Whilst the basic constructional techniques described earlier remained essentially the same to the end, over the 600 years that timber-framed houses continued to be built there were many refinements to both the exterior and the interior, and to the layout and use of rooms. These changes occurred during the Transitional Period which started during the early 16 C (and later in northern and western England). Timber for buildings became scarce towards the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558 to 1603) because (some people believe) of the demand for ships, fuel for iron smelting and for domestic heating, and for the Elizabethan housing boom. Also, timber-framing was gradually slipping down the social scale. By the 18 C building in timber declined. Until then, most buildings in England, including those in London, were timber-framed.

Canadians and Americans please note: in the UK the floor that is at ground level is called the ground floor (that's logical) and the next floors up are called the first, second, third . . . floors.


Jettying was used during the Late Medieval period as well as later. Joists are the beams used to support a floor. With jettying, the joists of a floor that is above ground level were extended outside and beyond the external wall below by anything from 18 inches (46 cm) to 4 feet (1.2 m). As a result, the floor above was larger by that amount. (It can be seen at the left hand end of the picture of my cottage in the Introduction, the picture of 1 Broad Street, Ludlow and the picture Double Jettying shows it on two adjacent walls.) Another advantage was that the weight of the overhanging jettied wall counter-balanced the internal floor load on the joists, so helping them to carry that load. Sometimes two or three floors, one above the other, were successively jettied, so considerably increasing the floor space in crowded Medieval towns and cities. In extreme cases, people on opposite sides of a street could shake hands as in the Shambles in York. The increase in floor space was at first the main reason for jettying and the early Hall Houses sometimes used this feature for their upper floor (the Buttery, Pantry or brewhouse mentioned above under Early Construction.) However, when the Open Hall House design came to be replaced during the Transitional Period by designs with full sized upper floors (inevitably at first by the more wealthy and therefore fashionable people), additional jettying was sometimes adopted to demonstrate to others that this was a modern house, since jettying usually had a smaller role in a hall house. Jettying was used in both the towns and the country and seems most popular during the 16 C.


Throughout England except the north, Cornwall and north-west Wales, (where stone slabs or slate were available) thatch was universal in earlier times - before the 17 C most ordinary houses were thatched. In the 1980s it was estimated that there were still about 50,000 thatched buildings of all sizes in England. The main materials were straw, reed and heather, and sometimes turf.

Thatch needs to be replaced from time-to-time and thatchers can be seen at workthatched cottage today in England and Wales. The best is reed that comes from the county of Norfolk and can last for 50 years. Straw was mainly obtained from wheat and sometimes rye. The lower-quality thatching material might last for only 20 years. Thatch is a relatively light material so the roof timbers could be correspondingly light, especially when compared to those in a stone-tile roof. Thatch is such a malleable material that it can sweep up and around surfaces in the charming way that is so often seen in country cottages, as in the picture. Its picturesque appearance is enhanced by decorations such as scalloped edging and sometimes figures such as cats or birds.

Tiles were in use by the 13 C for imposing buildings such as abbeys. However, they started to replace thatch in the new houses of the more wealthy owners of the South-East of England about 1550 and did not appear in houses in the north and west of England until about the late 17 C. Generally speaking, an unaltered roof built for thatch has a steeper slope - perhaps 53 degrees - than one built with tiles which can be as low as 35 degrees, or less for tiles made of slate. This was probably because thatch needs more help from gravity for water to run off before it penetrates. However, with the need to rebuild decaying rooves over the centuries, the replacement roof could well have been rebuilt with a lesser slope, partly to suit the tiles that were increasingly being used, and partly because the opportunity was taken to raise the eaves to give greater headroom in an upper floor. Evidence of this can often be easily seen from the outside where the wall material changes, and where the timbers in the gable end seem not to match the roof.

Real slate is found in Wales, Devon and Cornwall, Leicestershire and the Lake District. It is heavy so was confined to those areas as a roofing material until the coming of the railways during the second half of the 19 C. It was welcomed because it was fireproof and lasted much longer, and in areas without local sources of slate (that is, those not mentioned above) it is likely that a slate roof indicates an earlier covering of thatch.

