Nestling in the Essex countryside is the magnificent early-Tudor gatehouse of Layer Marney. It was intended to be the imposing entrance to what would have been a grand early-16th C house. Only the wings of the intended house and the gatehouse were completed. The intention had been a courtyard-plan Tudor palace. This impressive gatehouse is the tallest in England.
The 25 metre-high (80 ft) gatehouse was built by a successful courtier, Henry 1st Lord Marney (c. 1457 – 1523). He died before the completion of the house. His son, John 2nd Lord Marney (c. 1485 – 1525) may have completed the building works had he not died two years later. There was no male heir to continue the work.
The ambition and status of the Marneys was reflected in their architecture. Under the Tudors gentry courtiers saw opportunities to gain positions of power. Through architecture they could demonstrate their wealth and status. They could also attract visits from the monarch and their retinue, offering them appropriate accommodation and leisure activities such as hunting in their parklands.
Layer Marney demonstrates the progress of the rising gentry courtier. Through the 16th C and into the early 17th C this class of gentry invested in establishing grand architecture on their ancestral lands. This becomes a prevalent activity during Elizabeth I’s reign. Layer Marney demonstrates how gentry courtiers were beginning to think of themselves – reflecting their grandeur in architecture.
It is possible that Henry VIII’s Italian architect, Guialamo de Travizi, designed the building. Henry VIII had brought Italian craftsmen to England to work on his own fashionable palaces.
Lord Henry Marney had accommodated himself with ease in the Tudor court. In his formative years he had been in Lady Margaret Beaufort’s household, Henry VIII’s grandmother.
A sign on the tomb of Lord Henry Marney illustrates he was a respected courtier by Henry VIII:
In connection with the West Country, Henry’s first wife, Thomazine, was the daughter of Sir John Arundell of Lanherne, Cornwall. Thomazine was the mother of Henry’s son, John 2nd Lord Marney. Henry aided John’s career by arranging his marriage with the heiress Christian, daughter of Sir Roger Newburgh of East Lulworth, Dorset.
Besides the appointments listed on the sign on his tomb, Henry VIII provided Henry with other positions. These included constable of Castle Rising, warden of Rochester Castle, steward for the Duchy of Cornwall and master forester of Dartmoor.
Henry VIII visited Layer Marney in 1522. He would have stayed in the Royal apartments in the gatehouse on the first floor. It is likely that the king would have climbed the winding stairs and entered onto the viewing platform to look out. Such a height would have been unique at the time. Only the privileged had access to towers and the leisure to take in the view.
The gatehouse has 8-storey octagonal towers on the south side. On the north side are subsidiary turrets of 7 storeys on a square plan. It is built mainly of red bricks. There are some black, glazed bricks, incorporated to provide a decorative diapering effect. Local, good quality stone is not often available in the east of England and therefore clay is put to good use in brickmaking. It was a clay a few miles away that was selected for its rich, red colour and not just the clay on the doorstep.
The approach would have been from the south and the impressive towers would have been visible from a great distance.
The gate passage of the gatehouse would have originally been open and led through into the inner courtyard of the intended house.
Terracotta (baked clay) of a buff colour is used for elaborate decoration on the tower. It is likely that Italian craftsmen created these decorations.
Whilst much of the internal part of the gatehouse was restored in the 19th/20th centuries, there are still some parts that show the original fabric and construction.
The ‘Colchester’ or ‘Great English’ Earthquake
At 09:17 am on 22nd April 1884 the gatehouse was damaged by an earthquake (known as the ‘Great English’ or ‘Colchester’ earthquake). The estimate of the earthquake was 5.2 on the Richter scale and around 1 mile deep. This shallow earthquake meant that the damage to buildings on the surface was extensive. An article in The Building, dated 3 April 1886, reports the state of Layer Marney gatehouse:
‘Many of the chimneys were standing in 1884 but were shaken down in the earthquake which occurred in the eastern counties on 22 April in that year. Layer Marney Tower appears to have been quite in the epicentre of the disturbance and suffered a good deal, many of the roofs being injured and scarcely noticeable fissures in the wall becoming alarmingly apparent. These do not seem to affect the real stability of the pile but are very unsightly and will tend to hasten the decay and ruin which seem inevitable. It is a pity that such should be the case but the outlay needed to restore the towers to anything like a sound and habitable condition would be so large that they chance of the work every being done appears remote indeed.’ (‘Layer Marney Tower’, An Illustrated Guidebook, p. 28)
The actual epicentre was under Peldon and Abberton, near the town of Colchester.
It was owned at the time by the Reverend Alfred Peache and his sister Kezia, and they invested in substantial repairs.
The stable block is contemporary with gatehouse, being built by Lord Henry Marney. It was originally a 2-storey building. There would have been several entrances on the ground floor and windows on the first storey. The upper floor would have been for Marney’s soldiers and stable staff as well as storage of hay, etc. It was in the early 20th C that the owner Walter de Zoete created the Long Gallery from the stables. He also filled the gap between the East range and the tower.
In my next post I will examine in greater detail the terracotta ornamentation on the gatehouse.
Carley, James, P. ‘Marney, Henry, first Baron Marney (1456/7-1523), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sep 2004, <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/70724> [accessed 12 December 2019]
‘Layer Marney Tower’, An Illustrated Guidebook
‘Layer Marney’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, Volume 3, North East (London, 1922), pp. 155-160. British History Online <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/essex/vol3/pp155-160> [accessed 14 December 2019].