Architecture of the medieval cathedrals of England

Architecture of the medieval cathedrals of England

The medieval cathedrals of England, dating from between approximately 1040 and 1540, are a group of twenty-five buildings which together constitute a major aspect of the country’s artistic heritage and are among the most significant material symbols of Christianity. Though diversified in style, they are united by a common function. As cathedrals, each of these buildings serves as central church for an administrative region (or diocese) and houses the throne of a bishop (“catedra” from the Latin). Each church also serves as a regional centre and a focus of regional pride and affection. John Harvey, English Cathedrals]

While there are characteristics of each building which are distinctly English, these cathedrals are marked by their architectural diversity, both from one to another and also within each individual building. This is much more the case than in the medieval cathedrals of, for example, Northern France, where the cathedrals and large abbeys form a relatively homogenous group and the architectural development can easily be traced from building to building.Alec Clifton-Taylor, ‘’The Cathedrals of England’’]

One of the points of interest of the English cathedrals is the way in which much of the history of medieval architecture can be demonstrated within a single building, which typically has important parts constructed in several different centuries with no attempt whatever to make the later work match or follow through on an earlier plan. For this reason a comprehensive architectural chronology must jump backwards and forwards from one building to another. Only at one building, Salisbury Cathedral, is stylistic unity demonstrated.Banister Fletcher, ‘’History of Architecture on the Comparative Method.’’]



Christianity was carried to England by the Romans and spread throughout Britain, until the 5th century when it waned through the departure of the Romans and the invasion by Saxons. In 597 Pope Gregory sent Augustine as a missionary from Rome to Canterbury where a church was established and run initially by secular canons, then Benedictine monks from the late Saxon period until 1540. The present cathedral church at Canterbury is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England.

As begun by Alfred the Great in 871 and consolidated under the William the Conqueror in 1066, England became a political unity at an earlier date than other European countries. One of the effects was that the units of government, both of church and state, were comparatively large. England was divided into the See of Canterbury and the See of York under two archbishops. During the medieval period there were no more than 17 bishops, far fewer than the numbers in France and Italy.
Benedictine monasticism, present in England from the 6th century, was greatly extended after the Norman Invasion in 1066. There were also a number of Cistercian abbeys, but these were often in remote areas and not destined to become cathedrals. The Romanesque architecture of Normandy replaced that of Saxon England, the buildings being generally larger and more spacious, the general arrangement of monastic buildings following those of the great Abbey of Cluny. The Romanesque style, of which the English form is often known as Norman architecture, developed local characteristics.

An important aspect in the practice of medieval Christianity was the veneration of saints, and the associated pilgrimages to places where particular saint's relics were interred and their tradition honoured. The possession of the relics of a popular saint was a source of funds to the individual church as the faithful made donations and benefices in the hope that they might receive spiritual aid, a blessing or a healing from the presence of the physical remains of the holy person. Among those churches to benefit in particular were St. Alban's Abbey which contained the relics of England's first Christian martyr, Ripon with the shrine of it founder St. Wilfrid, Durham which was built to house the body of Saints Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and Aidan, Ely with the shrine of St. Ethelreda, Westminster Abbey with the magnificent shrine of its founder St. Edward the Confessor and at Chichester, the honoured remains of St. Richard.

In the 1170s Gothic architecture was introduced from France at Canterbury and Westminster Abbey. Over the next 400 years it developed in England, sometimes in parallel with and influenced by Continental forms, but generally with great local diversity and originality.

In the 16th century the Reformation brought about changes in the governance of the cathedrals as discussed below. Some existent buildings became cathedrals at this time. Several of the buildings were structurally damaged or left incomplete because of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, 1537-40 . Many of the large abbey churches, particularly those outside the towns, were robbed, burnt out and abandoned. The late 16th and early 17th centuries saw repairs to the fabric of many cathedrals and some new building and stained glass as well as many new fittings. [F.H. Crossley, ‘’The English Abbey’’] During the period of the Commonwealth, 1649-60, wholesale iconoclasm was wrought on all the pictorial elements of Christian buildings. Most of England’s medieval stained glass was smashed. The majority of England’s medieval statues were smashed or defaced leaving only a few isolated examples intact. Medieval paintings almost disappeared. Vestments embroidered in the famous style known as Opus Anglicanum were burnt. Those medieval Communion vessels that had escaped the Dissolution were melted down so that only about 50 items of pre-Reformation church plate remain. [J.C. Cox and C.B. Ford, ‘’Parish Churches’’]

The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 also brought about some restoration of churches and cathedrals such as that at Lichfield by Sir William Wilson, and their enrichment with new fittings, new church plate and many elaborate memorials. The loss of the ancient St. Paul’s Cathedral in the Great Fire of London in 1666 meant that an entirely new cathedral, the present St Paul’s, was built on its site to a design in the Baroque style by Sir Christopher Wren.

In general, from the time of the Reformation onwards, apart from necessary repairs so that buildings might remain in use, and the internal adornments of successive generations who wished to be commemorated, there was little building work and only piecemeal restoration. This situation lasted for about 250 years with the fabric of many major cathedrals suffering from neglect. The severity of the problem was demonstrated by the spectacular collapse of the spire of Chichester Cathedral which suddenly telescoped in on itself in 1861. By this date medieval architecture was back in fashion. A growing awareness of the value of England’s medieval heritage had begun in the late 18th century leading to some work on a number of the cathedrals by the architect James Wyatt. The consciousness accelerated until in the 1840s two academic groups, the Oxford Society and the Cambridge Camden Society both pronounced that the only suitable style in which to design a church was Gothic. The critic John Ruskin was an ardent advocate of all things medieval and popularised these ideas. The architect Augustus Welby Pugin, who designed mainly for the growing Roman Catholic Church, set himself to recreate not only the structural appearance of medieval churches, but also the richly decorated and colourful interiors that had been almost entirely lost, existing only as a painted screen here and there, a few tiled floors such as those at Winchester and Canterbury and the intricate painted wooden ceiling of Peterborough Cathedral. [Phoebe Stanton, ‘’Pugin’’]

The Victorian era saw the restoration of all of England’s cathedrals and remaining major abbey churches. Some buildings left incomplete were completed at this time and the greater part of existent church furniture, fittings and stained glass dates from this period. The architects included George Gilbert Scott, John Loughborough Pearson, George Frederick Bodley and George Edmund Street.


