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English Mediaeval Architecture - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1921 )

The character of Romanesque and Gothic architecture in Europe has already been considered (pp. 246, 300). The development of Mediaeval architecture in England from the departure of the Romans till the sixteenth century shows a more complete sequence of styles than in other countries. It is usually divided into periods roughly corresponding with the centuries and having their own special characteristics ; these are known as Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Early English, Decorated, Perpendicular, and Tudor. The table given below of the nomenclature of the periods is based on the classification made by Rickman to coincide with the reigns of English sovereigns, and that of Sharpe, whose periods are determined by evolution of window tracery. These somewhat arbitrary style-names cannot be considered scientific, as they are based partly on historical periods and partly on architectural character ; but, as they have held the field for so long in all descriptions of English architecture, they have become, as it were, an integral part of architectural phraseology. They refer approximately to the type of architecture prevalent during the centuries with which they are identified, and can best be understood by study at first hand of buildings belonging to the different periods, and of architectural details in the various museums.

Although each period is thus defined, it must be remembered that the transition from one style to another was slow and gradual and is often difficult to trace. The architectural character of each period is treated separately, and may be read in conjunction with the comparative analysis (p. 400) which demonstrates the gradual evolution through the different periods of plans, walls, openings, roofs, columns, mouldings, and ornament.

Pre-Roman period.—The few traces that have been found of building in England before the Roman occupation indicate that it was so primitive in character as hardly to allow of its classification as architecture. Evidences of its type may be seen in Stonehenge, Avebury, and other cromlechs, dolmens, tumuli, and beehive huts in different parts of the country (P. 3).

Roman period (B.C. 55—A.D. 420).—The architecture of the Romans in England was of the same character as in other parts of Europe, and a considerable amount still remains, not only of massive work, like Hadrian's Wall, but also of buildings in towns, such as Silchester, Bath, Chester, and Corstopitum (Corbridge). Fora, basilicas, baths, temples, and villas have been and still are being uncovered ; while in museums throughout England mosaic floors, pottery, and sculptures indicate the care which the Romans bestowed on dwelling-houses as well as on public buildings in this country. The standardised architecture of the Romans, which is dealt with in the chapter on Roman architecture (p. 133), was of such a virile character that it inevitably influenced the subsequent Anglo-Saxon and Romanesque (Norman) architecture.

Anglo-Saxon period (A.D. 449-1066). — It is difficult to arrive at a conclusive estimate of the architectural character of a period when buildings were sometimes composed either of fragments or of rough copies of Roman architectural details (p. 321). Timber was presumably largely employed in domestic building, but, because of its perishable nature, little evidence remains as to the way in which it was introduced, The great development which took place in the use of that material in later times is another instance of the natural tendency in England to turn to timber for house building, as for ship building. Some even assert that the masonry of the early stone churches, which appear to have been first built about A.D. 650, is due to the influence of timber prototypes, as in the " long and short work " (p. 321 c), the triangular-headed openings (p. 321 J), the pilaster strips (p. 321 C, E, M) and the baluster mullions (p. 321 B, G, H, P) ; but these features may equally well be derived from the Romanesque architecture of Italy. The few vaults of this period that have come down to us were founded on Roman, as the simple cross-vaults of a few church crypts. For Anglo-Saxon vaulting see p. 327. Churches of this period include those at Worth (pp. 321 L, 396 c), Barnack, Brixworth, Earls Barton (p. 321 c), Boarhunt (p. 321 K, N), Sompting (p. 321 E), Wickham, Deerhurst (A.D. 1056) (p. 321 J), Greensted, and in Dover Castle, while S. Lawrence, Bradford-on-Avon (c. A.D. 700) (p. 321 M, Q), and the church at Escomb, Durham (p. 396 B), are two beautiful examples on a small scale. To this period also belongs the crypt of Ripon Cathedral.

