A Guide to English Gothic Architecture (2024)

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

What is Gothic architecture?

The name Gothic 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.

However, in its own time, as well as 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 for the church.

This work would inspire a series of great Gothic cathedrals and churches, initially in northern France.

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.

What features define Gothic architecture?

  • Large church buildings have sophisticated light structures with large windows
  • Pointed arches are a standard feature
  • Complex decorative designs on arches and piers are also common
  • From the mid-13th century, increasingly complicated window designs were used
  • We mostly think of churches when discussing Gothic architecture, but many other medieval buildings from this period survive, often with timber frames
  • There was also a shift during this period from castles to fortified houses

The ‘Early English’ style

Initially inspired by French models, a distinctiveEarly English Styledeveloped by the late 12th century.

This can best be seen at Lincoln Cathedral.

The ‘Decorated’ style

English architects later developed theDecorated Style by introducing bar tracery, dividing windows into sections using thin stone bars.

This was imported from France in the 1240s and can be seen at Westminster Abbey, for example.

The ‘Perpendicular’ style

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 thePerpendicular Style.

A good example of this can be seen at Gloucester Cathedral.

Where to see Gothic architecture in England

The following examples trace the development of Gothic architecture in England.

1. 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 the many pilgrims expected to visit.

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.

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.

2. Lincoln Cathedral, Lincolnshire

Lincoln Cathedral marks the start of England’s own distinctive Gothic style and is the first work in the Early English style. It would influence many buildings in the following decades.

In particular, it explored the full decorative potential of Purbeck Marble.

In 1185 an earthquake supposedly caused a vault in the existing church 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 design of Lincoln was based on extensive use of decorative columns, with an intense linear decoration extended up to the elaborate vaults.

3. 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 derived from contemporary English sources.

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.

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

4. 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 to 1286 and subsequently the Bishop until his death in 1290.

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.

5. 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 48 metres, while internally, it hovers over the cathedral’s crossing.

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

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.

6. 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 transformed later in the early 14th century.

William Joy, the architect at Wells Cathedral from 1329 to 1347, 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.

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.

7. 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.

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 the choir.

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.

8. Cirencester church, Gloucestershire

The parish church of Cirencester is one of the wool churches in the Cotswolds. They are named because profits from the lucrative wool business allowed parishes to rebuild their 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.

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.

Beyond churches

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.

Harmondsworth Barn, Greater London

More agricultural buildings survive later in the period.

The great barn at Harmondsworth is among the finest, built between 1426 and 1427 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 to 1427 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.

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.

Further reading

A Guide to Traditional English Buildings
A Guide to Norman Architecture in England
A Guide to English Gothic Architecture (2024)


A Guide to English Gothic Architecture? ›

English Gothic is an architectural style that flourished from the late 12th until the mid-17th century. The style was most prominently used in the construction of cathedrals and churches. Gothic architecture's defining features are pointed arches, rib vaults, buttresses, and extensive use of stained glass.

What are the elements of English Gothic architecture? ›

English Gothic is an architectural style that flourished from the late 12th until the mid-17th century. The style was most prominently used in the construction of cathedrals and churches. Gothic architecture's defining features are pointed arches, rib vaults, buttresses, and extensive use of stained glass.

What is the English Gothic architecture plan? ›

English Gothic architecture (c. 1180–1520) is defined by pointed arches, vaulted roofs, buttresses, large windows, and spires and flourished in England from approximately 1180 to 1520.

What are the three 3 features that make Gothic architecture Gothic? ›

To create all of these beautiful characteristics, Gothic architecture relied on three features: pointed arches, rib vaults, and flying buttresses.

What was the major emphasis for English Gothic architecture? ›

English Gothic architecture was a phase of architectural design that emerged in England around 1180 and lasted until 1520. Gothic architecture, which originated in France, is characterized by an emphasis on vertical space and the use of pointed arches.

What are the key points of Gothic architecture? ›

The main characteristics of Gothic architecture include pointed arches, stained-glass windows, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, and spires.

What type of arch is common in English Gothic architecture? ›

The defining design element of Gothic architecture is the pointed or ogival arch. The use of the pointed arch in turn led to the development of the pointed rib vault and flying buttresses, combined with elaborate tracery and stained glass windows.

What country has the most Gothic architecture? ›

What country has the most Gothic architecture? Definitely France. The style originated in France in the Ile de France region around Paris and spread across Western Europe from there.

What was the final phase of English Gothic architecture? ›

Perpendicular Gothic (also Perpendicular, Rectilinear, or Third Pointed) architecture was the third and final style of English Gothic architecture developed in the Kingdom of England during the Late Middle Ages, typified by large windows, four-centred arches, straight vertical and horizontal lines in the tracery, and ...

Which of these features distinguishes English Gothic architecture? ›

In the vault, the pointed arch could be seen in three dimensions where the ribbed vaulting met in the center of the ceiling of each bay. This ribbed vaulting is another distinguishing feature of Gothic architecture.

What is a Gothic arch called? ›

A pointed arch, ogival arch, or Gothic arch is an arch with a pointed crown meet at an angle at the top of the arch. Also known as a two-centred arch, its form is derived from the intersection of two circles. This architectural element was particularly important in Gothic architecture.

Why did Gothic architecture end? ›

In Europe, the era of gothic architecture came to an end with the Renaissance. Tastes changed in favor of a return to the more symmetrical and balanced classical Roman architecture.

Which of the following best describes the essential characteristics of English Gothic architecture? ›

Gothic architecture spread across Europe and influenced various buildings including churches, government buildings, and castles.In English Gothic architecture, some of the essential characteristics include the use of pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and large stained glass windows.

How many styles can English Gothic architecture be divided into? ›

Gothic architecture in Britain has been neatly divided into four periods, or styles. The person who did the dividing that has been obediently followed by subsequent generations of writers and historians was Thomas Rickman (1776-1841).

What is the difference between Gothic and Gothic revival? ›

Gothic was most commonly used in church architecture during this period, but also in collegiate architecture, notably at Oxford and Cambridge. The Gothic Revival was a conscious movement that began in England to revive Gothic forms, mostly in the second half of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century.

What are the 7 characteristics and elements of Gothic architecture? ›

The Seven Key Characteristics of Gothic Architecture
  • The Light and Airy Interior.
  • The Gargoyles of Gothic Architecture. ...
  • Grand, Tall Designs, Which Swept Upwards With Height and Grandeur.
  • The Vaulted Ceiling.
  • The Flying Buttress.
  • The Pointed Arch.
  • The Emphasis Upon the Decorative Style and the Ornate.

What are the most common elements of Gothic literature? ›

Characteristics of the Gothic include: death and decay, haunted homes/castles, family curses, madness, powerful love/romance, ghosts, and vampires. The genre is said to have become popular in the late 18th century with the publication of Horace Walpole's novel The Castle of Otranto in 1764.

What is the most important element of Gothic architecture? ›

The most fundamental element of the Gothic style of architecture is the pointed arch, which was likely borrowed from Islamic architecture that would have been seen in Spain at this time. The pointed arch relieved some of the thrust, and therefore, the stress on other structural elements.

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