349 The Country House


The Elizabeth and Jacobean age was a time of social mores and the way England was ruled – and the great medieval household withered away. To leave something smaller, more symmetrical – and of extraordinary beauty. And then there’s also Little Moreton Hall, a gentry interpretation of the Great Rebuilding.

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Don’t forget to visit the article on the Great Houses I kept mentioning, with pictures, descriptions and layouts.



Ok, so this is the second of our brace of buildings episodes. One more of these folks, then we’ll be into Charles I, never fear, and you can start loading your muskets for Buckingham’s swashbuckling.

Last time we dealt with Merchants, farmers, yeomen, the sort of better off but not necessarily grand – the middling sort of town and country as it were. This time around I think we’ll start at the top-ish with the magnates and peers, and come downwards, and we can meet in the middle with the Gentry.

Now where I thought I should probably start is with the late medieval country house; I do this on two bases; firstly, because as we know, us history lovers, how can you know where you are going if you don’t know whence you came? Secondly, for less noble and artistic reasons – because I have sort of done it before in a members shedcast series about Margaret Beaufort, and I am a big believer in the publishers’ concept of the re-use of assets.

Margaret Beaufort of course had a wild life, and that’s no lie. You all know the outline I think, keen to rehabilitate her son Henry under the Yorkist Edward IV; determined to bring down the usurper Richard III and replace him with her son. In which aim she was successful. Despite the precariousness of her life at various points, Margaret was none the less a very grand person indeed, with vast tracts of land. During her seemingly very successful marriage to Henry Stafford, she had a grand palace at Woking, the ground plan of which has been largely understood; she lived at the Stanley palaces of Knowsley and Latham when married to Stanley, and then when free and her lad was kinging away, Henry repaid her dedication and love by effectively making her a regional satrap in the Midlands, at her palace of Collyweston – about which we know little, though I believe excavations are going on.

So to demonstrate the late medieval magnate’s palace it is to Woking we must go – which would probably have been the least grand. The context is that though it is Henry VII’s time that we begin to trace the fundamental transformation from a medieval state run by regional magnates, to a modern state run by the centre and a court based aristocracy, Margaret’s world was the late medieval one.

One of her responsibilities and that of her lord was as an estate owner, the head of a large household; and need to welcome great men and women from her wider affinity, and courtiers from Westminster – and in her case, no lesser than the king, Edward IV.

So, the Staffords would have had a large household, and a big retinue of liveried men at arms. At the heart of their house was a small group of crucial rooms and buildings utterly fundamental to the exercise of medieval lordship and society; the Lords Hall, a big hall to entertain her tenants and household, to awe them with their power and wealth, and provide the hospitality and maintenance absolutely expected of the great lord and lady. There would be a church and the farm and estate buildings.

The hall was where Margaret and her husband surrounded themselves with their household, tenants and estate workers. The Hall had to be very grand and decked with finery. At the main meal of the day, around 11, all would eat together, with the minstrels and trumpets, the rich hangings that shouted the greatness and magnificent hospitality of this noble family to all their duly grateful people. The Kitchen buttery and estate buildings might not necessarily be connected in the same building as the hall – they might form a cluster outside. I should make a point about the medieval household too; to be in the household of a great lord was, for want of a better phrase, a great thing. The Steward and several major officials would be significant landowners in their own right, holding such a role was a route to fame and fortune. You were not just a functionary.

The typical arrangement was around a large courtyard, with components of the house arranged around it, accessed from a Gatehouse – the model was still very much the inward looking, in the shape of the castle, memories of defence. By the 14th century the old keep as the centre of the castle had died though – largely because military architecture had moved on and made it, obsolete, using curtain walls instead; Keeps were cramped and dark and uncomfortable, with little private space for anyone, not great places to live unless you were worried about being hacked to death in an idle moment. If you were worried about that they were just perfect of course.

Although the massive, tall Keep died, one of its salient features does not – that of the tall massiveness of it all because that was very grandness and your magnate like a bit of showing off just so you didn’t miss how terribly, terribly important they were. The super grand Duke of Buckingham’s Thornbury Castle was festooned with Towers, impressing the world with their exceptional height and with large windows offering a light airy environment inside with magnificent views. An expression of power, wealth and luxury.