Norman period (A.D. 1066-1189).-The English Romanesque or Norman style comprises the reigns of William I (A.D. 1(366-87), William II (A.D. 1087-1100), Henry I (A.D. 1100-35), Stephen (A.D. 1135-54), and Henry II (A.D. 1154-89). Norman architecture is bold and massive, and the distinguishing features are semicircular arches, ponderous cylindrical piers, and flat buttresses, similar to the architecture of Normandy, whence it was first introduced by Edward the Confessor, and it was subsequently established by William the Conqueror. Sir Walter Scott well describes the character:

That abbey frown'd
With massive arches broad and round,
That rose alternate row on row
On ponderous columns short and low ;
Built ere the art was known,
By pointed aisle and shafted stalk
The arcades of an alley'd walk
To emulate in stone . ."

In Norman vaulting a new system was introduced in which groins or meeting surfaces of cross-vaults were replaced by specially constructed semicircular ribs thrown across the sides and diagonals of vaulting compartments, and these ribs support thin panels of stone. This novel system gave a new character to Norman architecture and eventually led, by the gradual introduction of additional ribs, to the complicated and characteristic " rib and panel " vaults of the Gothic period. For Norman vaulting see p. 327.

In London the principal Norman buildings are the Keep and Chapel of the Tower of London (p. 367) ; the Rotunda of the Temple Church (see below) (p. 322) (Transitional) ; S. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield (p. 323 A); and the crypt of S. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside (p. 725).

In the Provinces the principal examples are found in the Cathedrals of Norwich (p. 343), Durham (p. 343), Oxford (p. 343), Gloucester (p. 343), Exeter (p. 343), Ely (p. 343), Hereford (p.343), Peterborough (pp. 341, 343), Winchester (p. 344), S. Albans (p. 344), and Chichester (p. 340), and in Waltham and Tewkesbury Abbeys, while Barfreston Church, Kent, and Iffley Church, Oxford, are among the smaller churches. There are also circular churches (p. 245) in London (Temple Church), Cambridge, Northampton, Little Maplestead, and Ludlow (ruined), and a large number of feudal castles also date from this period (p. 362), as well as some manor houses (p. 368).

Early English period (A.D. 1189-1307).-The thirteenth-century style also known as Lancet, First Pointed or Early Plantagenet, comprises the reigns of Richard I (A.D. 1189-99), John (A.D. 1199-1216), Henry III (A.D. 1216-72), and Edward I (A.D. 1272—1307). This style, less massive than the Norman, depends for effect on pleasing proportions, well defined` outlines, and simplicity in ornament. Tall and narrow lancet openings give height to the design, and exteriors are marked by projecting buttresses, pinnacles, and steep-pitched roofs. Internally, groups of slender shafts, connected to the piers by bands, replace the massive Norman pillars. Lines of dog-tooth ornament in the deeply channelled arch-mouldings, foliated capitals and bosses, and knots of pierced and hanging leaves, almost impart life to the stone framework of door and window openings. The rib and panel vaults of pointed form with transverse and diagonal ribs, which are both bold and graceful, now generally spanned the wide naves of churches and cathedrals, as at Westminster and Lincoln (p. 348 B). For Early English vaulting see p. 328.

In London the principal examples are the eastern portion of the Temple Church, which, with its nave and aisles of equal height, is an English " hall " church (p. 322) ; the eastern arm, transepts, five bays of the nave, chapter house and part of the cloisters of Westminster Abbey (A.D. 1245—69) (P. 344) ; the chapel of Lambeth Palace, and the choir, Lady chapel, and nave (restored) of Southwark cathedral.

In the Provinces the principal examples are Salisbury Cathedral (p. 344), York (transepts) (p. 344), Lincoln (nave and chapter house) (P. 343), Rochester (choir and transepts) (p. 344), Wells (nave and west front) (p. 344), Lichfield (p. 343), Ely (choir, transepts, and " Galilee Porch ") (A.D. 1198—1218) (p. 343), Worcester (choir) (p. 344), Bristol (Elder Lady Chapel) (p. 340), besides castles (p. 367), manor houses (p. 373), and other secular buildings (pp. 385, 391, 392, 397, 398, 399)

Decorated period (A.D. 1307—77).—The fourteenth-century style, also known as Geometrical and Curvilinear, Middle Pointed, Edwardian, or Later Plantagenet, comprises the reigns of Edward II (A.D. 1307—27) and Edward III (A.D. 1327—77). This style is much richer in ornament than the Early English and is made all the more magnificent by the geometrical and flowing tracery, sometimes crowned with the ogee arch, which frames the glowing coloured-glass windows. Clear-stories were enlarged at the expense of the triforium. Vaulting ribs became so numerous and complex by the addition of intermediate and lierne ribs that the vault with multitudinous ribs, often forming star-shaped patterns or stellar vaulting, was a main feature in the decoration of church interiors, as in the choir at Ely. For Decorated vaulting see p. 328.