Window Glass

The earliest houses that survive today indicate that there was no provision for glazing and it is likely that it did not become common until the end of the 17 C, a century later than its appearance in the larger house. Up to that time wooden shutters were used. The earliest glazing took the form of small pieces of glass about a few inches (4 cm) in size. This was because the technology to make larger glass sheets had not yet developed. Many pieces were held together by lead strips to form a window pane to produce the "leaded windows" familiar in any church today, and later, larger sheets made from blown cylinders were set in wooden glazing bars. Still larger sheets of glass became available by the middle of the 19 C, doing away with the need for glazing bars

The Chimney

An early example of smoke control occurrs in the Tower of London, in the White Tower which was started in 1078. It has a crude system of fireplaces but with no proper stack to draw the smoke up and create an updraft. However, as mentioned above, the Open Hall House had a fire in the centre (or to the side) of the hall, smoke escaping through the roof but some inevitably gathering in the Hall itself. Early in the Transitional Period which for new construction started about 1500 to 1530 in the South-East of England, the wall of the first floor chamber at one end of the house moved over the Hall and towards the opposite wall. A bay was therefore formed between its (jettied) wall and the opposite end of the Hall where the fire was re-located. This controlled the passage of smoke up into the roof. This led in due course to the smoke bay which was more efficient. The next development, in the mid 16 C and later was the fireplace made of brick, the chimney breast with flue and the chimney stack on top of the roof. This was the Second Technological Breakthrough. The re-positioning of the fire at one end ended the practice of people sitting round the central fire and thus maintaining close social contact with eachother. It was therefore less sociable and may have been one of the steps towards separation of the household into social strata that was to continue until modern times.

In the earlier examples the flue was of timber-framed construction, well-plastered to prevent fire. In the north of England fireplaces were not installed until the end of the 18 C and the early 19 C. This increased the combustion efficiency and the flue could heat the chamber as well. The fuel was wood, ingnookcoal not becoming plentiful until the 19 C with the coming of the railways.

This fireplace, huge as it was, continued as the inglenook fireplace with its many iron cooking implements such as the spit for roasting and the hook for suspending cauldrons for boiling, as in the nearby picture from a museum. In my cottage in the inglenook (dated about 1750) there is a little shelf for keeping the clay pipes (men used to sit inside the inglenook to keep warm and smoke), and high up at one end is a niche for storing the salt to keep it dry. The only thing that this sort of fire could not do easily was bake which required additional iron cooking equipment. People therefore often made their dough and took it to the local baker for him to bake. In due course the bread oven was developed, being a cavity of about 4 feet by 4 feet (1.15 m by 1.15 m) situated near the fireplace, with its own simple flue. Hot embers heated the oven and the ashes were raked out and the dough inserted to bake in the residual heat.

This development of a proper flue for the main fire, which completely confined all the smoke, allowed the floor of the upper chamber to extend over the whole of the Hall yet be free of smoke, thus covering it completely and forming a two-storied house. The Hall was no longer open to the roof, and so ended the Open Hall House. This led the way for a ceiling to be installed above this second storey, there no longer being any need for an open space between it and the roof. Also there was a breakdown in the communal life of earlier times and a desire for more privacy. The Open Hall design was therefore abandoned for new building during the 16 C for all but the larger houses where it continued throughout the Tudor period as a banqueting area, and to impress visitors.


In Medieval times lighting was provided by primitive home-made rush lights made by dipping rush (a marsh plant with long stems) in tallow (made by melting hard fat). They were rather smelly and flickered a lot and required a lot of attention. Home-made candles were then developed and gave a brighter and more dependable light. However, due to the difficulty of providing a bright and dependable light, as much work as was practicable was carried out in daylight. Oil lamps and gas lighting in the 19 C made a huge difference. (My great aunt Henrietta, in Aberdeen where I was brought up, died in 1955 in the same house she entered as a child in 1883. It had gas lighting to the end.)

