Architecture of the 13th Century


Transition from Norman to Gothic Architecture—The Period of Change—The Early English Style—Examples and Characteristics of the Style—Towers—Windows—Doorways—Porches—Buttresses—Pillars—Arches—Mouldings and Ornaments—Fronts.

The history of architecture is the history of change, sometimes gradual, sometimes sudden, but always change. People and nations change; new ideas spring up among them; new wants are created, and Architecture has to minister to these wants. A necessity arises and has to be met; this suggests a new idea, which, carried out, leads to still further changes. The direction being once given, new forms of beauty are elicited, which are eagerly followed out, until at length scarcely a trace remains of the form from which they sprang. This was pre-eminently the case with Gothic Architecture. The necessity arose from the vaulting of spaces of unequal sides; the Norman semicircular arch could not meet this difficulty; and it could be met only by using a semicircular arch for the longer side, and a pointed one for the shorter. The pointed arch was thus introduced, and it was soon seen that it offered great facilities for construction, and also for beauty of form. A change was thus commenced which ended only with the entire disuse of the semicircular arch, and the establishment of what we now call Gothic Architecture. This has been divided into three distinct styles, answering to certain periods of time, as below:—

Early English , or Thirteenth Century, extending from the commencement of the reign of John to the close of that of Henry III.

Decorated , or Fourteenth Century, from the commencement of the reign of Edward I. to the end of that of Edward III.

Perpendicular , or Fifteenth Century, from the commencement of the reign of Richard II. to the end of that of Henry VII.

The latter part of each of these periods was one of transition, and therefore the terms Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Century must be taken only in a general sense.

In the last chapter on architecture, we slightly traced the transitions from the heavy masses of the pure Norman buildings, to the comparatively light ones which succeeded; but it will be necessary here to enlarge a little more on the subject. The change commenced in the latter part of the reign of Henry II., continued to increase partly through that of Richard I. when, towards the end of his reign, it emerged into the succeeding style; the heavy Norman architecture gradually gave way, greater lightness and loftiness were introduced in the piers, the capitals were richly covered with foliage more closely resembling the Corinthian form, the angles of the abacus were frequently cut off, the mouldings lost much of their Norman character, and the tooth ornament, which is so characteristic of the next style, began to be introduced. The pointed arch was used along with the round one, both in pier arches and in windows and doors, and throughout this period we find a mixture of the two styles, the new growing, as it were, from the ruins of the old, until, in the beginning of the thirteenth century, it rose in all its purity, and the cumbrous Norman disappeared. Of the buildings of the Transition period, the following may be mentioned. Canterbury Cathedral (1175 to 1184) was alluded to before as the most valuable, in showing the gradual change from one style to the other. The round portico of the Temple Church, London (1185), displays many of the characteristics of both styles, the pointed arch being used for the piers, but the round arch for the clerestory windows and arcades. The hall of the castle of Oakham, now used as the County Hall, shows in its capitals and corbels some of the finest sculpture we possess of this period. Oxford Cathedral is of this date, and exhibits a curious example of the alternate use of the pointed and round-headed arch in the windows, and for the support of the central tower. Rothwell Church, Northamptonshire, is also of this date, the west door being a good example of a pointed arch with Norman ornaments, while the capitals of the shafts display more of the character of the Early English.

In the buildings of this transition there is frequently much picturesque beauty, the sculptures are executed with great freedom and variety of design, and the details of the two styles harmonise well together. The abandonment of Norman forms and the adoption of the new style were so gradual, that we can scarcely determine when the latter begins, for we see in the earlier examples of Early English some Norman feature or other occasionally remaining, but about the beginning of the thirteenth century these seem to have disappeared.

The style which succeeded the transition was named by Beckman the Early English, and by that name it is commonly known. Many of the finest buildings we have are in this style; most of our cathedrals have portions of it, and one at least—Salisbury—is built entirely in it.

The earliest building of pure Early English is the choir of Lincoln Cathedral, and it is curious to find that at this early date, 1195, the Norman ideas had been entirely laid aside. This building exhibits the style not only in its utmost purity, but in its greatest beauty; all its details are conceived and executed with the greatest delicacy and freedom, and all who wish to see this style in perfection should view the choir of Lincoln. The nave is in the same style, but is about fifty years later, and is much plainer.