The kitchen was often separate to the Hall – it was a fire hazard and best kept away, and it produced vast quantities of smoke and smell. The people who worked there had to deal with stifling heat – one of the rules that survives is one banning nakedness in the kitchen, as the workers sweated away.  That’s a horrid thought. Serving the Kitchen were pantry and buttery, with beer often brought up from the cellar direct to the buttery. From Pantry the Yeomen distributed bread, and from Buttery beer and candles. Beer was distributed to all at the feast; wine just to the high table, placed on a cupboard by the dais – a cupboard still being a trestle table at this point. Although the trend was resisted, the Pantry and Buttery, lying between the Kitchen and Great Hall, became a place where the servants had meals like breakfast rather than using the Great Hall all the time.

On rare occasion, Margaret and Henry might take their ease in the Great Chamber, originally a sort of private sitting room for the lord and his guests. The Great Chamber was beyond the end of the Great Hall, at least a floor up often above a room called the Parlour on the ground floor. From the 14th century, to the disgust of William Langland, it became increasingly common for the lord and his immediate household to seek the privacy of the great chamber away from the sweaty masses. In 1362, Langland spat

Wretched is the Hall…each day in the week

There the lord and lady liketh not to sit

Now have the rich a rule to eat by themselves

In a privy parlour for poor man’s sake

Or in a chamber with a chimney, and leave the chief hall

That was made for meals for men to eat in

So, despite the appeal of tradition and lordship, here we have a process that will simply become more and more marked – one of retreat, a centrifugal force pulling the lord and family away from their tenants and servants. The comfort of the Great Chamber was helped in the 15th century with the arrival of brick as a cheap, common and fashionable building material, which we talked about last time; it allowed many more chimneys in houses both grand and more modest, and transformed the atmosphere of the smaller rooms. Some chimneys were massive, giving places for guests to draw apart and have a chat in even; the Great Chambers also began to have very grand windows, bay or oriel windows often, again creating  more space, light, comfort and privacy.

By Margaret Beaufort’s days it is more than likely that Margaret and her hubby would have had their main meal away from their household, in the Great Chamber on an upper floor. The ceremony of the event very much remained though – eating was very formal indeed. In the chamber a strict hierarchy applied – and if you were invited to eat there you were either a guest or an important member of the household – it was a signal honour.

Originally the Great Chamber would have contained the lord’s bed too, for here was often where he slept, and slept with his immediate servants, and the boards and trestle table were temporary affairs arranged and set up for the feast and taken down when all was done. But the grander you were, the earlier the Great Chamber became purely for eating and entertainment rather than sleeping and living, and as part of the process of retreat, a suite of room began to develop around the chamber for the use of the lord and his immediate family. At the same time separate suites of rooms might begin to appear to be provided for the guests, lodgings, which might also include their own smaller Great hall, a sort of country house in miniature.

There might then be a closet which was an important room – not a place for mops or buckets but designed as the lord’s study, or the place where he met his great servants for important discussions. Next began to appear the Privy chambers – which came to be where the lord and lady had their private bedrooms, as they further retreated, and the Great Chamber became devoted to eating and a sleeping place for closest personal servants and household.

There’s one more room to mention which will become very important in years to come, which is the Parlour, often on the ground floor below the Great chamber, behind the dais end of the Great Hall. The origin of the parlour is monastic – this was the room where visitors from outside could meet and talk with the members of the monastic community, hence the name from parler of course, to talk. Later in the 15th century and beyond, to get further away from ceremony and formality and gain once more in privacy, to retreat further from the public eye, the lord and his family might eat here, out of the public eye.

Absolutely finally, Woking has an interesting feature – a second smaller hall and set of chambers. Now that’s weird – what’s going on there, how many houses did Margaret need for crying aloud? Well, this was provision for visits of the very grand – so they could have their own mini hall and lodgings. That seems a little profligate – a second house just on the off chance – but when not expecting visitors, the small hall would get used as well; it would probably be made available for the smellier farm workers – you know, those with dung, to keep the flies out of the grand hall.

