Somewhere in the 16th and 17th centuries, ordinary people started building differently – private buildings, public buildings. They used brick, glass, decoration and portraiture; and it wasn’t just the aristocracy; Yeomen, merchants, towns, husbandmen. The historian W G Hoskins gave it a name – the Great Rebuilding
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So the subject of today’s episode, is a phenomenon that seems to occur around this time of 16th & 17th centuries in vernacular architecture – the sort of place you and I would have lived in. It is a period that was called, very grandly in the way that historians used to be grand, the Great Rebuilding. This leads me to introduce you to the historian who coined the phrase in an article published in 1953, and set a hare running that continues to roam over the historical landscape – please give it up, gentle listeners, for William George Hoskins, a big hand. Come on down. Hoskins was born in 1908, and died in 1992. He was a lovely, lovely writer was our Hoskins. He came from Devon, and was the proving of that phrase, you can take the man out of Devon, but not Devon out of the man, for he would love his home county all his life and return there. His strong sense of place and belonging, may be a reason why he became a very well known landscape historian for he loved the land around him, and he, and another landscape great Oliver Rackham, are part of the reason that it is a subject I enjoy very much indeed too, albeit in a thoroughly inexpert way.
The other day my mate Pat brought one of Hoskins’ books that had sat on his folks’ bookshelf to a boys’ weekend away, and Pat, Charlie and I wandered over to a village on the Norfolk coast called Saltmarsh, on the strength of Hoskins’ elegiac, and very personal meanderings and recommendation, and a joy it was too. And as you can tell, it’s also evidence that the 3 of us are totally rock and roll, a wild lot who know how to have a good time.
Hoskins’ most famous books in addition to all his telly appearances was called the Making of the English Landscape, which was wildly popular. Well, wildly popular in a scale of Landscape archaeology books. Incidentally one more thing; Hoskins set up the very first University department of Local History, at University College Leicester, invited there to do so in 1948 by the Principal, one Frederick Attenborough. Frederick and Mary Attenborough had three sons, Richard Attenborough, known to the world as Dear Dear Dickie, David Attenborough the modern day secular and environmental saint and holder of England’s national treasure award, and John, who was a luminary in the car trade. David in particular is constantly and apologetically interviewed by the Leicester Mercury, the local rag, about his experiences being inspired by the granite hills of nearby Charnwood and Braggie Park, and a piece of Amber given to him by a pair of Jewish refugees who took refuge in the Attenborough household during the war. Anyway, enough warbling let’s get on shall we?
So the great rebuilding, what was it? Well to go forward, we must go back I deem, for how can you build a future unless you know your past? Discuss. Answers on a postcard. Perfectly possible actually I am sure, but hey don’t tell anyone or they’ll stop listening to history podcasts and we wouldn’t want that would we now? So, the ordinary everyday medieval dwelling the vast majority would have lived in was based around the super traditional hall building, a design part of the landscape since, as Ronnie Barker would have it, time immemmoral. The hall building then had one room, open to the roof, with a hole in the top to let the smoke out from the central fire. In bigger structures, let’s say a farmhouse, there might be a bay at one or even both ends which was used for storage, or maybe even sleeping arrangements. But the hall was the only heated part of the house and so the focus for daily life, because if you start too many fires in a low thatch covered building you pretty soon end up with a pile of ash. Peasant dwellings were often very much integrated with their daily work, storage, even livestock. On occasion, the end bays might even have two storeys – but access was very restricted, to get up to the second story you would need to use ladders; nor could you move from a bay at one end of the house to the bay at the other, if you were grand enough to have them – because of course the double height hall was in the way, there were no corridors and so on. Any windows or openings in the wall would be titchy tiny, because there’d be essentially nothing between the occupants and the north Sea as the wind came whistling though, except maybe leaky wooden shutters, or more commonly, you’d stretch a piece of linen over the gap, soaked in something like linseed oil.
