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Pre-Roman, Iron Age architecture is best observed in impressive hillforts such as at Maidenhead and in Scottish brochs . The Roman invasion began in Kent; Richborough Castle was part of the Roman system of coastal defences, a series of forts in the southeast under the control of the “Count of the Saxon Shore”. Their capital was St Albans, linked by military roads to other major settlements in Bath, Chester, Lincoln and York. London was a trading post near a river crossing on the Thames.

Examples of domestic Roman architecture in Britain are the theatre at St Albans and the ruined villas at Chedworth, Fishbourne, Bignor and Brading with their mosaics.

Their greatest military enterprise was Hadrian’s Wall , a defensive wall reinforced by military camps stretching from Wallsend on the Tyne to Bowness on the Solway Firth (73mi/117 km) to guard the northern boundary of the Empire.


Few buildings survive from this period, AD c 650 to the Norman Conquest. Much Saxon work, in timber, was destroyed in Viking raids. All Saints, Brixworth (c 680) in Northamptonshire makes use of Roman brick and the apse was surrounded by an external ring-crypt, a feature first found in St Peter’s in Rome (c 590). All Saints, at Earl’s Barton nearby, has a late Saxon tower. Saxon crypts survive at Hexham, Repton and Ripon .

Romanesque (Norman)

These bold, massive buildings continued to be erected until after the death of Henry II in 1189 and nowhere else in Europe is there such a richness or variation of Norman work, nor such an abundance of surviving examples. In English cathedrals, the naves tend to be much longer than on the Continent, for example Ely (13 bays) and Norwich (14); the eastern end was usually shorter. Durham Cathedral , begun in 1093, where the whole interior is one Romanesque scheme, is a fine example of Norman work in Britain, though externally only the lower parts of the tower and nave and the choir show true Romanesque work. Its stone vaulting, completed in 1133, survives in its original form. Southwell Minster has a west front c 1130, with later Perpendicular windows. The eastern end of Norwich cathedral is tri-apsidal. Its spire and clerestory are later Gothic, but the remainder is Norman. Rochester, Gloucester, Peterborough, Lincoln, Exeter, Hereford, St Albans, and the abbey churches of Tewkesbury and Waltham , are all part of England’s heritage of Norman work. Every county boasts many parish churches with a Norman nave or tower, west doorway, or south porch or chancel arch. Iffley Church , Oxfordshire, west front (c 1170), St Mary and St David, Kilpeck , Herefordshire (c 1140) with Scandinavian influence in the carving, and St Nicholas, Barfreston , Kent, are just some of the hundreds well worth visiting. Most secular buildings are fortifications. The White Tower , the keep of the Tower of London, was the first work (1080) of William the Conqueror; it had four storeys (over 90ft/30m high), massive walls (over 20ft/6m thick at the base) and small well-protected openings. Rochester Castle c 1130, though ruined, gives an impression of living conditions, with passages, garderobes and bedchambers in the thickness (12ft/3.5m) of the walls. Chepstow C­astle (1067) is one of the earliest secular stone buildings in Britain.


The style evolved in northern France; the Abbey of St Denis outside Paris is the earliest example. Gothic designs resulted in larger and higher buildings, flooded with light. Heavy columns were replaced by slimmer clustered column shafts; towers became taller and more slender.

In England Gothic architecture remained in use much longer than elsewhere in Europe, as it evolved through four distinct phases and retained its distinctive English characteristics.

Transitional (1145-89)

Transitional buildings have both pointed and round arches, especially in windows and vaults. Ripon Cathedral (1181) is a good example but the most outstanding is the choir of Canterbury Cathedral.

Early English (C 1190-1307)

Distinctive features are the ribbed vaults, narrow pointed arches and lancet windows. Salisbury Cathedral , built, apart from tower and spire, between 1220 and 1258, is the only English cathedral to have been built virtually in one operation, hence in a single style. See also Wells , the façades of Peterborough and Ripon , much of Lichfield , and the Abbeys of Tintern and Fountains , and Bolton Priory .

Decorated (C 1280-1377)

Ely Cathedral, with its octagon and lantern (1323-30), was one of the early experiments in new spatial form and lighting. Other examples include the west façades of Exeter and York .


The last – and longest – phase of Gothic architecture in Britain is uniquely English in style. There is an emphasis on vertical lines but the principal features are panelled decoration all over the building, an increase in window area and the consequent development – very much later than in France – of the flying buttress. Fan-vault roofing, a peculiarly English design, can best be seen in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (1146-1515), Eton College Chapel (1441) and St George’s Chapel, Windsor (1475-1509).

Contemporary with the fan-vault, and equally English, was the development of the timber roof . Tie and collar designs from the 13C and 14C developed into more complex 15C and 16C hammerbeam roofs over churches and guildhalls, of which Westminster Hall (Hugh Herland, c 1395) is an example. Others are the Great Hall at Hampton Court (1535) and Rufford Old Hall, near Ormskirk, Lancashire (1505). England also has a wealth of medieval timber-framed houses, built in areas where stone was scarce – Rufford Old Hall , the Guildhall at Lavenham and the Feathers Hotel in Ludlow.


This period began with the accession of Henry VII in 1485 and covers the transition from Gothic to Classicism. Tudor Gothic, both ecclesiastical and secular, can be seen in Bath Abbey and the brick-built Hampton Court Palace.

