Since 1952, Hill Hall, at Theydon Mount, in Essex, had been a women’s open prison whose unwilling guests included Christine Keeler. To architectural historians, this was indeed a fall from grace for an exceptional building that Nikolaus Pevsner, writing in the Architectural Review in 1955, hailed as one of the first classical Renaissance houses to be built in England.
Recognition of its architectural interest undoubtedly persuaded the Prison Commissioners not to demolish what survived of the property after a devastating fire in 1969 swept through the building, spreading rapidly round the roofs of the courtyard ranges, and leaving the interior a mass of collapsed debris. But, in the era before archaeologists had learned how to respond to such disasters (as they did later at Uppark and Windsor), the debris was cleared without any attempt to salvage or record either the fallen structure or the fragile remains of ceiling and wall finishes.
Consolidation of the fabric was subsequently started by the Ancient Monuments Branch within the Department of the Environment. In those days such work proceeded very slowly, so not too much damage had been done by 1981, when I was invited to set in hand both excavation and study of the surviving fabric, to elucidate both the evolution of the house and its significance.
The earliest evidence we found for structures at Hill Hall was the undercroft of a very small masonry chamber block, added early in the 13th century to what was probably a hunting lodge established late in the previous century. The chamber was built of flint rubble masonry with ‘great brick’ and Reigate stone dressings, including an elaborate chimney shaft, and was to stand until the 1550s. During the 14th century, Hill Hall grew incrementally into a small courtyard house, the centre of a modest estate.
Apart from the chamber block, all the buildings were timber framed, which posed the common archaeological problem of identifying structures that leave minimal trace. Shallow tile foundations indicated the use of earth for enclosure walls, a technique still visible today in parts of Hampshire and Wiltshire, though no longer in Essex.
This relatively humble ensemble was transformed by Thomas Smith (1512–1577), the son of a sheep farmer from Saffron Walden, whose extraordinary career saw him rise from scholar to statesman and renaissance polymath. Joining Queen’s College, Cambridge, in 1526, he became Regius Professor of Civil Law and then, in 1543 at the age of 31, Vice-Chancellor of the University.
With the accession of King Edward VI as a minor, he joined Lord Protector Somerset’s household in 1547, entering the tenuous world of politics, ultimately serving as Secretary of State. In addition to his Cambridge chair, he gained posts as Provost of Eton and Dean of Carlisle. He was briefly imprisoned on the fall of Somerset, and lost the Secretaryship, but continued to play relatively minor political roles until Edward’s untimely death in 1553.
At the Catholic Queen Mary’s accession, Smith lost his posts at Eton and Carlisle, but, despite his protestant humanist views, he not only avoided the stake, he gained an annual pension of £100 from the Queen. His first wife having also died in 1553, he then married Phillippa, widow of Sir John Hampden, who had a life interest in Hill Hall. He acquired the reversion two years later and, now free of the cares of politics and the court, set to building what was to become his principal house, on a hilltop that appealed for its healthy situation as well as its fine prospects.
Smith’s first Hill Hall
Excavation revealed that his first moves were somewhat tentative: he rebuilt the open galleries around the garden, and added a new range—probably intended as the start of a large outer courtyard. Then he embarked upon a complete rebuild of the Medieval house. We know, from a journal Smith kept, that this work took place in 1557-1558 but he did not give any information about what the work involved. Excavation told us far more: it revealed a courtyard house with an entrance through the north range, with the hall opposite in the south range, and flanked by a loggia. The service rooms to the east terminated in a kitchen that survived particularly well. The west range, unusually, incorporated a gallery, with the best rooms at first-floor level, while the low east range probably also had an attic gallery.
The construction of this house was unusual: some walls were timber-framed while others were made of brick—but laid in brickearth rather than mortar. This method would have been comparatively cheap, but not robust. So, why did Smith use it? Constrained resources? Speed? An experiment in construction? Or perhaps, in an uncertain political climate, to avoid ostentation?
