Why I keep returning to Henry VIII

I keep thinking about Henry VIII.

He lived at Windsor, Hampton Court and Eltham Palace, the latter two of which I visited last year.

He was responsible for building Nonsuch Palace, of which there are only four known drawings.  In 2011 a scale model of Nonsuch was completed, based on those representations and a lot of historical research.  Charles II gave the Palace to his mistress and she was allowed to dismantle it and sell off the parts in order to clear her gambling debts!

He spent the country’s wealth on war and indulgence.

He was laid at Syon overnight en route to Windsor for his funeral, at which point his engorged body exploded and in the morning the dogs were found licking up his blood.  Nice.

Nevertheless, when visiting houses I keep coming back to him because of what he did culminating in the Second Suppression Act of 1539: the abolition of the monasteries.

The abolition of the monasteries

How different our architectural landscape and country’s focus of wealth could have been were it not for Henry’s Acts, severing England from the Catholic church, causing the destruction and disbursement of the religious houses’ assets and cutting England off from European thoughts and much of the influence of the continental intellectual movement of the Renaissance and its classical thinking on architecture.

This story is particularly poignant at Syon, which was one of the richest abbeys in England, but also at other properties that I’ve visited: Woburn Abbey, Fountains Abbey and Beaulieu.

Following the abolition, the land on which the abbeys and religious houses stood (approximately 25-30 per cent of all English soil) reverted to the Crown.  That’s a lot of building materials and some very good sites that someone was likely to have their eye on.

The consequences of the reformation for the country house

The abolition of the monasteries is an important landmark in the history of England’s great houses because the deconsecration of over 800 abbeys and thousands of religious houses meant that new prime sites (and building materials) were available for the king to award to his loyal courtiers or for (the wealthy to) purchase.

Many skeletons of former abbeys stand on our landscapes, such as Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire (now both maintained by the National Trust); others were in part incorporated into later properties (such as at Beaulieu); and others were dismantled and new properties built, such as at Woburn and Syon (where there is a question mark over whether the vaulted cellars are in fact much earlier constructions incorporated into the later 16th century building).

There were also social consequences of the reformation: whereas before the social, welfare, educational and medical hub of many communities was the (Catholic) Church, although some cathedrals such as Westminster were spared, to a great extent this important section of society was stripped away.  The monasteries were also great owners of books, but most of these were destroyed.

However, the sudden availability of sites, empty buildings and plentiful building materials was not the only reason why people began building some of the greatest houses ever constructed on our shores – there were other factors at work facilitating the growth of the English Country House.

Indeed, as with that old High School exam question “Was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand II the cause of the First World War?”, the question “How did the English Country House come into existence?” must be answered with more than an attribution to the abolition of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

Why is this interesting to me?

I started reading whatever snippets I could come across about the history of the country house as I was keen to start putting all the pieces together.  They all kept bringing me back to Henry VIII and from there I worked both backwards and forwards reaching back to the 1200s and up to the 1900s.

It really does make visiting a house or a garden more rewarding and enjoyable to find context and historical connections to take a house out of the abstract.  Above all, I often find that where a king or queen is mentioned in a house’s history, their influence was significant.

So I’ve identified a number of factors, which had been at play since the 1300s:

  • princes and lords had learned that whereas direct investment in agriculture resulted in fluctuating incomes, straightforward leasing of one’s land resulted in a much more consistent income of rents;
  • with their lands leased, many medieval noble landowners who had previously lived a somewhat nomadic life, moving transiently around their lands and occupying numerous dwellings, focused on maintaining and improving one or two properties and establishing permanent lodgings for staff with facilities and comfort for long-term living.  By way of example, Edward I had 20 houses, Henry VI only 12;
  • inns and lodging houses sprung up, providing overnight stops for wealthy travellers taking long trips and seeking accommodation;
  • from the late 1300s the general population began to recover in numbers following the devastation of the Black Death, famine due to wet summers and war (the population had been decimated by an estimated 60 per cent by the mid-1300s);
  • against this backdrop of population devastation, masons and craftsmen arrived from overseas, seeking work in an industry whose skilled workforce had in part disappeared. Upon finding patrons they infused new architectural ideas into the field of house building;
  • the increasingly widespread use of chimneys and flues facilitated the inclusion in all properties of upper floors as the roof space (typically left open in the great hall to allow smoke to escape) was freed up. (Medieval hall houses were common from the 1180s, providing a layout of a Great Hall for public feasting & hospitality and a screen a passage with kitchens to the side and private halls & upper rooms for the family);
  • the focus on the private (home) life had grown from the 14th century onwards: men desired comfortable lodgings and those who had become tenant farmers and made sufficient funds, desired a timber-framed property of their own, as can be seen by the many surviving 15th and 16th century timber-framed properties (such as Smallhythe (early 16th century) and Great Dixter (late 15th/early 16th century) in Southern England; by the early 16th century even monks had private lodgings and possessions, abbots sumptuous homes and the medieval hall house was including more and more private lodgings;
  • 200 years+ after Norman nobility had settled in England a sense of Englishness was growing, literacy was increasing and a single language was developing;
  • stone sunken foundations began to be used on properties and the process of brick making (which had been lost when the Romans left England) was mastered.  In areas such as London where natural stone resources were limited and the population was dense, brick kilns could be built on site and vast properties could be constructed, as at Sutton House in Hackney.  Whereas earthfast timber-framed structures needed considerable attention in maintenance as the posts would rot every 20 years or so, sunken stone foundations could last for centuries: thus more labour-intensive stone and brick structures were erected;
  • due to a period of stability during Tudor times and under Elizabeth I, in England the defended castle and walled or moated manor house (such as at Ightam Mote (early 14th century) and Broughton (circa 1300)) gave way to the double courtyarded private house.  These houses did not prioritise defence, but instead prioritised a greater purpose of service and good living, such as at Hampton Court.  Many of these houses were built as symbols of courtly and political power (such as at Burghley), the owner and commissioner seeking favour with the monarch (rather than the Church).  Thus lay the acorn from which would grow the concept of state apartments and owners risking bankruptcy to rebuild and redesign their homes to affiliate themselves with their preferred political party (such as at Wentworth Woodhouse with the spectacular addition of a palladian house (fashionable with the Whigs) behind an existing baroque house) or to receive royalty, as at Wilton House;
  • the development of the road infrastructure meant travel to the country was much easier and therefore, for example, Richmond and Ham (where Ham House is located) were much more accessible from Central London by road; concomitantly, the use of carriages meant vehicular accommodation was required for city and country houses alike.  This lead to the development of the mews house (a house and stable sitting behind and between the rows of grander houses), as can still be seen all over Mayfair and Kensington in London; and finally
  • publishing advances meant folios of architectural designs could be distributed more freely.   House designs could therefore be sought more readily.  Notably, in 1611 Sebastian Serlio’s works on Roman orders was published in England.

This is quite a list and clearly many factors were at play in the growth of the country house.  However, amongst the houses mentioned, Thomas Wolsley’s Hampton Court is a prime example of a move towards a ‘Country House’ rather than a defended seat.  Henry VIII himself latterly turned to a passion for building, hoping that Nonsuch would epitomise the Tudor court and its knights.  The site Historivus provides a helpful summary of some surviving properties connected with him.

In the reign thereafter of Elizabeth I, her courtiers also built great gothic properties, such as Burghley, Longleat and Hardwick Hall (with its wall of windows).

The renaissance in Europe and its influence on architecture had not penetrated deep into England and the history of the grand English country house in the 16th century was quite an English affair, deeply interconnected with politics and matters of state.  Of course, it had not hurt that the abolition of the monasteries meant that Henry VIII had created the space in history for houses such as Syon, Woburn and Beaulieu to be constructed.

Just over one century later, England had seen Stuart rule (from 1603), civil war (1642-1651), the Great Fire of London in 1666 (and the consequent need to rebuild the City of London) and was about to greet Dutch rulers.

England was embracing (new) architecture, notably European baroque and then the orders of classical principles from Roman Italy, which brings us back to where I started in January with the classical orders and Palladio.

The order of the day (pun intended!) would become balance and proportion and not to read Baldassare Castiglione’s book, The Perfect Courtier (Il Cortegiano).

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