Tudor and Elizabethan architecture (1485-1603)

Penniless Porch, WellsComparative peace under the Tudor monarchs brought prosperity to England, Wales and Ireland. The wealth of great landowners - the Crown, the aristocracy and the Church - could be poured into building. It was a time of national confidence. Although ripples spread to these shores from the revival of classical architecture in Italy, the Tudor style was mainly home-grown.

The Perpendicular style had already broken away from the European mainstream of late Gothic. In Tudor times it developed fan vaulting, for example in the cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral and Henry VII's magnificent Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey. The characteristic Tudor depressed arch can be seen in both ecclesiastical and secular buildings.

Tudor roseAnother useful dating feature is the Tudor Rose. Henry VII's marriage to the daughter of Edward IV allied the royal claims of Lancaster (badge: red rose) and York (badge: white rose). So the Tudor badge was a double rose, often with a crown above, much used in decoration.


Interest in Renaissance features was largely confined to the educated and wealthy elite. Henry VIII - an enthusiastic builder - used some Italianate motifs. In the 1500s a small coterie headed by the Duke of Somerset went further and built with a symmetry and style heavily influenced by Renaissance ideals, for example at Longleat. These grand experiments were ahead of their time.

Elizabethan houses

The Merchant's House, PlymouthIn 1577 William Harrison noted the Elizabethan passion for tearing down old houses and building anew. This building boom has been called the Great Rebuilding. From courtiers to cottagers, home-owners were yearning for improvements.

At the lower end of the scale this meant chimneys and glazed windows for the first time. Previously people cooked and ate in the hall with a fire on the open hearth. Once a chimney was added, the hall, formerly open to the rafters, could have a ceiling inserted to make an upper floor. Houses were becoming lighter and cleaner, with more private space.

Tall, narrow town houses made the most of the tightly-packed space within borough walls. Merchants and artisans built storey upon storey, generally living over the shop. Timber-framing was still popular, despite the fire risk. One advantage was that upper storeys could be jettied out over the street, as this example pictured at Plymouth.

Montacute House, SomersetThe houses of the wealthy could have a forest of tall, decorative chimneys and huge windows, such as we see at Billingbear or Montacute (pictured right). With the new availability of cheap glass, Elizabethans delighted in glittering expanses of glazing. Within there would be elaborate fireplace surrounds, square panelling, friezes and ceilings decorated in strapwork - patterns imitating interlaced leather straps. Some of these features have been recreated in this room at the Geffrye Museum in London [interactive panorama].

Shell-head niche at MontacuteSymmetrical plans were favoured, but otherwise Renaissance influence appeared mainly in classical details, such as columns beside a door or fireplace, and round-head arches for front doors and niches, which could be shell-headed, as at Montacute.

Tudor and Elizabethan styles enjoyed a revival in the Victorian period.