If you were in a farmhouse, the sheds, barns all that were closely clustered around, and many dwellings were built on the idea that they were temporary. This depends a bit of where you lived; in some parts of England timber was not that easy to get or at least stone was the local material, and therefore stone houses might be built, and just as men don’t cry, stone doesn’t rot. But usually, the normal humble dwelling was built of wood, would rot and therefore regularly be replaced. You may remember the phenomenon of creeping villages – when a house on one toft fell to pieces, you might just built a new one at the end of the street rather than go to the bother of clearing the site – and so the village slowly crept down the road! Cute. Another reason also for very simple buildings – you wouldn’t want to be rebuilding Whitehall palace every couple of years now would you? So it needed to be easy to replace buildings, keep them simple is not stupid.
However, a caution for later is that we tend to over focus on technology and practicality when thinking about building, and there is a sort of whig history in this – we imagine that all history has been leading up to the semi-detached centrally heated, well plumbed lego box with carpets and rooms and things. And I guess in a way we were, it’s far nicer than having an outside loo and a bucket, but there are many cultural aspects to building design too. Medieval society was one of relatively simple hierarchies, especially the further back you go, very much organised in the country at least around community living and working. So hall type structures suited the culture, and well as, frankly, being the easiest format for the vast majority to manage. But it has to be said these buildings were full of smoke, and honestly right up to the 19th century the poorer dwellings would be utterly abject in poorer villages. I mean we go on about conditions in the shock Victorian cities like Manchester and so on – but believe you me, people weren’t living in palaces in the countryside either.
But from sometime in the 16th Century Hoskins detected a change. One of the other things I need to write about was the rise of antiquarian and local writing in England, which means we have a lot more physical descriptions of the countryside around this time – but anyway, another day another time, in the meantime here is a man called Richard Carew in his Survey of Cornwall written in the 1580s about changes he’s been noticing recently in his hood. First of all he describes the traditional Cornish dwelling as built with
Walls of earth, low thatched roofes, few partitions, no planchings or glasse windowes, and scarcely any chimnies, other than a hole in the wall to let out the smoke:
Planchings, by the way, meant floor boards – the floors would be beaten earth. Inside, there were few possessions:
their bed, straw and a blanket: as for sheets, so much linnen cloth had not yet stepped over the narrow channell, between them and Brittaine To conclude, a mazer and a panne or two, comprised all their substance
A mazer was a wooden bowl; possibly the root meaning of Admiral Mazer Rackham’s name in Enders Game when he took on the aliens – ‘he who defeats the Bugs with a wooden bowl’ but on the other hand possibly not; I think panne becomes to mean a lustrous silk velvet, but d’you know what? I don’t think that there was a lot of lustrous silk velvet in Cornish medieval peasant dwellings in the 16th century, I could be wrong, so I went hunting in the dictionary of archaic words, and it could be a sort of skin bed covering, or a flimsy side panel. Or alternatively, a parsnip in Cornish patois, but Richard of Carew was no Baldrick to dream of a turnip of his own in the country, so maybe not that. Anyway, he then goes on to describe a change
but now most of these fashions are universally banished, and the Cornish husbandman conform himself with a better supplied civility to the Eastern pattern
By Eastern pattern I think he’s referring to England, rather than, say Turkey. N line with Carew’s observations, we hear also from Robert Furze who succeeded to a new estate in 1593 and notes that he built a new entrance to his house, put a ceiling on the hall, and glazed the windows; and he had a proper granite staircase to his new second floor. That that’s house pride.
Now, it’s difficult to be accurate about this, as Hoskins observed, because the survival of actual building to the modern day varied according to region. In the Cotswolds quite a few buildings survive because the best local material is stone; in the Midlands, survival is much rarer because building was of timber and clay which rots. This is one of the beauty of the English landscape – and anywhere probably I’d guess, you still know you are in Norfolk, and indeed which part of Norfolk, because of the flint or clunch, or Northamptonshire Ironstone, Leicestershire granite, Chalk, gravel and Clay of East Riding Yorkshire, Black and white timber frames of the Welsh Borders so on and so forth – much replaced by Victorian brick of course, but still out there forming the local character.
