War Halls: Royal Houses from the Saxons to the Hundred Years' War

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Medieval kings were warriors and their palaces needed to reflect this fact. Massive, mighty and overwhelming royal architecture was a product of a highly militarised society. But, as this lecture shows, medieval kings were also cultured and sophisticated patrons of architecture.

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12 March 2014   War Halls: Royal Houses from the Saxons to the Hundred Years War   Simon Thurley Visiting Gresham Professor of the Built Environment     Just before I start I want to put up this table that reminds us who was on the throne when. I’ll be talking about the Saxons and stopping at the death of King Edward III.   Tonight we will see how by the death of King Edward III England’s royal palaces had changed from being a conglomeration of disparate buildings focussed round a great hall, to well-organised carefully planned structures which became machines for rule, houses of power, buildings that were perfectly honed for medieval kingship. I will also try and suggest why this happened and how this happened. And to understand this we need to understand a little about how medieval kings lived and ruled and as an introduction think a little about what constituted a palace.     To help I want to divide royal residences as they were used after the Norman Conquest into three categories. The manor, the castle and the palace. It is always dangerous trying to categorise things in ways in which they were, perhaps, not seen at the time. But I think it helps to make sense of an otherwise confusing story. Let’s start with the palace because that is easy. The word palace derives from the residence of the Roman emperors on the Palatine Hill in Rome. The palace was the residence of the ruler and as such there could be only one. If you look at English royal buildings in the middle ages the only building to be called palatium is the Palace of Westminster. As the Monarch’s principal residence it was exceptional and unusual in many ways. We will come on to look at this in a moment.    Then there were buildings that were essentially in origin military structures. Today we would call them castles, places which had the primary role of subduing the local population, of overawing them with size and strength and of accommodating not only the king but his military retinue, if necessary, in a state of combat readiness. Lastly we have residences that were undefended, set in hunting grounds, designed for royal recreation and pleasure. These we would call manors but at the time they were normally described as the king’s houses. Importantly, and I will come onto this later, houses was a plural even when it referred to a single residence.    In all three types the principal component was a large hall – a multi-functional space for feasting, for the reception of guests, the accommodation of the royal retinue, for the dispensing of justice and for presiding over assemblies. It was only the very rich and powerful who needed or could build such structures, not only did they take considerable resources in timber, iron and perhaps stone, they required a capable designer and skilled workmen and large numbers of labourers. They were located in the middle of large estates, landholdings that would produce the food and firewood needed to keep a liberal house with lavish hospitality. This is why several such manors were needed – as the royal retinue moved around it consumed, like a plague of locusts, everything edible in its path.     Halls thus signified lordship and the lager the hall the more important the person. In this architectural ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ the royal halls were normally the largest and most spectacular. So where did this come from? Well the simple answer is that rulers since time began needed large rooms in which to gather together their supporters and subjects – you can see this in the buildings of rulers from almost the earliest buildings constructed by man; but the specific type of hall adopted by the Anglo Saxon Kings may well have had their roots in the very large assembly halls that the Romans…  After the withdrawal of the Romans we know that a number of these massive structures survived, some perhaps into the seventh or even eighth century.   These were timber structures with open timber roofs that presumably formed a vehicle for decoration, either carved or painted. So what do we know about them? In the 620s a remarkable palatial complex was constructed for the Northumbrian King Edwin at Yeavering, Northumberland. This hall for instance, was 82ft long and 36ft wide, it had an entrance in the centre of each long wall and two internal cross walls making separate rooms at either end. The main hall was aisled and so was interrupted by supporting posts. Alfred the Great’s biographer, Asser, writes of him having ‘royal halls and chambers marvellously constructed of stone and wood 250 years after Edwin that is to say in the early 890s. One of these was at Cheddar, Somerset, where Alfred the Great built a palace next to a large and prosperous Minster. The buildings were undefended and of timber. The principal structure was a bow-sided hall 76ft long and 18ft wide with the main room on the first floor, it was entered by doors on its north east corner and in the middle of its long sides. There were porches immediately inside the doors and at least one staircase leading to the main hall which was heated by a central hearth towards its south end. Nearby was a separate private building, known at the time as a bower. This was presumably a separate chamber for the king’s personal use.    