The Early Tudors

The Early Tudors

In the reign of Henry VIII the power of the monarchy reached its zenith. It was a time, wrote Surrey historian H.E. Maiden, when ‘the personal will of the Crown became the directing force whereby everything was determined’. As Henry VIII’s reign progressed his increasingly corpulent figure seemed to cast an ever-larger shadow over the lives of all his people. In Surrey his power was felt perhaps more than in most other shires.

His love of hunting and the chase made Henry look with eagerness at the prospects for his sport in the Surrey countryside so close to London. By exchanges or confiscation, and occasionally by purchase, he acquired a block of manors in Surrey, including Byfleet, Weybridge, Walton, Oatlancls near Weybridge, Molesey, Esher and Malden, and declared them royal forest. It was, therefore, only natural that he should wish to have close by the chase a residence or two fit for a very special king.

On 12th October 1537 Henry’s long awaited son, Edward, was born to his third wife, Jane Seymour. The succession of the Tudor dynasty was now assured and in celebration Henry decided to embark on the building of a major new palace. This palace was to be better than anything Henry’s rival, Francis I of France, had at Fontainebleau. It would be built to the glory of the Tudors and no expense would be spared. It would have no equal; there would be ‘none such’ anywhere in the world – it was Nonsuch Palace.

The site for this new wonder was chosen for its open countryside with excellent hunting, its clean air and its good supply of pure water. The palace was to be built at Cuddington, between Ewell and Cheam. it was near to Hampton Court, Henry’s extensive palace across the Thames in Middlesex and thus was also within easy reach of London by boat down the Thames. To the south was Banstead Downs and in all there were at least 40 square miles of country suitable for the hunting of almost everything that moved – deer, fox, badger, pheasant, partridge, ‘coney’ and ‘all kinds of vermin’. The fact that this ideal site had a complete village, including a manor house and church, situated on it was not, of course, any deterrent to the king.

The Lord of the Manor of this village was Sir Richard Codington and his manor house was described by Henry’s surveyors as ‘newly built’. From the description it appears to have been a typical manor house of the period, with a great hail, ample living quarters for the Codingtons, a kitchen and servants’ quarters, all built round three sides of a rectangle. The church at Cuddington belonged to the powerful priory at Merton but even that did not stop Henry in his determination to remove it. Just one week before the building of Nonsuch Palace commenced at Cuddington, Merton Priory was dissolved.

Henry’s closure of England’s religious houses has been claimed by many historians to have been an act of pure vandalism – a despotic king and his crony, Thomas Cromwell, driven by avarice to destroy the religious houses and take all their riches for themselves. There can be no doubt that the monastic movement had lost its way by the start of the 16th century. The secular had in many cases taken over from the religious and many houses had become nothing more than businesses, their abbots or priors working closely with the local gentry for the maximum profit to both. Many of the lucrative lay jobs associated with the monasteries were an inheritance for the gentry, whose ancestors had often been responsible for the founding of the establishments in the first place. As centres of learning, the monasteries had declined and the invention of printing had made their scribes redundant. On the other hand, there were still those religious houses whose inmates spoke the word of God before all else and whose efforts for the charity of others cannot be doubted. But it was the time for change and the King was leading a reformation with much support from his people, especially those who saw a chance for personal gain.

The first wave of closures commenced in 1536, when all religious houses worth under £200 a year were dissolved and ‘converted to better uses’. In Surrey this first round of closures included Tandridge and Reigate priories. At Tandridge the end came on 2nd July 1536, when the canons were dispersed and the prior paid off with a pension of £14 per annum. Reigate Priory was rated at only £68 16s 10d and its prior received a pension of £10. In 1541 Henry granted Reigate Priory to Lord William Howard, eldest son of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Earl of Surrey. The priory was to remain in Howard family ownership until 1681 and over the years was altered into a country seat. Most of its buildings gradually disappeared but the priory church was converted into the main dwelling and part of its medieval fabric still survives in the present Reigate Priory, which is now a school.

The important Cistercian abbey at Waverlev also fell victim to the first round of closures. Its fortunes were already in decline by the time Henry’s commissioners visited it, clearly with an eye on finding reason for suppression. Not surprisingly, they reported that the fewer than 30 monks left in the house were disorderly and dissolute. The abbot, William Ayling, was described as ‘honest but none of the children of Solomon’ and ‘every monk was his own master’. When the end came the monks were turned out to find a living as best they could. One of them, John Parker, became curate of Wanborough, where the chapel there had previously been attached to the abbey. Compared with the priors of Reigate and Tandridge, Abbot Ayling was granted a generous pension of £70 a year. He went to Oxford to become provost of what is now St John’s College. He also held a living at Froxall in Staffordshire, so he was not exactly left in dire straits by the closure of his abbe. Perhaps some of the criticism of the lavish lifestyle of some of the monks of this period is borne out by the details of Abbot Ayling’s will in 1539. His bequests included no less than three feather beds and a large and costly wardrobe. Not bad for a leader of an order whose founders had rejected all forms of luxury and wealth!