From 1550 to 1620 building was largely domestic, for a thriving middle class and a wealthy aristocracy. Longleat House (1550-80) in Wiltshire, Montacute House (1588-1601) in Somerset, and Bess of Hardwick’s Hardwick Hall (1591-97) in Derbyshire are outstanding examples. The courtyard layout of medieval days was abandoned for the E or H shaped plan, a central rectangular block with projecting wings. The Long Gallery – used for exercise on winter days – became a feature of all the great houses of the Elizabethan period.

Half-timbered houses were built in areas where stone was scarce – Little Moreton Hall (1559) in Cheshire and Speke Hall , near Liverpool, begun in 1490 and still being added to in 1612. The staircase began to assume an importance in the design of Elizabethan houses and by Jacobean times had become, in many houses, the focus of the whole interior – Ham, Hatfield, Knole and Audley End.

The architectural ideas of the Renaissance were brought to England by Inigo Jones (1573-1652). His two most outstanding public buildings are the Banqueting Hall (1619-22) in London and the Queen’s House (1616-35) in Greenwich.

He also rebuilt part of Wilton House (1647-53) in Wiltshire, where his adherence to Classical proportions is evident in the “double cube” room. Architects in England who had never seen an ancient Classical building based their work on “Pattern Books” published by Renaissance designers.

Tudor Forts

In 1538, faced with the threat of invasion to re-establish the Pope’s authority, Henry VIII began to construct a chain of forts and batteries to prevent an enemy invasion fleet from making use of the principal anchorages, landing places and ports.

The first forts built in 1539-40 – Deal, Walmer and Dover in Kent, Calshot and Hurst, overlooking Southampton Water and The Solent, and St Mawes and Pendennis in Cornwall – were squat with thick walls and rounded parapets. In most a central circular keep was surrounded by lower round bastions or enclosed by a circular curtain wall. They were designed to be defended by cannon mounted on carriages and sited on several tiers of platforms to compensate for the limited vertical traverse of each cannon. Lateral traverse was limited only by the splay of the gun ports.


Though Classicism was introduced by Inigo Jones, it was in the reign of Charles I (1625-49) that the style really began to make its mark on the English scene. The dominant figure was Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). After the Great Fire of London, he was responsible for 53 churches and the new St Paul’s Cathedral , as well as the Royal Naval College at Greenwich and a new wing for Hampton Court Palace, which harmonises well with the Tudor brickwork. The Sheldonian Theatre (1669) at Oxford, and the Library of Trinity College , Cambridge (1676-84) are two of his best-known works outside London.

Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), soldier and playwright, who turned architect in 1699, was one of the chief exponents of the Baroque in England; his masterpieces, produced in collaboration with Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), are Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace and Seaton Delaval . Hawksmoor, under a commission of 1711, designed six London churches. St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London survives to show his style.

Baroque architecture brought fantasy and movement to the classical order but found little favour in England. It was replaced in the 1720s with ­ Palladianism , also a foreign “implant” but one with a symmetry which was eagerly adapted by architects such as Colen Campbell (Houghton Hall) and William Kent (Holkham Hall) . Palladian houses were set carefully in landscaped parks – many by LancelotCapability “Brown – a far cry from the formality of French and Italian gardens of the period. He designed over 170 parks, remodeling the great estate parks of the English gentry to resemble an ordered version of nature.

Robert Adam (1728-92), son of a Scottish architect, returned from the Grand Tour, having absorbed the principles of ancient architecture and learnt much neoclassical theory. He and his brothers set up in practice in London in 1758, introducing a lighter, more decorative style than the Palladian work then in vogue. Most of Adam’s buildings are domestic and he also had great flair as an interior designer.

19C and 20C Architecture

The 19C was predominantly an age of stylistic revivals. The Industrial Revolution and the movement of people into towns stimulated the construction of factories and mills and housing. Iron and glass played a part in the mass-production of these buildings. At first individual craftsmanship was evident in mouldings, decoration and furniture but by 1900 much of this had vanished.

John Nash (1752-1835), builder of many terraces round Regent’s Park and down Regent Street in London, also designed the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Sir John Soane (1753-1837), probably the last of the original designers, is represented by his house at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, now the Sir John Soane Museum.

From 1840 the trend was towards the Gothic revival which reached its height between 1855 and 1885. Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) rebuilt the Palace of Westminster after the 1834 fire. Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) designed the Natural History Museum and built Manchester Town Hall.

The 19C was also the Railway Age. Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), Chief Engineer to the Great Western Railway in 1833, also designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Thomas Telford (1757-1834) built roads, bridges and canals throughout the country. He was responsible for the London-Holyhead road and for the bridge (1826), which carries it over the Menai Strait. In the 20C Art Nouveau had little influence on architecture but there was passing interest in interior decoration, fabrics and stained glass in the new style. Reinforced concrete was the main structural development.

Between the Wars, the outstanding figure was Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), who adapted Classicism to the needs of the day, in civic and housing design as well as ecclesiastical. His was the genius behind New Delhi in India and he also designed the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and Hampstead Garden Suburb in London. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960), grandson of Sir George, the 19C architect, built the last great cathedral in the Gothic style, the red sandstone Anglican Cathedral of Liverpool. He also set the pattern for power stations with his 1929 design for Battersea Power Station .

