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A manor house is a country house which was historically the capital residence or messuage within a manor, the basic unit of territorial organisation in the feudal system in Europe, in which dwelled the lord of the manor. It formed the administrative centre of a manor and within its great hall were held the lord's manorial courts, communal meals with manorial tenants and great banquets. The term is today loosely applied to smaller country houses, frequently dating from the late-mediaeval era, which formerly housed the gentry. They were often fortified but this was frequently intended more for show than for defense. Manor houses existed in most European countries where feudalism existed, where they were sometimes referred to as castles, palaces, and so on.
The lord of a manor may have held several such properties throughout a county or even, for example in the case of a feudal baron, throughout a kingdom, which he occupied only on occasional visits. Even so the business of the manor required to be directed and controlled by regular manorial courts, which appointed manorial officials such as the bailiff, granted copyhold leases to tenants, resolved disputes between manorial tenants and administered justice in general. A large and suitable building was required within the manor for such purpose, generally in the form of a great hall, and a solar might be attached to form accommodation for the lord. Furthermore, the produce of a small manor might be insufficient to feed a lord and his large family for a full year, and thus he would spend only a few months at each manor and move on to another where stores had been laid up. This also gave the opportunity for the vacated manor house to be cleaned, especially important in the days of the cess-pit, and repaired. Thus such non-resident lords needed to appoint a steward or seneschal to act as their deputy in such matters and to preside at the manorial courts of his different manorial properties. The day-to-day administration was carried out by a resident official in authority at each manor, who in England was called a bailiff, or reeve.
Although not typically built with strong fortifications as were castles, many manor-houses were fortified, which required a royal licence to crenellate. They were often enclosed within walls or ditches which often also included the agricultural buildings. Arranged for defence against roaming bands of robbers and thieves, in days long before police, they were often surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge, and were equipped with gatehouses and watchtowers, but not, as for castles, with a keep, large towers or lofty curtain walls designed to withstand a siege. The primary feature of the manor house was its great hall, to which subsidiary apartments were added as the lessening of feudal warfare permitted more peaceful domestic life.
By the beginning of the 16th century, manor houses as well as small castles began to acquire the character and amenities of the residences of country gentlemen, and many defensive elements were dispensed with, for example Sutton Place in Surrey, circa 1521. A late 16th-century transformation produced many of the smaller Renaissance châteaux of France and the numerous country mansions of the Elizabethan and Jacobean styles in England.
The German equivalent of a manor house is a Gutshaus (or Gut, Gutshof, Rittergut, Landgut or Bauerngut). Also Herrenhaus and Domäne are common terms. Schloss (pl. Schlösser) is another German word for a building similar to manor house, stately home, château or palace. Other terms used in German are Burg (castle), Festung (fort/fortress) and Palais/Palast (palace).
The architectural form of the Polish manor house (Polish: dwór) evolved around the late Polish Renaissance period and continued until the Second World War, which, together with the communist takeover of Poland, spelled the end of the nobility in Poland. A 1944 decree nationalized most mansions as property of the nobles, but few were adapted to other purposes. Many slowly fell into ruin over the next few decades.
Before around 1600, larger houses were usually fortified, generally for true defensive purposes but increasingly, as the kingdom became internally more peaceable after the Wars of the Roses, as a form of status-symbol, reflecting the position of their owners as having been worthy to receive royal licence to crenellate. The Tudor period (16th century) of stability in England saw the building of the first of the unfortified great houses, for example Sutton Place in Surrey, circa 1521. The Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII resulted in many former monastical properties being sold to the King's favourites, who then converted them into private country houses, examples being Woburn Abbey, Forde Abbey, Nostell Priory and many other mansions with the suffix Abbey or Priory to their name.
During the second half of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and under her successor King James I (1603-1625) the first mansions designed by architects not by mere masons or builders, began to make their appearance. Such houses as Burghley House, Longleat House, and Hatfield House are among the best known of this period and seem today to epitomise the English country house.
The suffixes given to manor houses today have little substantive meaning, and many have changed over time, thus a manor house may have been known as "Heanton House" in the 18th century and in the 19th century as "Heanton Court" and later as "Heanton Satchville".
The original suffix was simply "Hall", added to the name of the manor, which reflected the reality of the simple but large building referred to.
The suffix "-House" is common for manor houses, fromm the grandest such as Chatsworth House to smaller ones:
"Court" was a suffix which came into use in the 16th century, and contemporary topographers felt the need to explain the term to their readers. Thus the Devonshire historian Tristram Risdon (d.1640) clarified the term at least three times in his main work, Survey of Devon:
The obvious origin of the suffix would appear to be that the building was the location where the manorial courts were held. Well known examples of manor houses named with the suffix "-Court" are:
The suffix "-Palace" is very rarely used for a manor house which is not a royal residence:
True castles, when not royal castles, were generally the residences of feudal barons, whose baronies comprised often several dozen other manors. The manor on which the castle was situated was termed the caput of the barony, thus every true ancient defensive castle was also the manor house of its own manor. The suffix "-Castle" was also used to name certain manor houses, generally built as mock castles, but often as houses rebuilt on the site of a former true castle:
Nearly every large mediaeval manor house had its own deer-park adjoining, emparked (i.e. enclosed) by royal licence, which served primarily as a store of food in the form of venison. Within these licenced parks deer could not be hunted by royalty (with its huge travelling entourage which needed to be fed and entertained), nor by neighbouring land-owners nor by any other persons. During the 16th century many lords of manors moved their residences from their ancient manor houses often situated next to the parish church and near or in the village and built a new manor house within the walls of their ancient deer-parks adjoining. This gave them more privacy and space. The suffix "-Park" came into use in the 18th and 19th centuries, examples being:
This is a rare 19th century suffix for a manor house or stately home. Within this category cannot be included mere surviving gatehouse towers from demolished ancient manor houses such as the 14th century Boarstall Tower or Layer Marney Tower, c.1520.
