10 of the Most Beautiful Gothic Buildings in Britain

Léonie Chao-Fong

5 mins

20 Jan 2020

Originating from France in the 12th century, Gothic architecture flourished throughout Europe during the High and Late Middle Ages.

There are three main periods of English Gothic: Early English Gothic (1180-1250), Decorated Gothic (1250-1350) and Perpendicular Gothic (1350-1520).

Although its popularity declined in the 16th century, English Gothic reappeared three centuries later with the Gothic Revival (1820-1900), becoming of the most popular movements of 19th century architecture.

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The Gothic style is characterised by the pointed arch, high vaulted ceilings, enlarged windows, strong vertical lines, the flying buttress, pinnacles and spires.

Gothic was most commonly used in cathedrals, but was also seen in castles, palaces, universities and great houses.

Here are 10 key examples of Gothic buildings in Britain.

1. Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral (Credit: Antony McCallum).

Built between 1220 and 1258, Salisbury Cathedral is widely recognised as one of the finest examples of English Gothic architecture.

It was one of the 20 cathedrals built after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William the Conqueror seized control of England and Wales.

The cathedral is built in the Early English Gothic style. Although it looks like a collection of buildings, the entire composition is ruled by a disciplined architectural order.

A coherent system of horizontals and verticals unite in a simple layout in the shape of a cross, topped by the tallest church spire in Britain.

The cathedral is also known for having one of the surviving four copies of the Magna Carta.

2. Canterbury Cathedral

The nave of Canterbury Cathedral (Credit: David Iliff / CC).

One of the oldest cathedrals in England, Canterbury Cathedral has a long history that can be traced back to the 6th century.

The original church was completely rebuilt in the early 11th century, and then rebuilt again 100 years later in the English Gothic style following a fire.

As with many Gothic church buildings, the interior of the choir was richly embellished with pointed arches, rib vaulting and flying buttresses.

The cathedral was the scene to one of the most infamous assassinations in English history – the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170.

3. Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral (Credit: David Iliff / CC).

Described as “unquestionably one of the most beautiful” and “the most poetic” of English cathedrals, Wells Cathedral serves the second smallest city in England.

Built between 1175 and 1490 entirely in the Gothic style, the cathedral’s architectural highlight is the West Front.

The West Front of Wells Cathedral (Credit: Tony Grist / CC).

Flanked by two towers, it depicts the history of the world as told in the Bible. On its completion, the West Front boasted the largest collection of figurative statues in the western world.

4. Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral (Credit: DrMoschi / CC).

For over 200 years, Lincoln Cathedral was the tallest building in the world until its central spire collapsed in 1548.

With key Gothic features such as flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and pointed arches, it is considered a masterpiece from the medieval period.

John Ruskin declared:

I have always held … that the cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have.

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5. All Souls College Oxford

All Souls College Oxford (Credit: Andrew Shiva / CC).

Much of this Oxford University college has a Gothic base but the best example is its chapel, completed in 1442.

Built between 1438 and 1442, the chapel features Perpendicular Gothic elements in its stained-glass windows, vaults and portals.

6. King’s College Chapel

Cambridge King’s College Chapel ceiling (Credit: FA2010).

Built between 1446 and 1515, King’s College Chapel is the architectural symbol of Cambridge University and an outstanding example of the late Perpendicular English Gothic style.

The chapel was built in phases by a succession of kings over a period which spanned the Wars of the Roses, and its large stained glass windows were not completed until 1531.

The chapel features the world’s largest fan vault, sometimes described as one of the architectural wonders of the world.

7. Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey (Credit: Sp??ta??? / CC).

Constructed in the 13th century as a burial site for King Henry III, the present church was built when the Gothic style was relatively new.

Practically ever Gothic element can be seen in the abbey, from statues to its famous vaulted ribbed ceilings.

Westminster Abbey Chapter House (Credit: ChrisVTG Photography / CC).

The Chapter House, boasting an extraordinary tiled medieval floor, was described by the architect Sir G. Gilbert Scott as:

singl[ing] itself out from other beautiful works as a structure perfect in itself.

Westminster Abbey has hosted almost every coronation of English monarchs since 1066, when William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas Day.

8. Palace of Westminster

Palace of Westminster (Credit: OltreCreativeAgency / pixabay).

Much of the royal palace’s medieval structures were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1834, and reconstructed by the Victorian architect Sir Charles Barry.

With the assistance of Augustus Pugin, a leading authority on Gothic architecture, Barry rebuilt the new Palace of Westminster in the Gothic Revival style, inspired by the English Perpendicular style.

The exterior is a beautiful symmetrical combination of stone, glass, and iron that has led to the palace being one of London’s most iconic structures.

9. York Minster

The heart-shaped West Window of York Minster (Credit: Spencer Means / CC).

York Minster is the second largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and clearly charts the development of English Gothic architecture.

Built between 1230 and 1472, the cathedral dates from a period when York was the most important political, economic and religious capital of the north.

The wide decorated Gothic nave contains the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world. At its west end is the Great West Window, containing a heart-shaped design known as the ‘Heart of Yorkshire’.

10. Gloucester Cathedral

Vaulted ceiling of Gloucester Cathedral (Credit: Zhurakovskyi / CC).

Built over several centuries from 1089-1499, Gloucester Cathedral features a smattering of different architectural styles, including every style of Gothic architecture.

The nave is topped with an Early English roof; the south porch is in the Perpendicular style with a fan-vaulted roof. The Decorated Gothic south transept serves as the earliest surviving example of Perpendicular Gothic design in Britain.