Hoskins traced a change in vernacular building almost all over the country, except maybe the 4 northern traditional counties of Cumberland, Northumberland, Westmoreland and Durham. And he was quite specific about the date range of all this development to boot – 1570s to 1640s, and even centring on 1575 to 1625. What exactly were these changes then?
Well, by way of an example, I might take you to a very famous cottage, and one on the History of England inaugural tour schedule, that cottage in the village of Shottery once the home of Anne Hathaway. It was bought by one John Hathaway in 1543, thence to Richard Hathaway whose daughter Anne married some scribbler and city slicker called Bill from the big smoke of nearby Stratford in 1582. The Hathways were yeoman farmers, and the building, originally maybe from the 1460s, was a two celled building with a door into a passage, kitchen to the right, hall structure to the left, with an ‘ole in the roof. Low, smokey, draughty and all. At some point the building was improved – possibly by Bartholomew Hathaway, Richard’s son and Anne’s brother, around 1610, though there’s an inscription much later 1697 but that could be just repairs. They’d acquired the Freehold by this time, and were going up in the world; so they built a new, taller section to extend the house. They built a big chimney stack in the middle of the house made of brick, and inserted a ceiling in the hall and the new section, subdividing the first floor into smaller rooms and they would have built a staircase to boot so that the rooms were accessible along the first floor. Since there was now no hall to the roof, you could walk your way along the length of the first floor from end to end of the building. By golly how exciting was must that have been, what sumptuous comfort!
So that, my friends is where we are going on the Tour – not because of the scribbler, but because this is a good example of what Hoskins was describing as the Great Rebuilding, and the changes that were typical of improvements being made all over England. In summary, the changes were broadly of two sort of types; either the substantial rebuilding of old dwellings, the modernisation of existing; or new builds. But modernisation and expansion of existing farmhouses was the most common, probs. The focus was to improve the internal space, and create more of it at the same time. So, the Hathaway residence was typical. A porch or lobby entry might be added and a chimney with a central hearth, with multiple flues, often central so that it could serve both ends of the house, sitting at one end of the hall rather than having the hearth in the middle of the hall as for the medieval house. Or, for the more wealthy, there might be two chimneys for larger developments. Behind the chimney there might be added a permanent staircase, because then you’d add a ceiling over the hall and rooms in the first floor. On the ground floor, if your new ceilinged main room was on the left, on the other side of chimney you might now have a parlour as well as a kitchen, so you could noodle for a while. If you were relatively posh, you might put your best bed in that room for guests – and, obviously, leave your second best bed for the wife and yourself in the will. And then, wonder of wonder, you might have glazing in your windows. No more North Sea wind for supper.
Obviously, there was lots of local variations in building materials, wealth and all that; your husbandman might only be able to afford a few improvements, wealthy Yeomen or lesser gentry might even begin to look at the social superiors and try to imitate what they were doing, imposing some sort of symmetry in buildings. But the trend of improvement is there.
In 1613, one Gervase Markham wrote a book for aspiring yeoman, called ‘The English Husbandman’, and includes a little map, which is on the website BTW, that might serve as a template for the upper reaches of peasant society – a sort of H shaped house. It has a large lobby entrance in the middle of the two wings of the H, a central hall, 5 service rooms in one wing and 3 larger rooms for entertaining in the other, two staircases and two floors. Now that’s very much for the upper reaches and would have been beyond most, but was what they were aiming at. A more common arrangement might be the Pendean farmhouse which is preserved at the Weald and Downland museum – which sort of went half way – there, they couldn’t afford the glass so still had titchy little windows despite extending the house- it’s about what you can afford to do at the time. Also worth noting that for most below gentry level, brick was too pricey to be used for anything more than the chimney – the Chimney, that was no 1 priority. Warmth. Clean air, more heated rooms.
