On the trail of a Medieval mystery

The unexpected discovery of a magnificent Medieval complex during routine development work set archaeologists quite a puzzle. Bob Davis of Wessex Archaeology told Matthew Symonds how the story unfolded.  

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Excavations by Wessex Archaeology under way on the Medieval structures at Longforth Farm. This massive and completely unexpected complex was discovered in advance of construction work. Seemingly consisting of two ranges, the southern one is visible at the top left of the photograph. Beneath that is an area of open ground that appears to have been a yard. The intermittent walling in the foreground is from the northern range. To the left are the probable service ranges, in the centre is the heavily robbed-out hall, and to the right are the private chambers.

The first hint that anything remarkable lay beneath the soil at Longforth Farm appeared as a machine began stripping away the grass. Among the background scatter of Bronze and Iron Age pot sherds exposed by the machine was a handful of slate roof tiles and glazed ridge tiles. It was not much, but it certainly gave the watching Wessex archaeologists pause for thought. The ridge tiles, gaudily decorated with the distinctive, mottled green hue so beloved during the Medieval period, once lined the crest of a roof. Underneath an overlapping sheath of slate tiles would have spread down like a gigantic suit of scale armour. Expensive and heavy, this was not your average Medieval roof. It was the signature of a structure designed to show off power, status and, above all, wealth. So where was this building?

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One of the Medieval ridge tiles that was discovered during machine stripping. This would have sat on the crest of the roof, with slate tiles spreading out beneath it. Such roofs were the signature of an opulent building.

Could it be that the tiles were chance losses and their apparent implications simply misleading? A further find soon put paid to any chance of that. Wessex archaeologist Simon Flaherty hit the jackpot when he spotted a beautiful decorated floor tile lying loose in the soil. It was the first of several. Often signalling the presence of a religious building, one example bore a design typical of south and south-west England, with comparable patterns known from Glastonbury Abbey.

As it became evermore inescapable that something out of the ordinary once stood on the Longforth Farm site, machine stripping gave way to area excavation. Hand digging soon revealed that the Wessex team had discovered an immense Medieval building complex arranged around an open courtyard. As the archaeologists set about teasing out the details of the groundplan, Steve Membury, the Senior Historic Environment Officer for Somerset County Council, remarked ‘It is probably 30 or 40 years since something of this significance has been excavated in Somerset. Sites as important as this simply do not just turn up.’ Therein lay the mystery: who built this complex and how did it disappear without trace?

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A number of Medieval floor tiles were discovered at the site. Concentrated in the western area of the complex, such expensive decorations are normally found in religious sites. These motifs are typical of south and south-west England, with similar examples known from sites such as Glastonbury Abbey.

An unexpected building

The archaeological work at Longforth Farm was undertaken by Wessex Archaeology on behalf of Bloor Homes. It was part and parcel of a building development that will span 28 hectares and create 503 new houses, as well as a primary school and playing fields on the outskirts of Wellington, Somerset. Wellington also boasts Medieval origins: founded in the 12th century, the village was strung out along a major thoroughfare and hosted a local market. Lying just within sight of the area where the Medieval material was concentrated, Wellington’s buildings cap the southern horizon like a row of monumental ridge tiles.

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Excavating the south range. Floor levels did not survive, but it is possible that this served as a cookhouse that had been detached from the rest of the complex in order  to lessen the risk of fire.

When the Bloor Homes development is complete the Medieval building will not have been covered by modern housing. Instead, it will be buried next to and beneath an artificial pond. Ostensibly to create a new habitat for wildlife, this arrangement acknowledges that the hillslope creates a natural funnel, channelling draining rainwater directly to this point. If whoever commissioned the Medieval complex was ignorant of this topographical quirk, there are signs that Mother Nature soon set them straight.

The first part of the Medieval building that draining water would have reached was a range built to the south of the central courtyard. As elsewhere across the complex, preservation of even the lowest courses of walling was only partial, leaving its precise footprint uncertain. Even so, enough survived to show that the base of the walls was constructed of chert. This common, locally occurring stone is difficult to dress into neat blocks, but eminently suitable for rubble walling. As the irregularities in the rubble render any wall increasingly unstable the higher it climbs, many other Medieval buildings in Somerset used Devonian shillet for their upper courses. As fragments of shillet have been found at Longforth it is possible that a similar approach was employed here. The width of the outer wall, around 1.4m, certainly suggests that it originally rose to a fair height.

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A well-built drain survived in the southern building range. This carried away water that would otherwise have pooled against the outer face of the building, and discharged it into the yard. The bottom of the drain was lined with tiles.

As well as being strong, chert is also waterproof, and the only feature of any note preserved within the outer wall of the southern range is a substantial, slate-lined drain. Rather than feeding a system supplying water to the places where it was needed within the complex, or even flushing out a latrine, this drain appears to have been designed to remove storm water. The water-management system did not just have to cope with run-off from the hillslope, as rain would also have cascaded off the building’s expensive roof. Apart from castles, 12th- and 13th-century Medieval buildings do not seem to have been equipped with gutters, so the water would have been shed directly onto the ground at the base of the walls. Curiously the drain did not carry the water through the entire complex. Instead the drain simply conveyed the run-off under the south range and discharged it into the courtyard.

Fine dining

Medieval floors did not survive anywhere within the complex, but careful recovery of its groundplan allows a number of deductions to be made about what the ranges and even individual rooms were used for. The southern range was carefully separated off from the rest of the complex by the courtyard. Elsewhere such treatment was sometimes reserved for kitchen blocks, as the massive ovens they housed posed a major fire risk to Medieval buildings. Many households learnt the hard way about the value of having a yard that also served as a makeshift firebreak.

