Medieval buildings

Detail of Woolpit

For many, 1066 is the date when the Middle Ages began. Centuries of castles, cathedrals and churches followed, busy with chivalry, the Crusades and crop-rotation, all ending some time around 1500.

This, of course, is an over-simplification, just as the term Middle Ages itself is. For a long time, the civilisations of the Romans and the Renaissance were admired; everything in between – the ages in the middle - was regarded as inferior, a period of decline, disease and instability. Only with the Victorians was there some attempt to reconsider these centuries. They, like us, were transfixed by the imaginative leaps of medieval buildings and their intense spirituality.

Certain themes dominate medieval architecture. First, the church was central to everyday life. Usually the most impressive building in the neighbourhood was the parish church, and the finest buildings created were the great stone cathedrals. Secondly, society was strictly ordered. For most of the Middle Ages, the hierarchy of the Feudal System dominated: the majority were poor peasants living in simple dwellings that have long disappeared. A few, the lords and clergy, were rich. Their castles, manor houses, monasteries and colleges by comparison were splendid constructions, and have survived in some form. Thirdly, although technology was limited, building methods and styles did evolve. Throughout the Gothic style dominated, but in a myriad of forms.

Extracts from the exhibition

Ely cathedral

Detail of Ely Chapel

Wonder at the magnificent Gothic glory of Ely Cathedral and its precincts.

Castle Hedingham

Detail of Hedingham Keep

Encounter stern stone castles such as Castle Hedingham and Castle Rising.


Detail of Lavenham door

Discover the delights of the half-timbered town of Lavenham, Suffolk.

Medieval parish churches

Detail of Wymondham roof

Marvel at the wealth of medieval parish churches in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Oxburgh Hall

Detail of unidentified medieval house

Enter the priviliged courtyards of late medieval moated manor houses, including Oxburgh Hall.

Cambridge University

Kings college

View some splendid corners of Cambridge University.

About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

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