The forty-five years of Elizabeth I’s tenure on the English throne are often seen as having a particular architectural style. But this is far from the reality. There was much that was still Medieval in the style of the time as well as Tudor Gothic.
Architecture as a word hardly existed in the Elizabethan period. It is only referred to in a small number of documents relating to building design written in those years. Moreover it never appears in the writings of Shakespeare or Spencer. Indeed there is no known architect of any building constructed during Elizabeth I’s reign.
The Elizabethans were enthusiastic builders but their appreciation of the art of architecture, as we know it, was restricted until the 1560s by a lack of outside reference and influence. The Elizabethans recognised symmetry but after about 1560 the numbers of people travelling to and from Europe increased significantly and a taste for Flemish style developed.
Not that the Elizabethans were ignorant of other architectural styles. They had an appreciation of ancient Rome and Italy. But they did not recreate these designs in their own contemporary buildings. These ancient designs belonged to the past, and the Elizabethans were far too confident in their own identity to borrow from antiquity.
Queen Elizabeth I herself did not commission much building of any significance but many of her ministers, courtiers and noblemen did. A number of these great houses exist today including Longleat, Wolaton Hall, Burghley and Hardwick Hall. Houses of the wealthy followed a similar early Renaissance style to that so favoured by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII. Stone and brick were used for durability and appearance – in contrast to the timber and wattle of lower status houses.
The crenellations that featured in Medieval castles were no longer included for practical defensive or offensive reasons in high status houses or castles. The feudal system had broken down and the monarchy no longer relied on powerful nobles who were perceived as a great threat to the throne. Elizabethan mansions emphasised luxury and comfort and not power and dominance. Artificial crenellations, purely for show, were allowed to be built in private houses, but only with the permission of the reigning monarch.
The architecture of lower and middle status houses was similar to traditional Medieval styles. Elizabethan houses were framed with heavy vertical timbers. Diagonal beams often supported these uprights. The wattle walls between these timbers were daubed with whitewashed mortar. Hence the familiar black and white half-timbered houses that are perhaps the most redolent of this period. Other features of Elizabethan houses were high chimneys, jettied upper floors, pillared porches, dormer windows and thatched roofs.