Thatching in the Later Middle Ages

‘Thetchingsulver’, ‘Seggethakkers’ & Clerks


Apart from providing some of the most venerable thatched buildings, to have come down to us, the later medieval period, has also left a goodly amount of written material; relating to the craft of thatching. All carefully set down, by an army of clerks, who worked for the numerous kings and lords, both spiritual and temporal, that were around at this time. By looking in detail, at their bare financial accounts, some fascinating glimpses of the craft can be seen; from more than five centuries ago…

This age saw a great many buildings being erected, many of which were thatched. The rich and the pious were providing almshouses for the poor; hospitals for the leper and the lame, and chapels for priests, to chant away their sins… This clergy needed housing, and so did a multitude of nuns and monks, of every order. The secular world built as well; towns often needed a guildhall and the castle a gatehouse; all providing work for the medieval thatcher.

thatching britain

Medieval survivors… The above building was once the hospital of St Margaret, at Taunton in Somerset; built to care for those afflicted with leprosy. There had been one on this site since the twelfth century, then positioned, well outside the town. The present building, was built by Abbot Bere, of Glastonbury, in the very early sixteenth century his arms are still extant, on the front wall. His hospital becoming almshouses, from 1612 until 1936. Now the building has a new life, as four low cost homes. The lower left hand thatch, was once the guildhall, for the Guild of St James, at Dullingham in Cambridgeshire. Built before 1495, it now makes a very attractive property The lower right, unassuming cottage at Nonington in Kent, is older by far; mostly dating to before 1300… Being one of the oldest, surviving domestic buildings in Britain.

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thatch history


From this period comes the first mention of money; for materials and labour. For centuries, the only coin used in Britain, was the silver penny (1d). Often cut in half, for a halfpenny (½d); or into four, for a ‘fourthing’ (¼d), or farthing. Only in the 1270’s, were round versions of these penny fractions stuck in any quantity. In the mid fourteenth century the halfgroat (2d) and Groat (4d) appear… Under the pre decimal system, twelve pennies made a shilling (1s); which only became an actual coin, in Tudor times. As did the pound (£1), consisting of twenty shillings or 240 pennies. Which is still our monetary unit, it being the world’s oldest…

A strict comparison with our decimal penny, has it equalling nearly two and half pre decimal ones. Which was the best part of a day’s pay for a thatcher, for much of this period. But food was often also provided, with beer and cider on tap, as required…




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Pieces of silver… Scottish and English pennies, and their fractions. These pennies are much the same size, as our decimal penny. But were always made of ‘sterling’ silver. Working for the king seems to have always paid well. Henry the Eighth paid a quarter more than the going rate, to his craftsmen, in the early sixteenth century. Also, a thatcher working in or near London could earn more… Over a third more. An early example of ‘London weighting’.


Looking through the written sources, there seems to have been a great deal of hard cash, paid out to thatchers and others; for works done, on the estates of various worthies. This is perhaps surprising; as this is the period when the feudal system, is supposed to have held the lower orders firmly in their place… Services, not payment being required to your overlord, in lieu of rent, which should have provided for a cashless society. However, it seems that often the lord’s tenants, were unable or unwilling to do the work of skilled artisans. Including those involved with thatching.

Accounts for the year 1321; for the Sussex manor of Preston Millers (now part of Brighton), show this position well… Most tenants were expected to contribute to their lord’s thatching, with money payments. Here called ’Thetchingsulver’. Thus, Ralph le Hunt paid 2½d a year, for his house and six acres of land and William Piscod paid 1¼d, for his smallholding, of half the size. However, John le Nhapekere paid with time… He had to: ‘assist the thatcher’, for two days a year. He received nothing for one day. But had all his food provided, or received a 1d for the other day’s labour.

Not all the tenants paid this tax. So it was probably associated with the parcels of land they rented. What is apparent, is that none of these gents were expected to know the craft… It is often assumed that most peasants could thatch, at least their own home, and no doubt many could, in a rough and ready manner. But it seems anything done for the lord‘s estate, was carried out by a professional thatcher.

