Friday, April 25, 2014

Early English Architecture - Part One

by Octavia Randolph

The Buildings of the Anglo-Saxons, 450 CE to 1066
Wondrously ornate is the stone of this wall, shattered by fate; the precincts of the city have crumbled and the work of giants is rotting away. There are tumbled roofs, towers in ruins, high towers rime-frosted, rime on the limey mortar, storm-shielding tiling scarred, scored and collapsed, undermined by age.....There were bright city buildings, many bathhouses, a wealth of lofty gables, much clamour of the multitude, many a mead-hall filled with human revelry - until mighty Fate changed that. - from The Ruin from the Exeter Book (c 975 CE), translated from Old English by S.A.J. Bradley
The poet of The Ruin tells of looking with wonderment on the remains of a fallen city built with such craft that it seems "the work of giants". This may the Roman city of Aquae Sulis - Bath, seen through Anglo-Saxon eyes. With the Roman settlement of Britain came their typically inventive and ingenious works of architecture and engineering - precisely surveyed and constructed roads; opulent stone villas - some with sixty rooms - featuring enclosed gardens, furnaces and chimneys; thriving trading cities with sewers and public baths; manufactories of ceramic, glass and metal work of every kind. Such trappings of Mediterranean civilization required not only initial effort but ongoing maintenance. Once the legions withdrew the unprotected cities fell prey to lawlessness, neglect, and finally abandonment.

Mercenary soldiers from the marshy shores of modern northern Germany and Denmark, originally imported to help police the Roman settlements, turned on their employers and sought land for themselves. This began a flood of immigration of tribes who would be known as the Angles, Saxons, and to a lesser extent, Jutes. Their native building forms were wooden buildings in simple farmsteads. Fishing, hunting, and subsistence grain and vegetable farming provided for their wants. They turned their back on the Roman cities and the foreign way of life suggested and necessitated by such buildings and communities. Instead they exulted at the wealth of woodland and fertile farmland in their new home. It was the abundant forests of what would become known as Angle-land - Engle-land - England which set the tone for much of the building these new settlers would undertake.

English woodlands yielded not only the raw material to saw long and broad timbers for the erection of walls and cross beams but a wide variety of specialty building products. Coppiced trees will sprout straight slender shafts within weeks of cutting; such growth is ideal for lightweight building poles, fencing - and the shafts of spears. No less an Anglo-Saxon personage than King Ælfred (ruled 871-899) exhorts his readers to "to wend his way to the same road where I cut the props (and) load his waggons with fair rods that he may weave a fine wall, and set up many a goodly house." Although the King was speaking metaphorically about the forest of philosophical wisdom, the diverse practical uses of the English woodland are made clear. In fact wood virtually defines early English building.

"Timbrian" is the Old English verb for "to build" and the very noun "timber" synonymous with "a building". The act of building itself was "getimber" - timbering. "Timbrend" is "a builder". The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Ælfred's able and politically savvy daughter Æthelflaed, known as the Lady of the Mercians "timbered the burh" when she built a fortified base near the Welsh border in 915.

It is in fact the great, vanished timber halls which most readily come to mind as the products of early English architectural efforts, and native forests provided ample building material. But we must not assume that all early Anglo-Saxon buildings were wood framed; there were many of stone. In certain instances stone was even reused from abandoned Roman structures; the tiny but rugged church of St Johns at Escomb (7th/8th century) is built of stone blocks pilfered from the Roman fort at Binchester. Brixworth Church in its earliest incarnation (c 680) was also built with Roman bricks from nearby ruins. Up in York the massive Roman headquarters and surrounding wall was used until the headquarters was finally pulled down about 800 during the expansion of the town. At that time the headquarters still was roofed, and the interior had been divided for new uses; one former office has been identified as being reused as a metal working shop. Reuse of Roman building materials went on a long time. Even the Normans were using Roman bricks from the Roman town of Verulamium to help augment the local flint in the building of the cathedral of St Albans in Hertfordshire.

Huts and Timber Halls

The majority of Anglo-Saxon buildings were wood frame residential structures and outbuildings. Buildings could be one, one and half, or two stories high. Wood framed walls were constructed in two ways: either from split, planed timbers cut all to the same height and set upright on a wood or stone sill, or wood frame with materials such as wattle and daub or nogging used in the interstices between large timber uprights. The large timber uprights could be placed into individually dug post holes, or into a continuous trench. Iron nails were widely used to fasten timbers, but as so little actual wood work has survived it is impossible to guess at the type of joinery house builders used, although there is no reason not to imagine that it was often at a high level. Mortise and tenon and dovetail joints were likely employed amongst many other fastening techniques, some of which were adaptations for the craft of shipbuilding. Axes, adzes, wood-splitting wedges, saws, chisels, spokeshaves, gouges and spoon-bits have been found to give us an idea of the range of tools available to building wrights. Lathes were also known, so that turned ornament or features may have been employed in the interiors.

