In This Chapter
● Touring palaces and houses great and small
● Visiting a noteworthy religious site
● Examining fortification and high-tech touches
If you want to see what’s left of the Tudors, go to almost any city in England. And on the way to the cities, stop off at a few country houses, churches and pubs. A hierarchy existed: palaces were for the royals (see the map in Chapter 3); great houses were owned by the nobility; manor houses were the homes of the gentry; merchants lived in town houses. If any other buildings survive, like the homes of the poor, it’s always by a sheer miracle.
Be warned, though - subsequent generations have fiddled with many Tudor buildings, and people often live in these period properties today. The Tudors didn’t have central heating, hot and cold running water or loos that flushed, and if you see a TV set in a Jacobean (Stuart) cabinet, don’t you believe it! And Tudor houses didn’t all have priest holes either (see Chapter 14).
Here are ten of the best buildings of the Tudor era that survive in England today.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Shottery, Warwickshire
In case you’re wondering, Anne Hathaway is famous for being the wife of William Shakespeare. All the other buildings in this chapter are palaces, great houses or castles. Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (which was never actually hers, by the way) is an example of an ordinary country home dating in its oldest parts from the 15th century.
Building in villages like Shottery wouldn’t have happened very often and existing cottages would’ve been updated over time rather than starting from scratch. Major building programmes only occurred in London, often taking over ex-church land vacated by the monasteries in the 1530s (Chapter 6 explains why the monasteries dissolved at this time).
The Hathaway house belonged to a yeoman farmer (Anne’s dad) and the oldest part dates to the 1460s. It had a cross passage with a hall to the left and a kitchen to the right. The house was cruck-built - imagine a capital letter A with the feet as the foundations and the apex forming the ridge of the roof. Joining these uprights were oak beams and the spaces between them were originally filled in with wattle and daub (wooden slats and mud). By the early 17th century this infill began to be made of brick. The house had one fireplace, and the very small windows had no glass but wooden shutters to keep out wind and rain.
Later extensions to the house added more rooms on the ground floor with two bedrooms above. The residents of many country cottages had to share their home with their cattle, but because Anne Hathaway’s father, Richard, was reasonably well off (on her wedding day to William Shakespeare she received 6 pounds 13 shillings and 4 pence from his will) the animals were kept in outbuildings nearby.
Check out the cottage today - it’s part of the Shakespeare circuit based in nearby Stratford and you can see the famous bed that, according to legend, is the ‘second best’ one that Shakespeare left Anne in his will.
Burghley House, Stamford
Elizabeth I’s principal secretary, William Cecil, inherited Burghley House from his father in 1553 and immediately began to rebuild. In 1563 he bought the manor of Theobalds (pronounced Tibbalds) and started to build there too. But in 1575 Cecil returned to Burghley House, completing the west front in 1577 and the north front ten years later.
Cecil designed his additions in the classical style, much used in France and the Low Countries (today’s Netherlands). He’d never been to either country but copied the style from Somerset House in London (www.somersethouse.org.uk), which his former boss, the duke of Somerset (lord protector in Edward VI’s reign), built in the late 1540s.
Burghley House is built around a central courtyard. The Great Hall, which is part of this range, originally had many large windows, but the weight of the slate roof began to cause structural problems and so in the 18th century several windows had to be filled in to strengthen the building. The present west range was probably built by Cecil’s son Thomas, at the very end of the 16th century when the main entrance was moved from the west side to the north.
Visually, the heart of the house is its great central courtyard, which was designed to impress with glorious classical embellishments of columns, obelisks and carved roundels carrying portraits of Roman emperors - even a king of Troy! Although large parts of the house have been rebuilt and restored, much of it would be readily recognisable to William Cecil even today.
Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight
The original castle was built by the Normans in the late 11th century and by Elizabeth’s reign the curtain wall and circular towers were completely unsuitable for defence purposes against cannon. In Chapter 15 we explain that even though the Armada had been defeated, Spain was still likely to try to invade England again. One obvious landing point would be the Isle of Wight, from which all kinds of attacks could be made on the south of England. So although Elizabeth didn’t like spending money, she eventually paid the brilliant Italian architect Federigo Gianibelli to update Carisbrooke just in case.
Gianibelli extended the medieval towers along the south wall and turned them into gun platforms that could take at least two cannon. At the same time he built a series of earthworks called arrowhead bastions, which went all the way around the castle and were a death trap for any attackers.
