The Elizabethan Country House And The Cult Of Sovereignty

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From 1570 – 1620 one can chart the ‘Elizabethan building boom’[1]. Here, we see an unprecedented rise in the building of ‘proud, ambitious heaps’[2] and the beginnings of the ‘architect’ as an entity in the cultural, economic and social landscape. Architectural historian Sir John Summerson credits ‘the most daring of all English buildings’[3] as the prodigy house – a group of notable properties built by the high-ranking officials and courtiers of the age. Summerson asserts that ‘Much of Elizabethan architecture is the expression – conscious and deliberate – of a cult of sovereignty’[4]. His article summarises how the ‘great builders’[5] of the age went about building such country houses as Burghley (built 1558–1587), Theobalds (built 1564-1585) and Holdenby (completed in 1583) under the cult of sovereignty to receive the Queen whereby they became ‘tributes’ and ‘monuments of loyalty’[6].


HERTFORDSHIRE. Old Theobalds Palace (From an earlier 1836 print) 1888.

One would predominantly associate the Elizabethan cult of sovereignty with the Elizabethan prodigy house. This distinction can be made in the great houses by the great builders of the age, most of whom were privy to the court culture over which Elizabeth I reigned. This relationship between the court, the rule and the queen becomes apparent when Choi writes how ‘intimacy with the world of power’[7] authorised the courtier’s existence and validated those schemes of building which were enabled by the sovereign herself. Wallace MacCaffrey supports this view of a mutually sustaining relationship between Elizabeth, her court and her subjects observing that the monarchy “rested… on the substantial pillars of its capacity to reward and to advance its supporters”[8]. The splendour, encouragement and enjoyment of the prodigy house was a reward both materially to the courtiers who built them and strategically to the sovereign who they ultimately reflected. Emily Cole notes how Theobalds was designed ‘to reflect the tastes and requirements of the itinerant monarch and royal court’[9] with William Cecil, Lord Burghley explicitly stating the inspiration of such building ‘begun by me with a mean measure but encreast by occasion of her majesty’s often coming’[10].


Robert Dudley and Elizabeth I, Company at Kenilworth, C.17th Painting 

The existence of certain country houses can be justified as ‘courtly flattery’[11] whereby their building has been encouraged by the monarchy to ultimately serve or venerate it. No more is this the case than with Kenilworth, the endeavour of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and ‘favourite’ to Elizabeth I. Kenilworth falls into the staging of the Elizabethan Progress – a phenomenon that Goldring accepts to be ‘the beginning of the cult of Elizabeth’[12]. Dudley’s proximity to the court and ability to receive the favour of its sovereign was supported by Kenilworth – an extravagant stage for ceremony and the enactment of loyalty to the court. Bernard writes that a building could “perpetuate the myth of the ideal courtier” and “endorse the social structure” that the court existed “to sustain”[13]. Kenilworth was used to entertain and honour the queen – which she graced with her iconic presence, encouraging Dudley to reach the heights of his ambition. The activity that occurred during a period of courtly progress was a sign of cultural privilege and a greatly political activity, masked by elaborate theatrics.


Kirby Hall, early 17th century, (c1990-2010).

Kolkovich perceives the prodigy house as a site of performance: Estates essentially managed by aristocrats were in actuality officially owned by the monarch in a transferral of courtly space. In building prodigy houses, men like Dudley were entering into a social contract whereby they might be granted ‘heightened opportunities for shared and contested authority’[14] due to their accessibility to Elizabeth. Hosts were known to have taken advantage of the circumstances of a visit to advance their own ambitions within the Court. However, such dependency would have accumulated a cost that the Queen did not have to pay. Elizabeth was able to tour the country and maintain her power by living off the hospitality and loyalty of her choicest subjects. Lavish entertainment and the sustenance of the prodigy house as a courtly and ennobled space required building on a unique scale to accommodate ‘the most excellent and glorious person of our soveraine the Queene’[15]. One must weigh the fact against the fiction of a prodigy house resulting in the material gains of the queen’s favour. A prodigy house not increasing wealth and position would suggest other motives to build.


Elizabethan Architecture – Chastleton, Oxfordshire.

Stylistic conjecture suggests multiple decorative sources for the prodigy house. From these, I would argue that Elizabethan architecture as an intellectual pursuit. Artistic currents were at work throughout the wider Renaissance, something that can be seen at its height in Italy. These gradually worked their way into the English vocabulary. Dundas writes that “if one is seeking to learn something of the aesthetic of an age, it seems that making analogies between two of the arts is one of the most useful approaches to this abstraction called an aesthetic”[16] which presents a strong case for architecture being a reflection of the culture in which it was created. Elizabethan England was becoming an increasingly learned environment, with patrons beginning to dip into the artistic and cultural climate of their more enlightened neighbours. Dundas refers to Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, citing this study as an instance where architectural ideas can be defined by the human mind: The architecture of certain periods can be understood by the contemporary tastes, habits and qualities that informed its creation[17]. In 16th century England a ‘courtly and humanistic mode produced many of the stylistic features of the Elizabethan country house’[18] – something which can be supported by builder’s interests in a wide circulation of governing ideas.