The act which brought about the demise of Tandridge, Reigate and did not include the more valuable houses, the ‘great and solemn monasteries wherein (thanks he to God) religion is right well kept and observed’. But the sincerity in these words was false and only a matter of administrative expediency – within four years all the religious houses had gone. Chertsey Abbey surrendered on 6th July 1537 but, curiously, King Henry proposed to re-establish the monks at Bisham only to have Bisham itself dissolved eleven months later.

The Dominican friary at Guildford, founded in the 13th century, closed its doors on 15th October 1538. It had played host to many royal visitors through the centuries – following a visit by Henry IV in 1403 the friary received compensation of 40 shillings for damage caused by the royal entourage. Even as late as 1534 a treaty with Scotland was ratified at Guildford Friary and there is evidence to suggest that rebuilding took place after this date. During 1535 ’35 loads of tymber [were] caryed into the freyers at Guldeford’ during the construction of a ‘new buyldyng’. But all this was to no avail. After closure the friary remained in royal hands, parts of it being demolished and the rest being converted into a house.

By 1605 the friary was in ruins and it was demolished soon after, eventually making way for a fine mansion built by John Murray, Viscount Annandale, about 1610. Later the site became the home of the famous Friary Brewery. Prior to its redevelopment as a shopping precinct in the late 1970s, the site was extensively excavated by archaeologists. They revealed a wealth of remains, including substantial foundations, which enabled the reconstruction of an almost complete ground plan of the friary. Everything was then destroyed, as is the way with modern building techniques, leaving just a name, ‘The Friary’, to remind the future of its past.

Apart from those monastic buildings converted for domestic use, many were despoiled immediately following suppression. Their buildings were stripped of lead roofs and other valuable materials and then quarried for their stone. In 1538 the broken remains of medieval carvings from Chertsey Abbey were amongst the stones carted to Weybridge, where Henry was building his new palace of Oatlands on the site of a manor house previously owned by William Rede, a London goldsmith. As Henry just happened to be in possession of Tandridge Priory at the time, Rede was given it in exchange – a poor swop for a house placed handily near the Thames. Merton Priory, Surrey’s most valuable religious house at the time of its suppression, suffered a similar fate to Chertsey, for just a few miles down the road at Cuddington, Henry had embarked on the building of Nonsuch.

It was during the reign of Henry Viii’s father that Surrey had once more become an important royal home, in a way not seen since the medieval days of Henry III at Guildford. Admittedly, the royal manor at Sheen, on the banks of the Thames, had always been popular with a succession of kings. Edward III died there, as did Richard II’s queen, Anne of Bohemia. Richard was so upset by her death that he had the place pulled down. Then Henry V rebuilt it, but it was Henry VII who reconstructed it as a magnificent royal palace fit for the founder of the Tudor dynasty. He called his new palace Richmond, after the earldom he had held before becoming king. Richmond soon supplanted Sheen as the name for the adjacent town which had grown up around it.

The palaces at Richmond and also at Hampton Court consisted of ranges of domestic buildings round two courtyards. The outer court was provided with a substantial gatehouse with octagonal turrets. A smaller but taller gatehouse led from the outer court to the inner court. This was the basic Tudor palace design adopted by the unknown architects of Henry VIII’s new palaces in Surrey – Oatlands at Weybridge and, the finest of them all, Nonsuch. What made Nonsuch stand out above all the dozen or so palaces which Henry already possessed was the lavishness of its external decoration.

The walls of the inner court, two polygonal towers and the south facing outer wall of the palace were covered with an incredible decoration of carved and gilded slate and pure dazzling white stucco reliefs. Much of this work is thought to have been executed by a team of French craftsmen led by an Italian, Nicholas Bellin. Henry had managed to poach Bellin from his arch-rival, Francis I of France, for whom Bellin had worked at Fontainebleau. The stucco reliefs within the inner court included huge figures of gods and goddesses and figures representing the labours of Hercules, with above them busts of Roman emperors. Opposite the entrance to the court were the imposing figures of Henry himself, and his son, Prince Edward. On the outside south wall there were figures from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Further decoration around all these deeply recessed reliefs consisted of royal arms, mottoes, animals, cherubs, angels and garlands of fruit and flowers. The medium, known as stucco duro, consisted of a mixture of flint and chalk, crushed and burnt, mixed with water, which when dry became as hard as stone. It dried quickly and therefore the artist had to work at speed, building up the layers of stucco and moulding the reliefs using bare hands as well as special tools. When dry, the reliefs were whitewashed to increase their awesome effect. This was Henry’s intention – to let the world know that his great Tudor dynasty was the equal of gods and emperors.

