ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 35, June 1998


Exploring the round houses of doves

Dovecotes survive all over Britain. Klara Spandl explains what can still be seen

Go to many villages in Britain and behind at least one garden wall or within a field or farmyard there will be a small round, square or rectangular building which can be identified as a dovecote.

Today dovecotes form picturesque buildings in the landscape, but once they served a practical function, providing housing for an important part of the household diet. Young doves or pigeons (squabs) supplied fresh meat throughout the year, while older birds were mainly used to lay eggs, with some culling occurring before winter. The birds were also bred for their manure, and in the 16th and 17th centuries for saltpetre - a component of dung - which was used to make gunpowder.

The earliest use of dovecotes in Britain may have been in the Roman period - although no certain examples are known of that date. It is known that the Romans kept doves and not only do recipes survive (in the work of Apicius) but also recommendations (in Varro) that the squabs' legs should be broken to restrict movement in their nests and make them even more tender to eat.

The traditional view, however, is that dovecotes were introduced by the Normans. The earliest known examples of dove-keeping occur in Norman castles of the 12th century (for example, at Rochester Castle, Kent, where nest-holes can be seen in the keep), and documentary references also begin in the 12th century. The earliest surviving, definitely-dated free-standing dovecote in this country was built in 1326 at Garway in Herefordshire (there is a date-stone), although others exist where an earlier date has been claimed. During the medieval period large dovecotes were built on manors, at castles and monasteries. The right to build a dovecote was traditionally reserved to the lord of the manor, and was presumably much resented by tenant farmers as the lord's doves could eat their weight in corn every day.

By the 17th century, however, dovecotes became more widespread. Probably the greatest number of dovecotes were built between 1650 and the late 18th century, when corn was relatively cheap and abundant, and an Act of 1761-2 permitted any tenant to build their own dovecote with the landlord's permission.

The decline of the dovecote has been linked with the 18th century introduction of the turnip, which enabled more animals to be kept over winter for a supply of fresh meat. Dovemeat may also simply have become less fashionable. The decline may be connected as well to the parliamentary enclosures of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which introduced a new type of tenant with a greater individual investment in his land, less prepared to tolerate the damage that pigeons and doves did to their crops. Birds were often still kept in small numbers in this period, but they tended to be housed in the gable ends of buildings or in lofts above farm buildings. Some dovecotes continued to be built, mainly for decorative reasons in the grounds of big houses or in parkland.

Dovecotes can be found all over the country in various locations. It is thought that some later dovecotes were deliberately sited away from trees and noise, such as the opening of a mill sluice, in positions sheltered from the cold wind, and near to a fish pond so that the doves could bathe. Early dovecotes were often built near the manor or monastery or associated farm, presumably at least partially on security grounds. An exception can be seen on Clifton Green in Nottinghamshire where the manorial dovecote was built on the village green. Some dovecotes now stand in isolation, being the only building remaining of an earlier farm, but some were built on purpose away from the main habitation, usually in the later period, as prominent and picturesque features of the landscape within country estates or to keep the doves away from corn stores. During the 18th century they were often built as central decorative buildings in architect-designed farm courtyards. Most commonly dovecotes were built near or within the farmyard, orchard or house.

Before 1400, three quarters of known dovecotes were circular in plan and were usually built of stone. These earlier dovecotes can be characterised by their massive construction. Medieval rectangular and square dovecotes are also quite common, some having an enormous capacity - the dovecote at Culham in Oxfordshire, for example, has nest boxes for 3000 birds - and can at first glance be mistaken for a small house, until one notices the absence of windows. Early forms of dovecote follow the patterns of normal vernacular architecture in their use of local building materials, but with the introduction of brick in about the 16th century, more uniformity appears in the different regions of the country. Circular dovecotes remained the norm, but brick dovecotes were built in all shapes and sizes and many polygonal dovecotes survive. Brick was in some cases used to disguise earlier dovecotes built of local material.

The more flamboyant styles usually date from the 17th-19th centuries and the most unusual are associated with large houses or estates. For example, there are dovecotes in the upper floors of three-storied towers containing summer houses and prospect rooms in the lower stories. Those built in the 18th-19th centuries in landscaped gardens were sometimes disguised as castellated towers in the Gothic revival style, or as Grecian temples in classical taste.

Dovecotes have been found on top of granaries, above piggeries, hen houses (or above both as at Chatham, Kent), wells, bee holes, game larders, ice-houses, mortuaries, even privies.

