‘A house is a living organism. It expresses the needs, habits, energy, taste and imagination of its builder and his descendants. To interpret the building, understand the builder. And look at its immediate context to help bring the property to life.’ This is the approach of Anthony Emery, our leading expert on the great houses of medieval England and Wales. He has just completed an 18 year research and publication project on the subject, and he is passionate about revolutionising a once dry-and-dusty discipline.
A 15th century Gordon Brown
Ralph, Lord Cromwell, was the Gordon Brown of his day. For ten years, he was Treasurer of England under Henry VI (1433-1443). He had climbed his way from modest beginnings to the top of the political tree – and he was not inclined to be modest about it. That was not the 15th century way; success was loudly proclaimed. So, as befitting his elevated status, Cromwell redeveloped Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire with an imposing brick-built tower house.
It still stands complete, five storeys and 112 feet (34m) high, with one large room at each level, and the comfort of fireplaces, garderobes, vaulted corner closets, decorated passages, and hooks for tapestries. The tower was positioned next to the great hall and provided retiring rooms for the family, with each floor offering greater privacy than the one below, culminating in the top floor used by Cromwell and his wife as their privy bed-chamber. Tattershall was no longer a castle; the defensive appearance of the crenellated and machicolated roof-galleries was wholly at variance with the numerous large windows and immediate buildings below. The fortification was essentially a fake. ‘Cromwell’s tower-house,’ explains Anthony Emery, ‘was not defensive but a most glorious suite of private apartments in a vertical mode. It is one of the most striking secular achievements of late medieval England.’
No sooner had he finished redeveloping one site than Cromwell was at work on another. A second tower-house was built at Wingfield Manor in Derbyshire, again five storeys high with a spacious room on each floor. It was comfortably furnished with glazed windows, fireplaces and lavatories, and with communal lavatories on the ground-floor for staff, cleaned by rain water channelled from the roof. This was only one element of the magnificent triple-courtyard house. Grand residences on other Cromwell estates at Lambley and Collyweston were also remodelled, and everywhere – over entrances, on fireplaces, on tapstries – the treasurer’s money-bags were depicted. These were symbols of Cromwell’s high office in the realm, and of the great wealth his career success had brought him. ‘Nowadays you don’t flaunt your money,’ says Emery. ‘It’s considered a social gaffe. In 15th century England you shouted it from the rooftops. Especially if you were recently moneyed, you wanted to assert your new status. Grand buildings were a way of declaring yourself, a way of announcing your wealth, influence and power, a means of attracting people to you, and developing an ‘affinity’ of supporters.’
Studying great houses
These insights are the fruit of a lifetime spent studying the physical remains of such residences. The young Anthony Emery had been entranced by the fairy-tale appearance of Goodrich Castle, which he visited aged 11. Castles soon became a passion, an absorbing hobby, and the great subject he would one day write books about. Only much later, when ,he was 28, did he realise that surviving medieval great houses outnumbered medieval castles by about three to one – and everyone wrote about castles. Over 30 books were, published on that subject during the 20th century, but only five on great houses. ‘In business you are taught to identify a niche and see if you can fill it,’ he mused, drawing on decades of experience as a businessman. ‘Academics need to do the same. And seeing the gaps is partly about crossing disciplines, challenging long-established barriers, and trying to see buildings as a prism of society.’
Emery finally retired at 57 as chairman of some of the companies of Reed International plc, and he has spent the last 18 years producing his three-volume Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300-1500. Volume 1 covers Northern England (published 1996), Volume 2, East Anglia, Central England, and Wales (2000), and Volume 3, Southern England (2006). Each volume groups houses by region, prefaced by detailed essays on the historical and architectural background. The volumes also include a number of broader studies stimulated by a key building in each region.
The books are therefore considerably more than simple gazetteers. Emery visited 850 houses, of which about 750 have been written up in the volumes, the great majority of them still in use, in private hands, and therefore little seen by either researchers or tourists. ‘Only six owners refused access altogether,’ he recalls, ‘less than 1% of the total, though three of them were of sufficient importance to warrant inclusion deduced from documentary and photographic evidence. Otherwise visits ranged from a short, restricted canter, perhaps under an hour, to being given the free run of the house and the offer of a bed for the night!’The thoroughness of the primary research combined with the clarity and boldness of Emery’s ideas make the publication of Greater Medieval Houses a landmark in the archaeology of medieval standing buildings.
Tattershall Castle, Lincs.
The erlier 13th century castle was transformed by Lord Cromwell's residential developpements of c. 1438-1446, including this commanding brick tower house – one of the most striking secular buildgings in England during the later Middle Ages.
Understanding the builders
‘To understand a house, you have to interpret the builder and his personal environment.’ This, for Emery, is a central theme. He is unhappy with the traditional ‘architecturallydetermined’ approach in which architectural styles are minutely recorded, and the progression from one form to another is analysed, but there is no discussion of the political, economic, social or cultural context. ‘Houses are a reflection of society. They indicate the standing of the builder, the size of his estate, his financial resources, and social status. They reflect the scale of his household and the possibly fluctuating fortunes of his successors.’
