British polite architecture is one long story of imports from the Continent. It started with centuries of Roman rule bringing colonnaded forms better suited to sunny Italy. After a fallow period in the Dark Ages when interest in masonry building lapsed, the round arches and barrel vaulting invented by the Romans trickled back. Over these key elements there was an embroidery of other influences, creating the compound style we call Romanesque.
In the Eastern Roman Empire the Roman style had evolved into Byzantine. Meanwhile there was a patchwork of tribes where the Western Empire had been. Not until Charlemagne reunited a large part of it in his Holy Roman Empire was there a revival of Roman building methods, with an admixture of local styles. So when masonry building returned in Britain - for churches only at first - it could draw on Carolingian ideas and even the more distant Byzantine through the spreading network of the Church. But masons could also imitate in stone the decoration on local timber buildings, whether Saxon, Viking or Celtic.
Saxon kings and earls probably drew both masons and ideas from across the Channel. Breedon boasts a fine collection of surviving Saxon frieze and architectural carving, with motifs hinting at Byzantine models. At Barton-on-Humber we see blind arcading with pointed arches above rounded ones, similar to that on the Carolingian Kingshall at Lorsch. This mixture of round-headed arches and triangular-headed ones for both arcarding and windows is characteristic of Saxon building, as is the "long and short work" at Barton-on-Humber - long quoins on end between flat ones.
The Normans ushered in a second phase of Romanesque. In a hugely ambitious building programme they created grand cathedrals and monasteries, as well as many stone parish churches, castles and manor houses in England and parts of Wales and Ireland.
Walls and piers are massive. Multiple engaged columns and arches create an eye-catching surround to a principal door. Capitals are usually cubical or cushion-shaped, perhaps scalloped with segments of circles or occasionally enriched with relief sculpture. Ornament is largely geometric, with the chevron a common theme. The remarkable church at Kilpeck (above) is an exception, with its riot of intertwining motifs - a mixture of French and Scandinavian influences.
Romanesque in Scotland
Intermarriage between the English and Scottish royal families brought both Saxon and Norman ideas into Scotland. There was a flowering of Romanesque under David I, who founded monasteries in the borders region.
Continental influence even reached as far north as Orkney (then owned by Norway), where Earl Rognvald founded the Cathedral of St Magnus, notable for its polychromatic stonework.
Studies and gazetteers
- Archer, L., Architecture in Britain and Ireland 600-1500 (1999), which includes a gazetteer.
- Barral i Altet, X., The Early Middle Ages: From late antiquity to A.D.1000, Taschen's World Architecture (1997).
- Cramp, R., The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture: Grammar of Anglo-Saxon Ornament (pb 1991).
- The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland
- The Ecclesiological Society, The discovery of Anglo-Saxon churches (2000).
- Fernie, E., The Architecture of the Anglo-Saxons (1983).
- Fernie, E., The Architecture of Norman England (2000).
- The gazetteer of Norman architecture from a European Commission-backed project.
- Stalley, R., Early Medieval Architecture, Oxford History of Art (1999).
- Thurlby, M., Romanesque Architecture and Sculpture in Wales (2006).