The first defeat of the Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum era was not caused by the swashbuckling approach that brought four wins at the beginning of the summer, but a timid surrender to some magnificent Proteas bowling.
Anrich Nortje was sensational, bowling at a rapid pace to take three wickets for no runs in 10 balls.
Left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj began the collapse with two wickets, including under-pressure opener Zak Crawley for 13.
England earlier took the last three South African wickets for 39 to bowl the Proteas out for 326, despite bizarrely persisting with short-ball tactics.
Though the South Africa lead was sizable, England should have made better use of the best batting conditions of the match to at least drag the contest into the weekend.
Instead, they go one behind in the three-match series, with the second Test at Old Trafford starting on Thursday.
Familiar defeat for New England
England has played some thrilling Test cricket this summer, capturing the imagination of the public not only with their results but the scintillating manner in which they have been obtained.
This defeat was not about ‘Bazball’ coming unstuck, rather England reverting to some of the bad habits that saw them earn only one win in 17 Tests before Stokes and McCullum took over.
They can argue, with some justification, that they were on the wrong end of a crucial toss as they slipped to 116-6 on the first day that was ideal for bowling.
But the way they conceded the momentum by bowling too short on the second evening, then followed up with the same failed tactics on Friday morning before tamely succumbing with the bat, had all the hallmarks of an ‘old England’ performance.
How they respond to this defeat will be fascinating. Before this Test, Stokes said he would still have trusted England’s new method even if they had lost all four of their previous matches.
Now it is the job of the captain and coach to ensure the belief and confidence they have built remains intact, but also find a way of combating a superb South Africa attack.
Nortje blasts through England
The afternoon collapse overshadowed England’s strange morning when perhaps the bouncer assault endured by Nortje in his 28 not out gave the paceman a little extra motivation when he came to bowl.
By that point, Crawley was lbw from an ill-judged sweep at Maharaj and Ollie Pope was leg before on review playing across the line to the same bowler.
When Joe Root poked Lungi Ngidi to second slip, the three-day finish looked increasingly likely, and Nortje’s terrific burst made it a reality.
Bowling over 90mph and moving the ball down the Lord’s slope, Nortje had all of Jonny Bairstow, Alex Lees and Ben Foakes caught behind as England lost three wickets for five runs.
Stuart Broad chanced his arm, swiping 35 from 29 balls in a stand of 55 with Stokes, only to be deceived by a Kagiso Rabada slower ball for the second time in the match.
Matthew Potts was cleaned up slogging at Marco Jansen, Stokes hit Rabada to deep mid-wicket and the last man James Anderson was bowled by Jansen to complete the thrashing before tea.
Across the match, England was bowled out twice in less than 83 overs, the third-shortest amount of time they have batted in a home Test defeat.
Brilliant win for superb South Africa
This is a superb win for South Africa, a team top of the World Test Championship and defeated only once in their past six series.
Captain Dean Elgar had questioned the sustainability of England’s aggressive approach, with the Proteas then carving a victory from old-fashioned Test values.
Should they need to adapt to conditions at Old Trafford and the third Test at The Oval, they can call on off-spinner Simon Harmer, the leading wicket-taker in the County Championship over the past six seasons.
They are one win away from ending a run of three straight series defeats by England, stretching back 10 years.