...c 1500-1700

This is the second page in a series of brief introductions to the history of English architecture, illustrated with links to posts on this blog. This page deals with the Tudor and Stuart periods - broadly speaking, the 16th and 17th centuries.

Tudor architecture

In 1485 the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, came to the throne in England. Fifty years later his son, Henry VIII, had broken with Rome, made himself head of the Church in England, and begun the process that would lead to the dissolution of the monasteries in his kingdom. In this new political and religious climate, church building slowed down. On the other hand, many houses were built in this period – the increased wealth of the crown, and especially of the upper classes, made the 16th century a great age of domestic architecture.

The 16th and 17th centuries saw radical changes in English architecture, brought on in the main by two factors – firstly, the influence of the Renaissance, bringing the influence of Classical art and design to Britain; second, the fact that so many buildings were rebuilt in the period, to the extent that historians have spoken about a “Great rebuilding” or “great rebuildings” transforming the country.

The great rebuildings

During around 70 years between 1570 and 1640, improved economic conditions led to thousands of houses being rebuilt – especially in southern England, beginning in the southeast and spreading across the southwest in the latter part of the period. After the upheaval of the English Civil War put the brakes on building in many places, the rebuilding seems to have continued in northern England and Wales after 1670. These dates are approximate and the subject of scholarly debate, but indicate a broad pattern.

The great rebuildings gave many people larger and more solidly constructed houses. Houses that had just a single storey (or one storey plus an attic with dormer windows) frequently acquired a full-height upper storey. Often the extra level was achieved by building a new floor into a single-storey hall house, to divide it in two horizontally. In stone areas, timber-framed houses were often rebuilt in stone; elsewhere, timber frames were renewed. The kind of well made, close studded wooden frame seen at the Saracen’s Head, Kings Norton, built at the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th, is a good example of this kind of Tudor timber-framed structure. The beautiful Paycocke's, Coggeshall, also early-16th century, is, if anything, a still more magnificent example. Glass became more affordable, and windows in houses tended to get larger. Houses that consisted mainly of one big room with a central hearth and a smoke-hole in the roof acquired smaller, more comfortable rooms with proper fireplaces.

Many Tudor houses survive, and a lot of them are modest vernacular buildings. In other words, they are built according to local fashion, by local people, using locally available materials – limestone in the Cotswolds, chalk in the Chilterns, timber framing in the Welsh marches, local clay in Devon, and so on. In addition, in some areas where there was no good building stone, a new material, not much used in the Middle Ages, was employed: brick. Although they looked modest from the outside, these buildings were probably brightly decorated within. While wooden panelling and rich tapestries covered the walls of the houses of the rich, some people made do with painted decoration, as seen in a rare surviving painted room in Ledbury, Herefordshire (picture above).

These local fashions and ways of building still endure in the places we now think of as “unspoiled” by modern materials and building techniques. They are part of what gives the regions of the country their local distinctiveness. Vernacular architecture was also the mode chosen by the builders of the first nonconformist chapels and meeting houses, the earliest of which date from the Tudor period. Some, like the one at Horningsham, with its thatched roof and plain windows, are easy to mistake for houses at first glance.

This was also a notable period for school foundations – in part to compensate for the educational gap left when the monasteries were dissolved and to lay the foundations of education in the Protestant tradition. Elizabethan grammar schools, like the one at Burford, were often in the vernacular style too. 

The Tudor style

Grander buildings – the houses of the gentry and aristocracy, for example – were built in a more elaborate way. Although their facades could be quite simple, with rows of mullioned windows and perhaps some decoration around the doorway, as at Canons Ashby (picture above), their exteriors were frequently built for show, with really large, mullioned windows, protruding bays and oriels, tall, ornate chimneys, and prominent gables, sometimes curved in the Dutch style. Although the large windows and ornamental features make these houses dramatically different from the buildings of the previous century, elements of that century’s late Gothic style often remain embedded in them – arches and doorways are usually of the flattened, four-centred kind often seen in 15th-century churches, for example. This kind of architecture is seen to perfection in country houses such as Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire and the ornate gatehouse at Coughton Court in Warwickshire, and the many-windowed facades of Stanway House in Gloucestershire (picture top).

