Architecture played a very important role for the church in Medieval England. The more splendid the architecture, the more the church believed it was praising God. The church in Medieval England poured vast sums of money into the creation of grandiose architectural projects that peaked in the cathedrals at Canterbury and York.
Medieval churches and cathedrals were superbly built. No peasant wattle and daub homes exist anymore as they were so crudely made. But the vast sums accrued by the church (primarily from the poorer classes) gave it the opportunity to spend on large building projects. Many of the churches and cathedrals that survive from medieval times have also had additions to them. Therefore, we can identify different building styles in the same complete building.
For example, York Minster contains sections that can be traced to 1080 to 1100, 1170, major expansion work between 1220 to 1253, further expansion from 1291 to 1360 and the completion of the Central Tower which took from 1407 to 1465. Over the near 400 years of development, different styles would have developed and give historians an in-depth look at changes in church architectural styles.
The cathedrals started in the reign of William the Conqueror were the largest buildings seen in England up to that time. With the exception of Worcester Cathedral, William appointed Norman bishops to these cathedrals. Therefore, these men would have been heavily influenced by the architecture used in Normandy and this style came to dominate the architecture of the cathedrals built under William. Norman architecture is also referred to as Romanesque because it was influenced in turn by the Ancient Romans.
Norman architecture tends to be dominated by a round shape style. In Medieval England, the Normans used barely skilled Saxons as labourers and the tools they used were limited – axes, chisels etc. The churches and cathedrals built by the Normans tended to use large stones. This was because cutting stone to certain measurements was a skilled art and it is assumed that the Normans reckoned that the Saxons who worked on the stone would not be able to master such a skill.
Norman walls and pillars had faced stone on the outer surfaces but rubble was put into the hollow between the cut stone. Hence, the effect would be wall, rubble and wall. Pillars were effectively hollow until the central core was filled with rubble. This method of building was not particularly strong. To get round this and strengthen them, the Normans made their walls much thicker than later styles of building which relied on specifically cut stone that fitted together with the blocks surrounding it thus creating its own strength.
Norman doorways into a church or cathedral tended to be highly decorated with concentric arches that receded into the thickness of the wall. Windows were built in a similar way but they remained small and let in little light. This was because the Normans realised that their walls with large window spaces would not have been able to hold up the weight of the roofs.
To assist in the support of the roofs, the Normans used large pillars. These allowed the weight of the roof to be dispersed into the foundations via the pillars – once again saving the walls from taking all of the weight of the roof.
Pillars supporting the roof at Battle Abbey
The ceilings of Norman churches and cathedrals were vaulted. These vaults allowed the weight of the roof to be evenly distributed throughout the pillars and walls as the main points of the vaults rested on the tops of the pillars. The Normans used three styles of vaulting: barrel, rib and cross.
Rib vaulting at Battle Abbey
The architecture used by the Normans must have been successful as so many of their churches and cathedrals still exist – even if they have been built onto.
The main architectural style that was used after the Normans was the Gothic style.