Upper Carboniferous Coal Measures strata have been interpreted traditionally in terms of cyclothems bounded by marine flooding surfaces (marine bands) and coal seams. Correlation of such cyclothems in an extensive grid of closely spaced coal exploration boreholes provides a robust stratigraphic framework in which to study the Lower Coal Measures (Namurian C–Westphalian A) of the Ruhr district, north-west Germany. Three distinct types of cyclothem are recognized, based on their bounding surfaces and internal facies architecture. (1) Type 1 cyclothems are bounded by marine bands. Each cyclothem comprises a thick (30–80 m), regionally extensive, coarsening-upward delta front succession of interbedded shales, siltstones and sandstones, which may be deeply incised by a major fluvial sandstone complex. The delta front succession is capped by a thin (<1 m), regionally extensive coal seam and an overlying marine band defining the top of the cyclothem. (2) Type 2 cyclothems are bounded by thick (≈1 m), regionally extensive coal seams with few splits. The basal part of a typical cyclothem comprises a thick (15–50 m), widespread, coarsening-upward delta front or lake infill succession consisting of interbedded shales, siltstones and sandstones. Networks of major (>5 km wide, 20–40 m thick), steep-sided, multistorey fluvial sandstone complexes erode deeply into and, in some cases, through these successions and are overlain by the coal seam defining the cyclothem top. (3) Type 3 cyclothems are bounded by regionally extensive coal seam groups, characterized by numerous seam splits on a local (0·1–10 km) scale. Intervening strata vary in thickness (15–60 m) and are characterized by strong local facies variability. Root-penetrated, aggradational floodplain heteroliths pass laterally into single-storey fluvial channel-fill sandstones and coarsening-upward, shallow lake infill successions of interbedded shales, siltstones and sandstones over distances of several hundred metres to a few kilometres. Narrow (<2 km) but thick (20–50 m) multistorey fluvial sandstone complexes are rare, but occur in a few type 3 cyclothems. Several cyclothems are observed to change character from type 1 to type 2 and from type 2 to type 3 up the regional palaeoslope. Consequently, we envisage a model in which each cyclothem type represents a different palaeogeographic belt within the same, idealized delta system, subject to the same allogenic and autogenic controls on facies architecture. Type 1 cyclothems are dominated by deltaic shorelines deposited during a falling stage and lowstand of sea level. Type 2 cyclothems represent the coeval lower delta plain, which was deeply eroded by incised valleys that fed the falling stage and lowstand deltas. Type 3 cyclothems comprise mainly upper delta plain deposits in which the allogenic sea-level control was secondary to autogenic controls on facies architecture. The marine bands, widespread coals and coal seam groups that bound these three cyclothem types record abandonment of the delta system during periods of rapid sea-level rise. The model suggests that the extant cyclothem paradigm does not adequately describe the detailed facies architecture of Lower Coal Measures strata. Instead, these architectures may be better understood within a high-resolution stratigraphic framework incorporating sequence stratigraphic key surfaces, integrated with depositional models derived from analogous Pleistocene–Holocene fluvio-deltaic strata.