Following the development of the elite country house from the medieval period onwards, it is evident there is a discontinuity in architectural function from the Romano-British culture. The break is the influence of Anglo-Saxon culture, who have a preoccupation with gatehouses and mead halls. The established English do not pursue in their house organisation the hypocaust system along with the Roman bath house and gymnasiums. Cooking, dining, sleeping, and defence are more the order of the day.

The revival of classical architecture in the English Renaissance of the 16th and 17th centuries, followed by the influence of Palladian villas in the 17th and 18th centuries, does still not have an emphasis on bathing and heating is by prestige fireplaces.

It has made me think about the different influences.


The hypocaust system of the Roman villa is a highly organised affair. Below is a photo of the remains of the hypocaust in the museum at The Newt in Somerset.

Remains of the hypocaust of the Villa Ventorum (4th C)

The reconstructed Villa Ventorum has its own in hypocaust in the southern wing.

Villa Hypocaust Furnace: Praefumium

The heated area is on the south side of the villa – can see the scorched areas on the wall for the praefumium exits

Great Hall at Penshurst Place, Kent with central hearth

The love of fires and fire places grows from the Anglo-Saxon (and older) culture. A central open hearth with smoke rising through to the rafters of a hall may have helped to keep vermin at bay as well as heat the space. It was ceremonially the central focus of the lord’s community. The lantern or cupola on country houses in the 18th and 19th Cs reflects that reminder of the ancestral central hearth.[i]

Kingston Lacy crowned with a cupola: The house was originally 17th C & remodelled in late 18th C and again between 1835 and 1838)

Fireplaces with a chimney system are not always the most efficient way of heating a room but the English love them.

Framlingham Castle 16th C Chimney Stacks: Many of the stacks do not serve a fireplace – they are there as a prestige ornament

At Framlingham Castle in Suffolk ornate false chimneys were added for effect. Country houses, such as Montacute in Somerset, have an extra false chimney or two to provide symmetry when looking at the roof line. One of the first things a building historian looks at is the chimneys to work out how the building was heated. The underfloor heating of a hypocaust is not really the same as a real fire burning.

Montacute House: Some of the chimney stacks do not serve fireplaces – just to give symmetry on the roof line

Bathing & Exercise

The Romans placed an emphasis in their architecture on the hypocaust, bathing, gymnasium, and relaxing.

(a) Entrance & Changing: apodytenium

Villa Ventorum: Apodytenium (entry to the bath area with changing area)

(b) Keeping warm and relaxing: tepidarium

Villa Ventorum: Tepidarium (warm room to relax in)

(c) Plunge pool in hot room: calderium

Villa Ventorum: Calderium (hot room with a plunge pool)

(d) Cool room for exercise: frigidarium

Villa Ventorium: Frigidarium (cold room for exercise)

Villa Ventorum: Frigidarium weights

(e) Cold Plunge Pool

Villa Ventorum: Cold Plunge Pool

I was reminded from the images in the frigidarium of a visit to Sicily and the fabulous mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale

Villa Romana del Casale Mosaic, Sicily: Link to Villa Romana del Casale


Villa Ventorum: Wall decoration of the frigidarium

The emphasis on bathing in the medieval period tended to be more to do with religious houses such has Benedictine abbeys. At Gloucester the communal washing area known as a lavatorium (late 14th C) is just off the cloisters. A cloister would provide an area for walking around (as well as study, writing, and contemplation). The long galleries of the late Elizabethan and early Stuart also provided an area for walking and viewing.

Gloucester Cathedral when it was an Abbey: Lavatorium (late 14th C)

For the 18th and 19th centuries English country house owner organised exercise activities such as hunting, tennis, fives, cricket, or rugby were part of the routine. In terms of keeping clean, the routine was washing (as opposed to bathing), followed by changing linen undershirts. This different approach to cleanliness demonstrates perhaps that disconnection with Romano-British culture. During the medieval period the linen cloth industry grew alongside the woollen cloth industry.

During the 18th C there was a fashion for country house owners to build bath houses and grottos. These were positioned away from the house and became a feature in the landscaped gardens. The idea that cold water bathing was a good thing for health was promoted by Sir John Floyer (1649-1743) – for more information on cold water bathing in the 18th C read my blog post on ‘Cold Water Bathing in the 18th Century‘.

In the Victorian period Turkish baths became a common feature in cities and towns, an idea harking back to the Islamic hammam and the hot dry air Roman baths.

Harrogate Turkish Baths

Nowadays a heated swimming pool along with a tennis court would be a requirement for the elite country house. Swimming pools popularity grew in the mid-19th C with swimming clubs forming. They become fashionable in the in the 1920s and 30s following a push to get a healthy population following the First World War and the Spanish Flu.

As part of civic design, the Romans had public baths (thermae) such as those in Bath. Going to a spa town developed from the late-Tudor period with growing popularity in the Georgian period. Cities and towns such as Bath, Cheltenham, Harrogate, and Brighton changed and developed with the idea of ‘taking the waters’. The Georgian and Victorian period saw a greater emphasis on sea-bathing developing.


Wroxeter Roman Villa

Villa Ventorum: Portico

Porticos to me seem a beneficial addition to a house. The provide shelter from rain and sunlight and enable work that requires good natural light (spinning, sewing, writing, etc.). Perhaps the nearest is the cloisters in monasteries where monks can scribe in the best position for light and shelter as the day progresses.

Gloucester Cathedral (prior to Dissolution an abbey): Cloisters

Porticos are usually attached to a house and supported on the other side by columns. The roof is generally sloping to repel rain water. The medieval period did have wooden gallery structures in towns which provided a similar purpose as well as linking walkways. These were usually around shops, workshops, and places of business.

I recall as a naive traveller back in the early 1980s going to Ankara in Turkey and walking around the city. We came across an area of tenements and between the buildings was a whole network of wooden walkways and galleries on different levels. It was like a road network stretching upwards and across. I wondered how much of our towns and cities in the medieval and Tudor periods had similar structures.

The porticos on temples provided a sheltered place before entering the sacred space.

Pantheon, Rome

In the 15th C patrons were financing the addition of porches to the parish church nave. There are liturgical rights that include arriving and waiting at the church door, such as baptism, funerals, marriage, and churching of women (the blessing of a mother after having given birth). A sheltered entrance was a useful addition keep the rain and sun off.

Symondsbury Church: Porch being decorated for a wedding

The Renaissance provided the country house with the loggia as an architectural feature. Later the Palladian house may have an outdoor area at the piano nobile level. At Longford Castle in Wiltshire is an early double loggia of 1591.

Entrance Facade of Longford Castle, Wiltshire (1591)


Holkham Hall (1734)


Whilst some of the room arrangements from the Romano-British villa have a striking similarity to our house arrangements today, there are some key differences. Although nowadays we are going back to some ideas with underfloor heating, home gymnasiums and saunas. I would like to put a plea in for the very useful portico to be added to our homes – out with the parasols and gazebos. Porticos provide shade from the sun and rain, whilst providing work space and storage!!


[i] Clive Aslet, The Story of the Country House (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021), p. 29.


Aslet, Clive, The Story of the Country House (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021)

The Newt, Villa Ventorum (Bruton: The Newt, 2021)