Style History- English Gothic- Early English Period c.1190—c.1250

31 May

English Gothic architecture

The Designation of styles in English Gothic architecture follow conventional labels given them by the antiquary Thomas Rickman, who coined the terms in his Attempt to Discriminate the Style of Architecture in England (1812-1815). Historians sometimes refer to the styles as “periods”, eg “Perpendicular period” in much the same way as an historical era may be referred to as the “Tudor period”. The various styles are seen at their most fully developed in the cathedrals, abbey churches and collegiate buildings. It is, however, a distinctive characteristic of the cathedrals of England that all but one of them, Salisbury Cathedral, show great stylistic diversity and have building dates that typically range over 400 years.

English Gothic is the name of the architectural style that flourished in England from about 1180 until about 1520. As with the Gothic architecture of other parts of Europe, English Gothic is defined by its pointed arches, vaulted roofs, buttresses, large windows, and spires. The Gothic style was introduced from France, where the various elements had first been used together within a single building at the choir of the Basilique Saint-Denis north of Paris, built by the Abbot Suger and dedicated in June 1144. The earliest large-scale applications of Gothic architecture in England are at Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Many features of Gothic architecture had evolved naturally from Romanesque architecture (often known in England as Norman architecture). This evolution can be seen most particularly at the Norman Durham Cathedral which has the earliest pointed ribbed high vault known.

Gothic architecture was to develop along lines that are sometimes in parallel with and sometimes diverse from those of continental Europe. Historians traditionally divide English Gothic into a number of different periods, which may be further subdivided to accurately define different styles. Gothic architecture continued to flourish in England for a hundred years after the precepts of Renaissance architecture were formalised in Florence in the early 15th century. The Gothic style gave way to the Renaissance in the latter 16th and 17th centuries, but was revived in the late 18th century as an academic style and had great popularity as Gothic Revival architecture throughout the 19th century.

Many of the largest and finest works of English architecture, notably the medieval cathedrals of England are largely built in the Gothic style. So also are castles, palaces, great houses, universities, and many smaller unpretentious secular buildings, including almshouses and trade halls. Another important group of Gothic buildings in England are the parish churches, which, like the medieval cathedrals, are often of earlier, Norman foundation.

Terms used for English Gothic architecture

Early English Period (c. 1180-1275)
Decorated Period (c. 1275-1380)
Perpendicular Period (c. 1380-1520)

Early English period

The Early English Period of English Gothic lasted from the late 12th century until midway through the 13th century according to Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, or 1189-1307, according to Thomas Rickman, who takes as his defining dates the reigns of certain English monarchs.

In the late 12th century the Early English Gothic style superseded the Romanesque or Norman style (as it is better known in England, through its association with the Norman Conquest), and during the late 13th century it developed into the Decorated Gothic style, which lasted until the mid 14th century. With all these early architectural styles there is a gradual overlap between the periods. As fashions changed, new elements were often used alongside older ones, especially in large buildings such as churches and cathedrals, which were constructed (and added to) over long periods of time. It is customary, therefore, to recognise a transitional phase between the Romanesque and Early English periods from the middle of the 12th century.

Although usually known as Early English, this new Gothic style had actually originated in the area around Paris before spreading to England, where at first it was known as “the French style”. Its earliest appearance was in the choir or “quire” of the abbey church of St Denis, dedicated in June 1144. Even before that, some features had been included in Durham Cathedral including a combination of Romanesque and proto-Gothic styles.

By 1175 the style had been firmly established in England with the completion of the Choir at Canterbury Cathedral by William of Sens.

Characteristics of the style

The most significant and characteristic development of the Early English period was the pointed arch known as the lancet. Pointed arches were used almost universally, not only in arches of wide span such as those of the nave arcade, but also for doorways and lancet windows. The arched windows are usually narrow by comparison to their height and are without tracery. For this reason Early English Gothic is sometimes known as the “Lancet” or “First Pointed” style. Although arches of equilateral proportion are most often employed, lancet arches of very acute proportions are frequently found and are a highly characteristic of the style. A notable example of steeply-pointed lancets being used structurally is the apsidal arcade of Westminster Abbey.

The Lancet openings of windows and decorative arcading are often grouped in twos or threes. This characteristic is seen throughout Salisbury Cathedral where there are groups of two lancet windows lining the nave and groups of three lining the clerestory. At York Minster there are, in the north transept, a cluster of five lancet windows known as the Five Sisters, each fifty feet high and still retaining ancient glass.

Romanesque builders generally used round arches, although they had very occasionally employed slightly pointed ones, notably at Durham Cathedral where they are utilised for structural purposes in the Nave aisles. Compared with the rounded Romanesque style, the pointed arch of the Early English Gothic looks more elegant and, more importantly, is more efficient at distributing the weight of the stonework above it, making it possible to span higher and wider gaps using narrower columns.

Instead of being massive, solid pillars, the columns were often composed of clusters of slender, detached shafts (often made of dark, polished Purbeck “marble”) surrounding a central pillar, or pier, to which they are attached by circular moulded shaft-rings. Characteristic of Early Gothic in England is the great depth given to the hollows of the mouldings with alternating fillets and rolls, by the decoration of the hollows with the dog-tooth ornament and by the circular abaci of the capitals.

Through the employment of the pointed arch, walls too could become less massive and window openings could be larger and grouped more closely together, so architects could achieve a more open, airy and graceful building. The high walls and vaulted stone roofs were often supported by flying buttresses: half arches which transmit the outward thrust of the superstructure to supports or buttresses, often visible on the exterior of the building.

The arches of decorative wall arcades and galleries are sometimes cusped. Circles with trefoils, quatrefoils, etc, are introduced into the tracery of galleries and large rose windows in the transept or nave, as at Lincoln Cathedral (1220). The conventional foliage decorating the capitals is of great beauty and variety, and extends to spandrels, roof bosses, etc. In the spandrels of the arches of the nave, transept or choir arcades, diaper work is occasionally found, as in the transept of Westminster Abbey, which is one of the best examples of the period.

At its purest the style was simple and austere, emphasising the height of the building, as if aspiring heavenward.

Other notable examples

Early English architecture is typical of many Cistercian abbeys (both in Britain and France), such as Whitby Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire. Salisbury Cathedral is a superb example of the style; because it was built over a relatively short period (between c. 1200-1275), it is relatively unpolluted by other styles (except for its facade and famous tower and spire, which date from the 14th century). Other good examples are the Galilee porch at Ely Cathedral; the nave and transept of Wells Cathedral (1225-1240); the west front of Peterborough Cathedral; and Beverley Minster and the south transept at York.

Westminster Hall and its magnificent hammerbeam roof, pictured in the early 18th century. The entirety of Salisbury Cathedral (excluding the tower and spire) is in the Early English style. Lancet windows are used throughout, and a “pure” image is underlined by the relative lack of tracery which would be used in later buildings. the west front of Peterborough Cathedral
Beverley Minster and the south transept at York Galilee porch at Ely Cathedral the nave and transept of Wells Cathedral (1225—1240)
Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire Whitby Abbey Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire
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