When Edward the Confessor came to the throne in 1042 he brought with him many friends and ideas from the Normandy in which he had spent his youth. Westminster Abbey began in his reign as a Norman church with round arches and heavy walls; that structure was buried under the Gothic abbey of 1245, but it inaugurated an architectural revolution. The rapid replacement of Saxon or Danish by Norman bishops ensured the triumph of the Norman style in England. The Conqueror and his successors lavished upon the bishops much of the wealth confiscated from Englishmen who had not appreciated conquest; the churches became instruments of mental pacification; soon the Norman English bishops matched the Norman English nobles in wealth; and cathedrals and castles multiplied as allies in the conquered land. “Nearly all tried to rival one another in sumptuous buildings in the Norman style,” wrote William of Malmesbury; “for the nobles felt that day lost which they had not celebrated with some deed of magnificence.”5 Never had England seen such a frenzy of building.
Norman English architecture was a variation of the Romanesque theme. It followed French exemplars in supporting the roof by round arches on fat piers, and by heavy walls—though its ceilings were usually of wood; when the vault was of stone the walls were from eight to ten feet thick. It was largely monastic, and rose in out-of-the-way places rather than in cities. It used very little external statuary, fearing the effect of a damp climate, and even the capitals of the columns were simply or poorly carved; in sculpture England never caught up with the Continent. But not many towers could match the mighty structures that dominated the Norman castles, or guarded the façade—or covered the transept crossing—of the Norman church.
Hardly any ecclesiastical architecture in England is still purely Romanesque. Most cathedrals underwent a Gothic lifting of arch and vault in the thirteenth century, and only the basic Norman form remains. In 1067 fire destroyed the old cathedral of Canterbury; Lanfranc rebuilt it (1070–7) along the lines of his former Abbaye aux Hommes at Caen; nothing survives of Lanfranc’s cathedral except a few patches of masonry where Becket fell. In 1096–1110 the priors Ernulf and Conrad built a new choir and crypt; they kept the round arch, but channeled the strains to points supported by external buttresses. The transition to Gothic had begun.
York Minster,* built in 1075 on a Norman plan, disappeared in 1291 under a Gothic edifice. Lincoln Cathedral, originally Norman (1075), was rebuilt in Gothic after the earthquake of 1185; but the two great towers and sumptuously carved portals of the west façade survive from the Norman church, and reveal the skill and power of the older style. At Winchester the transepts and crypt remain of the Norman cathedral of 1081–1103. Bishop Walkelin built it to receive the flow of pilgrims to the tomb of St. Swithin.†Walkelin appealed to his cousin the Conqueror for timber to roof the enormous nave; William agreed to let him take from Hempage Forest as much wood as he could cut in three days; Walkelin’s flock cut down and carried off the entire forest in seventy-two hours. When the cathedral was finished nearly all the abbots and bishops of England attended its consecration; we may readily imagine the competitive stimulus aroused by such an enormous edifice.
Some echo of the scope of Norman building comes down to us when we note that St. Alban’s Abbey was begun in 1075, Ely Cathedral in 1081, Rochester in 1083, Worcester in 1084, Old St. Paul’s in 1087, Gloucester in 1089, Durham in 1093, Norwich in 1096, Chichester in 1100, Tewkesbury in 1103, Exeter in 1112, Peterborough in 1116, Romsey Abbey in 1120, Fountains Abbey in 1140, St. David’s, in Wales, in 1176. These are not names, they are masterpieces; shame bows us at leaving them after a few hours, or dismissing them in a line. All but one were later rebuilt or re-clothed in Gothic. Durham is still predominantly Norman, and remains the most impressive Romanesque structure in Europe.
Durham is a little mining town of some 20,000 souls. At a turn of the river Wear a rocky promontory rises; on that strategic elevation stands the gigantic mass of the cathedral, “half church of God, half castle against the Scots.”6 Monks from the island of Lindisfarne, fleeing from Danish raiders, built a stone church there in 995. In 1093 its second Norman bishop, William of St. Carilef, demolished this building, and with incredible courage and mysterious wealth raised the present edifice. The work continued till 1195, so that the cathedral represents the aspiration and labor of a hundred years. The lofty nave is Norman, with a double arcade of round arches resting on uncarved capitals and stout piers. The vault of Durham introduced to England two vital innovations: the groins were ribbed, helping to localize pressures; and the transverse arches were pointed, while the diagonals were round. If the transverse arches had been round, their crowns would not have reached the same height as the diagonals, which are longer, and the apex of the vault would have been a disturbingly uneven line. By lifting the crowns of the transverse arches to a point, they could be made to reach the desired height. This structural consideration, and no esthetic aim, apparently fathered the most prominent feature of the Gothic style.
In 1175 Bishop Pudsey added at the west end of Durham Cathedral an attractive porch or narthex, which for some unknown reason received the name of galilee. Here—where lies the tomb of the Venerable Bede—the arches are round, but the slender columns approach the Gothic form. Early in the thirteenth century the vault of the choir collapsed; in rebuilding it the architects supported the nave arcade with flying buttresses hidden in the triforium. In 1240–70 a Chapel of the Nine Altars was added to hold the remains of St. Cuthbert; and in that shrine the arches were pointed, and the transition to Gothic was complete.