Tag Archives: Medieval Hall

The Hall of a Medieval Manor House

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Sokesay Castle

Last week I was on holiday and I visited Stokesay Castle in Shropshire. Despite its name, it isn’t a castle, but a fortified manor house. Eight miles north of Ludlow, the house is in the Marches, where fortifying everything against the Welsh was a good idea in the thirteenth century.

Despite this, it was built more for show than anything else. The house was not built by a wealthy noble, but by a merchant, Laurence of Ludlow, in the 1280s. I thought it would be interesting to compare his hall with that of the Southampton merchant, whose house I visited back in May. Both houses were built about the same time, one in the middle of a town, the other in the middle of the countryside. Their locations reflect the sources of their owners’ wealth. The Southampton merchant made his money from wine, mostly imported from Gascony. His house, with its shop, was located only a few yards from the quay where the ships bringing the wine from France moored. Lawrence of Ludlow was a wool merchant, making his money from the sheep on the Shropshire hills he could see from the windows of his country house. He was one of the richest men in England, even lending money to Edward I, and his house was built to demonstrate his wealth. Its decorative, rather than defensive, nature was to show that he was not a threat to the more powerful lords nearby, English and Welsh. All it had to do was protect his wealth from robbers. The house is on the road between Shrewsbury and Ludlow, which would have seen a lot of commercial traffic in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It would also have been travelled by outlaws and thieves.

The hall, Stokesay Castle 1

The hall, Stokesay Castle

Both houses are run by English Heritage, but they show two different approaches in how such properties can be presented to visitors. The merchant’s house in Southampton has been restored and its rooms filled with copies of fourteenth-century furnishings. Stokesay has not. With one exception, the walls are bare and the only furniture is a bench and a table in the solar. Even though it’s not in the hall, I thought you’d like to see the bit of wall which retains its fourteenth-century decoration.

Decorated wall, North Tower, Stokesay Castle

Decorated wall, Stokesay Castle

The most obvious difference between the hall at Stokesay and the hall at Southampton is size. I estimated that three or four Southampton halls could fit inside Stokesay.

In one thing they’re the same, both are open to the roof. Stokesay has a wonderful cruck roof.

Cruck beams, the hall, Stokesay Castle 2

Cruck roof, Stokesay Castle

Unlike the Medieval Merchant’s house, Stokesay Castle has a solar. It’s a first-floor room at the southern end of the hall. In this photograph you can see the small windows from which Laurence and his family could look down into the hall to see what the household was doing.

Windows at the rear of the hall, Stokesay Castle

Windows from the solar, Stokesay Castle

The hall at Stokesay Castle is also different in the size and number of its windows, the upper parts of which were glazed. There is plenty of light in this hall.

Windows of the hall, Stokesay Castle

Windows of the hall, Stokesay Castle

There was a fire in the middle of the hall, its location marked by an octagon of stones on the floor.

Location of the fire, the hall, Stokesay Castle

Location of the fire, the hall, Stokesay Castle

Everyone except Laurence, his family and visitors would have slept in the hall. Excluding servants, it’s estimated that his household numbered about 25 people, about the same as a knight’s household. Very few people slept in bedchambers and even fewer slept in beds. Most people slept on a mattress on the floor.

Laurence did not live to enjoy his new house for very long. He drowned at sea in 1294.

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The south tower, Stokesay Castle

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Medieval Merchant’s House – The Hall

 

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The hall of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

Last week I gave an overview of the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. This week we’ll spend some time in the most important space in the house – the hall.

Even though the house was owned by a wealthy merchant,  the hall is quite small.  The table takes up almost the entire width of the room. As indicated by the objects on the table, this was where the merchant, his family and their visitors would have eaten. They would have sat on one side of the table only and another table would have been put along the wall at right angles to the high table to accommodate any else who was eating with them.

The house has been furnished in fourteenth-century style based on furniture that has survived from that period as well as illustrations from the fourteenth century.  The pottery jugs and pots are copies of vessels found during excavations in a nearby street.

The hall would have displayed the merchant’s wealth, which you can see represented above by the ‘tapestry’ and below by the jugs and pots standing on the cupboard and the chest at the foot of the stairs leading up to the first floor.

