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A History of Elizabethan Architecture
by Barbara Locher, David Pruitt, and Justin Silver
The style of architecture known as Elizabethan ranged from the late 1500's throughout the 1600's. The Renaissance started in Italy in the 1400's but affected England at a later time. The first significant architectural factor from this period was that the traditional building of churches stopped and the building of houses began.
The countryside began to reform itself from small farmhouses to great houses which featured gothic styles and Renaissance detail. These houses were built by powerful statesmen, successful merchants, and the enriched gentry to express their wealth.
The most distinctive feature in these great houses was the use of classical symmetry. This was the Elizabethan visual expression of order and harmony. An example of this use of symmetry is found in Hardwick Hall, located in Derbyshire. This two-story building, designed by Robert Smythson, was mirrored in a shape of an 'H', which gave the hall a perfect sense of balance.
Externally, these Elizabethan styles of houses have many different features. The mixture of unusually tall buildings and towers made for an effective skyline. The estates of these great houses consisted of beautiful gardens, large stables, and sometimes halls were not attached to the main house. From far away one could see the grand, grid-shaped windows, which were conceived from the idea of the pre-Renaissance churches. From them, light flooded into the rooms, conveying this use of glass in a way that undoubtedly made for one of the country houses' most notable features.
Another main idea of English Renaissance architecture was the concept of ornateness. If you were to walk into a Renaissance house and glance up at the ceiling, you would see an example of this ornateness. Elizabethans typically made the ceilings and fireplaces extremely ornate. Instead of having art on the walls, they made the walls their own art form.
Many different floor plans existed within the styles of this period of architecture. One of the most popular of these was the E-shaped plan. This plan goes along with some of the other motifs of this period, such as sunlight and the circulation of air. One side is left off of the building to let in extra sunlight and to promote the free circulation of air. One of the more odd shaped floor plans was the plan used in the Triangular Lodge in Northhamptonshire. This building has the common theme of the number three. For instance, it has three walls, three floors, and three entrances. This use of the number three was supposed to allegorize the trinity.
The style for Elizabethan architecture didn't only come from the churches; most of its main ideas came from the architects themselves. The architect that brought Renaissance architecture to England was Inigo Jones. He was chiefly a theater
designer until he was asked by Henry, the Prince of Wales, to design the Queen's House in Greenwich. Even though his first appointment in England was a royal one, he is best known for designing the magnificent Banqueting House of Whitehall in London. This house represented the assimilation of the Renaissance in England. The Queen's House at Greenwich, which was built for Queen Anne, had a design similar to that of the Banqueting House. Because of Jones's unique and innovative styles, architects everywhere used his ideas for centuries afterward. They combined many aspects of his styles and used them to better their own work.
Robert Smythson, the designer of Hardwick Hall, was another great architect from this time period.
He was one of the largest advocates of the use of symmetry and ornateness. Smythson wanted his buildings to be beautiful, although he would admit that his buildings were also extremely practical. They had high basements, which was a subtle attempt to allow light to reach those working in the kitchen or storage areas. The use of stairways was probably the most ingenious tactic in the Smythson style. These stairways allowed all parts of the mansions to be easily accessible. Architecture that was practical was a new idea in the 1500's.
Elizabethan architecture changed the medieval styles of earlier times, bringing out the beauty of the Renaissance. Examples of Elizabethan architecture still can be found everywhere, in such places as modern day country houses, and in the distinctive architectural feature of symmetry. These features helped to lay the foundations of architectural design to follow.
Baumgart, Fritz. A History of Architectural Styles. New York: Praeger, 1970.
This is a great architectural reference source. This source was very helpful in relating Elizabethan architecture to the concepts and styles of former designs. This book contains a well illustrated history of architecture.
Fletcher, Banister. History of Architecture. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1938.
This book contains a well-illustrated history of all styles of architecture. However, this book does not go into much depth with the Elizabethan period.
*Freeman, John, and Sue Sharpe. This Beautiful Land: Britain. London: Bison, 1986.
This is a colorful book which portrays the countrysides of Britain. This was a visual source, so very little text was found.
wwwengl/17thcentury/ij.html. (25 Nov. 1997).
This is a website designed by University of Omaha students. It contains an in-depth biography of the Elizabethan architect, Inigo Jones.
*Pevsner, Nikolaus. The Best Buildings of England. New York: Viking Penguin, Inc. 1986.
This is a great source for both photographs and text information. It focuses on individual buildings from several architectural styles, including Elizabethan.
This is a great website created by the district of Bolsover in Chesterfield, England. We found the report on Robert Smythson especially useful.