Controversy has long surrounded the kinematics of faulting in the Middle–Late Jurassic North Sea trilete rift system. Integration of structural styles and subsidence analysis derived from well-constrained seismic interpretation enables a new, unified model to be proposed in which strike-slip was negligible, dip-slip extension predominated throughout the rifting episode and normal faults were active sequentially not synchronously. Extension was initiated on N–S and NNE–SSW trending faults during the Bathonian and Callovian, NE–SW and E–W structures during the Oxfordian and NW–SE faults during the Kimmeridgian and Volgian. The results allow us to speculate that fault activity was driven by variations in the prevailing far-field stress regime that were superimposed upon a trilete junction that formed as consequence of Middle Jurassic thermal doming. Significantly, rotation of the stress field during rifting is similar in other rifts, such as the Afro-Arabian system.