A HISTORY OF HOMES IN TUDOR ENGLAND
By Tim Lambert
In the Middle Ages rich people's houses were designed for defense rather than comfort. In the 16th century, life was safer so houses no longer had to be easy to defend. Rich Tudors built grand houses e.g. Cardinal Wolsey built Hampton Court Palace. Later the Countess of Shrewsbury built Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.
In Tudor Times people below the rich but above the poor built sturdy 'half-timbered' houses. They were made with a timber frame filled in with wattle and daub (wickerwork and plaster). In the late 16th century some people built or rebuilt their houses with a wooden frame filled in with bricks. Roofs were usually thatched though some well off people had tiles. (In London all houses had tiles because of the fear of fire).
Tudor House Museum in Southampton
Furniture was more plentiful in Tudor houses than in the Middle Ages but it was still basic. In a wealthy home, it was usually made of oak and was heavy and massive. Tudor furniture was expected to last for generations. You expected to pass it on to your children and even your grandchildren. Comfortable beds became more and more common in the 16th century and increasing numbers of middle-class people slept on mattresses made with flock (a kind of rough wool) rather than straw ones.
In Tudor Times chairs were more common than in the Middle Ages but they were still expensive. Even in upper-class homes children and servants sat on stools. The poor had to make do with stools and benches.
In the 15th century only a small minority of people could afford glass windows. During the 16th century, they became much more common. However, they were still expensive. If you moved house you took your glass windows with you! Tudor windows were made of small pieces of glass held together by strips of lead. They were called lattice windows. However the poor still had to make do with strips of linen soaked in linseed oil.
Chimneys were also a luxury in Tudor Times, although they became more common. However, as more and more people could afford chimneys they had an important effect on houses. In the Middle Ages, a well to do person's house was dominated by the great hall. It extended all the way up to the roof of the building. It was not possible to build upstairs rooms over the great hall or the smoke would not be able to escape. Building chimneys meant that many people could not install another story in their house over the great hall. So wealthy people's houses became divided into more rooms.
In rich Tudor houses the walls of rooms were lined with oak paneling to keep out drafts. People slept in four-poster beds hung with curtains to reduce drafts. In the 16th century, some people had wallpaper but it was very expensive. Other wealthy people hung tapestries or painted cloths on their walls.
In Tudor England carpets were a luxury only rich people could afford. They were usually too expensive to put on the floor! Instead, they were often hung on the wall or over tables. People covered the floors with rushes or reeds (or woven mats of reeds or rushes), which they strew with sweet-smelling herbs.
Rich Tudor people lit their houses with beeswax candles. However, they were expensive. Others made used candles made from tallow (animal fat) which gave off an unpleasant smell and the poorest people made do with rushlights (rushes dipped in animal fat).
Rich Tudors had clocks in their houses although most people relied on pocket sundials to tell the time.
Rich Tudors were also fond of gardens. Many had mazes, fountains and topiary (hedges cut into shapes). Less well off people used their gardens to grow vegetables and herbs.
However poor Tudors continued to live in simple houses with one or two rooms (occasionally three). Floors were of hard earth and furniture was very basic, benches, stools, a table, and wooden chests. They slept on mattresses stuffed with straw or thistledown. The mattresses lay on ropes strung across a wooden frame.
In 1596 Sir John Harrington invented a flushing lavatory with a cistern. However, the idea failed to catch on. People continued to use chamber pots or cesspits, which were cleaned by men called gong farmers. (In the 16th century a toilet was called a jakes).