It is the interior of a dovecote, however, which, if preserved in anything like its original form (unfortunately rare), offers the most interesting insights into the function of these buildings. Dovecotes had to be protected from human, airborne and animal predators. They also had to be sealed in order that the birds could be trapped by their legitimate owners. Features to look out for include shuttered louvre windows, small flight holes which enabled the doves to enter but not their larger predators, and reinforced doors to keep out intruders. One danger recognised in the 19th century was that of whole flocks being stolen for pigeon shoots.

When a new dovecote was established, a flock of doves was introduced and encouraged to remain not only by the presence of nesting boxes but also, often, by white-plastered walls, as doves are attracted by white surfaces. Traces of white plaster can often still be seen today. Continuous ledges were constructed on the outsides of the buildings, as well as gables, to provide numerous areas for perching and a choice of spots to avoid the prevailing winds. The ledges are often angled to provide suitable footing for doves, but to be impossible for predators to perch on. Glazed windows were sometimes inserted in the 18th and 19th centuries, often into the wall nearest the house so the birds' `flirtations' could be watched and admired.

The best preserved dovecotes retain their nest boxes or nest holes, which had to be dark, private and dry. Medieval nest holes were often built into the thick stone walls, but by the 17th and 18th centuries the nest boxes were built onto the wall, packed together in rows around the interior. Some boxes are L-shaped to give room for the sitting bird's tail. At the thresholds of some nests a small raised ledge occasionally survives which would have stopped the eggs (or squabs) rolling out. Alighting ledges can often be found below each nest to make access easier to the hole, and where these don't exist deep scars can occasionally be seen in the walls where the birds have tried to get in the nesting holes without a perch.

Several methods were used to increase the area of nest boxes, including partition walls, projecting piers and central columns, all full of extra nest boxes. Nest boxes were built of stone, wood, brick, chalk or clunch, granite, pantiles, plaster, and occasionally soap stone. Unfortunately many forms of original nest boxes have been replaced in later centuries by brick.

The most impressive structure surviving within a dovecote is the potence. This was a revolving wooden pole, mounted on a plinth, with arms onto which ladders could be attached and suspended a few feet off the ground, to enable the eggs and squabs to be collected from the upper tiers of nest boxes. Potences avoided the inconvenience and disturbance of continually having to move a conventional ladder around the wall.

They are most often found in round buildings, though they can be found in other shapes, and occasionally a building which is square externally has had its corners rounded internally to increase the effectiveness of the potence. Some of the surviving potences are still in working order, often only needing the slightest touch to make them swivel. It is possible that some potences which survive in medieval dovecotes are original, though only careful examination of the carpentry and dendrological dating can prove their medieval origins.

Klara Spandl works at the Oxford Archaeological Unit. She was project officer for a recent survey of dovecotes commissioned by English Heritage as part of the Monuments Protection Programme.

Further reading: Doves and Dovecotes and A Dovecote Heritage, Jean and Peter Hansell (Millstream Press, 1988 and 1992); An historical inquiry into the design and use of dovecotes, John McCann (Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society, 1991).

Dovecotes open to the public include:

National Trust:

English Heritage:

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All change after the Norman Conquest

Change outweighed continuity in the English landscape after 1066, claims Trevor Rowley

The impact of the Norman Conquest on Anglo-Saxon England has long been a topic of energetic debate. One school has argued that after 1066 there was a complete transformation of most aspects of English life, while another has pointed to the essential continuity between Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England. Amongst historians, the latter view currently prevails. Nevertheless, evidence from the 11th and 12th century landscape points to a rather different interpretation.

The impact of the Norman Conquest on towns has long been appreciated. In the generation or so following the Conquest many towns such as Norwich, Canterbury and the Saxon capital, Winchester, were virtually redesigned with the establishment of cathedrals, castles and palaces at their centres. Most shire capitals, too, felt the imposition of Norman rule with the building of large castles, often resulting in the clearance of extensive areas of Saxon buildings, as at Nottingham, Shrewsbury and Oxford.

Less obvious has been the consequence of the Conquest on the countryside. Virtually every country-dweller would have had a new landlord, as witnessed in the relentless catalogue of transfer of land from Saxon to Norman in the Domesday Book, and new feudal manors were created within a framework of Norman estates. But it is now also clear from a variety of sources that in the century following the Battle of Hastings, significant physical changes took place in the English countryside.

