Inspirational homes (2)

“Inspirational homes” might suggest a strapline blazoned across the front of a glossy décor magazine. But the sort of inspiration I’m talking about here is where real-life ancient buildings “inspire” me in my descriptions of the homes of the characters in my novels, which are set in 14th century southern England.

Last month, I discussed two buildings, found at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex, that are my inspiration for the homes of rural peasants. Today, I am going to discuss two houses of somewhat higher standing: one the home of a well-to-do farming family and the other that of a wealthy Southampton merchant.

Both of these wealthier homes have two storeys, with a main “hall” downstairs and a “solar”, a private area for the family, upstairs. Both have additional rooms and, by comparison with the cottages, are really very spacious. Yet such homes would still be draughty and cold underfoot, the hearth might still be in the middle of the floor (though chimneys were beginning to be installed in wealthier homes), and the windows might still be pretty small and were almost certainly unglazed.

The Bayleaf Farmstead, again at the Weald and Downland Museum, is a reconstruction of an early 15th century hall-house, and is typical of “Wealden” houses, common in the Weald of Kent and East Sussex, which were mostly built by prosperous yeoman farmers or well-off craftsmen and tradesmen in towns.

Bayleaf_wealden_house_-_geograph.org.uk_-_814311
Keith Edkins / Bayleaf wealden house / CC BY-SA 2.0

Bayleaf comes from Chiddingstone, about 10 miles (16 km) north-west of Tunbridge Wells in Kent. The house is timber-framed with a tiled roof, and is constructed with four bays, two of which form the central hall, full height to the rafters. The outer bays are both two-storey, and the upper rooms have “jetties” to the front of the house. To one side of the central hall is what is referred to as the “parlour”, with a solar upstairs. On the other side of the hall are ground floor service rooms, with a large chamber on the first floor.

The main door of the house opens into a cross passage, which separates the central hall from the service rooms, and has a door at its other end leading to the rear of the house.

The central hall is significantly bigger than the two peasants’ cottages I described last month. It is open to the rafters, and has a rather grand double-height – but unglazed – window, with hinged and folding internal shutters, that provides good light for the dining table. Overall the effect is impressive. Nonetheless, this hall does still have a central hearth, shown as a rectangle of bricks more or less in the middle of the floor. Because, I suppose, the room is bigger than the halls in the peasant cottages, the smoke from the fire – which was burning nicely when I visited – did not seem quite so unpleasant. The smoke was rising upwards (rather than billowing), escaping perhaps through the small gabled opening in the roof ridge, although, as I have read elsewhere, it is possible that much of the smoke simply finds its way out through gaps between the roof tiles.

While this central hall is still the main living area, there are other “living rooms” (in contrast to the peasant cottages): the parlour to one side of the hall and the solar above it. The family was not obliged to spend their whole lives in this one room, grand as it is. It would certainly be the dining room, and where the family would receive guests, and where everyday domestic tasks might be carried out. But sleeping would be done elsewhere – probably upstairs – and perhaps family members could escape from each other occasionally to the parlour.

It is thought that initially some cooking may have taken place on the fire in the hall but, by the 16th century, the kitchen, used for brewing and baking as well as cooking meals, would have been in a separate building, for safety’s sake.

The furniture and furnishing in Bayleaf’s hall reflects the relative wealth of the occupants. The wide trestle table is laid with a cloth, the bench and stools are well made. There is a decorated cupboard, with pewter ware displayed, and a solid storage chest. Curtains hang on the walls behind the table, presumably for decoration but also to combat draughts.

On the other side of the cross passage, doors lead into the service rooms: the buttery, used mainly for storing vessels and utensils, and the pantry, used for storing food. A stairway at the back leads up to the chamber above, its original use being unknown, but perhaps used as a bedchamber for servants and/or the older children of the family.

At the other side of the hall, an opening by the high table – closed with a curtain rather than a wooden door – leads to the “parlour”. The downstairs room may have been used for sleeping, storage and work, such as spinning for the lady of the house and accounts for the master. The room upstairs, the “solar”, was probably where the family slept, that is, the master, his wife and their younger children. Older children might have slept in the parlour or perhaps in the service chamber at the other side of the house.

Interestingly, the upstairs solar is shown with its own privy. The museum says that the reconstruction of this privy is conjectural, but it is not unlikely. A small jetty at the back of the room indicates where the privy might have been. Typically, the latrine emptied onto the midden heap or into an open cesspit or a covered conduit. Sometimes such privies were installed in a room referred to as a “garderobe”, essentially a wardrobe, on the principle that the odour of urine kept pests away from valuable clothing. This doesn’t seem to be the case here. However, if the reconstruction is anything to go by, this privy was exceedingly draughty, but perhaps preferable to finding your way outdoors to the privy in the garden!