The cathedral of Salisbury is, with the exception of the spire, almost wholly in this style; but it is much plainer in its details than Lincoln, for which reason, and from its lancet windows being wider than usual, it is not so pleasing in its general appearance as most buildings of this order.

The Galilee, or western porch, of Ely Cathedral (1215) is one of the richest and most beautiful examples of Early English in the kingdom. The choir of Rochester (1225) and a great part of Worcester Cathedral are also good examples. Wells Cathedral is a well-known example, and its west front, with its gorgeous display of statuary, is the finest design of the kind we have (1239). Another magnificent front, entirely different from anything else, is that of Peterborough Cathedral, with its three splendid and lofty arches (1238). The body of the Temple Church, which was added to the more ancient round church in 1240, and the Chapter Houses of Lichfield and Oxford, also belong to the style under consideration, as do also numerous parish churches in all parts of the kingdom.

Many of our finest monastic remains belong also to this period.

Of the domestic buildings of this epoch, examples still remain in various parts of the kingdom either of entire houses or portions of houses, of which the following are some of the principal:—Aydon Castle, Northumberland; Little Wenham Hall, Sussex; and Stoke Say, Shropshire; the last being a rather late example.

Early English buildings are chiefly distinguished from the Norman by their greater comparative lightness, and the prevalence of vertical lines instead of horizontal. Externally, we find the buildings much more lofty, and lighted by long, narrow-pointed windows; the buttresses, instead of being little more than pilasters, as in the Norman style, have a bold projection, and, being generally finished with either pediments or pinnacles, add greatly to the effect of the building.

The roofs, too, in consequence of the greater facility of vaulting, are considerably higher in pitch than the Norman; and the towers, being usually surmounted by spires, add further to the appearance of loftiness, and make the contrast between them and the Norman still more marked.

Internally, we find that the heavy masses of piers are replaced by bundles of slender shafts, which support pointed arches and light and lofty vaulting, instead of the round arches and flat ceilings or heavy vaults of the Norman style. The architects having found the power which the new principle gave them, seem to have run to the opposite extreme of their former work, and to have carried out the new idea with the utmost temerity.

Towers.—Early English church towers, as was said above, are generally surmounted by a spire, which is sometimes very lofty, and either plain or ribbed at the angles, and sometimes crocketed. It sometimes rises from a parapet, and at others fits on the top of the tower, when it is called a broach  spire. In the best specimens of towers, an arcade runs along the upper belfry storey, some of the arches of which are pierced for windows. There is usually a richly-moulded door on the west side, and the middle storey has, in general, only a plain window. The buttresses either overlap the angles or project at right angles to the side.

Windows.—The single light windows are, almost without exception, of the kind known as lancet windows, that is, long and narrow, and with pointed heads. They are quite plain as a rule, and are so characteristic of the style that it has been called the lancet style. They are sometimes in pairs, threes, fives, or sevens, with a general dripstone extending over all. The window in the transept of York Cathedral, well known as the "Five Sisters," is a beautiful example of the combination of five very long and graceful lancets, and, being filled with elaborately-pencilled stained glass, has a fine and solemn effect. Some good examples also occur in the south transept of Beverley Minster. These are all richly moulded, and have shafts in the jambs; but in small churches the windows are frequently quite plain, having only a simple dripstone. Circular windows are also used, as well as windows of an acutely-pointed oval form. Both these forms are found in the transept of Beverley Minster, to which we have already had occasion to allude. Where only two lancets are used, there is frequently a small circle or a lozenge pierced in the wall above the lancets, but under the dripstone, and which, in the inside, formed one window. These openings were in time enlarged, and, by an easy transition, regular tracery was formed; and we find in the later period of this style, when it was verging on the next, windows of two or three lights, with circles of tracery in the head. This was the origin of the tracery which was afterwards to form so conspicuous a feature, and on which the chief beauty of the succeeding styles mainly depended.

Doorways.—These are almost universally deeply recessed and richly moulded, having shafts with capitals and bases on the jambs, and frequently ornamented with the tooth and other ornaments in the head. They are almost always pointed, but the round arch is still, in some few instances, retained, particularly in double doors when two arches have to be combined in one; but, in all cases, they may be distinguished from the Norman by their deeply-cut round and hollow mouldings, as well as by the capitals and bases of the shafts.