”Urban planning” was not a 20C idea. Haussmann re-designed much of Paris in the 1860s and the Italian Renaissance painter Martini has left us his picture, painted in 1475, of The Ideal City. In Britain, Welwyn Garden City , built near St Albans in 1920, was the first of the New Towns, an extension of the idea of the Garden Suburb. The planned layout of streets, cul-de-sacs and closes, romantically named and lined with semi-detached and detached houses, was copied all over the country after the 1939-45 war, in an attempt to check the “urban sprawl” in London, Lancashire, the Clyde Valley and South Wales. The 1946 New Towns Act provided for 28 such New Towns; Harlow New Town by Gibberd was built in 1947, Cumbernauld , near Glasgow, in the 1950s and Milton Keynes in rural Buckinghamshire in the 1970s. As costs escalated and concern grew over the decay of city centres the building of complete new towns was halted. Pedestrian zones and the banishing of traffic have helped to conserve both the fabric and spirit of established town and city centres. Poundbury village in Dorchester, Dorset (1993-94), which stresses the importance of architecture on a human scale and is sponsored by the Prince of Wales, represents the latest trend in urban planning.

Outstanding among examples of 20C architecture is Sir Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral (1956-62), remarkable in itself and in the way it blends with the older buildings around it. The imaginative circular design of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (consecrated 1967) was the work of Sir Frederick Gibberd . In the secular sphere, education – established and new universities – and the arts provided good opportunities for pioneering work: Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, East Anglia, Norman Foster 1991; Downing College library, Cambridge, Quinlan Terry 1987; St John College Garden Quad, Oxford, 1993.

Custom-built galleries were designed for the Sainsbury Collection (1970s) at Norwich (Norman Foster), Burrell’s donation in Glasgow (B Gasson) and the Tate Gallery at St Ives (1993, Evans and Shalev).

Other areas which have provided great scope for exciting modern architecture over the last few years are sports venues – the new Wembley Stadium and Lord’s Cricket Ground stand (Michael Hopkins); opera houses – Glyndebourne and Covent Garden, Royal Opera House refurbishment and extension; London office developments – Lloyd’s Building, Canary Wharf, Broadgate, The Ark, Swiss Re Tower (“The Gherkin”) and City Hall. Major commissions (bridges, community and other projects) approved by the Millennium Commission heralded an explosion of original design for the turn of the century. Many of these are now popular visitor attractions: the Eden Project, Cornwall; Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh; the Great Glasshouse at the National Botanic Garden of Wales; in Manchester, The Lowry, The Imperial War Museum of the North and Urbis, ; in Glasgow the Glasgow Science Centre and The Armadillo. All break new ground in structural and materials technology.

The most controversial projects have been the reviled Millennium Dome, London, and the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh.

The Parliament building was finally completed in 2004, three years late and ten times over-budget. The Dome was a commercial failure for many years and only recently (under its new guise as the O2 Arena) has found success as a concert venue.

The regeneration of derelict industrial sites and obsolete docks has met with considerable success in Liverpool, Cardiff and particularly the massive London Dockland scheme of the 1990s (still ongoing).

The conservation and re-use of existing industrial buildings is most apparent in two huge and stunning art galleries at opposite ends of the country: Tate Modern, in London (formerly a power station): the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, in Gateshead (formerly a flour mill).

Parks and Gardens

A keen appreciation of country life and the pleasures of nature goes back to the Middle Ages when Royal Forests covered much of the land and every person of consequence had a deer park. It was in the 18C, however, that the face of lowland Britain was transformed in pursuit of the aesthetic ideals of the country’s “greatest original contribution to the arts”, the English Landscape Movement . Ruthlessly sweeping away the grand avenues, parterres and topiary of the previous century, the grandees and lesser gentry of the Georgian age, aided by professionals like Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-83) and Humphry Repton (1752-1818), swept away the boundaries separating house, garden and surrounding countryside to make ambitious compositions fusing buildings and statuary, lawns and woodland, lakes and rivers into a picturesque vision of idealised nature. The movement embraced the Ideal Theory of Art, where everyday objects were seen as imperfect copies of universal Ideas, for the artist to perfect. As well as their grander creations (Blenheim, Stourhead), there are many lesser achievements in the field of landscape beautification, which has bequeathed a national passion for landscaping and horticulture.

Britain has a wonderful heritage of gardens, many of which are open to visitors. Owing to the vagaries of the climate, particularly the closeness of the Gulf Stream, conditions have proved favourable to many of the plant collections brought back from all over the world, particularly in the 18C and 19C. The chief name in garden design in the late 19C and early 20C was Gertrude Jekyll (Knebworth and Broughton Castle), who often worked in collaboration with the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Plant trials and serious horticultural study are conducted at Kew Gardens in London, at Wisley in Surrey, the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society, at Harlow Carr and the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh (17C) and Glasgow. A few of the earliest medicinal gardens are still in existence, such as the Botanic Gardens (1621) in Oxford and the Chelsea Physic Garden (1673) in London.