Alfred’s sons further developed the site replacing the original great hall and building a new one, rectangular, with a more regular timber frame and planked walls.  These were high status buildings, without a doubt, so it is particularly unfortunate that their upper parts cannot be recovered; presumably the timberwork would have been of the highest quality, painted and carved. However, remarkably, the upper parts of a high status timber arcade, contemporary with the later Saxon buildings at Cheddar, was excavated in London, reused, in a river revetment. These timber components make up an arcade with ogival arches, not necessary for structural stability, but highly decorative. This single find confirms that the upper parts of high status Saxon buildings were inventively and richly modelled and carved. Perhaps surprisingly Norman Conquest didn’t really bring any significant changes to the nature of royal life or to the sort of structures that comprised a rural royal manor. This can best be illustrated by looking at the royal manor of Clarendon which was the most important royal house in the west spectacularly sited on a hill outside Salisbury. William the Conqueror rebuilt and extended the Saxon residence there and by the reign of Henry II it had become one of the three largest houses in the Kingdom. In 1164 it was capable of accommodating a great council with 14 bishops and many lay magnates.    Clarendon was a complex of one and two storey buildings with pitched and tiled roofs arranged in a long line running approximately east-west. As you would expect at its heart was an aisled great hall with kitchens and larders to its west and the royal chambers to its east. The various parts of the building were arranged round cloisters containing gardens; these and other pentices, linked the various parts. The house was largely built of stone and has been extensively excavated. A combination of this with some very full documentary records allows us to get a real sense of what the palace was like inside. Walls were timber panelled to dado level and painted green with applied gilded lead stars. On the walls above were painted murals depicting religious scenes. The chapel was particularly magnificent and its tiled pavements were removed from the site and are now in the British Museum.     This was a really luxurious and magnificent place and the buildings themselves sat in gardens and beyond that a huge hunting park, in fact the largest in thirteenth century England, covering over 4,000 acres. It was surrounded by an impressive earthwork 16km long and more than 3m high topped with oak paling. The purpose of this was to keep deer inside the park, at intervals special lowered sections allowed deer to vault the pale and enter the park, but because of a deepened inner ditch could not get out. The park was divided into three areas: pasture to the north, woodland in a band across the middle, and wood pasture to the south. In addition to the palace there were eight lodges - some guarding the gates, others providing special services, such as accommodating the royal kennels. Every part of the land was productive. The woods were bounded by banks, ditches and hedges to keep the deer out and allow coppicing. Slow growing oaks were also cultivated as a crop. Oxen and cows would graze on the wooded pasture in the south. The northern pasture supported deer and included man-made ponds for drinking and wallowing, troughs for feeding and deer houses for winter shelter. Rabbits and hares were bred here on an industrial scale and provided continuous supplies of meat. Even the wild birds were hunted by hawk.    So the short periods when kings hunted there were interludes in a complex and lucrative agricultural industry. Henry I, Henry II, John, Edward I and Edward III all hunted at Clarendon in what was not only an economic and recreational landscape but one designed and sculpted with aesthetics clearly in mind. The principal entrance to the park through Slaygate afforded a spectacular view of the whitewashed royal palace above on the ridge and views from the palace to the park were carefully contrived.   So I hope that you can see looking at Clarendon that although it was large, richly decorated and carefully set in a designed landscape the core buildings were not materially different in layout from its Saxon predecessors such as Yeavering or Cheddar. All were axially planned with a large ground floor hall and a more private chamber slightly detached from it. This continuity of plan suggests a continuity of function, with the royal households living much like their predecessors.    At the heart of this was still the hall, a structure of fundamental importance to anyone of any means and pretension, not only to royalty. The hall was no mere structure it signified its owner’s social standing and was the centre of his public life. One of the earliest to survive (although not a royal one) survives at Oakham, Rutland. It was built in around 1190 and is of four bays with low aisles. The entrance door has been moved and originally would have been at the east end with a dais for the owner at the west. With a fire in the middle of the floor, long tables and heavy drinking, the scene on a feast-day can have hardly been much different from the time of Beowulf.    It does seem as if there was normally a separate detached building for the king himself meaning that he didn’t have so sleep with his retinue in the great hall. At Clarendon there was also a separate room for the queen giving them both a measure of privacy. But privacy in the early middle ages didn’t exist as we know it. The king was never alone, there were always people sleeping in the same room as him, the monarch himself sleeping in a curtained enclosure amidst them.    