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Pleasures & Pastimes
In Tudor England
By Alison Sim
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Alison Sim
All rights reserved.
The Perfect Setting
The sixteenth century was a time for building. Food prices were rising, so that landowners, who produced the food, were doing well. They had the money to improve their houses, or even to build new ones. At the top end of the scale the aristocracy were building huge houses like William Cecil, Lord Burghley's Theobalds or Sir John Thynne's Longleat, but people lower down the scale were improving their more modest houses too. Many of the gentry were constructing comfortable, if not necessarily magnificent, manor houses and even yeomen were building houses with comforts like wall-mounted fireplaces and chimneys. Architecture became a fashionable subject for conversation.
To study what they were building it is necessary first to look at how people were using their houses. In the Middle Ages, houses had tended to consist of a hall, which was a general purpose living/dining/bedroom for most of the household, and then a private room or rooms for the family who owned the house and their guests. This was true not only for grand houses but also for quite humble ones. The Boarhunt cottage was built in the fifteenth century for a yeoman family, and consists of a hall and private room.
In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries this began to change. Houses were built with much more emphasis on privacy, and communal life in the hall became a thing of the past. Henry VIII did construct a magnificent new great hall at Hampton Court, but this was done with politics in mind. Continuing the ancient tradition of the great hall was aimed deliberately at giving a feeling of continuity with the past, which was yet another way of asserting the Tudor claim to the throne. At some of his other palaces, where he felt free just to follow fashion, Henry VIII divided the great hall up into smaller rooms. Lower down the scale the same sort of thing was happening. Pendean, a house built for a yeoman family in the sixteenth century, now at the Weald and Downland Museum, was designed as several smaller rooms, rather than around a hall.
In the wealthiest circles, these changes were due in part to the issues discussed in the introduction. The Tudors' more centralised government meant that great lords no longer needed large numbers of retainers as a private army to protect their interests. Success was based on gaining the favour of the monarch which meant concentrating resources on the court.
Court life was formidably expensive. Chapter 2 gives an indication of the kind of clothes needed and how much they could cost. The letters of the family of Lord Lisle, Henry VIII's governor of Calais, tell of the other costs involved. One expense was the necessary gift-giving. Endless presents had to be sent to the right people when the Lisles needed help, as Tudor courtiers did not use their influence for free. The Lisle's presents ranged from quail, which Lady Lisle sent to Jane Seymour, to hunting dogs and even a pet monkey which was almost sent to Anne Boleyn; fortunately someone warned Lady Lisle in time that Anne hated such animals. This, of course, was not counting the expensive gift every important person was expected to give the monarch at New Year. Few people could afford both the court and their retainers. A great hall was no longer needed to house retainers, but suitably magnificent and moderately private rooms were necessary to entertain key courtiers.
It is possible to over-emphasise this change. Great lords lived in considerable estate right up to the end of the century. In the 1580s the Earl of Derby's household was still operating much as it had done a century earlier and there were still between 115 and 140 people in the household, excluding the family. Self-made men like Lord Chancellor Ellesmere lived in the same kind of style. Even so, the emphasis in grand people's houses moved away from the great hall and into the great chamber.
The greater amount of privacy found in well-to-do houses was partly made necessary by the increasing formality of life at court. The royal Tudors tried to create a mystique around the monarch by putting a greater distance between themselves and their courtiers and surrounding themselves with great ceremony. More formal etiquette came into use at court, which in turn meant that people needed private areas where they could escape from such pressures. This new formality worked its way into the lives of the grander courtiers, creating a greater need in their houses for formal areas where important people could be entertained in suitable style and private areas where the family and their friends could relax.
The great chamber became the most important room in the house. It was used for everything from formal meals in the presence of important guests and the lying-in of corpses of members of the family, to dancing, music and family prayers. It was often the most richly decorated room in the house. There was usually a withdrawing-room off the great chamber, at the end of which lay either the best bedchamber or the owner of the house's bedchamber. This meant that another layer of privacy had been added, as in the Middle Ages a bedroom was also used as a sitting-room. Now the withdrawing-room was the private sitting-room for whoever used the bedchamber while bigger houses also had one or more parlours where the family could dine informally or sit and chat. Longleat had no fewer than three of them.
