Looking at Buildings

Building Types

The East End

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Peterborough, Cathedral. Transept

The main part of the eastern end of the church contained the choirGlossary Term, enclosed by seats for the clergy on each side, with the high altar as principal focus. The east end was the most sacred part of the buildings, and from the 13th century was often rebuilt or extended to provide ample circulation space around shrines and chapels. In many churches the prized possession of saints' relics, to which miraculous powers were attributed, made this part of the church a focus for pilgrims and worshippers. The principal shrine was generally placed on a high pedestalGlossary Term in the retrochoirGlossary Term (beyond the choirGlossary Term) so that it was visible above the high altar. The sanctity of the area attracted burials in its vicinity; although all shrines were destroyed at the Reformation, their significance is still demonstrated by the surviving tombs which once surrounded them. To the E of the retrochoirGlossary Term there was often a Lady ChapelGlossary Term, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who from the 13th century was especially esteemed as the intercessor for all mankind.

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Lincoln Cathedral, Angel Choir

Although the east and west arms of a great medieval church had different functions, they were designed in a similar way. Both choirGlossary Term and naveGlossary Term were commonly three storeys high, divided vertically into bays by columns or piers, and buttressed laterally by lower aisles. Proportions between the different storeys vary, contributing to contrasting visual effects. Peterborough Cathedral, like many RomanesqueGlossary Term buildings, has ground-floor and first-floor arcades of roughly equal height, their imposing monumental character reminiscent of the architectural traditions of ancient Rome. Direct lighting is provided by the uppermost part, or clerestorey, so named because it rises clear of the galleryGlossary Term roofs. At this level the thick wall could be hollowed out to lighten the load and to provide a wall passage which permitted access for maintenance. Lower down, the massiveness of the thick wall could be tempered by ingenious variety in the form of the arcadeGlossary Term piers, visible on this 19th-century view which omits the choirGlossary Term stalls. Galleries were a tradition taken over from RomanGlossary Term and ByzantineGlossary Term architecture; in RomanesqueGlossary Term churches they were used less regularly, though occasionally the eastern and transeptGlossary Term galleries had upper chapels.

Read further in: E. Fernie, The Architecture of NormanGlossary Term England,(2000).

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Wells Cathedral, Retrochoir

With the introduction of stone rib vaulting over the main spaces as well as over aisles, more complex clustered piers and wall shafts were introduced to unite vaultGlossary Term and wall. In the GothicGlossary Term period the adoption of a more skeletal buttressed structure led to slimmer, more widely spaced piers, taller arcades and clerestorey, while the middle storey became lower, or could be omitted altogether. At Lincoln Cathedral the elaborately decoratedGlossary Term Angel choirGlossary Term, named from the carved angels in the spandrelsGlossary Term of the arcadeGlossary Term arches, was added to the east of the older choirGlossary Term after 1256. The rich sculptured surfaces and elaborate mouldings emphasise its significance as the site of the shrine of St Hugh of Lincoln, which was installed here in 1280. Here, as at Canterbury Cathedral, the area around the shrine is made the same height as the main choirGlossary Term.

The east end offered interesting challenges for the designer. In GothicGlossary Term buildings, skilful handling of rib vaulting made it possible to unite parts of different shape and height. This allowed for easy circulation while retaining the separate identity of each space. The complexity that could result, especially in the most ambitious designs of the 14th century, is well illustrated by the east end of Wells cathedral where the low choirGlossary Term and Lady chapelGlossary Term appear to flow into each other. As Nikolaus Pevsner put it, 'the sensitive visitor is at once thrown into pleasing confusion'. The intriguing play with diagonal vistas is especially characteristic of the DecoratedGlossary Term period of gothicGlossary Term architecture.

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Wells Cathedral, Retrochoir, and Lady Chapel

Only on a plan is it easier to grasp that the Lady ChapelGlossary Term is an elongated octagon with a star-shaped tierceronGlossary Term vaultGlossary Term whose two western points also form part of the hexagonal shape created by the vaulting of the centre of the retrochoirGlossary Term. In the Middle Ages there would have been altars against the east walls of the projecting chapels and at the end of the side aisles, as well as in the Lady ChapelGlossary Term. The retrochoirGlossary Term was probably built with the hope of accommodating a shrine to Bishop William De Marchia (died 1302), but the campaign to have him recognised as an official saint was unsuccessful.

Read further with: Nikolaus Pevsner on Wells Cathedral, in The Buildings of England, North Somerset and Bristol, (1958);
N. Coldstream, The DecoratedGlossary Term Style, Architecture and Ornament 1240-1360, (1994)
W. Rodwell, "Above and below ground, Archaeology at Wells Cathedral" in The Archaeology of Cathedrals, ed. T Tatton-Brown and J. Munby, (1996).



Series of arches supported by piers or columns (compare colonnade). Blind arcade or arcading: the same applied to the wall surface. Wall arcade: in medieval churches, a blind arcade forming a dado below windows. Also a covered shopping street.


A style which originated at Byzantium (Constantinople), the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire, in the 5th century, spreading around the Mediterranean and, with Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity, from Sicily to Russia in later centuries. It developed the round arches, vaults and domes of Roman architecture but eschewed formalized classical detail in favour of lavish decoration and ornament of emblematic and symbolic significance. Introduced to late 19th- and early 20th-century Britain as an alternative to Gothic, usually for church architecture; often called Neo-Byzantine.


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


A distinctive phase of English Gothic which developed at the end of the 13th century and continued into the later 14th; sometimes abbreviated to Dec. Named from its elaborate window tracery, which abandoned the simple circular forms of Geometric in favour of more varied patterns based on segments of circles. Dec tracery makes much use of ogee or reversed curves, which were combined in the 14th century to produce reticulated and flowing tracery composed of trefoils, quatrefoils and dagger shapes. Similar inventiveness is seen in the patterns produced by the lierne and tierceron vaults of the period, in the three-dimensional handling of wall surfaces broken up by canopy work and sculpture and in imaginative spatial planning making use of diagonal axes.


A long room or passage; an upper storey above the aisles of a church, looking through arches to the nave; a balcony or mezzanine overlooking the main interior space of a building; or an external walkway.


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.

Lady chapel

A chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Our Lady).


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.


A tall block carrying a classical column, statue, vase, etc.


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


A vault with a masonry framework of intersecting arches (ribs) supporting cells, used in Gothic and late Norman architecture. A wall rib or wall arch spans between wall and cell vault. A transverse rib spans between two walls to divide a vault into bays. In a quadripartite rib-vault, each bay has two pairs of diagonal ribs dividing the vault into four triangular cells. A sexpartite rib-vault, usually set over paired bays, has an extra pair of ribs springing from between the bays. More elaborate vaults may include ridge-ribs along the crown of a vault or bisecting the bays; tiercerons, extra decorative ribs springing from the corners of a bay; and liernes, short decorative ribs in the crown of a vault, not linked to any springing point. A stellar or star-vault has liernes in star formation. A fan-vault is a form of vault used after c. 1350, made up of halved concave masonry cones decorated with blind tracery.


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.


Roughly triangular spaces between an arch and its containing rectangle, or between adjacent arches. Also non-structural panels under the windows, especially on a curtain-walled building.


In a rib-vault, an extra decorative rib springing from the corner of a bay; hence tierceron vault.


Transverse portion of a church.


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.