No manor was permanently used; this is because the court was continually on the move. There were many reasons for this; perhaps the most important in the period that we are looking at tonight is that the monarchy had territories on both sides of the Channel. So a king like John spent four of his first ten years of rule out of the country. But kings also needed to move to rule, to dispense justice, to administrate their lands and this necessitated a highly mobile lifestyle. In his first decade King John moved 150 times travelling on average 35 to 40 miles a day. Henry II was marginally less frenetic, he moved 80 times a year.    Moving the early medieval court was a phenomenal operation. Hundreds of horses and carts were required. When crossing the channel an English king usually took around 1,000 horses. At a normal residence there was stabling for perhaps 300. Some of these were ridden by the king, his family and the aristocracy. Many more were packhorses used to carry goods, either in large saddlebags or by cart. In 1285 Edward I used 41 packhorses to move the royal chapel goods, kitchen silver, the king’s clothes and his bed. These incredibly valuable objects would be packed up in massive chests bound with iron and secured by strong locks.    A medieval king was attended by a sizable household. So the size of Edward I’s household in 1306 was around 200. These were just his servants: Wardrobe keeper, chaplain, 2 surgeons, 2 messengers, 2 porters, 2 trumpeters, 7 valets of the chamber, 3 grooms of the chamber, 2 chapel keepers, 55 kitchen staff and 68 sumpters who can most easily be described as removal men. On top of this there were his affinity: his family members and the aristocrats who attended him. Towards the end of Edward III’s reign, at the end of our period tonight the total size of the royal household was between 350-400 people.    Moving this lot about could be a slow process given the state of the roads and the crudity of the wagons and carts. But the court achieved surprising speed. In November 1200 King John left Malbrough in a hurry and arrived at Lincoln, 150 miles away, in four days. Edward I got from Bambrough in Northumberland to Windsor – that is 360 miles, in a slightly more stately 18 days.   Organising the royal itinerary was a precise task as monarchs spent particular times of the year in specific places, particularly the great religious feasts, Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. They would also want to appear at provincial residences to reinforce their judicial, administrative or military policies and crucially hunt in the royal forests. Royal houses and castles formed the points around which the court gyrated. The king’s preference dictated where they went, what was repaired, built or extended and when. In each county the sheriff was responsible for organising royal construction work. However just as bishops and Deans employed architects to oversee big projects so the king had, in his household, ingeniatores (engineers or designers). The first of these about whom we know anything was an Englishman called Ailnoth in the 1150s; under him were the master craftsmen, the masons, carpenters and others – all highly paid technical experts, not just workmen.    So far I have characterised the royal manors in the countryside with the court moving from place to place. Let me now move on to the second category of residence, these we should call towers or castles; places clearly designed to combine residence with the need to project power and provide security. We know that from the eleventh century Saxon aristocrats were building such residences; at Porchester, for example the Saxon lord built a stone tower in the middle of his residence. We can only assume, because we don’t know, that the residences of Saxon kings likewise sported towers. The reason we can only guess, of course, is because William the Conqueror destroyed all traces of any Saxon royal house.  William and his immediate successors built on an imperial scale, expressing power in the architectural language of ancient Rome.    The White Tower, London and its sister structure in Colchester were palaces for the duke made king. They contained a suite of reception rooms and a large chapel in a overwhelming stone built towers. Such towers had been built for rulers before in the Loire valley and, indeed, in Normandy itself, but never of this scale and sophistication. In fact scale was integral to their purpose; the parapets of the White Tower were raised far above its roof line to create a more domineering silhouette. Yet these were sophisticated residences too. They had fireplaces with chimneys, Gardrobes (lavatories) and simple bold architectural settings for thrones, tables and chairs. Furnished with rich textiles, brightly painted wooden furniture and sparkling with candlelit gold plate these palatial towers were intended to be a pleasure to live in as well as a mighty image of royal power. At English Heritage we have attempted to reproduce something of what a Norman royal palace would have looked like at Dover.   