By the second half of the sixteenth century, it is greatly altered from the shape in which it had lain throughout the medieval period. The most obvious change was the disappearance of the ecclesiastical houses, which had made up the ever present and all-encompassing face of the universal church. They had been the most imposing features of the countryside. These were the buildings that, above all others, had defined the character and cultural balance of medieval life. Their importance was accentuated because, unlike elsewhere in medieval Europe, there were no substantial towns in England except the capital. The castles had been few and far between and always outside the normal tenor of life. The villages, though many, had been physically insignificant, tiny low huddles, marked only by the spires of their churches. But all around there were the abbeys, priories, chantries and chapels.