Well, you can imagine what a change this must have made to peoples’ lives. The smoke was gone. The windows were large so everything was more airy and light – and yet at the same time, toasty warm by comparison, I mean it must have been a revelation. Hoskins also noted at the same time that the number of furniture and fittings increased in wills and inventories – maybe you’d have cupboards, more than one chair. You could have rooms for specific purposes like kitchen, family parlour, sleeping, storage rather than everything happening in the one hall. I mean – wild!
And it was not only the internal life that was impacted – England’s environment changed a bit too. There were more buildings; Hoskins identifies a deal more building on wastes during Elizabethan days, of new houses, mainly confined to cottages. And at the same time, farms began to grow in other ways – barns, kiln houses, smithies, that sort of thing. And more of the houses look different; so there’s a famous quote from William Harrison in 1577 – when I say famous I mean, sort of famous, not like you know, Liverpool FC or Adele or whatever, but very famous indeed to a very small number of people. Anyway, in his ‘Description of England’ Harrison wrote with marvel of ‘the multitude of chimneys lately erected’, and went on to enthuse
In their young days (Harrison here is referring to maybe 1510-20) there were not above two or three chimneys, if so many, in most uplandish towns of the realm…but each one made his fire against a reredos in the hall, where he dined and dressed his meat
So tell me why everyone? Just tell me why? Why is this happening? Just for a bit more historiography, and for the record, Hoskins was writing before CamPop. That is not a fizzy drink, but trendy, cool and generally long haired short hand for the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, set up in 1964 to nail the demographic history of England and Wales because all this uncertainty hanging around in shopping malls beating up old ladies was annoying everyone. So under the leadership of one Professor Wrigley, and building on techniques I think developed by French historians, they duly so nailed it. So it’s really interesting reading Hoskins’ first article – because he has to reach for far more generalities, textual sources and the such like to look for reasons why all this rebuilding happened. By and large he gets much of it right – or at least he gets the general story of the growth in population and wealth bit right.
So, essentially, as previously covered, population between 1540 and 1640 was going through a century of growth, unprecedented since the 13th century – we’ve talked about this plenty, so if that’s a surprise to you, well, you know, keep up would you. Just kidding, obviously. Population growth impoverished many of the wage labourer and cottager with under and unemployment, rising food prices and falling real wages – if you were poor, money short times are hard and there’s no cash for a Christmas card. But if you had land, this was a great time. Prices for your goods were going up, labour costs were falling; even if you were a tenant, with long lasting customary tenures still hanging around it was hard for landowners to raise your rent. And anyway, if you had a good tenant it was in a landowner’s interests to keep hold of them; we often talk about social injustice, outrage, and rent racking landowners and all that blah, but you know it’s quite probable that the majority thought as did this Devonian Yeoman advising his successors of dealing with their tenants:
Burden them not with more fines, rents, or services more than they be well able to pay you: displease not an honest friendly tenant for a trifle or small sum of money
So Hoskins was right to suggest that an increasing number of families had some money saved up after a good few years of good times, and why not spend it on a more comfortable living environment?
And then, there are good technical reasons. Firstly, brick became much more cheaply and widely available as the organisation of rural crafts grew. I do not think there was any great break through in technical innovation, maybe the greater use of coal, probably more a question of rising demand and greater commercialisation. The same happened with glass. This appears to have been one of the many benefits of immigration, and the great benefit we gained from France’s loss of the hostile environment for Huguenots – French experts were brought to England, as long as they promised to train locals in their skills. Interestingly enough there also seems to have been a benefit from those evil monopolies we hear so much about; well there was in the case of glass.