In areas less blessed with timber, walls of cut stacked turf and cob have also been found. A broad variety of organic materials were impressed into service as building materials. For example, moss and ferns were sometimes used as insulation to stop up gaps around wattle work and help seal out the cold and damp.

Buildings were square, rectangular, and round in plan. A central fire pit provided warmth and light, with smoke making its imperfect escape through a hole in the (typically) thatched roof above. The simplest and most prevalent floors were of pounded earth, but wooden and stone floors were used as well. Evidence of wattle mats -long interwoven sticks- have been found in the remains of wattle and daub houses in 9th and 10th century Viking Dublin, and such matting was very likely employed in Anglo-Saxon settlements as well. Particularly earlier in the Anglo-Saxon period some buildings had excavated, or sunken floors. When planked over these were used as cellars, but in certain instances the actual floor of the building was lower than ground level.

Many of the smallest domiciles were windowless with light only being admitted when the wooden door was open. Such modest dwellings would contain the simplest of furniture, all made of wood - a bench or two, a rude table, some stools.

The variety of buildings in early settlements such as shown at the reconstructions at West Stow in Suffolk (450 CE-750) indicate that related families lived in smaller houses and socialized together in a larger hall. At West Stow there may have been four or five extended families and their slaves housed in a variety of timber and wattle and daub buildings roofed with thatch. The timber halls or "great halls" of wealthy thegns, reeves, ealdormen, lords, and kings occupied a unique place in early English society. As modern scholar Stephen Pollington puts it:
These halls served as the focal points of the communities they served - all commercial business was witnessed there, all justice was enacted there, all judgments were spoken there, all contracts were made and dissolved there, all praiseworthy deeds begun and ended there. - The Mead-Hall: Feasting in Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon Books 2003
Such buildings were not only of necessity larger than the dwellings of the humble but of a specific shape - long and narrow. Some great halls were built in the style now referred to as "bow-sided" - that is broadest in the centre of the building and tapering slightly at either end.

Fyrkat: Danish Great Hall Fyrkat: Danish Great Hall Fyrkat.
A mid-20th century reconstructionof a Danish great hall and
long houses in Hobro, Denmark.  Fyrkat was the site of a fortified
ring fort, one of four created by Harald Bluetooth in 980, and was
made up of 16 large buildings, including barracks for warriors, storehouses,
and workshops. It gives a good idea of contemporaneous English construction.
Fyrkat. A long house under construction. The entire ring fort and
neighbouring village will be recreated in an ambitious living history scheme.
Fyrkat. Interior of long house, showing timber
framing and half-thatched roof.
Fyrkat. A wattle wall under construction.
Staves are being woven between the larger uprights - a
good example of King Ælfred's injunction to
"weave a fine wall".
Photos by Jonathan Gilman

Great halls typically had two doors, one at either end of the hall, and one door might open into a shallow anteroom. There might be a window or two, usually unglazed but with wood shutters for defense and protection from weather. The central fire-pit remained, but along the exterior walls recesses or alcoves were built which served as places to sit or do hand work during the day and to sleep at night. Along one of the long walls would be a raised step or dais at which sat the chairs of the lord and lady. On either side of these "high seats" ran benches for their men - the "mead benches" sung of in so much Anglo-Saxon poetry. More experienced and valued warriors sat closest to the lord and lady, while younger men sat on the other side of the fire pit along the opposite long wall. Sometimes a separate room was located at the end of the hall, which may have served as a private chamber for the lord or a strong-room for the storage of the most important treasure of the household - weapons and the plate that the family and esteemed guests ate and drank from. Stone and clay cressets filled with oil cast light at night, as did torches soaked in oil. Wooden furniture included the aforementioned chairs (for high-status guests and their hosts), benches, and trestle tables which could be easily knocked down and stored when meal time was over.

Of interior decoration for wooden structures we must look to the remains of stone buildings and to poetic descriptions. Lime washing on wood gave a welcome brightness to dark interiors and could serve as a ground for coloured mineral pigments. In the tradition of the richly decorated surfaces beloved of the Anglo-Saxons, in the halls of the wealthy the large structural timbers exposed to view may have been highly ornamented with carving and paint. The Beowulf poet describes Heorot, the fabled hall of Hrothgar which Beowulf visits as:
...a timbered hall...furnished and gold-fair - it was the most renowned among dwellers on earth of buildings beneath the sky - in which the great man dwelt; its brightness shone out over many lands... - lines 1.306-11, translated from the Old English by Stephen Pollington
At Goltho in Lincolnshire the fortified burh of a wealthy lord has been excavated. It comprised a bow-sided timber hall nearly 25 m (82 feet) long and nearly 10 m wide (32.8 feet); a smaller kitchen building set well away from the hall for fire protection; a long narrow weaving shed about 20 m long where the women of the burh would have stood at their looms for the daily labour of wool weaving; and a separate bower building.