Now Dover was built by Henry II. For Henry II, and his successors, the cultural and military value of a great tower was still unsurpassed and he built the mightiest and most expensive tower palace of all at Dover where he spent nearly £7,000 between 1180-1190. Henry erected his great tower on the   highest point of the site and surrounded it by an inner defensive wall with fourteen projecting rectangular towers and two gates protected by a defensive outwork or barbican. The great tower, and for this read royal palace was approached by a fore-building with steps ascending to a first floor entrance, here was a chapel on the stair, perhaps for giving thanks for a safe journey, a drawbridge and, by the entrance door, a guard room. The main building was three stories high. The ground floor was designed for kitchens and the two floors above contained two magnificent suites of rooms, one for the king (probably on the first floor) and another for guests (above). Each had a hall and a chamber and in the massive thickness of the walls other subsidiary rooms (known as mural chambers), these included gardrobes. The king’s floor also had a lavish chapel for his private use. The rooms were architecturally unadorned. Colour and decoration was provided by painted wall murals and portable furnishings: hangings, furniture and plate.   Dover was no ordinary castle; it was built in a deliberately retrospective style to emphasise royal gravitas and dynastic durability. It was also a gateway to England a place where the king could receive important visitors many of whom were on their way to the new shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury Cathedral. Central to the building, as you would expect from what I have already said, was the hall because though we are dealing with a massive stone tower the hall remained the key space in the building.    There were royal castles, established by the conqueror and rebuilt in stone over the following century, in most county towns. They, of course, varied in size and none was as large as either the Tower or Windsor (with the possible exception of Norwich). Most were rarely visited by the monarch and were kept for him by a constable, a trusted lieutenant who had the right to live there in the king’s absence. It was from these castles that England was at first subdued and then ruled. This emphasises the highly militarised nature of early medieval kingship a factor which affected the outlook and tastes of the royal court. This world picture can best be summed up by the term chivalry.    From the Norman Conquest the upper Classes began developing a code of behaviour, manners if you like, that centred on physical prowess, generosity, courtesy and loyalty. How these values, which are understandable in the context of the banqueting hall, applied to the gruesome world of medieval warfare is hard to comprehend. But this exotic aristocratic culture was the way that the church rationalised the activities of a militaristic society. The way the brutality of the Crusades, for instance, could be fitted into a Christian world. In this the cult King Arthur and his knights was an important component with kings and knights modelling themselves on the legendary king and his companions.     Edward I himself was present at the spurious excavation of ‘Arthur’s’ grave by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey and ordered the construction of the round table that still hangs in Winchester Castle great hall. His grandson, Edward III, outdid him in 1344, when he constructed a building 200ft in diameter at Windsor Castle to contain a great round table and act as the centrepiece of a festival at which he founded the Order of the Round Table. Arthurian legend and contemporary court life were inextricable.    These romantic and militarised ideas were converted into architectural style. In a violent and warlike world castles were always, to a degree, designed to defend their occupants from aggressors; but their individual elements were also often stylised. Turrets, battlements, machicolations, drawbridges and moats were as much elements of style as functional components. Just as the eighteenth century noble had his Venetian windows so did the thirteenth century magnate have his arrow loops.     The most obvious external sign of the chivalric mind was heraldry. Heraldic badges and devices originated with the need for identification in battle, but a more coherent system began to develop from the 1140s, and English kings adopted the red shield with three gold leopards in 1198. By this stage broad rules for using heraldic devices were being developed and as the century progressed people further down the social scale began to use them too. In due course heraldic devices began to identity everything from vast buildings to miniature jewellery. It was Henry III’s use of his own arms and those of his royal connections at Westminster Abbey that set the fashion for using heraldry in architectural display.     So even if a royal building didn’t fall into my category of castles or tower, it would be built using the language of fortification. And this brings us, finally on to Westminster, England’s principal royal palace and in a few minutes onto Windsor.  It was Edward the Confessor who established Westminster as the seat of the monarchy. It was he who created the combination of royal palace and royal abbey: an abbey that became the royal coronation church and royal mausoleum, and a palace which gradually began to assume the guise of a permanent headquarters. However we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves for initially Westminster was just one of the places which the monarchy visited, and although symbolically the most important it was not the ‘capital’ in the modern sense. It was only in the thirteenth century that the peripatetic household began to leave in one place some of its administrative functions. Slowly monarchs took less and less administrative apparatus on tour with them and left it in the care of clerks at Westminster who had their own offices there.     