 

The Hall from the gallery

Ceramic displays in the hall of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

The window you can see above, like the rest of the windows in the house, did not originally contain glass. They were closed with shutters.

The man who lived in such a house would have been wealthy enough to have silver vessels. silk, lengths of fine cloth, carpets, feather-beds, chests and expensive, fashionable clothes. All of these were mentioned in a merchant’s will in the middle of the fourteenth century. As much as possible of the merchant’s wealth would have been displayed in the hall.

Another chest stands against the wooden partition separating the hall from the passage.

 

Chest in hall

Chest in the hall of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

The hall was open to the ceiling.  There would have been a kind of chimney in the roof, since there would have been an open fire on the floor. In the photograph below you can see the gallery which runs between the two first floor bedrooms.

Hall wall and ceiling

Wall and ceiling of the hall, the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton.

This fire was the only form of heating in the house when it was first built. The windows were unglazed and the house would have been cold most of the time. In the winter it would have been very cold.

 

The floor is made of earth. It would have been covered in rushes. This is not a sign of poverty. The floor of most dwellings would have been made of earth, then covered with rushes. Tiles and stone were only for the very wealthy and cathedrals.

 

Earthen floor

Earthen floor, Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

I have included the picture below, despite its quality,  to show how small the hall is. I took it from the bottom of the stairs, with my back against the far wall.

 

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Length of the hall, Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

 

 

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The Medieval Solar

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I wrote a while ago about the hall in a medieval house or castle. Because the hall was a very public place with many busy people doing something there or walking through, lords in large houses and castles needed somewhere else to conduct their private business and to spend their days.

The hall was not necessarily the most pleasant place to sit in all day. Meals were served there, which usually meant that it was not far from the kitchen and cooking smells infiltrated the hall. Most of the household spent their days there, unless they had reason to be elsewhere, which meant it could be noisy and crowded.

If he was wealthy enough, the lord had a solar to which he could withdraw. Here he would have privacy and quiet. Although there was not a great sense of privacy earlier in the Middle Ages, it was becoming important by the end of the fourteenth century. In addition there would always be business that the lord would not want to be known by others.

The solar was the room in which the lord spent most of his time when he was indoors. Most importantly, it contained his bed. He was the only one, except possibly his wife, to have his own bedchamber, let alone his own bed. It would be a large bed and, when he travelled, it would be taken down and travel with him.

Where there was a solar it was upstairs on the first floor. Usually it would have a fireplace, demonstrating the status of the man whose room it was.

Some solars had windows looking down into the hall so that the lord could see what was happening in his absence. His clothes would be stored there in a large chest. He would also have a chair, with cushions and expensive fabric. He was probably the only one in the house to have a chair. Everyone else who was permitted to sit had to make to with a stool. Members of his own family, however, might also have chairs.

The name ‘solar’ doesn’t, surprisingly, relate to the sun, although many solars were built so that they got as much sunlight as possible. Rather it comes from ‘seul’ the French word meaning ‘alone’. It was the place where the lord could be alone.

Along with the hall, it was the most impressive room in the house. Guests and visitors were often received there. The room would be furnished luxuriously in accordance with the lord’s status and wealth. The floor might be tiled, rather than wooden. Elaborate windows might be glazed. There might be tapestries on the walls. All of these were very expensive. It was, ultimately, the place where the lord would know that he was lord.

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The Medieval Hall

 

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Save for the lowliest, all fourteenth century houses and castles had a hall. This was the largest space in the house and, in larger houses and castles, was built to impress. They were high and long. The walls would often be painted with secular or religious images. In richer buildings they would be covered in tapestries, which served to decorate the room, to keep it warm and to demonstrate the owner’s wealth. Although built much later, Henry VIII’s Great Hall at Hampton Court is a wonderful example of this. Amazingly, Henry’s hall was for his household, not for him.

The hall was the heart of the house and served many purposes. Meals were eaten there. In great houses the lord, his family and the most important members of his household would sit at table on a raised platform with everyone else arranged on lower tables in order of precedence.

Meals were taken at what were essentially trestle tables and the household sat on benches. These were easily put away after meals and the servants slept on the floor of the hall. Most fourteenth century furniture was capable of being taken apart and moved.