The 25 cathedrals described in this article are those of Bristol, Canterbury, Carlisle, Chester, Chichester, Durham, Ely, Exeter, Gloucester, Hereford, Lichfield, Lincoln, Norwich, Oxford, Peterborough, Ripon, Rochester, St. Alban's, Salisbury, Southwark, Southwell, Wells, Winchester, Worcester and York with reference also to Westminster Abbey and the ancient cathedral of London generally known as Old St. Paul’s.

All the medieval buildings that are now cathedrals of England were Roman Catholic in origin, as they predate the Reformation. All these buildings now serve the Church of England as a result of the change to the official religion of the country, which occurred in 1534 during the reign of Henry VIII.

The cathedrals fall into three distinct groups depending on their earlier organisational structure. Firstly, there are those which during the medieval period, as now, were governed by a body of secular clergy, or chapter, presided over by a dean. These cathedrals are Chichester, Exeter, Hereford, Lichfield, Lincoln, London, Salisbury, Wells and York.Secondly, there was a group of monastic cathedrals in which the prior also had the role of bishop. These cathedrals are Canterbury, Carlisle, Durham, Ely, Norwich, Rochester, Winchester and Worcester. The monasteries were Benedictine except in the case of Carlisle which was Augustinian. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, all the previously monastic cathedrals became governed by secular canons like the first group.

The third group were those five great medieval abbey churches that were established as new cathedrals under Henry VIII: Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford and Peterborough; and four further large churches which were later to become cathedrals, St Albans and Southwark which were of monastic foundation and Ripon and Southwell which were secular and had previously functioned as Pro-Cathedrals in the very large Diocese of York. Westminster Abbey was a Benedictine monastery which became a cathedral after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but only for the period of ten years.Three other churches are associated with this tradition: Old St. Paul's Cathedral, London, Bath Abbey and the destroyed Benedictine Abbey of Coventry. St. Paul’s, a cathedral with a secular chapter, was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was replaced by the present cathedral in the Baroque style designed by Christopher Wren. Bath Abbey shares the Diocese of Bath and Wells with Wells Cathedral. Although a large church, it does not architecturally fit the cathedral tradition, but has much in common with King’s College Chapel, Cambridge and St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. The abbey church at Coventry, for a time shared the Diocese of Lichfield but was destroyed at the Dissolution. The large parish church of St. Michael’s, Coventry, became Coventry Cathedral in 1918. It was bombed during World War II, leaving intact only its spire, regarded as one of the finest in England. The new Coventry Cathedral designed by Sir Basil Spence was consecrated in 1962 and adjoins the shell of the ancient church.

Liturgical and organisational

In practice, the cathedrals are places where certain Christian rituals are performed and are structured and furnished for these purposes. Firstly, the cathedral contains the seat of the local bishop, often literally a large throne. Seats are also provided for the other significant clergy; the dean who is the foremost priest at the cathedral, the precentor, sacristan, archdeacon and canons. Each of these priests, either as secular clergy, or as previously, members of a religious order, is obligated to say the “Holy Office” every day. To this end, cathedrals normally have a number of small chapels which can be used for private devotion, or for small groups. In England there is a very strong tradition that each chapel should face the east. This is the reason why the transepts of English cathedrals are long by comparison with those of most other countries, and why there is often a second transept, as at Salisbury. This arrangement permits a greater number of eastward-facing chapels. That part of the main interior which is furthest to the east may also serve this purpose and be known as the ‘’presbytery’'.

English cathedrals maintain a traditional form of church service of which canticles, the set psalm of the day, responses and an anthem are sung by a choir traditionally comprising about thirty men and boys. Because of this tradition, that part of the building which is usually located to the east of the central tower and contains the stalls is know as the ‘’choir’’ or ‘’quire’’. At the eastern end of the choir is a Communion table (or altar) on which is served the Eucharist, a symbolic meal of bread and wine in memory of Jesuslast supper with his disciples. The choir is sometimes divided from the nave of the cathedral by a wide medieval screen constructed of stone and in some instances carrying a large pipe organ. The nave of the cathedral is traditionally that part of the building which is used by and is open at most times to the congregation and general public. In a large cathedral, particularly in those where the building is divided by a screen as at Canterbury, an altar may be set at the eastern end of the nave so that services might be held there for large congregations. One of the functions of the nave is for processions.

At each place where services are held there is a lectern on which rests a Bible. There is also, usually in the nave, a raised pulpit from which the dean or other clergy can expound the scriptures. Towards the western end of the building is the font (basin) used for the ritual washing service of Baptism, at which a person, most often an infant, is symbolically accepted into the church. The font is usually made of stone and is usually the oldest fitting in the cathedral, many of them being Norman.


Note: all the dimensions are those given by John Harvey unless otherwise cited. The periods and style names are those used by Banister Fletcher and others, based on Rickman and Sharpe.