A Museum of Garden History occupies Lambeth parish church and graveyard, where John Tradescant, gardener to King Charles I, is buried. Examples of the early knot garden have been created here and at Hampton Court. Formal gardens with geometric layout can be seen at Hampton Court, Ham House and Pitmedden.

The most prevalent style is the famous English Landscape, promoted by Capability Brown and Humphry Repton – Stourhead and Castle Howard.

The art of topiary is practised at Levens Hall and Earlshall in Scotland. The vogue for follies, usually an artificial ruin at the end of a vista, produced Studley Royal which achieves its climax with a view of the ruins of Fountains Abbey.

Less contrived gardens incorporate the natural features of the site, such as ­ Glendurgan , which occupies a deep combe on the Cornish coast.

Gardens range from the most southerly, Tresco Abbey Gardens in the Scilly Isles, created and maintained since 1834 by successive generations of the same family, to the most northerly, Inverewe in Wester Ross, where, despite the northern latitude, the gardens are frost-free, owing to the warm North Atlantic Drift. Sissinghurst and Crathes Castle are examples of themed gardens, where the different enclosures are distinguished by colour, season or plant species.

Vernacular Architecture

From the end of the medieval period, relative peace meant that security was no longer paramount and the fortified castle gave way to the rural residence designed as a setting for artistic patronage, culture, the social round, field sports and farm management; each generation of the rich and powerful seeking to establish or consolidate its status by building or rebuilding in accord with architectural fashion.

It is however the everyday architecture of cottage, farmhouse and barn that expresses most strongly the individuality of particular places. The range of materials used is enormous, Every type of stone has been quarried and shaped, from the most intractable of Scottish and Cornish granites to the crumbling chalk of the south. Limestones are often exploited to wonderful effect, as in the Cotswolds or the Yorkshire Wolds . Where stone is lacking, timber is used as in the cruck-built cottages of Herefordshire and the elaborate half-timbered houses of much of the Midlands, or as “weather-boarding” cladding in the southeast. In the claylands, most villages once had their own brickfield, producing distinctive tiles as well as bricks, while reedbeds provided thatch for roofing.

Building forms vary too: from the solid timber-frame of a Kentish Tudor house to the humble one-roomed dwelling of a crofter in northwest Scotland.

Settlement patterns are also almost infinitely varied; a few cottages and farms may be loosely grouped to form a hamlet; elsewhere, true villages may predominate, street villages accompanying a road for part of its way, others cluster sociably around the green.


The idea of erecting statues, in stone and bronze, introduced largely by the Romans, fell into disuse in Britain in the Dark Ages. Gradually, however, pagan influences and Celtic scroll-work were put to Christian service, in standing crosses and in church decoration. Massive carving in Norman churches gave way to glorious tracery, windows, ribs and vaults in Early English and Perpendicular churches and cathedrals, complemented by carved wooden misericords, bench ends, altar screens and font covers. Impressive statuary such as that on the west front of Wells Cathedral has survived Reformation and Puritan depredations, to give an idea of the skills of early craftsmen.

Until the early 18C, statuary tended to be confined to tombs and memorials. The fashion for portrait busts was introduced by those who made the “Grand Tour” of Europe.

First Classical and then Baroque memorials began to grace both cathedrals and churches in the flowering of British sculpture which took place between 1720 and 1840. In the Victorian age in many towns and cities statues were erected to the memory of industrialists and benefactors, municipal worthies and military heroes. There are also some very fine sculpted memorials executed in commemoration of those who died in battle. In the 20C British sculpture has been enlivened by the sometimes controversial works of Jacob Epstein and also of Henry Moore , whose technique of “natural carving” allowed the grain and shape of the material to dictate the final form. Barbara Hepworth , who settled in St Ives in 1943, Reg Butler and Kenneth Armitage are among other famous modern sculptors.

Monumental sculptures by Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, Frank Dobson, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Eduardo Paolozzi among others set the standard for public art in cities, by the sea and in the countryside. Spectacular modern schemes – Broadgate in London, Herne Bay Sculpture Park, Brighton seafront, sculpture at Goodwood near Chichester, Stour Valley Art Project, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Gateshead Riverside Sculpture Park, the Northern Arts Project, Glenrothes in Scotland – have inspired major artists to create large-scale outdoor sculptures and promote interest in art in a wider public.

On the contemporary scene the trend is a break with the past as many artists (Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Richard Deacon, Cornelia Parker, Tracey Emin, Alison Wilding, Stephen Hughes, Tony Cragg, Rachel Whiteread among others) invent new idioms which are sometimes provocative. The Turner Prize awarded by the Tate Gallery is often controversial. Installations engaging the viewer’s preconceptions are increasingly popular.


Early Art

The Celtic peoples loved rhythm and curvilinear scroll patterns, which they used in jewellery and later in manuscripts. The Romans brought their wall paintings and mosaics and both later inspired the didactic medieval church murals, which are some of Britain’s earliest paintings. Surviving painting from the Saxon and medieval periods consists largely of exquisite work on illuminated manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels from Holy Island, though the drawings of Matthew Paris are notable departures from this stylised work. One of the earliest surviving English paintings is the Wilton Diptych (c. 1400), now in the National Gallery.


