Welsh Houses

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Early Welsh Homes with Reference to Dyfed.

This is an account of the development of the more important types of Welsh house from the earliest examples surviving in three-dimensional form, that is to say from the later Middle Ages. Between the mainly circular native dwellings of the Roman period and the first surviving buildings of medieval Wales there is a great gap which neither excavation nor the study of documentary sources has so far done much to bridge. Two major house-types existed in medieval Wales:

1) the first-floor hall and its derivative, the tower, and

2) the hall-house, which was primarily a single-storied building, and was by far the more numerous over the country as a whole.

Most of the examples of type 1) are to be found in the province of Dyfed, and it was indeed in the examination of houses of this type in Pembrokeshire that the study of the Welsh house began.

In this first-floor hall, as its name suggests, the primary accommodation is on the first floor, most usually over a vaulted undercroft. Houses of this design are pictured in the Bayeux tapestry, which suggests that they were the normal type of Norman upper class dwelling in the eleventh century. It is perhaps, therefore, no coincidence that there are more houses of this tradition to be found in Anglo-Norman Pembrokeshire and Glamorgan than elsewhere in Wales. The classic instance of the first-floor hall is the Bishop's Palace at St. David's. This structure consisted of a suite of rooms, lesser hall, solar; and kitchen, great hall and chapel on the first floor over vaulted undercrofts, built at various times from the late thirteen to the mid-fourteenth century. Other residences of the Bishops' of St. David's, at Lamphey and Llawhaden illustrate the same principle of placing the major rooms on the first floor over vaulted store-rooms below.

Not only amongst the great however did the first-floor hall flourish but also amongst lesser householders. A group on the south coast of Milford Haven deserves mention. The most elaborate is at Monkton, a T-shaped house standing on a ribbed vaulted under croft, probably fourteenth century in date (Prate 14b). Although it may have formed part of Monkton Priory, it is essentially a domestic building. Eastington standing hard by the shore; may like Monkton, be fourteenth-century in date. The building consists of the usual vaulted basements with two rooms above, probably hall and solar. A newel stair leads to a turret on the roof.

Several vaulted houses have also survived near Tenby. The smallest appears to have been Carswell, consisting of a Hall over a single vaulted room below. On larger places, the lower part consisted of several vaulted store-rooms.

An important off-shoot of the first-floor hall is the “tower-house” - a military farmhouse of what was originally an essentially civilian design. Welsh tower houses are not numerous but of the few there are, it is not surprising that most are to be found in areas where the first-floor hall tradition was well established, namely in Dyfed and  Glamorgan. The most fully delineated Pembrokeshire tower is the ‘Old Rectory’ at Angle which consisted of three rooms above a vaulted undercroft connected with a newel stair. Rather larger is the ‘Rectory’ at Carew as also is ‘Bonville Court’ near Tenby. The vaulted gatehouse at much ruined Haroldston near Haverfordwest seems to belong to the same class of building. There appear to be only two buildings in North Wales strictly comparable to these, namely two vaulted houses near Mold  -  ‘Llyseurgain’ and the ‘Tower’. ‘Llyseurgain’ is clearly a first-floor hall. ‘The Tower’ has been much reconstructed but was probably a fortified building as its history suggests.  The tower-house flourished greatly in Scotland and Ireland in the troubled fifteenth, sixteenth and for Ireland, disastrous seventeenth century. If the mere handful of Welsh tower-houses is compared say with the 400 in county Limerick a1one, the great difference in the social and political history of the Briton and the Gael at this time becomes very clear. South Pembrokeshire and to a lesser extent south Glamorgan have many building features distinguishing them from the rest of Wales. They are areas where the mason was the major craftsman, as was realised by the Elizabethan Pembrokeshire antiquary George Owen. The buildings of his native county were he wrote “altogether of stone an no of timber.  Most houses of any account were builded with vaults very strong and substantial”. In Pembrokeshire and south Glamorgan the house is essentially, a stone structure, with stone walls, partitions, and often stone, vaulted floors.  Elsewhere in Wales the carpenter is more important.

I E. L. Barnwell   "The Domestic Architecture or South Pembrokeshire'' Arch. Camb., 1867

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