General characteristics of English cathedrals

Plan and section

Like the majority of medieval cathedrals, those of England are cruciform. While most are of the Latin Cross shape with a single transept, several including Salisbury, Lincoln, Wells and Canterbury have two transepts, which is a distinctly English characteristic. The transepts, unlike those of many French cathedrals, always project strongly. The cathedral, whether of monastic or secular foundation, often has several clearly defined subsidiary buildings, in particular the chapter house and cloister.

With two exceptions, the naves and eastern arms of the cathedrals have single lower aisles on either side with a clerestory that illuminates the central space. At Bristol the aisles are at the same height as the medieval choir like some German cathedrals, and at Chichester there are two aisles on either side of the nave like some French cathedrals. At a number of the cathedrals where the transepts are large they also have aisles, either on the eastern side as at Peterborough, Durham, Lincoln and Salisbury or both, as at Winchester, Wells, Ely and York.


The nave, and sometimes the eastern arm is often of great length by comparison with the medieval cathedrals of other countries, seven of the twenty-five English cathedrals, Canterbury, Durham, Ely, Lincoln, St Albans, Winchester and York, exceeding 150 metres (being between 509 and 554 feet, 155-169 metres), only equalled by the cathedrals of Milan and Florence. Another 9 of the cathedrals, Norwich, Peterborough, Salisbury, Worcester, Gloucester, Wells, Exeter, Chichester and Lichfield, are between 120-150 metres long (being between 397-481 feet, 121-146.5 metres). By comparison, the largest cathedrals of Northern France, Notre Dame de Paris, Amiens, Rouen, Reims and Chartres, are all about 135-140 metres in length, as is Cologne in Germany. The longest cathedrals of Spain, including Seville which has the largest floor area of any medieval church, are about 120 metres. Five English cathedrals: Chester, Hereford, Rochester, Southwell and Ripon are 90-115 metres (318-371 feet, 97-113 metres). The last four cathedrals all, for various reasons, either have no medieval nave or only a few remaining bays. At Bristol and Southwark the naves were built in the Victorian era, leaving Carlisle and Oxford, with naves of only two and four bays respectively, as the smallest of England’s ancient cathedrals at 73 metres (239 feet) and 57 metres (187 feet.)


By contrast with their tendency towards extreme length, the vaults of English cathedrals are low compared with many of those found in other countries. The highest medieval stone vault in England is at Westminster Abbey at convert|102|ft|m, that at York Minster being of the same height but despite its appearance, not actually of stone, but wood. The majority of English cathedrals have vaults ranging in height from 20-26 metres (65-86 feet). These contrast with cathedrals such as Beauvais, Amiens and Cologne with internal heights of over 42 metres (140 ft).Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘’An Outline of European Architecture’’]


An important feature of English cathedrals, uncommon elsewhere, is the large and often elaborate square central tower over the crossing. The larger of these towers range from 55 metres (182 ft) at Wells to 82.5 meters (271 ft) at Lincoln. The central tower may exist as a single feature as at Salisbury, Gloucester, Worcester, Norwich and Chichester or in combination with paired towers at the west front as at York, Lincoln, Canterbury, Durham and Wells. Among the cathedrals that have three towers, the central tower is usually much the tallest. At Southwell the two western towers are capped by pyramidal spires sheathed in lead.Tall Gothic central spires remain at Salisbury and Norwich, that at Chichester having been rebuilt in the 19th century after its collapse. The spire of Salisbury at convert|404|ft|m is the tallest in Britain. It is also the tallest 14th century spire, the tallest ashlar masonry spire, (as against the openwork spires of Germany and France) and tallest spire remaining from the Medieval period that has not been entirely rebuilt. However it was greatly surpassed in height by the spires of Lincoln and Old St. Paul’s. At Lincoln, between the early 1300s and 1548, the central tower was surmounted by the tallest spire in the world at about 170 metres (557 ft) but this fell in a storm. Lichfield Cathedral, uniquely in England, has three medieval masonry spires.

Although single western towers are common in English parish churches, only one medieval cathedral, Ely, has a centrally-placed western tower, and in that case, it was framed by two lower lateral towers, one of which has since fallen down. Ely, alone among England’s cathedrals, has a central feature over the crossing that somewhat resembles the polygonal vaulted lantern towers of Spain. This elaborate lantern-like structure known as “The Octagon” spans both the nave and aisles, and is thus said to have inspired Christopher Wren’s design for the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Its upper parts are supported by hidden wooden hammer-beams, an architectural device unique to English Gothic.


The facades of English cathedrals show a considerable diversity, rather than a consistent progression, as is the case in Northern France and other cathedrals influenced by the French Gothic style. In many cases, regardless of the architectural form, the English façade was treated as a decorative screen with many niches occupied by statues. A great number of these were toppled or defaced during the 17th century, however a “Gallery of Kings” remains high on the façade of Lincoln, and many of the original weather-worn figures remain at Exeter.

Most English cathedral facades fall into two basic types, with several variations.The most typical cathedrals are those that have large paired towers at their western end as at Canterbury, Durham, Southwell, Wells, Ripon and York. Between the towers is either a single large traceried window, as at York and Canterbury or an arrangement of untraceried lancets as at Ripon and Wells, rather than the rose windows typical of French facades. There are usually three doors but unlike those of French cathedrals, they are rarely highly elaborate and far more emphasis is placed on the central door than those to either side. The entrance in most common use is sometimes located in a porch at one side of the nave.