We know nothing of any Saxon residence at Westminster, nor anything about where William the Conqueror lived. But his son, William Rufus left, at Westminster, one of the greatest monuments of his age. His reign saw a reaction to the highly militarised nature of his father’s years. There was an explosion of decorative excess. Rufus’s court was known for its outlandish fashions; long hair, tight fitting tunics, drooping cuffs and shoes with long, pointed, curly toes. This sense is still captured today in the fabric of his most important building Westminster Great Hall. This was the centrepiece of the Norman royal palace at Westminster; it was 240ft long by 67½ ft wide making it the largest secular space in northern Europe at that time. Outside, fearsomely blank stone walls were topped with a decorative band of chequered stone and crowned with a blind arcade. Inside this was reflected at clerestory level with pairs of small arches set under larger ones as at Winchester. The capitals of these were very richly carved and brightly painted, below on the great blank wall would have been paintings or hangings to give the hall a sense of colour and exuberance.  The roof was probably covered in a series of vast trusses themselves presumably painted and decorated.    Westminster hall was a piece of architectural megalomania – not a practical solution to the everyday needs of a monarch. Indeed it was only used for a very specific and limited series of functions: coronation ceremonials, receptions of foreign emissaries, for councils and occasionally parliament, for charity events and of course, on a day to day basis, for the accommodation of the lower members of the court as a sort of giant dormitory.  For this reason by the time Henry III came to the throne William Rufus’s great hall had already been joined by another hall to its south, smaller and more convenient for everyday use. To this, at right angles, there was a chamber, its eastern windows overlooking the Thames.  Henry III remodelled this chamber, giving it new windows, fireplace, roof and a small oratory. This room, soon to be known as the painted chamber after its extensive murals, was Henry’s bedchamber, with his bed in a curtained enclosure and a small squint window providing a view of the altar in the oratory. To the south of the Painted Chamber was the queen’s chamber and chapel, newly constructed by Henry III for Queen Eleanor in 1237-8.     Westminster Palace, with its conglomeration of fine chambers did not stand alone. Part of Henry III’s conception was for his palace and Westminster Abbey to be linked physically and institutionally with the abbey serving as a private monastery to his principal residence. The chapter house, for instance, was always intended to act as a meeting place to discuss state business (and became a meeting place of parliament). This was typical of the intense personal interest that Henry took in the construction of the palace and the abbey that made both so influential.   By the time that Westminster was being developed by Henry III there had begun to be some crucial developments in palatial architecture. As we have seen up until the late twelfth century the houses of the rich were generally an agglomeration of separate structures: hall, chamber and kitchen. This was, in fact why the king’s rural residences were known as the kings houses, because they were literally like a village a grouping of separate buildings round the great hall.  But from the 1180s houses begin to adopt a new arrangement which was to become the standard layout for all houses of pretension for the following 400 years. Essentially what happened is that kitchens began to be built on to one end of the great hall forming a single unit, then from the 1220s, chamber blocks too were constructed integrally with the great hall, but at the other end from the kitchen. This gave the great hall an ‘upper’ end adjacent to the lord’s private rooms and a ‘lower’ end adjacent to the kitchens. While the hall was generally still on the ground floor the chambers at the upper end were stacked above it and so a stair led up from the lord’s end of the hall to his rooms above. The kitchen, also on the ground floor, often also had guest chambers above it and a secondary stair would have led to these.    Access to the great hall was increasingly no longer from a door in the centre of one of its long walls but through a door at the low end, this door led to a passage that was screened off from the rest of the hall by a timber partition. Doors from the kitchen, from the buttery (for beer) and pantry (for bread) would lead into this enclosure which became known as the screens passage. This more integrated arrangement allowed lords to spend more time in the comfort of their chambers while coming and going through their halls. This private space was a badge of rank, part of the charisma of greatness and wealth. To be inaccessible was to be important, as it enabled favour to be shown and intimacy to be conferred and withdrawn. More exclusive rooms that often included private chapels (or oratories) were further symbols of exclusivity.   Many of these innovations in domestic planning were led by the bishops who were single, rich, and often less conservative in outlook than the monarchy or the magnates. In the shadow of Lincoln Cathedral lies the now ruined bishop’s palace, once one of the most lavish buildings in the kingdom, here modern day visitors can see one of the earliest instances of a kitchen linked to the lower end of a hall with three doors serving the buttery, pantry and kitchen. The hall was started in the 1220s and about twenty years later bishop Grosseteste set out 23 rules for the smooth running of a household. In these he was careful to cover appropriate behaviour in the hall and rules for the serving, seating and attire of dinner guests. These sorts of household regulations were increasingly enforced by Chamberlains, the guardians of the Lord’s dignity and privacy. The Chamberlain was not the only officer in a great household as, by 1100, most aristocrats were accompanied by men holding posts such as steward, butler, constable, marshal, clerk and huntsman.    