The tumultuous Tudor period lasted from 1485 until 1603, and saw huge changes brought about by three generations of monarchs and the break away from the Catholic Church.
The extravagant reign of Henry VIII almost bankrupted the country, but Elizabeth I inspired economic growth through farming and wool production. The great palaces built during her rule are a hallmark of her time as queen, so it’s fitting the Elizabethan architectural style borrows her name
These six outstanding country homes survive to tell us their own side of the Tudor-saga.
1. Hampton Court Palace, Richmond-upon-Thames, London
This 500-year-old royal residence on the bank of the Thames was begun in 1515 by trusted advisor to Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey. The Cardinal imagined the palace for himself and spared no expense installing painted red brick and one of the largest collection of chimneys in England. Unfortunately the home was too good, and not wanting to be outdone, Henry insisted that Wolsey gift it to him.
Henry made extensive additions to the building in an attempt to house his 800-strong court. The kitchens are the largest surviving 16th century kitchens in England. The great hall – a token of love to his second wife, Anne Boleyn – is the last in the medieval style. There are numerous icons to Henry’s wives woven into the walls; Catherine of Aragon’s royal emblem, the pomegranate, is carved into stonework; ten statues of heraldic animals (from the Seymour lion to the White Greyhound of Richmond) represent the ancestry of Henry and his third wife Jane Seymour.
2. Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
Long galleries were the must-have feature of an Elizabethan home – often located on the upper floor and stretching the full front of the building. They were used for displaying art collections and showing off an impressive view to guests.
The long gallery at Little Moreton hall has since caused the timber of its lower floors to warp and twist, adding to the fairytale-look of this impressive survival. It was began in 1504 by prosperous Cheshire landowner William Moreton, whose family added to the build over a 100 year period. The ornate chevron pattern and extensive use of (then very expensive) glass signal wealth and prosperity. Unfortunately the Moreton family lost their fortune just after the English civil war, 1651.
3. Wollaton Hall, Wollaton Park, Nottingham
The Willoughby family made their fortune in coalmining in the local area, but the elaborate design of this Elizabethan palace stretched their resources to near breaking point. Set in the grounds of Wollaton Park, the dramatic façade embraces the excess of the English Renaissance. It was completed to designs by architect Robert Smythson (also Longleat; later Hardwick Hall) in 1588 – the same year the Spanish Armada was defeated by Elizabeth’s navy led by Francis Drake.
4. Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
The Elizabethan period enjoyed its fair share of strong and formidable women. For a time one of the richest and most powerful women in England, Bess of Hardwick owed her wealth to a string of lucrative marriages. Following the decline of her fourth marriage, to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, the close friend of Queen Elizabeth I fled to her old family home of Hardwick.
In the middle of remodelling Old Hardwick Hall, the Earl died. Now in her early 60’s, Bess was incredibly rich. She applied her new-found wealth to a new-build, installing her own initials (‘E S’ for Elizabeth Shrewsbury) in the stonework towers, flanked by expensive glass windows.
5. Montacute House, South Somerset
Sometimes called prodigy houses, many of the grandest homes of the Tudor era were built to house Elizabeth I, and her large entourage, on her annual tours of the realm, known as “progresses”. In their attempts to assert themselves as great Tudor families, many hosts almost bankrupted themselves hosting the demanding Queen and her 150-strong court.
A common misconception is that the ‘E’ shapes of these houses – with bedrooms and living area leading off the long gallery – were in tribute to Elizabeth, but architects will tell you it was a natural evolution in design. Montacute is one such house, though Elizabeth didn’t manage – she died just a couple years after it was completed in 1601. The house was funded by lawyer and politician Sir Edward Phelips using local ham stone; the long gallery measures 52 metres – the longest of its kind in England.
6. Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire
First built as a royal castle in the 1120s, Kenilworth is a great example of an expanded home meant to woo Elizabeth. In 1563 she granted the home to her childhood friend Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The Queen visited four times during her summer progresses, and Dudley welcomed her with new, impressive developments to the structure- including a great tower in the Queen’s private quarters, offering views overa garden designed just for her.
Written by Marina Nenadic, Marketing Executive at Historic England