In the early 17th century one Robert Mansell acquired the glass monopoly, and the assured income and rising demand allowed him to invest – London was a centre, but he took production to near where there was a supply of coal – Tyneside in the North East – and set up factories there. It’s quite interesting why he did that; he may well have found that coal was a better energy source, and it’s difficult to over emphasise the importance of coal in the industrial revolution, coming to a podcast near you soon. But it was also because the Elizabethan parliament limited by law the use of wood for fuel, because it was worried about excessive use of high woods, and the stock of building timber. It is worth noting that all this rebuilding was probably very much part of that; to build a 2 bay house would use over a 100 trees. And you have to bear in mind that much wood was anyway not managed at the time for high wood, tall trees and building timber; but as various kind of coppicing, pollarding and wood pasture, designed for a mixed economy. Trees were cut back to provide suitable wood spars for hurdles, charcoal, burning, bodging and so on. So large timber was precious.
Anyway, so not only were house owners or tenants richer, materials like glass and brick were now cheaper to boot.
Alongside this wealth, commercial and capitalist farming was now firmly embedded in the very weft and warp of the English agrarian economy; subsistence farming was increasingly rare, you focussed on what you were good at, at least in part, and supplemented the rest by buying it in. Distribution channels were better established, the market was increasingly regional or even national, contract relationships underpinned society. And so the relatively simple structure of medieval society – lord, peasant, religious, and merchants – was dizzyingly complex by comparison – nobility, gentry, gentlemen, yeoman of various hues, husbandmen, the middling sort in towns and country, retailers, rural craft workers. The great rebuilding of vernacular buildings, Hoskins therefore put down to the middling sort – primarily in the country, the yeomen and below them the Husbandmen, who now could suddenly afford a better living environment – just like the Hathaways. However, all this social complexity meant that now there were social pressures and aspirations too with a capital A capital P – as we saw in the Commotion time, the old leaders of peasant society, the yeomen, now saw themselves aspiring to be part of gentry and gentleman, no longer head of the peasant grievances but more culturally in tune with the nobs. So there were other reasons why you might want your farm to look like a house laid out on a symmetrical H plan, like a mini Hardwick hall or something – it said something about you.
That then moves us on to historical controversy. So far then, great idea, well done Hoskins my man. But you know, there’s nothing a good historian likes than a good grand narrative to snipe at, tall poppy syndrome, and the Great Rebuilding in no different. Hoskins very openly noted he was talking about rural society – the work had not been done to talk about towns, so we’ll come to that in a mo. In the 1970s’, one of the historians who took aim was one Robert Machin. He used a technique of basing his analysis on buildings dated by the builders in some way, and came up with a graph that was much later for the rebuilding – around the 1690s, and then painted a general trend in a much wider arc in various stages. Starting with
the development in late medieval England of a growth in permanent building from the old, ‘Oh it’ll just rot soon and we’ll build a new one’,
all the way through to the 18th century change from local vernacular styles to a more pattern book catalogue of standard styles demanded by so called polite society.
From there, the grand Hoskinian theory descended into a sort of intellection mush; Chris Currie cast doubt on the idea that we could make any conclusions from surviving buildings – because by definition it ignored all the buildings that hadn’t survived, and which were often built over – destroying the evidence of what happened when.  Eric Mercer suggested that different parts of England developed at different stages and times, and so any kind of national story was probably questionable before the 18th century. Such is the way grand theories die – you gradually slice bits off until nothing is left.
Then the debate moved on again; feminist historians made the point that we tend to focus on practical matters of economics of social change; but that the internal space was primarily seen as a women’s arena, and therefore gender and the how women affected internal design is critical. And once you’ve accepted that point, it makes you realise that there’s much more going on here than simple economics – space is deeply affected by cultural considerations; gender roles, social roles, cultural impacts such as popular folklore and witchcraft even.
