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The Norman And Gothic Periods

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



FROM 1066 TO THE END OF THE 15TH CENTURY

FOR several years following the Norman invasion England was in an exceedingly troubled state. Although William the Conqueror had defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, there were innumerable rebellions taking place in various parts of the country, and in order to hold the Saxons in check, great castles, such as the Tower of London and those at Pevensey and Colchester, were erected.

These buildings showed an enormous improvement in constructional skill over the Saxon buildings. The latter usually consisted of a stone foundation upon which a crude timber structure was surmounted by a thatched roof. They comprised generally a main hall with various outhouses grouped around it.

The most important part of the Norman castle was the central keep, which served as the place of residence of the governor, and in which was situated the hall, the stores, and a chapel. Certain of these castles were built purely for military purposes, and were stern and comfortless in the extreme. Others, intended to serve the dual purpose of a fortress and the permanent family residence of one of the noblemen, were consequently constructed with a greater regard for comfort. It must be remembered, however, that the primary use of these buildings was as a place of defence, and practically every other consideration was secondary to that of obtaining the greatest strength and security.

The keep of these great castles was usually built two or three storeys in height, the basement and ground floor being used as store places or dungeons; the first floor serving the purpose of the guardroom in which was situated the entrance; while the second floor contained the great hall, which sometimes rose two storeys in height, and thus reached the roof. When every storey was separate, the third was probably used for sleeping. The entrance was built on the first floor as an extra precaution against attack, and communicated with a small outbuilding by means of a drawbridge, so that the whole could be thus completely shut off even if the outer walls were captured by the attackers. This floor was sometimes also used as a kitchen, and communicated with the upper portion by means of a circular newel staircase of stone built in one corner in the thickness of the walls, and rising from the basement right up to the battlemented roof.

On the same floor as the hall a chapel was often built.

A splendid example may be seen in the Tower of London. It is in the main hall that we find the first example of an English interior used for domestic purposes. The keep was usually square in plan, and was divided by an internal wall rising either to the first or second floor, or, as in the Tower of London, right up to the roof. It served several purposes, for apart from partitioning the interior into smaller and more convenient rooms, it helped to strengthen considerably the roof and floors, which were of wood, and obviated the necessity of using long wooden beams stretching the entire width of the building. In some cases this wall was made a solid structure, and in the event of the entrance being captured by attackers the garrison could retire through a small doorway in the inner wall and continue the defence. In other examples, in place of the solid wall a semicircular arch was built to support the roofing, as shown in Fig. 1.

Grouped around the hall, and having direct access to it, were a series of small rooms built in the thickness of the walls. These rooms were used as sleeping apartments by the chief persons of the establishments. Above them, and occupying the same relative position, was a gallery running right round the hall, in which windows were situated.

There was little or no privacy or comfort for even the principal persons of the household. The meals were commonly served in the great hall, at which persons of all degrees were present, the only consideration of rank being the relative position they occupied. The lord and his lady took the head of the table, and the remainder in rotation according to their rank. At night-time the retainers slept on rushes which were strewn on the floor of the hall, a practice which was continued for several centuries later.

The whole treatment of the interior was of a stern and severe character, and only bare necessities were provided for. The windows were small and unglazed, and fitted with wooden shutters for use at night-time, while the fireplaces were built in the thickness of the wall, and consisted of a large semicircular opening having a flue which ran obliquely backwards and so opened at the outside of the wall without reaching the roof.

Fig. 2 is a fireplace in the Tower of London now considerably broken away at the top. The small inset sketch shows its probable original appearance. In other cases a brazier standing on a stone hearth in the centre of the room was used, the smoke escaping as best it could through an opening in the roof, or through the upper windows.

The walls were quite plain. The only attempt at decoration was occasionally to be found on the stone arch and semicircular doorway headings, which were some-times decorated with chevron carving, and on the capitals to the supporting pillars, which were sometimes carved.

The central newel staircase was a feature of all Norman buildings, and was continued until well into the 16th century. The central pillar or newel was not a separate column on which the stone slabs forming the treads were supported, but was built up by the latter, each stone slab having a circular portion at the narrow end. The slabs rested one above the other to form a self-supporting structure. Fig. 3 is an example of such a newel staircase at the Tower of London, from which the construction is evident.

Apart from these great castles it is probable that the barons also had smaller manor houses built with a still greater regard for comfort, although it was necessary to build even these to resist attack. Their interiors were, in many respects, similar to the great keeps, in that they had a common dining hall in which the retainers were housed, and were provided with small sleeping apartments leading from it.