The second Hill Hall
The accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558 brought Smith back to political favour. She appointed him an ambassador to France, and in this capacity he accompanied the French Court on its protracted tour of the provinces between 1562 and 1566. This gave him ample opportunity to pursue his cultural and intellectual interests and to study – and often to stay in – the most important French houses and palaces of the day. On his return, in 1568, Smith set to rebuilding the north and west ranges of Hill Hall ‘more strongly and splendidly’ and, as we were to discover, in a style very much influenced by what he had seen.
The new buildings were higher, the outer walls solidly built of mortared brick, but followed the footprint of the now established courtyard. The ground floor rooms were primarily laid out as lodgings, each with a door to the courtyard, while the first floor rooms, normally the domain of Smith and his wife, could potentially be used as a state apartment. The Queen did indeed intend to visit Hill Hall on a progress through Essex in 1570, but this was cancelled for fear of plague.
Wall paintings had been rediscovered at Hill Hall in the 1930s and 1950s, but one of our key discoveries was that all the rooms built in 1568–1569 had been painted as part of a programme of decoration that included the installation of stained glass and figurative tiles. Smith’s study (in state apartment mode, the closet) featured scenes from the life of King Hezekiah, the Old Testament reforming king, whose story had a personal connection with Smith’s role as a Protestant reformer working with the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in the 1540s.
The remaining rooms were decorated with a sequence of scenes from the story of Cupid and Psyche, whose interpretation by Plato as an allegory of the soul’s immortality was explored by Smith in his teaching at Cambridge University in the 1530s. Images of the Virtues featured on the floor tiles, and of the Seven Deadly Sins in the windows. A coherent programme of allegorical decoration like this was otherwise unknown in England at the time, but has clear French parallels at Fontainebleau and Écouen (now the Museum of the Renaissance in France), where the leading artists of the day were employed to create just the type of images Smith commissioned for Hill Hall.The renaissance scholarship of Richard Simpson, Managing Editor at the British Institute for Classical Studies, was fundamental to revealing the meanings of these fragmentary remains uncovered by archaeology.
Hill Hall’s courtyard elevations, reconstructed from careful archaeological analysis of the surviving fabric, also draw heavily on French precedent, particularly the emphatic vertical units of windows flanked by superimposed Doric and Ionic columns, terminating in Corinthian aedicule dormers. When, in 1574–1575, Smith went on to complete the replacement of his 1557–1558 house by rebuilding the south and east ranges, a major innovation was the use of a ‘giant’ order—that is, one that spans two full storeys—to unite the rather irregular external elevations of this phase.
This is among the earliest examples in France or England of the giant order, and all is testament to Smith’s growing architectural skill. But by the time this work was coming to a close, Smith was terminally ill, which may explain why the interior was finished only in limewashed plain plasterwork, although both phases have distinctive aedicule chimneypieces. At his death in 1577, further work—the building of the north-west service range—was in hand.
Homage to a hero
At Hill Hall, archaeological techniques have been used to understand the original form and subsequent evolution of a major English country house in a surprising degree of detail: more than enough to provide a secure basis for placing this house in its European cultural context, as both influenced by 16th-century French architecture and innovative in its own right.
Smith’s work in his second Hill Hall seems to be a personal distillation of French humanist renaissance architecture harmonised with English usage. That this was inspired by an element of homage to Francis I of France as a Renaissance prince is suggested by Smith’s adoption later in life of Francis’ fiery salamander crest, in place of the device of an eagle with flaming pen that he had used earlier. To his many talents he added that of architect, a skill that he developed through personal experience and selection by studying his growing library of architectural works, and through his own observation and imagination – the result being a very singular and accomplished house indeed.
Hill Hall: A Singular House Devised by a Tudor Intellectual, by Paul Drury with Richard Simpson, is published by the Society of Antiquaries.
Hill Hall has now been divided into private houses, but parts remain open to the public on pre-booked guided tours; see the English Heritage website for up-to-date details: www.english-heritage.org.uk
Paul Drury is an independent consultant specialising in policy and practice for the historic environment.
All photos (unless stated): English Heritage/ Wessex Archaeology/Society of Antiquaries of London.