What’s Old is New Again: Tudor Mania Across the Pond

Prior to my first trip to Great Britain, I knew little about the architecture of the British Isles beyond…castles. How much more do you need to know when you are a 14-year old girl? My mental catalog has expanded over the years, (as has my interest in how “real” people lived) but any mention of a quintessential British architectural style automatically catches my interest. Recently I came across an article about the hot architectural style dominating luxury home construction across the globe (particularly in China) – the Tudor style.

A traditional British house with half-timbering, one of the characteristics of the Tudor style.

Heard of the War of the Roses? Before the Tudors, there were the Plantagenets – and we’ve heard a lot about that dynasty lately. From the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton underneath a parking lot in Leicester, to the success of the British TV series The White Queen (based on a Philippa Gregory series), the popularity of the Plantagenets  has soared recently.

While I was riveted with the archaeological work in Leicester (given I work daily with – and am outnumbered by – scads of archaeologists), I’m not sure that the Tudor dynasty will give up the limelight quite so easily.

Richard III, the last Plantagenet king. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_III_of_England#/media/File:King_Richard_III.jpg

My foundation for this assertion, of course, is the enduring power of the Tudor style.  Any architectural style linked to the period that produced Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I is bound to have staying power – not to mention sex appeal.

I think of Richard III and then I think about his nephews…locked in the Tower of London…not exactly an incident nor a style of building that gives one a warm and cozy feeling. (And yes, I realize that fortified buildings have more important things to accomplish than to be appealingly adorable.)

The Tower of London, now just holding tourists captive.

Plus, even though many Americans have a fixation with all things British, we have our own Tudor style. Perceived by some Yankees as quintessentially British, we gave the style its own spin as the Tudor Revival – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all. As I read and gawked at some of the houses being built in China, where the Tudor style serves as a “status symbol,” I thought it would be interesting to explore the world of (the original) Tudor buildings.

A Tudor Revival style house in Louisville, Kentucky.

The period of influence for the original Tudor style is roughly 1485 to about 1600, though like many architectural styles, its influence “trickled down” and while wealthy people would move on to the newest and latest trend (hello Palladian influence), the rest of the population would continue to incorporate elements of the older style. Also, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the “Elizabethan style” gained favor, so you often have a number of architectural styles co-existing at the same time.

What is the Tudor style? There are some basic characteristics:  half-timbering, steeply-pitched  gable roofs, chimneys, oriel windows, the use of brick, flattened pointed arches, prominent gables and square headed windows, to name a few.

I don’t have any images of a British oriel window, but the concept is the same here in the States. This example is in Louisville, Kentucky.

Why chimneys? Well, prior to the widespread dissemination of the Tudor style, enclosed chimneys – as opposed to open hearths in the center of a room – became common. Tudor chimneys twisted and turned in all sorts of elaborate ways, channeling the smoke out of the building.

Tudor chimneys at Hampton Court Palace.

Half-timbering refers to a timber frame (think heavy pieces of wood fitted together with pegs – not modern stud framing) that is exposed with an infill of either brick or plaster. This is the most common characteristics of Tudor revival style buildings here in the States – except that none of the framing you see on Tudor Revival buildings actually holds the building up. The revival is all about the decorative aspects of the style…with modern conveniences.

A 16th century house outside of Oxford with half-timbering and brick infill.

One of the most famous examples of the Tudor style is Hampton Court Palace – the home of Henry VIII – one of the benefits of his dissolution of the monasteries. In addition to providing Henry with a new palace to expand and remodel, the shuttering of monasteries and the unpopularity of the church encouraged a period of rebuilding across England, which helped spread the Tudor style.  Land that had belonged to the church was opened up for development, and new country houses – that did not need the defensive design tactics of a castle – were built by the new gentry (who didn’t have to give so much money to the church).

Caption: Hampton Court Palace. Photograph by Luke Nicolaides, Wikimedia Commons.

And while the exterior of a Tudor home certainly demands attention, the interiors are pretty incredible as well. Oak paneling, sometimes in the linen-fold pattern, in which raised carvings imitate folded pieces of cloth, is one of the best known decorative features of Tudor homes. Ornate plaster work is another trademark, along with highly detailed fireplace surrounds, staircases, ceilings – the Tudor style focuses on details.

Linen-fold paneling.

Just as it is hard to sum up a country, it is hard to sum up an architectural style – and this is not intended as an architectural guide! One of the wonderful things about architecture is how a fashionable or popular style can be changed, interpreted and reinvented across social and economic divisions.

The Tudor style changed over time, and it differed based on who was building it and for whom it was built. Now you can travel to a village outside of Shanghai and enjoy a traditional English pub  and marvel at the new Tudor homes built there – all in the appropriately named Thames Town. Henry VIII would expect no less.


This post originally written for the (now-defunct) Smitten by Britain website in 2013.

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  1. Miss Maple says:

    What a delight! Indeed, it was a long, fascinating era. To the charming Tudor cottages and palaces we add Shakespeare, a few delphiniums, stocks and trailing vines, and one could live forever charmed. The colors in your photographs are striking and rich, bringing Hampton Court to life. I loved this posting!

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Thank you so much!

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