Norman architecture

Norman architecture
The nave of Durham Cathedral demonstrates the characteristic round arched style, though use of shallow pointed arches above the nave is a forerunner of the "Gothic" style.

The term Norman architecture is used to categorise styles of Romanesque architecture developed by the Normans in the various lands under their dominion or influence in the 11th and 12th centuries. In particular the term is traditionally used for English Romanesque architecture. The Normans introduced large numbers of castles and fortifications including Norman keeps, and at the same time monasteries, abbeys, churches and cathedrals, in a style characterised by the usual Romanesque rounded arches (particularly over windows and doorways) and especially massive proportions compared to other regional variations of the style.

These Romanesque styles originated in Normandy and became widespread in north western Europe, particularly in England, which contributed considerable development and has the largest number of surviving examples. At about the same time a Norman dynasty ruled in Sicily, producing a distinctive variation incorporating Byzantine and Saracen influences which is also known as Norman architecture, or alternatively as Sicilian Romanesque.


Origin of the term, development into Gothic

The term may have originated with 18th century antiquarians, but its usage in a sequence of styles has been attributed to Thomas Rickman in his 1817 work An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation which used the labels "Norman, Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular". The more inclusive term romanesque was used of the Romance languages in English by 1715,[1] and was applied to architecture of the eleventh and twelfth centuries from 1819.[2] Although Edward the Confessor built Westminster Abbey in Romanesque style (now all replaced by later rebuildings) just before the Conquest, which is still believed to be the earliest major Romanesque building in England, no significant remaining Romanesque architecture in Britain can clearly be shown to predate the Conquest, although historians believe that many surviving "Norman" elements in buildings, nearly all churches, may well in fact be Anglo-Saxon.

As master masons developed the style and experimented with ways of overcoming the geometric difficulties of groin vaulted ceilings, they introduced features such as the pointed arch which were later characterised as being Gothic in style. Architectural historians and scholars consider that a style must be assessed as an integral whole rather than an aggregate of features, and while some include these developments within the Norman or Romanesque styles, others describe them as transitional or "Norman-Gothic Transitional". A few websites use the term "Norman Gothic", but it is unclear whether they refer to the transitional style or to the Norman style as a whole.,[3][4]


A style of architecture that emulates works of Norman architecture from the 11th and 12th century Romanesque in Britain and Normandy. These works are prominent in many 20th century buildings and spaces, particularly the arch and pillars. There are two examples in Manchester: the former Stock Exchange building and a synagogue in Fallowfield.

Norman architecture in Normandy

Viking invaders arrived at the mouth of the river Seine in 911, at a time when Franks were fighting on horseback and Frankish lords were building castles. Over the next century the population of the territory ceded to the Vikings, now called Normans, adopted these customs as well as Christianity and the langue d'oïl. Norman Barons built timber castles on earthen mounds, beginning the development of motte-and-bailey castles, and great stone churches in the Romanesque style of the Franks. By 950 they were building stone keeps. The Normans were among the most travelled peoples of Europe, exposed to a wide variety of cultural influences including the Near East, some of which became incorporated in their art and architecture. They elaborated on the Early Christian basilica plan, longitudinal with side aisles and an apse, and a western facade with two towers as at the Church of Saint-Étienne at Caen begun in 1067, which formed a model for the larger English cathedrals beginning some twenty years later.

Norman architecture in England

In England, Norman nobles and bishops had influence before the Norman Conquest of 1066, and Norman influences affected late Anglo-Saxon architecture. Edward the Confessor was brought up in Normandy, and in 1042 brought masons to work on Westminster Abbey, the first Romanesque building in England.

A Norman arch with zig zag mouldings above the church doorway at Guiting Power, Gloucestershire

In 1051 he brought in Norman knights who built "motte" castles as a defence against the Welsh. Following the invasion Normans rapidly constructed motte-and-bailey castles, and in a burst of building activity built churches and abbeys, as well as more elaborate fortifications including Norman stone keeps.

The buildings show massive proportions in simple geometries, the masonry with small bands of sculpture, perhaps as blind arcading, and concentrated spaces of capitals and round doorways and in the tympanum under an arch. The "Norman arch" is the round arch. Norman mouldings are carved or incised with geometric ornament, such as chevron patterns, frequently termed "zig zag mouldings", around arches. The cruciform churches often had deep chancels and a square crossing tower which has remained a feature of English ecclesiastical architecture. Hundreds of parish churches were built and the great English cathedrals were founded from 1083.

After a fire damaged Canterbury Cathedral in 1174 Norman masons introduced the new Gothic architecture. Around 1191 Wells Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral brought in the English Gothic style, and Norman became increasingly a modest style of provincial building.

Ecclesiastical architecture


  • Sedding, Edmund H. (1909) Norman Architecture in Cornwall: a handbook to old ecclesiastical architecture. With over 160 plates. London: Ward & Co.

