Dartford Town Archive About the Archive Early History Medieval Period Early Modern 19th Century 20th Century Dartford Technology
HomepageThemes overviewTimelineBibliographyTeachers' resourcesSite search
Buildings and architectureOverviewPopulation and the peopleIndustryTransport and communicationsEducationLeisure and entertainmentReligionMilitaryPolitics
Early Modern



Shortly after the first dissolution of Dartford Priory in 1539, Henry VIII decided to provide himself with a series of houses on the road from London to the coast. Henry needed somewhere to stay on his regular journeys between London and the coast. He also needed accommodation suitable for distinguished foreign visitors. The King decided to build houses along the main road from London at Dartford, Rochester and Canterbury. At Dartford, this involved the demolition of all the buildings formerly associated with Dartford Priory.

The history and progress of the building of Henry VIII’s Dartford Manor House are well-documented. A detailed set of accounts kept by James Needham, one of the surveyors of the King’s works at Dartford, is preserved at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Public Record Office.



Elizabeth I shilling

Click to enlarge

In June 1545, Dartford’s Royal Manor House became the venue for a series of meetings of the privy council, the most important decision-making body in the political life of Tudor England. Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of Henry VIII, resided at the Manor House between 1553 and 1557. Following the second and final dissolution of Dartford Priory, the site and Manor House buildings again reverted to the Crown. Elizabeth I retained the Manor House as a royal property for her own use. She stayed at the Manor House in 1559 and 1573. Towards the end of her reign she granted it to Sir Edward Darcy, who used it as his main residence.


Top of page


Part of King Henry’s Dartford Manor House is still standing today in Priory Road. The surviving portion of the original Tudor buildings, now owned by Dartford Borough Council, comprises the western gatehouse, which once formed part of the south-west angle of the Great Court. The southern part of the building formed part of the ‘New Lodging’ mentioned in the 1543 accounts. An interpretation panel in the Manor House garden provides basic details regarding the history of the Royal Manor House. Displays in the entrance foyer give an account of the construction, occupation and use of the building in Tudor and Elizabethan times.

The surviving building on the courtyard side is entirely of red brick, but the outward side is a strange mixture of materials including Caen and Reigate stone, ashlar and flint. It was never intended that this part of the building should be visible. Originally, the whole of this structure was covered with decorated plaster. The surviving building shows evidence of poor and hasty workmanship. Original Tudor fireplaces and wooden beams are still preserved intact within the building.


Top of page


An extensive boundary wall still surrounds the site. Part of the western and most of the northern section of boundary wall is of medieval date. This section of wall is built entirely of Kentish ragstone, with the exception of a tall coping, which is faced with flint. Other sections of wall which date from the time of Henry VIII incorporate all sorts of material including ashlar, flint, and many worked stones of twelfth century date. This worked stone was transported by river from the site of Barking Abbey in Essex.

On the west side of the site and opening into what was the great garden is an oak doorway with moulded jambs, the erection of which is mentioned in the building accounts dated February 1544.

The western boundary wall contains hundreds of large blocks of black ore brought to Dartford from the Canadian Arctic by the Elizabethan explorer Sir Martin Frobisher 1577-9. Frobisher believed the rock contained gold. He set-up a smelting works at Dartford, but the rock would not yield sufficient quantities of gold. The discarded rock was used in and around Dartford for building.


Top of page

Double-ended key

Click to enlarge


Archaeological evidence and contemporary building accounts provide valuable information about the size, style and layout of the Royal Manor House. It was arranged around two courtyards. The King’s and Queen’s private quarters surrounded the Little Court which had an entryway into the Great Court.



Click to enlarge

Ranged around the gravel-covered Great Court were the kitchens, store-rooms, servants’ quarters, Keepers’ and Porters’ lodgings and the East and West Gatehouses. Jettied ‘Jakes Houses’ or ‘Stool Houses’ (toilets) with tiled roofs were a prominent feature of the building. The toilets were either connected to drains or relied on liquid seepage into the subsoil. Stairs led from the upper storey of the building into the courtyard. Both the king and queen had direct access to their respective gardens. The King's Great Garden contained 'butts' for archery.

The main larder/storehouse was sited close to the West Gate. Inevitably, kitchens were sited some distance from the residential quarters. The installation of high chimneys ensured that neither smoke nor the smell of cooking annoyed the King and his guests. The West Gatehouse (part of which still survives) incorporated the Keeper’s lodgings and hall, as well as a bedchamber, kitchen and buttery.