The most immediate was the impact of the Norman armies on the territory they crossed both before and after the Battle of Hastings. To a large extent such armies `lived off the land', but such a benign phrase hides trails of savagery and destruction, recorded in the dry statistics of the Domesday Book compiled some 20 years later. Lines of villages in southern England are recorded as being of less value than they should have been because of the Norman armies who had seized grain, livestock and fuel and in many cases physically destroyed the settlements on their route. In a scene in the Bayeaux Tapestry, Norman soldiers are portrayed setting light to a substantial Anglo-Saxon house, while a woman leaves the burning building pulling a child after her. This, together with the depiction of troops requisitioning farm animals in earlier sections of the Tapestry, clearly reflects the conduct of the Norman army.

Nevertheless, the scale of such destruction pales into insignificance compared to William's response to uprisings in the North a few years later, commonly known as the `Harrying of the North'. The devastation of Yorkshire and County Durham is recorded in the Domesday Book by repeated use of the term `waste'. One contemporary chronicler, Hugh the Chanter, claimed that the city of York `and the whole district around it was destroyed by the French, famine and flames', while another claimed that there was no village left between York and Durham and that the land remained uncultivated for nine years. The impact of the Harrying extended into Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and even Staffordshire, but it was the North that bore the brunt.

Consequent to the Harrying there seems to have been a sustained effort at re-establishment of rural settlements in the 12th and 13th centuries, and regular village settlements around greens of various shapes are a significant feature of the North-East. It has been estimated that in Yorkshire, about 370 places were first recorded between 1067 and 1349. Thus, one in six Yorkshire villages came into existence in the post-Conquest period.

The village of Wheldrake, for example, outside York, appears to have been laid out between 1066 and 1086 consisting of 16 crofts, eight on each side of the village street. As many as 66 per cent of villages in County Durham have regular plans, pointing to a massive programme of village creation and design. Some may have come into being as a result of new land being brought into cultivation, but many are on the sites or close to settlements which had been destroyed in c 1070.

In the Welsh Marches, similar regulated villages came into being, many within the control of new castles such as Castle Pulverbach, Cheney Longville and More in Shropshire. In these settlements, domestic houses often occupied an extended enclosure or `bailey' of a castle. Just as in towns, castles were inserted into hundreds of rural settlements, at first made of timber, but later a significant minority in stone.

As in the town, these castles formed the basis for strategic, administrative and judicial control, acting as the headquarters for the lord of the manor and his entourage. Although in the years immediately after the Conquest they may have had a military role, they rapidly became fortified manorial homesteads, often located next to that other symbol of Norman seigneurial power, the church.

The century and a half following the Conquest was characterised by a massive programme of building and rebuilding of parish churches, almost everywhere in stone. Many were clearly built by Saxon craftsmen in the first half-century of Norman rule. Quite a few, such as St Margaret's, Marton, in Lincolnshire, show an intriguing mix of Saxon and Norman styles which is appropriately named Anglo-Norman. The scale of work on parish churches by the Normans was not repeated until the Victorian era.

Along with the new parish churches came new ecclesiastical orders, new monasteries and nunneries. This movement started off as a form of French ecclesiastical colonialism, but later blended with the mainstream movement of new monastic foundations throughout western Europe.

Immediately after the Conquest, new Cluniac monasteries were established in places such as Lewes, Sussex (1078-81), Much Wenlock (c 1080) and Deptford (1107). Following the Cluniacs there was a monastic invasion which continued through the next century and a half. The greatest impact was made by the Cistercians. Their early foundations were at Waverley, Surrey (1128) and Rievaulx, Yorkshire (1132). From then onwards the movement spread with phenomenal speed over England and Wales. Normally, their foundations were in remote and uncultivated districts, and in order to facilitate the tasks of clearing the forest, draining marshes and overseeing flocks and crops, the Cistercians recruited labourers on an unprecedented scale from the peasantry.

Great Cistercian foundations in northern England were also involved in resettling the landscape following the Harrying. There is some evidence to suggest that new Cistercian granges were often established in previously devastated territory. It is estimated that 44 per cent of all known 12th century granges, mainly Cistercian, were built on land that had been completely or largely `waste' in 1086.