After all of that, however, Hoskins’s story has survived – the sign of a strong basic hypothesis. There seems little doubt that the 16th and 17th centuries did not see just another cycle of rebuilding – they saw a striking change in the way that buildings were laid out and organised. And all the slicing has not really destroyed Hoskins’ central thesis – it has in fact refined it.
So one of these was a historian called Johnson’s theory of closure, which looked at social and cultural change and how that reflected itself in the use of space. Hoskins hadn’t ignored culture actually – he saw the downward flow of the impacts of the renaissance in the greater desire for privacy. But it was more than privacy; the growth of capitalism in the rural economy created much greater social polarisation as we have noted; the middling sort wanted to carve out a space for themselves. They were distinctive, but also saw themselves as becoming part of the world of gentility. The extra space and division of houses allowed a greater separation to start between Master and servant – separate bedrooms for the Family rather than everyone bunking down together with the staff in the hall. In the Hall, some houses went to the bother of having a raised dais, like a mini lord’s hall, family up here, workers and servants down there.
When Stephen Mileson, who you may remember talking to me on this podcast about South Oxfordshire, looked in detail at nucleated villages such as Cuxham, it became clear that the whole position of buildings was beginning to change. Whereas medieval buildings sat direct on the road and green; now the smarter sort began to move their houses back a bit from the road to reflect their higher status, and their ability to create a level of privacy the poor could not afford; they even began to orient the fronts of the houses at right angles to the road, again so that they had more privacy. Functional farm buildings began to be moved further away from the central house for the same reason of separation, privacy and a bit of peace and quiet. This is another example of enclosure of different social spheres – similar I suppose if you ill with the enclosure going on in the fields – the move anyway from a single community of social organisation, an emphasis of separate spheres and individual wealth that characterised the capitalisation and fragmentation of English society. Inside, the ability to move the kitchen, parlour, storage away from the main shared room also saw a representation of that impact of gender – increasingly there was the start of separate spheres for women and men.
Well we haven’t talked about the Urban environment, because that was another slice taken from the body of Hoskins’ Great Rebuilding; he hadn’t thought about towns, only the country, and since 1953 a lot of work and thinking has been done about that. One of those was a piece of work carried out in Norwich, which is, as the council declares to the world, a Fine City, a delightfully English style of understated marketing slogan that speaks to my soul, and as a ‘fine city’ it has many early modern building survivals – it is most certainly a thoroughly lovely city. Historian Chris King then, concluded that actually Norwich generally supported Hoskins’ thesis – and thus the grand narrative continues to grow. But he made the point that in an urban context it all happens rather earlier; and probably this is because Urban society had much earlier become more complex and commercial than in the countryside, and that process of economic and social differentiation correspondingly earlier.
He also stresses the impact that noble innovators had on the development of town housing. In a town context that’s often because the nobility are very much present, cheek by jowl with their fellow townsmen of all rank, and were carrying out their own building for themselves or investments. And the same changes were going on not just at the private houses level; Katherine Giles had looked at religious and guild buildings in York, and identified the same separations of space, as meetings and governance became more social stratified. And so, the importance of social and cultural factors are clearly central to this Great Rebuilding in the urban environment too.
While I’m on nobility and towns I might also mention here two strands of building that kind of come together a bit, in the sponsorship of public buildings in towns. Generally, the Great Rebuilding can firstly be broadened out to public buildings as a category – there’s enormous growth in Schools, and university buildings, and in almshouses and hospitals. There’s also a growth in the building in towns, which we’ll come to, and also of Town Halls. This growth was driven by a couple of factors; firstly, the general population growth increased demand for houses in towns. It was quite uneven depending where you lived – some places like Exeter, York and especially London grew wildly; others actually stagnated. But overall, urban population grew in line with general growth and a bit more; the 17th century in particular saw the start of the urban growth that would explode in the 18th century and be one of the main drivers of the industrial revolution. But secondly, the number of incorporated towns grew strongly after the Reformation. One argument for why loads of new town corporations are created, was that with the dissolution of the Monasteries, townspeople looked around for other sources of security; and they found it in civic institutions. This drove the growth of town corporations, with a big increase in the number of boroughs out there with the kind of freedoms and self governance that towns enjoyed.
