Medieval manor houses were owned by Medieval England’s wealthy – those who were at or near the top of the feudal system. Few original Medieval manor houses still exist as many manor houses were built onto over the next centuries. For this reason, you have to look at Tudor and Stuart manors to find where Medieval architecture existed and where it was ‘improved’.
Medieval peasants lived in wattle and daub huts. The poverty of such dwellings was a sign as to where these people were on the social scale and their standing in the feudal system. No lord would have lived in such circumstances. Manors were built of natural stone and they were built to last. Their very size was an indication of a lord’s wealth. By Tudor and Stuart standards, Medieval manors were reasonably small. By the standards of Medieval England, they were probably the largest buildings seen by peasants outside of castles and cathedrals. Such an example can be seen at Penshurst Place in Kent.
The medieval section of this manor house was dominated by the Great Hall – in the centre of the photo. All those who worked on the manor slept in the hall – reckoned to be as many as 100 at Penshurst in Medieval times – except for the lord and his family who retired to the solar at night. Light into the Great Hall came from the large windows at the side of the building. The solar, effectively the lord’s private chambers, is on the left of the photo. Again, the room would be lit by large windows hence giving it its name – solar (light). The kitchen was on the extreme right of the photo by the arched doorway. This section also contained the buttery. To all intents, the manor was a self-contained entity. Food for the kitchen was grown on the estate and it had its own water supply.
All lords would seek to impress other members of the nobility and the grander the manor the more self-important a lord might feel. Even the entrance to your manor was designed to make a statement about your importance.
Here at Penshurst, there is a door within a door. The door used in day-to-day circumstances is where the opening can be seen. For much grander occasions, when an impression had to be made, the complete door would be open – straight into the Great Hall.
What was life like in a Medieval manor house? For the lord and his family, tolerably comfortable. Though the comforts of a modern house did not exist, they would have had privacy from the estate workers. For the estate workers, a winter’s night would have been almost certainly very cold and uncomfortable. At Penshurst, the Great Hall contained one large fire but the hall itself would have been very draughty. All those who slept here would have slept on straw. Washing facilities would have very poor (by our standards) and there would have been a very limited amount of time to wash as workers worked from sunrise to sunset. There were no obvious toilets at Medieval Penshurst Place – as would have been true in Medieval England as a whole, except in the monasteries. For the peasants who worked on the land, life was still difficult and the feudal system gave them no freedom. Even the lords of a manor were bound by the duties required by the feudal system – and manors could be taken from noble families who were deemed to have angered the king.