The Tudor Gothic Period
From the end of the 15th century to 1560
The late 15th and the 16th centuries were in many respects the most remarkable in the destiny of the peoples of England, and marked the final breaking away from the old feudal system introduced by the Normans, and still in evidence until the 15th century.
The war with France had ended disastrously, and was followed by the rebellion of 1450 headed by Jack Cade, and the Wars of the Roses, a strife which resulted in the demolition of the power of the barons and the consequent rising feeling of emancipation amongst the lower classes.
The great and solemn inspiration of the Gothic tradition, behind which was the whole power of the Church, had, after three centuries of domination, passed its zenith, and its waning spirit met its final death-blow in the suppression of the monasteries by Henry VIII. The Church, which had for years been accumulating wealth and power, thus sustained a severe blow, and the result was the cessation of the building of the cathedrals and other ecclesiastical buildings which had absorbed the greater part of the work of the craftsmen, who were thus freed to turn their efforts in other directions.
The Renaissance, which had for years previously swept over the Continent, reached this country during the first half of the 16th century. Its effect on architecture and interior treatment of rooms was brought about partly through increased communication with the Continent, and the marked preference shown by Henry VIII for foreign skilled craftsmen. Its early influences, however, were slight, and confined mostly to the decoration of existing buildings or to those still being built in the traditional Gothic manner, a style which, although approaching its end, was still the only one known to the English. The motifs introduced by foreign workers were imitated by native craftsmen, who were fascinated by ideas which were completely novel to them, and attempted to combine them with their own traditional forms. Thus was created the style known as Tudor Gothic furniture, in which we find such curious combinations as the old linenfold and vine decoration, together with often crude renderings of vases, strap work, and medallions.
The system of house planning and the general constructional features, however, remained unaffected by foreign influence, and the tendency towards introducing a greater degree of comfort continued. The law enforced by Henry VII, which limited the number of armed retainers in the service of the nobles, together with the general peaceful condition of the country during the following reign, contributed to the transition from fortified mansions to more homely and peaceable dwellings. These general conditions gave a great impetus to the building of private mansions, and craftsmen who had been previously employed in erecting ecclesiastical buildings thus found an outlet for their skill which resulted in the splendid work to be found in secular buildings of the period.
The hall continued to be the chief room in the house, and was built on the ground floor as in the previous century. It was the subject of the finest work in the house, especially in the construction of its roof, in which the timbers were exposed. A screen, such as that at Penshurst, shown in The Hall at Penshurst Place, Kent, was usually erected at one end, thus forming a covered passage above which was the minstrels' gallery, a feature often the subject of some fine carving. The central fireplace was still continued in some cases. A growing practice was to build the fireplace in the wall, and a projection was formed where necessary in the exterior of the wall, so that the interior retained its flat, unbroken surface. The windows were made considerably larger, and a favourite practice was to build a large bay in one of the side walls near the dais end of the hall. The windows of this bay often reached from high in the walls down to near the floor, so that it was easily possible to look out into the courtyard from the room. The remaining windows, however, were made at some distance from the floor, and extended nearly to the tops of the walls, so that the timbered roof was still well lighted. This probably accounts for the fine workmanship in these roofs, since in a dim and badly lighted room much of the detail high in the room would be invisible. It is evident that great pride was taken in producing these elaborate roofings, and even the smaller manor houses as well as the larger mansions often had elaborate timber roofs built on the hall.
Although houses of this period show a great advance, in that they were provided with a larger number of smaller rooms, which allowed for a greater degree of privacy, the use of corridors to reach the rooms was still very uncommon. The usual practice was to build rooms immediately adjacent to each other, so that it was often necessary to pass through several rooms in order to reach any one in particular. With a system of planning such as this, staircases were considered rather as a necessity to be tolerated, and were confined to as small a space as possible, being positioned in small out-of-the-way places, often in the thickness of the wall. The spiral newel staircase was still the general type in use, as it could be built within a minimum of space. This type of staircase was still, as a rule, of stone, although occasional examples may be found in which wood was used. The latter type were of exceedingly heavy construction, each step being formed by a solid block of oak, and quite devoid of any attempt at decoration.
The Abbots Parlour, Thame Park, Oxfordshire illustrates a small room at Thame Park, Oxfordshire, and is characteristic of this type of room during the early days of the Renaissance. The large pointed Gothic window of the previous century is superseded by a small bay, and consists of small separate windows divided by stone mullions. The lancet to the individual windows is, however, retained. The treatment of the panelling forms a good example of the mixed motifs employed at the period. The lower and major portion is decorated with linenfold panels, a survival of the previous century, while the panels at the top are carved with medallions encircling representations of carved human heads. This feature owed its origin to Italian influence, and is often known as Romayne work. An enlarged view of two of the panels is shown in Details from the Abbots Parlour, Thame Park, Oxfordshire, at A and B, and shows more clearly the foreign influence in the carving of the vases and conventional leafage above and below the medallions. C, Details from the Abbots Parlour, Thame Park, Oxfordshire, shows a portion of the frieze in which the carved decoration is applied to the groundwork.
Another good example of this Romayne work can be seen in South Kensington Museum in a room removed from Waltham Abbey, which is contemporary with that at Thame, and in which nearly every panel is carved with a medallion, some enclosing human heads, as those at Thame, and others a symbolical or heraldic device. A salient feature of the panelling of this period and previously is that it was generally made in unbroken stretches without the use of pilasters. Panelling quite plain or such as that described, or tapestry, formed the usual method of wall covering during the first half of the i6th century, and usually reached to only a part of the height of the wall.
Tapestry was now manufactured in this country, owing to the emigration of Flemish weavers during the later years of the last century. Previous to this all tapestry had to be imported from France and the Low Countries.
The hall was usually built of considerable height, and being as a rule at the centre of the building, practically cut the house in two. The smaller rooms designed for the use of the family were, as a rule, on the first floor, and were built at the dais end of the hall. Although the roofing to these was still occasionally arched in a similar manner to the hall, a growing practice was to use a flat ceiling covered with plaster. The oak beams forming the framework of the construction were usually visible, and the general tendency was to arrange these in such a manner as to form part of the decorative scheme rather than simply as a constructional necessity to which every other consideration was subservient. The idea of such a treatment was probably prompted by the fact that the flat ceiling was in itself not a vital part of the construction of the house, since it was built quite apart from the roof by which it was superimposed.
A specimen of a late 15th and early 16th century chimney-piece is shown in A Chimney-Piece from Prittlewell, near Southend. The lower portion is of stone, and instances a common treatment of the spandrils formed by the flat Gothic arch consisting of Gothic leafage. It was usual for each spandril to contain a different design. The upper brick portion is recessed in the form of Gothic traceried windows, and is finished at the top with battlementing. The Gothic arch of the fireplace opening was continued throughout the century in many cases, and was actually one of the last survivals of the Gothic style.
Another example of an early 16th-century fireplace is shown in Bay Window and fireplace from Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, at Haddon Hall, in which the stone opening is flanked by fluted pilasters rising to the height of the panelling. The treatment of the upper portion, although only a continuation of the panelling of the room, is interesting, as it foreshadows the future importance which the mantelpiece was to assume. A, Details from Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, shows the capping of the pilasters and the scrolled bracket supporting the cornice moulding.
Bay Window and fireplace from Haddon Hall, Derbyshire also illustrates a good example of a favourite Tudor Gothic feature in the bay window. There it will be noticed that the Gothic lancet heading has quite disappeared. The remaining details at B and C, Details from Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, are contemporary portions of panelling from the same building, and show the new Renaissance motifs grafted to the traditional Gothic style.