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The Architecture of
Wingfield Manor
By J. Alfred Gotch

Wingfield Manor rivals its more famous neighbour, Haddon Hall, in extent; but in some respects it is less interesting, inasmuch as it is more ruinous and has not the same variety of work to link it up with all periods from the thirteenth century onwards. Wingfield is practically all of one date, having been built by Ralph Cromwell, Lord Treasurer to Henry VI, about 1435-40. A glance at the plan shows how ample the accommodation must have been before the house was destroyed. There are two large courts: the outer (or southern) formed of barns, stables, guard-houses and other inferior buildings; the inner (or northern), of the hall, kitchen, and the chambers occupied by the family.

Figure 1: Bay Window exteriorThis arrangement is an advance in classification and it is one which controlled the planning of some of the finest of the mansions of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Here, however, the courts are irregular in shape and disposition. There is no attempt at symmetry, nor much at alignment. The outer court is entered at the south-east corner and, although the gateway to the inner is fairly central and is placed almost opposite to the porch of the hall, there is little of that accuracy of planning which marks the great houses of a hundred and fifty years later. Some attempt at alignment there is. For standing in the south court, the eye obtains a vista through the large arch of the gatehouse, across the north court, through the porch and the doors beyond and so on to the distant woods. There is a curious variation from the customary relation of the great hall and kitchens, caused by the insertion on the upper floor of a large state apartment between the hall and the servants' quarters. This is an arrangement not usually found either before or after this period. It does not mark the first step in a new departure. The hall stands on a vaulted undercroft and must have been a fine room. It measures 71ft 7in long by 36ft 5in wide and is considerably larger than the hall at Haddon, which is 43ft by 28ft. It is now roofless and ruinous, but the bay window (Fig. 1) and porch, which still survive, are fine examples of late Figure 2: Porch and State Apartment Gableperpendicular work, as also is the adjacent gable of the state apartment (Fig. 2). There is nothing to indicate where the hall fireplace was situated. The probability is that it was in one of the long side walls but, even as late as a hundred years after this time, fires were sometimes placed upon central hearths and it may have been so here.

The apartments, devoted to the use of the family, which we should expect to find at the upper end of the hall (in this case the east end), did in fact once exist, as may be seen by various indications on the building itself and the adjacent ground, but they have all been destroyed, leaving their extent and nature as a matter for conjecture. They were reached by means of the circular staircase at the north-cast corner of the hall, which still retains the doorways that led into them.

Figure 3: The UndercroftThe undercroft beneath the hall is one of the finest pieces of work left (Fig. 3). It is vaulted with heavy stone ribs springing from columns down the middle, and responds on the walls. The ribs meet at the summit on large traceried bosses and the junction of the ceiling-ribs with the wall-ribs is emphasised in certain cases by carved grotesques. In spite of the care bestowed upon the work, there is no reason to suppose that the undercroft was put to noble uses. It was, in all probability, merely a cellar and store place. It is approached from four directions: externally, from under the porch and through the east wall, whence there is easy access to the north-east stair turret; and internally, from one of the rooms beneath the state chamber and from the bay of the hall (Fig. 4). As the buffet often stood in the hall bay, this staircase gave easy access for replenishing the buffet from the cellar.

Figure 4: Bay Window interior and Door to the UndercroftThe kitchen department is well supplied with rooms and with large fireplaces. A straight passage led from the middle of the lower end of the hall direct to the kitchen. It passed beneath the state apartment, and along the side of a small room which was probably the "surveying place" or serving room, since the wall is pierced with two large openings, through which the dishes would be passed and thence carried to the hall. The kitchen itself has three huge fireplaces, in two of which there are ovens. In later years it became customary to place the ovens in a room by themselves, called the "pastry." Some of the walls and fireplaces in this part of the house are clearly insertions and point to the fact that the original means of cooking were inadequate for the needs of the large household, which found accommodation in the long ranges of rooms, most of which are now destroyed.

The wing on the west of the inner court is traditionally assigned to the use of Mary, Queen of Scots, when she was detained in confinement here from 1569 onwards, under the care of George, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, whose ancestor, the second earl, had purchased the estate from the builder of the house (See Historical Essay). An interesting light is thrown upon the sanitary habits of the time by the fact that three weeks after her installation at Wingfield she fell ill. Two physicians deputed by the Privy Council reported that the sanitary conditions of her quarters were bad, whereupon her custodian, the Earl of Shrewsbury, retorted that the evil state of her rooms arose from the uncleanly habits of her own retinue. There seems to be little doubt that, in Elizabeth's time, the care bestowed upon sanitary arrangements was not nearly so great as in the preceding centuries. An examination of house plans of the end of the sixteenth century shows that the isolation of garde-robes or the grouping of them together in separate towers was no longer carried out. They were often placed with a view to convenience of access regardless of their unsavoury characteristics. In the case of the particular complaint at Wingfield, however, the inference is that they were not sufficiently convenient for the views of Mary's household and yet the west wing, which she is said to have occupied, is well furnished with garde-robes placed in the large square projections on this face, two in each on each floor.

The gatehouses have each a large and a small archway (Fig. 5), the large one for vehicles, the small for foot passengers. This double archway was now coming into vogue, and was very generally adopted in gatehouses of the fifteenth century. It indicates, among other things, that vehicles had come into more general use. Adjoining the outer gatehouse is a barn, still in excellent preservation, and offering an interesting example of this kind of building.

Figure 5: Entrance to the North CourtAlthough the accommodation at Wingfield is more elaborate than in houses of earlier date, it is still rather roughly and unscientifically thrown together, involving much waste both of space and material. It is also worthy of note that in spite of its great extent and its magnificent rooms, the only staircases were the old fashioned circular turret stairs of no great diameter. There was indeed, as yet, no other fashion to follow. For the ancient newel stair held its own until the time of Elizabeth when it was suddenly and without any transitional form replaced by wide wooden staircases in straight flights. England has no examples of the magnificent development of circular staircases which are to be seen in so many of the great chateaux of France.

Wingfield, it is also to be noted, was carefully built for defence. It stands nearly at the end of a spur of land and the ground, on three of its sides, slopes steeply away, rendering access difficult. At the north end, where the ground is in part rather flatter, it is protected by a deep dry moat and a wall. The south side is the most level and consequently the outer and inferior court was placed on this side. Even supposing that an attacking force gained possession of this court, there was still the mass of its north wing (Fig. 5) between them and the principal part of the house. The only internal communication between the two courts was through an exceedingly narrow doorway leading to a narrow crooked passage. The external walls of the north court are practically devoid of windows on the ground floor. Those of the hall and adjoining rooms looked out on to a garden which lay between them and the high wall overhanging the moat. Here then, as in other houses, the hall was placed in a secure position and one in which it was possible to make use of large windows. That this part of the house was tolerably secure is proved by the fact that so much of it remains. For when the place was besieged and captured during the Civil War, it was the south court through which the breach was made and entrance was effected. It is to the Civil War that Wingfield owes its destruction. For, having caused some trouble to the Parliamentary forces, it was ordered to be "slighted" and was so far destroyed as to be rendered uninhabitable. It passed from the descendants of the Earl of Shrewsbury and the hall was for a time patched up as a dwelling. Subsequently it was further dismantled in order to build a new house at the foot of the hill. Since then, time, as destructive as siege-guns, has wrought further havoc, for no more than "summer's honey breath" can an unprotected building. But fortunately in recent years the owners have realised this, and have taken what steps they can to arrest further decay by placing the manor in the care of English Heritage.

Edited from J. Alfred Gotch's The Growth of the English House (1909)

Historical Details

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