English Gothic architecture


English Gothic architecture
Wells cathedral interior 101.jpg
Gloucester Cathedral High Altar, Gloucestershire, UK - Diliff.jpg
Years activec. 1180–1520

English Gothic is an architectural style which flourished in England from about 1180 until about 1520. The style was most prominently used in the construction of cathedrals and churches. Its defining features are pointed arches, rib vaults, buttresses, and an 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 English Gothic style endured in England until the early sixteenth century – much longer than in Continental Europe. It was succeeded by Tudor architecture and Renaissance architecture.

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 Basilique Saint-Denis north of Paris, completed in 1094.[1] 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). Other features were imported from the Ile-de-France, where the first French Gothic cathedral, Sens Cathedral, had been built in 1135–1164.[2] 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 remodeled with the earliest rib vault known. Besides cathedrals, the style appeared in university buildings, castles, palaces, great houses, and many smaller secular buildings, including almshouses and parish churches.

Historians traditionally divide English Gothic into three periods: Early English (c. 1180–1275), Decorated Gothic (c. 1275–1380), and Perpendicular Gothic (c. 1380–1520).[3] The various styles are seen at their most fully developed in the cathedrals, abbey churches and collegiate buildings. With the exception of Salisbury Cathedral, English cathedrals show great stylistic diversity and have building dates that typically range over 400 years.

Early English Gothic (late 12th to mid-to-late 13th century)

The Early English Period of English Gothic architecture lasted from the late 12th century until midway to late in the 13th century,[4][5][6] 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.[7]

Early English Gothic was particularly influenced by what was called in English "The French style". 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 the first French Gothic cathedral, Sens Cathedral had been constructed. The nave of Canterbury Cathedral, one of the first early English Gothic structures in England, was rebuilt in the new style by a French architect, William of Sens.[8]

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.[9]

Another important innovation introduced in this early period was the buttress, a stone column outside the structure which 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 from the wall of the nave over the roof of the aisle. The buttress was given further support by a heavy stone pinnacle. Butresses were an early feature of the chapter house of Lichfield Cathedral.[7]

Another innovation introduced in early English Gothic was the Lancet window, a tall narrow window with a pointed arch on top. 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.


  • The vertical plan of early Gothic Cathedrals had three levels, each of about equal height; the clerestory, with arched windows which admitted light on top, under the roof vaults; the triforium a wider covered arcade, in the middle; and, on the ground floor, on either side of the nave, wide arcades of columns and pillars, which supported the weight of the ceiling vaults through the ribs.
  • The most distinctive element of this period was the pointed arch, (also known as the lancet arch, which was the key feature of the Gothic rib vault, The original purpose of rib vault was to allow a heavier stone ceiling, to replace the wooden roofs of the earlier Norman churches, which frequently caught fire. They also had the benefit of allowing the construction of higher and thinner walls. They appeared first in an early form in Durham Cathedral.[9] Gradually, pointed arches were used not only for rib vaults, but also for all of the arcades and for lancet windows, giving the nave its unified appearance. The first structure in England to be built entirely with the pointed arch was Wells Cathedral (1175-1260), but they were soon used in all Cathedrals.[10]
  • The Early English rib vaults were usually quadripartite, each having four compartments divided by ribs, with each covering one bay of the ceiling. The horizontal ridge ribs intersected the summits of the cross ribs and diagonal ribs, and carried the weight outwards and downwards to pillars or columns of the triforium and arcades, and, in later cathedrals, outside the walls to the buttresses.[11]
  • The lancet window, narrow and tall with a point at the top, became a common feature of English architecture. For this reason Early English Gothic is sometimes known as the Lancet style. The Lancet openings of windows and decorative arcading are often grouped in twos or threes. This characteristic is seen throughout Salisbury Cathedral, where groups of two lancet windows line the nave and groups of three line the clerestory. At York Minster the north transept has a cluster of five lancet windows known as the Five Sisters; each is 50 feet tall and still retains its original glass.
  • Stained glass windows began to be widely used in the windows of the clerestory, transept and especially west facade. Many were elaborately decorated with tracery; that is, thin mullions or ribs of stone which divided the windows into elaborate geometric patterns. as at Lincoln Cathedral (1220).
  • Rose Windows were relatively rare in England, but Lincoln Cathedral has two notable examples from this period. The oldest is the Dean's Window in the north transept, which dates to 1220–1235. It is an example of an Early English plate-tracery rose window. The geometric design, with concentric tiers of circular window lights, predates the geometric tracery of the later decorated style of Gothic architecture. The principal theme of the window is the second coming of Christ and the last judgement. Some scenes are associated with death and resurrection, such as the funeral of Saint Hugh, the founder of the Cathedral, and the death of the Virgin.[12]
  • Sculptural decoration. Unlike the more somber and heavy Norman churches, the Gothic churches began to have elaborate sculptural decoration. The arches of the arcades and triforium were sometimes decorated with dog tooth patterns, cusps, carved circles, and with trefoils, quatrefoils, as well as floral and vegetal designs. Simple floral motifs also often appeared on the capitals, the spandrels, the roof boss that joined the ribs of the vaults.[5]
  • The clustered column. Instead of being massive, solid pillars, early Gothic columns were often composed of clusters of slender, detached shafts, which descended the vaults above. These were often made of dark, polished Purbeck "marble", surrounding a central pillar, or pier, to which they are attached by circular moulded shaft-rings. One characteristic of Early Gothic in England is the great depth given to the hollows of the mouldings with alternating fillets and rolls, and by the decoration of the hollows with the dog-tooth ornament and by the circular abacus or tops of the capitals of the columns.[5]