Another significant innovation was the introduction of the royal forest. `Forest' was a legal term applied to land governed by forest laws designed for the protection of deer and where only the monarch could hunt. The creation of royal forest, particularly the New Forest, made a deep impression on contemporaries.

John of Worcester alleged that William I had depopulated a fruitful and prosperous countryside and had destroyed houses and churches to make way for the deer, and popular rumour declared that the death of William Rufus, while hunting in the New Forest, was an act of divine retribution for the impious act of his father. But modern scholarship suggests that Norman kings tended to impose the forest laws mainly upon districts where clearing and cultivation had made relatively slow progress in areas of agriculturally unfavourable terrain.

For the most part, royal forests were not physically demarcated on the ground but features such as rivers and hills were used as boundaries, and only occasionally linear banks and ditches were dug to mark the forest edge. By the middle of the 12th century it is estimated that as much as a third of England was under forest law, but this was the height of the royal forest movement and there followed many centuries during which the forests and their laws were gradually disbanded.

On a lesser scale, medieval parks were established by the nobility and clergy. At Devizes in Wiltshire for example, Roger of Salisbury created a park adjacent to his new castle and castle town, and created a classic Norman seigneurial landscape in the form of a large egg-shaped park aligned to the west which mirrored exactly the shape of the town and castle to the east. Thus, parks represented another demonstration of Norman domination of the landscape.

In a multitude of other areas the coming of the Normans brought about changes in town and countryside; in language and place-names; in book illustration, gold-smiths' work, ivory carving and wooden sculpture; in military dress and the conduct of warfare; in church dedications and liturgy. It is only in the humdrum of everyday rural life, in house shapes, agricultural implements, cooking vessels, in fact those objects with which the archaeologist is most commonly confronted, that there was little change and little to mark 1066 as an historical watershed. Continuity at this level may well have deceived us about the true nature and extent of the Norman impact on Anglo-Saxon England.

Dr Trevor Rowley is Deputy Director of Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education and author of Norman England (Batsford, 1997)

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Miniature toys of medieval childhood

Military and kitchen toys from the past show some aspects of childhood never change, writes Geoff Egan

The archaeology of medieval and post-medieval childhood has tended, in the past, to concentrate on graves - simply because children can be identified with most certainty there. The skeletons of dead children have produced a mass of evidence about causes of childhood deaths and about health and illness; but the life and culture of the living child has received much less attention.

A range of artefacts, however, are now being recognised as children's toys, and these are producing a more rounded picture of childhood in medieval and early-modern Britain.

These artefacts are mainly miniatures, representing both human figures and household and military objects. Hundreds have been found over the past 20 years in London alone. We also know of toys such as tops, balls, hoops and kites, either from excavated or pictorial evidence, but these survive in fewer numbers.

There is an immediate appeal in these early playthings - not least because many of them are strikingly similar to the toys that anyone over the age of about 35 today used to play with in their own childhood.

A hollow-cast, mounted figure, made, like most of the surviving early toys, of pewter, and datable from the armour and the sword to within a decade either side of 1300, stands right at the start of the tradition of that enduring plaything, the toy knight. These continued, keeping up with fashions in armour, through the rest of the Middle Ages, possibly declining when chivalry itself became less prominent in the face of the use of gunpowder in battle.

A remarkable bird figure made to pivot on a horizontal bar on a separate stand has a rod that passes up through the hollow body to emerge at the mouth as the tongue. By rocking the figure to and fro the tongue would have appeared to go in and out. This ingenious 14th century plaything has a claim to be the earliest surviving post-Roman toy with moving parts - though it must be said that such toys were probably rare even in Roman times.

The most numerous survivors of early toys are pewter jugs, frequently with relief ornament that reflects slip decoration (that is, liquid clay poured into a design) on full-sized vessels. A 14th century stone mould for producing one version has been excavated at Hereford. Although the great majority of the toy finds are from towns, the rural child was not left out, as the discovery away from urban areas of a few playthings, like a miniature medieval jug from Sigglesthorne in East Yorkshire, demonstrates.

This particular jug seems to be paralleled by a London find, hinting at a wide marketing network for these items as early as the 14th century. Possible parallels between 15th century toy tableware in England and some on the Continent may give the trade an international dimension, although the full extent of any international trade is unclear at present.

When, in the adult world, jugs lost their pre-eminance to metal ewers in the late 15th/early 16th centuries, toy jugs were replaced by toy ewers, and sometimes including openable lids.