These houses, although mostly forming residences for the lords of the manors on which they were situated, were not historically named with the suffix "-Manor", as were many grand country houses built in the 19th century, such as Hughenden Manor or Waddesdon Manor. The usage is often a modern catch-all suffix for an old house on an estate, true manor or not:
Manor houses employing double-barrelled names generally have no suffix:
Several manor houses are commonly called without a suffix, by the name of the manor or estate alone:
A pazo is a type of grand old house found in Galicia. Similar to a manor house, a pazo is usually located in the countryside and the former residence of an important nobleman or other important individual. They were of crucial importance to the rural and monastic communities around them. The pazo was a traditional architectural structure associated with a community and social network. It usually consisted of a main building surrounded by gardens, a dovecote and outbuildings such as a small chapels for religious celebrations. The word pazo is derived from the Latin palatiu(m) ("palace").
In Spain a good many old manor houses, palaces, castles and grand homes have been converted into a type of hotel called parador.
In Portugal, it was quite common during the 17th to early 20th centuries for the aristocracy to have country homes. These homes, known as solars (paços, when the manor was a certain stature or size; quintas, when the manor included a sum of land), were found particularly in the northern, usually richer, Portugal, in the Beira, Minho, and Trás-os-Montes provinces. Many have been converted into a type of hotel called pousada.
Some famous quintas, paços and, solars:
In France, the terms château or manoir are often used synonymously to describe a French manor-house. Maison-forte is another French word to describe a strongly fortified manor-house, which may include two sets of enclosing walls, drawbridges, and a ground-floor hall or salle basse that was used to receive peasants and commoners. The salle basse was also the location of the manor court, with the steward or seigneur's seating location often marked by the presence of a crédence de justice or wall-cupboard (shelves built into the stone walls to hold documents and books associated with administration of the demesne or droit de justice). The salle haute or upper-hall, reserved for the seigneur and where he received his high-ranking guests, was often accessible by an external spiral staircase. It was commonly "open" up to the roof trusses, as in similar English homes. This larger and more finely decorated hall was usually located above the ground-floor hall. The seigneur and his family's private chambres were often located off of the upper first-floor hall, and invariably had their own fireplace (with finely decorated chimney-piece) and frequently a latrine.
In addition to having both lower and upper halls, many French manor houses also had partly fortified gateways, watchtowers, and enclosing walls that were fitted with arrow or gun loops for added protection. Some larger 16th-century manors, such as the Château de Kerjean in Finistère, Brittany, were even outfitted with ditches and fore-works that included gun platforms for cannons. These defensive arrangements allowed maisons-fortes, and rural manors to be safe from a coup de main perpetrated by an armed band as there was so many during the troubled times of the Hundred Years War and the wars of the Holy League; but it was difficult for them to resist a siege undertaken by a regular army equipped with (siege) engines.
Many of the earlier houses are the legacy of the feudal heerlijkheid system. The Dutch had a manorial system centred on the local lord's demesne. In Middle Dutch this was called the vroonhof or vroenhoeve, a word derived from the Proto-Germanic word fraujaz, meaning "lord". This was also called a hof and the lord's house a hofstede. Other terms were used, including landhuis (or just huis), a ridderhofstad (Utrecht), a stins or state (Friesland), or a havezate (Drente, Overijssel and Gelderland). Some of these buildings were fortified. A number of castles associated with the nobility are found in the country. In Dutch, a building like this was called a kasteel, a slot, a burcht or (in Groningen) a borg.
During the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, merchants and regents looking for ways to spend their wealth bought country estates and built grand new homes, often just for summer use. Some purchased existing manor houses and castles from the nobility. Some country houses were built on top of the ruins of earlier castles that had been destroyed during the Dutch Revolt. The owners, aspiring to noble status, adopted the name of the earlier castle.
These country houses or stately homes (called buitenplaats or buitenhuis in Dutch) were located close to the city in picturesque areas with a clean water source. Wealthy families sent their children to the country in the summer because of the putrid canals and diseases in the city. A few still exist, especially along the river Vecht, the river Amstel, the Spaarne in Kennemerland, the river Vliet and in Wassenaar. Some are located near former lakes (now polders) like the Wijkermeer, Watergraafsmeer and the Beemster. In the 19th century, with improvements in water management, new regions came into fashion, such as the Utrecht Hill Ridge (Utrechtse Heuvelrug) and the area around Arnhem.
Today there is a tendency to group these grand buildings together in the category of "castles". There are many castles and buitenplaatsen in all twelve provinces. A larger-than-average home is today called a villa or a herenhuis, but despite the grand name this is not the same as a manor house.
A few of the more prominent Dutch manor houses are:
The term "manor house" can be used to refer to any grand, stately home, including those that do not have a history rooted in European feudalism.
Cultural, economic and legal conditions and the total absence of any kind of hereditary aristocracy in the United States mitigated against the development of a feudal or manorial land owning system other than in parts of Virginia and the Hudson River Valley in the early years of the republic. Even these exceptions did not produce the social and economic structures nor the extravagant manor houses found in Europe. In the American South, the use of slaves for estate labor was another important distinction between the American and European models of agricultural estates. The only manor house in the United States (or North America for that matter) that resembled the form and function of a European-style estate and manor is the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina (which is still owned by descendents of the original builder, a member of the Vanderbilt family). Most manor-style homes in the US were built merely as exurban retreats for wealthy industrialists in the late 19th and early 20th century and had no agricultural, administrative or political function. Today, nearly all historically and architecturally significant manor houses in the United States are house museums.
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