English Gothic Architecture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever marveled at a large cathedral as you stood looking up into the open space? What kind of windows did it have? In this lesson, explore English Gothic architecture.

What Is Gothic Architecture?

Have you ever stood inside a large cathedral and marveled at how light-filled it was? Perhaps the cathedral was an example of English Gothic architecture.

Gothic is the name given to an art and architecture style that developed in medieval Europe in the twelfth century. In general, Gothic architecture featured elements like pointed rather than rounded arches, large stained glass windows, and a strong emphasis on vertical space. It began in France and spread to other European countries, including Germany and England. As these areas adopted the style, each added subtle variations.

Before we discuss English Gothic in particular, let's review terms related to Gothic architecture. Tracery is the stonework that surrounds and separates sections of stained glass windows or a series of windows. Buttresses are stone supports placed on the outside walls of a church to help support the walls. A vault is a structural element made from an arrangement of arches and usually found in ceilings. All of these elements shifted and changed as English Gothic architecture developed.

This lesson focuses on church architecture because during this time, the church was the largest, most imposing structure in a community. It would have been the first to reflect changing design trends.

Specific Traits of English Gothic Architecture

Following a transitional period when buildings combined low rounded arches and heavy stone walls with some Gothic elements, English Gothic architecture began to spread across the land. It is usually divided into three phases, so let's look at them in chronological order with approximate date ranges. Please note: some sources mention slightly different ranges than others so these are ballpark figures.

Early English Gothic

The first phase was Early English Gothic, from ca. 1180 - 1250. Sometimes also called the Lancet or First Pointed style, it featured lancet windows, long narrow windows with pointed arches and no tracery. Doors also featured pointed tops. These churches also used a variation on the standard buttress called the Oxford buttress. Instead of placements along side walls of the building, an Oxford buttress was placed diagonally at a corner. Early Gothic churches in England included cut stonework, steep roofs and long naves, or the central section of the church. They also featured slender towers and spires. Salisbury Cathedral (ca. 1220 - 1258), as shown in this image, is a good example of an Early Gothic.

Salisbury Cathedral. You can see examples of lancet windows, with no stained glass in them, in several section of this exterior view. Also very visible in the tall tower and tapering spire.
Salisbury Cathedral

Decorated or Curvilinear Gothic

The second phase of English Gothic architecture was Decorated Gothic, which was used from ca. 1250-1350. It's sometimes also called Curvilinear Gothic. As the name suggests, in this style shift we see more decoration and windows become wider and increasingly elaborate, often separated by bar tracery. More carved stone decoration can be found on exterior and interior elements. Flowing flying buttresses on exterior walls helped support increasing height while still retaining a lighter, more elegant look.

In this interior view of Lincoln Cathedral, notice the large stained glass windows and elaborate vaulted ceiling. Also, the stone work on column tops and along the walls is more decorative.
interior of Lincoln Cathedral

In this image of a flying buttress from Bath Abbey, you can see how they help support the walls while still creating a lighter sense of weight. Unlike solid stonework, they are not stocky and heavy.
detail of a flying buttress

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