Another important feature of such houses was the staircase. The chamber was usually on the first floor and now that it was the most important room, the route up to it had to be impressive. At first these staircases tended to be made of stone but when joinery techniques improved in the early seventeenth century, open-well staircases became the fashion. They were usually elaborately carved and painted.
It was not only the layout of houses that was changing, but also the style in which they were built. In the Middle Ages houses had been constructed with the idea of making them defensible. This was such a habit that larger houses were built around courtyards and surrounded by moats into the sixteenth century, even though the need for this had faded.
Medieval houses were often added to over the years in a very haphazard way, so that the result was anything but orderly. The Renaissance idea of symmetry drove this idea quite out of fashion, leading to buildings like Henry VII's Richmond Palace, which was still based around courtyards but was a carefully planned symmetrical building. There was very much a change of spirit in building. Inward-looking courtyard houses were gradually replaced by outward-looking houses which were compressed into a single block. Windows became larger and the grander apartments were often pushed up to first- or second-floor level, so as to enjoy the view. A taller, more compact house also gave a better impression of wealth and power, which is of course what building was all about in the highest circles.
The new interest in things classical was to bring about yet more changes in architecture. Classical ideals of architecture were reconsidered and buildings, particularly in Italy, began to be designed according to classical principles. A number of influential books were written on the subject, such as Serlio's Tutte L'Opere D'Architettura et Prospetiva, the first volume of which was published in 1537. Classical works on architecture, such as those of Vitruvius, were also translated into modern languages. The idea was that to design a building in truly classical style you needed to understand the principles and spirit behind the original buildings rather than just slavishly copy them. These classical ideals were known in England in the sixteenth century, but building in true classical style only began in the early seventeenth century. It is of note that the first English book on architecture known, John Shute's First and Chief Groundes of Architecture,was only published in 1563. It did not contain any new ideas, and was probably intended to be the first in a series of books. The rest were never written, or at least never published, due to Shute's death. To most English builders, such ideas were considered to be just a fashion, so that classical styles of decoration were often used in houses that were not built to classical ideals. The reason why these ideals took so long to reach England lies in how buildings were designed at the time.
The term 'architect' was rather vague in the sixteenth century. It usually meant a surveyor of the works, the person who oversaw the various craftsmen working on a building. Architects were simply seen as workmen and not as equals by their employers, unlike the gentlemen architects of the seventeenth century. Some were reasonably educated men who owned books and collected architectural plans, but this was not always the case. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, architects began to emerge as an independent class of men who knew about the practical side of building and could oversee the workforce, but who were also capable of designing a building. Smaller country houses seem to often have been built by such men. Walter Hancock, who died in 1599, was one such man. He is known to have worked as a craftsman on Candover Hall in Shropshire and also to have worked for Sir Francis Newport who built High Ercall and Eyton-on-Severn.
Such designers were all very well for a modest country house but the nobility had rather different ideas. They often had strong feelings about what they did and did not want, and some of them had read widely on architectural theory. Some had travelled and seen new buildings in France or Italy. Sir Richard Weston, who built Sutton Place in Surrey, was one such man. He had travelled in France where classical ideas were taken up sooner than in England. Sutton Place was one of the first English houses to be decorated in the new style.
A problem arose because most courtiers were too busy with court business to be on the site of their new house very much. They might also not be skilled in drawing up plans to show their builders, so that very often the final design of the house was a compromise between the thoughts of the building's owner and those of the master mason supervising the workforce. Sir John Thynne's first version of Longleat seems to have been built this way, with Sir John knowing in general terms what he wanted but with individual features being considered as and when they arose. Sir John was, however, no standard client. He rebuilt Longleat no fewer than four times until he was happy with the building. His mason Robert Smythson and the French sculptor Allen Maynard both greatly influenced the final design, but there was no doubt that Sir John was a man who knew what he wanted. Other clients seem to have been happy to leave the detail to the mason, who in most cases did not understand the theories of classical architecture. The result was that Tudor buildings tended to be a mixture of styles and tastes, built according to the needs of the person paying for the building. This attitude to architecture gave sixteenth-century buildings a rather pleasant individual streak.
The sixteenth century was a time when people were fascinated by symbols and puzzles which had to be worked out by the viewer. They liked the idea of needing to think about what they had seen in order to work out the meaning behind it. This element ran through everything from the symbolism used at court entertainments to choices in jewellery design. It was also used in architecture.
