Bradgate – Laser Scanning a Tudor Country House

The Digital Building Heritage Group have been gathering data on one of Britain’s earliest unfortified brick historic country houses including carrying out a series of up-to-date, high resolution, wide area laser scans. A ruin since the late 18th century, Bradgate House in Leicestershire (first completed circa 1520) rests within its original medieval parkland setting but also sits at a vitally important historical transition point between late medieval and early renaissance architecture in England. Bradgate was the childhood home of Lady Jane Grey, a talented humanist scholar who was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII and after the death of Edward VI became the de-facto monarch of England from 10 July until 19 July 1553. She was the so called “nine day queen”. Eventually imprisoned and sentenced to death for treason by England’s Privy Council, she was executed along with her husband Lord Guildford Dudley at Tower Hill in London on 12 February 1554 in the reign of Queen Mary Tudor. Historical associations such as these aside, the buildings of Bradgate House are also an important part of British architectural history since they were erected in the period of the decline of the fortified castle and the rise of the unfortified Elizabethan aristocratic house. This transition happened for several reasons, the first was the introduction of gunpowder into Western Europe in the late thirteenth century. This and its wider use in the fourteenth meant that heavy masonry fortifications like castles which relied upon curtain walls to resist siege from conventional, early medieval weapons were largely ineffective against a sustained artillery assault. By the late 15th century in England this was being compounded by three other factors; new Renaissance ideas were arriving from the continent by way of France and the Netherlands about how noble families should live in more genteel and open accommodation; there was an associated introduction of the classical language of architecture and art to accompany and express those ideals in built form; and there was a comparatively stable internal social order within England that meant that expensive castle fortifications inteded for full scale war were less necessary. Restrictions on the domestic accommodation and facilities that could be provided within castles meant they were abandoned as places of continuous habitation by noble families in favour of adapted or entirely new houses which could be more open to the grounds which surrounded them, had large glazed windows and sport newly fashionable architectural features. Bradgate House was one of these and was even more innovative in that the builders employed brick as the main construction material with Flemish brick-makers being brought from the Low Countries to produce bricks from clay deposits nearby at Groby. For these reasons Bradgate is an interesting and important architectural monument but its development after 1520 makes it much more complex than would at first appear. Substantial built additions were made to it and some demolitions were carried out and it’s very probable that during these changes the whole orientation of the house was reversed from south to north, for reasons which are at present unclear. There are also a number of important associated buildings like a large stable block built for the visit of William III in 1796 that no longer exist and for which locations are uncertain but which may have substantially changed the appearance of the house. There are a small number of etchings and paintings of Bradgate House, carried out while it was still standing and which provide some indication of aspects of its design but none of these predate the very early 18th century (circa 1709), nearly two hundred years after it was first built and after substantial modifications were made. The House is now very ruinous, and it is difficult for the visitor to appreciate the scale, architectural detail and very deliberate magnificence of the appearance it would have had in the early sixteenth century. These early and unillustrated phases of Bradgate house, when it was occupied by Lady Jane Grey and when it would have been at the cutting edge of architectural innovation in the early Tudor period are of interest to architectural historians because their close examination using the latest digital techniques may cast new light on aspects of the development of early English renaissance architecture in relation to other, more well-known English aristocratic buildings of the period such as Richmond Palace completed by Henry VII around 1501 and Hampton Court begun by Cardinal Wolsey in 1515 and finished by Henry VIII around 1529. Seen within this historical context, study of the architectural development of Bradgate House using the latest digital techniques, archival research and authenticated, evidence based reconstructions will, we believe, bring useful new insights to the understanding of some aspects of sixteenth century English architecture.

Bradgate House Banner (small)Bradgate Aedicule Two Bases

About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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