Military architecture

Domestic architecture

Norman architecture in Scotland

Scotland also came under early Norman influence, with Norman nobles at the court of King Macbeth around 1050. His successor Máel Coluim III overthrew him with English and Norman assistance, and his queen Margaret encouraged the church. The Benedictine order founded a monastery at Dunfermline. Her fourth son who became King David built St. Margaret's Chapel at the start of the 12th century.

Ecclesiastical architecture

Norman architecture in Ireland

The Normans first landed in Ireland in 1169. Within five years earthwork castles were springing up, and in a further five, work was beginning on some of the earliest of the great stone castles. For example, Hugh de Lacy built a Motte-and-bailey castle on the site of the present day Trim Castle, County Meath, which was attacked and burned in 1173 by the Irish king Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair. De Lacy, however, then constructed a stone castle in its place, which enclosed over three acres within its walls, and this could not be burned down by the Irish. The years between 1177 and 1310 saw the construction of some of the greatest of the Norman castles in Ireland. The Normans settled mostly in an area in the east of Ireland, later known as the Pale, and among other buildings they constructed were Swords Castle in Fingal (North County Dublin), Dublin Castle and Carrickfergus Castle in County Antrim.[6]

Norman architecture in Italy


The Normans began constructing castles, their trademark architectural piece, in Italy from an early date. William Iron Arm built one at an unidentified location (Stridula) in Calabria in 1045. After the death of Robert Guiscard in 1085, peninsular southern Italy experienced a series of civil wars and fell under the control of increasingly weaker princes. Revolts characterised the region until well into the twelfth century and minor lords sought to resist ducal or royal power from within their own castles. In the Molise, the Normanas embarked on their most extensive castle-building programme. There they introduced the opus gallicum technique to Italy.

Besides the encastellation of the countryside, the Normans erected several religious buildings which still survive. They edified the shrine at Monte Sant'Angelo and built a mausoleum to the Hauteville family at Venosa. They also built many new Latin monasteries, including the famous foundation of Sant'Eufemia.


Sicily's Norman period lasted from circa 1070 until about 1200. The architecture was decorated in gilded mosaics such as that at the cathedral at Monreale. The Palatine Chapel in Palermo built in 1130 is the perhaps the strongest example of this where the interior of the dome (itself a Byzantine feature) is decorated in mosaic depicting Christ Pantocrator accompanied by his angels.

During Sicily's later Norman era early Gothic influences can de detected such as those in the cathedral at Messina consecrated in 1197. However, here the high Gothic campanile is of a later date, and should not be confused with the early Gothic built during the Norman period, which featured pointed arches and windows rather than the flying buttresses and pinnacles later to manifest themselves in the Gothic era.


After its Norman conquest in 1091, Malta saw the construction of several still-surviving Norman pieces of architecture. Fortresses and houses still exist in Mdina and Vittoriosa.


Castle at Raviscanina: redoubt of the rebel Andrew of Rupecanina  
The Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo  
The Cathedral of Palermo was erected in 1185 by Walter of the Mill, the Anglo-Norman archbishop of Palermo and King William II's minister  
A Norman house in Mdina  
New Romney church tower, an example of English small-town Norman architecture  
Winchester Cathedral, an example of Norman architecture in England  
Example of a small village church in Pyrford, Surrey, England  
St Bees Priory, Cumbria, west door, Circa 1160  
Archway, Norman Tower, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, c. 1120–1148  
Arches in the southern nave of the Church of St Lawrence, Alton, Hampshire, c. 1070–1100  

See also


  1. ^ OED "Romanesque": in French a letter of 1818 by Charles-Alexis-Adrien Duhérissier de Gerville seems to be the first
  2. ^ OED same entry; in French by Gerville's friend Arcisse de Caumont in his Essaie sur l'architecture du moyen âge, particulièrement en Normandie, 1824.
  3. ^ "Gothic Architecture in England". Retrieved 2011-06-11. 
  4. ^ "Norman Gothic". Retrieved 2011-06-11. 
  5. ^ "Moyse's Hall museum". Retrieved 2011-06-11. 
  6. ^ Castles in Ireland Feudal Power in a Gaelic World. by Tom McNeill. (London, 1997) ISBN: 978-0-415-22853-4
  • Bilson, J.: Durham cathedral and the cronology of its vaults, Archeol. Journal 79, 1929
  • Clapham, A. W.: English Romanesque Architecture after the conquest. Oxford 1934
  • Clifton-Taylor, A.: The Cathedrals of England. London 1967
  • Cook, G. H.: The English Cathedrals through the Centuries. London 1957
  • Escher, K.: Englische Kathedralen. Zürich 1929
  • Lexikon der Weltarchitektur. Von Pevsner, Nikolaus / John Fleming / Hugh Honour [1966]. München 1971.
  • Rieger, R.: Studien zur mittelalterlichen Architektur Englands. In: Wiener Kunstwiss. Blätter, Jg. 2, 1953
  • Short, Ernest H.: Norman Architecture in England, 2005
  • Spengler, Dietmar: Die anglo-normannischen Kirchen. Referat im HS SS 1980, Köln (unveröffentlicht)
  • Webb, G.: Architecture in Britain: The Middle Ages (Pelican History of Art), London 1956

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