Where there are not two large towers at the west front, there are generally two pinnacled turrets that frame the façade or the central nave much in the nature of very large buttresses. This arrangement may be seen Salisbury, Winchester and Rochester. At Lincoln a vast Gothic screen with similar buttress-like terminals was built across the front of the cathedral, incorporating the Norman portals, but hiding the Norman towers. The towers were then greatly heightened to be visible above the screen.

A Gothic screen was also added to the Norman nave at Peterborough, But this is an architectural oddity with no precedent or successor. The screen is composed of three enormous open arches, the two outer ones being much wider than that which frames the central door. The overwhelming composition is somewhat spoilt by the later porch and the fact that two towers of very different height pop up from behind the screen. Despite this, it is one of the supreme masterpieces of Gothic, revealing the enormous diversity and imagination of English medieval architects.

Eastern end

The eastern ends of English cathedrals shows a greater diversity than those of any other country. Those built in the Norman era had high apsidal ends surrounded by a lower ambulatory, as is typical of Northern France. This arrangement still exists at Norwich and in part at Peterborough and also, with variation, in the Early English Gothic east end at Canterbury but in every other case has been modified.

The typical arrangement for an English Gothic east end is square, and may be an unbroken cliff-like design as at York, Lincoln, Ripon, Ely and Carlisle or may have a projecting Lady Chapel of which there is a great diversity as at Salisbury, Lichfield, Hereford, Exeter and Chichester.

The ends of Norwich and Canterbury also have projecting chapels, that at Norwich being a Gothic addition while that at Canterbury, known as the Corona, being designed as part of the Early English plan, specifically to enshrine the relic of the crown of Thomas Becket’s skull, sliced off at the time of his assassination. The east ends of a number of other cathedrals such Durham, Peterborough and Gloucester have been modified in various ways and do not fit any particular model.

External appearance

As English cathedrals are often surrounded by an expanse of green lawn, the plan is usually clearly visible at ground level, which is not the case with the many European cathedrals that are closely surrounded by town or monastic buildings. The general impression is that the English cathedral sprawls across its site with many projecting limbs. These horizontal projections are visibly balanced by the strong verticals of the massive towers, which may be one, two or three in number. Many of the cathedrals, particularly those like Winchester, St. Albans and Peterborough where the towers are not particularly high, give an impression of tremendous length and have been described as resembling “aircraft carriers”. While all the cathedrals are impressive, some, because of their location, are highly significant landmarks and landscape elements. Among these is Chichester which can be seen for many miles and is the only one of England’s cathedrals that is visible from the sea. The grey spire of Norwich rises serenely from its surrounding city, to be a focus of the Norwich School of landscape painters. Ely, on a small hill, dominates the rural countryside and its appearance in times of flood cause it to be known as "The Ship of the Fens". The three spires of Lichfield are known as "The Ladies of the Vale".The “exquisite tower” of Worcester is seen best across the River Severn. Lincoln with its vast façade and three towers, the tallest being over 80 metres (270 ft), rises majestically from a steep hill above the town. Salisbury Cathedral with its “faultless spire” constitutes one of the iconic views of England, made famous by the landscape painter John Constable. In the north of England, Durham makes “spectacular” view as it sits dramatically on its steep rocky peninsular above the River Wear, “half Church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scots”. [Sir Walter Scott]

Internal appearance

Horizontal emphasis

Because the architecture of English cathedrals is so diverse and inventive, the internal appearances differ a great deal. However, in general, English cathedral interiors tend to give an impression of length. This is in part because many of the buildings are actually very long, but also because more than in the medieval architecture of any other country, the horizontal direction is given as much visual emphasis as the vertical. This is particularly the case at Wells where, unlike most Gothic buildings, there are no vertical shafts that continue from the arcade to the vault and there is a very strong emphasis on the triforium gallery with its seemingly endless and undifferentiated row of narrow arches. Salisbury has a similar lack of verticals while the course below the triforium and the undecorated capitals of Purbeck stone create strong visual horizontals. In the cases of Winchester, Norwich and Exeter the horizontal effect is created by the emphasis on the ridge rib of the elaborate vaults.

Complex vaulting

The complexity of the vault is another significant feature of English Cathedrals. The vaults range from the simple quadripartite vault in the French manner at Chichester through increasingly elaborate forms including the multi-ribbed (“tierceron”) vault at Exeter, the similar vault with inter-connecting (“lierne”) ribs at Norwich, the still more elaborate variation at Winchester, the array of unique lierne vaults at Bristol, the net-like stellar vaulting of the choirs at Gloucester and York, the fan vaulting of the retro-choir at Peterborough and the pendant vaulting of the choir at Oxford where elaborate long stone bosses are suspended from the ceiling like lanterns. Many of the more elaborate forms are unique to England, with stellar vaulting also occurring in Spain and Germany.

Architectural styles

axon and Norman

While in many cases a Norman church entirely replaced a Saxon one, at Ripon the cathedral uniquely retains its Saxon crypt. All the medieval cathedrals of England, with the exception of Salisbury, Lichfield and Wells have evidence of Norman architecture, and Peterborough, Durham and Norwich remain for the greater part Norman buildings while at many others there are substantial parts of the building in the Norman style such as the naves of Ely, Gloucester and Southwell. The Norman crypt at Canterbury is famous for its bestial carved capitals.

Lancet Gothic

Many of the cathedrals have major parts in the late 12th-early 13th century style known as Lancet Gothic or Early English Gothic, and defined by its simple, untraceried lancet-like openings. Salisbury Cathedral is the major example of this style which is also seen Wells and Worcester, at the eastern arms of Canterbury, Hereford and Southwark, and the transepts of York. Also of this period is the spectacular façade of Peterborough, and the less grand but harmonious façade of Ripon.