Evidence, for paying professional thatchers; can be found even earlier…
The manor of Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, paid out a pound and eleven pence. ‘For thatching the chancery and other houses…’, during the accounting year 1258/1259. The amount of expense involved, equates to around one hundred days work, for a thatcher and a labourer. Throughout this period, thatchers nearly always worked as a team, with a least one helper; and the supply of materials was mainly left to the employer. At this time, the going rate was probably 2½d per day, for the thatcher and helper. The money could have paid to thatch perhaps eighty squares of work. Say the chancery and a few other smaller houses…

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Wellingborough Manor… Happily, the modern town still has some thatch, remaining from the medieval manor. One being the six bay tithe barn; once owned by the Lincolnshire Abbey of Crowland, it now serves as a public hall.


The thatchers, employed a little later at Wellingborough, seem to have been more than just workers, paid by the day. In the same year, as the Preston Miller clerk was busy; the Wellingborough scribe noted, under: ‘Upkeep of Houses’
‘For two thatchers thatching the cowshed and stable for eleven days by task… 4s and 1½d. For each day 2¼d. For their three servants for the same time… 2s and 6d of whom 2 took 2d per day and the third servant ¾d.

‘For buying rods for fastening the thatch of the stable… 2d.

For the wages of one thatcher for thatching the ruined larder and the chapel and the house called the cheese house, through standing agreement… 4s and 6d.

‘For buying rods for fasting the thatch of the larder… 1d.’

The first job does seem to have been paid by the day. Two of the helpers were obviously fairly skilled, earning almost the same as the thatchers. They probably spent their days yealming long straw and filling yokes. The helper, on three farthings a day, probably carried them up to the thatchers. Two squares of thatching, could easily be achieved by this method. So the cowshed and stable possibly equalled over twenty squares of thatching. The stable roof may have been new, as the thatch was tied on, with the wooden sways, which cost 2d.

The ruined larder also needed new thatch, tied on with sways. But the thatcher on this second job, seems to have been working to an agreed price… Thus this accounts entry, has a very modern ring to it. In fact around forty per cent of the thatching work, in these accounts, seems to have been done on this basis. Thatchers hereabouts could obviously negotiate, with the manor for a price. As today, it was then up to the thatcher, to complete the work in good time and create a little extra profit. Which doesn’t sound very feudal at all!

Another entry in these accounts, is an early reference to an important part of the craft; that remained so, until our own times…
For two thatchers thatching stacks of peas for six days by task… 2s and 6d.’

This covering of food crops, using the directional thatching method, was vital, and provided thatchers with a great deal of work, for centuries. Work was done fast and cheaply, as it only had to last a short while… And as will be shortly seen, this proved very useful, to many medieval church and castle builders. (A fuller account, of the art of rick and stack thatching; is the final page in this history.)

The standard of living, for thatchers, was greatly altered by the visitation of the Black Death. The occurrence of this plague, in the late 1340’s, killed off perhaps a third of the population, but it seems it was no bad thing; for the skilled craftsmen who survived it, and for their successors, for the next two centuries…

Before this time, wages had been slowly declining in real terms; against the price of food. In 1310, a thatcher’s wage was only worth three quarters, of what it had been half a century before… However, after the plague had passed, skilled artisans were in short supply. By 1400, wages had doubled, by 1500 a thatcher was earning four times more, in real terms; than his predecessor, two centuries earlier.

The idea of the lower orders bettering themselves, did not appeal to the ruling classes. Hence the Statutes of Labourers quickly appeared, firstly in 1351. This series of laws, set the wages of thatchers and other craftsmen; initially at 3d a day, the same as before the plague. These statutes failed… It was mainly the upper classes that broke them, by paying over the legal rate, for works on their estates…

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thatch history





Before and after the plague… Two fourteenth century thatches. The building above, once housed the priest, for the parish of Muchelney in Somerset. The first one came from the adjacent abbey, in around 1308… The lower property is eighty years younger; standing in a quiet corner of Hoath in Kent. It was once a two bay, hall house; for a prosperous farmer. The third brick bay, being added later.


Ecclesiastical employers, at Ripon in Yorkshire; were paying 5d a day, in 1399, to a thatcher working in the town’s Cornhill district. His female helper received 15d, for five days: serving the thatcher. (Female helper? Until well into the nineteenth century, women were not just working in the fields, but also in the construction industry; including the craft of thatching… So much so, their contribution to the trade, has it’s own page in this History section.)

