Durham cathedral showing decorated piers, the triforium and clerestory in the nave.
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.

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.

A photograph of a medieval castle and cathedral seen from across a river.
The World Heritage Site of Durham Castle and Cathedral in County Durham. © Historic England Archive. PLB/N060750.

Norman architecture is ‘Romanesque’

Romanesque describes medieval European buildings built between the 10th and 12th centuries in a style inspired by the Romans.

Norman architecture is a type of Romanesque architecture. The term Norman is used to describe 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 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

8 examples of Norman architecture in England

Each of these examples features classic Norman architectural features.

1. The White Tower at the Tower of London, London

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

A black and white photograph of a medieval tower.
A view of the White Tower from the southeast. The tower was constructed in the late 11th century and was originally white-washed, giving it its name. Source: Historic England Archive. View image DD97/00560.

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 photograph of a medieval tower with a 20th century skyscraper beyond.
The Tower of London’s Norman White Tower rises behind the later outer wall, with the Shard in the background. © Historic England Archive. View image DP183190.

The elegant St John’s Chapel is in the White Tower, 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.

A black and white photographs of a medieval chapel with Norman style columns.
Inside the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, around 1870 to 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. © Historic England Archive. View image 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 is illustrated on the Bayeux Tapestry.

A photograph of a medieval tapestry.
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.

2. The ‘Two Towers’ of 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.

A photograph of a town taken from high up on a castle wall, with a cathedral visable to the left.
View over the town of Rochester from the castle, with the cathedral on the left. © Historic England Archive. View image 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 to 1124) and John I (1125 to 1137), when the cathedral was completed.

A reconstruction illustration 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 castle tower collapsed due to undermining during the siege of 1215. A rounded tower was constructed in its place, which can be seen on the structure’s south side.

3. 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.

A photograph of a figurative sculpture part submerged in water in the crypt of a medieval cathedral.
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. View image 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 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.

4. Durham Cathedral, County Durham

The renowned art historian Geoffrey Webb wrote, ‘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 built in Europe, including Speyer in Germany, Cluny in France and Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

A black and white photograph of the nave of a medieval cathedral.
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. View image AA091642.

In one way, it went further than these significant buildings by 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.

A photograph of the nave of a medieval cathedral.
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 and 1130. © Historic England Archive. View image HEC01/001/016.

5. 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’.

A aerial photograph of the outline of a former medieval cathedral.
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. 

An illustration of how a medieval castle and cathedral may have looked, from the air.
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. © 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 that some of England’s finest sculptors worked on the project.

The artistic influence of this workshop can be felt in central and southern England and reached as far as southern Ireland.

6. 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 a ruined medieval priory.
An aerial photograph of Much Wenlock Priory. © Historic England Archive. 33343/019.

A religious establishment was founded here in about 680 but was refounded around 1080 as a Cluniac Priory with monks 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.

A photograph of a ruined medieval wall.
The north wall of the Chapter House at Much Wenlock in Shropshire. © Historic England Archive. View image DP248276.

7. Dover Castle, Kent

Dover Castle occupies a site that has probably been used for 2,000 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 it was used for the military.

A photograph of a massive medieval stone tower.
The Great Tower at Dover Castle in Kent. © Historic England Archive. View image DP076339.

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

8. Oakham Castle, East Midlands

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

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.

A photograph of the interior of a medieval hall.
Interior of the hall at Oakham Castle, Rutland. © Historic England Archive. View image BB013533.

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

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

A photograph of a medieval hall.
Oakham Castle in Rutland. © Historic England Archive. BB013523.

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

Further reading

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