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A Biographical Dictionary of English Architecture, 1540-1640 by Mark Girouard

18 March 2022

William Whyte enjoys architectural essays

PICTURE, if you can, a 40-foot high, mechanical monstrance, lit by 400 candles and covered in 200 carved and gilded angels. A choir was concealed behind, so that it would seem as though the sound was coming from the seraphim and cherubim themselves. It must have been quite a sight. Certainly, when first unveiled, it reduced Queen Henrietta Maria to tears. Once mass was over, Charles I spent considerable time exploring how it worked.

Destroyed by anti-Catholic rioters in 1643, this remarkable monstrance exists now only on paper. It’s a wonderful example of the sorts of delights that Mark Girouard conjures up in his book — as well as being exemplary of the sorts of problems he must have encountered in writing it. A distinguished historian and consummate expert in the field, he reveals in his Biographical Dictionary an architectural world in flux.

Outsiders such as François Dieussart, who designed the monstrance, were bringing new ideas to England. Inigo Jones and other natives were also experimenting with exotic new styles. Yet there were also those who fiercely — even violently — rejected all this. The period is one of destruction as well as creation, of much loss as well as gain.

To make matters worse, this was a time before spelling was standardised and records routinely kept. A masterpiece of detective work, this Dictionary has to deal with both the destruction of important manuscripts and the fact that even those that remain are intractable, to say the least. “Nothing is known of Acheson,” one entry observes. “His abilities are debatable — was he, or was he not, a con-man?” another reads. The Elizabethan carpenter Thomas Cleese may have spelt his name at least four ways, but one can sense Dr Girouard’s gratitude that “He had the, from a historian’s point of view, admirable habit of signing his work.”

There are brilliant essays here on such towering figures as Robert Smythson, architect of Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire, and other great works. There are also revealing accounts of less famous craftsmen: for example, James Burbage — “joiner, actor and theatre producer” — whose theatre in Shoreditch was condemned in a sermon of 1578 as a “shew place of all beastly and filthy matters”. Dismantled 20 years later, it was incorporated into the new Globe Theatre by his son. Like the monstrance, it, too, would be lost.

Thanks to Girouard, we can now recapture the excitement of that era and its architecture once again.


The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.


A Biographical Dictionary of English Architecture, 1540-1640
Mark Girouard
Yale £40
Church Times Bookshop £36

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