The Elizabethan House

 Little Moreton, Cheshire

 
In response to several requests, today’s snippets are on Elizabethan & Jacobean homes. Having blogged  for the past six months or so now, what has struck me repeatedly is the fascination people have with the more mundane aspects of early modern life. Poetry and art certainly have their place, but it appears people equally enjoy early modern sausages or a whirlwind history of the chamber pot. I spend most of my waking life immersed in the intricacies of 17th century drama and politics, so a delve into a 16th century recipe book, or the inner workings of a flushing cistern, usually comes as welcome relief.

A brief word about building materials. Timber was a major building material in the Elizabethan period but as time progressed more and more homes were constructed of brick, particularly in London, which did something to a certain extent at least, to limit the great fire of 1666.  Of all the timber used, the preference was usually for oak, which was both waterproof and durable.

Just as today, homes in the late 16th and early 17th centuries differed according to the wealth and status of their owners or tenants, but they shared a basic commonality when it came to function. And like today, cash bought space and luxuries. And chimneys. Great Elizabethan houses could incorporate multiple chimneys thanks to the advances in coal mining. And chimneys meant warmth and an end to smoky medieval halls where families huddled around just the one fire. These multiple chimneys in turn led to a new division of space, with rooms assigned to particular activities, such as dining or sleeping. In addition, windows underwent a redesign. In the past, windows had been necessarily small for two very good reasons; glass was extremely costly, and small windows offered a better defence against invading hordes.  But thanks to the imports of foreign glass and the skill of stone masons, windows could finally begin to let in the light. This increase in light and space really opened houses up. Huge ornate wooden staircases replaced the tight windy stone steps of older homes, and a long sun-filled gallery was de rigueur; whether to show off the family portraits, stroll about on a rainy day, or pass the time playing skittles. Ceilings were now plastered, and wainscots were introduced, which brought an end to cold plastered walls and dangling moth-eaten tapestries. Now rooms were enveloped in panels of warm wood.

 

 

Floors were usually constructed of timber, and where they might once have been strewn with rushes and herbs, they were now covered with woven mats, or rugs, if money were no object. The number of rooms in a house depended on its size and function. It was traditional for a house to have a dining chamber and a bed chamber, in addition there might be a little ‘house of easement’ or water closet for the very rich, or an outside privy for those of more modest means (see my post In the privy that annoys you for more on this aspect of early modern life). Baths were taken by the fire. The following image depicts the typical rooms in a house belonging to a well-to-do family. It’s worth noting that this is a representative diagram, and the layout would not have followed this plan (the kitchen, for example, would not be upstairs!).

 

From top right to bottom left: 

Bedroom, study, dining room, kitchen, buttery, well, privy, stables, cellar, chamber 

 
Samuel Pepys, in his diary, lists the number of rooms in his lodgings as follows: A study for himself, A parlour, A ‘little room’ taken over from his neighbour, A nursery, Elizabeth’s bed chamber, A dining room, A ‘matted chamber’, A new dining room in the roof extension, Elizabeth’s closet, A study for Samuel’s secretary, The ‘red chamber’, The ‘green chamber’, A new closet for Elizabeth in the roof extension, The upper best chamber or music room, The ‘dancing room’, A ‘new closet’, An old closet now ‘my little dining room’, The ‘great chamber’, A ‘long chamber where the girl lies’, The ‘blue chamber’, A dressing room, and a room ‘for Elizabeth’s woman’. This is all in addition to a kitchen and various pantries. Of course Pepys was reasonably  wealthy, and the rooms he lists may all have been quite small, but he does provide a fascinating glimpse into the function and nature of early modern homes.

 

Furniture and furnishings were evolving too. It’s hard to imagine, but at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, many people were content to sleep on straw pallets with a ‘good round log’ for a pillow. It was a sign of great prosperity if a man could afford a feather bed. However four-poster beds were soon all the rage, with soft mattresses, fancy drapes and ornate hangings. The Great Bed of Ware (above, dated 1590), now in the V & A, is a good example of a luxurious item of bedroom furniture from the period, although by early modern standards it was enormous. The inventory of a 16th century landowner’s house sheds some light on the sort of furnishings in use in bedchambers at the time: Twelve bedsteads, two truckle beds, a dozen sheets (four linen, the rest probably hemp), six blankets, three bolsters, two valances, two coverlets and four cushions.

The family meals would be taken in the dining chamber. The table (or ‘bord’) had evolved from the simple trestle of earlier times, and often had leaves which could be used to extend it. The head of the household would sit in a chair with a back and arm rests, and around the table would be a collection of stools or benches for the rest of the family to sit on.

 

 

A cupboard (or cup boards as they were known) was a vital addition to any dining chamber. In essence it was a wooden shelf, or set of shelves, upon which the household valuables could be displayed – often pieces of silver or pewter, and fancy glassware. Dining chambers also had a buffet – another shelf on which the wine or beer was kept during meals. A drink would be dispensed from the buffet in a glass or tankard, and once consumed, the empty vessel would then be whipped away and swilled in a tub of clean water.  Venetian glass was imported into England and favoured by the wealthy, since English glass-blowing techniques had not yet become sufficiently refined. Knives were manufactured in Sheffield and widely available, and it was often the case that a dining guest would bring his or her own knife. A pitcher or bowl of water on the table was provided, so diners could sluice their cutlery and their hands between courses.  Forks were still a rarity – see my post on Jacobean dining for more.

 

 

In addition to the dining chamber, other rooms in the house would have cupboards, and these were known as ‘presses’, ‘court cupboards’, ‘livery cupboards’, or ‘aumbries’. Mirrors hung in various rooms, especially in bedrooms; known as ‘glasses’ they were often made from polished steel. Typical homes were lit with either candles or tapers. Tapers were thin, cheap, lightweight candles; more expensive candles were reserved for special occasions.

Most homes of a decent size would have had a garden. This was more than just an outside space. It provided essential supplies for both the kitchen and the medicine cabinet. In a future post I will explore the importance and delights of the Elizabethan garden.

 

In addition to my own research into primary sources, I’ve referred to both A H Dodd’s Elizabethan England, & Liza Picard’s Restoration London & Elizabeth’s London

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2 Comments

  • March 18, 2010 - 10:08 am | Permalink

    It’s so nice to read your kind comments. I’ll try and get something together on Elizabethan gardens soon.

    In the past 400 years, houses have undergone radical transformations in terms of decor, building materials, insulation &c. Yet we still have a kitchen, a sitting room, and a bedroom. I used Pepys because I wanted to give a sense of room functionality, and you’re right, he obviously wasn’t Elizabethan; but not an enormous amount changed from the turn of the century down to Restoration London. Minor modifications of course, and some shifts in technology, such as domestic sewage systems; but essentially Pepys’ description serves as a fine indicator of a typical, if up market, early modern home.

    Pepys’ diary is such a wonderful source, and it often astonishes me that more people don’t turn to him.

    I very much look forward to your piece on a William & Mary home.

  • March 17, 2010 - 11:32 pm | Permalink

    Although you are slaving away with the Big Themes of Elizabethan politics and literature, you are right: I really do prefer social history :) This is great stuff and not at all mundane. The article on Elizabethan gardens should also be welcome.

    Just one quibble. Samuel Pepys 1633–1703 wasn’t Elizabethan, so are you suggesting that nothing significantly changed in housing, right through the 17th century? My guess is rather that we can be so grateful to Pepys for his detailed diary that we should use his information wherever possible. I most certainly would.

    I am examining a William and Mary era home and will publish the article in my blog soon.

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