Gothic Treasures in England

Visit the great Gothic churches and monasteries of England, dating back nearly one thousand years, to the time of William the Conqueror through to the 15th century.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Smarthistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Canterbury Cathedral (Exterior)

The cathedral is perhaps most famous as the site of the murder of the the archbishop, St. Thomas Becket in 1170 by order of King Henry II who attempted to restrict the power of the church (resisted by Becket).

We’re looking at the southwest corner of the exterior of Canterbury Cathedral. To the left, we can see the west facade, and to the right, the south porch, which is used today as the main entry to the church.

Though the sculptures in niches we see here appear old at first sight, however, they date to the 19th century—until that time the niches were empty. This is a good reminder that churches are almost always layers of building and sculpting over centuries.

Canterbury Cathedral (Interior)

Though the architecture of Canterbury Cathedral dates to between the 11th -15th centuries, the site dates back to the earliest years of Christianity in England—so prayers have been offered here daily for over 1,400 years.

Since the Reformation (and the break with the Catholic Church by King Henry VIII), the church has been the seat of the spiritual head of the Church of England.

We’re standing in the soaring nave (the main, central aisle) of the Cathedral. Look up at the stone vault (ceiling). The complex decorative ribbing and the overall emphasis on vertical lines is typical of the perpendicular Gothic style.

These are some of the oldest stained glass windows in England. They show the ancestors of Christ—Old Testament figures that represent humankind from the creation of Adam to the coming of Christ. Stained glass is colored glass with details painted on the surface.

Durham Cathedral from the Corner of Mount Joy Hill (c. 1905) by Frederick H. EvansThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Durham Cathedral, Durham, England, Late 11th - Early 12th Century

Durham Cathedral was built to house the body of St. Cuthbert, an important 7th century Saint from Northern England and is earliest known example of a ribbed groin vault (ceiling) on this scale.

In the middle ages, churches were built with wooden roofs, which often had to be repaired and rebuilt due to frequent fires. The development of stone vaults (ceilings) was an enormous step forward, and Durham Cathedral is an important early example.

Durham Cathedral is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture—characterized by round arches, thick walls, and columns, which were needed to support the heavy stone above. As vaulting techniques developed, interiors became taller, and wall space opened up to allow in more light.

Whitby AbbeyOriginal Source: Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire, England, Begun 13th Century

We are looking at the picturesque ruins of a Gothic Abbey (an abbey is a series of buildings for a community of monks or nuns).  Like many abbeys in England, this one was shut by King Henry VIII, who dissolved more than 800 monasteries and took their wealth during the Reformation.

Whitby AbbeyOriginal Source: Whitby Abbey

Sir Richard Cholmley purchased the abbey soon after, but it fell into ruin in the 18th century. Whitby Abbey is especially famous since it appears in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897).

We are standing in what was once the the nave (the main aisle) of the church. Imagine it filled with monks and the sounds of prayer. The pointed arches we see are typical of the Gothic style.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, S.W. View (1820) by John ConeyNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Ely Cathedral, 11th - 14th Century

Ely Cathedral is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved medieval churches in England.  Parts of the Cathedral are in an earlier Romanesque style, and other parts date to the later Gothic style.

Like all churches this old, Ely Cathedral has undergone many transformations and restorations. The history of Ely as a religious site goes back to 673, when Saint Etheldreda, daughter of the king of East Anglia, founded an abbey here.

The entrance is through a space called the Galilee Porch. Look closely and you’ll see it’s decorated with with rows of pointed arches, typical of the Gothic style. The other parts of the west front have round arches, typical of the earlier Romanesque style.

The architects at Ely wanted to open up the walls to allow in light, usually in the form of stained glass. Here we see three tall windows, called Lancet windows. On either side, rows of arches are set against a wall—this is called a blind arcade.

A Scene in York: York Minster from Lop Lane (1845) by William Henry Fox TalbotNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

York Minster, Yorkshire 13th-15th Centuries

York Minster is, in many ways, a typical Gothic cathedral—it has large windows filled with stained glass, and an emphasis on height and verticality. The term “cathedral” comes from Latin for “chair”— cathedra—and refers to the seat or throne of a bishop or archbishop.

York Minster was built in stages, suffered several fires, and parts of the church were rebuilt in the 19th century, and like most Catholic churches in England, it was stripped of its treasures and looted during the Protestant Reformation.

The facade of York Minster could not fail to have impressed a medieval visitor. Since Gothic architecture emphasized light, which was understood as divine, it makes sense that the exterior walls of York Minster are consistently pierced by windows.

Gezicht op de Southwark Cathedral in Londen (1647) by Hollar, WenceslausRijksmuseum

Southwark Cathedral, London, c. 1220 - 1420, Rebuilt in 1890

Southwark Cathedral is located on the south bank of the Thames river in London and was originally part of a monastery. The cathedral is also known as The Collegiate Church of St. Saviour and St. Mary Overie, which means "over the river.”

William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer are said to have worshipped here. The building we see today dates to the 15th century, and was significantly rebuilt in 1890. The church is located in an area that was heavily bombed during World War II.

Though the nave (the center aisle) dates to the nineteenth century, it was built in the older Gothic style. We see the pointed arches of the nave arcade, above that a shallow arched space (a triforium), the clerestory (windows), and a ribbed groin vault for the ceiling.

The North Terrace and Winchester Tower, Windsor Castle (c.1941-4) by John Piper (1903-92)Royal Collection Trust, UK

Winchester Palace, London, 12th Century

The palace encompassed many buildings, courtyards, a tennis court, bowling alley and even pleasure gardens. Surrounding the palace were breweries, taverns, and theaters. This was once one of the largest secular buildings in medieval London.

We are looking at doors that would have led to the kitchen and pantry—important rooms, considering the Great Hall was used to entertain royal guests, including King James I of Scotland who held his wedding feast here in 1424.

Lincoln Cathedral, the Galilee Porch (1857) by Roger FentonThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Lincoln Cathedral

John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic, wrote that Lincoln Cathedral “is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and...worth any two other cathedrals we have.”

One of its most distinguishing features is the imposing, fortress-like facade with its rows of blind arcades (arches against a solid wall). The Cathedral has one of a handful of surviving copies of the Magna Carta (1215), which established the principle that even the King was subject to the law.

Wells Cathedral. (about 1865) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral, like Lincoln, has a broad west front and dates to the 12th and 13th centuries.

The facade has more than 300 original sculpted figures and was built in the Early English Gothic style which is characterized by the use of pointed arches and lancet windows (tall, narrow windows with pointed arches at the top).

The facade is 150 wide (wider even than the church behind it), and originally included 177 niches with full-length sculptures (kings, saints prophets and other figures) and 90 quatrefoils containing either a bust of an angel or a scene from the Old or New Testament.

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