund Sharpe, in The Seven Periods of English Architecture (1851), identified a pre-Gothic Transitional Period (1145–90), following the Norman period, in which pointed arches and round arches were employed together. [10] Focusing on the windows, Sharpe dubbed Rickman's Gothic styles as follows:

In the English Renaissance, the stylistic language of the ancient classical orders and the Renaissance architecture of southern Europe began to supplant Gothic architecture in Continental Europe, but the British Isles continued to favour Gothic building styles, with traditional Perpendicular Gothic building projects undertaken into the 17th century in England and both Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture incorporating Gothic features, particularly for churches. [11]

Classical-inspired architecture predominated after the Great Fire of London The rebuilding of the City of London was so extensive that the numbers of workers employed broke the monopoly of the medieval livery company of stonemasons and the Worshipful Company of Masons and the role of master-mason was displaced by that of the early modern architect. [11] The new St Paul's Cathedral designed by Christopher Wren and his Wren churches mostly dispensed with the Gothic idiom in favour of classical work. [11] Outside London however, new ecclesiastical buildings and repairs to older churches were still carried out in Gothic style, particularly near the ancient university towns of Oxford and Cambridge, where the university colleges were important patrons of 17th-century Gothic construction. [11]

By the 18th century, architects occasionally worked in Gothic style, but the living tradition of Gothic workmanship had faded and their designs rarely resembled medieval Gothic buildings. Only when the Gothic Revival movement of the late 18th and 19th centuries began, was the architectural language of medieval Gothic relearned through the scholarly efforts of early 19th-century art historians like Rickman and Matthew Bloxam, whose Principles of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture first appeared in 1829. [12] [11]

Alongside the new Gothic building work of the 19th century, many of England's existing Gothic buildings were extensively repaired, restored, remodelled, and rebuilt by architects seeking to improve the buildings according to the Romantic, high church aesthetic of the Oxford Movement and to replace many of the medieval features lost in the iconoclastic phases of the Reformation, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. In the process of this Victorian "restoration", much of the original Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages was lost or altered beyond recognition. However, medieval works left unfinished were often completed or restored to their "original" designs. According to James Stevens Curl, the revival of Gothic architecture was "arguably, the most influential artistic phenomenon ever to spring from England". [11]

The various English Gothic styles are seen at their most fully developed in cathedrals, monasteries, and collegiate churches. With the exception of Salisbury Cathedral, English cathedrals–having building dates that typically range over 400 years–show great stylistic diversity.

Early English Gothic (late 12th–late 13th centuries)

Early English Gothic predominated from the late 12th century until midway to late in the 13th century, [13] [14] [15] It succeeded Norman Architecture, which had introduced early great cathedrals, built of stone instead of timber, and saw the construction of remarkable abbeys throughout England. The Normans had introduced the three classical orders of architecture, and created massive walls for their buildings, with thin pilaster-like buttresses. The transition from Norman to Gothic lasted from about 1145 until 1190. In the reigns of King Stephen and Richard I, the style changed from the more massive severe Norman style to the more delicate and refined Gothic. [16]

Early English was particularly influenced by what was called in English "The French style".[ citation needed ] The style was imported from Caen in Normandy by French Norman architects, who also imported cut stones from Normandy for their construction. It was also influenced by the architecture of the Ile-de-France, where Sens Cathedral had been constructed, the first Gothic cathedral in France. The chancel of Canterbury Cathedral, one of the first Early English structures in England, was rebuilt in the new style by a French architect, William of Sens. [17]

The Early English style particularly featured more strongly-constructed walls with stone vaulted roofs, to resist fire. The weight of these vaults was carried downwards and outwards by arched ribs. This feature, the early rib vault, was used at Durham Cathedral, the first time it was used this way in Europe. [18]

Another important innovation introduced in this early period was the buttress, a stone column outside the structure that reinforced the walls against the weight pressing outward and downward from the vaults. This evolved into the flying buttress, which carried the thrust from the wall of the nave over the roof of the aisle. The buttress was given further support by a heavy stone pinnacle. Buttresses were an early feature of the chapter house of Lichfield Cathedral. [16]

Early English is typified by lancet windows, tall narrow lights topped by a pointed arch. They were grouped together side by side under a single arch and decorated with mullions in tracery patterns, such as cusps, or spear-points. Lancet windows were combined similarly pointed arches and the ribs of the vaults overhead, giving a harmonious and unified style.



Decorated Gothic (late 13th–late 14th centuries)

The second style of English Gothic architecture is generally termed Decorated Gothic, because the amount of ornament and decoration increased dramatically. It corresponded roughly with the Rayonnant period in France, which influenced it. It was a period of growing prosperity in England, and this was expressed in the decoration of Gothic buildings. Almost every feature of the interiors and facades was decorated.

Historians sometimes subdivide this style into two periods, based on the predominant motifs of the designs. The first, the Geometric style, lasted from about 1245 or 50 until 1315 or 1360, where ornament tended to be based on straight lines, cubes and circles, followed by the Curvilinear style (from about 1290 or 1315 until 1350 or 1360) which used gracefully curving lines. [22]

Additions in the Decorated style were often added to earlier cathedrals. One striking example is found at Ely Cathedral; the architect Thomas Witney built the central tower from 1315 to 1322 in Decorated style. Soon afterwards another architect, William Joy, added curving arches to strengthen the structure, and made further extensions to join the Lady Chapel to the Choir. In 1329–45 he created an extraordinary double arch in the decorated style. [23] [ better source needed ]


The buttress became more common in this period, as at Lichfield Cathedral. These were stone columns outside the walls which supports them, allowing thinner and high walls between the buttresses, and larger windows. The buttresses were often topped by ornamental stone pinnacles to give them greater weight.


