Prodigy house


Detail of Burghley House courtyard

Visiting Elizabethan or older houses, we are often told ‘Queen Elizabeth I slept here.’ The number of houses seems remarkable, but the claims are most probably accurate: Elizabeth reigned for 45 years, during which time she journeyed much across the country. Without children, it was vital for her to show her presence; her annual progresses were a principal political method. Eager to accommodate the Queen and her court, ambitious courtiers responded with a building frenzy.

This Elizabethan construction boom was fuelled by the new wealth derived from the former monastic estates. Enthusiasm for new architectural styles developing on the continent also encouraged building. Italian Renaissance architecture was popularised in many publications, and English patrons and masons were eager to exhibit their knowledge of this. However, having not experienced Renaissance buildings directly, their houses were modelled on late Medieval examples with added Renaissance ornament. 

So marvellous are these buildings that they have been collectively termed Elizabethan prodigy houses. They are also often called lantern houses, owing to the large windows making up their façades: often there is more glass than wall on show. Regarded as peculiarly English, many of the finest examples can be found in the Midlands, notably those associated with the architect-mason Robert Smythson. 

About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

Top of page