5 August 2015

Research: England - Gainsborough Old Hall

The UK is known for its elegant country houses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Many now belong to the nation with their upkeep entrusted to English Heritage or The National Trust. Often these houses were built around earlier properties which were all but obliterated on amalgamation, or the earlier properties were cleared before rebuilding began. Therefore, finding a true mediaeval house - as opposed to a stone-built castle - is often a matter of visiting sites such as the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum where rescued medieval houses, or at least their main timbers, are rebuilt and the dwelling refurbished. 

This makes Lincolnshire's Gainsborough Old Hall, built in the mid 15th century on the banks of the River Trent for ease of transport, one of the very few timber-framed buildings whose original hall stands more or less as it was constructed.

Gainsborough Old Hall, with its east & west ranges.

The great hall, looking towards the 'upper end'.
The hall itself retains its beautiful beamed roof, its height designed so that smoke from the central fire - sneaking into shot at the base of the photograph - would be lifted high enough from the household to not cause discomfort.

In particular notice the narrowness of the hall, echoed in the Tudor brick-faced range in the photograph above.

The photo of the great hall shows the 'upper end' where the lord, his family and closest retainers would have congregated. To the right is the family's buffet, on which the lord's wealth in silver or gold plate would have been displayed, complemented by the richly woven or embroidered wall hangings and canopy.

In 1483 King Richard III broke his journey from York to London at the hall. It seems that the lord, Thomas Burgh, soon afterwards neatly switched allegiance to the King's enemy, Henry Tudor, and so retained his hall and lands when the crown changed hands.

One of two kitchen fireplaces, each of a size to take a full ox.

Surprising though it might seem to readers, writers are more interested in how a premises worked on a daily basis, rather than the great and the good who resided there.

The kitchen would have been built close after, or at the same time as the hall, and has a similar roof height and span. Whereas the hall was never upgraded with a fireplace, the kitchen has two facing each other across the width of the building, one for roasting and the other for boiling, with working trestle-boards arranged between.
The servery from the kitchen side. Servers did not enter the kitchen.

This image shows the servery where prepared food would be left on a counter the width of the wall to be collected by servers - usually high-born young men residing in the lord's household to finish their education: martial, written,  languages and the social skills necessary for their position in society.

Not shown are small ante rooms each containing dry goods such as flour, a meat larder, and the Clerk to the Kitchen's office where highly-prized and very expensive spices and sugar was stored under lock & key.

Were strewn rushes actually strewn rush matting?
One concern for writers is the use of "strewn rushes" to create both warmth underfoot in winter and to soak up spills. As any re-enactor will complain, it is easy to catch a foot in lengths of strewn rushes and so trip, and as one woman remarked, to walk across a hall strewn with loose rushes is to arrive with a heavy ball of the things caught within the hem of a long dress. 

Modern thinking, gleaned from illustrations of the period, is that "rushes" might have been a mediaeval shortform for "rush matting". The curators of Gainsborough Old Hall go with this concept, and one area close to the kitchen has been laid with lengths of flattened and braided rushes sewn loosely together. It makes sense to me.

In this post I've concentrated on the oldest, single storey, buildings, but soon after they were completed it is believed that the two-storey east and west ranges were added, with Tudor brick fireplaces and chimneys to serve the rooms very soon after that. Towers were added - only one survives but gives great views of the Lincolnshire landscape from its roof - and even more of the great and the good deemed the house a worthy place to rest their heads, including in 1541 King Henry VIII who met with his Privy Council there.

English Heritage has done a great job of making the building and its history accessible, including audio recordings of actors enacting roles in various rooms. It's well worth a visit. And, of course, has a great teashop.

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