Perpendicular Gothic (late 13th to mid 16th century)

The Perpendicular Gothic (or simply Perpendicular) is the third and final style of medieval Gothic architecture in England. It is characterised by an emphasis on vertical lines, and is sometimes called rectilinear. [26] [27] The Perpendicular style began to emerge in about 1330. The earliest example is the chapter house of Old St Paul's Cathedral, built by the royal architect William de Ramsey in 1332. [28] The early style was also practised by another royal architect, John Sponlee, and fully developed in the works of Henry Yevele and William Wynford.

Walls were built much higher than in earlier periods, and stained glass windows became very large, so that the space around them was reduced to simple piers. Horizontal transoms sometimes had to be introduced to strengthen the vertical mullions. [29]

Many churches were built with magnificent towers including York Minster, Gloucester Cathedral, Worcester Cathedral, and St Botolph's Church, Boston, St Giles' Church, Wrexham, St Mary Magdalene, Taunton. Another outstanding example of Perpendicular is King's College Chapel, Cambridge. [30]

The interiors of Perpendicular churches were filled with lavish ornamental woodwork, including misericords (choir stalls with lifting seats), under which were grotesque carvings; stylized "poppy heads", or carved figures in foliage on the ends of benches; and elaborate multicoloured decoration, usually in floral patterns, on panels or cornices called brattishing. [29] The sinuous lines of the tracery in the Decorated style were replaced by more geometric forms and perpendicular lines. [31]

The style was also affected by the tragic history of the period, particularly the Black Death, which killed an estimated third of England's population in 18 months between June 1348 and December 1349 and returned in 1361–62 to kill another fifth. This had a great effect on the arts and culture, which took a more sober direction. [32]

The perpendicular Gothic was the longest of the English Gothic periods; it continued for a century after the style had nearly disappeared from France and the rest of the European continent, where the Renaissance had already begun. Gradually, near the end of the period, Renaissance forms began to appear in the English Gothic. A rood screen, a Renaissance ornament, was installed in the chapel of King's College Chapel, Cambridge. During the Elizabethan Period (1558–1603), the classical details, including the five orders of classical architecture, were gradually introduced. Carved ornament with Italian Renaissance motifs began to be used in decoration, including on the tomb of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey. The pointed arch gradually gave way to the Roman rounded arch, brick began to replace masonry, the roof construction was concealed, and the Gothic finally gave way to an imitation of Roman and Greek styles. [29]




The pitched Gothic timber roof was a distinctive feature of the style, both in religious and domestic architecture. It had to be able to resist rain, snow and high winds of the English climate, and to preserve the integrity of the structure. A pitched roof was a common feature of all the Gothic periods. During the Norman period, the roofs normally were pitched forty-five degrees, with the apex forming a right angle, which harmonised with the rounded arches of the gables. With the arrival of the pointed rib vault, the roofs became steeper, up to sixty degrees. In the late perpendicular period, the angle declined to twenty degrees or even less. The roofs were usually made of boards overlaid with tiles or sheet-lead, which was commonly used on low-pitched roofs. [36]

The simpler Gothic roofs were supported by long rafters of light wood, resting on wooden trusses set into the walls. The rafters were supported by more solid beams, called purlins, which were carried at their ends by the roof trusses. The tie-beam is the chief beam of the truss. Later, the roof was supported by structures called a King-point-truss and Queen-post truss, where the principal rafters are connected with the tie beam by the head of the truss. The King-Point truss has a vertical beam with connects the centre of the rafter to the ridge of the roof, supported by diagonal struts, while a Queen-Post truss has a wooden collar below the pointed arch which united the posts and was supported by struts and cross-braces. A Queen-Post truss could span a width of forty feet. Both of these forms created greater stability, but the full weight of the roof still came down directly onto the walls. [36]

Gothic architects did not like the roof truss systems, because the numerous horizontal beams crossing the nave obstructed the view of the soaring height. They came up with an ingenious solution, the Hammerbeam roof. In this system, the point of the roof is supported by the collar and trusses, but from the collar curved beams reach well downward on the walls, and carry the weight downward and outwards, to the walls and buttresses, without obstructing the view. The oldest existing roof of this kind is found in Winchester Cathedral. The most famous example of the Hammerbeam roof is the roof of Westminster Hall (1395), the largest timber roof of its time, built for royal ceremonies such as the banquets following the coronation of the King. Other notable wooden roofs included those of Christ Church, Oxford, Trinity College, Cambridge, and Crosby Hall. A similar system, with arched trusses, was used in the roof of Wexham Cathedral. [36]

University Gothic

The Gothic style was adopted in the late 13th to 15th centuries in early English university buildings, due in part to the close connection between the universities and the church. The oldest existing example of University Gothic in England is probably the Mob Quad of Merton College, Oxford, constructed between 1288 and 1378. [37] [ page needed ] Balliol College, Oxford has examples of Gothic work in the north and west ranges of the front quadrangle, dated to 1431; notably in the medieval hall on the west side, (now the "new library") and the "old library" on the first floor, north side. The architecture at Balliol was often derived from castle architecture, with battlements, rather than from church models. King's College Chapel, Cambridge also used another distinctive Perpendicular Gothic feature, the four-centred arch.

Gothic Revival (19th and 20th centuries)

The Perpendicular style was less often used in the Gothic Revival than the Decorated style, but major examples include the rebuilt Palace of Westminster (i.e. the Houses of Parliament), Bristol University's Wills Memorial Building (1915–25), and St. Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney.

See also

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