British artists never enjoyed that scale of patronage given to European artists by absolute monarchs and the Papacy. Much early portraiture, other than the Holbein pictures of Henry VIII and his court, tend to be flat and stiff but the art of the miniature flourished at the court of Elizabeth, where Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver created their masterpieces, capturing both the likeness and something of the spirit of the sitters.

The Dutchman Sir Anthony van Dyck , knighted by Charles I, enjoyed his patronage and was the first to record the atmosphere of the Stuart Court, in full size paintings, before the Civil War. Canaletto, a Venetian, enjoyed some aristocratic support in the 1740s, as did Sir Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller, both of German origin, who worked in England for long enough to be considered founders of the English portrait painting school. William Hogarth, English-born and bred, famous for his vivid commentaries on the life of his day, started the idea of public exhibitions of painting, leading ultimately to the founding in 1768 of the Royal Academy . Sir Joshua Reynolds, its first President, and his contemporary, Thomas Gainsborough, raised the status of English painting, especially portraiture, though it was still much influenced by Dutch and Italian example. Richard Wilson, a founder of the Royal Academy, was much inspired by the French masters, Claude and Poussin, and founded the English school of landscape painting, a fashion which developed in England and spread to include marine scenes as well as country houses and estates.

19C trends

The visionary, William Blake , heralded the dawn of English Romanticism. Portraiture by Sir Thomas Lawrence and the works of Sir Henry Raeburn in Scotland added Romanticism to the traditions of Reynolds.

John Crome founded the Norwich School in 1803, a regional treatment of landscape painting which was uniquely English. It was continued after his death by John Sell Cotman. John Constable and Joseph MW Turner carried this tradition and its studies of the effects of ever-changing light into the 19C. From 1840 to 1850 Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s group, the Pre-Raphaelites and Sir Edward Burne-Jones , made a short-lived return to primitive values and religious and moral subjects. Their designs inspired Art Nouveau, best expressed in England by the work of William Morris and Aubrey Beardsley.

Alfred Sisley, born in Paris of English parents, was an Impressionist whose sense of colour and tone owed much to the founder of the movement, Claude Monet, with whom he painted en plein air in France. The Camden Town Group , around Walter Sickert, returned to the realism of the Post-Impressionists, whose work Roger Fry had exhibited in 1911 and the next 20 years saw many short-lived and loose “movements” such as the Bloomsbury Group . Augustus John was known for his fashionable portraits in an almost Impressionist style.


Post-war artists include Paul Nash (landscapes infused with symbolism); Graham Sutherland , painter of religious themes, landscapes and portraits; Sir Stanley Spencer who painted Biblical scenes in familiar British settings.

In the 1950s Ben Nicholson was the major abstract artist. The optimistic 1960s brought Pop Art: Peter Blake, David Hockney, Bridget Riley (“op art”). The portraits and figures of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud show a darker, more pessimistic outlook.

Contemporary artists who have won acclaim include Gilbert and George, Paula Rego, Beryl Cooke, Ken Currie, Adrian Wizniewski, Stephen Conroy, Peter Howson, Lisa Milroy, Richard Wentworth, Julian Opie, Damien Hirst among others.

The Goldsmith College of Art and the Glasgow School of Art are two of the well-known educational establishments which nurture young talent.

Hirst himself was partially responsible for founding The Young British Art group (Angela Bulloch, Michael Landy, Gary Hume etc), the country’s most recent art phenomenon. Their work is still championed by the Saatchi Gallery, though many YBAs have now been assimilated into the mainstream.


From polyphony to instrumental composition

As with painting and sculpture, early and medieval English music was largely inspired by religion. The Chapel Royal – an institution, not a building – has fostered English music since 1135. ­ Thomas Tallis (c 1505-85), organist at Waltham Abbey near London (until it was dissolved) and later at Queen Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal, can be credited with beginning the particularly rich tradition of church music for which England is famous. He arranged the harmony for the plainsong responses of Merbecke’s English church service (Festal Responses in four and five parts) which are still widely in use and also arranged a setting of the Canticles in Dorian Mode, composed numerous anthems, Latin mass settings, lamentations and motets, of which his most famous is the magnificent Spem in Alium for forty voices, and of course his equally famous Canon (c 1567). Together with William Byrd (1542/3-1623), himself a prolific composer of high quality church music with whom Tallis was joint organist at the Chapel Royal, he was granted a monopoly on music printing in England (1575).

From the end of the 16C to c. 1630, m­adrigals , originally an Italian form, with amorous or satirical themes, were being produced in large numbers by English composers, such as Byrd and John Dowland (1562-1626), a talented lute player. Folk music dating back much further accompanied the country dance, which survives today as the Morris Dance . Composers such as Byrd and Thomas Morley (1557-1602), who wrote settings for several of Shakespeare’s plays, spread music into the theatre. John Bull (1562-1628), a skilled performer and composer for the virginals, ranks for many as one of the founders of the English keyboard repertoire. He is also sometimes linked with the original tune for God Save The Queen . Ben Jonson (1573-1637) and Henry Lawes (1596-1662) among others were leading exponents of the masque , which became popular in the 17C, combining music, dance and pageantry.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), organist of the Chapel Royal under James I and one of the finest keyboard players of his day, wrote quantities of superb church music, madrigals and music for viols and virginals. Henry Purcell (1659-95), considered the greatest British composer of his generation (and by some of all time), wrote much splendid church music, stage music (opera Dido and Æneas ), music for State occasions and harpsichord and chamber music.

