A Village Tour (or, how I know nothing about medieval architecture)


Much more learned individuals than me have voiced the idiom that one is always learning, and the condition of that journey is the continual discovery of how very little you actually know. And I know next to nothing about medieval houses, which is fairly understandable given that the most historic of our architecture is late 18thcentury. My experience with the architecture of England is limited to country houses and palaces from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and while I certainly don’t shun those examples of the architecture of RDWM (rich dead white men), don’t exactly illustrate the lives of the average population.
My first foray into examining medieval buildings was in the village of Chalgrove, which is about 10 miles southeast of Oxford in South Oxfordshire. 
Chalgrove is full of charming timber-frame houses, many from the 16th century.
 Thatched roof fever.
Archaeological digs have confirmed several Roman sites around the village. In 2003, a guy using a metal detector (i.e., not a professional archaeologist – but England does seem to have a better system for recording finds made by amateurs than we do in the States) found a buried horde of coins that included a silver coin cast by the Roman Emperor Domitianus…only the second coin found in the world with his image and name. Before the Chalgrove coin was found, most professionals thought he was a “conjectural figure.” Even if he wasn’t a myth, the poor guy was apparently only emperor for a few weeks.
(The hord is at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – definitely worth a visit if you are in town. Not only is it the oldest museum in Britain, with very cool exhibits – but it has some fabulous air conditioning.)
Chalgrove was a Saxon manor in 1086, held by Thorkell, Sheriff of Warwickshire. (such nice guttural names) By 1233, it had been divided into two manors, one held by John de Plessis, and one by Drew Barentin. The village’s proximity to Oxford meant the land attracted the attention of the colleges, and both manors (around 1,100 acres) were owned by Magdalen College by 1507 – an ownership that lasted until 1942.

I know this is a lot of back story, but imagine trying to take it all in and relate it to the house around you, whilst balancing a teacup and saucer on your lap, a book in your hand, and an attentive smile on your face – AND ignoring the flaming sensation of stinging nettles on your shins. It is much easier to read this while seated comfortably in front of a computer….

Chalgrove Manor. The far-right front-gable section is the earliest.
Which brings me to the point: that first manor, held by John de Plessis, was the site of my tea-balancing act – although the actual timber-frame house post-dates de Plessis. Built in three stages, the first part of the house dates from around 1444-1468 and was possibly part of an earlier building that is no longer extant. The middle section of the house was the hall, which dates from 1488. The last section is the south wing, with a “felling date” of 1503-1505. (The British are way into dendrochronology)
The rear elevation of the manor house.
The interior of the first part of the Manor.
The current entry hall, with the uncovered oak screen
that was covered up by modern walling materials.
Tree-ring dating puts it at around 1240, meaning it
may have been moved from an earlier house.
Interior of the hall, which originally had an open central hearth and no ceiling. The original arch-braced collar roof is visible in what is now the attic.
Painted panels, meant to look like wood grain, are located in the circa 1505 parlor (at the south end of the house).
These panels were uncovered in 1985.
Across the road from the Manor, on Chalgrove Brook, is the mill and millhouse. The Domesday Book records five mills on that stream in 1086. (see? 1086? Domesday Book? There is no hope for me.) The mill house dates from the 17th century, though it’s had lots of changes. The brick mill wing dates from the 1870s with an attached modern frame addition housing the actual mill wheel. 
The mill and millhouse (the millhouse is the middle section).
The mill conveniently has its construction date laid in brick on the side.
The facade of the mill.
The mill wheel.
The interior of the mill house (which was not accessible).
In addition to these two sites, I got to tour an original timber frame barn next to the Manor, which dates from the 17th century. What we call an “adaptive reuse” project the English call a conversion – and this project was fairly spectacular. 
Some of the framing of the former barn.

The road side of the converted barn.
The rear elevation.
All bathrooms should be like this.

And to not end this post on a toilet-like note, the gardens of the Manor House:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. What amazing architecture…thanks Janie-Rice!

  2. Great reads, you’re quite good at it!

Comments are closed.