The early English manor house

09 August 2015

SIG: Archaeology and Heritage

The English manor house has its roots in the Saxon timber aisled hall, which had a central hearth and was used communally for eating and sleeping. With the development of feudal society under the Normans, timbered halls continued to serve a communal function. However, the new Norman lords of the manor constructed for themselves separate rectangular houses, first of timber and later of stone. Living quarters were on the first floor, with a solar (withdrawing room) for the lord at one end. The ground floor was reserved for storage, and the separate hall would have stood nearby. Boothby Pagnell in Lincolnshire (ca. 1200) is a rare surviving example of such a stone house, with an external staircase providing first floor access.

Old Soar Manor, Kent, stone house from ca. 1290


Later, the hall and the house came together as a single building, so manor houses might have a timber hall with a two-storey stone house attached, containing a parlour below and the solar above. The hall often retained a central hearth, and the lord generally took his meals there on a dais adjacent to his private quarters. Old Soar Manor in Kent, with its undercroft, solar and even a private chapel, is externally a rare example of such a house; it dates from 1290, but as is usual the timber hall has not survived. Later buildings might be entirely of stone, or in Eastern England of brick. The privately owned Little Wenham Hall (ca. 1270) is a fine brick-built example from Suffolk. Other houses with private chapels include Ightham Mote in Kent, Littlecote House and Bradley Manor.

Ightham Mote, Kent, a moated manor house from 14th century onwards

In an age of conflict, the lord’s residence needed to be defended – indeed, some like Castle Hedingham in Essex had been built as tower keeps. In time, the manor house emerged as a residence designed more for comfort and convenience than for defence. The ruined fortified manor house known as Acton Burnell Castle in Shropshire represents an early stage (1284), built four-square like a castle but pierced by Gothic windows. One of the finest examples of a moated manor house is Ightham Mote, dating from around 1320. The Great Hall dates from this early period, and later additions have been built around a central court overlooking the moat, a most picturesque aspect.


Another atmospheric survival from the age of the manor house is Stokesay Castle in Shropshire. The hall and solar date from 1285-1305 and have been little altered since. Features like moats and gatehouses remained, perhaps as status symbols, long after they played any defensive role.

Lytes Cary Manor, Somerset, 14th century with later additions


The rise of sheep farming generated wealth for the lords of the manor. Tenant farmers rented land from them, so the lords became less directly involved in farming. Wealthy country gentlemen, as they were becoming, were rebuilding manor houses of greater complexity and beauty. Stone halls with lofty trussed roofs replaced the successors to the Saxon hall, the lord could eat in his private quarters, and the Great Hall became a place to entertain rather than a communal area for family, servants and retainers. Glass replaced shuttered windows, and the inclusion of a kitchen and an upper chamber created the ‘H’ plan manor, with central hall flanked on either side by two-storey wings. The hall was elaborated with porches and bay windows, and the lord’s chamber with oriel windows.


Great Chalfield Manor in Wiltshire is an excellent example of a 15th century manor house, with projecting wings, oriel windows, and a tiny parish church within the grounds, bounded by an outer moat. Despite some Tudor additions, Haddon Hall in Derbyshire is essentially one of the most complete mediaeval manor houses in the country, built around a courtyard, and preserving chapel, kitchens and Great Hall.


The yeoman farmer also aspired to a more elaborate residence, and the elements of hall and wings under a single roof, but executed in timber, culminated in the fine yeoman’s houses still to be seen in the south-east of England. These, though, are not true manor houses, nor are the many increasingly grand homes that followed in the Elizabethan period and afterwards. However, like Penshurst Place in Kent, with its Great Hall dating from around 1340, a number of great houses that were much enlarged in later periods retain at their heart a mediaeval manor house.       


Article and Photographs (c) Mike Sasse