Music applied to drama

Chamber music (music not intended for church, theatre or public concert room) truly came into its own in the 18C, which also saw great strides taken in the development of English opera and the emergence of a new form, the oratorio , under the German-English composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), perhaps its greatest exponent. His vast output included more than 40 operas, 20 or so oratorios, cantatas, sacred music, and numerous orchestral, choral and instrumental works. In 1719-28 the Royal Academy of Music was founded as an operatic organisation linked with Handel. The following century (1822) it became an educational institution, later to be joined by the Royal College of Music (1883) and the Royal School of Church Music (1927).

Post-Romanticism and the Modern Age

The composer Thomas Arne (1710-78) set to music the words of James Thomson, Rule Britannia, in a masque for Alfred, Prince of Wales in 1740. The late 18C to early 19C was rather a fallow period for Britain in terms of musical composition, although the Romantic movement that swept through Europe made itself felt in other arts such as literature (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott), and Romantic song cycles were fashionable with the British public in the 19C.

The next British composer of note was Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), the first to win international acclaim in almost 200 years. His love of the English countryside (he lived near the Malvern Hills) shaped his music, which is infused with an Englishness that captures the spirit of a nation in its heyday as a world power. Works such as The Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius placed him on the world stage, and his many orchestral works exhibit the composer’s masterly orchestration (Symphonies in A flat and E flat, Cello Concerto). Frederick Delius (1862-1934), championed by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, composed orchestral variations, rhapsodies, concerti and a variety of other orchestral and choral works stamped with his very individual, chromatic approach to harmony. The compositions of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) were influenced by his study of English folk songs and Tudor church music; throughout his life he took an active interest in popular movements in music. Gustav Holst (1874-1934), prevented from becoming a concert pianist by neuritis in his hand, studied music at the Royal College of Music under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), an Irish composer of church music and choral works. Holst, an ardent socialist, influenced by his love of the works of Grieg and Wagner as well as a certain innate mysticism, produced his most famous work, the seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets , in 1914-16.

Sir William Walton (1902-83) rose to fame with his instrumental settings of poems by Edith Sitwell ( Façade , 1923) and went on to compose symphonies, concerti, opera, the Biblical cantata Belshazzar’s Feast and film music (Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III ). Sir Michael Tippett (1905-98) won recognition with his oratorio A Child of Our Time, reflecting the unrest of the 1930s and 1940s, and went on to produce a rich and varied output, including operas (The Midsummer Marriage, King Priam) , symphonies and other orchestral works in which he exhibits formidable powers of imagination and invention, combining inspiration from earlier sources such as Purcell with his interest in popular modern music such as blues and jazz.

Sir Benjamin Britten (1913-76) studied under John Ireland (1879-1962) at the Royal College of Music and after a couple of years in the USA returned to England where he produced mainly vocal or choral works (one exception being his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, or Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) , notably the operas Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Ceremony of Carols and the immensely moving War Requiem. John Tavener (b. 1944), whose haunting Song for Athene ended the funeral service of Diana, Princess of Wales, at Westminster Abbey in September 1997, draws the inspiration for his predominantly religious music from his Russian Orthodox faith.

Still popular since their inception by Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944) in 1895 are the Promenade Concerts, which are held at the Royal Albert Hall every summer (mid-July to mid-September) . The chorus Jerusalem sung as an unofficial anthem at the end of each season of Promenade concerts is perhaps the best known work of Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918). Conductors and composers such as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Sir Neville Mariner, Sir John Eliot Gardner, Sir Colin Davis, Sir Simon Rattle, Christopher Hogwood and Andrew Davies ensure the continuation of healthy and creative British music.

Eisteddfods in Wales and Mods in Scotland carry on a tradition of the Celtic bards. Festivals, such as the Three Choirs at Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester Cathedrals and – in completely different spheres – opera productions at Glyndebourne and the English National Opera contribute to the aim of maintaining public interest in live classical music. However, Glyndebourne remains the reserve of the rich, while opera is usually targeted at the wealthy middle and upper classes.


On a lighter note, the meeting in 1875 of Sir William Gilbert (1836-1911) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) produced an enduring and well-loved English musical tradition in the form of “Gilbert and Sullivan” operas, staged by Richard D’Oyly Carte. Musical comedy, an English development of the European operetta, was born in the 1890s at the Gaiety Theatre in London, with shows like The Gaiety Girl .

Another typically British institution, the music hall , also became popular – variety entertainment with the audience being able to eat and drink while watching the performance. Two names, Ivor Novello (1893-1951) and Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973), will always be associated with British musical comedy between the World Wars. The tradition of British musicals has since been continued most notably by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber (b. 1948).