Private defended burhs (fortified residence of many inhabitants) of wealthy thegns, ealdorman, and nobles could include both large timber halls and smaller stone buildings. The remains of a Saxon masonry building of 2.4 m (8 feet) tall stone walls have been excavated at Eynsford Castle, Kent. A wood framed roof may have rested upon the walls, or they may have carried another wood-framed story above. This building had an excavated floor some 1.5 m (5 feet) below the ground, and was surrounded by a ditch 5 m (16 feet) wide and 3 m (10 feet) deep. Heavily fortified as it was it may have housed a powerful lord. On Lower Brook Street in Winchester was found the remains of a square stone building of at least two stories dating from about 800. It is part of a high status, secular, residential homestead.

At Sulgrave, Northamptonshire excavations have revealed the presence of a large 10th c timber hall, another lordly residence. Like many great halls it was constructed of closely set vertical timbers. At Sulgrave these sat upon a laid, mortar-less stone foundation. At one end of the great hall was a partition which led to a smaller room - perhaps a store room. A smaller detached timber building, which may have been a kitchen, was built outside. Another building on the site had stone walls more than 2 m (6 1/2') high - possibly a strong room or tower.

Roofs were structured of timber, typically thatched with the reeds found along so many English waterways, but wood shakes, lead sheets, and tin roofs were also known. The celebrated churchman and intellectual Alcuin (d. 804) gave tin for a roof in Eoforwic in 801. Eoforwic, known today to us as York, rose to ecclesiastical fame under Alcuin's teacher Albert, who became Archbishop there and held that post from 767 to 778. Albert created a new church in Eoforwic, St Sophia, with a scriptoria renowned for the fineness of its manuscripts. Alcuin described the church thusly:
"A lofty building, raised on solid piers Supporting round arches, and within Fine panelling and windows made it bright, A lovely sight, with gleaming cloisters round And many upper rooms beneath the roofs And thirty altars variously decked."
All traces of church and scriptoria were obliterated during the violent Viking capture and takeover in 876. The "high walled and towered" city described by Alcuin was destroyed. The Danes who settled there renamed the city Jorvik - York. They rebuilt the city along Danish lines and it became a thriving trade centre.) One wooden church which has survived is St Andrews, Greensted, Essex, the timbers of which have been recently dated to the early 11th century. The ancient walls are an unique survival of a type of wood construction - the upright oak timbers have been split in half length wise so that the rounded dimension of each half still shows.

St Andrews, Greensted, Essex St Andrews, Greensted, Essex. The body of
St Edmund lay here overnight in 1013 on its way from London, whence
it was removed for fear of the Danes, to its final resting place - fittingly to be
known as Bury St Edmunds. Edmund was King of East Anglia and was
defeated in battle by the Dane Halfdan in 869 or 870 and executed. He
soon became a subject of veneration. This tiny church is the sole surviving
timber church of the Anglo-Saxon era (although other churches have some
Saxon timbers). The brick sill underneath the timber was a Victorian addition.
St Andrews, Greensted, Essex. View of rear of church.
St Andrews, Greensted, Essex. Close up view of ancient timber wall.
Photos by Jonathan Gilman

We know of other types of early English timber construction. A large tiered wooden grandstand reminiscent of theatre seating was built at Yeavering in Northumbria, which may have provided seating for those assembled to hear the preaching of Christian priests, particularly that of Bishop Paulinus. It was part of a large royal residence of Edwin of Northumbria, who though initially heathen, wed the Christian daughter of King Ælthelbert of Kent in 625, thus bringing Paulinus in her train. 

Next Month: Stone Construction in Anglo-Saxon England


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Octavia Randolph is the author of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga.  Young women with courage. Swords with names. Vikings with tattoos. Warfare. Passion. Survival. Sheep. And Other Good Things...


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you Nancy. Hope you're inspired to try some wattle and daub on your own abode...or - next month we'll examine stone work, if you'd like something a wee big more permanent!

    2. I dunno, I think a wattle and daub outdoor shower might be kind of fun...

  2. Enjoyed the post; I love the history of buildings.

    1. Diane, many thanks. Between the ravages of time and the ravages of the Normans, it is miraculous we have any truly early English buildings left, and it is a pleasure to spotlight some of them for you. You will enjoy next month, with many stone buildings!

  3. A truly fascinating article. I was particularly interested in the broad usage of the the word "timber" and its relation to wood construction. Also of interest was the term "half story" which we often see in modern zoning bylaws, much of the time without definition. The historical train of construction methods show through to modern times. The use of unmortared stone foundations was in use in America up to the late 19thc.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this post and have book marked it for future use. I'm looking forward to reading more next month.

  5. This is a very illuminating post. I've discovered it just as I'm about to describe one of the halls of Alfred the Great. This is most timely. I'm looking forward to the next post.

  6. Excellent article and very useful research.

  7. Fantastic, Octavia, as always .... I am sending this along to my builder/inventor spouse ...

  8. What an amazing article! I shall tweet this, shortly.

  9. Wonderful research and beautifully written. I saw a Saxon church once when in England. It wasn't grand, but the gargoyles were fierce. I was fascinated by it. Thank you, Octavia.

  10. Lovely piece. Thank you for sharing.


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