Third Technological Breakthrough

This occurred towards the and of the 19 C with the arrival of modern services such as mains drainage (instead of more or less open sewers in towns), a clean piped water supply (instead of having to go to the village well or the tap in the local pub) and piped gas (made from heating coal in retorts because North Sea gas was not widely available until the 1970s.) Gas was first used for lighting in the early 19 C and this released people from the inconvenience of candles, but it was the development of the incandescant mantle towards the end of the century that greatly increased light output. More convenient electric light also appeared towards the end of the century. These developments of course came first to the wealthy, as ever. The seamstress embroidering intricately by the light of a single candle, perhaps focussed by a water-filled globe, eyes straining as she made fine clothes for the wealthy - she had to wait her turn for relief.

So ends this elementary introduction to the history and construction of late Medieval timber-framed houses.

List of Old Houses and Museums

Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings, Stoke Heath, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire B60 4JR. Tel. (01527) 831 886 or 831 363 Fax (01527) 876934. Over 20 local old buildings, including timber-framed ones, rescued and moved from their original site and rebuilt. The Merchant's House is an excellent example of a 15 C timber-framed hall house. Also traditional agricultural buildings, industrial workshops, furnished houses, and carts, wagons and farm machinery. Gives advice on restoration.

Bridgenorth, Shropshire. The Town hall. This was a very large timber-framed barn moved (probably for economy reasons) from Much Wenlock when the original was destroyed by fire during the Civil War of 1646.

Coggeshall Grange Barn, East Anglia, 12 Century, 120 feet (37 m) long, believed to be the earliest surviving timber-framed barn in Europe. Now in the hands of the National Trust. The picture on the right, taken by Paul Nix, shows its interior.

Knocking, Shropshire. A prominent decorated black and white gable of a farm.

Lincoln. At a street corner is a very impressive example of the tilting by settlement of a timber-framed house, none the worse for it.

Ludlow, Shropshire. The Feathers, Corve St. Highly ornamented braces and carved posts. (See the picture in the Picture Gallery.)

Museum of Welsh Life, (also called St Fagans) Cardiff CF5 6XB Tel. (01222) 569 441. The oldest open-air museum in Britain with over 40 buildings, of which 6 are of boxframe or cruck construction.

Tewksbury, Church St. A terrace of Medieval timber houses just north of the Abbey, one being a museum of timber-framed buildings.

Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, Singleton, near Chichester, W. Sussex. PO18 OEU. Tel. (01243) 811 348

Weoley, Herefordshire. A well-restored black and white building behind the Red Lion with a great natural cruck in its gable end, probably 13 C.

York, Lady Row. A terrace dated 1316.

York, The Shambles. A Medieval street, with jetties.

Bibliography etc.

I would like to acknowledge the help given by these (and other) excellent books. Several of them go as far as modern people can to delve into the minds and lives of Medieval people. Many were available on the Internet in October 2002, new or second hand, from: or: (USA) or: (USA)

Cathedral, Forge & Waterwheel. Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, by Frances & Joseph Gies. Harper Collins, New York. 1994. Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages. (Anything by these authors is worth reading)

The Civilization of the Middle Ages, by Norman F. Cantor, Harper, 1994, ISBN 0-06-017033-6 Well-written and authoratative.

Domesday, A Search for the Roots of England by Michael Wood. BBC Books, London. 1986 ISBN 0 563 20500 8 A very readable history of where England came from and how its people lived. Few kings and no generals. Page 199 contains a picture of the interior of the great tithe barn at Frindsbury, Kent, a huge timber-framed structure that despite its size was constructed in the same way as described above. Page 127 shows a group of not-so-merry peasants, backs bowed under the whip of an overseer as they reap a 14 th century harvest.

English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages, by J J JUSSERAND. University Paperbacks. 4th. Edition 1950. Life on the road, and the transport used.