Pop and Rock

British Pop Music began in the 1950s with early pioneers being Lonnie Donegan with his skiffle sound and a very youthful Cliff Richard doing his best to be the British Elvis Presley. It was the Beatles however who did more than any band to bring the new genre of “popular music” to the fore. Their first chart hit was in 1962 and they broke up in 1969. During that short but explosive period of incredible creativity, their influence on British and world pop and rock music was incalculable and reverberates around concert halls and in recording studios even today. They spawned a whole “Liverpool Sound” though the Beatles’ most famous contemporaries are the equally iconic Rolling Stones (from London), still touring and recording today. The 1960s closed to the sound of Black Sabbath , Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin – heavyweights, who were to rule the burgeoning rock music scene for much of the decade until the advent of punk rock in 1977, led most (in)famously by the Sex Pistols . The 1980s saw the dance and club scene take off and the rise of Manchester bands such as The Smiths , Stone Roses and Happy Mondays . The decade is best remembered for its frothy pop and pop-soul sounds however, typified by Wham (featuring George Michael), Culture Club (Boy George) and Simply Red . The 1990s was the era of Britpop, most famously Blur and Oasis ; both quintessentially English bands drawing heavily on 1960s influences. It was also the decade of “boy bands” ( Take That , Westlife , Blue ) and “girl bands” ( The Spice Girls , All Saints ) a vocals-only genre which continues to defy critical disdain and sells millions of albums well into the 21C. Since 2000 television talent shows such as Pop Idol and The X Factor have “manufactured” Britain’s cheesiest pop stars such as Will Young , Gareth Gates and Leona Lewis . Bands such as Coldplay and Radiohead maintain mainstream British rock. Dizzee ­Rascal leads the local hip-hop and ‘grime’ scene, while Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty are tabloid rehab favourites.


Middle Ages

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400), the first great English poet, was influential in the evolution of “standard” English from cruder medieval dialects. The language of the Canterbury Tales is consequently as recognisable to us today as are Chaucer’s vividly etched characters. William Langland (c 1330-1400) in the Vision of Piers Plowman , and Sir Thomas Malory (d. 1471) in Le Morte D’Arthur also brought a new depth and expressiveness to literature.

The English Renaissance and the Elizabethan Age

The sonnet was introduced and blank verse became the regular measure of English dramatic and epic poetry. The supreme achievement of this dynamic, expansive period was in the theatre. Ambitious dramatic forms developed by the fiery Christopher Marlowe (1564-94) were perfected by the genius of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the greatest dramatist and poet of this or any age. His monumental 37 plays appealed to all classes. Ben Jonson (1572-1637) created the English comedy of humours.

Seventeenth Century

John Donne (1572-1631), courtier, soldier and latterly Dean of St Paul’s, was the most important of the Metaphysical poets whose “witty conceits” were concerned with the interaction between soul and body, sensuality and spirit. John Milton (1608-74), after Shakespeare arguably England’s greatest poet, was also a powerful pamphleteer for the Puritan cause. He overcame blindness and political disappointment to write his epic masterpiece Paradise Lost , concerning the Judeo-Christian story of the Fall of Man, in 1667.

Puritan control was responsible for closing the theatres for nearly 20 years until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Restoration drama primarily reflected the licentiousness of the Court by the use of broad satire, farce, wit and bawdy comedy.

In prose, the language of the Bible exerted a strong influence, most notably in the work of John Bunyan (1628-88) whose Pilgrim’s Progress was more widely read than any book in English except the Bible itself. The diaries of John Evelyn (1620-1706) and Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) detailed the minutiae of everyday life at the time.

Eighteenth Century

The early development of the novel is probably best exemplified in the work of Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). While his Journal of the Plague Year is a lively but primarily factual piece of journalism, Robinson Crusoe , though it utilises similar reporting techniques, is entirely fiction. Defoe’s style was imitated and developed by Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), Henry Fielding (1707-54) and Laurence Sterne (1713-68) .

The rise of the novel, the newspaper) and the expansion of a newly literate middle class were part of the Age of Reason. Alexander Pope (1688-1744), the finest satirical poet of the time, was matched in both poetry and prose by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), famous for the incisive political and social satire of Gulliver’s Travels . The era was dominated, however, by the influence of Samuel Johnson (1709-84), the subject of Boswell’s famous biography and author of the first English Dictionary in 1755.

Nineteenth Century

The French Revolution was a primary inspiration for the Romantic movement, which stressed intensity of emotion and freedom of expression. This rebellious spirit was epitomised in the life of Lord Byron (1788-1824) though perhaps a better representative of Romantic poetry is William Wordsworth (1770-1850), whose best poems reflect his belief that intense joy could arise from deep harmony with Nature. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) wrote more directly of the power of joy as a reforming influence, while the intense, lyrical verse of John Keats (1795-1821) stressed the power of beauty. Though lyricism, nature and the exotic continued to attract Victorian poets such as Robert Browning (1812-89), faith in joy and the senses waned and the verse of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1902) is noble but sombre.

The novel, meanwhile, had continued to develop in range and appeal from the carefully structured domestic comedies of Jane Austen (1775-1817) to the more popular, if less deep, historical novels of her contemporary, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Popular too were Scott’s Victorian successors, William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63), Anthony Trollope (1815-82) and, above all, Charles Dickens (1812-70), whose sentimental but funny and sometimes despairing vision of city life in the Industrial Revolution struck a sharp chord with the reading public. Mary Ann Evans (1819-80), under the pseudonym George Eliot, wrote realistic works about the problems of the provincial middle class. The Brontë sisters, Charlotte (1816-55) and Emily (1818-48), took inspiration from their upbringing on the wild moors of Yorkshire to write their respective masterpieces, Jane Eyre (1846) and Wuthering Heights (1847). Most important of the writers of the century is Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), whose novels express a passion for man’s tragic involvement in Nature and estrangement from it.

