Looking at Buildings

Styles & Traditions


Medieval Traditions

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Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Buildings from the middle ages, the thousand years between the end of the RomanGlossary Term empire and the 16th century, demonstrate the skills of mason and carpenter before the age of industrial technology. Many still make a significant impact on the English landscape. Cathedrals and great churches, made possible by the wealth of the church as an international organisation, are still the dominant buildings in many towns; ambitious castles, even when ruined, vividly reflect the power of secular lords in an unsettled and often violent society. The evidence of surviving medieval houses provides glimpses of a way of life very different from our own; while public monuments revealGlossary Term aspects of the medieval world which fascinated later centuries, such as its preoccupation with the afterlife, and its command of fine craftsmanship.

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Carlisle Cathedral, Cumberland

Different building types required the development of special techniques to satisfy their needs, which had to be developed with simple technology and with the materials available. Sturdy walls were needed for defensive buildings, while the need to roof large internal spaces of churches and great halls led to the development of different types of timber roofs and stone vaults. The challenge of combining these with large windows, and accommodating decoration and ornament as part of the structure, led to a succession of inventive solutions between the 12th and the early 16th century.

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Bowhill, Exeter, Devon

Medieval buildings continued to intrigue and inspire later generations, and the styles of different periods were given names by later historians: RomanesqueGlossary Term (or NormanGlossary Term, from the reigning monarchs) for the round-archedGlossary Term buildings of the 11th and 12th centuries, GothicGlossary Term for the architecture that developed from it, making use of the pointed archGlossary Term, stone vaultGlossary Term, and elaborate window traceryGlossary Term.

Detailed examination, often undertaken during repair and conservation work, has increased our understanding of the process of building, and our respect for the achievementGlossary Term of those responsible for designs of great complexity and sophistication.

The principal components of the great medieval church were developed and refined from the 11th to the 13th century to provide for a complex mixture of activities: services of worship, processions and ceremonies on special occasions, and more informal visits to shrines and chapels. The east arm with the choirGlossary Term for the clergy, focused on the High Altar, provided a place for regular worship; the surrounding choirGlossary Term aisles and retrochoirGlossary Term allowed for efficient circulation to the shrines and chapels at the east end of the church. Transepts stabilised the large open space below the crossingGlossary Term tower and offered space for additional chapels, while the long aisled naveGlossary Term own altar was (with the exception of certain monasteries) available for lay people. The west front was often elaborated by towers and sculpture to provide a public showpiece.
Adjacent to the church, the chapter houseGlossary Term was the place for the business meetings of the clergy, while the cloister walks linked this and the church to other buildings used by the clergy. In great churches which were also monasteries these included a communal dormitory and refectoryGlossary Term.

The medieval castle developed from the 11th century as a defensive structure for the household and followers of a monarch, his representative or member of the aristocracy. Early castles were earthworks protecting timber buildings. After the NormanGlossary Term Conquest the stone keepGlossary Term was introduced as a more permanent last resort within the castle enclosure, its access at first floor level protected by a forebuilding. From the 13th century a stone curtain wallGlossary Term and mural towers commanding an outer ditch provided additional defence, strengthened by an increasingly sophisticated gatehouse, crossed by a drawbridge across the ditch, and sometimes given additional protection by an outer barbicanGlossary Term. Within the walls was domestic accommodation providing Great Hall, kitchen and lodgings. In the later Middle Ages these were often rebuilt and improved. By this time, as much of the country became more settled, except on the borderland with Scotland and on the coast, castles were more significant as status symbols than for purely defensive purposes.

The core of the medieval house was the Great Hall, a large heated room open to the roof. At first it had an open hearth with a smoke opening or louvreGlossary Term in the roof; from the 14th century fireplaces became common, although not universal. From early times a traditional plan was established: the entrance, often through a porch, led into a passage screened off from the 'low' end of the hall, providing access to service rooms and kitchen, the latter often kept separate to avoid danger of fire. The 'high' end of the hall was the place where the lord presided. From here there was access to the solarGlossary Term beyond, a more private upper room, often in a separately roofed wing; in the later Middle Ages the private rooms became more significant as communal dining in the hall declined. In larger establishments lodgings provided self-contained apartments for the lord's followers, and a gatehouse presented an opportunity for display as well as security. Other informally grouped outbuildings such as stables, dovecote and barn provided for the needs of the household. Simpler versions of the basic plan of hall, private rooms wing and service end were adopted for lesser establishments and for more constricted urban sites.



In heraldry, a complete display of armorial bearings.