In many houses the floors were made of beaten earth covered in rushes. Much thought has been given by historians and archaeologists to how the rushes were arranged, since they were probably not just strewn about on the floor. There is an interesting discussion about it in the Secrets of the Castle DVD which I reviewed here. I’m not sure how the solution posited by Ruth Goodman would work in a large hall, though. She tied the rushes together in bundles, which seemed to work well in a tiny, single-roomed dwelling. It’s difficult to see how effective it would have been when people were walking over them every day. Another theory is that the rushes were woven into mats and placed on the floor. In the homes of the wealthy, the floors would be made of stone or tiles, depending on which materials were available locally. The Secrets of the Castle DVD also has an informative section about making tiles.

The hall was also the place where the evening’s entertainment took place. Once it was dark, very little work could take place outside, so everyone was more or less confined to the house. Tales would be told, usually well-remembered stories or tales of people’s own experiences from wars, travels and pilgrimages. In wealthier houses the stories would be read aloud from books. Other forms of entertainment were singing, music, dancing, table-top games and gambling, depending on the season of the year.

In houses where there was no solar, the family would use the hall for their daytime occupations. For women this would mean sewing, spinning or weaving. The men were more likely to be outside during the day, training to fight, hunting or attending to their business.

The photograph at the top of the post is the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. It’s a fairly modest house and includes a shop, but at its centre it has a hall. The hall takes up both stories of the house and a gallery runs between the front and back bedrooms on the first floor. Halls were high because, in the days before fireplaces became common, there would be an open fire in the middle of the room, and the height allowed the smoke to rise away from the occupants.

The owner’s wealth would be on display in the hall. This could take the form of expensive furniture or furnishings, but was usually made up of plate.

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How Many to a Bed!

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Following on from last week’s post about sleep, I thought I’d look at sleeping arrangements. You only have to go into a fourteenth century house or a thirteenth century castle to see that space was at a premium. These buildings took a lot of people to maintain them and, where their purpose was military, to defend them. There just wasn’t enough room for everyone to have their own bed, let alone their own bedchamber, although honoured guests in a great castle might be lucky enough to a have both.

For everyone who wasn’t a king or one of his barons, sharing a bedchamber or a bed was the norm. Even in reasonably well-off houses an entire family might sleep in one room, with the parents in one bed and the children in another, or on a mattress on the floor.

In one of my novels, The Winter Love, I give one of the characters a bed to himself, but he is unmarried and it is his house where he lives alone. Towards the end of the novel Eleanor is given a bedchamber of her own, but it’s clear that this is a particular honour and it is in the house of another bachelor. In The Traitor’s Daughter and His Ransom, however, Alais and Richard respectively share beds with other members of the household.

There was very little living space in houses and castles, and most of what there was was dual purpose. The hall, for example, was the place where meals were eaten, celebrations, including dancing, were held, guests received and the servants slept. It was the largest room, often of impressive, or even imposing, dimensions. Food was eaten off trestle tables and the household sat on benches to eat. All of these were easily cleared away. If there was entertainment, stools could be brought out for those who needed to sit, while everyone else stood. When everyone else had gone to bed, the servants slept on the floor, separated from the beaten earth by rushes, or possibly rush mats, and blankets.

The solar was a first storey room, usually at the end of the hall, in a great house or castle. It was here that the lord slept. During the day it was more like a drawing-room for his family and a place where they could be private. In this room the women embroidered and span and members of the family read or wrote. It would be a very comfortable room, often with a fireplace.

Apart from the lord, and, sometimes, his wife, no one had their own bedchamber. Since there was no concept of privacy, this was not a problem. The sexes were segregated, but that was the only concession.  Beds were expensive and not everyone could afford one. Really good ones were dismantled when the owner travelled and put together again when he arrived at his destination.

When travellers stayed in an inn they could find themselves sleeping in a room containing up to a dozen beds, each holding three or four people. They might share a bed with one or more strangers. There were occasionally separate rooms for women, but they rarely travelled alone and were usually accommodated in a bed with their husband even if it meant throwing a single man out.

 

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