Building the Cathedral

The magnificent building you see today was founded in 1079 and extensively remodelled over the next five centuries by successive bishops. Traces of many different periods and architectural styles remain.

The Cathedral was not built all at once. It’s a living handbook of the main phases of English church architecture from the 11thcentury until the early 16th century, when much of today’s building was complete.

Its importance as an illustration – and cradle – of successive developments cannot be overstated. As you walk round, you’ll find outstanding examples of different architectural styles, from Anglo-Norman to the late Gothic. All are superbly preserved.

Download a PDF of this historical plan showing the main phases of the building’s development

Crypt and transepts: 11th-century Norman (Romanesque)

Crypt and transepts: 11th-century Norman (Romanesque) In 1079, Bishop Walkelin begins building a new cathedral, a powerful symbol of Norman authority over a conquered Saxon people. The crypt and transepts give the best idea of how Walkelin’s cathedral looked inside. All other parts of the building have since been rebuilt or remodelled above pavement level.

Key architectural features

  • Low massive pillars with square block capitals
  • Heavy round arches
  • Groin vaulting without ribs or bosses
  • Narrow windows with rounded heads
  • Unpainted stonework with little decoration

Retrochoir: 13th-century Early English (Gothic 1)

In the early 1200s, Bishop Godfrey de Lucy creates a new retrochoir at the east end where pilgrims can congregate close to the shrine of the miracle-working St Swithun. It’s a superb illustration of all the features of the new gothic style of the period.

Key architectural features

  • Pillars with bell-shaped capitals
  • Pointed arches
  • Ribbed four-sectioned vaulting
  • Lancet windows with pointed heads
  • Trefoil wall arcading with quatrefoils in spandrels
  • Stiff-leaf foliage decoration

The presbytery: Early 14th-century Decorated Gothic (Gothic 2)

In the early 1300s, Bishop Henry Woodcock creates a new presbytery (where the altar stands at the heart of the building) to replace the original Norman Romanesque apse. The presbytery’s two great arches are supported on a magnificent feretory screen, one of the Cathedral’s gems and a masterpiece of the decorated style.

Key architectural features

  • Pillars with bell capitals covered with foliage
  • ‘Ogee’ arches with cusped heads
  • Vaulting with carved bosses
  • Windows with bar tracery
  • Richly ornamented carving
  • Flower-style decoration

The nave: 14th- and 15th-century Perpendicular Gothic (Gothic 3)

The nave is transformed at the expense of successive bishops in the soaring gothic style we see today, in a magnificent feat of architectural remodelling. The work is begun by Bishop Edington. It’s continued by Bishop William of Wykeham, whose architect William Wynford re-clads the original three-tiered Norman walls in the latest Perpendicular style. Under Wykeham’s successor, Cardinal Beaufort, Wynford finally completes the nave’s spectacular vault, his supreme achievement.

Key architectural features

  • Pillars with polygonal capitals
  • Tudor-style arches
  • Complex ribbed ‘lierne’ vault with bosses
  • Large windows with vertical mullions
  • Foliage and face decoration


This page is based on John Crook’s authoritative architectural history, Winchester Cathedral (2001, Pitkin Unichrome Limited). You can buy it in the Cathedral Shop

Find out more

Take a guided tour
Planning a visit? A tour with one of our expert guides can make all the difference

Discover Winchester Cathedral Resources List (PDF)
Key books and information sources to help you dig deeper