A spotter's guide to Architecture

What is Gothic Architecture?

Learn how to identify the features and characteristics of medieval Gothic architecture in England.

Gothic describes the dominant architectural style of medieval buildings in Europe between the mid-12th and the early-16th centuries.

The name was coined in derision by Italian Renaissance architects because it did not follow the style of the Romans. In using the word Gothic, they referenced the Goths of early medieval Europe, who they blamed for the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Today this exquisite architectural style is appreciated in its own right.

Where did Gothic architecture begin?

Gothic architecture first emerged in Paris, France. Abbot Suger at the Basilica of Saint-Denis wanted to create a church that was an earthly expression of heaven. He assembled masons, stained-glass artists and sculptors to build a new façade and choir. This work would inspire a series of great Gothic cathedrals and churches, initially in northern France.

The Choir at the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris, built under Abbot Suger. Image via Flikr.

The Gothic style would eventually spread throughout Europe. But while England enjoyed many artistic contacts with the continent, it took until the 1170s for the first whole Gothic building to begin construction.

How to spot Gothic buildings

  • Large church buildings have a sophisticated, light structure with large windows
  • The use of pointed arches is a standard feature
  • From the mid-13th century, increasingly complicated window designs were used
  • Complex decorative designs on arches and piers were common
  • Many later medieval timber-framed buildings survive
  • There was a shift in the later middle ages from castles to fortified houses

There are three styles of English Gothic architecture

1. Initially inspired by French models, a distinctive Early English Style developed by the late 12th century.

2. English architects developed the Decorated Style by introducing bar tracery, dividing windows into sections using thin stone bars. This was imported from France in the 1240s.

3. From the early 14th century (again with some French inspiration), buildings with a highly decorative form of window tracery, extending onto the walls, are in the Perpendicular Style.

Where to see Gothic architecture in England

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent

In 1170 Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered in his cathedral. Three years later, he was canonised as a saint.

In 1174 a fire struck the east end of the Romanesque church, which was too severely damaged for simple repairs. Instead, a new choir was created for the saint’s tomb, to cater to many pilgrims expected to visit.

A view of Canterbury Cathedral from the air.
Canterbury Cathedral from the air. © Historic England Archive 33246_011.

Canterbury took the radical decision to employ a French architect, William of Sens. His design used some elements of traditional English building, but his main inspiration was the major churches in nearby northern France.

The most distinctive imported feature was the extensive use of coloured marble shafts and decorative elements. In England, this was achieved by using Purbeck Marble, a shell-rich limestone that could be polished.

Interior view of Canterbury Cathedral, looking east towards the altar, with a finely carved reredos behind.
Interior view of Canterbury Cathedral, looking east towards the altar, with a finely carved reredos behind. Photo taken 1860-1922. © Historic England Archive CC1_00252.

William of Sens did not see his work completed. In 1178, he fell from the scaffolding and returned to France to be replaced by another architect, William the Englishman. Construction of the cathedral’s east end was completed in 1185.

Lincoln Cathedral, Lincolnshire

Lincoln Cathedral marks the start of England’s own distinctive Gothic style. In particular, it explored the full decorative potential of Purbeck Marble.

Lincoln Cathedral from the air.
Lincoln Cathedral from the air. © Historic England Archive EPW041643.

In 1185 an earthquake supposedly caused a vault to collapse, although it’s possible this was a cover story for structural failure. Either way, building work began to reconstruct the east end in 1192. By the early 13th century, the nave (the longest part of the church) was in progress too.

The interior of Lincoln Cathedral, showing the nave and decorative shafting on the columns.
The interior of Lincoln Cathedral showing the nave and decorative shafting on the columns. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The design of Lincoln was based on extensive use of decorative columns, with an intense linear decoration extended up to the elaborate vaults.

Lincoln is the first work in the Early English style. It would influence many buildings in the following decades.

Westminster Abbey, London

For the reconstruction of Westminster Abbey, France was again turned to for inspiration. But like Canterbury Cathedral, the building also has elements clearly derived from contemporary English sources.

Interior view of Westminster Abbey, showing the choir.
Interior view of Westminster Abbey, showing the choir. © Historic England Archive DD97_00196.

The most crucial French import at Westminster Abbey was bar tracery. This had been introduced at Reims Cathedral (begun in 1210) and consisted of creating windows by infilling the openings with carefully cut stones to form the arches, circles and other forms of a pattern.

Westminster Abbey in London.
Westminster Abbey in London. © Historic England Archive DP017427.

The decorative possibilities demonstrated in Westminster’s windows would inspire future generations of English architects.

St Etheldreda’s Church, London

St Etheldreda’s Church in London probably dates from the 1280s. It was possibly created by John Kirkby, Treasurer to the Abbey from 1284-6 and subsequently the Bishop until his death in 1290.

A view of St Etheldreda’s Church in Holborn, London.
St Etheldreda’s Church in Holborn, London. © Historic England Archive BB95_09905.

Although small in size, St Etheldreda’s was at the forefront of fashionable architecture, displaying the most sophisticated types of window tracery.

