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Simon Thurley, Houses of Power
by Susie West

Thurley, Simon, Houses of Power, The Places That Shaped the Tudor World. London, New York: Bantam Press. 2017.xii +  480 pp. ISBN 9780593074947. £30 hardback.

Houses of Power presents Simon Thurley’s thirty years of research on the historic royal palaces of England, with particular reference to Hampton Court and Westminster/Whitehall, for the Tudor period. Thurley is an architectural historian by profession, and a founder member of the Society for Court Studies. This book unites the material forms and settings of royal houses with the evidence for their social and symbolic uses, ranging from the evolution of the most private royal apartments to the vast scale of leisure facilities for the use of the court. It aims to show how architecture both structures the life of the court and is changed as life in the royal households evolved. The book explores the architectural work commissioned by five Tudor kings and queens, in sixteen chapters, in chronological order but each including thematic sections; these range from how the royal children were housed, to the organisation of the ‘below stairs’ services. This is a trade press book, which is aimed at a wider readership than his earlier monographs. Thurley restricts his academic language severely, assuming some basic architectural knowledge but not deploying any overt theoretical language or concepts. The publishers have been generous in supporting a colour section, for richly coloured manuscripts, portraits, and surviving interiors and tapestries. The chapters are well illustrated with specially drawn plans, and with a selection of near-contemporary views and details from the houses; these are printed on the same grade of uncoated paper as the text which does degrade the image quality. The Picture Acknowledgements at the back of the book serve as a list of images, which will aid the reader in returning to these assets. For Spenser scholars, this may be of interest for an overview of  the complexities of Tudor royal etiquette and as a rapid survey of how English architectural and political history intersect, but readers already familiar with Thurley’s earlier works may wish to dive straight into the chapters on Elizabeth.

The overarching argument is that royal houses were the places where royal power was exercised, and thus that protocol (the social sphere) and power (the political sphere) were brought together through architecture (the material world). This is why architecture matters: it is not merely a backdrop to royal activity, or a decorative support to questions of status and display, but an integral part of the creation and maintenance of royal power. Royal houses were slightly different in the accommodation they were expected to provide, compared to commoners. While most great houses of the nobility during the sixteenth century needed to offer state rooms leading from the great hall, royal etiquette required separate provision of state rooms for the crowned monarch and his or her consort leading to the private chambers of each. Thurley is very good at explaining the evolution of these specialist rooms across the century; the private spaces for the royals were known as the privy lodgings, and as each monarch wished to open or restrict access to the privy rooms, their levels of staffing and spatial arrangement varied. Henry VIII was highly sociable, Elizabeth much less so. Another distinction is that royal expectations for their private rooms were very space hungry: a standard arrangement of bedchamber and closet was increasingly elaborated to include a room for the royal clothes (the wardrobe), bathroom and perhaps a jewel room, which should lead to a long gallery. Privy kitchens, just to cook for the immediate royal family, could also be closely located to the privy lodgings; at Hampton Court, the privy kitchens were on the ground floor below the royal rooms. Henry VIII expected that at least five of his houses would be kept in a state of readiness for his arrival, furnished and provisioned, and these were known as the ‘standing houses’: the rest would be equipped just in advance of the arrival of the court. Later in the book, the rather less luxurious accommodation allocated to courtiers is an amusing contrast at Hampton Court. Pity the latecomer, out of favour, who has left his or her own great house to squeeze themselves into a cramped and cold bedchamber.

The Tudor period saw a gradual reduction in the peripatetic nature of royal life, but Thurley is particularly good in setting out the massive effort required to move an entire court around the country: were this to be reconstructed accurately for cinema, the audience might weary of the lengthy wagon trains. Much of this account is also a narrative about the development of London, the centre of royal power, where the Crown estate steadily acquired and embellished property from the Tower in the east to St James’s Palace in the west, via of course the palace of Westminster, more commonly called Whitehall. The focus moves iteratively from detailed discussion of single houses back out to wider considerations of themes such as the significance of landscape for the London houses (for example the landholdings that created St James’s Park), the administrative structure of the households, and the conversion of former monastic properties. There is a very strong strand that tracks the increasing prominence of royal power made visible in Westminster, as Henry VIII invested in the property around the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey that became the Palace of Westminster (Whitehall, originating from Wolsey’s York Place). He inaugurated the procession of the Lords from his palace to the Abbey and then to Parliament, the origins of the State Opening of Parliament ritual.