There’s one more very popular feature to mention at Woking, outside this time. Many houses also had a deer park. Deer parks were super popular in medieval England, mainly laid out between 1200 and 1350; at one stage there were 5,000 or more across Britain, most now lost. The deer park was the ultimate expression of power; they required licence from the king to be laid out, and economically they were almost completely wasted space; certainly, they employed rangers and labourers, but substantial land was taken out of productive agriculture and rental income; though of course often the land they occupied was not the finest of agricultural land. A Deer Park was usually enclosed by an earth mound topped with an empalement, a wall of split oak stakes basically – this is the origin of the pale in Ireland, pale, the enclosed park sort of thing. To a degree they were an expression of social climbing, an attempt by the nobility to copy the practice of royal forests – a Norman import which, incidentally, the nobility and common people had many times kicked furiously against. They begin to be broken up after the civil war, destroyed and ploughed up for agriculture. Jolly old Cromwell eh? Also, that has an effect on the status of venison; you might think deer would be an easily available meat for all. Sadly not – it was reserved for royalty and nobility, presenting a buck was a great gift from noble to noble. Presenting a buck from peasant to peasant might have very nasty consequences indeed if the lord and lady found out about it.

OK so what do we have? A grand house, with echoes still of the castle and community that originally spawned it – gatehouse, courtyard, centred around the Great Hall, the centre of a broad and integrated estate based community from peasant & farm workers to tenants and household. But creeping change – more sophistication, more complexity and the beginnings of retreat to greater privacy by the great family and to a degree their household as well


Well let me whisk you forward a hundred years to the 1580s, and everything has changed after 100 years of Tudor rule. The regions of England are no longer ruled by regional satraps and magnates, albeit they are still strongly influential. The day to day administration of the shires is conducted directly through the crown with the partnership of the local Gentry and parishes as their agents. The nobility have become oriented in their search to give service, achieve advancement and patronage around the court and crown. All those medieval retinues with bully boys in red and Green turning up at the capital for parliaments and taking the place over – they are outlawed and have been for a while. And the houses and households of the magnates had changed too.

But a note of caution – things change slowly, and some people are behind the times. So, someone should have read out of a textbook about Tudor England to explain all this to the Earl and Countess of Derby for example, the Stanleys. Even in 1580 they come across as the head of a thoroughly medieval magnate family and community. They continue to have a massive household – 115 to 140 people would you believe. Their household were still run by very high status families – their Steward was himself a major landowner for example, their Clerk Comptroller also a member of the Gentry. The family moved between their 2 major estates, and when they were at court they decamped to London with a substantial following – London itself, growing like topsy it might be, but was still festooned with gated and walled manors just like in the country. These big households were generally becoming smaller though; household officials began to become more functionnaries rather than gentle landowning families – but it’s well into the 17th century before that is the rule. So, you know – note of caution time, grey areas, graduation evolution not a hard and fast finish and start.

Changing societies demanded a changing household and grand houses around them. The impact of the renaissance fed through – you could no longer be a warlike illiterate bruiser as a lord, you had to know your classics, and you had to make sure everyone knew it – so your love of and expertise in classicism was reflected in the design of houses. Order and proportion was now the order of the day.  Structure, hierarchy, order – that was the thing; the frontages of new houses were almost always strictly symmetrical. Also allegorical devices and secret codes those were renaissance things – Elizabethans absolutely loved that. Back to the Treshams again, and their triangular lodge, a sort of stopping place for the hunt. Everything is in 3s – three walls, all the decoration is in threes; I went to see it and it’s absolutely mad, and to be honest sublety is clearly not so valued – it’s a pretty obvious catholic statement of the trinity. But then you know, if you have a message, it’s important to punch the bruise.

Inside the changing structure of society, the growing separation between classes is underway, and it’s the hall that begins to feel the heat and get the bullet. The houses still have a great hall; it is still the entrance room and the servant and household’s common room; on occasion it might be the place for plays or feasts. But the main centre now for ceremony was instead the Great Chamber. I am going to throw a lovely quote at you here, dripping with all the glorification of nobility which now seems so hard for us to understand, and so strange; the world really was different, these lords and ladies were sort of mini Gods. Here is a set of regulations from 1604, talking about the Great Chamber

In that place there must be no delay, because it is a place of state, where the lord keepeth his presence and the eyes of all the best sort of strangers be there lookers on…herein the gentleman usher is to take special care herein, for their credit sake and honour of the place

Isn’t that delicious? The Magnate and family was also very conscious and meticulous about how people would get to the Great, ceremonial and gorgeously decked out chamber; the journey must have the right impact, not just the arrival. It was a sort of ceremonial route and since the chamber was on the first floor rather than ground, that meant your staircase had to be doing a lot of work for you. The old medieval closed off staircases disappear to be replaced by the open well staircases, a lot of time and effort is spent decorating the ceiling so you know, breath gets taken away. There’s a bit of a pash for lovely wooden staircases, interestingly, fantastically carved; I went to Blickling a short while ago with the wild boys which has a lovely example.