‘Take the case of John Holand, Richard II’s half-brother. When he built Dartington Hall in Devon at the end of the 14th century, it was the first totally non-defensive great house – the first grand residence that wasn’t any sort of castle. Why? Because Holand had a reputation as a ruffian and wanted to shake it off. He had first been involved in the murder of a Carmelite friar, and had later been the actual murderer of the Earl of Stafford’s son. He was persona non grata – in effect banished from court to hi
s newly acquired estate in Devon. Dartington Hall was not castle-like because Holand wanted to say ‘Actually I’m quite a nice person.’ It reflected a deliberate attempt to curry favour with local people and to smooth his way back into society. It was a success: he was later reconciled with the king and became his great friend.’
Houses sometimes tell stories about individuals. More often they tell stories about the medieval elite – the crown, the aristocracy, the gentry – as a whole. Emery charts a series of changes which reflect not only increasing wealth but also new ideas about comfort, privacy, ceremony, the projection of power, and the building of affinities. In 1200 ‘a lordly residence included a dominating hall, a chamber for privacy, a chapel for worship, and the associated kitchen and services within a walled or fenced enclosure, sometimes protected by a moat. The ancillary domestic units of stables, bakery, laundry, and workshops would be irregularly grouped within or without the gated enclosure, but, as these structures were less well built and frequently timber-framed, they have rarely survived.’
A steady stream of changes followed. Stone became the most desirable building material until the popularity of brick during the 15th and early 16th centuries. Hall, services, and quality accommodation were integrated into single blocks.oon, chamber blocks at one end or both ends of the hall were turned around and set at right-angles to form crosswings. Eventually these would evolve into courtyard houses where the old hall still remained a central focus, but was now bracketed by double-storey ranges of more private rooms. By the late 14th century, the hall tended to be limited to receiving guests formally and with ceremony before they proceeded to the private apartments.
Houses were becoming more elaborate in other respects, too, with more complex roof-timbering, the provision of bay windows and wall fireplaces, the greater use of window glass, and highly decorated screens, dais canopies, tapestries and
furnishings. The full glory of these late medieval interiors is now difficult to recapture. ‘What we lack today in looking at
medieval houses is colour,’ says Emery. ‘We lack the banners and hangings that fluttered outside and within, the rich cloths and textiles that covered the furniture and window seats, the tiles and painted glass, the chapel contents, and the
personal items that gave rooms richness and individuality.’
From roving warlords to country gentlemen
By 1400 grand houses were larger, architecturally more complex, and furnished to higher standards. Why was this? ‘It arose in part because the earlier practice of peripatetic travelling to use up the crops and resources of an estate was no longer efficient or necessary,’ explains Emery, ‘and also from the realisation that the resources necessary to maintain a large number of properties needed to be husbanded so that expenditure could be concentrated on two or three houses to achieve the necessary scale of magnificence. In addition, higher living standards often made it financially prohibitive to bring properties of earlier generations up to date. And in the particular circumstances of the crown, this reduction in the number of residences was also a consequence of the centralisation of government at Westminster in the mid 14th century. During the later Middle Ages, therefore, not only was the peripatetic lifestyle practised during the 12th and 13th centuries replaced by a far more static one, but households became larger and privacy more important. The architectural consequence was that houses became more complex.’
One highly confusing aspect of residential development during the later Middle Ages was the vogue for ‘castles’. This portmanteau term has been used loosely to describe the military fortresses of the early medieval period and the later residences built to look like castles or at least with some castle-like features. Very few fortresses were built in England or Wales after the time of Edward I (1272-1307). Almost all the 500 or so stone castles which survive in some form were built in the two and a quarter centuries before 1300 (though many continued to evolve afterwards as grand residences). By contrast, around 1,000 grand houses survive from the two and a quarter centuries after 1300, most of them roofed and still occupied. A substantial number of these are residences in a military cloak, with moats, towers, gatehouses, and battlements. These elements were included to give the appearance and feel of a traditional centre of power, but they were essentially purposed for comfortable residential occupation.
Gainsborough Ol Hall, LIncs.
The reconstructed great hall conveys an impression of the rich and colourful furenishing of an early 15th century house. Banners, hangings, dais table, chair of state, buffet display, side tables, and central heearth have all been restored
‘I want the study of castles and that of medieval houses to come much closer together,’ says Emery. ‘People tend to think you have castles in the Middle Ages and then the first great era of house-building in England was under the Tudors. It wasn’t so. It was a development of the late Middle Ages, starting before 1350, when people returned from the Hundred Years War with the rewards of booty, plunder and ransoms, as well as fame on the battlefield, and, by the later stages of the war, the benefit of land grants and official posts. Edward III set the pace with the redevelopment of Windsor Castle, and the rest of the elite followed in a craze of building that continued into the 15th century.
