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Historical Facts About English Gothic Architecture

Updated on April 15, 2013
Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey | Source

From France the new style spread in all directions. Each country created its own version of Gothic architecture. English Gothic developed almost as early as French, but the English cathedral is quite different in conception. During the Early English period (1150–1250), although the Gothic pointed arch was adopted, the heavy walls of the Romanesque tend to linger on. These were abandoned in the so-called Decorated period (1250–1350) when the small lancet windows of the Early English style were replaced with broad, richly traceried openings, which in turn gave way in the Perpendicular period (1350–1500) to windows latticed with vertical mullions and horizontal transoms.

Although the English used the basic French structure of membered piers, buttresses, and ribbed vaults, they did not attempt the daring height of the French cathedrals. The vaults of Westminster Abbey rise about 100 feet (30 meters), but this is the most French of the English churches, rebuilt by the Francophile king, Henry III, between 1245 and 1260. Usually the vaults of the English cathedrals are about 80 feet (24 meters) high, half the height of those of Beauvais. Because this lower vaulting made the buttress problem less acute, flying buttresses are comparatively rare in English Gothic churches.

In most respects, Canterbury Cathedral is characteristic of the English Gothic style. In addition to a central transept, it has a second transept farther east, producing an archiepiscopal cross plan. The additional transept provides space for more altars. Twin towers flank the facade, as at Notre Dame, but the tower over the central transept—"Bell Harry," as it is called at Canterbury—overtops them. In the French cathedral, the exterior focus is at the west end; in England it is at the center. The French cathedral rises from the middle of the town with houses and shops close around it. But the English cathedral is set off within its own lawns and trees, visible from all angles, and this fact makes the emphasis on the central tower seem logical.

Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral | Source

The reason for this characteristic difference between the French and the English Gothic styles is that most of the English cathedrals were monasteries (minsters), and so were set within the monastic grounds. For the same reason there is usually a cloister, and often other monastic buildings, attached to the English church. Generally there is a chapter house for meetings, and, in the church proper, choir screens to separate the part of the building intended primarily for the monks from those areas in which the laity normally worshiped. These screens, which often break the vista down the length of the English minsters, emphasize the multiple functions of the building. All this tends to give to the English churches a less dramatic, perhaps less public character than the French cathedrals. Canterbury seems almost private, even intimate, in comparison to the grandeur of Chartres or of Notre Dame.

In one respect, Canterbury minster is not typically English. It preserves the rounded apse, perhaps because that part was designed by a French architect, William of Sens, in the 12th century. During the Norman period, English churches regularly had apses. In the Gothic period, a square east end replaced the apse and its radiating chapels, as can be seen in Lincoln minster. Why the English made this change is not known. Conceivably, the English monks felt the necessity of proper orientation not merely of the church as a whole, but of each chapel. Radial chapels cannot be correctly oriented, but chapels on the eastern sides of the transepts, or at the ends of aisles in a square east end, are correct in this matter. There is, however, no proof of this hypothesis.

In English Gothic churches the central chapel of the east end is commonly dedicated to the Virgin, and is known as the Lady Chapel. As the Middle Ages progressed, devotion to the Virgin grew steadily until she was almost as much beloved by the people as Christ himself. Services in her honor grew more and more elaborate and were sung by the full choir. In Gloucester Cathedral the Lady Chapel was enlarged so much that it forms a nearly independent church.

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