The later development of the English interior may be also traced from the monastic buildings which were erected after the Norman conquest. They were not simply churches solely for the purpose of prayer, but were self-supporting communities containing all the necessary household accommodation for the monks. These ecclesiastical buildings were the centres of all learning and civilisation, and it is to the skill of the monks that we owe some of the finest examples of early work. That the monks were also employed in the building of the castles is proved from the chronicles of the period, and both ecclesiastical and secular buildings probably had much in common for this reason.

From the end of the Norman style, which was fast dying out towards the end of the 12th century and on-wards, the general trend of house designing was towards that of introducing a greater degree of comfort. The change was very gradual, however. The hall still continued to be the chief room of the building, and acted as the dining hall and sleeping place for the retainers. The general plan shape was oblong, while the level of the floor of the hall was on the first floor, the room below acting as a store place. An extremely interesting feature of the halls from the 13th century onwards was the development of the roof, which was the subject of very skilful carpentry. The flat roof was discarded, and a pitched type introduced.

The windows were still built high in the walls, probably as a continuation of the defensive measures, and were lancet-shaped, a feature of the Gothic style which had by this time become the prevailing style of architecture. The fireplace was generally in the centre. An opening in the roof allowed the smoke to escape. The general plan of the 13th-century building was developed rather on the lines of the monastic buildings of Norman times. These, instead of having a central keep as in the castles, were designed with a main hall or refectory, with a series of outbuildings adjoining. An important innovation was the solar, or withdrawing-room, which was used by the lord and his lady as a sleeping apartment. This marks the first important development from the crude manners of earlier times, when little or no privacy was afforded to anyone. The solar was situated at the raised or dais end of the hall, being usually approached by a stone newel staircase, and, excepting that it was smaller, was treated in a similar manner to the hall.

The general tendency from the purely defensive to the more homelike and comfortable dwellings was increasingly noticeable in the following century, when the hall was built on the ground floor, and had tall windows sometimes reaching nearly down to the floor. A common feature was the raised dais at one end, and the minstrels' gallery built at the other end, as at Penshurst, Kent (Fig. 4). The gallery was probably used as a convenient place for the ladies to retire when the merriment of the evening revels became too boisterous. The gallery at Penshurst is approached by a small newel staircase leading off to the right of the covered passage formed by the screen. The whole of the front of the latter is decorated with Gothic carving consisting of a series of panels with lancet-shaped tops carved with tracery patterns. The two entrances through the screen are headed by depressed arches, carved with Gothic leaf work, flanked on both sides by circular pillars which support the gallery, decorated with quatrefoils at the bottom. These details are seen at A, Fig. 5. At 13 and C, Fig. 5, are shown the wooden corbels at the lower ends of the braces of the roof, and represent crudely carved figures dressed in contemporary costume.

The 14th-century solar was still built on the first floor, and the central fireplace continued, as seen in Fig. 4.

An interesting comparison may be made between the 14th-century hall in Fig. 4 and the hall at Ockwells, Berkshire, shown in Fig. 6. The latter is of the 15th century, when the hall had still further lost semblance to a place for defence. It was well lighted, and its comparative delicacy of treatment will be noticeable. The flat arch inside the window is worthy of note, as it indicates the departure from the steeper pointed arch of the earlier Gothic period. Fig. 7 shows some details of the period.

The hall at Bramhall, Cheshire (Fig. 8), is of a considerably more ornate character in the arrangement of the timber roof. Another feature is the fireplace built in the wall. The use of tapestry as a form of wall covering became considerably more general during the latter half of the 15th century owing to the immigration of a number of Flemish weavers to this country.

Halls during this century were often provided with a garret beneath the roof, probably as a sleeping place for the serving men. This was another step towards the creation of more seclusion for the family. In fact, the hall was now approaching that stage in its evolution when it ceased to be the common room of the house. A far greater number of smaller rooms were built for the purpose of bedrooms. An important step was the introduction of the winter parlour, used by the chief persons of the household when dining during the cold weather, or when requiring more privacy. The great hall was still used for dining purposes during the summer, and on special occasions.

A hall in which considerable decorative effect is obtained by the use of exposed timbers is that at Great Dixter, Sussex, shown in Fig. 9.

Furniture was still comparatively rare, and it was not until the following century that any degree of luxury became apparent.



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