Abbot’s Hall, Milton Abbey, 

Part 1 development of medieval halls

The Abbot’s Hall is securely dated 1498 and was part of Abbot William of Middleton’s refurbishment of the buildings destroyed in the fire of 1309 (yes it took nearly 200 years!). His rebus is to be seen in several locations in the hall and the date is carved in the wooden screen.

The development of the hall in medieval buildings is given in Margaret Wood’s book ‘The English Medieval House’. There are no recognisable survivals of Anglo-Saxon halls, although some have been excavated, they were all of wooden construction. There are some twenty known surviving halls from the Norman period which were built in stone. These being turbulent times they were defensible. Often the access was a stone stairway to a hall built on stone undercroft. Attack by fire being common. There are examples inside baileys which have a lookout tower (a common feature in some Italian towns). The hall had a central hearth, necessitating a high roof to reduce smoke inhalation. At the opposite end to the entrance is where the lord of the manor, or abbot had a dais to oversee the manor servants during their meals. We can envisage the abbot of Milton Abbey living in such accommodation, although it would have been swept away in the fire of 1309. Note that other buildings were separate, additional wings to a hall being a later feature, planning was haphazard at this time too as many excavations at castles and baileys have shown, and also those in monastic precincts, although the locations of cloisters, abbot’s halls, dorters etc have some common features in some Benedictine monasteries.

As times became more settled, there were additions for comfort: a solar wing was added for the lord’s private quarters, the abbot withdrawing after the evening meal, often by a stairway to the solar behind the dais, this was probably the origin of the oriel. Both hall and solar were single storied at first. With the introduction of chimneys, the hall could have an upper room and many halls were modified in this way giving extra sleeping accommodation to the servants who had previously slept on the hall floor. At this time glass was still too expensive and the windows would have been small and shuttered, so the hall and solar would have been draughty and dark. About 100 examples of 13th century halls have been recognised, of which about 30 are good examples.

Glass became more common during the 14th century and window tracery similar to that in many churches appeared. A fine example survives at Meare Manor House built c1315 (tree ring analysis) and the summer residence of the Abbot of Glastonbury. More information and research at Historic England.

Surviving monastic buildings such as the Abbot’s Hall, Milton Abbas are important because they have probably been less modified over time than other domestic buildings.

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