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A Description of Elizabethan England.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Chapter VIII

Of the Manner of Building and Furniture of Our Houses

[1577, Book II., Chapter 10; 1587, Book II., Chapter 12.]

THE GREATEST part of our building in the cities and good towns of England consisteth only of timber, for as yet few of the houses of the communalty (except here and there in the West-country towns) are made of stone, although they may (in my opinion) in divers other places be builded so good cheap of the one as of the other. In old time the houses of the Britons were slightly set up with a few posts and many raddles, with stable and all offices under one roof, the like whereof almost is to be seen in the fenny countries and northern parts unto this day, where for lack of wood they are enforced to continue this ancient manner of building. It is not in vain, therefore, in speaking of building, to make a distinction between the plain and woody soils; for as in these, our houses are commonly strong and well-timbered (so that in many places there are not above four, six, or nine inches between stud and stud), so in the open champaign countries they are forced, for want of stuff, to use no studs at all, but only frankposts, raisins, beams, prickposts, groundsels, summers (or dormants), transoms, and such principals, with here and there a girding, whereunto they fasten their splints or raddles, and then cast it all over with thick clay to keep out the wind, which otherwise would annoy them. Certes this rude kind of building made the Spaniards in Queen Mary’s days to wonder, but chiefly when they saw what large diet was used in many of these so homely cottages; insomuch that one of no small reputation amongst them said after this manner—“These English (quoth he) have their houses made of sticks and dirt, but they fare commonly so well as the king.” Whereby it appeareth that he liked better of our good fare in such coarse cabins than of their own thin diet in their prince-like habitations and palaces. In like sort as every country house is thus apparelled on the outside, so is it inwardly divided into sundry rooms above and beneath; and, where plenty of wood is, they cover them with tiles, otherwise with straw, sedge, or reed, except some quarry of slate be near hand, from whence they have for their money much as may suffice them. The clay wherewith our houses are impannelled is either white, red, or blue; and of these the first doth participate very much of the nature of our chalk; the second is called loam; but the third eftsoons changeth colour as soon as it is wrought, notwithstanding that it looks blue when it is thrown out of the pit. Of chalk also we have our excellent asbestos or white lime, made in most places, wherewith being quenched, we strike over our clay works and stone walls, in cities, good towns, rich farmers’ and gentlemen’s houses: otherwise, instead of chalk (where it wanteth, for it is so scant that in some places it is sold by the pound), they are compelled to burn a certain kind of red stone, as in Wales, and elsewhere other stones and shells of oysters and like fish found upon the sea coast, which, being converted into lime, doth naturally (as the other) abhor and eschew water, whereby it is dissolved, and nevertheless desire oil, wherewith it is easily mixed, as I have seen by experience. Within their doors also, such as are of ability do oft make their floors and parget of fine alabaster burned, which they call plaster of Paris, whereof in some places we have great plenty, and that very profitable against the rage of fire. In plastering likewise of our fairest houses over our heads, we use to lay first a line or two of white mortar, tempered with hair, upon laths, which are nailed one by another (or sometimes upon reed of wickers for fire, and make fast here and there saplaths for falling down), and finally cover all with the aforesaid plaster, which, beside the delectable whiteness of the stuff itself; is laid on so even and smoothly as nothing in my judgment can be done with more exactness. The walls of our houses on the inner sides in like sort be either hanged with tapestry, arras work, or painted cloths, wherein either divers histories, or herbs, beasts, knots, and such like are stained, or else they are ceiled with oak of our own, or wainscot brought hither out of the east countries, whereby the rooms are not a little commended, made warm, and much more close than otherwise they would be. As for stoves, we have not hitherto used them greatly, yet do they now begin to be made in divers houses of the gentry and wealthy citizens, who build them not to work and feed in, as in Germany and elsewhere, but now and then to sweat in, as occasion and need shall require it.