Decorated Gothic

The Decorated Gothic style, with traceried windows, is further subdivided dependent upon whether the tracery is Geometric or Curvilinear. Many cathedrals have important parts in the Geometric style of the mid 13th to early 14th centuries, including much of Lincoln, Lichfield, the choir of Ely and the chapter houses of Salisbury and Southwell. By the late 13th century the style of tracery evolved to include a greater number of narrow shapes that adapted easily to Gothic openings in combination with circular shapes as can be seen in the windows of the chapter house of York, the Octagon of Ely and the west window of Exeter. Further development included the repetition of Curvilinear or flame-like forms which occur in a great number of windows of around 1320, notably in the retro-choir at Wells and the nave Exeter Cathedral. This type of tracery is often seen in combination with vaulting ribs of extreme projection and very rich moulding as is seen in the chapter house at Wells and the vault at Exeter which stretches, uninterrupted by a central tower, for 91 metres (300 ft) and is the longest medieval vault in the world.

The last stage of Curvilinear or Flowing Decorated Gothic, is expressed in tracery of very varied and highly complex forms. Many of the largest and most famous windows of England date from 1320-30 and are in this style. They include the south transept rose window known as the “Bishop’s Eye” at Lincoln, the “Heart of Yorkshire” window in the west end of York and the famous nine-light east window of Carlisle.

There are many smaller architectural works within cathedrals which have the curvilinear tracery. These include the arcading in the Lady Chapel at Ely, which also has the widest vault in England, the pulpitum screen at Lincoln and richly decorated doorways at Ely and Rochester. Characteristic of this period of Gothic is elaborate lierne vaulting in which the ribs are connected by intermediate ribs which do not spring from the wall and so are not major structural members. The vaults of Bristol are the most famous examples of this style, which can also be seen at York.

Perpendicular Gothic

In the 1330, when the architects of Europe were embracing the Flamboyant style, English architecture moved away from the Flowing Decorated in an entirely different and much more sober direction with the reconstruction, in highly modular form, of the choir of the Norman abbey, now cathedral, at Gloucester. The Perpendicular style, which relies on a network of intersecting mullions and transoms rather than on a diversity of richly carved forms for effect, gives an overall impression of great unity, in which the structure of the vast windows of both clerestory and east end are integrated with the arcades below and the vault above. The style proved very adaptable and continued with variations in the naves of Canterbury and Winchester, and the choir of York.

During the 15th century many of England’s finest towers were either built or extended in the Perpendicular style including those of the cathedrals of Gloucester, Worcester, Wells, York, Durham and Canterbury, and the spires of Chichester and Norwich.

The design of church interiors was to go through a final stage which would last into the 16th century. This was the development of fan vaulting, first used in about 1370 in the cloisters at Gloucester, then in the retrochoir at Peterborough in the early 15th century. In a still more elaborate form with stone pendants it was used to roof the Norman choir at Oxford and in the great funerary chapel of Henry VII at Westminster Abbey, at a time when Italy had embraced the Renaissance.

Architectural diversity

The plan of Salisbury Cathedral is that most often reproduced in architectural histories for the purpose of comparing English Gothic architecture with that of France, Italy and other countries. [See for example- Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘’An Outline of European Architecture’’.] It has many features that, on paper at least, are typical. The plan of Worcester Cathedral, for example, closely resembles that of Salisbury. Both have two transepts, a large central tower, a large porch to the north side of the nave, a cloister to the south, off which opens a polygonal chapter house. Internally, there are also strong visual similarities in the simple lancet windows of the east end and the contrasting profusion of Purbeck marble shafts. But the histories of the two buildings are very different. Salisbury Cathedral took 160 years to complete, from its foundations in 1220 to the top of its massive spire in 1380. Worcester took 420 years from its Norman crypt of 1084 to its chapel in memory Prince Arthur in 1504. The history of Worcester is much more representative of the history of most of England’s medieval cathedrals than is that of Salisbury.

The building of Salisbury Cathedral

An earlier cathedral was located, between 1075 and 1228, on the hill top near the ancient fort at Old Sarum. In the early 13th century it was decided to move the location of the cathedral to the plain. The new building was designed in the Lancet Gothic style (otherwise known as Early English Gothic) by Elias of Dereham and Nicholas of Ely and begun in 1220, starting at the eastern end, and rising westward until by 1258 it was complete, except for the façade and central tower. The façade, huge cloister and polygonal chapter house were then constructed by Richard Mason and were completed by about 1280, the later work employing Geometric Decorated tracery in the openings of windows and arcades. It was about fifty years before the major undertaking of the tower and spire was commenced, the architect being Richard Farleigh and the details being rather more intricate and elaborate than the earlier work. The entire cathedral was complete by 1380, and the only subsequent inclusion of note has been the reinforcement of the arches of the tower when one of the piers developed a bend. This three-part building program spanning 160 years with a fifty-year gap in the middle is the shortest and least diverse and makes Salisbury by far the most homogenous of all the cathedrals.Tim Tatton-Brown and John Crook, ‘’The English Cathedral’’]

The building of Worcester Cathedral

Worcester Cathedral, unlike Salisbury, has important parts of the building dating from every century from the 11th to the 16th.The earliest part of the building at Worcester is the multi-columned Norman crypt with cushion capitals remaining from the original monastic church begun by St Wulfstan in 1084. Also from the Norman period is the circular chapter house of 1120, made octagonal on the outside when the walls were reinforced in the 14th century. The nave was built and rebuilt piecemeal and in different styles by several different architects over a period of 200 years, some bays being a unique and decorative transition between Norman and Gothic. It dates from 1170 to 1374. The Norman east end was rebuilt over the old crypt by Alexander Mason between 1224 and 1269, coinciding with, and in a very similar style to the greater part of Salisbury. From 1360 John Clyve finished off the nave, built its vault, the west front, the north porch and the eastern range of the cloister. He also strengthened the Norman chapter house, added buttresses and changed its vault. His masterpiece is the central tower of 1374, originally supporting a timber, lead-covered spire, now gone. Between 1404 and 1432 an unknown architect added the north and south ranges to the cloister, which was eventually closed by the western range by John Chapman, 1435-38. The last important addition is the Prince Arthur’s Chantry Chapel to the right of the south choir aisle, 1502-04.Tim Tatton-Brown and John Crook, ‘’The English Cathedral’’]

Famous features of the cathedrals

Note: all the dates are those given by John Harvey.

