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Inventories, Surveys and the History of Great Houses 1480–1640

  • Maurice Howard


The evidence of inventories has played a significant role in studies of the smaller houses of Tudor and Early Stuart England; important publications on vernacular architecture and certain regional studies have, with inventories as their major source, defined the extent and nature of low- and middle-income housing in England where often much of the physical evidence is now lost or fundamentally altered. These studies have made an important contribution to our understanding of consumer culture at this period, including the amount people were prepared to spend on building materials and the permanent fixtures of their houses. Their conclusions have often been cited in more general commentaries to corroborate the famous comments of William Harrison, first published in 1577, on rising living standards as evidenced in the buildings and their appointment that he saw around him. It could also be argued that studies emanating from the United States, examining American inventories from the seventeenth century and later and sometimes in comparison with English evidence, have explored, in considerably greater depth than those who have worked with purely English material, the potential embedded in the inventories of relatively modest households for the discussion of wider issues arising from the study of buildings, concerning space, material culture and gender.



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1 Mercer, Eric, English Vernacular Houses (London, 1975); Havinden, M.A. (ed.) ‘Household and Farm Inventories in Oxfordshire 1550–1590’, Oxfordshire Record Society XLIV (1965); Steer, F.W., Farm and Cottage Inventories of Mid-Essex (Chelmsford, 1950). Many published inventories include a glossary. The best discussion of contemporary terminology, mainly concerned with houses smaller than the greatest in size, remains Barley, Maurice, ‘A Glossary of names for rooms in houses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’ in Culture and Environment, Essays in honour of Sir Cyril Fox, ed. Foster, I. L. L. and Alcock, L. (London, 1963), pp. 479501 .

2 Harrison, William, The Description of England, Edelen, G. (ed.) (Ithaca, 1968), cap. XII ‘Of the Manner of Building and Furniture of Our Houses’.

3 The bibliography is considerable but most useful for comments on inventories and the structure of buildings are Deetz, J., In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life (New York, 1977); Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, ed. Upton, D. and Vlatch, J. (Athens, Georgia, 1986); Shackel, P., ‘Probate Inventories in Historical Archaeology: A Review and Alternatives’, Text-Aided Archaeology, ed. Little, Barbara J. (Boca Raton, Ann Arbor and London, 1992), pp. 205-15. Some useful connexions between Britain and the American colonies are made in Shammas, Carole, ‘The Domestic Environment in Early Modern England and America’, Journal of Social History 14 (1) (1980), pp. 324 .

4 Most notably, Foister, Susan, ‘Paintings and other works of art in sixteenth-century English inventories’, The Burlington Magazine CXXIII (1981), pp. 273-82.

5 See, with examples included, Harvey, John H., Sources for the History of Houses, British Records Association, Archives and the User No. 3 (London, 1974); Ashmore, Owen, ‘Inventories as a Source of Local History: 1 — Houses’, The Amateur Historian 4 (1958-60), pp. 157-61; Moore, John S., ‘Probate Inventories — Problems and ProspectsProbate Inventories and the Local Community, ed. Riden, Philip (Gloucester, 1985), pp. 1128 . A fuller discussion of documentation more generally is found in Elton, Arthur, Harrison, Brett, Wark, Keith, Researching the Country House. A Guide for Local Historians (London, 1992). For one very useful analysis of a range of documents, see Ashmore, Owen, ‘Household Inventories of the Lancashire Gentry, 1550–1700’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire CX (1958), pp. 59105 .

6 Haliwell, J.O., Ancient inventories of furniture, pictures, tapestry, plate etc., illustrative of the domestic manners of the English in the 16th and 17th centuries (London, 1854). For examples of fully transcribed inventories in A rchaeologia see, for example, the inventories of Heytesbury (1523), Loseley House (1556), Lambeth Palace (1575), the Earl of Leicester’s houses at London and Wanstead (1588, 1590), Lord Northampton’s London House (1614), Giffing Castle (1595, 1624) and Walton (1624), all listed in the Appendix above.