In London the principal examples are Westminster Abbey (three bays of the east cloister), the Chapel of S. Etheldreda, Holborn, and the Dutch Church, Austin Friars.

In the Provinces the principal examples are the cathedrals of Lincoln (nave and east end, including "Angel Choir") (A.D. 1260—80) (p. 343), Ely (eastern portion) (p. 343), York (choir, west front, and chapter house) (P. 344), Exeter (p. 343) and Lichfield (naves) (p. 343), S. Albans (choir) (p. 344) ; polygonal chapter houses at Salisbury (p. 344), Wells (p. 344), and Southwell (p. 344) ; Stone Church, Kent, the Eleanor Crosses (pp. 394 B, 425), besides castles (p. 367), manor houses (p. 373), and other secular buildings (pp. 385, 397-9).

Perpendicular period (A.D. 1377-1485).—The fifteenth-century style, also known as Rectilinear, Late Pointed, or Lancastrian, comprises the reigns of Richard II (A.D. 1377—99), Henry IV (A.D. 1399—1413), Henry V (A.D. 1413-22), Henry VI(A.D. 1422—61), Edward IV (A.D. 1461—83),Edward V (A.D. 1483), and Richard III (A.D. 1483—85). The general appearance is indicated by its name, which is derived from the upright lines of the window tracery and of the panelling which covered both internal and external walls, and extended even over buttresses. Windows, now often crowned with four-centred arches, were, owing to their immense size, strengthened by horizontal transoms, by primary and secondary mullions (p. 408 M), and sometimes by an inner gallery across the window, as at York. The triforium practically disappeared, owing to the greater height of nave arcades and the flatness of aisle roofs, while clear-story and aisle windows were increased in height. Fan vaults too are characteristic, with their numerous ribs and panels, as in the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral (A.D. 1377) and the complicated " fan and pendant " vaults, as at Oxford Cathedral. This peculiarly English feature is seen in its loveliest form in the Chapel of Henry VII, Westminster, which properly belongs to the Tudor period. For Perpendicular vaulting see p. 337.

In London the principal examples are the south and west cloisters of Westminster Abbey (p. 344) ; S. Margaret, Westminster ; the arcade of S. Helen, Bishopsgate (p. 323 a) ; porch of S. Sepulchre, Holborn ; Savoy Chapel, Strand ; Westminster Hall (pp. 362, 417) ; Crosby Hall (now removed to Chelsea), and the Guildhall Porch.

In the Provinces the principal examples are the west fronts of Winchester (p. 344), Gloucester (p. 343), and Beverley; S. George's Chapel, Windsor (pp. 382, 386) ; Sherborne Minster; King's College Chapel, Cam-bridge (pp. 383, 386) ; the cathedrals of Canterbury (nave) (p. 340), York (choir) (p. 344), Gloucester (transept, choir, and cloisters) (p. 343), and Winchester (nave) (pp. 344, 352, 403 M) ; the Beauchamp Chapel, Warwick (p 386) ; towers at Gloucester (p. 343) and Canterbury (pp. 340, 346 A) ; many colleges at Oxford and Cambridge (pp. 384, 391), besides castles (p. 367), manor houses (p. 374), and other secular buildings (pp. 385, 392, 397–9).

