The World of the Country House in Seventeenth-Century England

Cliffe, J.T.
Date published: 
May 1999

The seventeenth century in England saw times of political turmoil and social upheaval. Generally, however, life in the country house continued, though not without its own share of tribulations as this study of the domestic lives of the landed gentry so vividly shows.

Basing his research on a wide range of primary sources, including family papers, wills, and previously unpublished inventories of books and pictures Dr. Cliffe explores every aspect of life on a country estate. beginning with a detailed survey of the physical environment - the house, stables, parks and gardens; the cost of building and upkeep and the functions and contents of the principal rooms, including such basic requirements as the water supplies and sanitary arrangements - he then goes on to study in depth the inhabitants of these country houses and their activities. In particular the relationships between the squire and his wife and his employees are discussed. The squire's wife often had a key role in housekeeping and in some cases was known to have become involved in estate management as well as in the provision of medical treatment. Servants figure prominently in this study: the size and composition of domestic establishments are considered as well as the recruitment of servants, their daily duties and remuneration in terms of wages, food, clothing and accommodation and the way in which they were treated by their masters. All the daily aspects of life in the country house are investigated - meal times and the expenditure on food and drink; religious practices; outdoor sports and indoor pastimes, including music, billiards and intellectual pursuits.

Various scandals plagued the gentry - marital difficulties involving cruelty and infidelity, liaisons between masters or mistresses and their servants, family feuds, corruption, poaching, bankruptcy, lunacy, suicide and murder - all are dealt with in this lively and meticulously researched book, which, beautifully illustrated with photographs of the houses and portraits of the inhabitants, provides the reader with a fascinating insight into the lives of the gentry and their employees at this time.