From this point, England embraced the endless decorative possibilities of tracery and would soon renounce strict geometrical forms for more curvilinear forms.

Interior view of St Etheldreda’s Church.
Interior view of St Etheldreda’s Church. © Historic England Archive BB95_09923.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

The Octagon Tower at Ely Cathedral is an engineering and architectural tour de force, whether seen from the air or when looking up from inside.

Externally, it towers to a height of 48 metres, while internally, it hovers over the cathedral’s crossing.

A view of Ely Cathedral's Octagon.
Ely Cathedral’s Octagon Tower as seen from inside. © Historic England Archive BB91_03491.

In 1322 the cathedral’s old Norman tower fell down. Rather than rebuilding in the same form, an octagon was created at the heart of the cathedral.

Ely Cathedral from the air with the Octagon Tower at the centre. © Historic England Archive 26770_005.

This vast structure could not have been built in stone. Instead, it appears to have been the brainchild of William Hurley, the King’s Master Carpenter, who created it in timber. The idea of producing an apparently stone structure in wood had previously been pioneered in the chapterhouse at York Minster in 1300.

Wells Cathedral, Somerset

Wells Cathedral is one of the most striking in England. It features a beautiful early Gothic nave and transepts, with an east end that was transformed later in the early 14th century.

The famous west front of Wells Cathedral, Somerset. © Historic England Archive DP082047.

William Joy, the architect at Wells Cathedral from 1329-47, reworked the Early English choir and extended it to the east during the second quarter of the 14th century.

The joint between the early cathedral and the new work can be seen in the solid masonry above the main arcades.

Interior view of Wells Cathedral, showing the choir. © Historic England Archive DP101615.

Joy’s approach to enriching the internal elevation was to create niches that look hewn out of the solid stone, rather than applying shafts to the surface.

He completed his masterpiece with a net vault. Its surface is adorned with a mesh of lozenges that are more decorative than structural.

Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucestershire

The choir at Gloucester Cathedral is one of the earliest works in the Perpendicular Style. This style is named after the grids of tracery that spread out from the window designs onto the wall surfaces.

Interior view of Gloucester Cathedral, showing the choir.
Interior view of Gloucester Cathedral, showing the choir. The tracery design on the window extends onto the walls, typical of the Perpendicular Style. © Historic England Archive AA027954.

The Perpendicular style owed at least part of its origins in France, where one strand of the contemporary Rayonnant style explored similar ideas.

A mesh of tracery spreads over the walls of the old Romanesque choir, and the intense patterning extends to the vault above. The east window may be the largest Gothic window anywhere in Europe and almost fills the entire width of choir.

Interior view of Gloucester Cathedral, showing the cloister.
Interior view of Gloucester Cathedral, showing the cloister. © Historic England Archive AA98_04686.

The desire to spread Perpendicular panelling to every surface could not be extended to the choir’s vault but is found in the cloisters. The six bays of the east walk of the cloister, probably finished by 1377 or soon after, have some of the earliest fan vaults ever constructed.

Cirencester church, Gloucestershire

This historic photograph by Henry W Taunt shows the nave of the parish church of Cirencester, one of the wool churches found in the Cotswolds. Profits from the lucrative wool business allowed parishes to rebuild their existing buildings with lavish new structures.

This period of prosperity began in the 15th century. It ended with the Reformation and the simultaneous decline of the wool trade in the 16th century.

Interior view of Cirencester church, looking down the aisled nave towards the altar.
Interior view of Cirencester church, looking down the aisled nave towards the altar. Photo taken 1860-1922. © Historic England Archive BB57_00081.

At Cirencester, the old church was substantially rebuilt in stages in the 15th and 16th centuries. The nave was constructed between 1516 and 1530.

Like many wool churches, it has a tall main arcade on elaborate piers. The large Perpendicular clerestory windows give the nave an atmospheric interior.

Harmondsworth Barn, Greater London

While churches were transformed between the 12th and 16th centuries, equally profound developments in military, domestic, and agricultural buildings were made.

Castles gave way to the construction of fortified houses. In contrast, the surviving handful of houses surviving from the 12th century can be counted in the thousands by the 16th century.

Interior view of Harmondsworth Tithe Barn. © Historic England Archive DP093518.

More agricultural buildings survive later in the period. The great barn at Harmondsworth is among the finest, built in 1426-7 to store the college’s cereal crop. It stands on an estate owned by Winchester College, and by the mid-1420s, one of its barns was deemed to be beyond repair.

Accounts for 1426-7 record the expenses for finishing the new barn, and tree ring dating confirms this. The barn is 58.5 metres long and 11.4 metres wide. Like a contemporary church, it consists of a broad, central nave of twelve bays, flanked by an aisle on each side.

The Role of Historic England 
Many surviving Gothic 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 Gothic architecture 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.

2 comments on “What is Gothic Architecture?

  1. Alex Wells

    Thank you, another fascinating and insightful article.

  2. A great piece. It would have been lovely to have seen one of the great abbeys sacked by that tyrant Henry VIII. Rievaulx, for example, looks wonderful in ruins – mercifully, one of the great aspects of Gothic architecture

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: