Great Mistakes in English Medieval architecture

One of the great things about medieval art and architecture is that people just went in and did things. They didn’t build models and scale them up, building great cathedrals and abbeys was a learning process as much as anything else. This means many of these apparently perfect aspirations to the Heavenly Jerusalem have some often quite comical mistakes, corrections and bodge-jobs that once you see, you can’t unnotice. There do seem to be a few more of them in English architecture than anywhere else, that makes it all the more fun to study…


Selby Abbey, nave, north arcade, early twelfth century

Selby Abbey, nave, north arcade, early twelfth century



Ok even I know arches don’t look like that

Just a bit of settlement abbot, nothing to worry about

I don’t know why we even bother sometimes






Canterbury Cathedral, south-east transept, south wall, triforium, early 1180s

Canterbury Cathedral, north-east transept, west wall, triforium, early 1180s

Uhh, master William, we’ve had a small problem in the triforium, some guy springed the arch at the wrong pitch and oh god it looks ridiculous

Naw, leave it, yeah

Seriously? William of Sens had us redo loads of things because they were not up to s-

Look, I’m going to get this thing finished on time or my name isn’t WILLIAM THE ENGLISHMAN






Pershore Abbey, arch to Lady Chapel, c.1220

Pershore Abbey, arch to Lady Chapel, c.1220

Uhh, we don’t need a vaulting shaft there

Oh, whoops


I’ll just, like, cover it up with some leaves, no one will notice

Good job

Should I do the same to the arch on the other side


So it matches?

What on Earth for


Salisbury Cathedral, north-east transept, c.1230s

Umm, what is going on up there

Going on where

That arch that springs from that last window and goes nowhere

Oh sorry yeah that’s to do with the original Norman plan nothing we could do about it

This is a virgin site, you can’t pull the old “Normans did it” with us here

Look do you want to build this Cathedral yourselves


Well shut up then


Durham, eastern transept of the Nine Altars, begun 1242, probably vaulted in late 1250s, possibly into 1280s

Durham Cathedral, eastern transept of the Nine Altars, begun 1242, probably vaulted in late 1250s, possibly into 1280s

I’ll come clean prior, when we measured up that copy of the eastern transept at Fountains Abbey for you, we didn’t take into account that your church is kind of a completely different width

Is this going to be a problem

Well when we put the vault on there might be a teensy teensy mistake

Is anyone going to notice

We’ll carve a ring of really nice angels to cover it up

Ah, distracting surface ornament, good job




Westminster Abbey, presbytery, 1250s

Westminster Abbey, presbytery, 1250s

Master Henry, we have a problem

What have you fools done now

Some guy has used a different sized diaper to everyone else on the presbytery spandrels

Mon dieu

You don’t really notice it though

Yeah, I suppose we’ll get away with it

You don’t think the king will notice

Oh no way, he’ll look at this bit like, once. Three times, tops

Okay good to know

This never happened in Rheims


Wells Cathedral, nave 1170s, strainer arch 1338-48

Wells Cathedral, nave 1170s, strainer arch 1338-48

So Mr Joy, you say our tower is totally dodgy and might fall down, what is your solution

An enormous angry owl


Yes, three of them. Three angry owls, one under each crossing arch

Are you serious it will look ridiculous

Have you got a better idea

Okay, angry owls it is




Since this has gone viral I think it’s worth saying that the pictures are taken by me except Selby which is from, and Durham (where photography is not allowed, leading to it being very hard to find pictures of online, so I’m lucky I found one at all) which was taken by Flickr user Ninesergeants Wells is taken from the Cathedral website (I’m so bad at taking the one straight-down-the-nave picture which is the only shot most people take!)

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