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The history of architecture

Exterior of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Discover the history of British architecture through the diverse collection of buildings in our care. From medieval barns built of timber and stone to the Modernist structures of the 20th century, our buildings record past traditions, ways of life and the influence of social and technological change.

Medieval architecture

During the Middle Ages, wealth from agriculture and increasing international trade financed many new houses, churches and other public buildings, both in towns and in the countryside.

Timber-framed buildings were commonplace in areas with oak woodlands, such as the midlands, mid-Wales and south-east England. Stone buildings were more common in regions with harsh weather conditions where straight timber was hard to find – like west Wales and northern England – and in areas with a lot of good quality building stone, such as the Cotswolds and south-west England.

A key feature of medieval manor houses was the Great Hall. It was a communal space where people gathered to take meals, entertain guests, and conduct business.

The half-timbered medieval exterior of Lavenham Guildhall, Suffolk
The half-timbered exterior of Lavenham Guildhall | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Lavenham, Suffolk

The medieval town of Lavenham, with its impressive guildhall and streets of crooked half-timbered houses, was a product of Suffolk’s booming cloth industry. The export of woollen cloth made the medieval merchants who built the guildhall very wealthy.

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Tudor and Elizabethan architecture

Religious, political and social upheaval marked the Tudor period. It was a time of growing imperial activities which would exploit people and natural resources across the globe, making Britain very prosperous.

Following the fashions of the court, courtiers and administrators created houses that showcased their status, bristled with decoration, and brought together classical order with flamboyant heraldry. Trade with Europe saw the introduction of new architectural styles, as well as a versatile new building material: brick.

At this time, the Great Hall was still the principal room of a manor house, but it started to shift from a space that served multiple functions – as it had been during the Middle Ages – to becoming the entrance area that we know it as today.

The north and west ranges at Oxburgh Estate, Norfolk.
The north and west ranges at Oxburgh Estate, Norfolk. | © National Trust Images/Robert Morris

Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk

In 1482, Edward IV gave Sir Edmund Bedingfield (c.1479–1553) licence to build a fortified house at Oxburgh – however, the design focused less on defence and more on comfort and display. The three-storey gatehouse, with battlemented turrets and stone-mullioned windows, rises from the moat in a piece of early Tudor showmanship.

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The 17th century and English Baroque

During the reign of Elizabeth I, there was a significant shift in English architectural style, from defensive, moated manors and castles towards the flourishing of mansion architecture. The Jacobean era (1603–1625) continued this trend. Aristocrats and a newly emerging merchant and political class created grand houses inspired by European royal taste.

Towards the end of this century and continuing into the early 18th century, the English Baroque emerged, a style known for its flamboyance and drama, exemplified by great architects like Sir John Vanbrugh.

We also look after vernacular buildings from this period. Vernacular architecture is based on traditions and skills handed down through generations and uses local materials to create buildings that respond to their local landscape and agricultural practices.

Detail of the plasterwork celing at Blickling Hall designed by Edward Stanyon. The ceiling in the Long Gallery has an intricate pattern of embossed ribs, studded with pendants delinating 31 major panels.
Detail of the plasterwork ceiling at Blickling Hall designed by Edward Stanyon | © National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Blickling Hall, Norfolk

Work to transform the medieval and Tudor house at Blickling began in 1619. Architect Robert Lyminge (active 1607–1628) employed typical Jacobean architectural style at Blickling, including Dutch-inspired gables and ogee-topped (S-shaped) corner turrets. Inside, the richly-carved staircase is a masterwork of Jacobean carpentry, and royal plasterer Edward Stanyon (1581–c.1632) created extravagant ceilings in the Long Gallery and Great Chamber.

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Georgian architecture

During the 18th century, people were increasingly leaving their rural lives and moving to towns. Overseas, the British Empire was expanding: global trade in goods was booming, as was the trade in enslaved people to and from colonised lands.

Salons and coffee shops buzzed with debate on philosophy and science, and the wealthy embarked on the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, exploring classical literature and art. The idyllic landscapes seen in paintings and the parklands created around grand houses mirrored one another.

Elsewhere, city architecture took on a new scale and the great civic centres of Manchester, Birmingham, Belfast and Cardiff were surrounded by vast areas of terraced housing for workers flooding into the cities.

The Temple of Apollo reflected in the lake at Stourhead, Wiltshire, in May
The Temple of Apollo reflected in the lake at Stourhead, Wiltshire, in May | © National Trust Images/Clive Nichols

Stourhead, Wiltshire

In 1725, Stourhead was completed by Colen Campbell (1676–1729) in a balanced, Palladian style. Soon afterwards, a landscape lifted straight from Roman literature and adorned with perfect classical structures, including a Pantheon and grotto, was added to the estate.

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Victorian architecture

The architecture of the 19th century reflects the unprecedented changes in economic and social life in Britain and around the world. Cities flourished and the exploitation of mineral wealth, manufacturing and transport all burst forward into a fast, new mechanised age.

Superstar engineers and architects emerged, such as Thomas Telford (1757–1834), who completed Conwy Suspension Bridge in 1826, and R. Norman Shaw (1831–1912), who designed Cragside the original ‘smart home’, powered by hydro-electricity.

Many Victorian architects applied their vision to interiors too. The Arts and Crafts movement, which valued craftsmanship, drew inspiration from the medieval period, and sought to unify interiors, objects, and architectural designs, exemplified this approach.

The turrets and chains of Conwy Suspension Bridge, Conwy, Wales
The turrets and chains of Conwy Suspension Bridge, Conwy, Wales | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Conwy Suspension Bridge, Wales

Straddling the Conwy Estuary, Conwy Suspension Bridge was completed in 1826 and was part of a new mail coach road between London and Dublin. Thomas Telford’s design is supported by eight iron chains slung between towers. The original pine planks were replaced in 1896 with blocks of tropical hardwood, and a tarmac surface was added in 1920 to cope with modern traffic.

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20th-century architecture

In the first decade of the 20th century, architects were largely borrowing styles from previous eras. The curvilinear patterns of Art Nouveau found a place in popular housing. However, just before the First World War, sleek Art Deco styles began to appear, rejecting the opulence and ornament of Victorian and Edwardian designs. In the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco became the embodiment of a new era of fun and flappers, fast-moving travel and streamlined design.

The Modernist movement was a stripped-back cousin of Art Deco that came out of mainland Europe in the 1920s, but whose influence was felt well into the mid-20th century.

During the Cold War decades, an air of global mistrust led to the creation of brutalist structures, housing secret activities. Their legacy, however, is one of haunting beauty.

The Hall, Mr Straw's House, Nottinghamshire
The Hall, Mr Straw's House, Nottinghamshire | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Mr Straw’s House, Nottinghamshire

Built in 1905, Mr Straw’s House, Endcliffe Villa, is a semi-detached Edwardian house. Its plan is identical to thousands of others, but its hallway sparkles with colour coming from sunbeams that stream through the stained-glass door.

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The cover of the 60 Remarkable Buildings of the National Trust book

Uncover more architectural history

Discover more stories behind 60 buildings selected from the thousands in our care in our new book, 60 Remarkable Buildings of the National Trust.

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