Bristol Cathedral

Begun in 1140 and completed in 1888, Bristol’s fame lies in the unique 14th century lierne vaults of the choir and choir aisles, which are of three different designs and which, according to Nikolaus Pevsner, “from a point of view of spatial imagination are superior to anything else in England.”

Canterbury Cathedral

Founded as a cathedral in 597, the earliest parts are from 1070, completed 1505, except the north west tower of 1834. Canterbury is one of the biggest cathedrals in England, and seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is famous for the Norman crypt with sculptured capitals, the east end of 1175-84 by William of Sens, the 12th and 13th century stained glass, the “supremely beautiful” Perpendicular nave of 1379-1405 by Henry Yevele, [John Shirley, ‘’ A Pictorial History of Canterbury Cathedral’’.] the fan vault of the tower of 1505 by John Wastell, the tomb of the Black Prince and the site of the murder of St. Thomas Becket.

Carlisle Cathedral

Founded in 1092 and completed in the early 15th century, Carlisle is one of England’s smallest cathedrals since the demolition of its nave by Cromwell’s troops in 1649. Its most significant feature is its nine-light Flowing Decorated east window of 1322, still containing medieval glass in its upper sections, forming a “glorious termination to the choir” and regarded by many as having the finest tracery in England.

Chester Cathedral

Built between 1093 and 1537, Chester’s particular fame is its set of medieval choir stalls dating from 1380, with exquisite figurative carving. An unusual feature is the very large south transept. The Early English Lady Chapel is a harmonious composition in Lancet Gothic.

Chichester Cathedral

Built between 1088 and the early 15th century, Chichester is famous for its transitional retrochoir, a pair of early Norman relief carvings, its freestanding belfry of the 15th century and the spire, rebuilt after its collapse in 1860, which can be seen from the English Channel.

Durham Cathedral

Built between 1093 and 1490, Durham, with the exception of the upper parts of its towers, the eastern extension known as the Chapel of Nine Altars, and the large west window of 1341, is entirely Norman and is regarded by Alec Clifton-Taylor as "the incomparable masterpiece of Romanesque architecture". The interior is “overwhelmingly impressive”. The western Lady Chapel known as the Galilee Chapel is a unique Norman building different in style to the cathedral itself. The view of the cathedral from the south west is particularly famous because of its “incomparable setting” on a steep promontory above the River Wear. The Venerable C.J. Stranks wrote “It stands today vast and impressive in its massive strength, and yet so well proportioned that there is nothing about it which seems ponderous.” [C.J. Stranks, ‘’A Pictorial History of Durham’’]

Ely Cathedral

With the present building dating between 1090 and 1536, Ely has a significant Norman nave and Decorated Gothic choir, but its most important features are its unique western tower of 1174 and central octagon of 1322 which Clifton-Taylor describes as “one of the wonders of English cathedral architecture”. It also has a unique, very large, free-standing Lady Chapel with a very wide vault and intricately carved stone arcades around the sedilia.

Exeter Cathedral

Dating from 1112 to 1519, Exeter is the major example of a cathedral built mainly in the later Decorated Gothic style of the 14th century. It has an impressive vault, the longest medieval vault in the world, which runs between two Norman towers from the western end of an earlier church, but now forming the transepts. Exeter has many sculptural details, including the figures of its west front.

Gloucester Cathedral

Dating from 1098 to 1493, Gloucester has a Norman nave with massive masonry piers, and a fine 15th century Perpendicular tower, but its main feature is the eastern end, reconstructed in the 14th century as an early example of Perpendicular Gothic and with the largest medieval window in the world, the area of a tennis court. The cloisters have the earliest example of fan-vaulting.

Hereford Cathedral

Built between 1079 and 1530, Hereford has a Norman nave and large central tower, other important features being the unusual style of the north transept and the north porch, also of the 13th century, but greatly extended in the 16th. Its Early English Lady Chapel is considered “one of the most beautiful of the thirteenth century”. [H.R. Burrows, A Pictorial History of Hereford Cathedral’’]

Lichfield Cathedral

Although dating from 1195 to about 1400, Lichfield has an interior which presents an harmonious appearance. The nave is very fine and the Lady Chapel is apsidal with very tall windows, giving a rather French impression. Lichfield is the only one of the cathedrals to have retained three spires.

Lincoln Cathedral

Dating from 1074 to 1548, Lincoln is one of the largest of England’s cathedrals and it has been claimed by John Ruskin that, architecturally, it is worth any two of the others put together. Dr. Edward Freeman described it as “one of the loveliest of human works.” [D.C. Dunlop, ‘’ A Pictorial History of Lincoln Cathedral’’.] It retains portions of the three massive arches of the Norman west front and much heavily restored sculpture around the central portal. The central tower is the tallest in England and is visible for many miles as it rises in spectacular fashion from a high hill. The decagonal Chapter House with its huge flying buttresses is the first polygonal chapter house in England. Of the interior, the finest part is considered to be the late 13th century “Angel Choir” with “gorgeous layers of tracery” and enriched with carved angels. The transepts have two rose windows, the “Dean’s Eye” on the north dating from c.1200 and retaining its original glass, while the Flowing Decorated “Bishop’s Eye” on the south is filled with salvaged medieval fragments.

