Great Dixter , Northiam, Sussex
A very important innovation of the fifteenth century was the revival of building in brick. Tile-making, as has been seen, had been encouraged during the previous century, but the use of brick remained rare, and Little Wenham Hall in Suffolk, which dates from the later thirteenth century, stands as a lonely example of its employment in a domestic building at that period. Nevertheless it had long been in use in France, and it is possible that it was from their campaigning across the Channel during the Hundred Years' War that English gentlemen acquired their first taste for it. At first colonies of Flemings were imported to make the bricks; it is reported that Sir Roger de Fienes brought over a small army of brickmakers in 1440 to prepare for the erection of his castle at Hurstmonceux, which was one of the earliest large buildings to be completed in the revived material.
While the usual medium for important buildings remained stone, supplemented by flint and rubble in districts without accessible supply, as increased accommodation was required rooms were often added in pise, or post and plaster, in a fairly haphazard manner, and attached to the main structures by pent-roofed passages of the same materials. Henry III ordered an apartment with a lean-to roof and a plaster chimney to be built against the wall of a tower at Windsor for the accommodation of the Bishop of Laodicea, and this was typical of many structures raised for a temporary emergency and later, perhaps, allowed to fall into decay. The majority of smaller manor-houses, of which Eastington Hall in Worcestershire (IS), dating from the late fifteenth century, is charmingly typical, were built of the same rather flimsy materials-little more than a timber framework filled in with plaster of wattle and daub. Such buildings have exhibited astonishing powers of resistance, but examples from the earliest period are rare, Lower Brockhampton in Herefordshire (14), which dates partly from the fourteenth century, being perhaps the most notable.
Windows now became larger and more elaborate, and oriels were no longer exclusively confined to the hall but often overlooked an inner courtyard from an upper floor. External decoration became richer, depending largely for its effect on the graceful cusped stone panelling of Perpendicular practice, and in half-timber buildings the carving of bargeboards and corner-posts and wall panelling oak panelling was often of great elaboration, as at Ockwells in Berkshire and Mere Hall in Worcestershire (z4). Gables were surmounted by finials, often conventionally carved in the form of animals with reference to the arms of the owner of the house. Heraldic weather vanes in metal, as at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk (15), were another popular feature.
The general arrangement of the house, however, showed little change. In larger examples such as Haddon, where there are two courts, the hall was placed for security between them, though at South Wingfield Manor it is placed on the far side of the inner quadrangle, the precipitous fall of the ground beyond it being considered sufficient protection. Another development of the new spirit of the century was the dawn of a desire for more privacy, which often led to a considerable increase in the number of rooms. The master's end of the building was no longer confined to a Bower and Solar, but was enlarged by the addition of bedrooms. More attention was paid to kitchens, which were now no longer haphazard erections of timber but strongly built as structural units of the houses. Other offices were improved in the same way; privies were increased in numbers, but do not seem to have been bettered in design.
There are many instances of the larger rooms of houses built during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries being divided up to improve the accommodation without further structural addition. Stone acre in Kent, for instance, is a timbered house dating from 1480 with a large central hall and two rooms at each end on two floors; fifty years later a beamed ceiling and wall panelling oak panelling was inserted in the hall dividing it in half, two rooms being formed above, and partitions erected in the Solar to make still further bedrooms. More attention was also paid to convenience. At Hurstmonceux the plans show an ingenuity far in advance of the time; galleries and corridors gave free access to most rooms, and the chamber of the lady was so placed that through a small window she could keep a watchful eye on the servants in the kitchen.
Tapestry and hangings continued to increase in popularity, and from illustrations in Harleian MS. 2278 of a bedroom of the reign of Henry VI it can be seen that the beds were freely hung with tapestry, but that the windows remained uncurtained. In the will of Joan, Lady Bergavenny, dated 1434, there is a detailed list of bed furniture : "a bed of yellow swans, with tapetter of green tapestry with branches and flowers of divers colours, and two pairs of sheets of Raynes [Rennes], a pair of fustian, six pairs of other sheets, six pairs of blankets, six mattresses, six pillows . . . and one pane of minever". Bedding was clearly one of the most important of household items.
