Thatching in the Early Middle Ages

Halls for Kings and Pits for Peasants… With a few words from The Venerable Bede

Most of the evidence, for the types of buildings early medieval thatchers worked on; is found when the soil in city, town or village is disturbed. As ever, the organic remains of the thatcher’s craft rarely, if ever survive. Where wooden buildings stood, only marks in the soil give a guide; to the types of dwelling, that housed Britain’s population, from the end of Roman Britannia, to the eleventh century and the arrival of the Normans, by conquest in England and Wales; and invitation, in Scotland…

However a candle, to light any Dark Age gloom, is provided by these islands first, native historian, Baeda or The Venerable Bede, as we know him. His ‘History of the English Church and People’, is the first and one of the best records of Britain’s early days; completed shortly before his death, in the year 731… In his book Bede makes a few passing references, to thatching…

For, as the worthy monk from Northumbria notes…

In the year 429, near St Albans; one St Germanus is saved. As: ‘the adjoining dwellings which at that place were thatched with reeds from the marshes’, are destroyed all around him. The saint was bed ridden, but his thatched cottage is spared….

In around 651, the pagan, Mercian king Penda, attempts to set fire to a city. By: ‘Pulling down all the neighbouring villages, he carried to Bamburgh a vast quantity of beams, rafters, wattled walls and thatched roofs’ . He is thwarted, by the intervention of another saint, Aidan this time….

In 664 Aidan’s successor, Finan, built a church on the island of Lindisfarne: ‘of hewn oak thatched with reeds after the Scots manner… But … Eadbert, a later Bishop…, removed the thatch and covered both roof and walls with sheets of lead.’

Around the time Bede was born, in the 670’s, Northumbria’s own saint, Cuthbert, decided to live the life of a hermit. Moving to a small island off Lindisfarne. Here he built his own dwellings of ‘…unworked stone and turf…. And he roofed them with rough hewn timber and straw.’ Later his crop of wheat failed to germinate, but a replacement crop of barley saved the day, growing to maturity, in a few weeks… And not surprisingly, a well he dug on barren ground, always produced enough water…

thatch history

Thatch on the Tyne… This print from the 1830’s, shows Bede’s old monastery, at Jarrow. The low roofed building, on the far left, was an oratory, in his time. This would have been thatched. The riverside cottage, by the bridge, still has a covering. The cottage is long gone, but Bede’s old church survives…

Our more cynical times, would perhaps mark Bede down, as being rather credulous; but he was a good historian… Thus these brief insights, into this world full of miracles, allows us to deduce a few facts. Fire, as ever, is a menace and it seems a weapon of war. The idea of dismantling whole villages, may seem somewhat extreme to us, but to Bede’s contemporaries it was not that unusual. Until late in the Saxon period, many English settlements seemed to have been moved; at intervals of around thirty years. Only a couple of miles or so; in what is known as the Saxon shuffle.

Bede mentions reed more than once. Living on the south bank of the River Tyne, at Jarrow, this material must have been very familiar to him. It seems that, in the mid seventh century, this was the material of choice of the Scot’s church. In Bede’s day these were the Scots, recently arrived from Ireland; only inhabiting part of the country they gave their name to… The influence of the Roman church, is shown by the use of lead; no doubt sent, with the stained glass and stone masons, from southern Europe. It also seems that the future Saint Cuthbert, was capable of building and thatching his own home. Probably using barley straw, to coat his dwelling. Which had walls constructed of alternate layers of turf and stone. A method used well into modern times, in the north of Britain…


Jarrow Hall… An eleven acre site, close to Bede’s old monastery. These two buildings are based archaeological evidence. On the left: a monastic workshop from Hartlepool, and Thirling’s Hall from Yeavering. Photo; copyright and thanks, Andrew Curtis; Creative Commons Licence.

As seen in the picture above, most people it seems, lived in fairly standard homes, of around 36×15 feet (11mx4.7m). Giving a twelve square roofing job for the thatcher. Single storey, but the prototype for thousands of today’s thatched cottages. However excavations of many Anglo Saxon sites, have brought to light several other types of buildings. Both small and large; reflecting their use, by people at either ends of society.

Also found at Jarrow Hall is a ‘Grubenhaus’, literally translated as ‘Pithouse’; the workshop and home, of the lowest classes. As the name implies, a pit was dug around eighteen inches (½m) deep and the hut built over it. Structures around 16×14 feet (5x4m) are common. The thatch roof seems to have extended down to the ground on many, almost like a tent; others had low walls. Loom weights and metal slag have been found in some of these and point to their probable uses.

thatch history

Survivors … The top image shows ‘Teapot Hall’, in Lincolnshire. ‘All roof and no wall‘, as the locals said. The bottom left image is from Northern France. And the charming scene on the right, comes from the Netherlands. All showing a ‘Pithouse’ type of roof. It seems these simple buildings could be quite large, and many survived well into the last century. (Teapot Hall and it’s sad end, is discussed in the page on Lincolnshire.)

thatch history

thatch history

The Vikings have left some widely varying sites, throughout Northern Britain. The seventy foot (22m) longhouse, at Jarlsholf on Shetland, is well known, this may have been covered with turf. But shaped stones, ideal for weighing down roped thatched roofs, are often found on Viking sites, in the Northern Isles. This is still the traditional thatching method hereabouts… The urban side of Viking society, has been exposed by the excavations at Coppergate in York; amongst other sites. These show some closely packed streets. So close that roof access must have been a nightmare for the thatchers. Some roofs may well have had a wooden shingle covering…

thatch history

Shingles and thatch… These rare Viking ‘Hogsback’ tombstones, lie in a quiet corner of St Mary’s Church, at Gosforth in Cumbria. The front example, of these little houses for the dead; clearly shows a shingle roof. Similar roofs still exist in Norway… The rear stone however, might just show a decorative roof, of thatch… Perhaps showing a roof fixed with ropes and edged and ridged with turf?

