Inside Britain’s Jacobean houses

Built as a celebration and demonstration of wealth, with sophisticated symmetry and grand entrance halls, elaborate carvings and complex decoration, Britain’s Jacobean houses have a unique fascination and appeal. We take you inside some of the very best.

Stanway House
Stanway House © Paul Barker/Stanway house

Where better to write about the Jacobean period than in BRITAIN magazine? Until King James VI of Scotland (1567-1625) succeeded Elizabeth I to become James I of England in 1603, uniting the two crowns, there was no Great Britain. Four hundred years ago, with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 foiled, the country was enjoying a period of relative political stability and prosperity – the aristocracy and a growing upper middle class began to alter their houses or build new ones to demonstrate their wealth and status.

Nowhere was the drive to publicly proclaim status more apparent than at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. This sumptuous palace was built between 1607 and 1612 for Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612), chief minister to both Elizabeth I and James I. The main designer was Robert Lyminge, assisted by architects including a young Inigo Jones. The house cost a staggering £38,000 because of the extravagance of its fittings, including Caen limestone and vast amounts of Italian marble.

Intricate detailing at Hatfield House
Intricate detailing at Hatfield House © Hatfield House

Jacobean houses would have been lighter, brighter places than we imagine, with colourful fabrics, tapestries and fittings. Hatfield retains something of this brightness and splendour. The Marble Hall still has its original black and white chequered marble floor and stunning oak carvings, by John Bucke. On the wall hangs the ‘Rainbow’ portrait of Elizabeth I, inscribed with the motto ‘Non sine sole iris’ (No rainbow without the sun), comparing Queen Elizabeth I to a bringer of peace after a storm.

Elsewhere, King James’s Drawing Room is named after a life-size statue of the King within an extraordinary chimneypiece carved by his master sculptor Maximilian Colt. The Long Gallery still has its original ceiling, although it was covered with gold leaf in the 19th century. A wall cabinet in this room contains some exquisite carved rock crystal ornaments, which belonged to Robert Cecil.

In the Ballroom at Knole
In the Ballroom at Knole © NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Knole, near Sevenoaks in Kent, is huge and mysterious, with 365 rooms, and by turns both elegant and a little ramshackle. The writer Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) grew up here a century ago. Her friend Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando is inspired in part by Vita’s frustration that, as a woman, she could never inherit Knole.

Described in Orlando as looking like “a town rather than a house”, Knole is several houses in one. The West Front, the first part visitors see as they climb a windswept hill above the medieval deer park, was built by Henry VIII after Archbishop Thomas Cramner gave him the house in 1538. This extended the 15th-century archbishop’s palace, which in turn enclosed a medieval manor house, of which we know almost nothing.

The state rooms form the core of the Jacobean house, built by Vita’s ancestor Thomas Sackville (1536-1608), 1st Earl of Dorset and Lord Treasurer for both Elizabeth I and James I. Although most of the furnishings were removed during the English Civil War, some Jacobean fittings and decoration remain, including the carved oak screen and panelling in the Great Hall and wall paintings lining the Great Staircase portraying the Four Ages of Man, the Five Senses and the Virtues. The Ballroom contains perhaps the finest chimneypiece of this period, carved in marble and alabaster by Cornelius Cure, master mason to the Crown, in 1607.

The Grand Hall at Audley End
The Grand Hall at Audley End © English Heritage/Pat Payne

There are also many pieces of 17th-century royal furniture at Knole, brought here by the 6th Earl of Dorset while he was Lord Chamberlain of the Household to William III in the 1690s. He had the right to remove any furniture in the royal palaces deemed worn out or unfashionable, including a number of ‘chairs of state’, once used as thrones. One stands alongside a portrait of James I in which the King sits in a very similar chair. Most famous is the battered red velvet Knole Settee, the ancestor of the modern sofa, which dates from around the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.

Audley End seems an inappropriately homely name for an extensive, once palatial house, close to the pretty market town of Saffron Walden in Essex. Reduced in size in the 18th century, Audley was the largest private house in the country when completed in 1615 and was later owned by Charles II, who enjoyed its proximity to the racecourse at Newmarket.

The first house here was built on the foundations of a 12th-century Benedictine priory, by Thomas, Lord Audley (c.1487-1544), Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII. It was then rebuilt at ruinous expense by his descendant Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk (1561-1626) over ten years from 1605.

The South Drawing Room at Blickling Hall in Norfolk
The South Drawing Room at Blickling Hall in Norfolk © NTPL/Nadia Mackenzie

Today many of the rich furnishings inside date from the 18th century or later, but there are some impressive survivals. The Great Hall incorporates a mix of features from different periods, the Jacobean elements having been restored in the 19th century. Other original features include the ceiling in the Saloon, decorated with scenes of sea monsters, mermaids, mermen and ships, perhaps a reference to Suffolk’s role in fighting the Spanish Armada in 1588. There are also a number of Jacobean ceilings and chimneypieces in the rooms of the North Wing. Some of the latter have been moved around over the years. As a general rule of thumb, if the top of a chimneypiece doesn’t reach the frieze around the walls, it used to be somewhere else.

The first view visitors have of Blickling Hall in Norfolk is truly breathtaking: a symmetrical array of windows, turrets, chimneys and gables, flanked by service buildings, immaculate lawns and huge yew hedges.

The Hall was built for the lawyer Henry Hobart, who purchased the Blickling Estate in 1613. It replaced a medieval and Tudor house that had been owned by Sir John Falstofe and by the Boleyn family. Blickling is reputedly the birthplace of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. She is said to haunt the house: appearing each year on 19 May, the anniversary of her beheading in 1536.

The south front of Blickling Hall
The south front of Blickling Hall © NTPL/Rod Edwards

Hobart hired Robert Lyminge, architect of Hatfield House, to build the Hall and there are some striking similarities between the two houses. Among the interior features to survive from this period are the superb wooden chimney pieces in the Great Chamber and parlour, attributed to Lyminge, and elaborate plasterwork ceilings in the Great Chamber and Long Gallery, by Edward Stanyon.

There were also many smaller country houses built during this period. One of the loveliest is Stanway House, in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds. A more picturesque arrangement of buildings is hard to imagine: the manor house stands alongside the village church, a medieval tithe barn and ancient watermill, with a handful of cottages nearby, all built in the local limestone, turned golden-grey with age. You can also visit the restored 18th-century watergarden and admire the 92m (300ft) fountain, the tallest in Britain.

Study at Bateman's, Knole's Great Jacobean Staircase
Study at Bateman’s, Knole’s Great Jacobean Staircase © NTPL/Geoffrey Frosh/Horst Kolo

Another small Jacobean house well worth seeking out is Bateman’s in the East Sussex countryside, former home of the author Rudyard Kipling. At first glance it looks older than Stanway, with Tudor-like rows of brick chimneys and small windows peeking out of imposing sandstone walls. In fact it was built in 1634, reputedly by a local ironmaster. Who would not want to feel like the lord or lady of one of these remarkable houses, with all their treasures, history and mystery, even if just for one day?

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