As ever, the employers provided the thatching materials, for this Cornhill job. Straw and mud were recorded, as being purchased; with no other materials being supplied. So a new thatch, tied on with straw rope, made by the helper, is possible. Or, if coating an existing thatch, the stobbing method may have been used, as this requires no fixings. Either way, the ‘mud’, which was probably a weak lime mortar; would have been used to ridge the work. Along with stobbing, this was a common working practice, in Northern Britain. A smallish job, of say four squares, with a ridge, would have kept the thatcher and his server busy, for five days, in medieval Ripon…

At least one clerk, from the army of scribes; also became involved with the craft. In 1416, a Bath parish in Somerset, paid it’s clerk and his wife, to not only gather and bind the straw thatch; but also to assist the thatcher. So some at least of these scribes, were married men; with wives able to help out, with their husband’s non literary tasks.

These clerks, of the early fifteenth century, finally began to put names, to some of the thatchers their masters employed… In 1429, one Brown a seggeman, was paid 7d for thatching some walls, belonging to Cambridge’s Trinity College. Six boys, who carried the sedge, received a penny each for their labours. From where and how far they hauled it we’ll never know.

Ten years later, the college paid for the meals of two seggethakkers; for four days, which cost 16d. Whether thatcher Brown and the boys received their lunch, along with their pay, is not recorded. But food and drink, had been part of worker’s wages, for a long time before this period and for centuries after it. The seventeenth century farmer, Henry Best, complained about how much food, he was providing for his thatchers. ( Henry appears in the following page..) The later, Georgian Agricultural Reports, make many references to wages: with or without beer… In all these periods, the length of a working day was governed by the hours of daylight. In a long day, it was probably to the employer’s advantage, to provide some food, as it would stop any workers wandering off, in search of a meal. Also, by controlling the amount of drink available, almost certainly alcoholic; a relatively sober workforce could be maintained…

The six Cambridgeshire boys had earned their pennies, supplying sedge to thatch walls. A type of thatching, still found today. But the accounts clerk may have been referring to a thatching practice, that has long disappeared…

This period in history, is famous for the construction of huge buildings, both secular and spiritual; the castles, churches and cathedrals, that still dominate many towns and cities throughout Britain. What is not generally known, is that the craft of thatching, played a vital part in the building of these remarkable structures…

Every one is a testament, to the skill of the stonemason, but in building projects lasting decades, their work needed protection; from the frost and rain, that occurred during the annual five month winter break… Building works generally lasted only from March to September. Most workers returning home, for the harvest and staying there, for the equally important ploughing and planting, at the start of the next year. Just as in Roman times, the vast majority of Britons were still tied to the land, if only for part of the year; simply to ensure they fed themselves…

Thus thatchers were employed, to cover the tops of half built walls; and thatch the often large roofs, constructed over half completed buildings. They would probably have used the quick directional method of thatching, for areas needing only a winter’s protection. But, perhaps the longer lasting standard method, was used for the semi permanent roofing, over say a large church nave or a castle tower.

Many thatchers must have found useful, late summer work, on these major building sites. It would have often taken a few generations, to see some of the bigger projects to completion. A job for several working lives…

Most of this work passed by quite unnoticed, by the chroniclers of the day, except when things went wrong… In 1437, the laity and monks, of Sherborne Abbey in Dorset; were having quite a heated debate, about the position of the font,of all things… The arguments heated up a great deal more, when during a riot the townspeople’s priest: ‘…shot a shaft with fier into the top part of St Marye Church,… chauncing at that time to be thakkid…’ thus noted John Leland, the Tudor antiquary. Another contemporary account, reveals the result of the priest’s archery: ’1437 The church …was burned down on the day of saints Simon and Jude, Apostles.’

49g1At this time, a major rebuilding of the tower and chancel was under way; thatchers had probably been at work, every autumn for nearly two decades. The riot took place at the end of October, so the winter shutdown had begun; with the site fully thatched over. The temporary roofs, and wooden scaffolding burnt so intensely, it melted the bells… The reddened stones, caused by the priest’s misdeed are still visible. But as a well built masonry structure, will normally survive a thatch fire with ease, building carried on. Giving thatchers autumnal work, for many more years…

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St Mary’s at Sherborne… A careful look, at where the right hand side of the tower, meets the lower nave, will reveal some red fire marked stones. Nearly six centuries after masons, carpenters and thatchers, all had a hand in creating this masterpiece.