Norwich Cathedral

Built between 1096 and 1536, Norwich has a Norman form, retaining the greater part of its original stone structure which was then vaulted between 1416 and 1472 in a spectacular manner with hundreds of ornately carved, painted and gilded bosses. It also has the finest Norman tower in England, surmounted by a 15th century spire, and a large cloister with many more bosses.

Oxford Cathedral

Dating from 1158 to the early 16th century, Oxford was always a small cathedral and was made smaller by the destruction of much of the nave in the 16th century. The stone spire, 1230, is one of the oldest in England and contributes to Oxford’s tradition as “the city of dreaming spires”. It most unusual feature is the late 15th century pendant vault over the Norman chancel.

Peterborough Cathedral

Built between 1117 and 1508, Peterborough is remarkable as the least altered of the Norman cathedrals with only its famous Early English west front, with its later porch and the Perpendicular rebuilding of the eastern ambulatory being in different styles. J.L. Cartwright wrote of the west front that it is “as magnificent an entrance to a sacred building as could well be imagined.” [J.L. Cartwright, ‘’ A Pictorial History of Peterborough Cathedral’’] The long wooden roof of the nave is original and has retained its painting from 1220.

Ripon Cathedral

Dating from the 9th or 10th century to 1522, Ripon has a rare Saxon crypt. The West front is an unaltered and harmonious composition in Early English Gothic. The choir has retained richly carved 14th century stalls, famous for the many lively figures among the carvings. [ Official website]

Rochester Cathedral

Dating from 1177 to 1512, Rochester has a Norman nave and crypt, and Early English choir. Its most remarkable feature is the rare, exuberantly carved Norman portal which has unfortunately been much damaged.

t. Albans Cathedral

Built between 1077 and 1521, St. Alban’s is unique among the cathedrals in that much of it, including the large Norman tower is built of bricks salvaged from the Roman town of Verulaneum. Both internally and externally, the tower is the most significant feature. St Alban’s also retains some medieval wall paintings as well as a painted wooden roof of the late 13th century.

alisbury Cathedral

Built between 1220 and 1380 with additional structural reinforcement in the next century, Salisbury epitomises the ideal English Cathedral, even though its stylistic unity makes it far from typical. Its fame lies in its harmonious proportions, particularly from the exterior where the massing of the various horizontal parts in contrast to the vertical of the spire make it one of the most famous architectural compositions of the Medieval period. Canon Smethurst wrote “It symbolises the peaceful loveliness of the English countryside…, the eternal truths of the Christian faith expressed in stone…” [A.F. Smethurst, ‘’ A Pictorial History of Salisbury Cathedral’’]

outhwark Cathedral

Built between 1208 and 1520, Southwark unfortunately had its nave demolished and rebuilt in the late 19th century by Arthur Blomfield. It has a fine Early English tower and choir which retains an elaborate 16th century reredos, fitted with statues replacing those destroyed in the 17th century.

outhwell Minster

Built between 1108 and 1450, Southwell has its Norman façade intact, except for the insertion of a large Perpendicular window to give light to the Norman nave. The particular fame of Southwell is its late 13th century chapter house which contains the most famous medieval floral carvings in England, described by Nikolaus Pevsner as “throbbing with life”.

Wells Cathedral

Built between 1175 and 1490, Wells has been described as “the most poetic of the English Cathedrals”. Much of the structure is in the Early English style and is greatly enriched by the deeply sculptural nature of the mouldings and the vitality of the carved capitals in a foliate style known as “stiff leaf”. The eastern end has retained much original glass, which is rare in England. The exterior has a splendid Early English façade and a large central tower.

Winchester Cathedral

Built between 1079 and 1532, Winchester has had an unusual architectural history. The exterior, apart from the modified windows, gives the impression of a massive Norman building and in fact it is the longest medieval church in the world. However, the west front is Perpendicular, with its huge window filled with fragments of medieval glass. Inside, only the crypt and the transepts have retained their Norman appearance. The spectacular Perpendicular nave with its tall arcade arches and strong vertical emphasis has been literally carved out of the original Norman interior. The Very Rev. Sykes wrote of it “Well might the visitor who enters … by the west door gasp with amazement.” [N. Sykes,’’ A Pictorial History of Winchester Cathedral’’] Winchester is also famous for its carved wooden fittings of many different periods.

Worcester Cathedral

Built between 1084 and 1504, Worcester represents every style from Norman to Perpendicular. It is famous for its Norman crypt and unique chapter house, its unusual Transitional Gothic bays, its fine woodwork and central tower which is not large but of particularly fine proportion.