To reach the castle wall you had to drop down a 12-foot ditch (and up the other side!), cross open land, drop down a 6-foot ditch, climb a 12-foot wall, cross more open ground and drop down a third ditch before attempting to climb the 30-foot ramp that led to the wall itself. The attackers couldn’t see any of these ditches until it was too late. Oh, and by the way, while you were doing navigating these ditches, you were being fired at by four cannon, angled in such a way as to catch you in a murderous crossfire. As it happened, nobody ever attacked the castle to see how well this would work.
While you’re at Carisbrooke, check out the cannon in the museum. It was made by the Owen Brothers of London in the 1540s and was one of several owned by local parishes for self-protection.
Compton Wynyates, Warwickshire
Edmund Compton redesigned the family home in the 1480s, using a striking red brick. His was one of the first country houses not to have the thick walls and small windows necessary for defence. Compton, like everyone else, was hoping the country wouldn’t return to the Wars of the Roses (see Chapter 2).
Compton was on good terms with the Tudors. His son, William, was page to Prince Henry, and the two became friends. In 1515 William started a building programme at Wynyates using windows and other features that Henry gave him from altered or demolished royal houses. He built the great entrance porch, the chapel, the brick-fluted and twisted chimneys and many of the towers that survive. Of all Tudor buildings, the chimneys at Wynyates are impressive; no two are the same.
Henry VIII visited William many times, and the window of the bedroom that he used still shows his arms in stained glass, along with those of Catherine of Aragon. Elizabeth I also stayed at Compton Wynyates in 1572.
A curious feature of the house is the Priest’s Room at the top of one of the towers, so called because of five consecration crosses carved in the windowsill. This detail is curious because (as far as historians know) the Comptons were Protestants, who were unlikely to have given refuge to a fugitive priest.
In one respect Compton Wynyates has been fortunate. In 1574 Henry, Lord Compton, began to build Castle Ashby, and so he neglected Wynyates while lavishing money and attention on his new home. Wynyates was therefore spared any efforts to keep it up to date. In the 18th century an order to demolish the house was ignored. It was restored in 1884, and in 1978, when Castle Ashby was opened to the public, Compton Wynyates became the family’s principal home.
Deal Castle, Kent
The most likely place for an attack by the French in Henry VIII’s reign was along the south coast of England. In 1539 Henry built a string of castles from St Mawes and Pendennis in the west to Sandown in the east to keep the French out. In 1545 Francis I’s troops landed on the Isle of Wight and hand to hand fighting took place at Sandown fort, which hadn’t quite been finished in time! Deal Castle is one of the best known of the surviving fortresses built for Henry VIII.
Cannon had improved so much by this time that high medieval walls, as at Carisbrooke, were useless against them. The answer was to build low, squat defences, bristling with guns.
Deal’s core was formed by the keep, around which were clustered six semicircular bastions, all with walls 4 metres (14 feet) thick to withstand the expected bombardment. Four tiers of artillery defended the fortress: one mounted on the roof of the keep, two others in the upper storeys and the fourth in the bastions.
Building work began in April 1538 to specifications by the German architect Stephen Haschnperg, who’d also worked on the fortifications at Carlisle near the Scots border. Due to the project’s urgency, 1,400 workers were employed, and Anne of Cleves was entertained at a huge banquet there when she landed at Dover in 1540.
The Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge
Cambridge is the second oldest university in the country after Oxford, and the series of colleges were built by the Church or private individuals from the 13th century onwards.
Henry VIII rebuilt the King’s Hall and Michaelhouse as Trinity College in 1546. The Great Court dates back to 1428 and was developed by Dr Thomas Neville, master of the college from 1593-1615. The Great Gate was begun about 1490 and completed in the 1530s, and the chapel was built between 1554 and 1561. The Great Hall and the Old Library both date from the end of Elizabeth’s reign, as does the Queen’s Gate, from 1597. In the centre of the court is an octagonal fountain that was built between 1601 and 1602. Like much Tudor building, it’s crumbled, and the one you see there today was rebuilt to the original design in 1716.
The figure of Henry VIII stands over the main gate, carved in stone and surrounded by heraldry. Next time you’re at Trinity College, check out the sceptre in the king’s hand - it’s a wooden chair leg!
Hampton Court, London
The most famous royal palace didn’t start off royal at all. The original building belonged to the Medieval warrior-monks of the Order of St John and Henry VIII’s lord chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, bought the place and did it up. Because he was richer than Henry VIII in the 1520s, Wolsey was able to spend a fortune on the palace, creating new kitchens, courtyards, galleries and magnificent rooms for Henry, who was sure to visit.
