England’s history is a long and complex one. This heritage is perpetuated as we consider the architecture through the ages, much of which remains as a testimony to the people and events that moulded the nation’s rich heritage. There are remnants of this architecture from ancient Druidic times (e.g. Stonehenge) and Roman occupation (e.g. the Roman Baths), right through the Victorian and Early English phases to the modern look and feel of the 21st century. Each design era exudes its own signature styles and an undeniable air of intrigue, despite being very different from one another.
Although trends and eras have overlapped and coincided, English architecture can basically be defined according to the following timeline:
• Prehistoric (e.g. Stonehenge and similar structure)
• Roman (stylish, sophisticated, advanced)
• Saxon (simplistic, wood was the main medium)
• Medieval (focus on the ability of sculptures to educate, rounded, heavy arches)
• Gothic (divided into Norman, Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular)
• Tudor (smaller buildings, focussed more on details than space)
• Elizabethan (grand, beautiful, emphasis on opulence)
• Baroque (bold, curved lines with plenty of weight and detail, disproportional)
• Georgian (classical style, the townhouse being the most prominent rise of the era)
• The Palladian Movement (graceful, understated elegance)
• Victorian (a return to the Gothic era, this phase was characterised by being either very extravagant and detailed, or almost bizarrely simplistic)
The buildings that have remained significant through the ages, both for their historical and cultural import as well as for the fact that they remain for tourists and locals to enjoy are usually abbeys and monasteries, castles, country houses, cathedrals and manors.
We will delve into only a few of the architectural trends more deeply.
The Roman soldiers invaded England in the first century of our Common Era (CE). They brought with them (forcefully, at times) a Mediterranean architectural style of designing both buildings and towns. Traditional Roman villas remain to this day as evidence of this era. Although technically defined as farms, villas refer to the estates of the elite English families that were built in the period of Roman occupation. These were usually built in the country, but close to city centres and mostly in South East England.
Villas usually homed the owner and his family, as well as his labourers and overseers. In addition, it included storehouses and any other buildings required to further the work of the householder.
At first, most of the Roman buildings were constructed out of wood, using either wood or stone for the foundations. Then, during the following century, they were rebuilt from sturdier stone, making them more resilient to fire and the climate.
The styles of each building were very different, but they were characterised by being a single story with roofs tiled in slate or clay tiles. Many had marble, mosaic or tiled floors; plastered walls that had been painted; central heating and even heated floors. The most popular time for Roman villas was during the 100’s and 200’s EC.
Because the Anglo-Saxon period was one of much violence and war, many of the original buildings of this time were destroyed. In fact, the Vikings of the ninth and 10th centuries would literally plunder entire settlements, looting and destroying them. However, there are a few examples of this era that still survive.
This era was one during which wood with wattle and daub (clay mixed with straw) was used to construct the walls. Stone was generally only used for monasteries and churches, which means that these buildings are the most likely to have survived the centuries. Most Anglo-Saxon remains of these stone buildings can be found in the areas of Kent (e.g. Canterbury and St. Peter) and Northumbria (at Tyne and Wear and Escomb).
Waddesdon Manor is a country house in the village of Waddesdon, near
Aylesbury. in Buckinghamshire, England. The house was built in the
Neo-Renaissance style of a French château between 1874 and
1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild The last member of
the Rothschild family to own Waddesdon was James de Rothschild
before the property was bequeathed to the nation upon his death.
Most of the remaining churches from this period are small (as the larger ones were rebuilt in the Norman style), with simple layouts and limited ornamental features. Windows were usually narrow with rounded tops. Towers were of particular importance during this time, originally intended for the defence and protection of the town. Another common characteristic was that of long lines of vertically-oriented stones on the outside walls.
The Saxon-style homes were also very simply and usually boasted a central fire for warmth. Thatch was frequently used for the roofs and these homes seldom had windows at all.
By the second half of the 16th century, the country was almost bankrupt, thanks to Henry VIII. However, when Queen Elizabeth took over the throne, it began an economic revival, based especially on agriculture and farming. This led to the building of a number of small houses as well as huge mansions situated out in the English countryside. Older styles were modernised and new buildings reflected the Elizabethan trends of a very symmetrical layout in an E shape, with exquisite formal gardens. Some of these homes also displayed somewhat of a Dutch influence, with curved gables as a noteworthy example. A long gallery was another major characteristic of this era, and was used for displaying portraits or for family get-togethers. This gallery would have several fireplaces along one wall and windows along the other three.
The entrance hall was grand and elaborate, granted the most attention and intended to impress guests and testify to one’s wealth.
Most Elizabethan houses were made from stone, while some were made from a combination of stone and wood. Elaborate embellishments were created using moulded plaster. This was known as strapwork.
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