Tudors: Architecture

The architecture of early Tudor England displayed continuity rather than change. Churches great and small were built in the Perpendicular Gothic style of the later Middle Ages. Later in the 16th century, however, the great country house came into its own.

The grand west front of Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire, begun in the 1570s

The grand west front of Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire, begun in the 1570s

GOTHIC TO RENAISSANCE

Some of the finest examples of Perpendicular Gothic – particularly Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey – belong to the early Tudor period.

By the early decades of the 16th century, however, a distinctively Tudor form of Perpendicular had developed. This was characterised by flatter, four-centred rather than steeply pointed arches, and by window tracery with rows of narrow round-headed lancets.

A more significant presage of change was the appearance of motifs derived from Classical antiquity, an English reaction to the Renaissance style sweeping western Europe. At first largely cosmetic (like the ‘Roman’ heads applied to panelling or plasterwork), such features filtered down from great royal palaces like Hampton Court via courtiers’ mansions like Acton Court, Gloucestershire, extended in 1535 specifically to receive Henry VIII. 

Plasterwork over a fireplace at Hardwick Old Hall

A massive plaster overmantel in the great chamber at Hardwick Old Hall, Derbyshire. The house was begun by Bess of Hardwick in 1587, drawing on the latest Italian designs.

GREAT HOUSES

Since few churches were built after the Reformation – though existing ones were reordered internally to accord with changes in religion – it was in such mansions that the future of architecture lay.

Among the earliest of these were houses built by men enriched through the Suppression of the Monasteries. Some (like Titchfield Abbey in Hampshire) were adapted monastic buildings. Others were built on monastic sites, like the first Audley End, Essex.

The great country house came into its own in the later 16th century, when some of the most famous and impressive mansions in England – including Longleat and Burghley House – were built.

Others were raised within the walls of medieval castles, like the compact Elizabethan mansion at Berry Pomeroy Castle, Devon, the dramatic Elizabethan-Italianate range at Moreton Corbet Castle, Shropshire, and spectacularly at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, where Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, spent fortunes on lavish new buildings to impress Elizabeth I.

The gatehouse at Titchfield Abbey

The 16th-century gatehouse at Titchfield Abbey, Hampshire. The abbey was suppressed in 1537 and bought by Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton, who converted it into a sumptuous private residence, building this gatehouse over the demolished church.

PRODIGY HOUSES

To impress and astonish was the aim of great Elizabethan mansions. This could best be achieved by building on new sites and in the Classical-Renaissance style, which had by now shaken off the influence of Gothic.

As England was largely cut off from Catholic Europe, printed pattern books were the main means by which English patrons encountered the new style. A new breed of men – architects – emerged to translate new ideas into reality.

The effect of ‘prodigy’ or ‘wonder’ houses might be enhanced by features like showy porches (as at Old Gorhambury House, Hertfordshire, and Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire), chimneys (as at Framlingham Castle, Suffolk) or huge expanses of glass, as at Hardwick New Hall, Derbyshire. The latter was erected by the fabulously rich Bess of Hardwick beside Hardwick Old Hall (1587–96), which she had built in place of her father’s medieval manor house.

Other buildings impressed by their strikingly innovative design, like Sir Thomas Tresham’s Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire, where everything comes in threes to symbolise the Trinity, proclaiming the builder’s defiant Catholic faith. Elizabethan architecture in general was obsessed with geometrical shapes, patterns and ‘devices’.

The architecture of Rushton Triangular Lodge (built 1594–6) is full of codes, symbols and hidden devices. Biblical quotations that appear in the frieze below the gables on each front are all 33 letters long, perhaps symbolising the Trinity.

The architecture of Rushton Triangular Lodge in Northamptonshire (built 1594–6) is full of codes, symbols and hidden devices. Biblical quotations that appear in the frieze below the gables on each front are all 33 letters long, perhaps symbolising the Trinity.

THE MIDDLING SORT

The Tudor period also saw an explosion of less grandiose new houses in town and country, as merchants, squires and rich farmers celebrated burgeoning commerce and improving standards of daily life.

Outside the stone-built north and west and the brick-favouring eastern counties, houses continued to be timber-framed, sometimes with several ‘jettied’ storeys, each projecting beyond the one below. Timbering was frequently plastered or lime-washed over (exposed and black-painted timbers being largely a Victorian fashion) or embellished with elaborate carving.

The lesser – as well as the greater – houses of the period could be said to reflect its exuberance and growing self-confidence.

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