Architecture is about evolution, not revolution. It used to be thought that once the Romans pulled out of Britain in the fifth century, their elegant villas, carefully-planned towns and engineering marvels like Hadrian’s Wall simply fell into decay as British culture was plunged into the Dark Ages. It took the Norman Conquest of 1066 to bring back the light, and the Gothic cathedral-builders of the Middle Ages played an important part in the revival of British culture.
However, the truth is not as simple as that. Romano-British culture – and that included architecture along with language, religion, political organisation and the arts – survived long after the Roman withdrawal. And although the Anglo-Saxons had a sophisticated building style of their own, little survives to bear witness to their achievements as the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon buildings were made of wood.
Even so, the period between the Norman landing at Pevensey in 1066 and the day in 1485 when Richard III lost his horse and his head at Bosworth, ushering in the Tudors and the Early Modern period, marks a rare flowering of British building. And it is all the more remarkable because the underlying ethos of medieval architecture was ‘fitness for purpose’. The great cathedrals and parish churches that lifted up their towers to heaven were not only acts of devotion in stone; they were also fiercely functional buildings. Castles served their particular purpose and their battlements and turrets were for use rather than ornament. The rambling manor houses of the later Middle Ages, however, were primarily homes, their owners achieving respect and maintaining status by their hospitality and good lordship rather than the grandeur of their buildings.
Fitness for purpose also characterised the homes of the poorer classes. Such people didn’t matte
r very much to the ruling elite and so neither did their houses. These were dark, primitive structures of one or two rooms, usually with crude timber frames, low walls and thatched roofs. They weren’t built to last. And they didn’t.
White Tower, at the heart of the Tower of London, was begun by Bishop Gundulf in 1078 on the orders of William the Conqueror. The structure was completed in 1097, providing a colonial stronghold and a powerful symbol of Norman domination.
Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, was probably begun in the 12th century, but was remodelled and adapted at various times right through to the 16th century. It was then carefully restored in the early 20th century. Haddon shows the quality which characterises the great medieval house, in which function dictates form.