The Saxons generally built their houses of wood although, after they had accepted Christianity, some of their churches were built in stone. Of course, at the time, people had been building in wood for thousands of years, so they would have known far more about making wooden buildings than we do today and they had far more timber to choose from. The problem with wooden buildings is that they catch fire and decay much more easily than stone buildings, which meant that they had to be replaced more often. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that, at least amongst the nobility, it was considered 'not the done thing' to live in an old building, so some perfectly serviceable buildings would have been replaced for no more reason than personal vanity.
The Vikings also had a long tradition of building in wood, and many of the early medieval wooden churches from Scandinavia survive to this day. However, wood was not so plentiful in some parts of Scandinavia, so other materials were used as well, such as stone and turf.
Types of Buildings
The buildings vary greatly in size from the small, single room houses only about 3 x 3.5m (10' x 11'8') like those found at West Stow to vast halls like that at Westminster which was 22 x 80m (76' x 262'). All the buildings fit into one of two broad categories: sunken featured buildings and framed buildings. Both types are usually square or rectangular although a few round examples of each are known. Sunken featured buildings are those where a 'pit' forms part of the building, either as a living/working space, or as a sort of undercroft. These would have had a timber framed superstructure over them. Framed buildings are those where the whole building gains its strength from its timber frame, built around a series of posts set in the ground.
Sunken Featured Buildings.
The old idea of sunken floored huts led to reconstructions of them which were not much more than a pit with a roof. Whilst this may be true for those sunken featured buildings used as workshops, recent reconstructions have shown this to be the wrong idea for houses. If a roof is put directly over the pit a number of problems follow. First, where the thatch meets the ground it rots very quickly and needs repairing frequently. Secondly, this method of construction produces a very damp set of living conditions. Thirdly, hearths have been found partly in the pits and partly on the edge of the pit suggesting that they were originally on a floor above the pit and fell down into the pit when the floor rotted away. Finally, and this is probably the most important evidence, when people move around inside a building built this way the edges of the pit deteriorate and do not end up conforming to the archaeological evidence.
The modern idea of the sunken floored building comes in two forms. The first of these gives a more spacious, better quality walled building, with a wooden floor built over the pit, generally 0.5 - 1m (11/2 - 3') deep. The pit is then used for storage or, more likely, insulation. There is strong evidence to suggest the pit may even have been filled with straw in the winter. As this decomposed it would give off heat and form a simple 'central heating' system! The building itself was larger than the pit. A number of posts (sometimes two, but usually six - three at each end of the pit) supported the central roof beam and, in the case of the six post version, an intermediate roof beam. The (floor through which the posts passed) was supported by a wooden framework. The edges of this framework supported the base of the walls. The tops of the walls supported the eaves of the roof. Tie beams ran from side to side of the building and intersected with the upright posts. The ends of the building (beyond the posts) were probably used for storage and sleeping, whilst the central section with its hearth provided the main living quarters.
The second type of sunken featured building is really just a variant on the old idea of the covered pit. The walls of the pit would be lined with wooden planks or wattle, and the floor could also be planked. Access, could be gained via a ladder or steps from a door in the building's end, and the pitched, thatched roof would come down, not to the ground but to a low turf or wooden wall. This type of building is known from the continental Saxon homelands, and has the advantage of using less building materials than the method above. This type of building is seen mainly as a workshop, rather than as a living space, an idea borne out by the many loom weights found in these types of buildings. Of course, it is highly likely that both types of building could have existed side by side, each being used for a different purpose.
Another type of sunken featured building, introduced in the second half of the tenth century, would more properly be described as a cellared building. In these buildings the floor may be as much 2.5m 9' below the contemporary ground surface. These buildings are often distinguished by a 'cavity wall' lining the pit and often have joisted floors. These deep cellared buildings have no evidence of domestic hearths suggesting that they were used for storage, or as the 'industrial debris' found in some suggests, workshops. Steps are often found going down to them. There is plenty of evidence to suggest there was a joisted floor at ground level, or just above it, suggesting the living area or a workshop may have been at this level. This type of building is found predominantly in towns.