Porches.—The Early English porch differs from the Norman in being brought forward from the wall, leaving a considerable space between that and the front of the porch. This space is generally lighted by open windows on the sides, and ornamented in the interior with arcades, and having a stone bench running down each side. The front usually terminates in a very acutely-pointed gable, sometimes plain and sometimes moulded, and having a rich doorway, which is in general elaborately moulded and ornamented with the tooth ornament. The jambs have rows of shafts with capitals and bases, similar to the doorways before described, but frequently much more rich.

Buttresses.—Unlike those of Norman buildings, the buttresses of this period project boldly from the wall, and tend greatly to shake off the flatness of appearance so observable in the former style. They are commonly finished by pediments, and are sometimes connected by arches with the clerestory, when they are called flying buttresses .

Pinnacles  are now used, but they are more like turrets, being much larger than those of the succeeding styles. They are in general ornamented with small shafts and arches.

Piers and Pillars.—It is in these, more perhaps than in anything else, that we see the difference between a Norman and an Early English building. In the former, the architects, being deficient in mediæval skill, sought to remedy this defect, and to give strength to their buildings, by piling together large masses of masonry; while in the latter period, trusting to their scientific knowledge and the new principle of vaulting which they had just developed, they gradually reduced the strength of their piers, first by cutting their heavy round mass into a bundle of pillars all connected together, and afterwards separating these pillars, so that at the last the piers frequently consisted only of a central pillar, surrounded by a number of small detached shafts connected with the central one merely by the capital and base, and by bands placed at intervals on the shafts. Some fine specimens of this kind of pillar occur at Salisbury, where the lightness is carried to such excess that it seems wonderful how such slender shafts can support such heavy weights. These elaborate pillars are found only in the cathedrals or large churches; in smaller buildings the pillars are generally plain, either round or octagonal; but they may always be distinguished by the moulding and foliage of their capitals, and by their bases.

From a photograph by Frith and Co


(From a photograph by Frith and Co.)

Capitals, Foliage, and Bases.—These differ in many essential particulars from those of the Norman period, though in early buildings some of the Norman characters still remain. The abacus, the upper moulding or member of the capital, is in Norman work square; in pure  Early English it is circular; its section in the first is square, sloped with the lower edge, or chamfered off; in the last it is moulded, having two bold round mouldings, with a deep hollow between them. The foliage of this period is very different from that of any other. It consists of a kind of leaf rising, with a stiff stem, from the neck-moulding of the capital, and turning over in various graceful forms under the abacus. It is from the circumstance of its rising from a stem that it is sometimes called stiff-leaved foliage ; but nothing can be farther from stiffness, the utmost grace and elegance being displayed in its design and execution. It sometimes takes the form shown in the specimen from Salisbury, and sometimes that of a trefoil, as in the one from Lincoln. The bases  are well moulded, the general section being that of two round mouldings, the lower projecting beyond the upper, with a deep hollow between.


Arches.—These are in most cases acutely pointed, but no general rule can be given, as much variety in form prevailed at this period. The round arch is still occasionally used, particularly in triforiums, as at York. In plain parish churches the pier arches are frequently only plainly chamfered, but in large buildings they are commonly deeply and elaborately moulded, and relieved with lines of tooth ornament.


Mouldings and Ornaments.—These are of the greatest importance in all the styles of Gothic architecture, as they serve to distinguish one style from another when other tests fail. In the Early English they are particularly distinct and striking, and consist chiefly of bold rounds separated by deep hollows, thus producing an effect of light and shade much more remarkable than that produced by the Norman mouldings. Intermixed with these mouldings, and frequently occupying one or more of the deep hollows, is an ornament known as the "tooth ornament" or "dog's-tooth," which is as characteristic of the Early English style as the zigzag is of the Norman. It consists of a series of small pyramids cut into the form of four leaves, and these, when acute and seen in profile, have somewhat the appearance of a row of teeth. It is profusely used in all situations where ornament can be introduced. Flat surfaces are frequently ornamented with foliage, or cut into small squares, each of which is filled with a flower. This kind of work is called Diaper.


The Fronts  of Early English buildings are, in general, very fine compositions, and though plainer in detail than those of the succeeding styles, they have more elegance of proportion. A good idea of their general arrangement may be formed from the south transept of Beverley Minster. As compared with the fronts of the buildings of the Norman period, they are remarkable for the increase of the space devoted to windows; and stained glass has by this time become a necessary feature in church decoration.