This also hath been common in England, contrary to the customs of all other nations, and yet to be seen (for example, in most streets of London), that many of our greatest houses have outwardly been very simple and plain to sight, which inwardly have been able to receive a duke with his whole train, and lodge them at their ease. Hereby, moreover, it is come to pass that the fronts of our streets have not been so uniform and orderly builded as those of foreign cities, where ( to say truth) the outer side of their mansions and dwellings have oft more cost bestowed upon them than all the rest of the house, which are often very simple and uneasy within, as experience doth confirm. Of old time, our country houses, instead of glass, did use much lattice, and that made either of wicker or fine rifts of oak in checkerwise. I read also that some of the better sort, in and before the times of the Saxons (who notwithstanding used some glass also since the time of Benedict Biscop, the monk that brought the feat of glazing into this land), did make panels of horn instead of glass, and fix them in wooden calmes. But as horn in windows is now quite laid down in every place, so our lattices are also grown into less use, because glass is come to be so plentiful, and within a very little so good cheap, if not better than the other. I find obscure mention of the specular stone also to have been found and applied to this use in England, but in such doubtful sort as I dare not affirm it for certain. Nevertheless certain it is that antiquity used it before glass was known, under the name of selenites. And how glass was first found I care not greatly to remember, even at this present, although it be directly beside my purposed matter. In Syria Phenices, which bordereth upon Jewry, and near to the foot of Mount Carmel, there is a moor or marsh whereout riseth a brook called sometime Belus, and falleth into the sea near to Ptolemais. This river was fondly ascribed unto Baal, and also honoured under that name by the infidels long time before there was any king in Israel. It came to pass also, as a certain merchant sailed that way, loaden with nitrum, the passengers went to land for to repose themselves, and to take in some store of fresh water into their vessel. Being also on the shore, they kindled a fire and made provision for their dinner, but (because they wanted trevets or stones whereon to set their kettles on) ran by chance into the ship, and brought great pieces of nitrum with them, which served their turn for that present. To be short, the said substance being hot, and beginning to melt, it mixed by chance with the gravel thay lay under it, and so brought forth that shining substance which now is called glass, and about the time of Semiramis. When the company saw this, they made no small accompt of their success, and forthwith began to practise the like in other mixtures, whereby great variety of the said stuff did also ensue. Certes for the time this history may well be true, for I read of glass in Job; but, for the rest, I refer me to the common opinion conceived by writers. Now, to turn again to our windows. Heretofore also the houses of our princes and noblemen were often glazed with beryl (an example whereof is yet to be seen in Sudeley Castle) and in divers other places with fine crystal, but this especially in the time of the Romans, whereof also some fragments have been taken up in old ruins. But now these are not in use, so that only the clearest glass is most esteemed: for we have divers sorts, some brought out of Burgundy, some out of Normandy, much out of Flanders, beside that which is made in England, which would be so good as the best if we were diligent and careful to bestow more cost upon it, and yet as it is each one that may will have it for his building. Moreover the mansion houses of our country towns and villages (which in champaign ground stand altogether by streets, and joining one to another, but in woodland soils dispersed here and there, each one upon the several grounds of their owners) are builded in such sort generally as that they have neither dairy, stable, nor brew-house annexed unto them under the same roof (as in many places beyond the sea and some of the north parts of our country), but all separate from the first, and one of them from another. And yet, for all this, they are not so far distant in sunder but that the goodman lying in his bed may lightly hear what is done in each of them with ease, and call quickly unto his many if any danger should attack him.

The ancient manors and houses of our gentlemen are yet and for the most part of strong timber, in framing whereof our carpenters have been and are worthily preferred before those of like science among all other nations. Howbeit such as be lately builded are commonly either of brick or hard stone, or both, their rooms large and comely, and houses of office further distant from their lodgings. Those of the nobility are likewise wrought with brick and hard stone, as provision may best be made, but so magnificent and stately as the basest house of a baron doth often match in our days with some honours of a princes in old time. So that, if ever curious building did flourish in England, it is in these our years wherein our workmen excel and are in manner comparable in skill with old Vitruvius, Leo Baptista, and Serlo. Nevertheless their estimation, more than their greedy and servile covetousness, joined with a lingering humour, causeth them often to be rejected, and strangers preferred to greater bargains, who are more reasonable in their takings, and less wasters of time by a great deal than our own.

The furniture of our houses also exceedeth, and is grown in manner even to passing delicacy: and herein I do not speak of the nobility and gentry only, but likewise of the lowest sort in most places of our south country that have anything at all to take to. Certes in noblemen’s houses it is not rare to see abundance of arras, rich hangings of tapestry, silver vessels, and so much other plate as may furnish sundry cupboards to the sum oftentimes of a thousand or two thousand pounds at the least, whereby the value of this and the rest of their stuff doth grow to be almost inestimable. Likewise in the houses of knights, gentlemen, merchantmen, and some other wealthy citizens, it is not geson to behold generally their great provision of tapestry, Turkey work, pewter, brass, fine linen, and thereto costly cupboards of plate, worth five or six hundred or a thousand pounds to be deemed by estimation. But, as herein all these sorts do far exceed their elders and predecessors, and in neatness and curiosity the merchant all other, so in times past the costly furniture stayed there, whereas now it is descended yet lower even unto the inferior artificers and many farmers, who, by virtue of their old and not of their new leases, have, for the most part, learned also to garnish their cupboards with plate, their joined beds with tapestry and silk hangings, and their tables with carpets and fine napery, whereby the wealth of our country (God be praised therefore, and give us grace to employ it well) doth infinitely appear. Neither do I speak this in reproach of any man, God is my judge, but to shew that I do rejoice rather to see how God hath blessed us with his good gifts; and whilst, I behold how (in a time wherein all things are grown io most excessive prices, and what commodity so ever is to be had is daily plucked from the communalty by such as look into every trade) we do yet find the means to obtain and achieve such furniture as heretofore hath been unpossible.

There are old men yet dwelling in the village where I remain which have noted three things to be marvellously altered in England within their sound remembrance, and other three things too too much increased.

One is the multitude of chimneys lately erected, whereas in their young days there were not above two or three, if so many, in most uplandish towns of the realm (the religious houses and manor places of their lords always excepted, and peradventure some great personages), but each one made his fire against a reredos in the hall, where he dined and dressed his meat.

