Tag Archives: Solar

The Solar Revisited

The solar, Stokesay Castle (2)

The solar, Stokesay Castle

Some time ago I wrote about medieval solars in a rather general way, but I visited Stokesay Castle in Shropshire during the summer and now have a few photographs of a medieval solar. Stokesay is really a house with ideas above its station, but it shows, in many ways, how the living spaces of the wealthy functioned in the fourteenth century.

Although a seventeenth-century owner of the house covered the room with the wood panelling that was fashionable at the time, the elements of the medieval room can still be seen.

The solar was designed to be a comfortable room. There’s a fireplace to keep it warm and windows to let in light. The fireplace in the photograph is also from the seventeenth century, but there was a fireplace there in the fourteenth century. It was here that the lord of the manor and his family spent most of their time. The lord’s bed would be here and he would conduct his business here.

Whilst most people slept on the floor or on sacks filled with straw, the bed of the lord of the manor would be something that we would recognise as a bed today. A fairly substantial mattress would have rested on a wooden bed frame. He would have had pillows and sheets and blankets. A canopy would have hung from the ceiling and the curtains attached to it would be drawn around the bed to provide both privacy and warmth.

The solar, Stokesay Castle

The solar, Stokesay Castle

Chairs were almost as rare as beds, but the lord of the manor probably had one in his solar. Cushions would have made it comfortable, and it would have been brightly painted.

Solars were built at the opposite end of the hall to the kitchens so that they were out of the way of any unpleasant odours. Bear in mind that there were no fridges to preserve food and whole animals might be used for a meal. In the summer the kitchen was probably not a good place to be. Being at the other end of the house also meant that there was less risk to the solar and its inhabitants if the kitchen burned down, which was not an unusual occurrence.

They were also built on the first floor as a sign of the status of their occupants. In addition, it enabled the inhabitants of the room to look down into the hall to see what was going on there.  Here’s one of the windows looking from the solar.

Window from solar to hall Stokesay Castle

View from the solar into the hall, Stokesay Castle

Here are both windows seen from the hall.

Windows at the rear of the hall, Stokesay Castle

Windows from the solar, Stokesay Castle

The rest of the household spent a lot of their time in the hall, even sleeping there, so the windows provided a means of seeing or hearing what was going on.

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The Medieval Solar

medbed6

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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Making the Bed

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Over the last two weeks I’ve looked at medieval sleeping habits and the lack of nighttime privacy. This week I’m looking at the beds in which these activities or non-activities took place.

I write historical romance novels and, inevitably, at some point in the story, the hero and heroine will end up in bed, usually together, but sometimes apart.  Even if I don’t draw attention to it, it helps me to know what kind of beds they sleep in.

In the fourteenth century, as now, not all beds were equal, and many people simply slept on a blanket over the rushes that were all that separated them from the beaten earth floor. If you were a servant in a castle or great house those rushes might not be very clean. The household would bring in all kinds of dirt on their shoes from outside. There might be dogs in the hall who were less than housetrained. Food and drink might have been spilled on the rushes. One of the reasons why the owner of a great house or castle had a solar separate from the hall was so that he would be spared the smells associated with it. Some of the servants might be lucky enough to have a sack filled with straw as a mattress.

The next step up was sleeping on one or even two proper mattresses. At this level the mattress would be made of hemp or canvas and stuffed with straw. The mattress would not be very thick and would get thinner each time it was slept on. The straw would scratch the sleeper and would contain biting insects. The straw might not be very clean and might smell. Sleeping on such a mattress was only marginally more comfortable than sleeping on the floor.

On top of the mattress and the person sleeping on it would be a rough woollen blanket, more than one in winter if they were lucky. 

Wealthier people would have their mattresses on a wooden frame. The frame itself probably harboured creatures which would bite the occupant. The frame would be very basic and the mattress would be placed on ropes stretched across the frame. These had to be tightened each night. The ropes wouldn’t stay tight for long and the occupant or occupants of the bed would find themselves rolling towards the middle of the mattress during the night.

Above this level the frame design remained more or less unchanged. The quality of the wood might vary, as would the size of the frame and the mattress.

Very well-off people had curtained beds. This took the form of a canopy from which curtains hung around all four sides of the bed. The curtains could be tied back to allow exit or entry for the occupant, and possibly during summer nights. A blessing in winter, the curtains must have been stifling in the summer.

These beds would have thicker mattresses sometimes filled with feathers. They would also have linen sheets and better quality woollen blankets and bedspreads. The wealthy would rest their heads on pillows.

These kinds of beds were valuable possessions and would be passed on in wills. Those owned by great were so treasured that they would be taken down when the owner travelled and put up again when he reached his destination.

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How Many to a Bed!

medbed6

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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