So what did these changes mean for the royal palaces? Well, as we shall see they led, eventually, to a radically different sort of royal residence. But though a bishop’s palace had much in common with a royal residence the two were not the same. At the very least a royal palace had to accommodate the king and the queen while a bishop was by definition celibate. Nor was there any sense of dynastic legacy in an episcopal palace. These places were occupied for the time being by a bishop and on his death would pass to another person entirely. Bishops may have wanted to leave their mark on the See, but there was no particular concern with succession. Monarchs in contrast frequently wanted to build a dynastic memorial - a residence that would be occupied by their heirs and successors.    But it was not only attitudes to building that differentiated the crown and the episcopate; for in the royal castles monarchs were also experimenting with a different type of more compact residence. At first, as we have seen in the White Tower at the Tower of London monarchs had their residences in a single great donjon – to use the French term. But in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries connected ranges of lodgings providing more space were provided. Indeed at the Tower of London in the 1220s Henry III added new king’s houses. I say new because something – we don’t know what, existed there beforehand. What he built was extremely elegant and coherent – but small compared to Westminster or Clarendon: a great hall with two connected great chambers leading onto an inner lodging, probably a bedroom inn a tower. Edward I extended this arrangement by adding a new block overlooking the river containing two more rooms and forming a large suite of royal chambers coming off the great hall.    To get at what Edward I might have built on a virgin site we could go to Wales. Here are the royal lodgings built by King Edward at Conwy Castle in around 1300. On the first floor are three chambers for the king – a great chamber, presence chamber and privy chamber. Beyond that is a small closet. At the junction of the presence and privy chamber there is a private tower for the king’s use. Importantly below this royal suite was a kitchen buttery and cellar connected to the king’s rooms above by staircases.    So quite independently from the bishops, or at least in parallel with them, monarchs were experimenting with linked rooms in compact arrangements. The culmination of this trend we can observe in the reign of Edward III. Edward III’s long reign was pretty remarkable. For a start forty of the sixty years between 1290 and 1350 England was at war. These wars were not skirmishes; they involved armies of 20,000 men or more, ships, horses, massive castles and extended supply lines. Paying for this was a burden levied on everyone, not just on those who were near to it. Sustained direct taxation were bad for the economy and the self-confidence and prosperity that had knitted society together in the thirteenth century began to come unravelled. In 1348 it suddenly fell apart. The Bubonic Plague reached the south coast of England in the summer of 1348 and gradually spread northwards, killing around half the population.    It is amazing that, amidst such a catastrophe, Edward III could still think of pursuing what we now know as the Hundred Years War. But this he did. The first phase of Edward’s war between 1346 and 1360 was a great success culminating in the capture of the French King, John II, a £500,000 ransom and a treaty giving Gascony, Poitou and Calais to Edward. But when war restarted in 1369 there was a more effective French King, Charles V, and Edward was verging on senility. England lost almost everything it had gained and in the process taxes were raised that alienated large parts of the population.    Despite this background, daunting in every sense, Edward III (1327-77) became the greatest patron of English architecture of the whole Middle Ages. His most important work was at Westminster on which he spent £30,000 and at Windsor Castle where he spent over £50,000. Much could be said of Edward III’s work at Westminster, but I will concentrate on his completion of St. Stephen’s Chapel, the principal royal chapel of the palace. The upper chapel of St. Stephen is lost, which is tragic, as Edward III made it both one of the most lavish and, at the time, most admired spaces ever created in England. At the outset it is important to realise that this was a building conceived in direct competition with the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, the principal chapel of French kings designed as a glowing reliquary to containing their prized relic, the Crown of Thorns. Every inch of its interior was carved, moulded, painted, gilded or stencilled to create the richest possible effect. Architecturally the chapel’s extreme height compared to its length was its most notable feature, a characteristic emphasised by the cage-like grid of vertical tracery that covered its walls and windows. The tracery was detailed both on a decorative scale and on an architectural one drawing the interior together into a visual whole. This was a novel effect which was widely imitated. Individual features were imitated too such as the use of ogee arches and a new type of vault, the lierne, which had short ornamental ribs not connected to the springing points.    