What transforms the argument, which is heavily reliant on secondary sources for much of the power and protocol aspects, is Thurley’s authority as someone who has truly been hands on with the architecture. His career saw him in the right place at the right time for an assessment of the archaeological evidence produced since the 1930s for Whitehall (the principal Tudor palace until the disastrous fire of 1698). Thurley also integrated the thorough physical investigations of Hampton Court with the first systematic use of the surviving Tudor building accounts, all 6,500 bills from 1529-38. His PhD thesis was on English royal palaces, 1450-1550, and it is notable that both this thesis and the later monograph, The Royal Palaces of Tudor England, are two works that significantly underpin the present book, to the extent that they feature in the Abbreviations list alongside standard works of reference such as Colvin’s History of the King’s Works.[1] Thurley is completely entitled to this amount of self-reference, nobody can compete with his grasp of Tudor royal houses. However, the extent to which Houses of Power is a contribution to the field or a reiteration of previous work does need to be addressed.

It is very clear that much of the content and structure of The Royal Palaces of Tudor England has been lightly reworked and reordered for Houses of Power. Of course, the former work had a different chronology, starting with a two-chapter warm up discussion of medieval houses before reaching Henry VII, and ending with the death of Henry VIII. Houses of Power extends right through the Tudor dynasty, picking up the challenge Thurley set out at the end of The Royal Palaces of Tudor England which was to suggest that Henry VIII overshadowed his successors, architecturally, by providing them with so much and so well suited to royal needs, that his bequest ‘dominated, from his grave, generations of royal builders and architects’.[2]

Indeed, on sheer quantity alone, it is difficult to grasp just how much money Henry spent and how many houses he built or rebuilt. He was enabled by the vast amount of cash realised from the seizure of monastic assets, estimated at £1.3 million in the sixteenth century, a vast sum of money. Thurley estimates that Henry inherited about twenty houses, and left about seventy to his heirs. So many of these have been lost: three monastic houses, at Dartford, Rochester and Canterbury, converted into useful royal guesthouses on the route from London to the Continent, for example, just fell into decline, ruin and eventual disappearance. At this point, the reader who wants to know more will need to turn to Royal Palaces for a charming eighteenth-century watercolour of the house at Dartford, in decay, and a fascinating discussion of the house’s part in the decline of the great hall as the centre of the elite house. For the historical sources for this, the reader also needs Thurley’s PhD thesis. I make this point to show how interwoven the publications are, and that Houses of Power and Royal Palaces probably need each other, rather than seeing Houses of Power as the successor volume.

Houses of Power rethinks Henry’s bequest to some extent, to conclude that each subsequent reign subtly adjusted the ways in which they used their architectural inheritance. Elizabeth particularly contributed to her father’s houses, but without evidence that identifies her own interest in the designs, it is difficult to assign the modest additions (designed to be indistinguishable from her father’s style) to her own taste. Thurley acknowledges the popular evaluation of her as not a builder, but the evidence he draws together still does not overturn this position; he is obliged to supplement the discussion with considerations of what her courtiers built, particularly the new lodgings tower at Kenilworth Castle built by the Earl of Leicester.

There are some fascinating side lights on Tudor elite life. Perhaps countering the notion that Elizabeth took a bath once a year, whether she needed it or not, it is clear that Henry VIII certainly enjoyed a bath, with hot and cold running water at Hampton Court; Elizabeth enjoyed luxuriously furnished bathrooms to bathe in the Turkish style. Henry himself was clearly very interested in architectural design, leaving drawing tools and materials as well as plans behind to be inventoried after his death; but there is a tiny glimpse of his mother, Elizabeth of York, also contributing to ideas for the royal house at Greenwich (76). More substantially, there is a very strong understanding of the power that controlling architectural space gave to Henry VIII. The prescriptions for separate king and queen’s households, and their separate provision of apartments and state rooms, mean that Henry could literally exclude a queen through not building for her. His cunning in juggling his mistress Anne Boleyn with his wife Katherine of Aragon extended to purchasing a convenient house near Westminster (Wolsey’s York Place) which just happened not to be big enough to offer the required separate apartment for the queen. Katherine could not, by the standards of the time, reside with Henry in that house; Anne however, of no particular status, could easily be accommodated in standard lodgings beneath the royal apartment. Once Anne was pregnant and clearly going to be the next queen, she and Henry were very visible in planning the new Whitehall palace that would house them in splendid style. The architectural story is dominated by Henry VIII; Spenser scholars will want to know more about Elizabeth, and these final chapters exemplify the challenges of Thurley’s structure.

Throughout the book, there is an occasionally uneasy switch from the forward chronological movement of Tudor dynasty, to backtracking in order to explain the origins of particular topics. It isn’t always clear why a particular theme is addressed in one reign but not in another. For Elizabeth, there is a brief discussion of the influence of transport developments on how royal and courtier houses were entered; the rising popularity of coaches led to the infrastructure of better roads, and so water transport (as on the Thames) became less crucial for the houses nearer to London. Elizabeth could now regularly visit her favourite houses by coach and enter in state through the forecourts. Thurley doesn’t develop this theme to identify any distinct architectural consequences, and it isn’t clear why this is particularly different to how Henry would necessarily have entered most of the houses on his further-flung progresses. This book could have been the opportunity to move away from the chronological structure and group major themes across the reigns. A chapter devoted just to the Privy Lodgings, for example, would have plenty of material, and be much easier to follow and return to; instead, the reader has to pick up a series of mini-discussions by reign, or wrestle with the great number of indexed references across the book.

