The most interesting history is what you discover by yourself; uncovering clues to a place, or an individuals, heritage in places often overlooked by others. Thus, learning about vernacular architecture was a very enjoyable experience as it teaches you to notice and observe the small details which reveal a buildings heritage. Details which are often over looked by others but reveal an unbelievable amount about a buildings past, social history and traditions.
Therefore, this article will focus on Britain’s houses for the ‘ordinary’ people, specifically medieval cottages, as they (and their inhabitants) are very often overlooked by architectural historians, not deemed as interesting as the large, grander structures around England. However, details in these buildings reveal just as much about an areas intangible and tangible history as the more ‘impressive’ buildings in the same area.
The well-known stereotype of an English cottage is of ´fairytales’, conjuring images of a beautifully small (but cosy) thatched house with a roaring fire, covered with ivy or roses hidden amongst a tranquil garden of wild flowers. However, these ‘fairytale’ cottages were only built in the medieval period (5th to the 15th Century) and sadly, as a result, are harder to stumble upon due to the use of perishable materials and the urbanisation of England. However, these charming ‘Olde England’ medieval cottages are still found in rural areas.
The most familiar, and recognisably English, cottage style is the black and white style. This style is commonly described as ‘Tudor’ architecture but in fact the style was being used hundreds of years previously in the ‘medieval’ period. So what are the characteristics of a ‘real’ medieval country cottage?
Firstly, the most obvious characteristic, is the visible external and internal timber framed walls. This traditional building methodology is called ‘half-timber’ and is where a timber frame is constructed and filled in by an alternative material, such as wattle and daub or brick. This approach for building domestic houses for ´common’ people developed from the need to use local, easily accessible and cheap materials which could be shaped with simple hand tools available. A traditional medieval ‘half-timbered’ building was made of squared timbers joined by mortises, tenons, and wooden pegs. The building’s frame was also often strengthened at the corners with braces. This approach allowed the local builders, woodworkers or farmers to gradually assemble a building capable of bearing heavy weight without interior space having to be used up by support posts.
The second noticeable features of ‘real’ medieval cottages is the materials used to finish the house. Traditionally, these timber framed houses were made out of local oak and ‘wattle and daub’ was used to fill in the gaps. ‘Wattle and daub’ is made from, the easily available, thin sticks/straw mixed with a ‘glue’ made from chalk powder, limestone or clay (whatever was available locally) and animal dung. Traditionally medieval cottage roofs were covered with thatch (with the use of wooden shingles) but from the 12th century tile and slate came into use in some areas.
The use of local materials was essential to building a medieval cottage as it was hard, labour intensive work. Thus, cottages of individual areas, built with the half-timber methodology, have different styles as a result of what materials are available locally. For instance, in the West Midlands and south of England thatched cottages were favoured as stone wasn’t an abundant local material and the ‘wattle and daub’ was white in colour as chalk powder easily accessible.
With the introduction of the ‘cruck frame’ (strong, basic and cheap) in the 12th century it was possible for larger ‘half-timber’ buildings to be built. Thus, it become possible for cottages to be larger and two floored, the second floor often over hung the first to make more space.
As the medieval period progressed into the 13th and 14th the focus of the half-timber building methodology shifted from practicality to decoration, especially for the richer families. There was a particular focus on the decoration and elaborate ornamentation of the exposed posts for example, they were sometimes carved with the images of patron saints or engraved with delicate running patterns.
However, during the 15th and 16th centuries it was the contrast between the dark timber and the lighter filling that was key in the construction. For this reason, brick began to be used and for the even wealthier families brick herringbone patterns or plaster or incised or with inlays of slate, tile, or marl began to be used. Carved ornaments and wooden shaped timbers also began to be added to the wealthier houses to create the striking black and white patterns we strongly recognise as ‘Tudor’ architecture.
Therefore, a ´real´English cottage is built in the medieval period using the ´half-timber´building methodology and uses local materials.
Below are some examples of English cottages on the outskirts of London.
Thomas Kincade: “Everyone can identify with a fragrant garden, with beauty of sunset, with the quiet of nature, and with a warm and cozy cottage.”