A local Renaissance

There was another vital influence on the architecture of the Tudor period, especially in the grander houses: the art of the Renaissance and its revival of Classical art that had begun in Italy and spread northwards across mainland Europe. In architecture, this meant above all copying the orders – the “modes” of Classical architecture with their distinctive visual identities: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and so on.

But the Tudor builders did not go to Greece and copy temples; mostly they did not even get as far as Rome. They picked up their Classicism second- or third-hand – from books, from French buildings, from hints from the Netherlands – and added eccentric local twists of their own.

This gives English 16th century Classicism a unique and sometimes whacky character of its own. It’s full of curious carved curlicues and bizarre patterns. Its orders often don’t have the “correct” Classical proportions. It is sometimes combined with Gothic elements (Gothic, as a style for church-building, survived through the 16th century and into the 17th), as in the unusual church porch at Sunningwell (picture above). But it’s lively, and often fun to look at. One of the best places to find it is on grand houses and grand monuments in churches. Some of these monuments are large, canopied structures like little buildings in themselves. Others exhibit delightful carvings, hinting in their subject matter of the widening perspectives of English culture as the nation’s explorers sailed further and further around the world.

Big houses, prodigy houses

The big houses that contain this eccentric classical ornament include some of our most amazing buildings. Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, with its vast windows and enchanting interiors, Burghley House with its skyline of pinnacles and turrets, and complex buildings like Kirby Hall are staggering structures, big, complex, and lavishly decorated. They combine classical details from the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders with vast windows, and, usually, a symmetrical layout that is a far cry from the architectural jumble of medieval domestic building. Inside they have wooden panelling, elaborate fireplaces, and rich plaster ceilings adorning glorious rooms including spacious parlours and long galleries, These houses, vast, complex, and ornate, have rightly earned the nickname “prodigy houses”. They have their more modest cousins, too: manor houses that share some of the characteristics of Tudor architecture, but sometimes with more ornate gables and a sprinkling of classical details that seems to recall their more lavish counterparts.

Stuart architecture

When James I came to the throne as the first Stuart king of England in 1603, the diverse traditions of Tudor architecture continued. Timber-framed construction was still often used for smaller buildings. In some high-status houses, timberwork could be highly elaborate and ornate, as in the house that is now the Feathers Hotel in Ludlow, Shropshire. Large country houses with symmetrical rows of large mullioned windows, bays, and ornate interiors were still built – Chastleton in Oxfordshire is one example; Rousham, in the same county, although altered, is another. Naas House in Gloucestershire, a third, enlivens this style of architecture with an delightful ogee-shaped cupola and a rooftop viewing platform. At Stanway, Gloucestershire, the outstanding gatehouse is in this style, but with various classical elements, such as the columns on either side of the entrance. Buildings like these could feature interiors that were panelled with wood and adorned with riotous carving very much derived from the Tudor mode, as in the extraordinary overmantel in the solar at Stokesay Castle. Town buildings could still display a rustic version of classicism and mythology in their decoration, or rows of plain, vaguely classical arches in their structure. The vernacular tradition continued when it came to smaller houses and buildings such as schools. And Gothic was still sometimes used for churches.

But in London a new stylistic wind was blowing, bringing a more scholarly, correct form of classicism. The chief exponent of this new classicism was Inigo Jones, who designed buildings for the royal court. Jones visited Italy, studied the architecture there, and read Andrea Palladio’s great architectural textbook, I Quattro Libra dell’architettura. He became one of the most influential of all English architects.

Jones’s buildings as a result are much more correctly classical than anything produced in England before. They have correct orders, and the proportions are perfect – rooms are often in the shape of perfect cubes or double cubes, for example. Only a handful of his buildings survive, but they have been very influential. The Banqueting House in Whitehall, the Queen’s House in Greenwich and St Paul’s church, Covent Garden, introduced the British to porticoes, properly designed orders, and Classical proportions, and helped set the style for decades, even centuries to come.