7 See, for example, Sutton Place (1542) in the Appendix above. Chute, Chaloner W., A History of The Vyne in Hampshire (Winchester, 1888) shows the typical use of an inventory as part of the reconstruction and interpretation of a Tudor house, but with only chunks of transcription included and much material omitted.

8 de Mély, F. and Bishop, E., Bibliographie Generale des Inventaires Imprimés tome 1, France et Angleterre (Paris, 1892). One of the more recent bibliographies is Overton, Mark, A Bibliography of British Probate Inventories (Newcastle, 1983).

9 The volumes used for this paper are Lancashire and Cheshire Wills and Inventories, ed. Piccope, G.J., 3 vols. (Chetham Society, 1857-61); Wills and Inventories from the Registry of the Archdeaconry of Richmond, ed. Raine, James jun. (Surtees Society, 1853); Wills and Inventories from the Registry at Durham, ed. Greenwell, William, Part II (Surtees Society, 1860).

10 Many of these to 1985 are listed in Moore, op. cit., p. 25, n.1. To these I would add for its particularly useful introduction, Southampton Probate Inventories 1447–1575, ed. Roberts, Edward and Parker, Karen, 2 vols., Southampton Records Series XXXIV, XXXV (Southampton, 1992).

11 Southampton Probate Inventories, ed. Roberts and Parker, pp. xiv-xvi.

12 Moore, op cit.; Camp, Anthony J., Wills and their Whereabouts (London, 1974), pp. xviiixix ; Porter, Stephen, ‘The Making of Probate Inventories’, Local Historian vol. 12 (1970-77) pp. 3637 ; Zeli, Michael L., ‘Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Wills as Historical Sources’, Archives vol. 62 (1979) pp. 6374 ;

13 Kitching, Christopher, ‘The Prerogative Court of Canterbury from Warham to Whitgift’, Continuity and Change: Personnel and Administration of the Church of England 1500–1642, ed. O’Day, Rosemary and Heal, Felicity (Leicester, 1976), pp. 191214 .

14 Ibid., p. 17.

15 Ibid., p. 17; Ashmore, op cit, p. 157.

16 Moore, op cit, p. 16.

17 Porter, op cit, p.36.

18 Kitching, op cit, pp. 204-05.

19 Moore, op cit, p. 18.

20 SirHeal, Ambrose, ‘A Great Country House in 1623’, The Burlington Magazine LXXXII (1943), p. 111 .

21 Gee, Eric, A Glossary of Building terms used in England from the Conquest to c.1550 (Frome, 1984), p.76 .

22 O.E.D., citing ‘A Dutch Ell or Stick, by which Tapestry is measured, is but 3/4 of a yard’ (1694).

23 For information on Mottisfont, I am indebted to Daniel Forshaw and the National Trust. For the Mottisfont inventory (1541), see Appendix above.

24 Cooper, Nicholas, ‘Sutton Place, East Barsham and some related houses: some problems arising’, The Tudor andfacobean Great House, Proceedings of a Conference ed. Airs, Malcolm (Oxford, 1994), pp. 33–54 .

25 I am indebted to David Martin and his unpublished report on Firle Place. For the inventory (1633), see Appendix above.

26 Some of the major discoveries at The Vyne are outlined in Howard, Maurice, The Vyne (London, 1998), but we await a full archaeological report. I am indebted to Edward Wilson, the site archaeologist at the house, for sharing his preliminary conclusions with me.

27 Faulkner, P. A., ‘Domestic planning in the 12th to the 14th centuriesArchaeological Journal 115 (1958) pp. 150–83; ibid, ‘Castle planning in the 14th century’ Archaeological Journal 120 (1963), pp. 215-35; A. D. K. Hawkyard, see Thornbury (1521) in Appendix above; G. Fairclough, ‘Edlingham Castle: the military and domestic development of a Northumbrian manor’, Chateau Gaillard 9-10 (1982), pp. 373-87; ibid, ‘Meaningful constructions — spatial and functional analysis of medieval buildings’, Antiquity 66 (1982) pp. 348-66.

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Inventories, Surveys and the History of Great Houses 1480–1640

  • Maurice Howard


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