Tudor period (A.D. 1485–1558): The first half of the sixteenth century comprises the reigns of Henry VII (A.D. 1485–1509), Henry VIII (A.D. 15o9-47), Edward VI (A.D. 1547–53) and Mary (A.D. 1553–58). The character of the style, which, in ecclesiastical architecture, was similar to Perpendicular in general treatment, was modified because it was now called into use for domestic rather than for ecclesiastical buildings. The revived Roman style, which originated in Italy in the fifteenth century, was gradually spreading through France to England, where, grafted on the late Gothic or Perpendicular, it produced a picturesque combination, as the product of craftsmen trained in Gothic traditions, but working under architects imbued with the Renaissance spirit and familiar with Classical details. Notable features in domestic buildings of this period were square-headed mullioned windows, reminiscent of the Perpendicular style ; ornamental fireplaces with wide four-centred arch and lavish heraldic carving (p. 378 A) sometimes provided with iron fire-backs (p. 378 L) ; gables with lofty carved pinnacles which group up with high moulded chimneys (p. 378 F) and carved finials (p. 378 D), as seen in countless manor houses throughout the country. For Tudor vaulting see p. 337.

In London the principal examples are the beautiful Chapel of Henry VII, Westminster (p. 350), the gateway of S. James' Palace, and portions of some city churches.

In the Provinces the principal examples are Compton Wynyates, Warwickshire (pp. 376, 38o), Layer Marney (c. A.D. 1500–25) (p. 312), Sutton Place, Guildford (A.D. 1523–25) (pp. 376, 385), parts of Hampton Court Palace (pp. 377 A, G, 38o), the famous vaulted stairway, Christchurch, xford (A.D. 1630), besides many country mansions (p. 379) and other secular buildings (pp. 385, 392, 397–9).

Tudor was followed by Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture (p. 701) in which may be traced increased Roman influence, until this Early Renaissance architecture developed into the Anglo-Classic or Later Renaissance of Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren. The process, however, was slow, and native Gothic survived in outlying districts till the end of the sixteenth century and even later, as in the extraordinary church of S. Mary, Warwick, rebuilt as a " hall " church (A.D. 1694) in the Perpendicular style with a mingling of Renaissance features.


The various problems which, by their solution, determined the evolution of Mediaeval vaulting exercised such an important influence on the general character of the architecture that it is desirable to give a consecutive description of vaulting evolution through the successive centuries in order to secure an uninterrupted view of such an integral part of Mediaeval architectural design. In the chapters on Romanesque and Gothic architecture in Europe (pp. 247, 306) we have dealt generally with the various aspects of these problems, and we here follow the evolution as it took place in England. The problem for the Mediaeval architect was to construct a stone vault over the lofty nave of a church of the basilican type, while leaving clear-story windows in the nave walls above the aisle roofs. While Roman vaulting consisted in the design either of semicircular vaults or of semicircular cross-vaults, of which the meeting lines or intersections are known as groins, Mediaeval vaulting was of quite a different type ; for the simple groins were now replaced by specially constructed ribs on which the thin vaulting panels were placed. This was an economical form of building ; for it dispensed with the large amount of " centering " required for the temporary support of the heavy Roman vaults, as each rib, when constructed, itself became the support of the vault panel. The weight of the stone vault, high above the ground, exerted considerable thrust and so involved the solution of structural problems and resulted in the employment of novel features, such as buttresses and pinnacles, to counteract the thrust of this nave vault, while the numerous ribs meeting on the pier capitals had to be supported, and so required novel types of piers, thus determining, in a remarkable degree, the character of English Mediaeval architecture.

Anglo-Saxon Vaulting.—The vaulting that was carried out during this period was based on Roman, like that in the porch at Monkwearmouth, which, according to Baldwin Brown, is the only Saxon vault remaining above ground in England ; while the vaulting in the Chapel of the Pyx, Westminster Abbey, though dating from the time of Edward the Confessor, is of Norman character.

