A spotter's guide to Architecture

A Guide to Norman Architecture in England

Learn how to identify the features and characteristics of medieval architecture following the Norman conquest of England.

What is Norman Architecture?

Norman architecture is a style of medieval architecture built in England following the Norman conquest in 1066. It followed the Anglo-Saxon style and later developed into the Gothic style.

Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral, Durham. General view from riverbank. © Historic England Archive PLB_N060750.

Norman architecture is Romanesque

Romanesque is used to describe medieval European buildings built between the 10th- and 12th-centuries, in a style inspired by the Romans.

Norman architecture is a type of Romanesque, used for the grand buildings erected in England after the Norman conquest. The Normans aspired to create an empire as mighty as Rome and were inspired by both the architecture of their homeland and the works of their illustrious, ancient forebears.

What does Norman architecture look like?

  • The larger buildings have an extremely massive appearance
  • The use of rounded arches is a standard feature
  • Later Norman arches are sometimes decorated with a ‘zig-zag’ chevron pattern
  • Massive wide cylindrical pillars are a common characteristic
  • Castles feature square towers (keep) set on earth mounds (motte)
  • Castles sometimes feature an area, called the bailey. enclosed by earthworks or stone walls

Where to see Norman architecture in England

The White Tower at the Tower of London

William the Conqueror seized control of London in time for his coronation on 25 December 1066. He quickly created a temporary fortification between the ancient Roman wall and the River Thames, but this was replaced by the mid-1090s by the White Tower.

This was both a strong military defence and a symbol of the power of the conquering Normans.

A view of the White Tower from the south east. The tower was constructed in the late 11th century and was originally white-washed, giving it its name. Source Historic England Archive DD97_00560.

The White Tower, still standing today at the heart of the Tower of London, is one of the first significant Norman buildings in England.

The Tower of London's  Norman White Tower rises behind the later outer wall, with the Shard tower in the background.
The Tower of London’s Norman White Tower rises behind the later outer wall, with the Shard tower in the background. © Historic England Archive DP183190.

Within the White Tower is the elegant St John’s Chapel, located on the second floor. Small and relatively simple in form, its architecture would have evoked fond memories in 11th-century worshippers of the churches of their homeland across the channel.

An interior view of the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, 1870-1900. Initially, it would have been highly decorated and richly furnished, but these trappings were removed in 1550 during the English reformation. The rounded arches are typical of the Norman and Romanesque style.
An interior view of the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, 1870-1900. Initially, it would have been highly decorated and richly furnished, but these trappings were removed in 1550 during the English Reformation. The rounded arches are typical of the Norman and Romanesque style. Source Historic England Archive CC97_01047.

Although the White Tower was the first substantial building constructed in London by the Normans, it was not the first Norman-style building. This honour goes to the original Westminster Abbey, erected in the reign of Edward the Confessor (not the present day one). The building no longer survives, but it is illustrated on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Fragment of the Bayeaux tapestry, showing the Palace of Westminster built by Edward the Confessor.
Edward the Confessor was among the last Anglo-Saxon kings of England. Between 1042 and 1052, he began rebuilding St Peter’s Abbey in London, the first church in England built in the Romanesque style. The only extant depiction of Edward’s abbey, together with the adjacent Palace of Westminster, is found in the Bayeux Tapestry. Source akg-images / Pictures From History.

The Two Towers: Church and State in Rochester, Kent

In the decades following 1066, the Norman invaders imposed control of the country. New castles and cathedrals were the twin symbols of their new authority.

View over the town of Rochester from the castle, with the cathedral on the left. © Historic England Archive DP150491.

These twin institutions can still be seen in cities including Durham, Lincoln, and Rochester. While they remain impressive today, in the 11th- and 12th-centuries, they would have especially towered high and mighty above the homes of the conquered Anglo-Saxons.

In the 1080s, the newly appointed first Norman Bishop of Rochester Gundulf began to build both the cathedral and the castle. The cathedral continued to be constructed until the times of Bishops Ernulf (1115–1124) and John I (1125–1137) when the cathedral was completed.

Reconstruction art showing rooms within a stone Norman castle.
A reconstruction of Rochester Castle keep as it would have looked around 1140. Artwork by Chris Jones-Jenkins. © Historic England Archive IC087/002.

Although parts of the cathedral were replaced during the next two centuries, much of the Norman fabric survives, including substantial portions of the grand west façade, nave, and early crypt.

One tower of the castle collapsed due to undermining during the siege of 1215. A rounded tower was constructed in its place, which can be seen at the south side of the structure.

Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire

One of the first new Norman cathedrals to be constructed after the conquest was at Winchester in 1079. The city was an important Roman town that later became the capital of King Alfred’s kingdom and therefore was the site of a substantial royal palace and ministers.

The crypt is prone to flooding, but at the beginning of the 20th-century, more than 200 pits were dug to shore up the cathedral. Sir Anthony Gormley’s ‘Sound II’ stands in the crypt in quiet contemplation as the water level rises and falls around the crypt. © Historic England Archive AA017613.