So this has an impact first of all on the building of Town Halls, and I might need to indulge in some additional noodling here, if you wouldn’t mind. There were two groups with a particular interest in building town halls. There is the elite of the town itself – the civic leaders, guilds, oligarchs and so on. But also, there are the local magnates and nobility.
Often town halls they are pretty functional. Almost always are bang in the middle, in the market place, a symbol of corporate identify and pride and administration. A standard model for a Town Hall was a lower ground open with arcades on three sides, for use by stall keepers and traders, and then an upper story room for meetings or administrative functions.
Both these two groups often wanted to use Town Halls as an opportunity to emphasise their power and influence, and you know just general greatness. For the Nobility, this was something they were well used to – emphasising their importance to local society and community, driven by the desire to emphasise their status, but also, more generously, they reflected a genuine commitment to public service, a duty of the nobility re-inforced by the influence of the Renaissance humanism.
I have two examples to give you of this, and interestingly both are from recusant catholic families – and there’s a message in that. On the one hand, although we talk a lot about the persecution of Catholics; in fact, very few of the noble families are forced out of their leading community roles by fines or confiscations. The Treshams who will be one of the examples to follow, do disappear but essentially the self-combust through a combination of treason and profligacy rather than persecution. The Stonors who are the other example, take a very different strategy and keep their heads down and stick around – still around actually in the lovely Stonor Park today, another destination for Le Tour. But the main point is that Catholic families were much excluded from positions of national leadership at court – though as James and Charles’s reign rather demonstrate, you can over emphasise that too. But nonetheless, big Catholic families feel their exclusion from national public life keenly. In the local community is their chance to re-assert that role of local leader, patron and the traditions of generous lordship in service of the community. So in the little town of Rothwell there is a very grand and highly decorated Town Hall. It is covered in inscriptions and coats of arms, proclaiming the importance of the local magnate family – the Treshams and their noble alliances. Thomas Tresham was not a believer in subtle philanthropy purely for the common good in self effacing fashion – indeed the words ‘The Work of Thomas Tresham, Knight’ is up there carved into stone for eternity so that no one could possibly forget.
The other example is from my hood in the little town of Watlington at the foot of the Chiltern Scarp, and is much more simple and indeed self effacing Tresham’s Rothwell. It is a very fine piece of work for a small town, all built in local brick from the Nettlebed works up the road. It was built by Thomas Stonor in 1664, and has an undercroft for traders, and the first floor room for the council admin – and also for a little Grammar School that met there.
The other group we mentioned were of civic leaders. They had a slightly different problem. Unlike the nobility, for many of them especially in newly incorporated or growing towns, they may not have that noble tradition of assumed legitimacy, status and leadership – after all, they were in trade, darling. They faced competition for their new leadership roles – local aristocracy, ecclesiastical authorities, guilds. Building a civic culture was part of the legitimization of their leadership. So new town halls often went along with a lot of painting and imagery, of a particular type. This is the start of the additional digression, incidentally, a wart on the wart to make a multiple carbuncle of digression, Did you know you were in a digression? It’s like the matrix out here.
It’s always confused me a little, if I may be rude, and why Elizabethan portraiture is so terribly uninspiring – probably there’s someone thumping the desk out there in fury, someone who actually knows what they are talking about and disagrees , but look we had the glories of Holbein and Hilliard – and then there’s a procession of rather lifeless and flat portraits or general scenes; and meanwhile the Dutch are going potty with astounding art, and art everywhere in ordinary houses a-plenty. Well partly this is because patronage for art changes very dramatically; while the idea that the Reformation sees off pictorial art is a bit rubbish the society of the word rather than the image sort of thing is much overstated, there is loads of imagery still around. But there is no longer patronage around for all the devotional stuff, so that goes. And there’s a deal of nervousness about charges of idolatory; religious reformers had argued that over accurate representations of the human form and face might encourage worship of the image and person, rather than a focus on divinity. So the need that dominates is much more about this legitimisation thing, done wition safe parametres of realism.
