The spectacular gatehouse of Layer Marney is embellished with astounding terracotta ornamentation. This is particularly impressive when taking the date of its build into consideration. It was built during the early part of Henry VIII’s reign (reign was 1509 to 1547). It is a significant building in terms of early-Renaissance ornament in England.

The design of the gatehouse follows the traditional English form that links back to St. Augustine’s gatehouse in Canterbury (circa early 14th C). Henry VIII’s had similar gatehouses built in the early 1530s such as at St. James’s Palace or the King’s Gate at Whitehall Palace. Whilst the form was similar to Henry VIII’s gatehouses, his were less ornamental. For example, the towers on the gatehouse at St. James’s, Whitehall, Hampton Court and Nonsuch Palaces had standard defensive battlements as found on medieval castles, city walls and church towers. The gaps are known as crenels and the built rectangles are called merlons.

At Layer Marney the battlements have moved away from a standard design to a Renaissance flourish. It was built at a time when design was taking precedence over defence. Cooper identifies that terracotta ornament was a ‘short-lived fashion of the 1520s’ (Copper, p. 64). Howard identifies it as a fashion preferred by courtiers and county gentry lasting from circa 1515 to 1535 particularly in the East Anglia region of England (Howard, p. 131-2). The Reformation, which began in the years 1532-4 when the English church split from Rome, would have meant that Italian craftsmen and others from Catholic countries would have been less available.

Howard points out the ornamentation is more prevalent in the younger years of Henry VIII as opposed to later in his reign – his later reign being from the 1540s onwards (Howard, p. 135). Howard has identified that terracotta ornamentation coincides with the years of ‘lavish court entertainment, up to the coronation of Anne Boleyn in 1533’ (Howard, p. 135). Henry VIII wanted to demonstrate that he was a sophisticated, European monarch. Those around him took this theme into their own lives and buildings.

Houses being built in the 1540s by high-ranking courtiers, such as at Ingatestone in Essex, lack the external ornament of the previous decades (Howard, p. 135). The Dissolution of the Monasteries which started circa 1536 provided wealth and buildings for opportunists. With a greater number of courtiers and gentry in the market for renovating monastic buildings or building new country houses, original ideas began to arise.

The movement from the medieval, defensive courtyard house had already begun to change in the early 16th C. House planning began to form a direction that would continue throughout the Tudor and Early Stuart period. Layer Marney is part of that evolution. Whilst the house was intended to be of a courtyard plan, the gatehouse was a display of taste, individuality and status. The need for defence which was key in the previous century (with the Wars of the Roses) was not high up on the list of priorities for a new build.

The application of terracotta for ornament was something that was available for the ambitious high-ranking courtier. It had been part of the design applied by Wolsey at Hampton Court and the contemporary gatehouse of East Barsham in Norfolk had employed it. Some survives on the turrets of the gatehouse at West Stow Hall in Suffolk.

Henry VIII had been a champion of European design and Italian craftsmen. With Henry, 1st Lord Marney’s connection to the king it is likely Italian craftsmen worked on Layer Marney gatehouse and the beginnings of a spectacular house, which was never built.

Figure 2: North side of the gatehouse – notice the black bricks forming a diaper pattern. Also notice how the brickwork has been formed as mock machicolations on top of the towers, and as drip moulds for the windows. The central bay windows have terracotta moulded mullions, transom and headings.

Figure 3: First floor window on north side of gatehouse. Terracotta moulded mullions and transom. The window headings are of an elaborate design including putti.


Figure 4: The mullions have moulded, Italian ornament with Corinthian columns. The trefoils above the Corinthian capitals are of scroll-work design. Within the spandrels are winged putti. The leaded quarrels of the windows are of diamond shape. The quarrels are of a more elaborate design within the trefoils. To support the leaded quarrels and glass are iron-work stanchions passing through the eyes of horizontal saddle bars.

This must be one of the earliest applications of putti in England.

Figure 5: The internal room on the first floor of the gatehouse. The elaborate window mouldings continue on the inside.

Figure 6: Window on the north side of the west wing. The mouldings are similar to the ones on the gatehouse although the curves of the trefoils are not flat and the spandrals don’t have a putti, but an urn or seed-head from which the ornamental leaves sprout and terminate in the points of the trefoils in what appears to be a gaping creature, not unlike the dolphins on the battlements.

Figure 7: Detail of window headings.


Figure 8: Ornamental battlements crown the tops of the gatehouse turrets and central bay. Each of, what in the medieval sense would be the merlons of battlements are of a segmental design with radiating panels. These merlons have dolphin-like creatures biting into them with their tails turned into 5-petal flowers. On top of the merlons are individual panels within which are carved a true-lovers knot and the initials M. O. The egg-and-dart moulding and Vitruvian-wave moulding run below the elaborate battlements. The brick, barley-twist chimney stacks are replacements made in the 20th C.

Figure 9: Looking out from the platform on the central bay of the gatehouse it can be seen that the battlements are just plain shapes on their other side. It is interesting that they were meant to be observed from the outside only. It would not have been easy to see their detail from the ground. However, later renovations may have made it like this.

Figure 10: Decorative Mouldings.

The brick blind-arcading of trefoil-gothic design rests below two lines of moulding. The upper moulding is of egg-and-dart design. The lower moulding is based on a Vitruvian scroll or wave. The egg-and-dart ornament comes from the moulding on an Ionic capital. This comes from ancient Greek architecture and was also used by the Romans. Vitruvian architecture is derived from the work of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (known as Vitruvius) who wrote his treatise on architecture – De architectura.

The Renaissance ornamentation continues in the church at Layer Marney. The tomb of Henry, 1st Lord Marney is constructed of terracotta. The effigy and tomb slab is of black marble. As with the gatehouse there is this wonderful, elaboration of Renaissance detail with a bit of gothic thrown in. The base of the tomb monument has quatrefoils running along it.

Figure 11: Tomb of Lord Henry 1st Lord Marney – the effigy and tomb slab are of black marble. The rest of the monument is constructed in terracotta. Probably the work of the Italian craftsmen who would have been working on the building of Marney’s house.

Scroll work similar to that on the window mouldings on the window tracery on the west wing. The curling leaves ending in sea creature are very similar. There are ionic capitals and egg-and-dart mouldings. A complexity of Renaissance ornamentation beyond that expressed on the gatehouse.

Figure 12: Detail of tomb monument.


Figure 13: The canopy of the tomb monument – a form of coffered ceiling.


Figure 14: Roman Coffered Ceiling: Pantheon, Rome (circa 125 AD). The removal of blocks makes the dome lighter.


Figure 15: Renaissance Coffered Ceiling: Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome (c. 432 to 1743).


For more on the history of Layer Marney refer to the blog post Ambition In Brick: Layer Marney Gatehouse.


WEST STOW HALL GATEHOUSE – Contemporary to Layer Marney as with some similarities

Built circa 1520s by Sir John Crofts, Master of the Horse to Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor.

Figure 16: West Stow Hall Gatehouse.


Figure 17: Detail of West Stow Hall gatehouse.


Figure 18: The ornamentation has similarities to Layer Marney with trefoils, diapering with black bricks and application of brick for different effects.


Cooper, Nicholas, Houses of the Gentry 1480-1680 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999)

Howard, Maurice, The Early Tudor Country House: Architecture and Politics 1490-1550 (London: George Philip, 1987)

‘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 <>[accessed 14 December 2019].

‘West Stow Hall’, Historic England <> [accessed 31 December 2019]