Notable Early Gothic structures

Decorated Gothic (mid 13th to mid 14th century)

The second period 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 Cathedrals. 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 (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.[13]

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.[14]


  • The Lierne Vault . Vaulting became much more elaborate in this period. The rib vault of earlier Early Gothic usually had just four compartments, with a minimum number of ribs which were all connected to the columns below, and all played a role in distributing the weight and outwards and downwards. In the Decorated architecture period, additional ribs were added to the vaulted ceilings which were purely decorative. They created very elaborate star patterns and other geometric designs. Gloucester Cathedral and Ely Cathedral have notable Lierne vaults from this period.[15]

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

  • The Fan vault, An even more eleborate form, appeared late in the Decorative. Unlike the Lierne vault, the fan vault had no functional ribs; the visible "ribs" are mouldings on the masonry imitating ribs. The structure is composed of slabs of stone joined together into half-cones, whose vertices are the springers of the vault. The earliest example, from 1373, is found in the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral. It made a notable backdrop in some of the Harry Potter films.[15]
  • Tracery. Decorated architecture is particularly characterised by the elaborate tracery within the stained glass windows. The elaborate windows are subdivided by closely spaced parallel mullions (vertical bars of stone), usually up to the level at which the arched top of the window begins. The mullions then branch out and cross, intersecting to fill the top part of the window with a mesh of elaborate patterns called tracery, typically including trefoils and quatrefoils. The style was geometrical at first and curvilinear, or curving and serpentine, in the later period, This curvilinear element was introduced in the first quarter of the 14th century and lasted about fifty years.[16] A notable example of the curvilinear style is the East window of Carlisle Cathedral, (about 1350).
  • Sculpture also became more ornate and decorative. The ball flower and a four-leaved flower motif took the place of the earlier dog-tooth. The foliage in the capitals was less conventional than in Early English and more flowing, Another decorative feature of the period was diapering, or creating multicolour geometric patterns on walls or panels made with different colours of stone or brick.[16]

Notable examples

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

The Perpendicular Gothic (or simply Perpendicular) is the third and final period of English Gothic architecture It is characterised by an emphasis on vertical lines, and is sometimes called rectilinear.[17][18] The Perpendicular style began to emerge in about 1330. A notable early example is the chapter house of Old St Paul's Cathedral, built by the royal architect William Ramsey in 1332.[19] The early style was also practiced by Ramsey and 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.[20]

Many of the cathedrals and churches were built with magnificent towers (York Minster, Gloucester Cathedral, Worcester Cathedral, and Boston Church (Lincolnshire), Wrexham Church, Taunton Church, and others. Other Notable examples include Kings College Chapel, Cambridge [21]

The interiors of Perpendicular churches were filled with lavish ornamental woodwork, including choir seats with lifting seats (Misereres), under which were grotesque carvings;; "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.[22] The sinuous lines of the tracery in the Decorated style wee replaced by more geometric forms and perpendicular lines.[23]

The style was also affected by the tragic history of the period, particularly 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.[24])

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 and already begin. 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.[25]


  • Towers were an important feature of the perpendicular style, though fewer spires were built than in earlier periods. Important towers were built at Gloucester Cathedral, York Minster, Worcester Cathedral, and on many smaller churches. Decorative Battlements were a popular decoration of towers in smaller churches.
  • Windows became very large, sometimes of immense size, with slimmer stone mullions than in earlier periods, allowing greater scope for stained glass craftsmen. The mullions of the windows are carried vertically up into the arch moulding of the windows, and the upper portion is subdivided by additional mullions (supermullions) and transoms, forming rectangular compartments, known as panel tracery. The Tudor Arch window was a particular feature of English Gothic.
  • Buttresses and wall surfaces were divided into vertical panels.[23]
  • Doorways were frequently enclosed within a square head over the arch mouldings, the spandrels being filled with quatrefoils or tracery.[23] Pointed arches were still used throughout the period, but ogee and four-centred Tudor arches were also introduced.
  • Inside the church the triforium disappeared, or its place was filled with panelling, and greater importance was given to the clerestory windows, which often were the finest features in the churches of this period. The mouldings were flatter than those of the earlier periods, and one of the chief characteristics is the introduction of large elliptical hollows.[23]
  • Flint architecture. In areas of Southern England using flint architecture, elaborate flushwork decoration in flint and ashlar was used, especially in the wool churches of East Anglia.