The framed buildings relied on the fact that a large number of posts were set into the ground to form the basis if the walls. These posts could be set as deep as 2.4m (8') deep on large buildings, although usually the post holes were much shallower than this. A wall plate then joined all the beams in each wall of the building. Tie beams running across the building, and the roof frames, were secured to the wall plates. The spaces between the upright posts were then filled in and the roof was finished. The floor was sometimes just packed earth, but could sometimes be planked, cobbled, or even given a 'concrete like' covering of slaked lime. There was usually a raised hearth in the centre of the building. Framed buildings were often much larger than sunken featured building, and could have a second storey. The larger buildings tended to have extra rows of posts inside the building to help support the roof. Some framed buildings had wooden 'buttresses' around the outside to help support the building.
The excavations of the seventh century settlements at Cowdery's Down and Charlton, both in Hampshire, uncovered evidence of 'cruck' building, a technique previously not thought to have been used until after the Norman Conquest. In this style of building the outer door frames extend into the roof and internal support for the roof timbers is provided by one or two pairs of curved timbers (crucks) set next to the door frames. This method allows for lower side walls, and thus saves on building materials. In light of these excavations, many other sites were reassessed, with the result that cruck building was identified at these too, showing that cruck building was not only known, but widespread by the seventh century.
Sometime during the eighth- to tenth century the foundation technique of using a 'sill beam' was introduced. The sill beam is a horizontal beam which may be set in a foundation trench or placed directly on the ground surface. The wall posts rest upon it and may be held in position by a raised timber lip, or they may be set into the beam in rectangular sockets. By the late tenth- or early eleventh-century stone foundations were also being used.
A particularly Scandinavian type of building is the 'bow sided building'. Instead of straight sided walls, the walls curve so the building is wider at the middle than at each end. These have always been framed buildings, usually with buttresses. The best examples of these come from the military fortresses as Fyrkat, Trelleborg and Aggersborg in Denmark where they probably served as barracks. Some English examples of this type of building are known in a Saxon context, but most are in Scandinavian influenced areas.
It used to be assumed that the only buildings the Anglo-Saxons made of stone were churches. Recent archaeological finds have shown that some noblemen's halls were also being built of stone in the late Anglo-Saxon period, probably emulating the stone palaces of continental kings such as Charlemagne. It even seems likely that some of these buildings may have had glass windows! Stone halls are also known from literature, for example, Asser says in his 'Life of King Alfred':
'What shall I say of the cities and towns he restored, and of others which he built where none had been before? Of the buildings marvellously wrought with gold and silver under his direction? Of the royal halls and chambers, wonderfully built of stone and of wood at his command? Of royal vills made of masonry removed from the old sites and most admirably rebuilt in more suitable places by the king's order?'
The walls were made in many different ways, some were made from wattle and daub, others were planked in one of many ways, some were even 'cavity walls' with moss or grass infill. Although there is no archaeological evidence for it, literature suggests that some of these wooden walled buildings may have been further strengthened by iron reinforcing bands, for example, in Beowulf:
'It was a wonder the wine-hall withstood two so fierce in battle, that the fair building did not fall to earth; but it stood firm, braced inside and out with hammered iron bands. That beautiful building, braced within with iron bands, was badly damaged; the door's hinges were wrenched... he approached Heorot, stood on the steps, stared at the high roof adorned with gold ... Then Beowulf, brave in battle, crossed the floor with his band - the timbers thundered...'
In areas where wood was scarce, e.g. many of the Northern Isles, some buildings had stone or turf walls. In Iceland it is known that entire buildings, including the roof, were made of turf. Some of the later Saxon Royal Manors may have been stone built, perhaps even with glass windows, probably influenced by continental stone palaces. Roofs were generally thatched although turf and wooden shingles may also have been used.
