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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls

English Gothic Architecture

Updated: Jul 5, 2020

In the middle of the 12th C began a new style that took architecture to new levels of sophistication. Together with an unknown master mason, it was introduced by Abbé Suger, Abbot of the Abbey of St. Denis, just outside Paris. It is said that Sugar was fired by a passage in Revelations, that talks about building heaven on earth, a new Jerusalem. Certainly, Suger saw light as God’s power made manifest, and space and light are at the heart of Gothic churches, quite different from the rather dark and gloomy Romanesque buildings that preceded them. Gothic architecture, with its use of pointed arches, rib vaulting and flying buttresses allowed the medieval builders to build higher and wider, and fired intellectual and religious patterns that lasted until the late Reformation.

Flying Buttresses at York Minster

Although the Gothic style quickly spread throughout Europe, England was the first country outside of France to employ this new architecture, with Canterbury Cathedral the first of these new English churches. While other countries developed their own distinct elements of Gothic architecture, in England it flourished from about 1180 until about 1520 and can be divided in to three different periods; Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular. Early English lasted from about 1180 to 1280, and saw the first use of the pointed arch, rib vaulting, flying buttress and large stained-glass windows.

The West Front of Wells Cathedral, one of the most beautiful of English Cathedrals

Window Tracery detail in a window of York Minster

Decorated lasted from 1280 to approximately 1350 and, as the name suggests, involved the use of elaborately carved ornamentation, as well as the introduction of complex window tracery (an architectural device by which windows are divided into sections of various proportions by stone bars or ribs of moulding) and the use of the Ogee arch (an arch with two curves meeting at the apex).

Detailed ornamentation in the Chapter House of York Minster, a strong feature of the Decorated Period

Perpendicular, approximately 1350 – 1520, saw a greater emphasis on verticals and horizontals (particularly in the window tracery) and extraordinarily complex fan vaulting. Fan vaulting is a device whereby in the ribs of a vault (as in barrel vault) are all the same curve, and spaced equidistantly, in a manner resembling a fan.

Building a medieval cathedral was a complex and expensive undertaking, and most (if not all) cathedrals took centuries to build, frequently spanning all three architectural periods. Building could be interrupted by lack of money, the death of the bishop who had commissioned the work, natural disasters (the Black Death in particular) and religious or social upheaval. One late Gothic church, Bath Abbey, begun in the 15th C, was interrupted by the Reformation, and not completed until the 17th C.

The very late Gothic church, Bath Abbey, viewed from the Roman Baths

A visitor to any of the great English Cathedrals will be struck by the amount of light and sense of soaring space. The nave (the central part of a church building, intended to accommodate most of the congregation) and aisles run side-by-side to the junction with the transepts, and stained-glass windows run the entire length of the walls. This sense of space would have been further enhanced in medieval times by the absence of any seating for the congregation. The lucky visitor might see a cathedral with the modern seating removed and to experience this amount of space in a medieval building is hugely impressive. It is rewarding to visit any of the 26 medieval English cathedrals (to which should be added other great churches that are not cathedrals, such as King’s College Chapel, Cambridge or St. George’s Chapel, Windsor), but many, relatively humble parish churches also exhibit the beauty and magnificence of English Gothic architecture.

The Medieval Church of St. Andrew's in Little Snoring, Norfolk. A 'country cousin' of the great Gothic churches

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