Medieval Panorama, The English Scene from the Conquest to the Reformation, by G G Coulton, Cambridge University Press. First edition 1938, reprinted to 1949. A fascinating description of how Medieval people thought, lived, travelled and died, from the Royal Court to peasants, on the land, in villages, in monasteries, science and medicine, the Black Death, and Everything.

Medieval People by Eileen Power, Methuen & Co., 1924 6th. Edition 1935. Unabridged republication in 2000 of the 1963 US edition, by Dover Publications Inc. ISBN 0-486-41435--3 (pbk), $6.95. Commerce and life in Medieval times, including the development of the wool trade. ("I thank God and ever shall, it is the sheepe hath payed for all." John Barton, of Holme, near Newark, a stapler, d 1490. A stapler (or Merchant of the Staple to give him his full title) was a wool merchant, the most wealthy of all merchants).

Standards of Living in the later Middle Ages: social change in England c1200 -1520 by Christopher Dyer. Cambridge paperback 1989.

The Ties that Bound: peasant families in Medieval England by Barbara A Hanawalt. Oxford paparback 1986. A classic and much-mentioned book.

Time , Work and Culture in the Middle Ages, Labor Time in the "Crisis" of the Fourteenth Century: From Medieval Time to Modern Time, by Jaques LeGoff. Attutudes towards various busunesses and trades (innkeepers, butchers, jongleurs, mountebanks, magicians, alchemists, doctors, surgeons, merchants, weavers, pastry makers, exchange brokers, tripe sellers, millers, etc. etc.) Taboos. The increasing importance of the division of time and the clock. (The style is slightly dry for the ordinary reader.)

The Medieval Builder and his Methods, Francis B Andrews. Dover Publications Inc.

The Medieval Village, G G Coulton. Dover Publications Inc. £9.21

The Medieval Scene: An Informal Introduction to the Middle Ages. G.G. Coulton. Dover Publications. Paperback - 1 February, 2000

House Restorer's Guide by Hugh Lander. David and Charles (USA) 1986. ISBN 0-7153-8386-8 A detailed and practical book indispensable to anyone wanting to use the correct styles and techniques to restore an old building.

Houses by R W Brunskill. Collins Archaeology 1982. ISBN 0-00-216243-1 A full and authoritative description of old houses of all types, their materials, construction and styles.

Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture by R W Brunskill. Faber and Faber, London and Boston. 3rd. edition 1987 ISBN 0-571-13916-7 Packed full of plans and sections, with details on walling and roofing, all in succinct handbook form.

Life in a Medieval Village Frances Gies, Joseph Gies. Harper Perennial Paperback - 1 January, 1991

Period Houses by Anthony Quiney. George Phillip Ltd., London, 1989. ISBN 0-540-01173-8 An excellent and detailed description of old houses from 1200 to the recent past. Describes styles, construction methods, exteriors and interiors.

Vernacular Building Conservation by Jack Bowyer. The Architectural Press, London, 1980. Details of interior and exterior styles and methods of construction of help to anyone wanting to restore or repair an old house.

The English Country Cottage by R J Brown. Hutchinson Publishing Group (a Hamlyn Paperback 1984). ISBN 0 09 933620 0 Traces the history of the humble cottager and his cottage with details of construction. Has many beautiful pen and ink drawings of cottages.

Discovering Timber-Framed Buildings by Richard Harriss. Shire Publications, paperback, third edition 1993. ISBN 0-7478-0215-7 A really excellent little introduction full of information surprisingly complete, and costing only £3.95.

How Old Is Your House? by Pamela Cunnington. Alpha Books, A & C Black 1988 paperback. ISBN 0-7136-3022-1 Full of information on interior and exterior details to help you date an old house.

