by Johanna Jones
ONE OF THE GREAT PERIODS of 'showing off' in house building came in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. A contemporary writer, William Harrison, summed it up like this in 1587, 'There are old men yet dwelling in the village where I live which has noted these things to be marvellously altered in England ... one is the multitude of chimneys lately erected. The second is the great ... amendment of lodging This applied to certain sections of society who were anxious to build, or re-build their own houses. Merchants, in particular, could afford to do this, and such a man has left us his memorial at Yaverland Manor. But, to add to the interest, only two miles or so away, at Brading, is the old house in which he first lived, so that in an afternoon we can see an excellent illustration of the improved housing enjoyed by the Brading merchant Jermyn Richards.
Jermyn Richards was a typical Elizabethan making his way in that vigorous and aggressive age. He was a Welshman who came into the Island during the reign of Queen Mary and was described by Sir John Oglander as being 'servant to the Earl Lincoln, Lord Admiral'. Such a patron was very important to any man seriously concerned with making his way in life, for a friend at court was both a protector and a provider of lucrative posts. For Jermyn Richards, his patron was particularly well placed, the Admiralty being one of the chief sources of patronage. Richards became vice-admiral of the Isle of Wight and Hampshire, an office which brought to the holder all the fees and perquisites from the courts he held. It was a very profitable sinecure and must have contributed comfortably to the family income. But, such a source of income apart, Richards became wealthy by hard business. He lived in Brading 'in the house on the south side of the church'. This is now part of the Brading Wax Museum and is an excellent example of a comfortable late medieval house. Here he kept his brewhouse and, according to Oglander, 'by vending his beer to ships at St Helens .., grew rich and purchased Yaverland'.
As it stands today Yaverland Manor has remarkably few modern additions and is a good example of a late Elizabethan or Jacobean house. There had been an earlier manor house and the decision had to be made whether to abandon this altogether and build anew. There is sufficient evidence at Yaverland to suggest that some part at least of the old house was incorporated into the new building, although the finished structure is typical of its period, being along hall with projecting wings. The front of the house is rather unusual, however, because no porch protects the main door into the hall and the 'porch building' fever which swept the country in the early years of the seventeenth century passed Yaverland by. The roof line presents that charming appearance of gables and tall chimneys which is so characteristic of stone houses of the period. But the position of one chimney, on the east of the house, is interesting as it is placed, not on the end wall itself, but set some feet back from the wall, rising up through the lower part of the roof slope. This allows space for a newel staircase to be wound in beside the chimney stack, an older stairway than the elaborate staircase built in 1620.
Looking at the plan, one can see the standards of comfort Jermyn Richards set for himself. The hall takes up the largest area; at one end was a stone-flagged kitchen with a large open fire-place for roasting and boiling, and beside it, set into the wall was the bread oven. In this wing of the house was a second service room, probably a buttery or dairy. At the opposite end of the hall would be the parlour and other private rooms for the family, together with the staircase beside the chimney leading to the chambers above. This part of the house was probably slightly altered in the early eighteenth century, following a fire, and it seems likely that the parlour was made larger by taking in part of the hall. All the rooms, including the hall, have fire places, as do the rooms above, confirming Harrison's view 'of the multitude of chimneys ... erected'. Above the first floor chambers are the rooms built within the roof space, those in the east wing and the central area being complete with gable windows. The west wing has blocked-in windows which were never glazed, although they are finished in every other way. They give a symmetrical appearance to the house and may never have been intended for use as they are in the service wing; but houses of the period frequently have unfinished sections, which were intended to be made up later but were never completed.
The hall was the core of the house, and today it raises several interesting questions. The floor is at two levels, which almost divide the hall in two, the larger upper portion being at the east end. This is not a dais for the high table, which was usually no more than a shallow step above floor level. At Yaverland, the difference in levels requires two steps to connect the upper and lower parts of the hall. The lower hall is a compact, almost square shape, the only fire place being in the end wall, an unusual position for a Jacobean hall. This wall itself is one of the most interesting features of the house. It is extraordinarily thick, approximately 63 inches wide; and no other wall in the house compares with it. As an internal wall, it is quite unnecessary, but as an external wall incorporated into a later building its size would be explained. Leading into this part of the hall on the north side is a small door with a flattened Tudor arch, once an external door, but now with additional building beyond it. A very wide, heavy cross-beam supports the floors above this part of the hall, and at each level above, a similar beam is found, culminating at the third floor level in an enormously wide, thick and very ancient beam, much older and heavier than any other in the house. The peculiar features of this lower end of the hall suggest that here we have the hall of the earlier house, and this impression is re-inforced by the discovery of layers of animal bones found underneath the present floor when it was recently raised.
One bedroom immediately above the lower hall has the original panelling in position. It is made of plain wood squares with a frieze of stylized leaf patterns. At some time in the past history of the house, a wall of this panelling was given to Newchurch parish church to be used as some part of the church furnishings. Later, the panelling was removed from the church and stacked away in a barn at Newchurch. Shortly after the present owner, Commander Monck, took over the property, his sister was talking to an old workman who remembered where the missing pieces lay. She went at once and was able to buy back the panelling for £17 Is. The old craftsman went to work, replacing the panels and re-carving missing parts of the frieze, and, so long-lived is the tradition of working in wood, the twentieth century work can only be distinguished from the seventeenth century carving by the lighter colour of the wond.
Working in oak was the great expression of craftmanship at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and skilled carpenters could be found in every locality. It was they who added the final display of wealth and success to Yaverland when a splendid new staircase was constructed, leading off the hall. This was no hole-in-the-corner convenience for getting from the ground to the upper floors, but a creative piece of work which delights the sense today as it must have pleased the Richards family when it was built. It is built in the style of the period, following the fashion set by the aristocracy, with an entrance leading from the hall which compares in decorative carving, with any small manor house of the time.
To build such a stairway was an expensive undertaking. A wing had to be added to the back of the house to contain it, with all that this entailed in the carriage of stone and employment of masons, before the carpenters could begin. The stairs are carried round a staircase well, shallow steps leading easily to the upper floors. The end posts of the banisters are simple bulbous goblet shapes, with similarly shaped pendants at the base of each post. The only decorative carving on the staircase itself is in the figures which act as supporters. Here the woodcarvers enjoyed creating exuberant forms: a crouching naked man with beard and flowing hair, playing a pipe; a Renaissance-type angel head; and a portrait of a man's head, said to be James I. But the finest decoration was reserved for the entrance arch.
Here, the vigour of native tradition had full play; the eye is led upward along the strap-work pilasters to the naked torsos which frame the arch. In the centre of the arch is Jermyn Richards's shield, and above this, an outburst of enthusiasm results in two animal masks enclosing the central beam, where strange undulating beasts with snarling heads support a shield on which is carved 1620 and the initials of the owner. This was the central feature of the house and it remains a monument to the skill of local craftsmen.
When the staircase was finished the house was completed. It seems unlikely that Jermyn Richards was responsible for the entire building. He would have been a very old man by 1620, if one assumes that he was already an established merchant when he first came to the Island. The initials on the staircase shield are I E R, and as Jermyn Richards's son was Edward Richards, it is likely that the staircase was his addition to Yaverland. The end result was a building of great charm and distinction and a thoroughly successful display of wealth.