But in spite of these wall panelling oak panelling improvements knowledge of hygiene lagged far behind. Even as late as the end of the fifteenth century Erasmus, writing after a first visit to England, presents a picture that is far from pretty. "The floors are commonly of clay, strewed with rushes, so renewed that the substratum may be unmolested for twenty years, with an ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle and everything that is nasty." To this deplorable state of the floors, and to the general lack of ventilation, he attributes the frequent plagues that visited England.
The Normans had introduced the custom of two meals a day, and until the fifteenth century this had remained the practice among the upper classes. Now four became more general : a substantial breakfast at about seven, dinner at ten, supper at four, and "liveries", a heavy culminating meal between eight and nine, eaten in bed. (In a dark world it was still a matter of "early to bed and early to rise".) Dinner was the chief function of the day and was eaten in the hall, master and retainers sitting down together, the former with his family and friends at the high table, the latter below the salt. As early as the close of the fourteenth century, however, the rich occasionally sat apart from their retainers and ceased to preside in hall even at the main meal of the day, a tendency severely denounced by the author of Piers Plowman.
Wretched is the hall where the lord and lady will not sit. Now have the rich a rule to eat by themselves ..
Fingers remained the usual instruments of eating. The food itself was more remarkable for quantity than for quality, although the most lavish ingredients were used, one of the few refinements being the introduction of a dish called a "subtlety", which consisted of figures of people or animals fashioned in jelly, often with some punning label attached to exercise the possibly fuddled wits of the guests.
The installation feast of George Neville to the archbishopric of York has been fully recorded. It consisted of a hundred and four oxen and six wild bulls, a thousand sheep, three hundred and four calves, as many swine, two thousand pigs, five hundred stags, bucks and roes, two hundred and four kids, twenty-two thousand five hundred and twelve fowl, twelve porpoises and seals, and, in addition, fish, pastries, tarts, custards and jellies, and three hundred quarters of wheat. The drink consisted of three tons of ale, a hundred tons of wine and a pipe of hippocras. It is not recorded, however, how many sat down to this more than ample repast.
Giffords Hall, Stoke-By-Nayland , Suffolk
The fare of the poor, one fears, was of a less substantial nature, and during the civil wars thousands died of starvation; but it is consoling to read in Fortescue, who wrote towards the end of the fifteenth century, that "the commons of England never vouchsafed to drink water except for a penance".
With the death of Richard III on Bosworth Field in 1485, and the accession of Henry VII, the Wars of the Roses reached their end, and the prosperous era of the Tudors began. The Middle Ages were past.
Ecclesiastical wall panelling oak panelling architecture, which had reached its zenith of Gothic achievement during the fifteenth century, was already, perhaps, on the downward grade when it was dealt its coup de grace by Henry VIll's violent measures against the monasteries-measures which, however fatal to church architecture, gave, by the spread of wealth they entailed, an immense impetus to the building of great houses. The Peasant Revolt had been the first organised attack on the Feudal System; the Wars of the Roses hastened its lingering death. The old landlord families were now for the most part ruined or exterminated, and the new "backbone of England" was quietly consolidating its position. Never before or since in the history of this country has there been so sudden a rise of the newly enriched, such a surge of new families to power and prominence either through commerce or the favours of the king. At this period many of the great names of England are heard for the first time : Cavendish, Cecil, Russell, Thynne, Herbert.
The principal criterion of achieved position was the possession of a great house with sufficient accommodation for the entertainment of the king and his retinue. Fortified castles, so far from the spirit of the times, were, in many cases, left to decay, while private palaces, so vast as to be rarely exceeded in size even by the follies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, arose in all the southern parts of the country. This wave of enthusiasm for building seems to have swept all grades of the community from king to yeoman; even Henry VII, most parsimonious of princes, erected a new palace at Sheen on the site of a former building destroyed by fire. It was of interest as being the first royal residence to be built in England on a single corporate plan. Pictures of it survive, together with a minute description of the interior.
South Wingfield Manor-House, Derbyshire (Circa 1440)