Youv'e Been Framed! by Paula Sunshine. Barry Harber PR, Hill's Farm, Bury Road, Lawshall, Suffolk. IP29 4PJ 2003 paperback. bpharber at aol dot com (Replace " at " with @ and " dot " with .) ISBN 0-9545952-0-3 74 pages, many coloured illistrations. £12.99. Its subtitle is "Your Guide to Living in Harmony with an Ancient Timber-framed House". Advice from ridge to soleplate on how to critically view an old house; damp-proofing; avoid portland cement - use lime; ventilation; and a host of other points to know. A useful book, written by an experienced expert.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, 37 Spital Square, London E1 6DY Tel. (0207) 377 1644 Advises, investigates, holds annual courses, administers scholarships, arranges lectures, and publishes technical papers and a quarterly newsletter.

Border Oak (Design & Construction) Ltd., Kingsland Sawmills, Kingsland, near Leominster. Tel. (01568) 708752 The company make timber-framed buildings in the same manner described on these pages, even to using the same style of Medieval carpenter's marks. (The left half of my cottage shown in the Introduction was built by them in 1989 but I am not otherwise connected with the company.) They export to Japan!


The pen and ink sketch of the thatched roof cottage is taken with permission from R J Brown's book "The English Country Cottage", listed above.


Adze A hand tool for shaping timber surfaces, with a blade at right angles to the shaft. Despite its crudity in modern eyes, and like with so many old practices, it was capable of producing a nicely squared and smoothe beam from a tree trunk.

Angle Brace A shorter timber set at an angle to its neighbours. A triangle is a very rigid engineering structure - consider the bicycle, steel bridge construction, building scaffolding.

Dendochronology A method of dating timber by comparing tree-ring sequences with similar sequences of known date. It relies on the fact that the width of each ring varies according to the growing conditions during the corresponding year, several adjacent rings thus forming a unique sequence which can be dated. However, it gives the date when the tree was felled. Much Medieval timber was re-used many years later.

Mass Construction A method of constructing a wall where the weight of the roof is transmitted to the ground continuously along the length of the wall. Usually of stone or brick, or in Devon, of cob (a mixture of clay or chalky soil, dung and chopped straw erected while soft.) By contrast, with Frame Construction, the weight is concentrated on individual posts positioned along the length of the wall.

Purlin A strong horizontal member running the full length of each sloping side of a roof and along the ridge, on which are placed most of the rafters.

Thatch The covering of a roof made of reed, straw or other vegetation.

Wallplate A substantial horizontal member lying on the top of a wall (be it of mass construction or timber-framed) which supports the lower ends of the rafters.

Yeoman A prosperous farmer of the Late Medieval or Tudor periods, lower in rank than a gentleman. He held his land with security of tenure as a freeholder, or as a tenant. He was addressed as "Goodman".

Links to Other Sites

The Medieval Sourcebook A Very full list of Medieval sources.

Paul Gans's Page Descriptions of Medieval technology, including houses.

Spon End Building Preservation Trust was formed in 1995 with the aim of restoring historic buildings in the Spon End area of Coventry.

Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. This is a unique and important collection of nearly 50 domestic and agricultural buildings dating from the 13 th Century to Victorian times, rescued from destruction and rebuilt in a magnificent parkland setting. 25 of the buildings are of traditional timber-frame construction. This excellent site has some very informative panoramas of the inside and outside of several buildings, including the famous house "Bayleaf".

St Fagans: National History Museum. This site (free entry) near Cardiff has many interesting old buildings, and also other exhibits of life long ago but later in date than the Medieval Period. You will need to dig down into this web site to get to the old buildings.

The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

The Domestic Buildings Research Group (Surrey).

Byzantine and Medieval Web links A huge list of Web links.

The Labyrinth Resources for Medieval Studies. Lots of links to sites on English Medieval history (Domesday Book extracts, Magna Carta, tours of present sites such as castles, cathedrals, Feudalism etc..)

UK Index The UK searchable index.

Les Très Riches Heures The Très Riches Heures is the classic example of a medieval book of hours. This site has beautiful pictures from the calendar section painted between 1412 and 1416 showing medieval scenes including harversting. (Possibly slightly idealized - they look happy and relaxed!)

soc.history.medieval A Newsgroup that discusses this subject.