Things I Learned While Researching: Tudor Houses Aren't Tudor

The past is a funny place. Especially when you consider that most of it isn't real. ...but it's probably not as Tudor as it wants to be.

Here's an example: I was brought up to think that houses with visible timber beams and panels between them that were painted in a black-and-white style were survivors from an earlier, bygone age when jolly old Henry VIII sat on the throne with a revolving cast of wives, or perhaps when Elizabeth was smashing the Spanish Armada and getting serious about making Britain Great.

Only none of the above is true. Henry VIII was driven half mad by the pain from a jousting injury and much of his life was far from jolly (any man who changes a country's religion and laws just to have a wife executed when she can't bear sons is a long way from being a happy chappie). Elizabeth wasn't trying to make Britain great because Britain wasn't a country in her day. She was an English queen who was sometimes barely keeping the country together through massive religious and economic upheaval, and the most successful aspect of her reign was probably the propaganda. And those lovely old houses aren't Tudor at all. They're Victorian.

Firstly, real Tudor houses weren't usually black and white. They often weren't painted at all. The wooden beams were left as they were, often silvered as they aged, and the panels between them were made of plaster or wattle-and-daub, coloured with only the ingredients that went into the mix. Which sometimes included ox blood. Nice.

The colour is only the half of it. Any 'Tudor' house you see with straight beams that stands upright in a nice geometrical way was almost certainly built much later, because building techniques had changed since the sixteenth century. A truly old timber-framed house will look warped and twisted, as though it's about to fall over. This is because house builders in those days usually worked with green wood that was still wet, and which dried out only after the house was built, causing it to bend in place. Properly seasoned dried-out wood was much harder to work with in the days before machine tools, so it was rarely used.

The style we see so much of today is called 'Mock Tudor' or 'Tudor Revival', and comes from a Victorian reaction against the advancing mechanisation of the nineteenth century. Proponents of painting houses black and white sought to recreate a fantasy England where peasants were happy and free, everyone had enough to eat and a man could call his home a castle. Anyone with a passing knowledge of history will likely know that this kind of rural idyll never existed outside the imagination of people who never had to contend with the plagues, famines, serfdom, religious insanity, civil wars and feudal overlords of the middle ages.

So remember: just because something is old doesn't mean it's historically accurate. People have been lying to themselves about the past all through history. And who's to say how many of those lies have been accepted as fact by later generations only too happy to swallow the propaganda of their ancestors?