Other classicists followed, one of whom designed the tantalizing gateway near the church in Great Tew, Oxfordshire. One of these 17th-century classicists was Jones’s associate Nicholas Stone, designer of, amongst other things, the old water gate (picture above) now marooned in the Embankment Gardens in London. Stone developed the muscular classicism typified by this little building into something more curvaceous and authentically baroque in one building, the extraordinary porch of St Mary's church, Oxford; this baroque style was closely allied to the high-church beliefs of Archbishop Laud and his followers, and its development was cut short by the Civil War. The unique classical windmill at Chesterton, Warwickshire, is another example of the unusual ways in which the new architecture could be employed. Already, in early-17th century buildings like this, a more vigorous, eccentric kind of classicism was developing out of the chaste and pure style of Inigo Jones. It's possible to see the influence of this kind of vigorous, proto-baroque work in more modest timber-framed houses, with their fancy gables, rows of bow windows, and pargetted decoration – there is an example of this on a house of 1650 in Banbury.

Later Stuart architecture

In the wake of Jones came a number of architects who developed his ideas and pursued ideas of their own. Some of them, John Webb for example, picked up the classical thread where Jones left it. Others evolved a type of house that became especially influential and is seen as quintessentially English. This kind of house had symmetrical facades with rows of identical windows, a central doorway, a hipped roof with dormer windows, and tall chimneys. A beautiful early example in brick is the Old House at Kibworth Harcourt, Leicestershire. Another, in stone and rather grander, is Nether Lypiatt Manor in Gloucestershire. Sill larger and more famous examples, such as the influential house of Coleshill (no longer standing), helped spread the fashion for this kind of house far and wide.

Both of these threads came together in the work of the most famous of all English architects, Christopher Wren. Wren, a scientist and mathematician as well as an architect, brought architectural ideas – ideas of space, form, and decoration – together in new ways. He is well known as the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, with its ingeniously designed dome, but also created a host of small churches in the city of London. Many of these bring together Classical proportions with the Gothic idea of the spire to make structures unlike anything else before them. Wren could also design more purely Gothic structures, as his church of St Mary Aldermary shows. Not every church was influenced by Wren, however, as the extraordinary folk-art decoration at Bromfield, Shropshire, shows.

But Wren's influence on classical buildings was profound and enduring – he probably advised the mason Christopher Kempster on one of England’s most magnificent town halls, the one that dominates the centre of Abingdon (picture above) – and Wren was also known for large houses built of brick with stone dressings, an enduring English style seen at Hampton Court Palace and also at London's Marlborough House, finished in the early-18th century.

Wren’s greatest pupil and sometime collaborator was Nicholas Hawksmoor, who worked with the master on St Paul’s and went on to design outstanding buildings – both churches and country houses – on his own. Hawksmoor’s buildings are more determinedly bulky in character than Wren’s, more willfully original. He likes great ponderous masses of masonry, unusually shaped towers and spires, and windows taking the form of circles or semicircles. His buildings, such as the great London churches of Christ Church Spitalfields, St Anne Limehouse, and St George in the East, are big and brooding and rather weird.

Hawksmoor passed on the torch to the third great late-Stuart architect, Sir John Vanbrugh, who excelled at vast, ponderous country houses as Hawksmoor excelled at churches. Vanbrugh had no formal training as an architect and had been a soldier and playwright before embarking on his first building, the vast Castle Howard. He worked with Hawksmoor and must have relied much on him to begin with. And Vanbrugh must have learned quickly. Buildings such as Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace, and Seaton Delaval have a strong architectural character. Their elaborate facades and vast, awe-inspiring interiors are a world away from the severity of the buildings Inigo Jones was designing a century before. The castle Vanbrugh built for his own use, though smaller in scale, shared the monumental quality of his grand country houses.

Although Vanbrugh is famous for country houses planned on a vast scale, his influence was felt on much smaller buildings. Sometimes one finds, in a town not far away from a major Vanbrugh house, a small house with his hallmark masses and round-headed windows. An example in Oxford stands as a reminder of the influence of the Vanbrugh mode.

Meanwhile, in the countryside, many building projects continued that showed little interest in the sophisticated ideas of these advanced architects. Meeting houses, fior example, continued to be built in the prevalent domestic vernacular, like the late-17th century stone meeting house, now a village hall, in South Newington. Churches, on the other hand, were sometimes still built in a modified version of the Gothic style, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the Gothic survival. There was also a tendency among rural builders to adapt traditional domestic architecture, with its mullioned windows and occasional classical details, to church architecture. One structure built along these lines is the isolated country church at Monnington on Wye, Herefordshire.

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Now click here for the story of English architecture from c. 1700 to 1837.