Secular, as well as spiritual building sites also required the help of the thatcher. The clerks mention 125 cart loads of thatch, for works at Windsor Castle, in 1362. Heather was purchased, for use at Nottingham, in 1369. And bracken was the material of choice, at Ludgershall, in Wiltshire; in 1342. Here the thatcher was employed, to cover another essential part, of these large building projects. A loge, made for housing the various stone masons and carpenters, employed on the site over the winter… Later, in 1539, the English king Henry VIII, was paying for these temporary buildings at ‘Codyngton’. Costs included, ‘purchase of straw to thatch the mason’s lodge’ and ’32 loads of straw to thatch a working house for the carpenters’, along with ’16 burden of hazel rods for the thatcher at 2d. the hundred rods…’

zzz-covent-gardenzThe practice, of protecting new masonry, over the winter with thatching, continued for centuries. In 1631 the church at Covent Garden in London, being built by the Duke of Bedford was protected thus. His accounts show, Edward Bankes being paid thirty shillings and four pence for straw and ‘And to Richard Moore for thatching the walls of the Church to preserue them in the Winter’; Three pounds and two pence… Total cost; £4.10. 2

zzz-queens-house-greenwichzThe previous winter saw payment made to ’Thatchers ymployed in thattchinge the Roofe of the Arche of the new building’. This was on the Queen’s House, down the River Thames at Greenwich…




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Castles and manor houses… The upper image shows the gatehouse, at Stogursey Castle in Somerset; with a new thatch. The castle itself  having a twelfth century origin. The lower print, from 1865, pictures Woodsford Castle, in Dorset. A licence to fortify this manor house, was obtained in 1335. Both these buildings were re-roofed in the seventeenth century, but show what must have been a common sight, in earlier days… And are presently in the care of the Landmark Trust.

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The English king, Edward, was a busy castle builder in Wales, in the later thirteenth century… The work force, for his great projects, was gathered from all over England; the native craftsmen not being that keen, on working for the invaders… Although they are not mentioned specifically, a good many thatchers must have been part of this conscripted labour force. At it’s peak, in the 1280’s, between two and half and three thousand men, worked seven months a year; on castles all over Mid and North Wales. That’s a lot of loges to thatch, and a great many walls to protect.

This busy king, also built towns such as Conwy and Harlech, to act as a focus for English settlement. Giving yet more work for no doubt, English thatchers. It may be that these conscripted thatchers, have left a legacy, of the thatching style, long in use in much of Northern Wales. This is similar to that found in counties such as Lancashire and Cheshire, from where many a thatcher had tramped, on King Edward’s orders…

The royal conscription of thatchers, for military adventures, lasted at least until the late sixteenth century. In 1590 the English and their Dutch allies were occupying Ostend. In a letter to the royal court, Sir Edward Norris requested along with much else; ’12 thatchers with straw to cover the decayed houses’.

Many permanent buildings, inside King Edward’s castles, were also thatched. The castle at Caernarfon, was all too easily damaged by fire, in a rebellion; led by one Madog ap Llywelyn, in 1294. But King Edward was still happy to use thatch; as six years later, his clerks noted a total of one pound ten shillings and eight pence; for seventeen cart loads of rushes. To cover the hall and other buildings, at his castle, at Pevensey, in Sussex.

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King Edward’s town and castle… At Harlech in Merionethshire. This print, from around 1830, shows a disused castle, still surrounded by many thatched houses. The medieval, strip field system of farming, was also clearly still used.