Once up in the Great Chamber, feasting your eyes on the bosses under their gaudy canopy, the social distinctions of the high table and the honoured guests there was maintained with the tables in the main body of the hall. The lord might well indeed sit in state, which means sitting underneath a canopy would you believe, which I think sounds magnificent and d’you know I think I might buy a nice piece of cloth to string over my chair at supper and sit in state and see how that goes down with the fam.

The social gradation on the tables in the main body of the hall were also retained, in reducing grandness the further away your were from the great family; so have I told you about above and below the salt? I have a feeling of deja vue, so sorry if I have and if you are rolling your eyes right now. So I always thought the expression below the salt meant you were dead and buried, either physically, emotionally or politically speaking – you know buried below the salt. But it does not, apparently, it’s a thing. The big pot of salt was placed in the middle of the lower tables; those of higher social distinction were closer to the lord and lady than those below the salt. Good golly. Not precisely sure what defined the positioning of the salt. Some of course were not considered grand enough to eat with the Household at all, and could instead be told to eat with the Steward; and if you were worried about social rank that could be most distressing.

Dining was so important that the Great Chamber might sometimes be called the Dining room – but it was also used for masques, dancing, playing games and that sort of thing. And you might remember me telling you about the ‘void’, when you’d have a nibble in a banqueting turret up top while the ‘void’ of fun and laughter was filled with the clearing of dinner. But now, there appears another room for the use of the great family – Withdrawing chambers off the great chamber. It’s not the Downton Abbey thing we are used to, i.e. for the women to withdraw to for a chat after supper so the men can talk about bottoms; it’s a bed chamber, with an attached little room for servants off it. But then it does come to be a very private room for eating and for special, super special guests – everything’s about eating isn’t it? It’s a bit like the Queen’s privy chamber sort of thing, where only Dudders might be invited.

When not entertaining or feeding the troops the parlour also became more important for more informal eating; William Cecil, super powerful man though he was, tended to eat with the immediate family in the parlour, and use the Great Chamber just for special occasions. Not quite sure how many rooms you really need for eating but hey, one clearly just isn’t enough. They began to proliferate as well – so you might have a nice, small, low ceilinged winter parlour for when the weather closed in, ad a bigger grander affair for summer.

There’s one more development and one of the triumphs of the stately home – the long gallery. They started off as a covered walkway so you could take the air as it were without getting your hair wet; they end up as these fantastically decorated and appointed galleries, with furnishings to look at as you stroll and the pictures and portraits of your ancestors to inspire and promote the glory of the dynasty. They become massive status symbols – really, darling, you aren’t anybody until you have a long, gorgeous gallery. And there is no denying they are lovely and for me they are usually the thing that really makes a stately home stately.





Well, then let’s talk about Bess of Hardwick shall we? Why not, silly not to, should have done so well before now. Elizabeth Hardwick’s family had moved to glorious Derbyshire in the 13th century I think, and by the end of the 15th had risen to become a gentlemen yeoman or minor Gentry family. Bess married 4 times and ended up by the time she died in 1608 at 81 years old as the Countess of Shrewsbury and the richest and most influential woman in England. It was partially the marriages that did it of course, but Bess was a force of nature; hard headed, a consummate business woman, who frequently had to fight hard to hold on to her inheritance, who gave the Earl of Shrewsbury a life of hell I suspect. Bess was a great builder and two of her estates are absolutely at the heart of any pilgrimage to stately homes, set in the Derbyshire countryside – Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall.

