16th Century English Furniture: History & Styles

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The 16th century was a hugely influential era in English history, and that history is captured perfectly in their furniture. In this lesson, we'll examine 16th-century English furniture and see how, and why, it changed so much.

English Furniture of the 16th Century

The 16th century had a big impact on English history, but really that's not surprising. What else would you expect from an era that contained some of the nation's biggest personalities of all time? The 16th century was dominated by the Tudor dynasty, the ruling family that included Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) and Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603). These two monarchs set the tone for decades of English history to come in terms of economics, politics, religion, expansion, and even furniture. Yes, furniture. You don't end up remembered some of the boldest monarchs in English history without having a few things to say about cabinets.

Tudor Furniture

The 16th century began under the reign of Henry VII (r. 1485-1509), first of the Tudor dynasty, and was taken over by Henry VIII. The first Tudor kings were the last true medieval monarchs on England, who began transitioning England into what we call the early modern period. This transition can be seen in their furniture, which was largely medieval in character throughout the first half of the century.

Tudor furniture, which dominated England through Henry VIII's reign, was heavy, bulky, and nearly always made of oak. It was visually grounded and very medieval in character, based on the English Gothic aesthetics. Tudor furniture makers did carve a number of patterns into most surfaces, however. One of the most popular in this time period was the linen-fold motif, which was basically a set of narrow, vertical shapes that resembled folded cloth. Still, very few people could afford fine furniture outside of the royal household, and most nobles still lived in castle-like conditions.

However, there was also a very conscious reason for the continued medieval characteristic of Tudor furniture. Italy had spent the last century entering the Renaissance, where arts were flourishing. When Henry VIII ascended the throne, Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, Da Vinci had just finished the Mona Lisa, and Raphael was painting the papal apartments. So, why wasn't this new, less medieval focus on art making its way to England?

This chair in the Tudor style is grounded and straightforward, with some craving on the backrest

In the early 1530s, Henry VIII separated England from the Roman Catholic Church, in response to the Pope's refusal to annul his marriage. The Church of England was consolidated and Henry VIII was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. So, Henry wasn't too happy with Rome, and had no desire to bring Italian styles into England. The Renaissance would have to wait, and as a result Tudor furniture remained overwhelmingly Gothic in nature.

Elizabethan Furniture

Few people could be said to rival Henry VIII's legacy and personality, but one was his own daughter, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth ruled England from 1558-1603, but she did not maintain her father's anti-Roman bias. Instead, Elizabeth opened England to the aesthetics of the Renaissance, which flooded in. At the same time, she maintained some of England's traditional medieval forms, which were a national aesthetic after all. Through the combination of the English Gothic and Italian Renaissance, Elizabeth I introduced the era of the English Renaissance.

This Elizabethan chair is much more ornate, featuring Renaissance-inspired columns and arches

The English Renaissance saw a new focus on painting, music, and theater (advanced by the great William Shakespeare). This new aesthetic carried into interior design as well. Italianate style houses, based on Renaissance trends, replaced draft castles. With open floor plans and room for entertaining, more furniture was needed and furniture making became an important trade. Additionally, England developed its first identifiable middle class, who had enough money to add some luxury to their lives. Furniture was made in vastly larger qualities and a number of new varieties under Elizabeth, really becoming a high art in England for the first time.

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