Document 1: Click the link below to view the document.

Rooms in the Royal Manor House at Dartford,
(taken from the original building accounts 1541-1544).


Top of page

Manor Gatehouse

Click to enlarge


It is likely that visitors to Dartford Manor House would have approached the building from the eastern side, from the Hythe Street side of the town. Access to the Manor House was via a gravel-covered roadway, which led to the East Gatehouse, an imposing tower-like structure rising above the two-storey lodgings which abutted either side. One of the sets of lodgings was occupied by the Gatehouse Porter, who greeted visitors, maintained security and received goods and supplies delivered by tradespeople. The East Gatehouse was decorated with battlements, crests and finials. Entry to the inner Great Court was via an impressive archway occupying the lower part of the Gatehouse.

Security was an important consideration in the design of a building that was to house the King of England. The buildings and gardens were surrounded by high stone walls enclosing approximately twelve acres of land. The external appearance of the range of buildings would have been impressive. Henry VIII’s Manor House was the largest building in Dartford. Over two million Tudor bricks were used in its construction, as well as large quantities of Kentish ragstone, freestone and flint.

The Royal Manor House was a mixture of the traditional Tudor country house and the castle. Battlements figured prominently in the design. Miniature pinnacles with gilded vanes and standards surmounted the tiled roofs. More than forty separate chimneys are mentioned in the building accounts. The largest were sited on the roofs over the kitchens. Gable-ends 30 feet high carried the weight of the main tiled roofs, which rested on substantial oak timber beams.

A large number of windows helped to soften the external appearance. The main apartments in the complex were fitted with large bay windows, giving a good view out onto the King’s Great Garden and the Queen’s Garden. Clerestory windows admitted light to the upper floors of the various buildings. Most of the windows contained leaded lights arranged in a diamond pattern.

One of the most unusual features of the building was the exterior walls. These were covered with a layer of plaster of Paris on which were painted designs in red and black. This style of decoration was known as ‘okering and pencilling’. Plaster of Paris was also applied to the jambs and arches of the two gatehouses and the large fireplaces to make the Tudor brickwork look like masonry.

Top of page


The process of demolishing the priory buildings began in June 1541. Detailed building accounts list the various craftsmen and demolition workers employed. Carpenters were employed setting out timber and dismantling the roof of the old priory church. The roof was repaired and re-used in the construction of the Manor House. The ceiling in the priory dormitory was also dismantled. Inbowers (joiners) were employed to cut the timbers used for the construction of bay windows. The bricklayers were kept busy breaking down chimneys and walls, removing tiles and slates, constructing a lime kiln and breaking-up the tombs and tombstones in the priory cemetery. Some of the tombstones were used to line drains. A special group of demolition workers called ‘underminers’ were given the job of demolishing a tower on the site. Labourers dug the new foundations.

In 1542 a payment was made to James Needham, surveyor of the King’s works, for making brick walls, wharfes and pales in the King’s town of Dartford. The cost of this work was 250.

One of the surviving building account books covers the period September - October 1543 when the work at Dartford was nearing completion. By October 1543, over 1,412 had been spent on the project. Over 180 workmen were employed on the Manor House site in 1543. These included masons, carpenters, inbowers, sawyers, bricklayers, tilers, plumbers, mortarmen, scaffolders and common labourers.


Document 2: Click the link below to view the document

Categories of workers and officials involved with the construction work on the Dartford Royal Manor House site 1541-1544.



Document 3: Click the link below to view the document

Wages paid to workers involved in the construction of the Royal Manor House 1541-1544.


Top of page


The building of Dartford’s Royal Manor House was a huge project requiring planning and co-ordination, particularly the supply of building materials. The delivery of goods had to be planned carefully to ensure that storehouses on site did not become full to overflowing with surplus items. Ships brought supplies of stone, timber, roofing tiles, bricks and ironwork to the Hedge House Wharf on the River Darent. Most of the bricks used came from Deptford and Limehouse. Most other supplies were brought in by road.

Some of the materials required were made on-site including scaffold poles, tools and lime. Lime-kilns were set-up close to the Manor House; these were operated twenty-four hours a day. Locally quarried chalk was burnt in the kilns to produce the lime which formed the basis of mortar used on-site. John Herring of London supplied "3 great syves" for the mortar-makers to sift lime with.


Document 4: Click the link below to view the document

Details of building materials supplied at Dartford 1541-1544.


Next topic: 17th & 18th century mansions


Top of page
  Site search
Search pages for: Any word All words Exact phrase