Now when I was a lad my mate Charlie’s folks had a tea towel with a big picture of Hardwick Hall, along with the legend ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than Wall’. That simple rhyme has poisoned my life, gentle listener. It is impossible for me to hear the word Hall without muttering ‘more glass than wall’ As in Stoke Row village hall…more glass than wall’. I call down the vengeance of the gods and nymphs of the forest upon it. I cursesses it, precious, I curses that the towel, spawn of Sauron. However, it neatly encapsulates what is the iconic prodigy house of Elizabethan England, and a site than encapsulates the transformation of these big houses in the period. These halls have now largely forgotten their defensive past. Bess and her Master Surveyor and Mason Robert Smythson created a building on a smaller neater foot print that the great medieval houses, proportional and symmetrical, banishing the old courtyard structure. They are outward looking, and indeed have so much glass that your best defence in case of attack would be to run like billy-o. They have magnificent state rooms arranged vertically over many floors, and the towers pull your eyes to the sky. One little wrinkle a lecturer pointed out to me once was that the Elizabethans and Jacobeans loved their rooves – they frequently headed up to the leads to look out at the world from their magnificent houses.

All is symmetry, proportion, and a house that requires a much smaller household to maintain it and the family living there. The kitchen, hall, chapel, great chambers, lodgings are all integrated into one floor plan, no more medieval clusters, and the layout is in typical Elizabethan fashion, itself a hidden devices – it forms two interconnecting Greek crosses. More than one eye was given to impressing the natives and grand visitors; so the house design delivers a grand processional route, from kitchen, through the hall, up an extraordinary stone staircase to a huge High Great Chamber at the top of the house. Bess had no intention of hiding her light under a bushel or indeed any form of rural agricultural product.

Bess’s approach to building at Hardwick in the 1590s was also symbolic; she already had a manor house there, but rather than extend and improve it, she said ‘what that old thing? Nah, we’ll just leave it there and build something new’. The ruins of the old remains, largely forgotten and lumpen.

Elizabeth’s reign was marked by the building of many of these prodigy houses – and Elizabethan’s mean as mouseshit approach to life was part of that. Unlike her Dad she did not build or buy big houses – she preferred to use other peoples. So we get this tradition we’ve referred to before of courtiers vying madly to get queenie to visit – Christopher Hatton spent a fortune building Holdenby Hall, and bought Kirby Hall – I don’t believe Queenie ever visited which must have been super annoying, although thankfully for Hatton’s peace of mind, James I did visit Kirby. The cost was enormous anyway if she did visit – and more than one noble family was ruined as a result. She was a frequent visitor to Cecil’s masterpieces at Burghley and Theobalds. There are many others actually, and I can’t list them all, and after all your podcast is not a visual medium, but there are a few pics on the website post if you manage to get there. A personal take – I’m a man for your gothic and your Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture personally. Once the Palladians get going and we hit the 18th century, all becomes hideous ostentation and pomposity, and English architecture is pretty much ruined, and Wren and the Baroque – I mean what was going on there, for shame. Obviously, this is a personal view, since I know exactly as much about the principles of architecture as might be written on the inside of a ping pong ball.



We had one more job – to finish off with how the gentry reacted to all this great rebuilding going on around them at other social levels. Just to inflict on you a piece of pop sociology, I was amused to learn that a higher percentage of English than ever identify now as working class – 79% I think was the figure. These days we like to emphasise our down to earth roots. I ‘ad to struggle, dragged up I was, lived in a shoe box, had to lick road clean wi’ tongue. This was not the case in Jacobean England – if you were a husbandman you wanted to be a yeoman, if a yeoman to be a gentleman, if a gentleman a member of the gentry – and so on. Everyone tried to get a little bit of the habits and attitudes of lords and ladies in their lives. It was helped by the fat that unlike France these things were not well defined. So if you looked like a gentlewoman, you walked like a gentlewomand and you smelled like a gentlewoman – then you shall go to the ball and be a gentlewoman, even if behind your back people might say she ‘ad nothing when she came ‘ere. Have I ticked enough cultural stereotypes? Sorry sorry sorry.

