Power and Politics of Architecture in Tudor England

Prodigy House

The was a widespread uptick in manor home construction during the Tudor period. Many men at court hoped to cement their status through the acquisition of land and the construction of large homes to be a centerpiece of that land. The first two Tudor monarchs were known for raising common men to noble status and as such it is not surprising that the newly landed nobles would desire to cement their power with the construction of large impending homes. For new men, these homes announced their arrival to the political and social elite. These homes would also be used to assert dominance over neighboring gentry and tenants.

It is not then surprising that Henry VIII’s groom of the stool Sir William Compton should have built a picture book country-house at Compton Wynyates, Warwickshire, that Sir Henry Marney should have begun an astonishing tower house at Layer Marney, in Essex, that Charles Brandon, newly raised as Duke of Suffolk, should have built at Westhorpe.[1]

The greatest amount of construction performed by courtiers was during the reign of Elizabeth I, but there was also some construction of prodigy houses during the reigns of the other Tudor monarchs.

These courtiers were most likely seeking to convert the wealth and privilege given to them by the monarch into something more permanent. A newly raised Duke very well might be a Duke, but if he went back to his land without a large manor, people might question his power and whether or not he deserved to have been raised to duke. This would not only cement the specific courtier’s power, it would also cement the power for his family because the manor home would last beyond the courtier. In Tudor society power was based on land ownership and many of these courtiers set their primary interests on the country estates that they had acquired. These courtiers would often build their new homes in or near the village from which their family hailed. They would often also include the local church in their construction and sometimes include it in their estate. While a courtier would certainly use his home to impress his tenants and the lowborn in his village, the real motive behind these homes was to participate in competition among the high social ranks. “This was particularly true of the patron who was a newcomer to his or her social or political class, as was true of so many of the country house builders of early Tudor England.”[2]

Additionally, there were many men with new lands due to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. After Henry VIII decided to dissolve all the monasteries, his administrators began selling off the confiscated lands to courtiers and other wealthy men. There were also new nobles made with these newly acquired lands.

The construction of these prodigy houses – as it were – was as much about cementing one’s own power, as it was about expressing loyalty to the monarch. These noblemen were only in their positions by the grace and good wishes of the King or Queen. They were well aware of that fact; in order to remain in powerful positions and wealthy they must dance continual attendance on the monarch. A courtier would put symbols of the monarch in their homes in order to illustrate their allegiance.  The courtiers often used their homes to show off their family ties and political connections. Even Henry VIII did this when constructing his palaces, one can infer that the illustration of these connections was for reasons of power and patronage. One might compare this practice to that of naming buildings after people who donated money to the construction. Those buildings are named to thank the donor and show that the school or building has a connection to that powerful donor. “At Haddon Hall, the Vernons, kings of the Peak, proclaimed their attachment to the Tudor dynasty and their marriage connections to the Talbots earls of Shrewsbury by the Tudor roses and Talbot hounds painted on the ceiling of the solar.”[3]
[1] Bernard, Power and Politics in Tudor England, 175
[2] Howard, The Early Tudor Country House, 25
[3] Bernard, Power and Politics in Tudor England, 176

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