As the new cathedral was begun so soon after the conquest, the influence of buildings in Normandy is evident in its core architecture. Its transepts, complete by 1100 when King William Rufus was buried underneath the crossing tower, have galleries along their ends, a feature clearly derived from the continent.

While much of the cathedral’s exterior was remodelled in later centuries, the crypt beneath the choir completed by 1093 is an excellent example of the Romanesque style.

Durham Cathedral, County Durham

The renowned art historian Geoffrey Webb rightly wrote that ‘Durham is the most important work of the Anglo-Norman School, both historically and aesthetically.’

Begun in 1093, Durham Cathedral ranks alongside the most splendid churches being built in Europe at this time, including Speyer in Germany, Cluny in France and Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

This interior view of Durham cathedral down the north aisle of the nave shows decorated compound piers and the ribbed vaulting above. © Historic England Archive AA091642.

In one way, it went further than these significant buildings in using rib vaults, which survive above the transepts and nave. As earlier churches had only employed this type of vault in aisles, this required a building of monumental proportions and a sophisticated design.

Durham is a joy to behold because of its highly decorative interior. Arches and ribs are moulded and decorated, major piers are formed of complex compounds of shafts, and the intermediate cylindrical piers are treated with incised decoration.

Interior view of Durham cathedral showing decorated piers, the triforium and clerestory in the nave. The Romanesque nave was constructed with other parts of the main body of the cathedral between 1093-1130. © Historic England Archive HEC01/001/016.

Old Sarum, Wiltshire

These aerial photographs show the outline of the Romanesque Cathedral, the ruins of the Norman castle and the site of the town of Old Sarum. These were all contained within an Iron Age hillfort, which the Romans named Sorviodunum.

Old Sarum, the castle and cathedral © Historic England Archive 33306_035.

This became the cathedral site following the unification of the diocese of Ramsbury and Sherborne. The new church was consecrated on 5 April 1092, but five days later, it was apparently struck by lightning and damaged (though this may be an attempt to gloss over a failure in the construction of the building). The damage was rectified by the end of the 11th century. 

Reconstruction illustration depicting an aerial view of Old Sarum, as it may have appeared in about 1130. The Royal Palace in the inner bailey and earliest castle have been constructed, and a larger cathedral has been completed. Art by Peter Dunn. about 1993. © Historic England Archive C074/004.

Although the cathedral does not survive, it is known to have been exceptionally lavish. Some of the sculpture from this building is on display at the museum in Salisbury. It reveals it had some of England’s finest sculptors working on the project. The artistic influence of this workshop can be felt in central and southern England and reached as far as southern Ireland.

Much Wenlock Priory, Shropshire

Much Wenlock is one of the hundreds of former Norman monastic sites across the country that survive in a more or less ruinous state.

An aerial photograph of Much Wenlock Priory. © Historic England Archive 33343_019.

A religious establishment had been founded here in about 680, but was refounded around 1080 as a Cluniac Priory with monks brought from La Charité-sur-Loire. The church dates from the late 12th to mid-13th century.

The Cluniac Order was a reformed version of the Benedictine Order. Inspired by its stunning home church at Cluny in Burgundy, the monasteries were sometimes grand and lavish. This can be seen in the surviving north wall of the chapter house of around 1140 with its elaborate intersecting arcading. The priory was dissolved in January 1540, and its ruination began.

Much Wenlock, the north wall of Chapter House. © Historic England Archive DP248276.

Dover Castle, Kent

Dover Castle occupies a site that has probably been in use for 2000 years. The Great Tower is located at the heart of the site, built in the 1180s.

Although this structure and the surrounding defensive walls would have been a formidable challenge for an enemy, it was perhaps as ceremonial as military. It appears to have been used by the King as a special place to host visitors arriving from the continent, particularly those heading to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

The Great Tower, Dover Castle. © Historic England Archive DP076339.

The use of bands of stone in the fabric of the Great Tower recalls a common construction technique used by the Romans.

Oakham Castle, East Midlands

As well as churches and castles, a few grand domestic buildings of the 12th century survive at least in part.

Interior of hall at Oakham Castle, Rutland © Historic England Archive BB013533.

One of the finest is the aisled hall of Oakham Castle, a stone-built structure, four bays long with three large stone columns on each side.

This hall did not stand alone originally, and there is archaeological evidence of an adjacent chamber block. There would have been other structures around the hall and the castle.

Oakham Castle, exterior view of the hall © Historic England Archive BB013523.

Oakham Castle is one of the longest-running locations of criminal courts in England, with cases being heard there from the 13th century onwards.

The Role of Historic England 
Many surviving Norman buildings in England are protected as listed buildings or scheduled monuments in the case of ruins. You can find out more about them from the National Heritage List for England. 

We did not have space to feature all the surviving traces of imposing Norman architecture in England in this post: if you’d like to share more of these gems with readers let us know about them in the comments. 

I am an architectural historian and historian who has researched everything from Roman forts to 20th century airports. My main interests are the history of tourism, prisons and law courts, and medieval architecture and sculpture.

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