The second is the great (although not general) amendment of lodging; for, said they, our fathers, yea and we ourselves also, have lain full oft upon straw pallets, on rough mats covered only with a sheet, under coverlets made of dagswain or hopharlots (I use their own terms), and a good round log under their heads instead of a bolster or pillow. If it were so that our fathers—or the good man of the house had within seven years after his marriage purchased a mattress or flock bed, and thereto a stack of chaff to rest his head upon, he thought himself to be as well lodged as the lord of the town, that peradventure lay seldom in a bed of down or whole feathers, so well were they content, and with such base kind of furniture: which also is not very much amended as yet in some parts of Bedfordshire, and elsewhere, further off from our southern parts. Pillows (said they) were thought meet only for women in childbed. As for servants, if they had any sheet above them, it was well, for seldom had they any under their bodies to keep them from the pricking straws that ran oft through the canvas of the pallet and rased their hardened hides.

The third thing they tell of is the exchange of vessel, as of treen platters into pewter, and wooden spoons into silver or tin. For so common were all sorts of treen stuff in old time that a man should hardly find four pieces of pewter (of which one was peradventure a salt) in a good farmer’s house, and yet for all this frugality (if it may so be justly called) they were scarce able to live and pay their rents at their days without selling of a cow, or a horse or more, although they paid but four pounds at the uttermost by the year. Such also was their poverty that, if some one odd farmer or husband-man had been at the ale-house, a thing greatly used in those days, amongst six or seven of his neighbours, and there in a bravery, to shew what store he had, did cast down his purse, and therein a noble or six shillings in silver, unto them (for few such men then cared for gold, because it was not so ready payment, and they were oft enforced to give a penny for the exchange of an angel), it was very likely that all the rest could not lay down so much against it; whereas in my time, although peradventure four pounds of old rent be improved to forty, fifty, or a hundred pounds, yet will the farmer, as another palm or date tree, think his gains very small toward the end of his term if he have not six or seven years’ rent lying by him, therewith to purchase a new lease, beside a fair garnish of pewter on his cupboard, with so much more in odd vessel going about the house, three or four feather beds, so many coverlids and carpets of tapestry, a silver salt, a bowl for wine (if not a whole neast), and a dozen of spoons to furnish up the suit. This also he takes to be his own clear, for what stock of money soever he gathereth and layeth up in all his years it is often seen that the landlord will take such order with him for the same when he reneweth his lease, which is commonly eight or six years before the old be expired (sith it is now grown almost to a custom that if he come not to his lord so long before another shall step in for a reversion, and so defeat him outright), that it shall never trouble him more than the hair of his beard when the barber hath washed and shaved it from his chin.

And as they commend these, so (beside the decay of housekeeping whereby the poor have been relieved) they speak also of three things that are grown to be very grievous unto them—to wit, the enhancing of rents, lately mentioned; the daily oppression of copyholders, whose lords seek to bring their poor tenants almost into plain servitude and misery, daily devising new means, and seeking up all the old, how to cut them shorter and shorter, doubling, trebling, and now and then seven times increasing their fines, driving them also for every trifle to lose and forfeit their tenures (by whom the greatest part of the realm doth stand and is maintained), to the end they may fleece them yet more, which is a lamentable hearing. The third thing they talk of is usury, a trade brought in by the Jews, now perfectly practised almost by every Christian, and so commonly that he is accompted but for a fool that doth lend his money for nothing. In time past it was sors pro sorte—that is, the principal only for the principal; but now, beside that which is above the principal properly called Usura, we challenge Foenus—that is, commodity of soil and fruits of the earth, if not the ground itself. In time past also one of the hundred was much; from thence it rose unto two, called in Latin Usura, Ex sextante; three, to wit Ex quadrante; then to four, to wit, Ex triente; then to five, which is Ex quincunce; then to six, called Ex semisse, etc. As the accompt of the Assis ariseth, and coming at the last unto Usura ex asse, it amounteth to twelve in the hundred, and therefore the Latins call it Centesima, for that in the hundred month it doubleth the principal; but more of this elsewhere. See Cicero against Verres, Demosthenes against Aphobus, and Athenæus, lib. 13, in fine; and, when thou hast read them well, help I pray thee in lawful manner to hang up such as take Centum pro cento, for they are no better worthy as I do judge in conscience. Forget not also such landlords as used to value their leases at a secret estimation given of the wealth and credit of the taker, whereby they seem (as it were) to eat them up, and deal with bondmen, so that if the lessee be thought to be worth a hundred pounds he shall pay no less for his new term, or else another to enter with hard and doubtful covenants. I am sorry to report it, much more grieved to understand of the practice, but most sorrowful of all to understand that men of great port and countenance are so far from suffering their farmers to have any gain at all that they themselves become graziers, butchers, tanners, sheepmasters, woodmen, and denique quid non, thereby to enrich themselves, and bring all the wealth of the country into their own hands, leaving the communalty weak, or as an idol with broken or feeble arms, which may in a time of peace have a plausible shew, but when necessity shall enforce have a heavy and bitter sequel.