There is a sense, then, that as a work of architectural history there is little that is particularly new. However, the complexities of Court Studies are rendered very accessible even though the opportunity to present coherent chapters for ‘the privy apartments’, ‘the Great Household,’ and ‘the Lord Steward’s department’ weren’t grasped. Instead, there are useful summaries of what quite specialist groups of people, and the spaces they controlled or worked in, were intended to do and how they were organised. The problem for the reader is identifying where these discussions feature: the persistent use of rather opaque chapters titles and subheadings does not guide the enquirer. It isn’t clear, for example, why two chapters on Elizabeth have sections called ‘Getting About’ and ‘On the Move’.

Most architectural historians are interested in interiors as much as in exteriors (or plans, for that matter). Thurley weaves in to his account of the major houses what is known of their principal interiors. This is rather limited in scope, partly through the great loss of intact interiors, as these are more likely to have been updated than the structures themselves. This again is most noticeable for the chapters on Elizabeth, which are surprisingly thin in evidence for interiors she knew, beyond one elaborate chimneypiece at Windsor. A more joined-up approach to the evidence could have brought the separate discussion of Elizabeth’s interest in Turkish-style soft furnishings, in the form of floor cushions and low seating, into play. That the elderly queen was happy to receive official visitors from a reclining position is a fascinating counter to the stiff postures familiar from her portraits. Thurley doesn’t stray far from architectural fixtures and fittings, which means that although significant recent works such as Elizabeth Goldring’s Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabeth Art are cited, it is difficult to detect their influence on his text.[3] This is not to call for a more total account of Tudor elite visual culture, but it would be good to have seen more awareness of the relationship between what is known about architectural design and the wider contexts of Tudor enjoyment of surface, pattern and cunning design.  Hans Holbein (the Younger) appears briefly, as a contributor of the Whitehall mural and a portrait of the boy Edward, but there is nothing about his extensive role as a designer of objects as well as a painter (often placing his subjects within detailed interiors). In fact, Thurley is consistently reticent about discussing the nature of Tudor art and design, beyond rather descriptive accounts of construction techniques and a brief foray into the popularity of the grotesque style of ornament after the discovery of Nero’s Golden House in Rome, in Chapter Seven.

Henry’s reign ended with an architectural bang, in the form of the exceptional Nonsuch, intended as the independent residence for Edward, Prince of Wales. It is a fairytale of a building, but difficult to slot into standard architectural forms or styles, and Thurley rather dismisses it for not being aligned with a European Renaissance (presumably a French-Italian Renaissance). Indeed, where is the Northern Renaissance that might equally be called a late Gothic, fascinated with geometry, fusing the Gothic and antique traditions? The bibliography lacks recent works such as Ethan Kavaler’s Renaissance Gothic: Architecture and the Arts in Northern Europe 1470-1540 which might redeem Nonsuch.[4]

As excellent as Thurley’s command of a subject that he has made his own is, there are a couple of oddities of fact to bear in mind. One is very minor; Thurley refers to  a royal house at Hitchin, Hertfordshire. There is no recorded royal residence (not even a hunting lodge) here, although the land was a royal manor. More surprisingly, Thurley suggests that glass (particularly window glass) was not made in England in the 1530s. Archaeologists of glassmaking in the Weald of Kent might be a bit surprised to see the continuity of medieval traditions dismissed in this way.

At 480 pages, this is a substantial work, and it is a little frustrating that it wasn’t the opportunity to rethink a structure inherited from Royal Palaces. In not shifting from that older work, one could speculate that it is a final statement on Tudor palaces from Thurley, who has also written more widely on architecture as heritage. But there is clearly scope for picking up many intriguing lines of enquiry, and I return to the mental image of Elizabeth enjoying her Turkish baths and relaxing on richly embroidered floor cushions. The body, deportment and self-presentation are established themes for those interested in critical theory, and here is an opening that may not be obvious from other sources. But taking this book on its own considerable merits, it should be read for Henry VIII, whose longstanding architectural ambitions and accomplishments steal the show.


Susie West

The Open University

[1] Simon Thurley, The Royal Palaces of Tudor England: Architecture and Court Life, 1460-1547 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1993); Howard Colvin ed. et al, The History of the King’s Works, 6 vols (London: Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, 1963-73).

[2] Thurley,  Royal Palaces, 247

[3] Elizabeth Goldring, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabeth Art, Painting and Patronage at the Court of Elizabeth I (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014). 

[4] Ethan Matt Kavaler, Renaissance Gothic: Architecture and the Arts in Northern Europe 1470-1540 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012).


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Cite as:

Susie West, "Simon Thurley, Houses of Power," Spenser Review 48.1.13 (Winter 2018). Accessed May 28th, 2018.
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