1902 Encyclopedia > Architecture > English Gothic Architecture

(Part 89)

English Gothic Architecture

The history of the development of Gothic architecture is, perhaps, more easily read on the buildings themselves here than it is in any other part of Europe. The Roman buildings in England were never of very great importance, and were not always standing as evidences of the existence of an older style, which might be looked back and up to with respect and admiration, even where they did not harmonise with popular customs.

Such art, nevertheless, as did exist in this country before the 11th century, was, no doubt, derived from Roman examples existing in the country, and copied in a rude and unskillful fashion by native workmen. The existing Roman remains show that there was quite enough architectural and decorative art introduced into the country by the Romans to have formed a school of masons, sculptors, and builders, if the civilization of the people had been sufficient to make them desire it.

Such a school can hardly be said to have been formed if we look at the few and comparatively rude remains of building certainly erected before the Norman Conquest. In such work as the beautiful archway recently discovered in Britford church, Wilts, where carving of stone-work is joined with brick or tile and stone in a very elegant fashion, we see immediate effect of cultured Roman influence and example.

At a later date, in such fine works as the steeple of Earl’s Barton, Northants, we see only the rude grandeur of comparatively uncivilized workmen cognizant only at a distance of good Roman work.

In upwards of a hundred churches, dispersed in various parts of England, fragments more or less complete of these early buildings, erected before the Norman Conquest, still remain. They are numerous enough to enable us to classify their features in a general way, and they agree in certain definite points of difference from the architecture which prevailed after the Norman Conquest. It is probable that a considerable proportion of these buildings were erected after the year 1000, when we recollect the influence which the expected end of the world had in discouraging building shortly before that date, and how enormous the zeal for building was as soon as it was safely passed.

The leading features of the buildings erected before the Conquest are as follows: --
(a.) Quoins at angles alternately long as short, the difference being so marked as to be seen on the most casual inspection;
(b.) Arrangement of wall faces into panels by means of vertical strips or pilasters of stone;
(c.) Arches built not only is semi-circular form, but frequently (and especially for arcading) with straight sides;
(d.) Rude balusters, generally building outwards in the centre, used to divide openings of more than one division (as, e.g., belfry windows);
(e.) Introduction of rudely moulded, chamfered, or plain square abaci at the springings of arches;
(f.) Towers, in several cases of some importance, adorned with arcading, formed by pilasters and round or straight sided arches.

These features are all represented in illuminated MSS. of the same period, and are not seen in works executed after about the date of the Conquest. It is this fact that makes the year 1066 a convenient year for dealing with as the assumed commencement of a new epoch.

But in fixing this date, we must remember that, though the Conquest of William would account satisfactorily for the changed style of building which is universally seen after this time, there can be no doubt that Edward the Confessor’s Norman education led naturally to the introduction of many Norman features into English work. The considerable remains of that king’s foundation at Westminster Abbey afford good evidence of the fact, that the so-called Saxon style had been abandoned by the workmen employed by him, and that the way was being prepared for the adoption of all the Norman architectural features even before the imposition of the Norman rule.

The succeeding periods of English architecture have been generally divided upon similar systems, the main dispute among antiquaries and architects being as to the nomenclature of the various styles which followed each other in a regular course of development, rather than as to the exact period of change. Between the complete styles there is always a period of transition, during which the features of the styles were not so well marked, and during which the progress of the art was by no means uniformly rapid in all parts of the country. The following chronological table gives the main divisions: --



From the reign of William I to the end of Stephen, 1066 to 1154

Norman; or Romanesque.
Henry II, 1154 to 1189

Transitional from Norman to Pointed.
Richard I to Henry III, 1189 to 1272

Early English; First Pointed; or Lancet.
Edward I, 1272 to 1307

Transition from Early Pointed to complete, or Geometrical Pointed.

Edward II, 1307 to 1327

Geometrical Pointed.
Edward III, 1327 to 1377

Flowing; or Curvilinear Style. These two are Generally treated as one style, called by Rickman Decorated, by others Middle Pointed.

Richard II, 1377 to 1399 Transition from the flowing lines of Decorated or Middle Pointed to the stiff and hard lines of the Succeeding style.

Henry IV, to Henry VIII,
1399 to 1546
Third Pointed; or Rectilinear (Sharpe); or Perpendicular (Rickman).


Even after this period many buildings were erected in a debased imitation of Gothic, but their features do not admit of their being classified with the same precision as those which obtained from about the year 1066 to 1546. For that period of just 500 years so regular was the development, that it is not too much to say that a well-informed architect or antiquary ought always to be able to give, within ten or at most twenty years, the date of any, however small a portion of mediaeval architecture, with almost absolute certainly of being correct when his judgment can be tested by documentary evidence. With this preface we will now describe, in as concise a manner as possible, the features of the various divisions given in the foregoing table.

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