Norman Medieval Church Architecture in England

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There are over 8500 churches in England built during the medieval period from 600 to 1500 AD.  Some have been rebuilt or extensively restored but still have substantial medieval portions while others have been only slightly altered from their original appearance.  The different architectural styles reflect increasing sophistication in building design and construction over the centuries.  Although architectural styles in English medieval churches did not progress uniformly at specific intervals, the major styles are usually considered to be Romanesque with subdivisions into Saxon and Norman, and the three Gothic styles of Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular.

This collection of high resolution digital photographs consists of Professor Arthur De Smet’s photographs of Norman churches in England.  These photographs reflect his love of photography and interest in medieval church architecture.  They have been used for teaching in the History Department and formed the basis for four series of lectures given for the Department of Continuing Studies.  History professor Lee Wandel has noted, “His [De Smet’s] collection will allow students to work closely with visual materials and, I hope very much, to refine their own skills in visual analysis.”

The photographs 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 Norman building techniques and ornamentation. Professor De Smet cataloged this collection and has also supplied a list of subject headings one can use to search the collection as well as a list of churches and cathedrals included in the collection.

More about Norman Churches

Click to read More about Norman Churches

William of Normandy’s conquest dramatically changed England.  He brought feudalism and an administrative system that effectively ruled England throughout the 90 years of the Norman monarchy.  As part of his administrative restructuring, William replaced the Saxon clerical leaders with Norman clerics and brought the late Romanesque style of church architecture from continental Europe.

In the period from 1066 to 1100 he built 50 castles and 30 cathedrals and great monastic churches. These served as a powerful sign of the might of the Normans.  It has been estimated that during the Norman monarchy from 1066-1154, there were 7000 Norman churches built in England.  Many of these have not survived but even today one-quarter of the 8000 medieval churches in England still have significant Norman elements.

Norman churches have been characterized as powerful, massive and bold.  Unlike the early Romanesque Saxon churches which were tall but narrow buildings with thin walls and limited decoration, Norman churches were wide with thick walls and elaborate carved ornamentation.  In the cathedrals and large monastic churches, the design was primarily cruciform with a western nave for the congregation, a central crossing with north and south transepts and an eastern chancel with its altar for the priest.

This architectural period called Norman in England corresponded to the late Romanesque in Continental Europe and is characterized by use of round arches which had been perfected during the time of Imperial Rome. Both Norman doorways and windows are round arched at their tops.  All Norman doorways have rounded arches while all Gothic era doorways have pointed arches.  External doorways are richly decorated often with layers, called orders, in the upper arches.  Each layer is usually decorated.  The most common pattern of carvings is zig-zag or chevron but diamonds and the unusual beakheads are also common.  In beakhead ornamentation, bird, animal or monster heads are carved along the arch or door shafts with their beak extending down onto the moulding. Sometimes, human heads are carved with their tongues or beards extending onto the moulding.  The arch may extend directly onto the imposts along each side but often there are attached shafts of columns from which the arch springs.  The doorways contain square topped doors with a semicircular area between the arch and the door lintel.  This semicircular area, the tympanum, can be elaborately carved with a scene of the Last Judgment being a common theme.  Many other patterns of ornamentation were used including: animals, bead, billet, cable, chevron, embattled, fish-scale, flowers, fluting, heads, intersecting arcade, key, leaf, medallion, nailhead, plait, scallop, plait, scallop, spiral, star, volute and waterleaf.

Norman windows are miniature versions of the doorways with semicircular tops which pass directly down to the base or end on column shafts. Both doorways and windows often have an outer moulding which does not pass below the springing of the arch and ends either in a horizontal line or carved figure which serves as a drip moulding. The windows are not divided by tracery but are often included in a series of arches with blind arcades interspaced between the windows.  To maximize the light passing through the small windows, they are often splayed, that is sloped, being wider on the inside or outside than in the middle of the window.

Although not universally present, most Norman churches have a tower.  Early towers were often placed in a central position between the nave and the sanctuary.  However, many of these central towers collapsed due to inadequate support within the church.  As a result, later towers were constructed on the west end of the church so the tower walls could be continued to the ground on three sides.  Initially pyramidal wooden spires were placed on the tower but many have these have lost to decay.  The towers are commonly decorated with arcades applied to the walls with occasional interposed windows or louvered openings at the level of church bells.  A tower often has a turret containing stairs to provide access for maintenance.  Turrets may be square or round on their exterior.  There may have originally been plain parapets at the top of the tower but all parapets on Norman towers are now later additions.

In small village churches, there is usually only one level in the church. In larger churches the roof is higher allowing an upper level of windows, called the clerestory.  If there is an aisle on either side of the nave or sanctuary, a middle level called a triforium or tribune is present.  This middle level may or may not have exterior windows.  When a side aisle is present, there is open passage from the nave to the aisles between the piers which supported round-headed arches. These piers are square, columnar, multangular, or columnar with shafts applied to the column.  These columns may be smooth but are often decorated with flutes, spirals, chevrons, or other geometric patterns.

The capitals at the top of the piers initially had a cushion appearance with the square block with rounded off lower ends.  Later capitals were scalloped similar to a sea shell or with various volute patterns resembling a Grecian Ionic capital.  They were likely all originally painted but few remnants of that paint persist today.  The abacus at the transition point from the pier to the arch is almost inevitably square.  In fact, the presence of a round abacus is the most reliable sign of Gothic building.

The middle level, the tribune or gallery, may have a single large opening in each bay but usually consists of two or four openings separated by column shafts connected by arches.  Similarly in the clerestory, the upper windows often had a blind arch on each side.

The vaulting over the interior of a Norman church is occasionally flat and made of wood.  More commonly, the vaulting is stone and has the round arched configuration. When a round vault intersects at right angles to another, it forms a groined vault characterized by ridges.