Norman architecture (1066-1200)

The British version of early the Medieval Romanesque style

OK, so England has a smattering of ancient sights—pre-Classical stone circles as at Stonehenge and Avebury, Roman ruins (the Bath spa, Hadrian's Wall, a theater at St. Albans, the walls of a Roman fort called "Richmond Castle" outside Canterbury, and villas outside Dover, Chicester, Cheltenham, and on the Isle of Wight).

Those few ruins aside, the oldest surviving architectural style in England dates to when the AD 1066 Norman conquest brought the Romanesque era to Britain, where it flourished as the Norman Style.

Churches were large, with a wide nave and aisles to fit the masses who came to hear Mass and worship at the altars of various saints. But to support the weight of all that masonry, the walls had to be thick and solid (meaning they could be pierced only by few and rather small windows) resting on huge piers, giving Norman churches a dark, somber, mysterious, and often oppressive feeling.

Identifiable reatures of the Norman style

  • Rounded arches. These load-bearing architectural devices allowed the architects to open up wide naves and spaces, channeling all that weight of the stone walls and ceiling across the curve of the arch and down into the ground via the columns or pilasters.
  • Thick walls, infrequent and small windows, and huge piers.
  • Chevrons. Zig-zagging decorations, often surrounding a doorway or wrapped around column.

Best examples of Norman architecture

  • White Tower, London. William the Conqueror's first building in Britain is the central keep of the Tower of London, its fortress-thick walls and rounded archways a textbook Norman era castle. Its St. John's Chapel inside is the only Norman church in London.
  • Durham Cathedral. The layout is Romanesque, save for the proto-Gothic pointy rib vaulting along the nave. Its massive piers are incised with chevrons.
  • Ely Cathedral. The nave and south transept are perfectly Norman, though much of the rest of the interior is as Gothic as the exterior.
  • Norwich Cathedral. The lower part of the tower and nave, along with the transepts, are Norman, though the clerestory and spire are Gothic.