Large halls and manors may well have been surrounded by rampart walls and ditches so they became a fortified residence, such as the hall at Cheddar, or the late Saxon manor at Goltho, said by some to be England's first castle! Also within the wall would have been a well, latrines, a chapel, workshops, barns, pens for livestock, hen houses and perhaps other outbuildings. A smithy was often just outside the wall because of the fire risk a forge represented.
Many houses would have been decorated with carvings. These carvings may well have been painted. Gold may also have been used to decorate some of the great halls as the writer of Beowulf describes '... And he resolved to build a hall, a large and noble feasting-hall of whose splendours men would always speak ... Then I heard that tribes without number, even to the ends of the earth, were given orders to decorate the hall.... The thanes made haste, marched along together until they could discern the glorious, timbered hall, adorned with gold.'
We know how someone set about building a house from a description written down by King Alfred:
'Then I gathered for myself staves and posts and tie-beams, and handles for each of the tools I knew how to use, and building timbers and beams, and as much as I could carry of the most beautiful woods for each of the structures I knew how to build. I did not come home with a single load without wishing to bring home the whole forest with me, if I could have carried it all away; in every tree I saw something that I needed at home. Wherefore I advise each of those who is able, and has many wagons, to direct himself to the same forest where I cut these posts; let him fetch more there for himself, and load his wagons with fair branches so that he can weave many a neat wall and construct many an excellent building, and build a fair town with them; and may dwell there pleasantly and at his ease winter and summer, as I have yet not done.'
Byrhtferth's Manual, a book written around the year 1011A.D., tells us:
'We first of all survey the site of the house and also hew the timber to shape, and neatly fit together the sills and lay down the beams and fasten the rafters to the roof, and support it with buttresses and afterwards delightfully adorn the house.'
Most houses had only one floor and often only one room. Some of the larger buildings had more than a single room, although not generally more than three. Some of these larger buildings may have had one end used as an animal shed in the Scandinavian style.
Heating and Lighting
Windows were very rare and light would generally come from candles or lamps which burnt animal fat and a central fire built on a raised clay hearth. Hearths were generally oblong or rectangular and often had a frame of wood or stone. The windows may have had vellum stretched over them, as this allows light in but keep draughts out or, rarely, may have been glazed. Windows may also have been shuttered. The fire was the 'central heating' and 'cooker', although a few houses may also have had a clay bread oven.
Doors and Floors
Doors had iron or wood hinges and were closed with a latch. Some doors would also have a lock. The floors would have been of packed earth or wood. The wooden floors may have been just simple floorboards or may have been made of tessellated wooden tiles. There is also some evidence that halls may have had raised wooden floors, with steps leading up to the entrance. In Beowulf we hear 'The outer door, bolted with iron bands, burst open at a touch from his hands ... the fiend stepped onto the tessellated floor ...'
There are a few Anglo-Saxon clay floor tiles known from 11th century ecclesiastical centres, but these do not appear to have been used in houses and halls. The floor was often strewn with straw and/or sweet smelling herbs.
How were the buildings furnished? The Norse Sagas give us some clues. For example, a freeman called Bui is taken into a hall '... hung throughout [with tapestries] and with straw on the floor. A man sat in the high seat on the far bench, big and handsome with a great beard, white of hair. He was well built, and seemed to Bui most princely. Both benches were filled with many people, many of whom had rather large faces. Women sat across the hall. A table stood the length of the room, with food set out... There were also young men and cup bearers.'
At another point in the same saga '... She drew up a fair table, and laid it. Then she carried to him a silver basin and costly towel, and afterwards asked him to eat and drink. She fetched in delicious food and splendid drink. All of the table things, dishes, goblets and spoons, were of silver decorated with gold. Frith sat down by Bui, and they ate and drank together.' In another saga '... Modir took a patterned cloth of bright linen and covered the table; then she took fine white wheaten bread and covered the cloth. She carried in full bowls embellished with silver, put on the table pork and game birds. There was wine in the jug; the silver mug was heavy.'
