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The town house


When a burgess took on a newly created burgage plot in the 11th century, in itself it was a piece of measured, recorded, marked out land, nothing more. But barring a peppercorn rent it was legally his plot - to sell, sub-let or bequeath. He was a freeman and newly appointed burgess of the town with the right to ply his trade and determine his and his families future in any manner he chose.  


The tenant had to build their own dwelling and any other buildings. Around the time of the conquest, these would be relatively simple affairs in terms of build and comfort and made out of readily available materials. Timber was the obvious material, simply shaped hardwood for walls, upright posts maybe on top of a pad stone to stop the uprights from decaying - and a roof structure, both possibly Oak crucks for longevity and strength. Planking or wattle and daub woven panels would be used for walling - upright posts and malleable twigs like Hazel woven between these posts, the whole covered in a mixture of earth, straw and some animal hair to form a weatherproof windbreak, protected from the rain by the eaves of the thatched roof made of reed or corn stalks. It would be a single storey house with simple accommodation offering shelter for the inhabitants, a centrally placed fire, and areas for valuable livestock.


The Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex has examples of houses from the 13th c onwards. There is an excellent video here: which gives an insight into the building process of a house of this style from the Saxon/early medieval period. Most importantly, the burgage was a valuable plot in the centre of town from which goods could be sold. 

















Hazel wands grow quickly from the base of a coppiced tree and can be easily twisted and knotted. They are traditionally used to make woven panels for fencing, boundaries, walling, pens, and as thatching spars. Willow withies also made excellent smaller hurdles and basketry. These woods would often both be used to create the wattle infill panels between timbers in early and late medieval buildings. Planking was also used to construct dwellings.

​There wasn’t a single style or form of dwelling that was replicated across the country. Available materials, geology, plot size, climate, budget and skills base would all have a bearing on style and construction. On Dartmoor where field stone was the choice of building material, the skeletal remains of medieval villages can still be seen at Hound Tor. These villages were abandoned in the 15th c but the stone used for their construction largely left in situ rather than re-used, presumably because the trouble of transporting it to later centres of habitation made it more trouble than it was worth. 

​With the growth of 'burhs' or towns and a period of relative peace after the conquest, came prosperity and developments in living conditions and the home. Some prosperous inhabitants of the town, merchants or officials, would have been living in a more salubrious two storey town houses since the 12th or 13th century. These houses would have been much sturdier and secure made either of stone where available or constructed with cleverly jointed sawn oak timbers and a lath and plaster infill to form the panels between the timbers, all lime washed externally to further weather proof the structure and also inside to bring as much light as possible throughout the small shuttered windows into the beaten earth for flag floored rooms. Walls and ceilings were sometimes decorated with gypsum plaster ornamentation. 

With a shop at the front and cellar (undercroft) below, a double height hall was the main room often at the back of the house where people lived and ate. A fire sat in the middle of the room, its smoke blackening the timbers of the high roof above. With time the fire would move to a hearth against a stone hearth and a chimney hood made to draw smoke through a flue to a chimney above. Behind the hall were service rooms and at one end a partial first floor which provided bedrooms (solars). The kitchen was at the very rear of the house and often had a gap or courtyard between it and the main house as a firebreak to help prevent the spread of fire from one building to the other.

















Lavenham in Suffolk (left) is acknowledged as one of the best preserved medieval towns in England. Once the 14th richest town in England, famous across Europe for its 'blew' woollen broadcloth, many of the half timbered buildings houses are 15th c in design and remain unchanged, rather than having undergone costly stylistic changes, as the towns fortunes and popularity declined in later centuries. The town's Guildhall, is National Trust property and open to visitors. The properties on Elm Hill, Norwich (right) were built in the early 16th century after a disastrous fire. The street is one of the most complete medieval streets in the country.

The Great Fire of London destroyed many of the capital's medieval buildings and development of the Square Mile meant demolition for those that survived in order to make way for development of this valuable land. The Tower of London is home to a number of surviving medieval houses including the Queen's House built in the 1530s.

Tudor houses within the Tower of London (left). A wool merchant's house built in the late 15th century in Axbridge (centre) with jettied floors. Where access to the plot wasn't possible from the rear, alleys and larger access could be made with accommodation above (right).

This is the style of building that remained the quickest, most adaptable and probably the cheapest to produce for many hundreds of years in a great deal of more southern areas of the country from locally sourced materials. Often the frames for these buildings were pre-constructed off-site then erected on-site using carpenter’s marks to marry the joints correctly. Strictly speaking, if you gave up a burgage plot your dwelling was supposed to go with you. Arguably a timber framed structure was feasibly a portable asset. The Merchant’s house in Southampton is a good example of a home and workplace for a wealthy wine merchant and his family of the late 13th early 14th century and begins to look like the ‘half-timbered’ Tudor structures we are familiar with though this is in part stone built. Roofs were either thatched until outlawed (1190 in London), shingled, tiled in local stone or fired clay tiles. Often the pitch of a roof can indicate what the original roofing material was. 
Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire is home to two of the oldest recorded timber framed town houses in Britain. 173 High Street, was only recognised in 2001 as being a truly remarkable survivor of the late 13th c. Probably once a jettied wing to a Hall House, its timbered front was ‘improved' in the 19th c in the fashion of the time. Berkhamsted’s burgage layout appears to date from about 1200. Dean Incent's House in the town is an example of how buildings are adapted. Described by Pevsner as "the best house in Berkhamsted” parts of the house are part of a 14th c Hall House, the front a 15th c half-timbered structure with a jettied first floor. Further improvements have been made to the structure in every century since.
Given the narrow and fixed width frontage of burgage plots, the opportunities to increase living space were limited to either extending into the garden/workspace, renting or buying a neighbouring plot and building accordingly, or building upwards to provide additional accommodation with a shop or workshop, cellars and storage below, resulting in a house of two or more storeys. In addition to adding floors, if jettied, floor space would be increased as floors were added. The skill of the carpenter/engineer in developing these ever taller structures with cantilevered floor joists is extraordinary. Room sizes could be increased substantially, front to back, as they rose skyward, presumably getting further from the odours of the street below. Houses of three or four floors were not uncommon and being timber rather than stone with the forces being transferred through the substantial corner posts of the house, rather than loading weight onto the vaulted and boarded cellars below.
The Ancient High House in Stafford, built in the late 16th c is reputedly the largest surviving timber-framed town house in England dating from the Tudor period with four floors with glazed windows and attics. But there were still statutes to be observed as the company of Vintners discovered in 1519 when their new new building in Fleet Street was deemed to jetty into the street by one inch too much. They were ordered to cut it back accordingly. Side jettying by many feet within a plot was also popular and there are numerous disputes about jetties infringing on the neighbours boundary. Jettying fell out of fashion towards the end of the 16th century and subsequently, in London houses built during the 17th century were flat fronted.

The Shambles in York (below). Once a meat market ('shambles' is an obsolete word for open air slaughterhouse) these medieval townhouse shops exemplify the benefits of jettying upper floors, the second floor rooms being several feet deeper than the ground floor shop below.


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