So pictoral art, particularly in the new civic centres, focusses not on representing real life, it’s all about projecting authority though individual and group portraits of benefactors, officials, heroes and heroines; the emblems of royalty as much as the image of individuals. Everything was focussed in towns on the new civic culture, of decorum, virtue and a corporate identity for the community. There’s a similar focus in the new long galleries that appear in the great houses – a sort of ancestor worship, emphasising achievements, past and present.
Sometimes the buildings themselves were part of this; a good example is the Exeter Guildhall, rebuilt in unusually grand fashion, an expression of commercial success, growth, civic power and authority, very much drawing on the aristocratic love of classicism to emphasise the Corporation’s social and cultural chops.
Ok, noodle sort of over; but what about private building then, houses and so on? As Chris King and Katherine Giles concluded, towns also see the same rebuilding as goes on in the countryside. There were two basic models. The nobility tended to build on a smaller scale the sort of buildings they were used to at their country seats – based around a courtyard style, making few concessions to economising on space even though they are in the middle of a town. Noblesse oblige, after all. I am pointed to Plas Mawr in Conway, Wales, for a good example, and there is a link and pic on the website on the episode post. There were loads in London of course, given the presence of court – but they have all been built over in the name of mammon.
The other type is much more common of course – the merchants and private dwellings, and the building and improvement of what we might call the narrow stacked house. For the more ordinary citizen, without the bottomless pockets of the nobility, the maximisation of space was absolutely the thing, keeping the footprint as small as possible. Your wealthy merchant liked such a design – because they could have a nice roomy house close to the town centre.
We need an example again, and let us once more cunningly take it from the inaugural History of England Tour, where again we are going to Stratford, not to see the bloody bard oh dearie me no, but to see something about the great rebuilding, so I offer unto you Harvard House, right in the middle of Straftord. It was built in 1596 for Thomas Rogers, a butcher and cattle merchant by trade. We are used to seeing them around are we not?
The ground floor usually consisted of a shop off the main street, with a parlour and or kitchen to the rear. The grandest reception room was on the first floor, with bedrooms then stacked above and possibly even a garret room in the attic at the top. You did everything you could to steal every extra inch of space – so, you’d have progressively projecting jetties on 1st and 2nd floors, maybe a bay window or two.
The Harvard house is also an exercise in status building – with elaborate carvings and timber work. It is a one bay house – but the grander and wealthier merchants might also expand sideways, with 2 or even 3 bay houses. Inside, houses were richly decorated – painting directly onto the wall panels was a common way of carrying on. If you are looking for another fine example you might hop over to Plymouth, and the Elizabethan House museum too.
So there you have it ladies and gentlemen I have warbled on far too long, once described by Benjamin Disraeli as being ‘inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity’. Sorry about that. The famous insult, as you may know, was directed at a far more impressive rival, William Gladstone, of whom Dizzy again famously said that he had ‘not a single redeeming defect’, which is a nice line is it not? I mean, you have surely to prefer Gladstone the statesman, but I’d rather have Dizzy round for supper.
 Hoskins, WG, The Rebuilding of Rural England, 1570-1640, Past & Present, No. 4 (Nov., 1953), p45
 Tambling, Tara ‘Architecture in Doran ‘The Elizabethan world’ p602
 Mileson ‘Peasant Perceptions of Landscape in South Oxfordshire’, p286
 Johnson, M ‘RETHINKING THE GREAT REBUILDING’, p119
 King, C ‘Closure’ and the urban Great Rebuilding in early modern Norwich’ https://doi.org/10.1179/174581310X12662382629139