Anglo-Norman Romanesque

St. Peter’s Church at Monkwearmouth in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, England.

The strong spiritual influence of the Irish Celtic monks left deep artistic influences in Britain, while the Danish invasion introduced some Germanic decorative forms. The first stone-built church mentioned in the literature is that of Monkwearmouth, from late seventh century. It was followed by the well preserved church of Bradford-on-Avon, from the year 705, whose interior appears as a simple stone construction, while on the outside has an interesting decoration with strips and arches.

St. Laurence’s Church in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, England. One of the relatively few surviving Anglo-Saxon churches in England with no medieval rebuilding.
Interior of Bradford-on-Avon church.

But was not until early eleventh century that the English court began to feel a big passion for the Norman French art, even to the point of encouraging the immigration of French bishops and lords. There isn’t a more striking example of this Francophile passion than that of the last Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, who hired French architects to build the Westminster Abbey (in which he was buried), and who left in his will the throne to the Duke William of Normandy. In consequence, the Romanesque English style is called Norman style or Anglo-Norman style, although it differs somewhat from the pure Norman style of the continent. In England, alongside the Norman conquest of 1066, some lords arrived with a big passion for construction and brought with them some architects, who apparently accepted few of the English architectural standards. For example, the Tower of London’s Chapel, built in the time of William -the first Norman king-, has three naves with barrel vaults, and its robust columns have low capitals with no other ornament than some cut-outs of Teutonic style so different from the Romanesque ornaments in vogue those days in Normandy.

St. John’s Chapel, inside the Tower of London.

It is particular to the floor plan of the first English Romanesque churches the great length of the naves and the often square apses, an arrangement also peculiar of the old Saxon style. The crypts, as in Germany, occupied the crossing and the apse, and had massive pillars that gave them an aspect of extraordinary severity. The lateral naves were separated from the central one by square pillars with projections seem to be destined to hold a transverse arch of a groin vault.

The Romanesque Westminster (then St. Peter) Cathedral (see left): Edward burial in St. Peter, detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, ca. 1070.

Another characteristic feature of the English cathedrals of the Anglo-Norman style is that these square pillars, with moldings, were sometimes interspersed with thick cylindrical columns decorated with a geometric ornamentation in zigzag and helical grooves. Above the crossing rose a great lantern tower, an element that later came to be the crucial feature of the English Gothic cathedrals. The lateral naves often had two floors, with high tribunes covered by groin vaults, while the central nave, wider, maintained the traditional wooden ceiling. The decor was reduced to the geometric motifs of the Norman style; the capitals were simple cubic shapes, with simple moldings in the abacuses and bases. The first monument of the Anglo-Norman style was the Westminster Abbey built before the Norman invasion by the French architects William of Malmesbury and Matthew of Paris. The original Romanesque church that would become Westminster Abbey was demolished in 1245 and completely rebuilt during the Gothic period.

The Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, Kent.
Canterbury Cathedral, a view of the crypt. Notice the columns’ shafts decorated with helical grooves.
Canterbury Cathedral, XII century choir.
One of the Romanesque towers of the Canterbury Cathedral.
Canterbury Cathedral, detail of a Norman arcade.

When England was almost under occupation, the Norman barons rebuilt the Cathedral of Canterbury, whose actual Norman remains are the crypt*, the western choir*, two towers and a portal that gives access to the stairs. The original cathedral of Canterbury was a Saxon construction built in the seventh century, but soon after the Norman conquest it was destroyed by a great fire and consequently rebuilt twice. After this reconstruction, the Canterbury Cathedral was transformed into a basilica with three naves, with a floor plan very similar to the Norman Romanesque churches. This cathedral was rebuilt in the Gothic period; however, it has intact the big Anglo-Norman crypt with its typical decorative and stylistic features and its columns with helical grooves.

Winchester Cathedral, Norman transept, ca. 1079.
Winchester Cathedral, crypt. The sculpture at the center (called Sound II) is a work by Antony Gormley (1986).
A view of the crypt of the Worcester Cathedral in England.

Other great cathedrals of the Anglo-Norman Romanesque style are those of Winchester and Worcester, both with magnificent crypts; the cathedral of Durham, built between 1093 to 1128; the churches of Ely, Peterborough, Chichester, Lichfield, Norwich, etc. The Durham Cathedral is the best preserved of all the Anglo-Norman Romanesque churches and the one that has experienced fewer restorations: still retains its ancient stone cover considered the first ribbed vault* of the West built between 1128 and 1133. The Lady chapel or Galilee chapel*, at the west end of Durham cathedral contains a group of elegant columns arranged in a clover-like form holding festooned arches*. The Norwich Cathedral is famous for its gigantic lantern tower* that, in addition to bring sunlight inside the church’s crossing, also plays the role of focal point around which all the other elements of the temple are grouped. This lantern tower that stiffly rises skyward was initiated in 1121.

The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St. Cuthbert of Durham, usually known as Durham Cathedral (Durham, England).
The ribbed vault on the central nave at Durham Cathedral.


View of the central nave, Durham Cathedral. Notice the pillars decorated with geometric ornamentation in zigzag and horizontal grooves.
The Lady chapel or Galilee chapel at Durham cathedral with its columns arranged in a clover pattern and the festooned arches.


The Norman tower and the 15th-century spire of the Norwich Cathedral in Norfolk, England.
The Ely Cathedral, ca. 1083.
The Peterborough Cathedral, known as the Cathedral Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew.
The Chichester Cathedral, or the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, in Chichester, Sussex, England. Ca. 1075.
The Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire, England. The original wooden Saxon church was later replaced by a Norman Romanesque church built in stone, this was in turn replaced by the present Gothic cathedral in 1195.


Ribbed vault: A vault built by intersecting two or three barrel vaults.



Galilee chapel: A chapel (or porch) at the west end of some churches where penitents waited before admission to the body of the church and where clergy received women who had business with them.


Festooned arch: An arch with a decorative chain or strip.



Lantern tower: A tall construction above the junction of the four arms of a cruciform church, (right over the crossing) with openings through which exterior light enter the church.



Crypt:(From the Latin crypta, meaning “vault”). An underground stone chamber beneath a church, used as a chapel or burial place, thus usually containing coffins, sarcophagi, or religious relics.


Choir: The area of a church or cathedral that provides seating for the clergy and church choir. It is in the western part of the chancel between the nave and the sanctuary which houses the altar and Church tabernacle.