The gardens at Nonsuch were laid out with a plethora of statuary and fountains on a scale to match the grandeur of the palace itself. There was a privy garden with a formal arrangement of small flowering plants – violets, primroses, sweet williams, wallflowers and roses, and herbs such as rosemary and thyme. A fountain of Venus was raised up on a small mound as the centrepiece. Throughout the gardens there were trees such as oak, elm, yew, cypress, bay and holly as well as a large variety of fruit trees – pear, apple, cherry and even apricot. Gardeners were sent all over Europe to bring back the latest varieties. There was a maze, a grove dedicated to the goddess, Diana, and a trick pyramid which cascaded water over the unsuspecting visitor who happened to tread on a particular paving stone.

Nonsuch had two parks – the Little Park adjacent to the palace, which included the 16 acres of gardens, and the Great Park of over 900 acres, stocked with deer for the hunt. Later known as Worcester Park after the Earl who was appointed keeper there in 1606, a substantial part of the Great Park was developed into housing estates during the present century, and covered with rows of mock-Tudor villas typical of 1930s suburban sprawl.

Surrey is fortunate that, despite the pressures of modern development, many genuine houses of all shapes and sizes have survived from the 15th and 16th centuries. Four miles north of Guildford is Sutton Place, one of the finest Tudor Renaissance houses to have survived anywhere in England. It was built in the 1520s by Sir Richard Weston, a Knight of the Bath and a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, who later became Under-Treasurer of England. Weston was a born survivor during a reign when to be close to the centre of power brought riches but also personal danger. His son was executed as one of the supposed lovers of Anne Boleyn, but Sir Richard remained in favour and died a natural death in 1542. He built his house in brick and terracotta, the latter being used not only for moulded decoration but also for those dressings more usually done in stone, such as string courses, mullions, turrets, arches and parapets. Sutton Place was originally nearly square, the ranges of rooms on two storeys being built round a courtyard. In 1786 the north side, which included the main gatehouse, was demolished. But what remains was described by architectural writer Ian Nairn as ‘side by side with Layer Marney [in Essex], the most important English house of the years following immediately after Hampton Court’.

For the majority of houses of the period, however, wood was the main construction material. Stout oak timbers from the local forests were chosen for a timber frame, which was usually infilled with wattle and daub, but later brick or stone was also used. There was very little thatching done in Surrey and clay tiles or stone slates were the norm to roof these timber-framed houses. Thanks to the work of the Domestic Buildings Research Group of Surrey during the last 20 years, several thousand old houses have been surveyed and recorded throughout Surrey. The oldest, such as that discovered in Hart’s Yard, Godalming, date in part to pre-1400.

The earliest houses in Surrey to survive substantially intact are 15th century. They originally consisted of a central hail, open to the roof with first floor rooms fitted under the slope of the roof. Smoke from the open fire would simply drift upwards and eventually find an exit through small openings at either end of the building. Life in these houses, especially in winter, must have been lived in a smoke-filled haze and such buildings today can be recognised by their smoke-blackened roof timbers. Puttenden Manor near Lingfield and Brewer Street Farmhouse at Bletchingley are good examples of this style of building. The latter is roofed with stone tiles known as Horsham slates from a natural stone quarried in various places in the Weald, which has cleaving properties similar to slate.

By about 1500, to increase the number of rooms and to solve the smoke problem, some houses in Surrey were constructed with extra flooring over part of the open hall. Some existing houses were also given this addition. The flooring provided more bedroom space upstairs and left only one bay of the hall open to the roof. This meant that the smoke was more quickly drawn out and did not linger to permeate every nook and cranny of the house. Over 50 houses with this suspended upper floor have so far been recognised in the county, a good example being Saplings in Newdigate.

After about 1550, houses were constructed with framing specifically designed with only one small bay open to the roof above the hearth. Side draughts were eliminated, thus leading to easier control of the smoke, which quickly made its exit via a wattle hood in the roof. Larger houses had the smoke bay in the middle but in the smaller cottage it was built at one end. There are numerous examples of these ‘smoke bay houses’ to be found in Surrey, for the design continued into the early 17th century. Meanwhile, about 1580, came the introduction of chimneys, solidly buili in brick or stone. They were an obvious development from the small smoke bay which, over the following 50 years, they replaced.

Timber-frame building in oak did not entirely die out with the widespread introduction of brick and stone in the second part of the 17th century. Until well into the Georgian period the style was still used, but these small cottages are debased examples, poorly constructed, with joints held together with iron nails, like some still to be seen at Hurtmore near Godalming. Following on from this sad end to an ancient craft, came a completely new style of framing using soft woods, which were then protected from the elements by weather-boarding. This type of house or cottage was more commonly found in north-east Surrey, where a few still survive.