The more mundane work of the thatcher, also continued. 1442, saw John Beer working at Thriplow; thatching a new pigeon house, for the worthies of Peterhouse College in Cambridge. He was: ‘…reeding the pigeon house, taking 2900 of reed.’ For fixing around thirty squares of water reed, our man was paid twenty four shillings. That’s around 15d a square, an amount no doubt shared with his labourer. He also received 21d, for: ‘schredying four cartloads of roddes.’ This was making up ledgers, spars and liggers; for fixing the thatch; handy indoor work in wet weather… A final payment for: ’…ryggyng and stepyng’ was also made. This took two cartloads of halmestrawe; the useful long stubble, left after a medieval harvest. The term stepyng, is open to interpretation. It could mean the final tiding of the coatwork, which the modern thatcher calls dressing. Or it could be a term, for an ornamental block ridge, which does form a step, up from the main roof line. Perhaps the college wanted a fancy ridge on their property…




Homes for pigeons and doves… Once common, as the birds were a good source of meat. A few thatched dovecots have survived from this period. This one, from the fourteenth century, stands at Thoroton in Nottinghamshire. Being much smaller, than the one John Beer worked on, in the century after this one was built.

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thatch history

Two thatched homes, from the fifteenth century… The upper building, at Fobbing, in Essex, is now a row of charming cottages. But was once a single dwelling; with a central open hall. The lower property, at Normanton on Soar in Nottinghamshire, is cruck built. Tree ring dating here, shows two building periods, in around 1454 and 1490.

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There is no evidence of thatchers being involved, in that great medieval institution, the Trade Guild; except perhaps in the city of Norwich. Here, in 1453; ‘reeders’ took part in the annual procession of occupations, held on Corpus Christi day. They carried their banner along with the ‘claymen, reed sellers and carters‘, the group being third from the front. But it seems the further back you were, the more prestigious your status, as the Mayor and other city worthies, brought up the rear of this procession…

For the craft, the fifteenth century slipped easily into the sixteenth. Peterhouse College were still employing thatchers; yealming long straw, paid 3d a day in 1504. But things were changing. Four decades later, at Bath in Somerset; the parish of St Michael, paid: ‘a thachere and his manne’, 15d, for a day and a half of work. By now the English Reformation was well under way, thus the parish laity paid this thatcher; not some local spiritual lord. The world of the cloister and the clerk had ended…

The thatched ecclesiastical buildings, that survived the vagaries of this upheaval, usually had a change of use. Chapels and Abbeys soon became barns or houses. The exception, being the splendid, thatched parish churches in East Anglia. (Their separate page is found in the Eastern Tradition section.)

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Down in the world… The above print, from 1784, shows the remains of Leiston Abbey in Suffolk. The thatched building on the right, behind the ruined arch, is the chapel of St Catharine. This remained a barn until 1926; it’s now back to it’s original use, with a new roof of water reed. The lower wayside chapel, at South Cadbury in Somerset, once housed pilgrims, en route to Glastonbury Abbey. But has long been an attractive thatched home, for more secular residents.

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This new, post reformation world, was one of opportunities, which were mainly taken by the upper sections of society… Much new wealth, went into showy new homes; the great ones we often call stately; but a host of smaller dwellings also arose. In the century after the Reformation, what is often called The Great Rebuilding, took place. Most ‘old’ dwellings we see now, come from this period. Stone and brick, now competed with timber and chimneys became a common sight. But in this new world, thatchers still kept the majority of the population dry…

Post script…

For thatchers and other craftsmen, all this change literally came at a price… In England and Wales, the new masters were able to achieve what the old ones failed to do; control wages. In 1562, a rather innocuous looking act of parliament was passed. The Artificers and Apprentices Act. It stated that: ’No person shall, under penalty of forty shillings a month, shall use or occupy any art, mystery or manual occupation without seven years apprenticeship.’

Not many craftsmen would ague with this. But a sting in this law, allowed the ‘Justices at the Quarter Sessions‘, to set the level of wages. These Justices, were in effect the employers… And they set about creating some very low wages indeed, until the law’s repeal, in 1812. Although the law really only applied to workers on a yearly contract, the low levels of wages also affected most independent craftsmen. Standards of living fell. Wages, had less than half their real value, at the end of the sixteenth century, than at it’s beginning… It has been estimated that craftsmen were better off, in the thirteenth century, than in the early nineteenth; when wage control finally ended. Killed off by the Industrial Revolution.

 

Most records referred to in this page, are readily found in public databases. However two books have been of great help… The Development of English Building Construction, by C.F. Innocent & Dr L. F. Salzman’s remarkable work, A Documentary History of Building in England Down to 1540.