Sections from my world-wide publication: “Living in History”.
This time Medieval and early Tudor architecture
Medieval and early Tudor architecture (up to c.1550)
The earliest surviving houses in England date from the Medieval and early Tudor
period, and these are only houses that belonged to the wealthier members of
Houses of the poor of the time were thrown up using locally obtained cheap or free
materials, which is why they soon fell down again leaving little trace. Richer people
could afford to use more durable fabrics and employ experienced builders, which
inevitably led to a longer lifespan for their houses.
The Medieval period, also known as the Middle Ages, started with the reign of Edward
the Confessor (1042-1066). Private housing changed little during this period. In
fact it didn’t start to significantly change until what is known as the Second Great
Rebuilding at the beginning of the 16th century, during the reign of Henry VIII.
House building largely conformed to the standard pattern of each locality, with most
innovations starting in the south east of England, where distinctive house types such
as the Continuous Jetty and the Wealden came into being. The Norman Conquest
also brought architectural influences from the French aristocracy, although this
chiefly had an impact on the many castles and churches they built.
The houses of the rich centred on great halls, open to the roof, where smoke from
an open hearth gradually found its way out through gaps in the thatch, which was
the most common type of roofing material at the time. The fire was used to heat the
hall and to cook food suspended above it either in a cauldron or on a spit. Chimneys
were inserted at a later date.
The fabric of the walls depended on what was readily available in the surrounding
landscape and varied from stone to cob and flint, or most commonly, timber frame
in-filled with wattle and daub.
The timber (usually oak) was cut and measured by the craftsman carpenter at his
yard and pre-fabricated as the frame that would eventually be erected. To ensure the
pieces were reassembled in the right order the carpenter carved marks in the timber
based on forms of Roman numerals.
During its erection the frame was supported on temporary blocks that were later
replaced by a stone or brick plinth. This kept the base above the damp of the earth.
Deep foundations were considered unnecessary. Houses were built in a series of bays
or sections without corridors so that the only access through rooms was by doors in
the dividing walls.
Between the main timber supports, the wattle panels were oak staves inserted into
beams interwoven with hazel withies. This basket-like finish was covered by the
daub – a mixture of clay, dung and chopped straw. Finally, the walls were limewashed
or painted. If properly maintained this material lasted indefinitely, but when
deterioration occurred the daub was replaced with other materials, such as stone and
The exterior of early timber-framed houses displayed large panels with curved cross
braces to hold the structure stable. Later on close studded timbers, an expensive
process, displayed the wealth of owners.
Windows were very small, if they existed at all, to avoid drafts. Sometimes they had
a wooden shutter that could be closed at night and during bad weather. Doors were
simple constructions made of planks. This meant the atmosphere inside these houses
was very dark and smoky.
Only the very grandest houses had any durable floor covering, such as tile. Most
had rushes covering a consolidated earth floor, which had to be regularly renewed.
In some areas of the country the hall was situated at a first floor level with livestock
quartered below. This kept cattle and sheep safe and also provided a form of central
heating from their bodies. Access to the upper living quarters was often by external
There was very little privacy for most people at this time. However, yeomen and their
families were lucky enough to have an area at the end of the hall, cut off from the
general public. This was their private quarters or solar. This space was often divided
into an upper and lower level with a simple ladder for access to the floor above. The
lower level could be a sitting room or bedroom, while the upper floor housed storage
space or an additional sleeping area.
There was also a division for eating arrangements. Although everybody ate in the
same space, owners sat on a raised dais in the upper or solar end of the hall. Fixed
benches were provided to receive guests and trestle tables were added when meals
There was frequently another section at the other end of the hall – the service area
which housed small rooms such as a buttery, a brewhouse or a milk-house, where
food preparation and storage took place.
Above these spaces was storage for household goods or sacks of produce such as
wheat. There was sometimes a cross passage between the service rooms and the hall
so that servants could move from the front to the rear of the house without disturbing
the yeoman and his guests.
Houses in towns differed to some degree from houses of a similar size in the country.
They were crowded closer together and, because the predominant material was wood,
there were often fires.
For this reason King Richard I passed a law requiring the lower parts of town houses
to be made of stone or brick. This brick was often accompanied by a jetty at the first
floor level, which produced an overhung first floor.
There has been considerable speculation about the purpose of these jetties. They
certainly protected lower walls from the weather in the absence of gutters and provided
more floor space on the upper storey. They may also have been created because of
problems of obtaining posts long enough to run the full height of buildings. The
most plausible reason for them, however, seems to be one of fashion, as they are
almost always found on the front of the house, even when the prevailing wind is at
If owned by a tradesman, town houses were habitually built side-on to the street.
This allowed space for a hall and service quarters to the rear. The front became a shop
section to display wares. Storage areas were created beneath ground level, which had
the added advantage of keeping goods cool.
Surprisingly many inns have survived from the Middle Ages. They originated in two
ways; first as an alehouse or tavern selling beer and other drinks, and second as a
hostel for travellers.
Both had connections with the local Church. It was common for Churches to
supplement their income by brewing and selling ale from booths in the churchyard
and later from a Church House nearby. The alehouse could also be a side-line for a
farmer or some other tradesman. It is therefore not always easy to determine whether
a building was originally a pub or a private house.
Furniture and household goods were very simple and few, but with the steady growth
in the middle classes, especially successful traders, the demand for luxury items grew
over the years.
Previously, for example, roof frameworks were constructed from huge but plain
timbers. Now elaborate carvings were added to the central supporting crown post, as
well as ornate mouldings on other load bearing timbers.
This era saw times of prosperity and famine, the Black Death, wars with Europe
and civil unrest during the Wars of the Roses, culminating in the reign of the first
Tudor ruler Henry VII. It is a credit to the builders that houses from this period
have survived until today, albeit adapted to a lesser or greater degree by succeeding