Several plans which survive from the time show this love of playing with ideas. The surveyor John Thorpe designed a house in the form of his initials IT (I was often used as a J at this time) although it was never built. Sir Thomas Tresham built his famous Triangular Lodge to announce his Catholic faith at a time when it was not easy to do so openly. It represents the Trinity and the measurements of the Lodge are all based on the number 3.
On the other hand, there were plenty of people who agreed with Francis Bacon who started his essay Of Building with a piece of practical advice: 'Houses are built to Live in, and not to Looke on: Therefore let Use bee preferred before uniformitie; Except where both may be had. Leave the Goodly Fabrickes of Houses, for Beautie only, to the Enchanted Palaces of the Poets: Who build them with small cost. Many sixteenth-century houses were designed on a practical basis, with flights of fancy found only in the choice of decoration, or in the fancy banquet houses in the gardens which will be discussed later.
Classical ideals also tended to take a back seat as English masons never got the chance to travel to Italy to see the original buildings or the new ones built on classical principles. Instead they looked to other English buildings for inspiration. Before starting to construct the hall at Trinity College, Cambridge, the supervisor of the works took the carpenter to London to see various different halls, which they surveyed and measured. The final result was exactly the same dimensions as the hall of the Middle Temple.
The same was also true for decoration. It is quite common to find features such as fireplaces and friezes copied several times in a small geographical area. For example, in North Devon the same plaster frieze appears in houses at Bideford, Weare Gifford and Barnstaple. This probably points to families of craftsmen working in a local area and using the same designs in several places, but doubtless local people also visited each other's houses and copied ideas just as happens today.
Sixteenth-century interior design, whether copied or original, was a riot of colour and complicated designs. The Dynasty portrait of Henry VIII and his family shows what is believed to be an actual room in the king's apartments at Whitehall, and demonstrates the type of effect people aspired to. Every available inch of a public room would be decorated, if the owner could afford it.
This is how William Harrison describes the interior of an English house:
The walls of our houses on the inner sides in like sort be either hanged with tapestry, arras work, or painted clothes, wherein either divers histories, or herbs, beasts, knots and suchlike be stained, or else they are ceiled [i.e. panelled] with oak of our own wainscot brought hither out of the East countries, whereby the rooms are not a little commended, made warm and much more close than otherwise they would be.
As he says, panelling was a favourite form of decoration as it was practical as well as beautiful. The panelling was not left as plain wood, as we usually see it today, but was often painted in bright colours or even gilded, as the royal panelling is in the Dynasty picture. Elaborate plasterwork was also very fashionable, although as an alternative to plaster leather-mâché might be used. This was made of shredded leather mixed with size and brick dust. Once it was dry it could be painted and even gilded. It was frequently used in Henry VIII's palaces to make the thousands of yards of decoration needed to grace the royal walls.
There were a number of sources of inspiration for the design of interiors. One fashionable form of decoration was grotesque work. At the end of the fifteenth century people began to explore the remains of Nero's Golden House which were to be found underground on the Esquiline Hill in Rome and to copy the decoration of them. This style became known as 'grotesque', as the underground rooms were known as grottoes, or as 'antique work' because of its classical origins. The grotesque style was a mixture of small figures with intertwining foliage, vases, masques, weaponry and just about anything else.
There was also a fashion for allegory, such as the five senses and various allusions to classical subjects. The fireplace in the High Chamber in Elizabethan Chatsworth (now at Hardwick Hall) shows Orpheus surrounded by the nine muses, a suitable subject for a room in which music and dancing often took place.
The possibilities for designs were so many and various that pattern books began to be produced. A complete royal pattern book survives, which is a French treatise on geometry owned by Henry VIII. It is illustrated with the five orders of architecture. This pattern book is hand-written but there were also printed books available and there is evidence that these were used. The chapel ceiling at St James's, made for Henry VIII in 1540, is identical to a plate in the fourth book of Serlio's Regole generali di architettura published in Venice in 1537.
Excerpted from Pleasures & Pastimes by Alison Sim. Copyright © 2011 Alison Sim. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The Perfect Setting,
2 Clothing and Fashion,
3 Tournaments and Pageantry,
4 Religion and the Ritual Year,
5 Christenings, Weddings and Funerals,
6 Dancing and Music,
8 The Theatre,
9 Sports, Games and Other Pastimes,
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