Types include: Basket arch or Anse de Panier (French, lit. basket handle): three-centred and depressed, or with a flat centre. Chancel: dividing chancel from nave or crossing in a church. Crossing: spanning piers at a crossing in a church. Depressed or three-centred: with a rounded top, but curving inward more at the sides. Four-centred: with four arcs, the lower two curving inward more than the upper, with a blunt central point; typical of late medieval English architecture. Jack arch: shallow segmental vault springing from beams, used for fireproof floors, bridge decks, etc. Ogee (adjective ogival): a pointed arch with a double reverse curve, especially popular in the 14th century; a nodding ogee curves forward from the wall face at the top. Parabolic: shaped like a chain suspended from two level points, but inverted. Relieving or discharging: incorporated in a wall to relieve superimposed weight. Shouldered: with arcs in each corner and a flat centre or lintel. Skew: spanning responds not diametrically opposed. Stilted: with a vertical section above the impost i.e. the horizontal moulding at the springing. Strainer: inserted in an opening to resist inward pressure. Three-centred: see Depressed, above. Transverse: spanning a main axis (e.g. of a vaulted space). Triumphal arch: influential type of Imperial Roman monument, free-standing, with a square attic or top section and broad sections to either side of the main opening, often with lesser openings or columns. Tudor: with arcs in each corner joining straight lines to the central point. Two-centred: the simplest kind of pointed arch.


Outwork defending the entrance to a castle.

Chapter house

The place of assembly for the members of a monastery or cathedral, usually located off the east side of the cloister.


The part of a cathedral, monastic church or collegiate church where services are sung.


An enclosed quadrangle in a monastery or by a church, surrounded by covered passages; by extension, any space so enclosed. Cloister garth: the area enclosed by a cloister.


In a church, the central space at the junction of the nave, chancel and transepts. Crossing arch: an arch spanning piers at a crossing. Crossing tower: a tower above a crossing.

Curtain wall

A non-load-bearing external wall applied to a framed structure, in architecture of the 20th century onwards. Also a connecting wall between the towers of a castle.


The style of the Middle Ages from the later 12th century to the Renaissance, with which it co-existed in certain forms into the 17th century. Characterized in its full development by the pointed arch, the rib-vault and an often skeletal masonry structure for churches, combined with large glazed windows. The term was originally associated with the concept of the barbarian Goths as assailants of classical civilization.


Principal tower of a castle.


Roof opening, often protected by a raised timber structure, to allow the smoke from a central hearth to escape; also one of a series of horizontal boards or slats set at angle to prevent rain entering an opening.


The body of a church west of the crossing or chancel, often flanked by aisles.


The English version of the Romanesque style, which predominated in Western Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries; so called because it was propagated after the Norman Conquest in 1066. It is associated especially with the expansion of monasticism and the building of large stone churches, and is characterized by massive masonry, round-headed arches and vaulting inspired by ancient Roman precedent, and by the use of stylized ornament.


Dining hall of a monastery, college or similar establishment.


In a major church, the area behind the high altar and east chapel.


The plane of a jamb, between the wall and the frame of a door or window.


The architecture of the Roman Empire, to which most of Britain belonged from 43 to c. 410 A.D. Our knowledge of Romano-British architecture depends mostly on archaeological reconstructions from foundations and fragments, though some notable fortifications and other military works survive above ground level in recognizable form.


The dominant style of Western Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is associated especially with the expansion of monasticism and the building of large stone churches, and is characterized by massive masonry, round-headed arches and vaulting inspired by ancient Roman precedent, and by the use of stylized ornament. In England it is commonly known as Norman.


(Scots): A rounded bartizan or turret, usually roofless. An angle round is set at a corner.


Private upper chamber in a medieval house, accessible from the high or dais end of the great hall.


Openwork pattern of masonry or timber in an opening, especially the upper part of an opening; most common in Gothic architecture. Blind tracery is applied to a solid wall. Plate tracery, the earliest form, introduced c. 1200, has shapes cut through solid masonry. Bar tracery, introduced c. 1250, has patterns are formed by intersecting moulded ribwork continuing upwards from the mullions. Bar tracery types include: curvilinear tracery, with uninterrupted flowing curves, typical of the 14th century (also called flowing tracery); geometrical tracery, typical of c.1250-c.1310, which uses simple forms, especially circles, chiefly foiled; intersecting tracery, used c. 1300, formed by interlocking mullions each branching out in two curved bars of the same radius but different centres; loop tracery (Scots), used c. 1500-45, with large uncusped loop-like forms; panel tracery, with even upright divisions made by a horizontal transom or transoms; reticulated tracery, early 14th century, with net-like patterns of ogee- (double-curved) ended lozenges; Y-tracery, used c. 1300, which branches into a Y-shape.


An arched stone roof, sometimes imitated in timber, plaster etc. For the different kinds see barrel vault, fan-vault, groin-vault, rib-vault, sail vault.