To present a history of English furniture and woodwork from the earliest times of which we have available records, to the end of the seventeenth century, which is the scope and purpose of this book, several initial difficulties have to be considered, each of which demands some attention. The first is the arbitrary character of the word " furniture " as applied to early examples, almost until the end of the fifteenth century. At the present day it would be comparatively easy to formulate a definition of furniture which should exclude decorative woodwork, such as panelling and the like. Even then, articles such as fitted bookcases, or side tables made as fixtures, would escape such definition. In the early periods, until almost the close of the reign of Henry VIII, when furniture was primitive in type, scanty in quantity and limited in purpose, the line of demarcation between woodwork and furniture was even less marked, and it is this inevitable coalescence of the two which has dictated the title of this book.
Another important factor in the understanding of our subject is a knowledge of early house-planning and general style. From the beginning of the thirteenth century until the end of the fifteenth, the ecclesiastical Gothic was the only architectural and woodworking style. Shortly after 1500, however, the influence of the Italian Renaissance began to be felt in this country, some fifteen years later than was the case in France, a circumstance probably due to the fact that not only was England insular by situation, but also the English people were so in character. Architecture and woodwork were not so specialised at this date as in the later centuries; the master carpenter and the architect not only worked hand in hand; in work for the Church, at least, they were frequently the same person. Styles were usually fostered and dictated by the patrons for whom houses were built and furniture made, but always with the assistance of a clerical adviser. After the close of the fifteenth century, the grand tour to Italy became an integral part of the aristocratic education, and Italy, alone of all the European countries, had fostered the classical styles in architecture and woodwork, since the days when the power of Rome had risen and fallen to decay. Germany, France Spain, England, and even the Low Countries still cherished the Gothic as the national style, and long after the classical had submerged it, we still find traces here and there evidencing the hold which the ecclesiastical Gothic retained upon the architecture and woodwork of the time.
In the endeavour to trace the history of the development of English furniture up to the close of the fifteenth century, it is almost impossible, in England, to overrate the influence of ecclesiastical establishments. The monasteries and religious houses were not only the principal patrons of the joiner and the woodworker; they maintained a state and a standard of refinement utterly unknown to the laity, even of the rank of the nobility. Furniture of this period, as one would expect, is not only primitive in construction, but also limited in range and quantity. Large banqueting or refectory tables, forms or stools (which were the usual seat at meals until almost the close of the seventeenth century), dower chests, Court cupboards or buffets, livery cupboards and hutches, constituted the whole of the English-made furniture of the apartments of this period, whether of abbots or princes. The chair was a rare article, a sign of dignity and state, reserved for the lord and lady of the secular household, or the head of the clerical establishment. Foreign furniture was sparingly imported and merchandise from the East, - fabrics and the like, - found way into England through the prosperous republican trading cities of Venice and Genoa.
The standard of comfort in the houses, even of the wealthy, was meagre in the extreme. The usual carpeting for the floor, when the fashion originated, with the sixteenth century, for anything beyond bare flags or boards, was a covering of strewn rushes, rarely changed, and usually littered with the debris of feasts thrown to the dogs, who shared the living apartments with their masters. These rush-strewn floors were usual until the reign of Charles II. With the rich nobility, the walls were covered with tapestries or fabrics, at a later date with panellings of wood. The trading classes had to be contented with rough plaster or timbering. Glass in windows was a luxury until late in the sixteenth century, and windows were not only kept studiously small, but the pieces enclosed by the leading, whether diamond or rectangular quarries, were also rarely larger than about six inches by four. Apart from the prohibitive cost, the difficulty of making crown, or whirled glass, in sheets of any size precluded any larger dimensions for these quarries. It is not until almost the beginning of the eighteenth century that the glass-blower became sufficiently expert with the "pontil" to make crown-glass sheets large enough to yield the squares which are found in the great houses of that period. It must be remembered that the largest dimension of the pane can only represent less than one-half of the circular glass plate, which is produced by whirling the "pontil." From the semi-diameter must be deducted the so-called " bottle-glass " quarries which the "pontil," or blowing rod, leaves when it is broken away from the circular plate. Yet at Lyme Park, Cheshire, for example, the panes are as large as 15 in. by 10 in., which means that they must have been cut from plates not less than 3 ft. in diameter.
That fifteenth-century windows were rarely, if ever, glazed, - other than church windows, - is evident from a study of their design. Thus, the windows from Hadleigh, illustrated in Figs. 41 and 42, have no glazing rebate, and, in any event, glass of the size which each light would have required, would have been unobtainable at this date. To have broken up the openings with leaded bars would have destroyed the whole effect of the tracery, and we know, when glazing became general, that tracery between mullions was omitted. In the windows at Sutton Place (Henry VII) we have, in the four centred arched heads to each light, the last vestige of Gothic tracery as applied to secular windows. The windows at Sutton were as evidently intended for glazing as the Hadleigh windows were not. Opening casements are never found in these unglazed window frames, for obvious reasons, and, even when glazing was introduced, they are very sparingly used. Our ancestors, evidently, did not care for fresh air in the home.