Influenced by the new drama in Europe, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) brought a new purpose and seriousness to the English theatre which had, for nearly two centuries, failed to find a clear direction. The witty comedies of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) were less profound but equally well crafted. They reflected the aims of the Decadent movement which stressed flagrantly amoral beauty – a direct reaction against Victorian moral earnestness.

Twentieth Century

The early modern masters of the novel – Henry James (1843-1916), Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) and EM Forster (1879-1970) – were still working in a recognisably Victorian tradition. The Dubliner James Joyce (1882-1941) used the stream- of-consciousness technique in the highly experimental Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939). This insistent excavation of personal experience is also found in the very different novels of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and of DH Lawrence (1885-1930) who challenged the taboos of class and sex, particularly in his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Concurrent with the serious “literary” novel, there developed a growing market for lighter fiction – entertainments – to serve the needs of an increasingly literate public; from the adventure novels of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) and the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) to the spy thrillers of John Le Carré and Len Deighton in our own time. George Orwell’s (1903-59) dark political novels (Animal Farm, 1984) condemned the evils of communism.

Throughout the century there have been a number of important and stylish writers – less iconoclastic than their more innovative peers – who have continued to work with more traditional subjects and themes. The novelists Aldous H­uxley (1894-1963), Evelyn Waugh (1903-66), and Graham Greene (1904-91) achieved considerable critical as well as commercial success, while Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) and JB P­riestley (1894-1984) triumphed equally as playwrights and novelists.

The novel has, in all its forms, become the dominant vehicle of literary expression in the modern age. Eminent contemporary writers range from Anthony Powell (A Dance to the Music of Time) ; Paul Scott (1920-78, The Raj Quartet, Staying On) ; Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers); Lawrence Durrell ( Alexandria Quartet (1957); William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954) and Rites of Passage (1980), studies of human behaviour; Iris Murdoch (1919-99; Under the Net; The Sea, The Sea) which deal with complex psychological issues; John Fowles’ haunting stories (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Magus) . Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook) , Muriel Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) , Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca, Jamaica Inn) and Olivia Manning (The Balkan Trilogy) are also distinguished authors.

Among the new generation of writers who have won acclaim are Martin Amis (London Fields, The Information), Julian Barnes (The History of the World in 10 1/2 chapters) , JG Ballard (The Empire of the Sun, Crash, Cocaine Nights) , Angela Carter (Wise Children, The Magic Toyshop) , AS Byatt (Possession) , Anita Brookner (Hotel du Lac) , Beryl Bainbridge (Every Man for Himself) , Jeanette Winterson (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) , Graham Swift (Last Orders) , Pat Barker (Regeneration Trilogy) , Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting).

J K Rowling almost single-handedly revived the children’s adventure story (in the process becoming richer than the Queen) and introduced a new generation of children to reading with her record-breaking Harry Potter series.

The English language tradition is enriched by writers from the Commonwealth and other countries who bring different perceptions: VS Naipaul, Caryl Phillips from the Carribean, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink, JM Coetzee, Ben Okri from Africa; Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, JG Ballard from Australia, Keri Hume from New Zealand, Salman Rushdie , Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy from the Indian sub-continent and Kazuo Ishiguro from Japan.

Poetry , comparatively speaking, is less widely read than in previous times. The Romantic decadence of the early 20C was swept aside by the modernist poets Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and TS Eliot (1888-1965) whose The Waste Land (1922) is a dense and highly literary meditation on the situation of modern man. Less dramatically modern but equally influential was the slightly earlier poetry of Thomas Hardy and WB Yeats (1865-1939). The poets of the First World War, particularly Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) and Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), voiced their horror of mass warfare. WH Auden (1907-73) led a prominent group of intellectual left-wing poets in the 1920s and the exuberant imagery and lyrical rhetoric of Dylan Thomas (1914-53) caught the public’s imagination. Only John Betjeman (1906-84), has achieved comparable popularity in recent times. Philip Larkin (1922-91) was the leading figure of the group known as the Movement; the cool tone and tight form of his poetry expressing his melancholy sensibilities was in reaction to the romantic excesses of the 1940s. Poet Laureate Ted Hughes (1930-98), known for his violent and symbolic nature poems, is one of the most influential contemporary poets alongside Tom Paulin, Andrew Motion, Roger McGough, Benjamin Zephaniah, Carol Ann Duffy, Wendy Cope, and Helen Dunmore.

The theatre of the first half of the century was dominated by well-crafted “traditional” plays and the sophisticated comedies of Noël Coward. In the 1950s The Theatre of the Absurd, which saw man as a helpless creature in a meaningless universe, was explored by the Irish writer Samuel Beckett (1906-89). Later in the decade, disillusionment with contemporary Britain was vented by John Osborne (1929-94) in his play Look Back In Anger. The pithy “comedies of menace” by Harold Pinter (1930-2008) and the socialist plays of writers such as Arnold Wesker (b. 1932) subsequently led to the development of a diverse and challenging contemporary theatre. Trenchant plays by Edward Bond, Peter Shaffer, Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare and Tom Stoppard are still stalwarts in the British theatre season with strong attendance.

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