Notable examples

The Gothic roof

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.[29]

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 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 w 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.[29]

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 an arched trusses, was used in the roof of Wexham Cathedral.[29]

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 at Oxford University, constructed between 1288 and 1378.[30]King's College Chapel at Oxford University 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 at Cambridge University featured another distinctive English Gothic feature, the Tudor 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


  1. ^ Honour, Hugh; Fleming, John (2009). A World History of Art (7th ed.). London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 376. ISBN 9781856695848.
  2. ^ Mignon, Olivier (2015). Architecture des Cathédrales Gothiques. pp. 10–11.
  3. ^ This scheme uses the labels coined by the antiquary Thomas Rickman in his Attempt to Discriminate the Style of Architecture in England (1812–15).
  4. ^ According to the originator of the term in 1817, Thomas Rickman, the period ran from 1189 to 1307.
  5. ^ a b c  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSpiers, Richard Phené (1911). "Early English Period". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Volume 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 798.
  6. ^ Some sources use the dates 1189 to 1272. (A. Freeman Smith (1922), English Church Architecture of the Middle Ages. pp. 35–45.)
  7. ^ a b A. Freeman Smith (1922), English Church Architecture of the Middle Ages, pp. 35–45.
  8. ^ Encylopaedia Britannica on-line edition, William of Sens (retrieved April 19, 2020)
  9. ^ a b "Durham World Heritage Site". UN. Archived from the original on 3 August 2019. Retrieved 29 October 2019.
  10. ^ Bechmann (2017), p. 295
  11. ^ A. Freeman Smith (1922), pp. 71–73.
  12. ^ "Home". Lincoln Cathedral.
  13. ^ Smith, A. Freeman, English Church Architecture of the Middle Ages (1922), pp. 45-47
  14. ^ |Harvey (1987), pg.163
  15. ^ a b Smith, A. Freeman, English Church Architecture of the Middle Ages (1922), pp. 71-73
  16. ^ a b c  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSpiers, Richard Phené (1911). "Decorated Period". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 915.
  17. ^ Sharpe, Edmund (1871). The Seven Periods of English Architecture Defined and Illustrated.
  18. ^ Frankl, Paul (2000). Gothic Architecture. Yale: Yale University Press. pp. 193.
  19. ^ Harvey (1978) puts the earliest example of a fully formed Perpendicular style at the chapter house of Old St Paul's Cathedral, in 1332
  20. ^ Smith, A. Freeman English Church Architecture of the Middle Ages (1922), pp. 53-62
  21. ^ Harvey, John (1978). The Perpendicular Style. Batsford.
  22. ^ {Smith (1922) pp. 53-62
  23. ^ a b c d  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSpiers, Richard Phené (1911). "Perpendicular Period". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 21 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 179–180.
  24. ^ This figure has recently been disputed and is now thought to be closer to 20%. Philip Daileader, The Late Middle Ages, audio/video course produced by The Teaching Company, (2007) ISBN 978-1-59803-345-8.
  25. ^ Smith, A. Freeman, English Church Architecture of the Middle Ages (1922), pp. 53-62
  26. ^ "Chapel | King's College, Cambridge". web.archive.org. 30 November 2012.
  27. ^ "Our History | Eton College". www.etoncollege.com.
  28. ^ "TATTERSHALL - The Collegiate Holy Trinity Church, Tattershall, Lincolnshire - HTTF Trust". web.archive.org. 15 April 2012.
  29. ^ a b c Smith (1922), pages 63-71
  30. ^ Martin, G.H,, "A History of Merton College, Oxford" Oxford University Press, 1997


  • Bechmann, Roland (2017). Les Racines des Cathédrals (in French). Paris: Payot. ISBN 978-2-228-90651-7.
  • Ducher, Robert, Caractéristique des Styles, (1988), Flammarion, Paris (in French); ISBN 2-08-011539-1
  • Harvey, John (1961). English Cathedrals. Batsford. OCLC 2437034.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Smith, A. Freeman, English Church Architecture of the Middle Ages - an Elementary Handbook (1922), T. Fisher Unwin, Ltd., London (1922) (Full text available on Project Gutenberg)
  • Martin, G. H.; Highfield, J. R. L. (1997). A history of Merton College, Oxford. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-920183-8.

External links

  • Britain Express: Decorated Gothic architecture
  • Britain Express – Architectural Guide
  • Britain Express – Architectural Guide