Built Environment: Medieval

Rural Settlement

The majority of rural settlements in Worcestershire originated between the 8th and the 13th centuries (Crowther and Clarke, 2012). Worcestershire is predominantly a county of dispersed settlement, characterised by high densities of isolated farmsteads, hamlets and smaller villages, often set within landscapes of ancient enclosure, woodland and common, linked by an intricate network of winding lanes. Nucleated settlement, characterised by linear settlements of varying size, with a low level of dispersal and relatively few isolated farmsteads or hamlets, were historically concentrated in, but not exclusive too, the east and south east of the county. In Worcestershire, many nucleated and dispersed settlements are linear or row plan, and have a distinctive ribbon form. Typically they follow a historic routeway with smaller roads branching off these main routes.

The Medieval House

The most common surviving house plan of the medieval period – the hall house – is traceable to the 12th century and was common to all levels of society. The hall, with an open fire for heating and cooking and open to the roof to allow the smoke to escape, served as the main living space of the house. The main entrance on one side wall, would open into an entrance passageway that separated the hall from a lower end, which could house a kitchen, services and in some areas livestock, while separate private and sleeping chambers, if they were provided, were typically sited at the upper end of the hall, private rooms being the mark of increasingly prestigious houses. The result might be cross wings added to one or both ends of the hall. The highest status houses were built with service and private quarters built around one or more courtyards.

The social status and aspirations of owners and tenants is also revealed by their scale and craftsmanship, the size of the historic plots associated with them, and sometimes features such as moats and the earthworks of ponds and other garden features. Substantial peasant houses survive from the 13th century. Others down to single-room houses have been recovered from excavation or can be glimpsed below the earthworks of abandoned or shrunken settlements. Urban houses might be provided with shops and counting houses, and would often be subdivided into three compartments. The plan and size of a building plot, whether in rural or urban areas, could determine whether it was set side or gable end on to the street, or built around a courtyard. Terrace rows, documented as speculative developments, survive from the medieval period in towns. Terrace housing became increasingly popular for urban workers and for middle class families from the late 17th century.

Prestigious houses were already a feature of urban fringes by the late medieval period, and the rural settlements around London and other large towns and cities were increasingly provided with large houses. Such was the demand for housing and pressure for space in many urban centres, that large courtyard houses were increasingly subdivided from the 17th century. From the mid-17th century, as a result of an increasing desire for more privacy and less communal living, open halls were being floored over and provided with smoke bays and chimneystacks. These either backed onto or were inserted within the old screens passage, or built on a side wall. Prestigious houses continued to be built with cross wings, dormer and other windows lighting upper rooms being a commonly-used feature.

There was a strong degree of regional variation in the phasing of this development. As a general rule, new and remodelled houses by around 1750, reflected the symmetry and classical character of Renaissance architecture. It is common to find smaller, central halls for circulation, and stairs, with services (including dairies) placed at the rear. The result was a more symmetrical appearance, sometimes with doors and windows clearly placed around earlier chimneystacks.

Research Questions