Individual careers, the networking of friends, political upheavals and wider social distinction were all factors that bore heavily on the design and development of houses. So too did the impact of geology and landscape. Many conventional studies of buildings are organised by county, but architecture is better understood in terms of geographically coherent regions – regions united by common sources of raw material, by communication lines, and by local traditions of design and construction. ‘So much of our research is by county,’ complains Emery, ‘and we thereby limit ourselves unnecessarily. Geological, social and historical factors do not stop at man-made administrative boundaries. Sometimes you look at the distribution map of an architectural style and you see a cluster at the edge and wonder why it stops. Then you realise it is the long-established county boundary, and that is simply where the student stopped his or her research.’
Equally important is to look at the immediate environs of grand houses. ‘Houses were part of the landscape. Owners altered the nearby setting – by having a deer park, by putting up fences and walls, by planting trees, by building lodges. And they had gardens, though post-medieval developments and changing fashions have usually obliterated them. But they can sometimes be recovered through documentary and archaeological research. You chose the position for the house in the later Middle Ages with as much care as you did for a 12th century castle or an 18th century mansion, and then you altered the landscape around it to make it an appropriate context for your own residence.’
The future of medieval houses
Anthony Emery seems to be mapping out an entire researc
h agenda for the next generation of scholars and students who turn their minds to the great houses of the later Middle Ages. Asked specifically about future research directions, he rattles off a list long enough to occupy an entire department of PhD students. There are some large mansions – places like Penshurst Place (Kent), Berkeley Castle (Glos.), Sudeley Castle (Glos.), and Haddon Hall (Derby.) – that merit detailed study and warrant a published monograph all to themselves. Emery cut his teeth on Dartington Hall, producing first an academic paper, then a full length monograph. Many of the most important houses of this scale lack the equivalent coverage. A detailed and up-to-date study of the 70 or so surviving Norman houses is also needed – a synthesis of the earlier period that would complement Emery’s and other studies of the later houses.
Then there needs to be greater social breadth. ‘I’ve studied residences at the higher end of the social scale; we need studies at the other end.’ At first this suggestion seems surprising. Emery is on record declaring the primacy of the elite: ‘The crown, the aristocracy and the gentry were the leaders of medieval society. They were wealthier, could afford higher quality materials, employ craftsmen, and be innovative. They set the building and furnishing standards to which other people aspired.’ But there were changes, especially in the later Middle Ages, as wealth became more widespread, society more open, and the new social forces that would transform Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries began to emerge. ‘Society fluctuated and broadened, so that consideration also needs to be given to yeoman and peasant houses. We badly need a replacement volume to Eric Mercer’s English Vernacular Houses (1975) that encompasses the extensive research of the last 40 years.
He appeals also for more research on the wider cultural context for houses: ‘People say “The quality of medieval artefacts is usually too good to be English; they must be French.” This is based on out-dated Victorian thinking. Where material evidence survives – silver and gold plate, furniture, textiles, and panel painting – England compares well with the Continent. Do we really know if the country was a cultural backwater in the Middle Ages, or is that just prejudice?’ And he wants to know more about what went on around houses – their spatial environment and internal hierarchy, as well as their immediate environment of services and workshops – for ‘a house is an envelope for living in and for family life’.
Emery also points out that architectural students and writers have consistently failed to include Welsh houses in their consideration of English residences, although Welsh castles are an essential element in the study of English military architecture, while the country was under the same tutelage as England throughout the later Middle Ages.
True to his strong belief in the value of cross-disciplinary study, Emery wants architectural history and archaeology – ‘above and below ground’ – to come together. Boothby Pagnell Manor House in Lincolnshire affords a good example of the potential. ‘More than 22 storeyed stone blocks survive from the Anglo-Norman period. It used to be thought that these were complete houses with the ground floor used for storage or servants and the upper floor as family accommodation, divided by a partition into a larger outer chamber (the hall) and smaller inner room (the retiring room). The paradigm was provided by Boothby Pagnell Manor. Then, archaeologist John Blair suggested that the stone block of c.1190-1200 was not independent but had originally functioned in tandem with a ground-floor hall that had not survived. Perhaps built of wood and therefore lost, the hall would have been the functional centre of the house with access at its upper or high-status end to the private chambers of the owner (the surviving stone block). A subsequent resistivity survey in the garden at Boothby Pagnell detected a large rectangular outline, which excavation has since shown belonged to a massive early medieval building with stone footings – almost certainly the missing hall. Recent excavations at Acton Court (Glos.), Dartington Hall (Devon), Hunsdon House (Herts.), and Southchurch Hall (Essex) have also confirmed the value of integrating the study of standing buildings with archaeological exploration.
As so often happens, publication of one phase of research, far from being definitive, has merely set the agenda for the next. One of Anthony Emery’s chief merits as a scholar is his passionate commitment to fresh research and new thinking –even when his own magnus opus is only just off the press.
Source: Anthony Emery, Architectural historian