Early English Architecture
The Buildings of the Anglo-Saxons, 450 CE to 1066
Wondrously ornate is the stone of this wall, shattered by fate ; the precincts of the city have crumbled and the work of giants is rotting away. There are tumbled roofs, towers in ruins, high towers rime-frosted, rime on the limey mortar, storm-shielding tiling scarred, scored and collapsed, undermined by age. There were bright city buildings, many bathhouses, a wealth of lofty gables, much clamour of the multitude, many a mead-hall filled with human revelry - until mighty Fate changed that.
- from The Ruin from the Exeter Book (c 975 CE), translated from Old English by S.A.J. Bradley The poet of The Ruin tells of looking with wonderment on the remains of a fallen city built with such craft that it seems "the work of giants". This may the Roman city of Aquae Sulis - Bath, seen through Anglo-Saxon eyes. With the Roman settlement of Britain came their typically inventive and ingenious works of architecture and engineering - precisely surveyed and constructed roads; opulent stone villas - some with sixty rooms - featuring enclosed gardens, furnaces and chimneys; thriving trading cities with sewers and public baths; manufactories of ceramic, glass and metal work of every kind. Such trappings of Mediterranean civilization required not only initial effort but ongoing maintenance. Once the legions withdrew the unprotected cities fell prey to lawlessness, neglect, and finally abandonment.
Mercenary soldiers from the marshy shores of modern northern Germany and Denmark, originally imported to help police the Roman settlements, turned on their employers and sought land for themselves. This began a flood of immigration of tribes who would be known as the Angles. Saxons. and to a lesser extent, Jutes. Their native building forms were wooden buildings in simple farmsteads. Fishing, hunting, and subsistence grain and vegetable farming provided for their wants. They turned their back on the Roman cities and the foreign way of life suggested and necessitated by such buildings and communities. Instead they exulted at the wealth of woodland and fertile farmland in their new home. It was the abundant forests of what would become known as Angle-land - Engle-land - England which set the tone for much of the building these new settlers would undertake.
English woodlands yielded not only the raw material to saw long and broad timbers for the erection of walls and cross beams but a wide variety of specialty building products. Coppiced trees will sprout straight slender shafts within weeks of cutting; such growth is ideal for lightweight building poles, fencing - and the shafts of spears. No less an Anglo-Saxon personage than King Ælfred (ruled 871-899) exhorts his readers to "to wend his way to the same road where I cut the props (and) load his waggons with fair rods that he may weave a fine wall. and set up many a goodly house." Although the King was speaking metaphorically about the forest of philosophical wisdom, the diverse practical uses of the English woodland are made clear. In fact wood virtually defines early English building.
"Timbrian" is the Old English verb for "to build" and the very noun "timber" synonymous with "a building". The act of building itself was "getimber" - timbering. "Timbrend" is "a builder". The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Ælfred's able and politically savvy daughter Æthelflaed, known as the Lady of the Mercians "timbered the burh" when she built a fortified base near the Welsh border in 915.
It is in fact the great, vanished timber halls which most readily come to mind as the products of early English architectural efforts, and native forests provided ample building material. But we must not assume that all early Anglo-Saxon buildings were wood framed; there were many of stone. In certain instances stone was even reused from abandoned Roman structures; the tiny but rugged church of St Johns at Escomb (7th/8th century) is built of stone blocks pilfered from the Roman fort at Binchester. Brixworth Church in its earliest incarnation (c 680) was also built with Roman bricks from nearby ruins. Up in York the massive Roman headquarters and surrounding wall was used until the headquarters was finally pulled down about 800 during the expansion of the town. At that
time the headquarters still was roofed, and the interior had been divided for new uses; one former office has been identified as being reused as a metal working shop. Reuse of Roman building materials went on a long time. Even the Normans were using Roman bricks from the Roman town of Verulamium to help augment the local flint in the building of the cathedral of St Albans in Hertfordshire.
Huts and Timber Halls
The majority of Anglo-Saxon buildings were wood frame residential structures and outbuildings. Buildings could be one, one and half, or two stories high. Wood framed walls were constructed in two ways: either from split, planed timbers cut all to the same height and set upright on a wood or stone sill, or wood frame with materials such as wattle and daub or nogging used in the interstices between large timber uprights. The large timber uprights could be placed into individually dug post holes, or into a continuous trench. Iron nails were widely used to fasten timbers, but as so little actual wood work has survived it is impossible to guess at the type of joinery house builders used, although there is no reason not to imagine that it was often at a high level. Mortise and tenon and dovetail joints were likely employed amongst many other fastening techniques, some of which were adaptations for the craft of shipbuilding. Axes, adzes, wood-splitting wedges, saws, chisels, spokeshaves, gouges and spoon-bits have been found to give us an idea of the range of tools available to building wrights. Lathes were also known, so that turned ornament or features may have been employed in the interiors.
In areas less blessed with timber, walls of cut stacked turf and cob have also been found. A broad variety of organic materials were impressed into service as building materials. For example, moss and ferns were sometimes used as insulation to stop up gaps around wattle work and help seal out the cold and damp.
Buildings were square, rectangular, and round in plan. A central fire pit provided warmth and light, with smoke making its imperfect escape through a hole in the (typically) thatched roof above. The simplest and most prevalent floors were of pounded earth, but wooden and stone floors were used as well. Evidence of wattle mats have been found in the remains of wattle and daub houses in 9th and 10th century Viking Dublin, and such matting was very likely employed in Anglo-Saxon settlements as well. Particularly earlier in the Anglo-Saxon period some buildings had excavated, or sunken floors. When planked over these were used as cellars, but in certain instances the actual floor of the building was lower than ground level.
Many of the smallest domiciles were windowless with light only being admitted when the wooden door was open. Such modest dwellings would contain the simplest of furniture, all made of wood - a bench or two, a rude table, some stools.
The variety of buildings in early settlements such as shown at the reconstructions at West Stow in Suffolk (450 CE-750) indicate that related families lived in smaller houses and socialized together in a larger hall. At West Stow there may have been four or five extended families and their slaves housed in a variety of timber and wattle and daub buildings roofed with thatch.
The timber halls or "great halls" of wealthy thegns, reeves, ealdormen, lords, and kings occupied a unique place in early English society. As modern scholar Stephen Pollington puts it: These halls served as the focal points of the communities they served - all commercial business was witnessed there, all justice was enacted there, all judgments were spoken there, all contracts were made and dissolved there, all praiseworthy deeds begun and ended there.
- The Mead-Hall: Feasting in Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon Books 2003 Such buildings were not only of necessity larger than the dwellings of the humble but of a specific shape - long and narrow. Some great halls were built in the style now referred to as "bow-sided" - that is broadest in the centre of the building and tapering slightly at either end.