Early English Gothic Architecture in England

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The transition from the round arches of Romanesque architecture to the pointed arches of Gothic began in the early 12th century. The Abbey of Saint-Denis, completed in 1144 AD, is considered to be the first Gothic church in Europe but there was limited introduction of Gothic elements in earlier churches including Durham Cathedral in England. The key elements that define Gothic architecture are pointed arches, ribbed vaulting and flying buttresses. These structural elements allowed the walls to be thinner than in Romanesque buildings with larger windows creating an interior space with more natural light. The interior design emphasis shifted to height and verticality from massive and horizontal in Romanesque architecture.

As first proposed by Thomas Rickman in the early 19th century, medieval church architecture in England is commonly divided into the Norman period of Romanesque followed by three phases of Gothic, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular. These terms have stood the test of time and are widely used to describe medieval churches in England. The Early English period is considered to be approximately 1180-1270 AD.

This collection of high resolution digital photographs comes from Professor Arthur De Smet’s photographs of medieval churches in England.  These photographs reflect his love of photography and interest in medieval church architecture.  They provide overview images of both the exteriors and interiors of cathedrals and parish churches. In addition, there are numerous close-up photographs of both sections and individual features of these historic buildings. The viewer can study every aspect of Early English building techniques and ornamentation.

Professor De Smet cataloged this collection and has supplied a list of subjects one can use to search the collection as well as a list of churches and cathedrals included in the collection.

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Image Source: Salisbury Cathedral nave from the west end

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The earliest use of pointed arches, ribbed vaulting and flying buttresses in England was in the choir and Trinity Chapel at Canterbury built from 1174-1184. Because of the mix of these Gothic elements and round arches and windows, the architectural style in Canterbury is considered to be Transitional rather than pure Early English. However, soon thereafter in the late 12th century, portions of Wells, Worcester and Lincoln Cathedrals were built in the Early English style. Although the flying buttress is a key element of Gothic architecture, they were used externally only occasionally in the Early English period. External buttresses were usual square or rectangular in cross-section projecting away from the wall in contrast to the flat buttresses of the Norman Romanesque period. A common position for buttresses was extending directly from the corner or at right angles at each side of a corner.

The most characteristic element in Early English church architecture is the lancet window, named for its tall, narrow shape and sharply pointed top resembling a lance. Originally these windows were placed singly but soon they began to be grouped in pairs and then groups of three, five or seven. When lancet windows were paired, trefoil, quatrefoil or cinquefoil-shaped windows were often placed between them. Because the foiled window opening with its cusps was cut into a large stone rather than created from thin strips of stone, this pattern is called plate tracery. When there were more than two windows, they were often stepped in increasing height from the outside to the center.

Originally the windows had alternating roll moldings and hollows in the arch only with simple chamfers in the windows jambs. Later the moldings were extended down to the window sill in multiple levels, called orders. A separate molding above the pointed arch of the window, called a hood molding, was originally placed over each window but later a single hood molding connected groups of windows. At the end of the hood molding, a hold molding stop was often decorated with a carved head.

Detached columns with narrow shafts and capitals were often placed in front of or alongside of the window jambs. Early capitals started as flaring cylinders with round molding but later elaborate foliage was added in what is now called stiff-leaf. Stiff-leaf describes the shape of the leaf stems which expanded upward from the shaft to the idealized leaves. Early stiff-leaf capitals had three large leaves per stem but the leaves became smaller and more in number over time. The shafts and capitals during the Early English period were often carved from a form of limestone from the Isle of Purbeck, a peninsula in Dorset extending into the English Channel. It is often called Purbeck marble, because when it is polished, it has the appearance of marble. Its darker color contrasts with the cream to yellow colors of other forms of limestone.

Pointed arches were also used in ribbed vaulting and blind and open arcades. The use of pointed arches allowed a uniform height in church vaulting compared to the varying height resulting from groin vaulting of the Romanesque era. Vaulting was usually quadripartite but was occasionally sexpartite as in the choir at Rochester Cathedral. With quadripartite vaulting, there are transverse, longitudinal and diagonal ribs. Ridge ribs running longitudinally at the apex of the vault were uncommon until the later Decorated Gothic period. At the intersection of the vaulting ribs, there was often a foliated roof boss with stiff-leaf carving.

The vaulting ribs are supported either by vaulting shafts extending to the ground or from short shaft mounted on corbels arising from the walls. Both types of shafts have either molded or stiff-leaf capitals. In addition to stiff-leaf, the most type of ornamentation in Early English architecture is dogtooth carving which is named for the projecting points. The carving does not resemble a dogtooth but is in the shape of a pyramid with hollowed out sides. Square, four leaved flowers were also carved on both molding and flat surfaces for decoration.

On the exterior, more churches had towers and porches than in the Norman period. The towers could be on the west end of the church or at the crossing. The porches were almost always from the southern side of the western end of the church. The towers were square with half-pyramids, called broaches, used to transition from the four-sided tower to an octagonal spire. If broaches were not used, a parapet could be placed at the top of the tower to cover the awkward transition from the four sided tower to the octagonal spire.