However, they faced constraints in their attempts to keep up with the Joneses, social and economic constraints. The houses they built and extended were rather restricted by their means, as you would expect. The Gentry was the social class that had really done best from the long 16th century; not only were they landowners, but they were the biggest winners from the dissolution of the monasteries, which spread the excessive wealth of the medieval church more widely in society, and which I maintain stoutly against all outrage was a jolly good long-term decision well made to the benefit of the English. Some at the upper end were pretty hench, and able to build houses almost indistinguishable from the houses of the nobility. As an example, let me tell you about Edward Phelips. Phelips came from a Somerset family, mainly making his money from farming with pasture and as a grazier; but his mum was the daughter of a wealthy Bristol merchant. Thomas Phelips was in the employ of Thomas Cromwell, and the resulting contacts and connections with court and such a powerful man was the making of this up and coming new man; allowing him to get his children a good education, Edward therefore got himself into the Inns of court became a successful lawyer; he was connected at court, with courtiers and even James I. By 1601, Edward had used all his connections and influence to acquire some money, and some pretentions; and so he built a grand house, Montacute House, to announce his arrival. The house is on the now classical, Elizabethan constrained footprint, it is all symmetry; on the third floor it now sports the all important gallery, it’s glazed throughout and is covered with clever symbolic sculptures. There is a picture on the tiresomely frequently mentioned wb page at the history of England.co.uk. It is thoroughly English in style but, critically, since Phelips was often at court, he was connected with the Italianate and Dutch styles, which are reflected in the design. Montacute, then, is the top end of the Gentry – it’s a new build, it shows awareness of the latest architectural influences – but it does not quite have the expense and extent of a prodigy house like Burghley, Kirby or Hardwick. Phelips has acquired another attribute of the nobility he so admired – a thorough, ocean-going level of financial incontinence. Despite all his financial success he died with a stonking debt of £12,000, the equivalent of £1.9 mil. Such is the cost of social climbing – be warned.

Most of the Gentry classes did have the nuclear level of pretentions of the likes of Phelips. But they didn’t have the money, and nor interestingly, did they have the education and culture; they were well behind the latest thinking on style and design. Posh though the gentry were, for the most part their lives were very firmly rooted in their locality, and the idea of a Dutch Gable may well not have crossed their mind or the latest word in classical sculptural trickery. Their horizons mainly extended to telling their parish and region how important they were. So, economics, aspiration, education all conspired to mean that Gentry usually extended what they had rather than starting afresh. They tended to use what they had available locally – that might be the most commonly available materials, timber and brick. And it might include other locally available materials – so for example, Lacock Abbey, which essentially half inched a dissolved monastery and turned it into a house – QED. Or, if you’d been lucky enough to have a dissolved monastery in your neck of the woods, why not go and help yourself to a bit of nice stonework? Such stonework integrated into vernacular buildings is a very common feature of English towns and villages.

My example for this sort of thing is the absolutely extraordinary confection that is Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire. The origins of the family of William Moreton in the village of Little Moreton seem to be traceable to the 13th century, until the house started to be built from the early 16th century coming to its glorious fruition around 1610, with the hands of various members of the family. By then, they held a substantial estate of 1300 acres, but the long history of the Moretons in Little Moreton very much speaks to the essential local flavour of the Gentry; they’d eventually give up and hand it over – but not until after the National Trust had arrived, and not until in 1938.

Little Moreton hall is a Christmas cake composed on constant extension as the latest idea hit town – ooh better have one of those too. It is bult of traditional materials – timber, wattle, brick; there’s no fancily sculpted stone work, that would have cost too much. It’s an architectural mess, no symmetry, bits stuck on as needs be, and it is alarmingly top heavy – it looks though if the big bad wolf came along, one brisk puff would have the place on its backside. This is because the piece de resistance is a whopping great gallery perched on the top third floor like a sort of top deck of a cruise liner, or in Bob Dylan parlance a mattress perched on a bottle of wine. Essentially, it kind of ticks the boxes – it contains a great hall, parlours, withdrawing rooms, long gallery. But because it’s been an evolution it contains old elements of the late medieval origins – courtyard, gatehouse. There’s a layout of it as well as a pic on the resources page – did I mention I’d done an article on the website the history of ngland.co.uk?

Ok that is where we must leave things. I hope you have enjoyed this rather different series of episodes, taking us away from the normal political run of things and the great folk of England. Possibly, and indeed probably, it has made you nostalgic for them, and you are looking for a return to the cut and thrust of politics. Well – I need to draw breath next week as I said…but then, gentle listeners all, we will have a start of the Martyr Monarch, or the man of blood, depending on your point of view – Charles I and his reign of chaos, now that we have the historiography all clear.




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