In 1528 Wolsey gave Hampton Court as a present to Henry VIII because he realised his career was on the way down (see Chapter 4). The king then added the chapel, the Great Hall and a magnificent lavatory with no fewer than 28 seats! Because of the drop of the land from the spring at Kingston the palace had running water from a tank on the roof and Henry’s apartments even had hot running water, which must have been unique in England at the time. Eventually, the compound included gardens, a tiltyard (for jousting), tennis courts and a large hunting park.
Hampton Court was one of Henry VIII’s favourite homes, and he spent more than 800 nights there - more than at any other palace apart from Greenwich. Many of the Tudor buildings at Hampton Court were demolished in the late 17th century to make way for the present apartments, but the chapel, the Great Watching Chamber (where the king conducted his business) and the Great Hall survive.
Some modern visitors claim to hear the ghost of Catherine Howard screaming as she runs down the corridors to beg Henry VIII to forgive her before her execution (see Chapter 5 for the details of her death).
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
The new Hardwick Hall was built in the 1590s by Elizabeth, dowager countess of Shrewsbury, better known as Bess of Hardwick (see Chapter 17). Bess inherited Hardwick Hall from her father, and with the wealth she gained from the death of her fourth husband, George Talbot, in 1590, she was able to afford to build a much more impressive house, which still stands today.
Glass is one of the standout features of Hardwick Hall. In the late 16th century glass was very expensive and showed the wealth of its owner more effectively than the size of the house. The important rooms had more and bigger windows. These spaces were located on the top levels, where the family lived, to take advantage of the most light. The servants’ quarters, in contrast, had small windows.
Hardwick Hall doesn’t include a great hall, and so communal dining was clearly not a feature of life at the house. But the Tudor building does have a Great Gallery, which is one of the longest and widest to survive from the period and the only one to retain its original tapestries and pictures. In the 16th century tapestries, mostly imported from France, were extremely expensive and woven with cloth of gold and silver. They brought the rooms alive with colour. In fact, many of the rooms have survived as they were in Bess’s time, along with beautiful embroidery stitched by Bess and her ladies.
Henry Vll's Chapel, Westminster Abbey, London
This magnificent chapel is the most superb example of Tudor architecture.
If you look up at the roof you can see that it has 15th-century heraldry with ornate fan vaulting and Tudor heraldry of roses and dragons all over the place.
The chapel was originally designed as the final resting place of Henry VI. At the time the dead king was a candidate for sainthood and so this mausoleum would have become another place of pilgrimage, built as it was so close to the shrine of the 11th-century king Edward the Confessor, and would have brought in lots of cash for the church.
Work began in 1502, when the existing 13th-century lady chapel dedicated to the Virgin and the nearby chapel of St Erasmus were demolished to make way for the new structure. Actual building began in January 1503, and by the time Henry VII died in 1509 about £15,000 had been spent and a further £5,000 authorised.
But Henry VIII’s priorities were different from those of his father, and Henry VI remained buried at Windsor. Instead, Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York, lie in the chapel, side by side in the magnificent tomb designed for them by the brilliant Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano.
If you can get close enough, have a look at the face of Henry VII - we know he looked exactly like that. But even better is the nearby tomb of his mother,
Margaret Beaufort, which is so lifelike you almost expect the old dear to sit up and smile at you. The chapel also includes the tombs of Elizabeth I, Mary I, James I and Mary Queen of Scots.
Penshurst Place, Kent
Penshurst, 30 miles south-east of London, was the medieval home of Sir John de Pulteney, who was lord mayor of London four times, and much of his original building survives. In the 15th century it became the home of Henry V’s brothers - John, duke of Bedford, and then Humphrey, duke of Gloucester. After Pulteney’s death three generations of the Stafford family, dukes of Buckingham, owned the house. Each duke added to the building, and their additions remain to this day.
Edward, the third duke, entertained Henry VIII at Penshurst with a lavish banquet in 1519, but such hospitality didn’t prevent Henry from having him executed for high treason two years later, at which point Penshurst returned to the Crown because, in theory, all land in England belonged to the king under the medieval feudal system which had almost, but not quite, disappeared. Although Henry visited Penshurst, he doesn’t seem to have undertaken any work there.
In 1552 Edward VI gave the house to Sir William Sidney, whose son, Henry, added the Queen Elizabeth Room. The magnificent Long Gallery, which presently houses a collection of tapestries and portraits, was added by Sidney’s younger son, Robert, who was a very wealthy man in his own right. He was the nephew of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester (Elizabeth’s favourite; see Chapter 12) and Ambrose, earl of Warwick. Queen Elizabeth I visited the house many times.