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