York Minster

Built between 1154 and 1500, York is one of the biggest Gothic churches in the world. The deceptively simple plan with square eastern and western ends and a single transept dividing the building into equal parts belies the architectural richness of this building. The remains of the Norman crypt indicate that the older building must have been as massive and ornamental in is architecture as Durham. The Early English transepts are both famous, that of the south having a complex arrangements of lancets and a rose window making up an entrance façade. On the north side are lancet windows called the “Five Sisters” each only convert|5|ft|m wide, but convert|57|ft|m tall. The interior of York is very spacious. The West front with its paired towers is a harmonious arrangement of the late Decorated period and the large central window has fine Flowing Decorated tracery while the large eastern window is Perpendicular in style. At York, a rare feature is that these important windows have all retained their medieval glass, from c.1270, 1335 and 1405, respectively.Lee, Seddon and Stephens, ‘’Stained Glass’’]

ee also

*Cathedral architecture of Western Europe
*Romanesque architecture
*Gothic architecture
*English Gothic architecture
*Stained glass
*Stained glass - British glass, 1811-1918



*cite book|first=H.R. |last=Burrows|title= A Pictorial History of Hereford Cathedral|publisher=Pitkin|id=ISBN
*cite book|first=J.L. |last=Cartwright|title= A Pictorial History of Peterborough Cathedral|publisher=Pitkin|id=ISBN
*cite book|first=Alec |last=Clifton-Taylor|title=The Cathedrals of England|year=1967|publisher=Thames and Hudson
*cite book|first=J.C. |last=Cox|coauthors=C.B. Ford|title=Parish Churches|year=1961|publisher=Batsford|id=ISBN
*cite book|first=F.H. |last=Crossley|title=The English Abbey|year=1962|publisher=Batsford|id=ISBN
*cite book|first=D.C. |last=Dunlop|title=A Pictorial History of Lincoln Cathedral|publisher=Pitkin|id=ISBN
*cite book|first=Banister|last=Fletcher|authorlink=Banister Fletcher|title=A History of Architecture on the Comparative method|year=2001|publisher=Elsevier Science & Technology|id=ISBN 0-7506-2267-9
*cite book|first=Adam |last=Fox|title= A Pictorial History of Westminster Abbey|year=1967|publisher=Pitkin|id=ISBN
*cite book|first=Helen|last=Gardner|authorlink=Helen Gardner|coauthors=Fred S. Kleiner, Christin J. Mamiya|title=Gardner's Art through the Ages|year=2004|publisher=Thomson Wadsworth |id=ISBN 0-15-505090-7
*cite book|first=John |last=Harvey|title=The Gothic World, 1100–1600|year=1950|publisher=Batsford
*cite book|first= John |last=Harvey|title=English Cathedrals|year=1961|publisher=Batsford
*cite book|first=Rene (ed.)|last=Huyghe |title=Larousse Encyclopedia of Byzantine and Medieval Art|year=1963|publisher=Paul Hamlyn
*cite book|first=Francois |last=Icher|title=Building the Great Cathedrals|year=1998|publisher=Harry N. Abrams|id=ISBN 0-8109-4017-5
*cite book|first=Lawrence |last=Lee|coauthors=George Seddon, Francis Stephens, |title=Stained Glass|year=1976|publisher=Spring Books|id=ISBN 0-600-56281-6
*cite book|first=R.L.P. |last=Milburn|title= A Pictorial History of Worcester Cathedral|publisher=Pitkin|id=ISBN
*cite book|first=Nikolaus|last=Pevsner|authorlink=Nikolaus Pevsner|title=An Outline of European Architecture|year=1964|publisher=Pelican Books
*cite book|first=John |last=Shirley|title= A Pictorial History of Canterbury Cathedral|year=1972|publisher=Pitkin|id=ISBN
*cite book|first=A.F. |last=Smethurst|title= A Pictorial History of Salisbury Cathedral|publisher=Pitkin|id=ISBN
*cite book|first=Phoebe |last=Stanton|title=Pugin|year=1971|publisher=Thames & Hudson|id=ISBN 0-500-27016-3
*cite book|first=C.J. |last=Stranks|title= A Pictorial History of Durham Cathedral|publisher=Pitkin|id=ISBN
*cite book|first= Wim|last=Swaan|title=The Gothic Cathedral|year=1988|publisher=Omega Books |id=ISBN 0-9078593-48-X
*cite book|first= Wim |last=Swaan|title=Art and Architecture of the Late Middle Ages|publisher=Omega Books|id=ISBN 0-907853-35-8
*cite book|first=N. |last=Sykes|title= A Pictorial History of Winchester Cathedral|year=1976|publisher=Pitkin|id=ISBN
*cite book|first= Tim |last=Tatton-Brown|coauthors=John Crook|title=The English Cathedral|year=2002|publisher=New Holland Publishers|id=ISBN 1-84330-120-2
*cite book|first= Francis |last=Underhill|title=Rochester Cathedral|year=1977|publisher=British Publishing Company, Gloucester|id=ISBN
*cite book|first=Robert |last=Willis|title=Architectural History of Some English Cathedrals|year=1842-63|publisher=Minet Reprint 1972 |id=ISBN 0 85609-011-5

External links

* [ Bristol cathedral, official website]
* [ Canterbury Cathedral, official website]
* [ Carlisle Cathedral, official website]
* [ Chester Cathedral, official website]
* [ Chichester Cathedral, official website]
* [ Durham Cathedral, official website]
* [ Ely Cathedral, official website]
* [ Exeter Cathedral, official website]
* [ Gloucester Cathedral, official website]
* [ Hereford Cathedral, official website]
* [ Lichfield Cathedral, official site]
* [ Lincoln Cathedral, official site]
* [ Norwich Cathedral, official website]
* [ Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, official website]
* [ Peterborough Cathedral, official website]
* [ Ripon Cathedral, official website]
* [ Rochester Cathedral, official website]
* [ St. Alban's Cathedral, official website]
* [ Salisbury Cathedral, official website]
* [ Southwark Cathedral, official website]
* [ Southwell Cathedral, official website]
* [ Wells Cathedral, official website]
* [ Winchester Cathedral, official website]
* [ Worcester Cathedral, official website]
* [ York Minster, official website]

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