The “inspirational homes” I discussed in my previous two posts represented the sort of mediaeval houses that might have been lived in by the poorer members of society and those of the “middling sort”. We saw how the way of life afforded by the homes of the wealthier members of society included more space, a little more privacy, a degree of greater warmth and light. The peasants might have thought the homes of the yeoman farmer and the merchant offered unbridled luxury compared to their own modest houses, even if, to us, those “luxurious” houses still seem distinctly lacking in comfort.
So what of the houses of the gentry? I am not considering here the great castles and palaces of the aristocracy, for none of the characters in my novels have such high status. But my novels do have knights and their ladies, the sort of people who held manors big and small, some of which (though not all) included a manor house. Manor houses might have been relatively modest, scarcely much different from the yeoman’s farmstead, Bayleaf, that I described last month. Others might have been quite grand, almost castle-like, with high crenellated walls, towers and moats. And of course there were manor houses of all sizes in between. But what perhaps they all had in common at this period was that they were centred around a main great hall, had a number of other rooms and most likely a solar on the first floor.
These posts concern buildings that have “inspired” me in my writing about the homes in which my characters live. For the previous two posts, the houses I discussed came from either the Weald and Downland Museum in West Sussex, or English Heritage. In today’s post, the “inspirational home” again comes from English Heritage.
Stokesay Castle is a 13th century fortified manor house 7.5 miles (12 km) north-west of Ludlow in Shropshire. It is perhaps not quite the right style for a Hampshire manor house, but nonetheless I love it and its interior in particular lives in my head as I write about the homes of my lords and ladies.
This wonderful building was constructed in the 1280/90s. It was extended and refurbished during the 17th century, but it is the 13th century aspects of the house that are my “inspiration”. The house is another merchant’s house, built at almost exactly the same time as John Fortin’s house in Southampton, which we saw last month. In Shropshire, the wool merchant Laurence of Ludlow, one of the richest men in England, bought the manor of Stokesay in 1281, and soon embarked upon building his grand house.
Ten years or so later he obtained a licence to crenellate – or fortify – his house. Although Edward I’s conquest of Wales in 1284 meant that there was now relative peace in the border counties, it seems that bands of thieves continued to roam the countryside and Laurence wanted to ensure that his new house was secure. However, the fortifications did not detract from Laurence’s apparent desire also to demonstrate his sophistication and wealth.
The house is surrounded by a walled moat, though it is not clear if it ever actually held water. An entrance through a gatehouse (17th century, though there was probably an earlier one) leads into the courtyard or bailey. The huge courtyard area (the grass in the photographs would not of course have been there) would have contained additional buildings, such as a kitchen, bakehouse and storerooms.
The main house has an enormous hall and an upper private solar area, and there is a tower at each end of the main building, also containing various private rooms and facilities like privies. To the south is a high crenellated tower, and to the north a tower whose roof balances that of the solar block at the other end of the main central building. On the west side of the building, however, the upper storey of this north tower juts out in a grand jetty. You can see this jettying in the first photo.
The great hall lies between the north tower and the solar block, beneath the wide span of roof that you can see in the picture above. On the east wall, overlooking the bailey, are four pointed gables, three of which have double lancet windows with a circular light at the top.
The vast space of the great hall has a magnificent cruck roof. Originally, the curving timber beams that hold up the roof – the “crucks” – reached further down the walls than they do now. Apparently they were replaced with stone in the 19th century when they began to rot. Nonetheless the roof is one of the glories of the hall.
The high windows on the east side of the hall are matched by others on the west wall, making the great space really very light. Today, the windows are fully glazed, but originally it is likely that glass was put only in the top windows, leaving the lower ones to be covered by shutters in cold or wet weather.
Another of the hall’s glories is the wonderful staircase, most of which is original – that is, remarkably, its treads are over 700 years old! It leads to the upper rooms in the north tower. You can get a splendid view of the hall from the top of the staircase. But it is possible that, on special occasions, minstrels played on the gallery area at the top of the stairs.
It is imagined that the lord, Laurence, and his family and guests would have dined at a table set at the opposite end of the hall from the staircase. This table might well have been raised up from the floor on a dais. The rest of the household would sit at tables set along the side walls. The central hearth – octagonal in shape – was located in middle of the U shape of the tables, the smoke apparently curling up and out of an opening in the roof. I suppose that with the room being so very large, one might not have really noticed the unpleasantness of the smoke. Though it might also be true that the fire would have struggled to heat such an enormous, and enormously high, space!
It is thought that a timber screen might have been installed between the dining area and the staircase, sheltering the diners from the draughts coming from the great main door, which gave access out into the courtyard and the kitchens. It might also allow for the dishes being brought in from the kitchen to be given a discreet last-minute once-over to ensure they met Laurence’s undoubtedly high standards.
The north tower reached by the staircase has its original tiled floor and the remains of wall paintings. Interestingly (given that the great hall has a central hearth), there is a fireplace on a wall in both of the upper rooms. The top floor room overhangs the one beneath by means of a supported jetty on three sides (see the first photograph), although the windows themselves were added in the 17th century.
At the southern end of the hall is the two-storey solar block, which it is thought Laurence and his family used as their private living area until the south tower was built. The ground floor of the block contains what was probably a storeroom. The upper room of the block was refurbished in the 17th century, converting it into a panelled chamber, so sadly there is no sense of how it originally appeared. This room was accessed by an external staircase (the existing one is not original), and it seems that the staircase was sheltered by a “pentice”, a sloping roof attached to the wall. You can see the line of it in the photograph below, just underneath the cut-off window.
Beyond the solar block is the tall south tower, the most castle-like part of the house, built perhaps as a further demonstration of Laurence’s power and taste. But it was also where he moved his private quarters.
The room on the first floor has six windows giving views in almost every direction. Four of them are large enough to accommodate window seats, where – with a cushion or two, perhaps – it must have been very pleasant to sit on sunny days. But the windows were not glazed and had to rely on shutters to keep the heat in and the weather out. Fireplaces and access to a privy were provided for both this room and the one on the floor above. Plenty of mod cons!
Sadly in some ways, English Heritage hasn’t attempted to furnish the mediaeval parts of Stokesay Castle, although there are a few pieces of furniture in the solar refurbished in the 17th century. It would be wonderful in particular to see the great hall furnished with cloth-covered tables, and benches, perhaps great tapestries on the walls, and to have a fire burning in the hearth, as they do in the houses at the Weald and Downland Museum. But I must put my disappointment aside and simply use my imagination and try to visualise what life in this wonderful building must have been like.
Clearly, Laurence of Ludlow’s fortified manor house was state-of-the-art in the 13th century. The grandeur of Stokesay Castle is undisputed, but the comforts of fireplaces and privies, the light offered by the large windows, the availability of lots of space and even a little more privacy, all of these surely contribute to its status as luxurious accommodation? But one presumes that, on his manor, while there might have been a few relatively affluent villeins whose homes were closer to the Bayleaf farmhouse we saw last month, the majority of his tenants undoubtedly lived out their lives in one of those small, dark, smoky cottages – with no luxury at all.