Norman Vaulting (p. 324 A, B).—The Roman system of vaulting was in vogue till the introduction of transverse and diagonal ribs. Norman vaulting, originally similar to Roman, was either (a) cylindrical or barrel vaulting, as in S. John's Chapel, Tower of London (p. 364 c) ; (b) groined cross-vaulting in square bays, as in the aisle of S. John's Chapel, Tower of London, and the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral (A.D. 1096–1107) (p. 324 A), and it is interesting to note that the earliest cross-vaults are found over low crypts of churches where they were easier to construct, and had only to support the floor of the church ; (c) oblong bays in which the vaulting ribs or arches across the shorter span were either stilted (p. 302 C, G) or in the later period slightly pointed ; (d) sexpartite (six-part) vaulting (p. 302 E), as in the choir at Canterbury Cathedral (p. 346 B), rebuilt by William of Sens (A.D. 1195), which has the same type of vaulting as at the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, Caen (p. 276). In England the system, so frequent on the Continent, of raising the diagonal rib to produce the domical vault seems to have been little used, and the method was either to make diagonal ribs segmental, as in the aisles at Peterborough Cathedral (p. 324 B), or to make the diagonal ribs semicircular and stilt or raise the springing of the transverse and longitudinal ribs. A great advance was made by the pointed arch, which was first used for the transverse and wall ribs only, the diagonal ribs (i.e. those with the longest span) remaining semicircular. The vault over the nave of Durham Cathedral (A.D. 1128–33) has pointed transverse ribs which are believed to be the earliest examples of a pointed arch to a high vault in England (p. 336 B) .

Early English Vaulting (p. 324 C, D).—The pointed arch came into general use in the thirteenth century, and, without the aid of stilting or other contrivances, surmounted the difficulties created by the intersection of semicircular vaults of different spans (p. 302). The plain four-part (quadripartite) ribbed vault, primarily constructed as a skeleton framework of diagonal and transverse ribs, was chiefly used in this period, as in the naves of Durham, Salisbury (p. 345 H) and Gloucester, and the aisles of Peterborongh. Intermediate ribs, known as " tiercerons," were inserted later between the transverse and diagonal ribs to give additional support to the panels, as in the nave of Westminster Abbey (p. 324 D). Ridge ribs were then introduced to resist the thrust of the opposing " tiercerons ' and keep them in position. In Continental examples the ridge rib is often not continuous and is only used for those ribs which abut obliquely at the summit. Ridge ribs are generally horizontal in England, but on the Continent are arched between the bosses. The courses of the vault panels meet at the ridge in zigzag lines, as in the nave of Westminster Abbey (pp. 303 F, 357 B), Lincoln, Exeter, and Lichfield Cathedrals, as well as in the churches of south-west France. Wall ribs or " formerets " enclosing the lateral wall space of the vaulting compartment came into use during this period. The " ploughshare twist," which sometimes occurs in the panels between diagonal and wall ribs, as in Westminster Abbey and Southwark Cathedral (p. 303 c), is produced by raising the springing of the wall rib above that of the diagonal rib in order to increase the size of clear-story windows.

Decorated Vaulting (p. 324 E, F).—A general elaboration of vaulting is characteristic of this period, and is due not only to the greater use of intermediate and ridge ribs, as in the nave vault of Exeter Cathedral, but also to the addition of "lierne " ribs (French, lien = tie or bond)—a term applied to any rib other than a ridge rib which does not start from the springing of the vaulting compartment. Previously each rib marked a change in the direction of the vaulting surface, but " lierne " ribs merely follow the curved surface of the panel and, by their number and disposition, often give an intricate appearance to an otherwise simple vault (p. 324 F). The star-shaped pattern thus produced is called " stellar " vaulting (p.324 G) and there are examples of this type in Gloucester (A.D. 1337–77), Canterbury (A.D. 1379), Wells, Ely (choir) (p. 403 K), Bristol and Winchester Cathedrals (p. 352 H), and Tewkesbury Abbey. Vaulting during this period comprised transverse, diagonal, tierceron, ridge and lierne ribs, and this increased number of ribs so decreased the size of the panels they supported that the space from rib to rib was frequently spanned by a single stone. Carved bosses (French, bosse = lump or knob) or keystones, which had already come into use in the thirteenth century, had their origin in a constructive use as keystones against which the ribs abutted and also in the need for disguising the awkward mitres made by the meeting of moulded ribs. In the fourteenth century the increase in the number of ribs led to a corresponding increase in the number of bosses which, as part of the general scheme, gave to these Gothic vaults an extremely ornamental and web-like appearance.