Kirby Hall – Northants.

Decoratively speaking, it can be difficult to settle on any one dominating influence. With reference to J. A. Gotch, Airs’ article sees this inability to foster a disciplined style not as a failure but rather as a cultural output which “exhibits a vitality, a fancy, and a sense of romance for which we look in vain in the more correct architecture of the eighteenth century.”[19] Airs is emphasising the creative powers of builders who were actively engaged in crafting a unique aesthetic from the ideas that were available to them. Dundas adds that ‘since the builders were not trying to imitate ancient Rome or modern Italy, they simply drew features from any source that appealed to them’[20] referring to the Flemish, Italian and French motifs used freely at Burghley and Kirby Hall. By selecting favourite elements from architectural prints and writings, the Elizabethan passion for building reads as an attempt to demonstrate an awareness of these styles and to exhibit a refined taste.


Robert Smythson, designs for Wollaton Hall including a drawing of a corner tower (RIBA), c. 1580s.

Airs refers to how ‘Burghley chose to demonstrate his modernity and wit to his discerning peers in the 1580s’ through building country houses ‘symbolic of his knowledge and intelligence as well as his wealth and power’[21]. I would confirm this through the Elizabethan trend for the use of allegory and ‘devices’. In a contemporary account, John Nichols discloses that ‘the allegories are hard to be vnderstood, without some knowledge of the inuentors’[22] – this statement was as true for pageantry as it was for decorative play. An Elizabethan builder might invent what Geoffrey Whitney defines in a book of 1586 as ‘something obscure to be perceived at first, whereby when further consideration it is understood, it may greater delight the beholder’[23]. The imperative here was to be seen as cultured – as one who might delight in ‘anything that was strange or curious’[24] and to show an awareness of this specialised understanding. This would account for the complexity of some Elizabethan country houses where styles are jostled together in a ‘combination of fancifulness and order’[25].


Page from John Shute, The First and Chief Groundes of Architecture (1563).

Airs suggests we must acknowledge ‘an appreciation of the cultural relationship between the country house building class and contemporary intellectual trends in continental Europe.’[26] Builders sought advice from their peers on matters of design, for example, the Earl of Shrewsbury contacted Burghley in 1577 regarding the plan of a lodge[27]. Ideas were picked up and passed on in the shaping of what one might call the well-rounded ‘Renaissance Man’[28] – a man who understood elevated principles, ideas and ideals and was not afraid to flaunt this intelligence through his conspicuous building. ‘Intellectual fanaticism’[29] was evident in builders like Sir John Thynne whose contact with Humanism prompted the Classical ambition of Longleat (completed c.1580). The English courtier class were widening their education and motivations to bridge with circulating European literary and cultural sources. This can be supported by the spread of architectural ideas through print, gossip and notebooks, absorbed by important figures and evidenced in the contents of their libraries. Gentlemen like Thynne would then employ those such as Smythson to realise these through the buildings they chose to execute. These schemes were deliberate and, whilst within the court circle, were perhaps more a reflection of the individual’s personal development and intellectual curiosity than of the cult of sovereignty.


The Palace of Theobalds in the 17th century. Artists impression. (This image is arguably Nonsuch Palace and incorrectly attributed as Theobalds) – via Wikipedia.

Building in the 16th century was a matter of competition and ambition. No more is this evident than in the sheer scale of such works that were built to be seen. Judith Dundas comments how even lesser gentry were caught by the ‘fever of emulation’[30], building as grandly as they possibly could within their means. Contemporary Harrison brags of how the ‘workmen excel and are in manner comparable in skill with old Vitruvius, Leon Battista, and Serlio’[31] – houses commanded national pride. Emily Cole writes on the fame of Theobalds, its reputation and the important it. The influential nature of Lord Burghley demonstrating his ‘power, taste and knowledge, lavishing money on its building and decoration’[32] is reflected in the imitation of Theobalds, having ‘set new standards in its scale, plan, style and fitting’[33]. Frequent additions to houses to ‘achieve splendour’[34] such as the withdrawing room and grand staircase could be explained as an instance where builders were trying to keep up with the latest architectural trends, an example of what Airs terms the ‘competitive determination’[35] among men of means. This passion for construction, following on from Theobalds can be seen in Holdenby, Audley End, Wollaton, Knole and Hatfield. Men of importance would build along the lines of ‘social rivalry’[36], showing an intense interest in each other’s schemes and competing to achieve the greatest display of architectural ingenuity.


