The art of the traders

The Hanseatic merchants also carried architectural ideas in their luggage

Clive Taylor lives in an architectural jewel, whose origins can be traced back to the 16th century: Ellys Manor House, originally built by wealthy wool merchants in Lincolnshire, east of Nottingham. The house‘s style reflects the Northern Renaissance, the Renaissance version that spread throughout northern Europe, following the trail of the Hanseatic merchants. Clive Taylor on an otherwise little-known Renaissance style and its history.

Most of us are pretty much agreed that the Renaissance originated in Florence (Italy) in around 1420. The term suggests to most people the huge cathedrals in Italy and the works of Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. However, this is just a small part of what was happening at the time; the lesser-known Northern Renaissance is second to none.
At first glance, in the Hanse territory, we don’t seem to have benefited as greatly as the Italians have from the Renaissance. In the late 1400‘s, Renaissance ideas had spread into northern Europe. Flanders was said to be the most cultural and important place in Europe. Bruges is where the first bank in the world was started. It was said,  Bruges did not go to the world; the world came to Bruges. Due to the Dukes of Burgundy, and their great wealth, the trading towns (notably Bruges,  Ghent and Ypres), were some of the richest and most urbanised parts of Europe. The weaving of wool from neighbour-ing lands into cloth for both domestic use and export made Flanders into the cultural and economic hothouse of Europe. As a consequence, a very sophisticated culture developed, with impressive achievements in the arts and architecture to rival those of northern Italy. This is where Britain comes in. In medieval England, wool was the original big business. There was enor-mous demand for it, mainly to produce cloth and everyone who had land, from peasants to major landowners, raised sheep. It was the raw wool from English sheep, reputed to be some of the best in the world, that was required to feed the looms of Flanders.

The Nordic Renaissance: from Flanders to North­ern Europe

Northern Europe is symbolised by its distinctive and iconic stepped gable buildings. This style of architecture ranges from the quite austere crow stepped gable to the more  flamboyant, such as the neck or clock gables and has been immortalised in some of our greatest painters’ works, such as: Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein and one could go on and on. Like the rest of the Northern Renaissance, their works and i deas were primarily spread by traders. In Britain, this could clearly be seen in our architecture. Whilst the upper classes tried to import Italian ideas, merchants and traders were far more influenced by northern ideas. Look-ing at Cheapside, the part of London where the merchants lived at this time, it was almost possible to believe one was in the Low Countries, as the step gable architecture predominated. It is possible to trace the trade routes of the time throughout northern Europe by following the step gables. Sometimes these wonderful buildings are found in places one wouldn’t expect, but  closer examination reveals the traders of the time had indeed established routes through these places. Indeed the Han-seatic League established trade routes from London to Kiev. Evidence of these trade routes can still be seen in the step gable architecture of Gdansk.
I would like to use two buildings as examples, the first is Glimmingehus in southern Sweden. It is said to be the best-preserved medieval stronghold in Scandinavia. It is thought that construction on Glimmingehus started in around 1499 for the Danish knight Jens Holgersen Ulfstand.  Glimmingehus shows us ample evidence of an extravagant lifestyle and although occupied only for a few generations, many of the most expensive objects for sale in Europe during this period, such as Venetian glass, painted glass from the Rhine district and Spanish ceramics, have been found here. Evidence of the family’s wealth can also be seen inside the stone fortress, where everyday comforts for the knight’s family included hot air channels in the walls and bench seats in the window recesses. It is these ideas of wealth and status, which were spread around Europe by the vast trading networks.
In the United Kingdom, we have  Ellys Manor House, which was built by a member of the Ellys family, rich wool merchants of the Calais Staple.

Buildings such as Ellys Manor House with their crow stepped gable and lookout tower were hugely fashionable in medieval to late medieval times and could have been seen all along the Thames. However, after The Great Fire of London (1666), they were no more. It is a miracle of survival that Ellys should have built this house in rural Lincolnshire. In the United Kingdom, there are some splendid towns, churches, bridges and houses, which were built from the proceeds of the wool trade. However, to my know ledge none so perfectly encapsulates the Northern Renaissance as Ellys Manor House. It is not just the rich architectural exterior that tells us so much of its history and its links with the wider world. The main feature of the house is a fabulous scheme of early 16th century wall paintings in the upper rooms. These are described by architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as “a rare English interpretation of French verdure tapestries”. The wall paintings dated around 1500 and are said to be “the most complete, extensive and important domestic decoration of this date in the country. The building and paintings are of outstanding historical interest”. (Pevsner, “The Buildings of England”).

From an Article published in Tiding Magazine May 2015