Between 1500 and 1660 Britain experienced tremendous change. The political map was transformed: after 1603, Scotland, Wales and England were ruled by one monarch. Yet, as Britain became more unified, it became more isolated from the rest of Europe. Principal to this was the Reformation, the so-called Break with Rome. Britain was now a Protestant nation, the monasteries were shut, and the Bible, not the Pope, dictated worship. Unsurprisingly, there were economic and social effects. Monastic lands were redistributed, creating a new group of landowners. Increasingly rich and ambitious, they demanded political rights and the limitation of royal privileges. A nation divided, conflict was inevitable, leading ultimately to the upheavals of the Civil War (1641-50).
The architecture of this period reflects these changes. Most obviously, church building declined dramatically. Great houses, instead, sprang up across the land, with neighbours intent to out-do each other. Most were eager to employ the new Renaissance architecture, first developed in Italy. Cut off from the continent, they relied on new architectural books printed to encounter this, and a new breed of men to interpret them – the surveyors – that emerged in this period. Gradually, medieval Gothic architectural forms were dropped, although buildings remained varied and playful. Eventually, Inigo Jones designed Britain’s first classically-inspired buildings, as sophisticated as anything being built in Italy at the time. But just as British architecture matured, the Civil War paused this artistic brilliance.
However, not everything changed. Most people remained poor, their housing mean with few examples surviving to this day. Most buildings remained tied to the locality. Locally available materials still shaped buildings; stylistically regions remained distinct. And, despite the word-play of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Donne, the focus on the Bible, and the impact of printing, society remained predominantly illiterate. Buildings, therefore, remained central to society, the means to communicate ideas and allegiance. So to experience this colourful period, we must look at architecture, surely some of the most delightful Britain has ever produced.