Miniature tripod cauldrons - the classic late medieval cooking vessel - and footed drinking bowls were also in the medieval toy repertoire, with kitchen equipment, like griddles with fish on, coming in towards the end of the period, to be replaced by frying pans with fish in the 17th or 18th century.

Plates, of which over 200 have been found in London from the late 15th to the 18th centuries, are the most frequently encountered category. The majority feature a rose in the centre, though this is a very rare decoration in contemporary full-sized tableware. These toys typically represented the more expensive and important household items - we only find toy plates, for example, at a time when full-size plates had begun to be made for display. Previously, when the jug was the most important item on the table, bowls and plates were usually wooden and seem to have been deemed unworthy of being turned into a toy.

By the 17th century, war toys had seemingly shifted away from knights to small copies in bone of swords and in copper alloy of firearms, wielded by the child. Hand guns and (possibly a little later) cannon are found very widely. These were made as fully-working miniatures of adult weapons - gunpowder, firing mechanisms and all - and could actually fire a projectile such as a miniature cannonball. A few have split barrels from explosions when the missiles got jammed, suggesting that this was regularly done. Health and safety in play-things were clearly not the issues they are now.

We have a few contemporary Continental representations of miniature items in use, and it seems quite clear that the household items were the playthings of girls, the war toys of boys, as one would expect. Interestingly, miniatures nearly always represented contemporary full-sized items: toy soldiers and weapons, for example, never represented warriors from a romanticised past or from a significant past war, as was more common in recent times. Toy watches followed the development of adult watches, as they changed shape in the 17th century from oval to round. Only miniature display cupboards sometimes represented furniture made half a century or so earlier, perhaps reflecting the presence of `antiques' in the home. Another stock toy, the human figure, turns up in a series of very detailed late Tudor hollow pewter men and women. Some of these seem to have been intended to walk, aided by strings. There is also a series of cruder, two-dimensional flat figures, probably cheaper versions of the same basic plaything. The latter have usually been found, significantly for the picture of the early toy market being built up, in rural areas, whereas the three-dimensional figures are currently restricted to the capital.

It is reasonable to expect that the more expensive the toy, the more limited the distribution; and there may have been many parts of Britain where manufactured, marketed toys were never seen at all. However, even in these areas, the concept of a toy was presumably known, even if toys there were home-made and no longer survive.

Finds from Viking and Norman Dublin show that toy wooden boats must have been popular very early, as a couple of 9th century models are known. Although in the rest of Britain there seem to be no toy boat survivals from the Middle Ages, a number of tiny metal anchors found in the Thames are probably the remains of wooden boats that were lost in the river and have otherwise disappeared. Flat pewter toy ships do occasionally turn up from the 16th and 17th centuries, resplendent with detail, like the late 16th century trumpeter on the deck of an Elizabethan warship which has all guns blazing.

From at least the 1640s makers were marking these products with their initials and sometimes the year - a sure sign of a highly competitive market. Successful lines had rival makers competing for a share in the trade, sometimes with shameless imitations of original products. This comes over at its most outrageous among toy watches from the early 18th century - for which, coincidentally, details of a court case brought by one maker against another are on record. In 1714-15 a Mr Hux, whose toy timepieces had several components, including a glass, turnable hands and even a tick produced by a strut inside the case being turned against a series of ridges, took to court a Mr Beasly, whom he accused of plagiarising this presumably lucrative line. The outcome has not been traced, but several toy watches have the name HUX and one otherwise virtually identical has BEEZLEY instead - a vivid illustration of market forces in the developing toy industry. Mr Hux was in fact a mainstream London pewterer, for whom toys were a sideline, and he may have been typical of other toy-makers. One manufacturer known by his stamp as IDQ produced 20 different types of toy, but nothing further is known about him.

It has taken some time to establish that toys were a widely available, mass-produced commodity, keenly marketed from at least 1300 in this country, and with an international trade from at least the 15th century. Many surviving miniature toys have been found by metal detectorists - a striking instance of the positive contribution that this tool can make to our understanding of the past, if it is operated with appropriate questions in mind.

The range of toys that were manufactured, and in some instances their sophistication, comes as a revelation. These finds clearly contradict the traditional view that in the Middle Ages there was no childhood in the sense that we understand it today.

Dr Geoff Egan is a finds specialist at the Museum of London, and author of Playthings from the Past (Jonathan Horne, 1996)

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