Jettied_Toilet_of_Bayleaf_House_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1259735
Oast House Archive / Jettied Toilet of Bayleaf House / CC BY-SA 2.0
Toilet_of_Bayleaf_House_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1259712
Oast House Archive / Toilet of Bayleaf House / CC BY-SA 2.0

The furniture in the parlour and solar reflects the rooms’ most likely use, with beds and storage chests. The “best” bed in the solar chamber is a wonderful robust four-poster, with a ceiling (a “tester”) and curtains for privacy and to keep out draughts. The bed in the parlour is of a simpler design without the posts or hangings. The principal bed is shown with a truckle, a bed on wheels that slides underneath the larger bed, often used by the younger children.

Bayleaf is a beautiful house. I often have it in my mind when I’m thinking about the homes of the more well-to-do in my novels.

I also love the late 13th century Mediaeval Merchant’s House in French Street, Southampton, managed by English Heritage. The shape and style of this house sometimes merges with that of Bayleaf in my head when I’m thinking about the homes of my wealthier characters, although this merchant’s house is clearly more of a town house than Bayleaf.

Medieval_Merchant's_House_2017
By Geni – Photo by user:geni, CC BY-SA 4.0

The house was built in about 1290 by John Fortin, a prosperous merchant, and has survived largely intact. The main walls of the house were built of limestone but the overhanging bay at the front of the house is timber-framed. The roof is of Cornish slate.

This house does have some similarities with Bayleaf: it is spacious, has private family rooms and its furniture is well-made and relatively elaborate. But this house also acted as business premises for the owner, for it has a shop at the front and a room at the back that was probably used as an office, as well as an undercroft beneath the house for the storage of the merchant’s goods: barrels of wine! A wooden sign in the shape of a wine barrel hangs from the projecting upper chamber, alerting potential customers to the goods on offer here.

The front door beside the shop front leads into a narrow passage, with a door off it into the shop, and a door ahead leading into the private accommodation. The shop has unglazed windows but also shutters which can be let down to form a shop counter to the street. The shop itself is kitted out as a wine store, but I think that customers probably did not enter the shop, making their purchases from the counter.

Beyond the inner passage door, the passage leads on to an opening to the central hall, which, as with all the other houses, was the main living room, where the family ate and entertained, and carried out their everyday tasks. As with all the houses, the room is open to the rafters. It has relatively large windows, unglazed but protected by shutters. It has a 14th century chimney, although when the house was first built it would have had a central hearth. But wall fireplaces were becoming more common by the mid-14th century, perhaps particularly in towns. Relatively spacious as this room is, one cannot help but wonder at the inconvenience of having a fire in the middle of the floor, especially for the mistress of the house, as she swept past it with her long skirts, never mind the unpleasantness of the smoke! The arrival of chimneys must have seemed a wonderful innovation.

Southampton_Medieval_Merchant's_House_interior
By Hchc2009 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The passage continues on to a private room, probably used by the merchant as his office, which also has a fireplace. It is thought that a door led from this room to an external latrine.

The furniture in the hall consists of a long trestle table, a grand, painted throne-like chair for the master of the house, and a bench for his family. There is an elaborately carved and, surprisingly perhaps, brightly painted, cupboard, together with a couple of storage chests, hangings on the walls and an array of jugs and utensils on display. In the “office” is another table with stools, and yet another decorated cupboard and a chest.

Southampton_Medieval_Merchants_House_Hall
By Hchc2009 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Rising from the central hall, a substantial staircase takes you upstairs to the solar, where there are two chambers, located either side of the open hall and connected by a gallery that overlooks the hall below. The room at the back of the house is probably the bedchamber for the family, the one at the front for guests and perhaps also used as a day room by the women of the family, where the light from the relatively large window would be good for spinning or sewing.

The back bedchamber is furnished as a place for the whole family to sleep. The beds have testers and curtains, like the principal bed in Bayleaf, there is a very sturdy rocking cradle, a stool and elaborately carved and painted storage chests. There might have been a door leading to the external latrine tower.

Southampton_Medieval_Merchant's_House_bedroom
By Hchc2009 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

So Bayleaf and the merchant’s house in Southampton represent the homes of comparatively wealthy mediaeval people. They afforded a little more privacy for their occupants than the peasant cottages, although children still slept with their parents, or perhaps with servants, so privacy remained limited. These two houses are also much lighter than the peasant cottages, with their larger windows, but the windows were still unglazed and therefore draughty until the shutters were closed, plunging the rooms into gloom. Heating in the merchant’s house, with two fireplaces downstairs, would no doubt have seemed a great improvement over the smoky central hearth of Bayleaf. But there was no heating in any of the upstairs rooms and I assume that all the downstairs rooms would have had floors of beaten earth so I am sure these houses must have been pretty chilly for all their relative sophistication.

Nonetheless, they surely represented luxury compared to the peasant cottages we saw last month. Next month, I will look at one house that represents the homes of the gentry – a manor house, if a fairly grand one. True luxury, perhaps?

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