The culture of all the various folk, in Britain at this time, was perhaps quite similar. Certainly each king or chief aspired to a large thatched hall; for show and for feasting. Various excavations, up and down the country, have produced evidence of some remarkable structures. Designed to overawe the populace and give the thatchers some very large jobs, in the process…

One such chief, at Dinas Powys in modern Glamorgan, built two good size halls. Local thatchers then covered around thirty five squares of roof, for their headman… These would not have been the only buildings on the site. Apart from a hall and a private chamber; a kitchen, chapel, barn, stable, porch and privy; are all mentioned in Welsh documents of this period. The site was a good one, and gave status and shelter for three centuries; from around the year 470… The owners employed a resident jeweller and drank wine, from the Mediterranean region.

As did the occupiers of Cadbury, a fortified hillfort in South Somerset; a site long associated with King Arthur. Here, on a prominent hilltop position, the remains of a large hall were excavated; dating from around the year 500. Dark Age thatchers once covered a timber building, 63x34ft (23mx12m). That’s a thirty foot (9m) roof to thatch over; a daunting prospect at the best of times. Even more so on a windy hilltop, five hundred feet (152m) above the Somerset marshes. Perhaps they cut reeds in the surrounding wetlands, if so that meant carting four thousand or so bundles up the steep tracks to the hill fort… All work, provided by some unknown worthy; who may have been called Arthur?

thatch britain

Fit for a king… This large barn, at Eastbury in Berkshire is around three quarters of the size, of the building that once graced the hilltop at Cadbury. And gives us some idea as to the scale, of the various regal feasting halls, that once dotted Britain… The low eaves on this barn were probably replicated, on any royal forebears. As a single story building doesn’t need high walls. And is thus easier to construct.

A century or so after the death of any King Arthur, another king was being laid to rest. Over on the eastern side of England, in Suffolk; at Sutton Hoo.. This was almost certainly one Raedwald, King of the East Angles. One of the many treasures he took with him, was the chain that hung over the fire in his main hall. This remarkable artefact gives an insight, into the buildings of this period; that normal archaeology cannot achieve. It’s length tells us the approximate height of this ruler’s hall. From any main cross beam to the large chaldron, the chain no doubt supported. A structure, of around twenty three feet (7m) in height has been estimated. (It depends how high you place the cross beam, from which the chain hung.) This would have given the thatcher, a roof of around twenty three foot (7m) to cover. Modest, compared with other royal dwellings. Maybe the chain hung lower in the roof, than is thought.

The living conditions inside are hinted at. The skilled metal worker, who wrought this masterpiece, decided to gradually lessen the rich ornamentation, as the top of the chain is reached. It was so smoky where this hung; not even King Raedwald would see it….

One of the largest halls, so far found, belonged to the kings of Dumnonia; at Castle Dore, in modern Cornwall. Here they entertained in a building 85×40 feet (26mx12.5m); a sixty square roof of local thatch. Very possibly the same type of combed cereal straw, found in Cornwall today. To this monster must be added a large, and probably impressive entrance porch. No doubt other buildings also existed, as mentioned in Welsh records; Barn, stable, chapel etc. I dread to think how big the privy must have been…

Where construction was of wood, we certainly need our imagination. But when the peoples of this period used masonry, buildings occasionally have survived. Built at the end of this age, a handful of thatched structures have come down to us. Some of the splendid thatched churches, to be found in East Anglia; date back a thousand years. And can lay claim to be the oldest continually thatched buildings in Britain…

thatch history

Saxon thatch, from the county of Norfolk… Most of the walls and towers, on these three churches, are around a thousand years old. Even in Norfolk, thatch never lasts that long! But down through ten centuries, only thatchers have kept these buildings dry. The top image, shows St Mary the Virgin, at Cranwich. Left is St Mary’s at Beachamwell. Right is the church of St Matthias, at Thorpe next Haddiscoe. (More splendid churches are found in their own sub page, under the ‘Eastern Tradition’ of Thatching… Thatched Churches in East Anglia)

thatch history

thatch history

The coming of the Normans, allowed a rough and ready stability to most lives. Not too many invasions, or upheavals… Bringing in time, the wealthy farmer’s hall house, the long houses of the north and west; and the arrival of the chimney. Some of these have survived. Real buildings can now take the place of imagined ones. Even some of the later, medieval thatcher’s work, is preserved in the odd sooty attic… What we see, in this ‘smoke blackened thatch’, is very similar to what is done today. There is no reason to suppose that these methods and materials do not go back in time, as well as forward. Revealing the craft, that both the poorest peasants and the wealthiest king relied on. Before the Normans, thatching sheltered just about everyone, high or low.

The next age, would bring the first serious competition to the craft. As towns endeavoured to rid themselves of any thatch; in the name of fire prevention. While the rich and powerful, followed suit; in the name of fashion…