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.
Anglo-Saxon churches in England
Think of tracking down Saxon and Danish remains as a detective story; a clue here, a suspicion there. Very few remains are readily found outside museums. This is partly due to the habit the Saxons had of building with impermanent materials (wood), and partly to the very nasty habits of the Viking raiders (they burned down everything in sight). Most of what remains is therefore from the post Viking times of the 10th and 11th centuries. One exception is:
Churches - Many English churches have bits and pieces of earlier Saxon buildings contained within their walls. Literally within their walls. Saxon (and Roman) stones were used to build medieval churches. If you want to be a real historical detective, look for the rough hewn Saxon stones amid the later work. They are most common around windows and door openings (look for round or triangular headed openings). Many churches also have Saxon foundations supporting a newer structure.
Where to look. You don't have to search quite so hard to get a good look at a complete Saxon church. Several fairly intact versions exist, notably Bradford-on-Avon (Wiltshire), Earls Barton (Northamptonshire), Escomb (Durham), and Bradwell-on-Sea (Essex). Of these, Bradwell is the oldest, having been founded by St.Cedd in 654.
|Boarhunt (Hampshire) Saxon church plan|
Church style. Churches during the early years of the Dark Ages were constructed in two different styles. In the south was the Roman model, as introduced by St.Augustine in Kent. This incorporated chambers to the sides of an aisle-less nave, and an apsidal chancel at the east end. In the north the Celtic monastic influence produced simple designs featuring tall naves with no side chambers, and rectangular chancels.
A special case is Greensted church (Essex). Founded about 845, it has been called "The oldest wooden church in the world." Set inside a modern brick exterior is a nave constructed of vertical oak logs, tongue-and-grooved in place without the use of nails. The original church had no windows, the only illumination being by torch light.
Windows. Saxon church windows, mentioned above, were usually narrow, small, and deep set, with casings that splayed out to both the interior and the exterior. The heads were rounded or triangular in shape.
Church towers. One legacy of the Dark Ages can be seen from most places in England; church towers. No, all church towers are not Saxon, but the idea of towers was developed by the Saxons as a way of dealing with the threat of attack by the Danes. The towers could be used as lookout posts, and in times of attack they might be the only refuge for villagers from the invaders. The idea took hold from physical necessity, then became a tradition in church architecture.
Crosses. When Christianity in England was young there were no parish or village churches. Instead, carved crosses were erected at convenient sites for itinerant monks or priests to preach to the inhabitants. These crosses may have been put up at sites which were already regarded as sacred in pagan worship. Later on, churches were built at the same spots, preserving a continuity of worship. Some of the finest crosses still to be seen are at Ilkley (West Yorkshire), Gosforth and Irton (both in Cumbria), and Bakewell (Derbyshire).
Gothic church architecture in Medieval England developed from Norman architecture. 'Gothic architecture' is the term used to describe building styles between 1200 to 1500. Such a large time span meant that a number of styles developed within Gothic architecture and it is common to divide these styles into three sections. The building between 1200 to 1300 is usually referred to as Early English; between 1300 to 1400, the style of building is referred to as Decorated and from 1400 to 1500, it is known as Perpendicular. It is common for major church buildings to show examples from all three of these periods.
Gothic cathedrals are characterised by large towers and spires. Whereas Norman architecture can be seen as being 'dumpy' due to their more limited knowledge of building, the Gothic era coincided with a greater knowledge of engineering and this is reflected in the church buildings completed during this era.
Gothic churches and cathedrals were fundamentally different to Norman buildings. The increase in knowledge and skills acquired over the years, meant that stone was specifically cut so that it fitted next to other stone blocks with precision. Therefore, the large blocks of stone favoured by the Normans, were replaced by shaped stone. Another major change was that the hollow walls used by the Normans were not used by later architects. Walls and pillars were solid and this allowed them to cope with much greater weights. This simple fact allowed churches and especially cathedrals to be much larger than Norman ones. This, along with the money gathering ability of the Church, explains why the cathedrals and churches of the Gothic era were so much larger than previous ones.
Another development that strengthened church buildings, was the use of pointed arches. This shape allowed a much greater weight to be carried when compared to a Norman rounded arch. Cathedral roofs were now much larger than Norman roofs. Therefore, they were a lot heavier. To ensure that the walls and pillars could take such a weight, the architects in this era developed what were known as buttresses. These were additions to the main part of the cathedral that allowed the extra weight to be transferred to additional parts of a cathedral than ran alongside the nave and then down into the foundations. The architects simply spread the weight to other points in the building. 'Flying buttresses' allowed the outward pressure of the massive roofs to be resisted.
The concern about the weight of the roof at York Minster was such that the vaults in all but the smallest aisles were made of wood. This decreased the pressure on the pillars, foundations etc but led to future problems concerning fire and death watch beetles. York Minster does have flying buttresses but these were added in the Nineteenth Century.
The ability to cope with greater weights also allowed Gothic architects to use larger windows. The Normans had been limited to using small slit windows. Now cathedrals and churches could have large stained glass windows. The Great East window at York Minster is the size of a tennis court, a size that would have been unthinkable for the Normans.
These new huge buildings cost vast sums of money. Where did the church get this money from? Basically, the bulk of it came from the people of England. Peasants and town dwellers paid numerous taxes to the church - a tax at baptisms, marriages and deaths; tithes and for centuries people had to work for free on church land. The revenue gained from these assisted the building of cathedrals like those at Lincoln, York, Canterbury and Chichester.