Meals that were cooked in the south range would have been destined for tables on the northern side of the courtyard. This range of rooms was far larger and provided ample architectural clues that diners eating there would have expected the very finest in contemporary cuisine. The bones of sheep, cattle, and fowl, together with oyster shells, found during the excavations may give a hint of the range of dishes on offer. This food could have been stored and prepared — though not cooked — in a set of rooms at the eastern end of the northern range. Judging by fragments of glazed pottery from jugs and wine cups, meals were served up in suitably splendid style.

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Looking east over the Medieval remains. The complex was founded near the bottom of a gentle slope. As you can see in the photograph, today water still naturally pools in the area, even during the summer months.

This dinner service would certainly have been at home in the spectacular room that formed the architectural heart of the Medieval complex. Today, this monumental lynchpin of the northern range survives as no more than a large open space, almost big enough for a game of tennis, bordered by a faint discoloration in the soil that betrays the presence of robber trenches cut to acquire the wall foundations. The target of this diligent recycling was the great hall of a Medieval manor house. Even though nothing remained above floor-level at Longforth Farm, surviving examples elsewhere allow its former majesty to be reconstructed with confidence.

The hall’s tiled roof would have been 40ft or 50ft above ground-level and supported by massive wooden trusses. Monumental windows, most likely rising to pointed arches and perhaps radiant with stained glass, would have punctuated the thick stone walls. The individual whom all of this pomp was in honour of would be seated on a raised dais at the far end of the hall, ready to receive his guests in appropriately intimidating style. Behind him a doorway would have given access to his private chambers and chapel, which were carefully secluded away from the hoi polloi. A staircase probably also provided access to the private solar chamber — or bedroom.

Replacement-plan

The Medieval building, as currently understood. The southern range may have functioned as a cookhouse. The northern range lay on the far side of the central courtyard, and can be split into three components: to the east are the possible service rooms, where food may have been stored and prepared; in the centre is the great hall, while the owner’s private quarters lay to the west.

While this set-up sounds almost impossibly grand to most modern ears, many of us have been living in the style of a Medieval lord and never even noticed. This is because the key components of such manor houses have become fossilised as familiar — though far more modest — elements of modern residences. The street door in your average suburban semi opens on to a hall(way), providing access to the service area (kitchen) and private rooms, while a staircase in the hall still often leads up to the bedrooms.

So who would have sat on the dais dominating the Longforth Farm hall? While the tiles spotted by Simon Flaherty could imply an ecclesiastical connection, the complex was clearly intended as a residence rather than a religious house. In itself this does little to narrow the field of potential owners. The complex could have been a country retreat for a lord or bishop eager to escape the pressures of Medieval life, or home to a local dignitary. Was there any way to find out?

From the very beginning, the most eye-catching objects were clustered in the area directly to the west of the great hall. This was where the first tiles were found loose in the soil. Careful excavation of the confusing patchwork of walling discovered there provided a few more examples. Were these the last vestiges of the owner’s private chapel? The most visually arresting tile found during the excavations was decorated with a knight on horseback. Broken in half, the pattern is known from religious houses such as Glastonbury. Dating to the second half of the 13th century, complete examples bearing this motif reveal that it depicts Richard I and Saladin, those arch nemeses of the Third Crusade, charging at each other. Rather than glorifying warfare or religious violence, though, this decorative device is intended to symbolise chivalrous conduct under arms.

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This fragment of a floor tile, found in the western part of the northern range, shows Richard I on horseback. It can be dated to the second half of the 13th century.

Although far less dramatic, the motif on a further tile may provide a more direct clue to who owned this lavish country pad. The decoration consists of a chequered shield — known as an argent — with a small castle at the top. It is a heraldic symbol, which is known to come from the Winchester area and is associated with St Barbe. Unfortunately a number of families adopted this symbol, but could one of them have owned the manor?

As the team pondered the implications of the tile, a tantalising snippet of information was discovered in a Medieval document. No more than a brief aside, it simply states that development was not permitted next to the provost’s estate, which lay to the west of Wellington. As local magistrate, the provost would have been an influential figure and this throwaway written reference must make him a prime candidate to have called Longforth Farm home.

West of Wellington

None of this, though, helps explain why the site vanished. So what happened? One thing that became apparent as the team excavated was that the building had not simply decayed and collapsed in on itself. Instead there was a noticeable absence of rubble or debris of any kind. Despite clear evidence that this complex served as a monumental status-symbol, not a single moulded architectural fragment has been found.

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The railway embankment lying next to the site obscures the falling ground to the north, and treated the archaeologists to the regular roar of express trains.

‘The site has been recycled piecemeal’, explains Bob Davis, Wessex Archaeology’s Senior Buildings Archaeologist. ‘It is quite a statement, and it is certainly not normal for a structure of this type. The building has been care fully packed up. It sounds outlandish, but the archaeology is not lying to us. We are not seeing the detritus that we would expect. If the locals were robbing this place, they would do it crudely and there would be more broken bits of fabric. This looks like it was loaded onto carts and taken away.’ Where this meticulously dismantled manor house was carted off to remains very much a live question.

What might have prompted a decision literally to move house? It is pure speculation, but perhaps the manor’s water-management system failed once too often. Given that a soggy courtyard was pretty much guaranteed even when the drains were working perfectly, a blockage during a wet winter could easily have seen the site repeatedly flooded. Maybe, ultimately, the combination of the geology and the terrain simply made the manor’s location a bad choice. If so, one 13th-century lawman might judge Bloor Homes’ reimagining of the site as a pond to be all too apt.

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