7 of England’s best medieval buildings
From Gothic cathedrals to defensive fortresses, England boasts a multitude of remarkable medieval buildings. Here we round up seven of our favourites...
London’s iconic Westminster Abbey has since the medieval period held a significant place in royal history. It has been the setting of every royal coronation since 1066, seen 16 royal weddings and is the final resting place of 17 English monarchs.
The stunning Gothic structure that stands today was constructed by Henry III between 1245 and 1272, and his motivations for undertaking the mammoth building project are intriguing. Writing for History Extra in 2011, historian David Carpenter has argued that Henry built the spectacular abbey to win the favour of the dead Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, who had established a church on the site almost 200 years earlier, in 1065.
According to Carpenter, Henry was “passionately devoted to Edward”, who had been canonised in 1161, adopting him as his patron saint. He says Henry believed that “if he won the dead king’s saintly favour by building the magnificent abbey as an offering to him, Edward would support him in this life and shepherd him into the next. The Abbey was a very clear statement that Henry was backed by his saintly predecessor”.
Westminster Abbey is home to some remarkable medieval art, including England’s oldest altarpiece, the 13th-century Westminster Retable [a panel painted with religious imagery, including an image of Westminster Abbey’s patron saint St Peter]. After surviving the dissolution of the monasteries, the Reformation and the Civil War, this precious altarpiece was rediscovered 1725, covered in paint and being used as a cupboard door in the Abbey’s storage.
Another of Westminster Abbey’s outstanding medieval artefacts is the coronation chair, in which every monarch since Edward II (apart from Edward V and Edward VIII) has been crowned. During the Second World War the coronation chair was evacuated to Gloucester Cathedral, however, like the Westminster Retable, it has not always received such good care. Its back is marked with graffiti, carved by mischievous Westminster schoolboys in the 18th and 19th centuries.
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Known as ‘the key to England’, the defensive fortress of Dover Castle has a long and turbulent history. Standing at the site of the shortest sea crossing between England and the continent, Dover has always been a key strategic spot in the defence of the kingdom, and over the centuries its castle has witnessed several bloody conflicts.
The medieval structure that remains at Dover today was mostly constructed by King Henry II in the 1180s. Henry spent a vast fortune on the castle, which was not only intended to defend the British coast but also to entertain and impress distinguished guests. Between 1179 and his death in 1189, Henry spent £5,991 on Dover Castle – the greatest concentration of money spent on a single castle in English history.
Writing for History Extra, John Gillingham has argued that Henry poured such vast sums into the impressive structure in order to “save face” following the brutal killing of Thomas Becket in 1170. The archbishop had been murdered in Henry’s name, significantly damaging Henry’s reputation. According to Gillingham, constructing the imposing castle was “a visible assertion of Henry’s power in the face of a developing anti-monarchical cult.” It served as stopping point a for high-status pilgrims visiting Beckets’s tomb at Canterbury Cathedral and Henry dedicated its chapel to the canonised Archbishop.
During the reign of King John (r1199–1216), the castle defences were put to the test when it came under siege by French troops led by Prince Louis in 1216–17. It withstood 10 months of bombardment as the invasion forces targeted it with siege engines, tunneling and face-to-face combat.
A dramatic ruin set in the beautiful surroundings of rural North Yorkshire, Rievaulx Abbey was once a template for medieval monastic architecture across Europe. The Abbey underwent many stages of architectural development from the 12th to 15th centuries, reflecting the social and economic changes monastic communities underwent during the period.
Rievaulx was first established as a Cistercian monastery in 1132. The Cisterian order (founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux in 1098 in an attempt to reform monastic life in Europe) aimed to return holy communities to an austere life, abiding to strict religious guidelines set down by St Benedict in the sixth century. After the foundation of Britain’s first Cistercian abbey in 1128 (Waverley Abbey in Surrey) the waves of reform quickly spread, and other Cistercian communities such as Rievaulx were established across the country.
By the middle of the 12th century Rievaulx was a large and thriving self-sufficient community. In 1167 the Abbey’s community numbered around 140 monks and around 500 lay brothers. A larger site was needed to accommodate this growing community, leading to the building of a new chapter house and a dramatic, imposing church.
The Abbey site was designed to facilitate both religious and practical aspects of life. In addition to a great cloister where the monks could study and read, the Abbey also contained private quarters for more senior monks, as well as a parlour, dormitory and kitchen. Rievaulx also holds the earliest surviving infirmary complex on any British Cistercian site, built in the 1150s to care for sick and elderly members of the monastic community.
Like many abbeys, Rievaulx was targeted by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. However, the Abbey’s religious population had dwindled over the centuries and by the time it was shut down and dismantled in 1538 only 23 monks remained there.
From humble beginnings as a small wooden church, York Minster underwent several transformations during the medieval period before evolving into the spectacular Gothic cathedral that stands today.