Perpendicular Vaulting (p. 324 G, H).—The intricate " stellar " vaulting of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries led, by experimental stages, to the type known as fan, palm, or conoidal vaulting, first used in the cloisters at Gloucester (A.D. 1351–77), in which the rising ribs are formed at equal angles on the surface of inverted concave cones and are thus of the same curve, and these are connected at different heights by horizontal lierne ribs. The development was somewhat as follows : In the thirteenth century the vault followed the outline of inverted, four-sided concave pyramids ; in the fourteenth century the introduction of more ribs resulted in polygonal pyramids with ribs of different curves, while in the fifteenth century the design was simplified by the introduction of " fan " vaulting in which all ribs are of similar curve (p. 324 H). The reduction of the size of panels, consequent in the increase in the number of ribs, brought about a return to the Roman method of construction ; for in fan vaulting the ribs and panels were often formed in the same piece of stone instead of the panels resting as separate stones on the ribs, and thus the ribs lost their structural use. This method seems to have been first adopted in vaults where ribs were most numerons, and in some vaults in this and the Tudor period both systems are found, as at King's College Chapel, Cambridge ; while in others, as in Henry the Seventh's Chapel, Westminster, the whole vault has ribs and panels formed out of the same piece of stone. The difficulty of supporting the flat, lozenge-shaped space in the crown of the vault was comparatively easy in cloisters, where the vaulting compartments were approximately square, but difficulties arose in adapting fan vaulting to the bays of naves which generally measured twice as much transversely as longitudinally. In King's College Chapel the conoid was continued to the centre and has the sides cut off, forming awkward transverse junctions. The nave of Henry the Seventh's Chapel (A.D. 1502–12) has hidden transverse arches which penetrate above the vaulting and, at a distance from the walls, support pendants or elongated voussoirs, from which spring the conoids, thus reducing the central vaulting space from an oblong to a square (p. 358). At Oxford Cathedral, by a some-what similar method, the pendants, supported by an upper arch, are placed at some distance from the walls, and from them spring the rib and panel vault (A.D. 1478). Fan vaulting is confined to England, and there are examples at Sherborne Abbey (A.D. 1475) ; the Divinity Schools, Oxford (A.D. 1445–80) ; Trinity Church, Ely ; Gloucester Cathedral (p. 324 H) ; S. George's Chapel, Windsor (A.D. 1473–1537) (p. 382 H), and the retrochoir, Peterborough, and the tradition was maintained in the vault over the staircase at Christchurch, Oxford (A.D. 1630). Pendant vaulting without the fan treatment is frequent in the Flamboyant period in France (p. 463), as at Caudebec, Normandy (p. 462 D).

Tudor Vaulting.—The Tudor or four-centred arch (p. 859), so typical of the period, seems to have had its origin in the difficulty of making the various ribs in the oblong vaulting compartments of naves reach the same height. In an oblong Mediaeval vaulting compartment which had a lancet-shaped window in the nave wall, the diagonal ribs are either semicircular or pointed, i.e. struck from two centres in which each side of the arch must be less than the quadrant of a circle ; and because the transverse and wall ribs are shorter than the diagonal ribs, they are still smaller segments of a circle. In oblong vaulting compartments of late Gothic vaults, which often had windows in the nave wall crowned with pointed arches of equilateral or, in early Tudor times, even of the " drop " arch form (p. 859), the diagonal and transverse ribs had to be struck from four centres in order to accommodate their height to that of the window arch. These of necessity were low four-centred arches which started with the same curve as the window arch, but after a certain height the remainder of each rib was struck from another centre in order to bring the apex of all ribs to the same height as that of the window arch. The four-centred arches which were used in late Gothic vaults and conspicuously in fan vaulting were afterwards introduced over doors (p. 377 A), windows (p. 366), fireplaces (p. 366 G, J), and wall tombs, as well as in traceried panels, possibly with a desire to harmonise with the vaulted superstructure.

The special forms of vault used in chapter houses are referred to later.

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