For the upper ranks of society with interests in architecture, attaining the best workers for job to realise their ambition was a key component in building. A relieved Sir Edward Hext, having secured mason William Arnold for Wadham College, Oxford writes in 1610 “If I had not tied him fast to this business we should hardly keep him; he is so wonderfully sought being indeed the absolutest and honestest workman in England”[37]. Prevalent too was Greenblatt’s concept of ‘self-fashioning’[38] in the Renaissance, whereby men would ‘strive to prove their existence’[39] through alluding to greatness. The poetry of Spenser was merely one of the ways in which ‘self and patronage’[40] could lead to a realisation of greater purpose. Country houses were the work of individuals who strove for greatness and magnanimity for the good of their own name, not just that of the sovereign. Dundas has identified the ‘pure fancy’ of Elizabethan architecture, whereby the houses ‘suggest more the projection of a dream than the expression of artistic purpose’[41]. Builders were keen to stress their ownership and creation through heraldic flourishes. In this ‘grand scheme’ devices, initials, mottoes and dates served to testify the ‘builders’ desire for immortality’[42]. These functioned as a proclamation of family status, with Anthony Emery writing that Elizabethan country houses ‘are a reflection of the social and political aspirations of their owners’[43] – a testament to the power and taste of the builder and his descendants.

haddon lg 3.jpg

The Long Gallery at Haddon Hall.

Elizabethan architecture was one of aspiration. The prodigy house’s existence in history was enabled by a myriad of social, political, economical and cultural factors prevalent in England. Summerson’s assertion concerning the cult of sovereignty is indeed entirely valid, as courtly influence was very much at work in a bid of showmanship. This needs to be extended to embrace more the climate of exploration and expansion from the wider trends of the Renaissance. The shift in emphasis onto a secular architecture of the self encouraged builders to experiment and indulge their own whims, reaching new heights in the wholly individual expression of the country house.

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The Development of the Picturesque in English Landscape Gardening here…
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Sources Used: 

[1] R. A. Foakes, Shakespeare Performed: Essays in Honor of R.A. Foakes (University of Delaware Press, 2000), p. 54.

[2] B. Jonson, The Works of Ben. Jonson: Masques at court. Epigrams. The forest. Underwoods, consisting of divers poems (D. Midwinter, 1756), p. 309.

[3] J. Summerson, The Classical Language of Architecture (Thames and Hudson, 1980), p. 70.

[4] J. Summerson, Architecture in Britain, 1530 to 1830 (Yale University Press, 1993), p. 58.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] E. Choi, ‘The Court, the Rule and the Queen: The Faerie Queene as a Representation of Elizabeth I’, English Studies, 29 (2009), p. 196.

[8] I. G. MacCaffrey, Spenser’s Allegory: The Anatomy of Imagination (Princeton UP, 1976), p. 97.

[9] E. Cole, ‘Theobalds, Hertfordshire: The Plan and Interiors of an Elizabethan Country House’, The Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain 2017, 60 (2017), p. 79.

[10] S. James, Art in England: The Saxons to the Tudors: 600 – 1600 (Oxbow Books, 2016), p. 297

[11] D. B. Alwes, Sons and Authors in Elizabethan England (University of Delaware Press, 2004), p. 60.

[12] E. Goldring, ‘The Earl of Leicester’s Inventory of Kenilworth Castle, c. 1578’, English Heritage Historical Review, 2 (2007), p. 37.

[13] J. D. Bernard, Ceremonies of Innocence: Pastoralism in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser (Cambridge UP, 1989), p. 4.

[14] E. Z. Kolkovich, The Elizabethan Country House Entertainment: Print, Performance, and Gender (Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 7.

[15] G. A. Wauchope, Spenser’s the Faerie Queene, Book 1 (BoD, 2018), p. 22.

[16] J. Dundas, ‘Elizabethan Architecture and The Faerie Queene: Some Structural Analogies’, Dalhousie Review, 45 (1966), p. 470.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, p. 471.

[19] M. Airs, ‘The English Country House in the Sixteenth Century’, Oxford Art Journal, 2 (1979), p. 15.

[20] Dundas, ‘Elizabethan Architecture and The Faerie Queene’, p. 472.

[21] Airs, ‘The English Country House in the Sixteenth Century’,p. 16.

[22] Kolkovich, The Elizabethan Country House Entertainment, p. 1.

[23] D. Javitch, Poetry and Courtliness in Renaissance England (Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 79.

[24] Airs, ‘The English Country House’, p. 16.

[25] Dundas, ‘Elizabethan Architecture and The Faerie Queene’, p. 471.

[26] Airs, ‘The English Country House’, p. 15.

[27] Ibid, p. 17.

[28] S. Mackey and S. Cooper, Drama and Theatre Studies (Nelson Thornes, 2000), P. 104.

[29] Airs, ‘The English Country House’, p. 18.

[30] Dundas, ‘Elizabethan Architecture and The Faerie Queene’, p. 470.

[31] W. Harrison and G. Edelen, The Description of England: The Classic Contemporary Account of Tudor Social Life (Courier Corporation, 1968), P. 119.

[32] Cole, ‘Theobalds, Hertfordshire’, p. 71.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Dundas, ‘Elizabethan Architecture and The Faerie Queene’, p. 473.

[35] Airs, ‘The English Country House’, p. 17.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] S. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 1.

[39] Choi, ‘The Court, the Rule and the Queen’, p. 198.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Dundas, ‘Elizabethan Architecture and The Faerie Queene’, p. 472.

[42] M. Airs, The Tudor and Jacobean country house; a building history (Bramley, 1998), p. 14.

[43] A. Emery, ‘Late-medieval Houses as an expression of social status’, Historical Research, 78 (2005), p. 141.

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