Sunday, 17 June 2012

Portrait of a 17th century English Village House

Following on from Sandra's post about domestic interiors in Holland, I am lucky enough to live in an English village which has many houses still in existence dating from the 17th century. The evidence for this is written above the doorways in “datestones”, the initials of the original occupier and his wife, thoughtfully carved in stone along with the date. 

In North Lancashire most houses were built of cruck (oak arch) frames with wattle and daub infill, and thatched with straw, or even bracken if you were poor. The average house consisted of four bays (the space between the cruck arches), but some as few as one. Chimneys slowly appeared in the 17th century, at first as a mere projection from the gable end to keep smoke and fire from the thatch. 

Cruck buildings survived until the Victorian Era -
The Blacksmith's 
The Mourholme Local History Society has done much work to uncover the history of the village and has trawled through Wills and probate inventories, and in my research for The Gilded Lily I referred often to their book “How it was – A North Lancashire Parish in the 17th Century” which gives details of these bequests.

In the first half of the century the position of rooms in a house was defined by their relationship to the main room, known as the firehouse or the bodystead. In the second half of the century side-rooms are defined by name as buttery (a place for keeping, not making, butter) kitchen, bed-chamber, wash-house. The main room was later described as the parlour or bower. The increase in this standard of living had come earlier in the south but was much slower to spread northwards.

Most village houses were furnished simply. Items mentioned in inventories include

Bedstocks or beadsteads with chaff or feather mattresses.These were mostly 'tester' beds with curtains that could be drawn to provide warmth and privacy.

Tables – surprisingly these feature only in 21% of inventories in the first half of the century, rising to 60% in the second. There were however “trests” – a trestle with a board that could be erected and removed to save space. (The idea of the board survives in the English language as the expression "Bed and Board" or 'boarding house' and even 'boarding school.')

Tableware – from pewter or wood, with wood or horn spoons.

Chairs, stools and ‘formes’ – simple wooden furniture. When I say simple, the construction was simple, but often decoration was added afterwards by the householder resulting in quite elaborately carved items.
An Ark storage box
A man's chair, women's chairs had no arms
so they could knit and sew

Arks – mentioned in half of the inventories were bins made of split wood and pegged together.They were used for storing flour or meal, and could be taken apart for cleaning.

Almeryes – a type of cupboard with a pierced door. Thomas Greenwood who lived in the village had what he called a ‘Cat Mallison’ to keep meat and cheese in. As a maleson meant a curse, we assume it was to keep the cat from the meat!

Brandreth and cauldron – a brandreth was an iron trivet to set over the fire. The cauldron could be set on this, or on rackencrooks (an adjustable hanger from the ceiling).The fires burned peat turves cut from the local marshes, most inventories include stocks of peat for burning.

Quishons (cushions) and other soft furnishings are mentioned frequently; beds were usually draped four posters with bolsters and pillows, though very few inventories mention curtains – I can only assume shutters were employed against the weather.

From these simple rural surroundings in rural Westmorland Ella and Sadie Appleby, the two sisters in The Gilded Lily, are on the run. They set off for London, with only vague ideas that it might be some sort of promised land of milk and honey, that there would be glamour and fortune awaiting them there. For Charles II had returned to the throne and London was at its most glittering and fashionable. What better way to see 17th century London than through their amazed eyes. As a writer I wanted to know how they would cope, and even more intriguingly, how London would change them.

The Lady’s Slipper is out now. The Gilded Lily will be released in the UK Sept 13th and the US Nov 26th

furniture pictures from and


Helen Hollick said...

very interesting - thank you

Charlotte Betts said...

Fascinating post for me as I'm writing abut the same period. I am holidaying in Bruges this weekend and most of the houses are fabulously preserved C17th or earlier with stepped gables. It really gives me a feel (apart from the tourists) of what a town of that time would have felt like to live in.

Maggi Andersen said...

Very interesting, thanks Debra.

Jo Ann Butler said...

Lovely post, Debra!
Thanks, Jo Ann Butler

Mary Sharratt said...

As someone who was lucky enough to read an ARC of THE GILDED LILY, I have to say the book is fantastic! :)

Andrea Zuvich said...

Wonderful post, Deborah!