In Beowulf we have other references to furniture '... Then in the feasting-hall, a bench was cleared for the Geats all together ... Then the brave prince leaned back, put his head on the pillow while around him, many a brave seafarer lay back on his bed... I have heard tell that there where they fought, many a mead bench, studded with gold, started from the floor... Tapestries, worked in gold, glittered on the walls, many a fine sight for those that have eyes to see such things.... Then the glorious warriors sat on the benches, rejoicing in the feast... Then Wealhtheow retired to her seat beside her lord... benches were pushed back; the floor was padded with beds and pillows... They set their bright battle shields at their heads. Placed on the bench above each retainer, his crested helmet, his linked corselet and sturdy spear shaft were plainly to be seen...'
Furniture was generally very sparse. There would be a chest, or chests, for important belongings, often iron bound and lockable. There would also be some shelves, a loom (weaving was an almost full time job for many Anglo-Saxon women) and perhaps a table and some stools. During a meal the table would have been covered with a table-cloth. The tables were often of the trestle type and could be folded away and stored when not needed. Often Viking halls had raised wooden earth filled 'benches' down each side of the hall. These would serve as seating during the day and as a sleeping area at night. Wealthier people may have had a wooden bed with a straw filled mattress and a pillow. The bed would usually be screened off from the main hall by a curtain, often embroidered. Chairs were rarely used, usually only by the lord of the hall and perhaps his lady and most important guests. Most people would have sat on either the inbuilt benches, in Scandinavian style halls, or moveable ones, or perhaps on the chests which could double as benches. Around the walls would be plain cloth hangings or skins to keep draughts out. Embroidered hangings were hung over these on festive occasions. In a warrior's hall trophies of war such as shields may also have been hung on the wall. Furniture was almost invariably made from wood, although folding iron chairs are known, and archaeologists have recovered three legged stools, benches, chairs, tables, beds and chests from Anglo-Saxon and Viking excavations.
Tents - A Home from Home.
Tents were used by both Vikings and Saxons. When the ship burials at Gokstad and Oseberg in Norway were carried out the frames for several wooden tents were found, all terminating in fierce, carved animal heads. It is thought that most Viking ships probably carried some tents of this type to provide shelter, at least for the more important members of the crew, when the ship was away from home. These tents varied considerably in size, some of them being large enough to have a fire inside! Unfortunately, we do not know exactly how the canvas fitted to these tents, or indeed, if they may have just used the ship's sail to cover the frame. These tents may well have functioned as a 'market stall' when the ship's crew were engaged in trade, although they could equally well have provided shelter for soldiers on campaign. We do not know much more about Viking tents because they do not seem to be illustrated in any contemporary pictures, or mentioned in any contemporary literature.
In contrast, the tents used by Anglo-Saxons are well known from literature and illustrations, but completely unknown from archaeology. This means that, although we know what they looked like, we do not know how they were made. These tents appear to be identical to the tents used in the rest of mainland Europe at this time, but unfortunately none of these have been excavated either. Illustrations of these tents are remarkably consistent in the type of tent they show.
Anglo-Saxon tents appear to have been mainly used for armies on the march, the very word camp is an Old English word meaning 'battle or warfare', although it appears they may also have been used by other people when away from home, for example, traders, farmers (?) out slaughtering animals, etc.. We also have several literary references to people being 'at prayer in their tent', usually in descriptions of military events, and also have references to 'tabernacles or tents'. From this, it seems that some tents may have been used as 'mobile churches', and this may well be what the 'bell' tents, usually surmounted by a cross seen in manuscript illustrations, may represent.
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Last updated 10 December, 2002. Article and Illustrations Ben Levick 1993
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