Through St. Stephen’s Chapel Edward III led fashion and set standards of decoration and craftsmanship that only the king could do. At Windsor he did the same for secular buildings. The reconstruction of Windsor Castle, over a period of 18 years, cost £51,000. The bulk of this, some £44,000 was spent between 1357 and 1368 on rebuilding the upper ward. Here a massive residential block, partly subsuming the work of Henry II, rose. To the modern eye the great south elevation looks austere and monotonous, but to the contemporary observer it would have been radical and novel. Its sheer size, 389ft long made it the longest secular façade in England, its lack of external sculpture would have set it apart from previous monumental structures, but most of all was the impression that individual elements were less important then the overall effect. Looking at it it was impossible to work out what the rooms inside actually were – hall chamber, chapel all looked the same.    Entering through a gatehouse the great hall was approached by a stair broad and shallow enough to ride a horse up, indeed the hall itself was used, by Richard II for a tournament. But it, like Westminster Hall, was a ceremonial space and the king’s great chamber would have been where he normally dined. To get to this it was necessary to parade round a cloister and enter through an ante-chamber. Beyond the great chamber was the Rose Tower an elegant retreat allowing Edward to retreat and enjoy sweetmeats in the luxury of his roof-top chamber after dinner. Beyond the dining chamber was what would later be called the presence chamber, a throne room and beyond this was the king’s bedchamber. This had a great bow-shaped tower looking out over the landscape over the Thames valley. Beyond this was an oratory and a study. This interlinked with the queen’s chambers. She had a similar but smaller suite that included and outer chamber for dancing and her principal throne room that was decorated by dozens of small round mirrors on the walls.  The extent and variety of private space at Windsor suggests that Edward spent much of his time segregated from his court; access to the royal person was a privilege and conferred status.    Because Edward III made Windsor his official summer residence the plan of the royal lodgings was closely based on those at Westminster, the principal residence of the monarchy. But what was different at Windsor was that it was built in a single design and in a single campaign. The king and his right hand man William Wynford must have conceived the design setting the standard for royal palaces for 150 years, that is to say up to the middle of Henry VIII’s reign.    So what have we seen take place in the period that I have covered tonight? First of all the monarchy and the country acquired a HQ; a capital if you like. In the reign of Henry II the Exchequer was given a permanent home at Westminster in a purpose built structure. Then in the 13th century came the Court of Common Pleas followed a hundred years later by the Court of the King’s bench. The arrival of these courts sealed Westminster as both the administrative headquarters of the kingdom and the king’s principal residence.  Second royal houses, like those of the episcopate and the aristocracy moved to be more compact and more coherent both in design and function. A standardised arrangement developed, still centred on the great hall, but with functions disposed around the hall in a regular and logical fashion.    Thirdly the range of accommodation available to the monarch expanded. No longer was there a separate building to which a king could retreat away from the hall, but there were one, two and eventually three chambers beyond the hall into which the monarch could retreat. Beyond the third chamber, in the largest houses, there was a study and an oratory too. Most of houses also had private towers into which the monarch could retreat. But we must be careful about any idea of privacy. Retreat was a relative word. In these inner rooms the king controlled access but there were many attendants, aristocrats and family members who surrounded him.   And fourthly the standards of luxury and comfort in the principal residences like Westminster and Windsor and Clarendon hugely increased. These palaces were richly decorated well appointed set in carefully contrived settings. Edward III, for instance, built a bath house at Westminster on the river front. It had running hot and cold water controlled by two large bronze taps. He also was responsible for building a clock tower complete with clock which the public could see. I mention these two refinements just to emphasise the sophistication of the buildings.   So big changes took place. Next month on the 23rd of April we will see how Edward III had set impossibly high standards. His successors made very few changes or refinements to Windsor Castle, indeed it became a blueprint for the aristocracy to follow, an aristocracy who challenged the leadership that Edward III had established.       © Simon Thurley, 2014
Professor Simon Thurley, former Provost of Gresham College

Professor Simon Thurley CBE

Visiting Professor of the Built Environment

Professor Thurley is a leading architectural historian, a regular broadcaster and was, for thirteen years and Visiting Gresham Professor of the Built Environment.

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