The first Christian church on the site was a modest wooden structure dating back to AD 627. By AD 640 King Oswald had replaced this with a small stone church. After surviving the Viking invasion in AD 866, York’s Anglo-Saxon church was ransacked by William the Conqueror’s forces in the Harrying of the North in 1069. After destroying the Anglo-Saxon church, William appointed his own Norman archbishop of York, who went about constructing a grand Norman Cathedral on the site.
In the 13th century Walter De Gray (archbishop of York between 1215 and 1255) decided to rebuild the cathedral for the final time. He embarked on a mammoth project to redesign it in a dramatic Gothic style, with a monumental arching roof, intended to convey a sense of soaring upwards towards the sky. Constructed between 1220 and 1472, the magnificent Gothic-style minster took more than 250 years to complete. Its Great East Window, glazed by John Thornton of Coventry between 1405 and 1408, is now the largest expanse of medieval glass to have survived in Europe.
York Minster has suffered many misfortunes over the centuries. In 1407 the central tower collapsed due to soft soil, and four fires [in 1753, 1829, 1840 and 1984] have wreaked significant damage. York Minster is now one of only seven cathedrals in the world to boast its own police force [a small, specialized cathedral constabulary who continue to operate independently of the rest of the city’s police force].
The White Tower
The imposing White Tower at the heart of the Tower of London complex dates back to the late 11th century. Built by William the Conqueror to secure his hold on London, it was designed to awe and subdue the local population.
The exact construction dates of the White Tower are unclear, but building was certainly underway in the 1070s and was completed by 1100. A key example of Norman architecture, the White Tower was the first building of its kind in England. William employed Norman masons and even had stone imported from Normandy for its construction. At 27.5m tall the Tower would have been visible for miles around.
Intended as a fortress and stronghold rather than a royal palace, the White Tower’s design favoured defence over hospitality. Its fortifications were updated throughout the medieval period and during the reign of Richard the Lionheart they doubled in size. This proved to be a wise move, as in Richard’s absence his brother John besieged the White Tower in an attempt to seize the throne. The Tower’s defences held fast but the forces defending it [led by Richard’s Chancellor William Longchamp] were compelled to surrender owing to a lack of supplies.
For those who fell from royal favour, the White Tower was a place of imprisonment and execution. From its foundation it was used as a prison – the first recorded prisoner held in the White Tower was Ranulf Flambard, bishop of Durham, in 1100. Under Edward III, the captured kings of Scotland and France were kept at the White Tower and it is believed that, centuries later, Guy Fawkes was tortured and interrogated in the White Tower’s basement.
Even monarchs were not immune to imprisonment at the White Tower: in 1399 Richard II was imprisoned there after being forced to renounce his throne by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke.
Westminster Hall, Houses of Parliament
As the oldest building on the parliamentary estate, Westminster Hall has been central to the government of England since the 11th century. Built in 1097 by the Norman king William II (the son of William the Conqueror and known as Rufus), the Hall was a symbol of Norman majesty intended to impress the king’s new subjects.
Rufus’s construction project was remarkably ambitious. Covering a floor space of 1,547 square metres (with walls two metres thick), Westminster Hall was by far the largest hall in England at the time. It was so large that when surveying the vast hall just after its construction, one of Rufus’s attendants reportedly remarked it was far bigger than it needed to be. However, Rufus himself was less than impressed – he replied it was not half large enough, a mere bedchamber compared to what he had in mind.
Recent archaeological explorations at Westminster Hall have prompted some fascinating theories about the groundbreaking nature of its original construction. No evidence of columns used to support the vast roof has been uncovered, suggesting that it may have been self-supporting. This engineering would have been remarkably ahead of its time, as self-supporting roofs of this size were not seen elsewhere until the 13th and 14th centuries.
Writing for History Extra, Paul Binski suggests that the “miracle” of Westminster Hall “is not just its survival, but its courage. The builders of these great structures had brilliant know-how, but also guts”.
Situated in the centre of the medieval city, the Norwich Guildhall is a remarkable example of late medieval secular architecture. Built primarily between 1407 and 1412, its grandeur reflects the growing power and wealth of a new elite of merchants, traders and government agents during the period.
By the 15th century Norwich had become one of the wealthiest and most important towns in England. Following a 1404 charter granting the city greater self–governing powers it was decided that a Guildhall should be built in order to administer the powers more effectively.
The Guildhall fulfilled a role similar to that of a modern town hall, performing all the administrative functions the city required to govern the everyday lives of the city’s residents. The Guildhall served multiple purposes as a court, a tax collection hub and administrative centre. The Guildhall also contained an assembly chamber for council meetings, was equipped to hold prisoners and had a large ‘sword room’ used for storing weapons.
Today the Guildhall is the largest surviving medieval building intended for a civic purpose outside of London.