Durham Castle note crenelation on top of structure

Durham Castle–later a Cathedral (note crenelation on top edges, typical of fortified structures)

Durham Castle, seen here with its crenelated top edge was fortification.The Normans, upon conquering England, fortifications came first, they provided shelter and protection. But churches were also built, small and grand. Medieval churches were often hurried affairs in a wood design, replaced later with rusticated stone. The churches eventually grew into cathedrals, larger than life structures. Since religion was the dominant interest of Europe, architecture consisted primarily of church construction.

Bracewell in Lanchashire church

Bracewell in Lancashire church

Bracewell is a small village just northwest of Barnoldswick, Lancashire. The church of St Michael’s is a lovely old Norman building, dating to around the year 1100. It was not established as a parish church, but as a private chapel for the Tempest family.


church PC GreenstedGlassSt Michael stained-glass can be seen from inside the church.

Greensted Church north wall - wood

Greensted Church north wall – wood

Greensted Church

Greensted Church

It has been told that Greensted Church, in the small village of Greensted-juxta-Ongar, near Chipping Ongar in Essex, England, is the oldest wooden church in the world and probably the oldest wooden building in Europe still standing, albeit only in part, since few sections of its original wooden structure remain. The oak walls are often classified as remnants of a palisade church or a kind of early stave church, dated either to the mid-9th or mid-11th century. Its full title is The Church of St Andrew, Greensted-juxta-Ongar. It is, however, commonly known simply as Greensted Church. Greensted is still a functioning church and holds services every week. The most interesting feature is probably the south doorway, which is typically Norman, the chancel arch, also Norman, and the tower arch, which dates to the 14th century and an early example of the soon to come Pointed Gothic style. Very little of the original medieval glass remains, but there are fragments of 14th century glass depicting coats of arms of local gentry. The nave pews are by the famed Kilburn woodworker, Rober Thompson, aka ‘The Mouseman’, and show Thompson’s favoured mouse motif. The church was featured on a British postage stamp issued in 1972.

800px-Durham_Cathedral_from_the_south-2This is the Cathedral side of the ‘castle’ seen above in the first image. Durham Cathedral replaced the 10th century “White Church”, built as part of a monastic foundation to house the Shrine of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. The Chapter Library contains one of the most complete sets of early printed books in England, the pre-Dissolution monastic accounts, and three copies of the Magna Carta. Durham Cathedral occupies a strategic position on a promontory high above the River Wear. From 1080 until the 19th century the bishopric enjoyed the powers of a Bishop Palatine, having military as well as religious leadership and power. It was built as the residence for the Bishop of Durham. Initially, a very simple temporary structure was built from local timber to house the relics of Cuthbert. The shrine was then transferred to a sturdier, probably wooden, building known as the White Church, later replaced by a stone building by the same name. The flow of money from pilgrims of power embodied in the church ensure that a town formed around the cathedral, establishing the early core of the modern city.

Durham interior zigzag and diamond patterns on columns

Durham interior zigzag and diamond patterns incised on columns and arches. Ceiling ribs have the patterns incised as well.


The current Cathedral was designed and built under William of Calais, who was appointed as the first prince-bishop by William the Conqueror in 1080. Since then, major additions and reconstruction has been prevalent. But, the greater part of the structure remains true to the Norman Design. This is a term related to the styles of Romanesque architecture by the Normans in lands under their influence in the 11th and 12th centuries.

There were other structures as well, all characterized by the usual Romanesque rounded arches particularly over windows and doorways.

Norman Arch

Norman Arch

The buildings show massive proportions in simple geometries, the masonry with small bands of sculpture, perhaps as blind arcading, and concentrated spaces of capitals and round doorways and in the tympanum under an arch. The “Norman arch” is the round arch and sometimes slightly pointed as in the Durham interior ceiling here above. Norman mouldings are carved or incised with geometric ornament, such as chevron patterns, frequently termed “zig-zag mouldings”. The cruciform churches often had deep chancels and a square crossing tower which has remained a feature of English ecclesiastical architecture. Hundreds of parish churches were built and the great English cathedrals were founded from 1083.  As Gothic with its pointed arches became more popular, Norman eventually became a modest style of provincial building.

Do you have a favorite ecclesiastical architecture, past or present?

Look for more next week…


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