England boasts a huge variety of medieval landmarks that all play their part in telling the story of Anglo-Saxons and the Norman Conquest, right through to the fall of the Plantagenet kings – there are just too many fantastic medieval sites to mention.
However, featuring the iconic Westminster Abbey that has seen the rise and fall of notable English monarchs, to the streets that ordinary folk would have hurried along in Medieval Rye, we’ve selected 10 top spots that are guaranteed to transport you back to England’s medieval past.
Rye is a historic port town in East Sussex, England, that was an important member of the Cinque Port Confederation during the medieval period. The name Rye comes from ‘rie’ meaning bank or the West Saxon ‘ieg’ meaning island, as the town was once entirely surrounded by sea.
Rye’s ties to the sea have coloured its long history with shipbuilding, royal visits, thriving trade and violent smuggling. Notorious locations include a Norman church, The Mermaid Inn, The Olde Bell Inn and the Ypres Tower, all open to visitors today.
Often described as England’s smallest city, Well owes its medieval city status to its beautiful 13th century cathedral. In area and population, Wells is in fact not the smallest city in England – that title goes to the City of London.
However, its size does not diminish the large historical legacy of Wells. Named for the 3 wells dedicated to Saint Andrew, the city grew from a Roman settlement into the Anglo-Saxon period when King Ine of Wessex founded a church there in 704. Wells has since been notable for its cloth-making and role in both the English Civil War and Monmouth Rebellion.
Today, the medieval architecture has led Wells to be a popular filming location. You can tour Wells Cathedral, the “most poetic of the English Cathedrals”, before wandering the picturesque medieval streets.
Westminster Abbey is an iconic medieval structure and the site of many historic royal and national events, from coronations and royal weddings to burials and even deaths. Centrally located in London, Westminster Abbey was first constructed in the 11th century by King Edward the Confessor, a Saxon king who dedicated this new church to St Peter.
To have an informed visit and to see the most interesting parts of Westminster Abbey, take a tour, as just wandering around can be overwhelming. Along with Westminster Palace and Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Within the heart of the medieval city of Norwich in England, Norwich Guildhall is a remarkable example of late medieval architecture and reflected the growing power of the city’s merchant elite.
Today, the Norwich Guildhall is the largest remaining civic building outside of London and is open to the public.
Norwich Guildhall’s characteristic flint exterior remains a bastion of the city’s medieval independence and wealth, sat on Gaol Hill. The Grade I listed building is open for booking free guided tours which last about an hour, or you can explore the guildhall history on one of the Heritage Open Days, run every September.
Rievaulx Abbey was a Cistercian abbey in Rievaulx near Helmseley in the North York Moors, England. One of England’s great abbeys, Rievaulx was seized during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538.
The wider site has since been awarded Scheduled Ancient Monument status and the striking ruins of the main abbey continue to be a popular tourist destination, owned and managed by English Heritage. The abbey’s records also provide one of the earliest insights into queer relationships during the medieval period.
One of the best-preserved Norman fortifications in England, Rochester Castle was built at a strategic crossroads in the years following the Norman Conquest.
In 1087 Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester began the construction of the castle to command an important river crossing. One of William the Conqueror’s greatest architects, Gundulf was also responsible for the Tower of London. Much of what remains of the walled perimeter remains intact from that time.
In 1215, garrisoned by rebel barons, the castle endured an epic siege by King John. Rochester Castle played no role in the Civil Wars and so it was never slighted. It appears, however, that a violent fire took place in the keep before the 1660s, which reduced the building to ruin.
Today the castle has been largely restored and is open to visitors under the custodianship of English Heritage.
St Michael’s Mount is a small tidal island in Cornwall’s Mount’s Bay, England, and is linked to the town of Marazion by a man-made causeway only passable at mid or low tide. Since 1650, the medieval castle and chapel complex has been the home of the St Aubyn family, although today, the island is jointly managed by the St Aubyns and the National Trust.
St Michael’s Mount was likely an earlier monastery, but was gifted by Edward the Confessor to the Benedictine order of Mont Saint-Michel (the French order that was later dissolved by Henry V) in the 11th century. The Mount was captured on behalf of Prince John in 1193 – during the reign of his brother King Richard I.
In 1424, the chapel was given to the Abbess and Convent of Syon in Middlesex, ending the island’s connection with the French Benedictines. Nonetheless, the Mount remained a popular destination for pilgrims and the castle was built on top of the island around the same time.
St Michael’s Mount continues to weather the tides of time so that visitors can still explore parts of the island and castle.
Orford Castle in Suffolk is a striking medieval castle once used to assert royal authority in the area. With its keep still largely intact, it provides an intriguing look into the world of medieval Britain.
Orford Castle was originally built in 1165 under the orders of King Henry II, and was an impressive fortified stone structure surrounded by a curtain wall and several defensive mounds.
In 1189 the castle passed to Henry II’s son Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, and when he was captured upon his return from the crusades, his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine assembled a fleet at Orford to deliver the ransom for his release.
Whilst much of Orford Castle has since been destroyed or eroded, the polygonal five-storey tower is extremely well-preserved and offers visitors a great insight into the history of this vital stronghold.
Battle Abbey and Battlefield is the site on which the decisive Battle of Hastings took place in October 1066. It now holds the ruins of the Norman abbey built shortly after the battle, as well as a modern visitor centre detailing the site’s significant place in history.
The Battle of Hastings in 1066 was one of Britain’s most important historical events, following which William, Duke of Normandy – largely known as William the Conqueror – was crowned King of England.
In 1090, Pope Alexander II ordered the Normans to do penance for all the lives taken during their conquest of England, following which William vowed to build an abbey to commemorate the fallen dead.
Today Battle Abbey is managed by English Heritage and features a museum exploring William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings, the events that led up to it, and its aftermath.
High Bridge in Lincoln, England, is a medieval bridge that carries the High Street across the River Witham. It is the oldest bridge in the United Kingdom still to have buildings on it, and having stood since the 12th century, today is a Grade I listed building and scheduled monument.
High Bridge was originally built in 1160 AD with a bridge chapel on the side, dedicated to the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in 1235 although later removed in 1762. Bridge chapels were commonly-used medieval sanctuaries for travellers, although few remain in England today. The bridge saw the addition of its characteristic timber-framed shops from around 1550, similar in style to London Bridge.
Today, the medieval stone arched bridge continues to cross the River Witham, one of only 3 remaining bridges with buildings on it (the others are Pulteney Bridge in Bath and Frome Bridge in Somerset).