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Life In A Medieval Castle - Castle Rooms

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Rooms in a Medieval Castle


Rooms in a medieval are largely recognisable by their modern counterparts in more modest homes. Kitchens are still kitchens. So are pantries and larders. So are cellars. Bed chambers are now known as bedrooms. Latrines have become lavatories and bathrooms. Halls have morphed into entrance halls and dining rooms have taken over one of their main functions. Solars, Cabinets and Boudoirs have become sitting rooms, libraries and dressing rooms. Ice houses have been replaced by refrigerators.

Below are the main rooms found in medieval castles and large manor houses.

Bower at Smithills

The Great Hall

A great hall is the main room of a royal palace, nobleman's castle or a large manor house in the Middle Ages, and in the country houses of the 16th and early 17th centuries. Great halls were found especially in France, England and Scotland, but similar rooms were also found in some other European countries.

In the medieval period the room would simply have been referred to as the "hall" unless the building also had a secondary hall, but the term "great hall" has been predominant for surviving rooms of this type for several centuries to distinguish them from the different type of hall found in post-medieval houses.

A typical great hall was a rectangular room between one and a half and three times as long as it was wide, and also higher than it was wide. It was entered through a screens passage at one end, and had windows on one of the long sides, often including a large bay window. There was often a minstrel's gallery above the screens passage. At the other end of the hall was the dais where the top table was situated. The lord's family's more private rooms lay beyond the dais end of the hall, and the kitchen, buttery and pantry were on the opposite side of the screens passage.

Even the royal and noble residences had few living rooms in the Middle Ages, and a great hall was a multifunction room. It was used for receiving guests and it was the place where the household would dine together, including the lord of the house, his gentleman attendants and at least some of the servants. At night some members of the household might sleep on the floor of the great hall. From time to time it might also serve as the lord's courtroom.

The great hall would often have one of the larger fireplaces of the palace, manor house or castle, frequently large enough to walk and stand inside it. It was used for warmth and also for some of the cooking, although for larger structures a medieval kitchen would customarily lie on a lower level for the bulk of cooking. Commonly the fireplace would have an elaborate overmantle with stone or wood carvings or even plasterwork which might contain coats of arms, heraldic mottoes (usually in Latin), caryatids or other adornment.

In the upper halls of French manor houses, the fireplaces were usually very large and elaborate. Typically, the great hall had the most beautiful decorations in it, as well as on the window frame mouldings on the outer wall. Many French manor houses have very beautifully decorated external window frames on the large mullioned windows that light the hall. This decoration clearly marked the window as belonging to the lord's private hall. It was where guests slept.

In western France, the early manor houses were centered around a central ground-floor hall. Later, the hall reserved for the lord and his high-ranking guests was moved up to the first-floor level. This was called the salle haute or upper hall (or "high room"). In some of the larger three-storey manor houses, the upper hall was as high as second storey roof. The smaller ground-floor hall or salle basse remained but was for receiving guests of any social order.[1] It is very common to find these two halls superimposed, one on top of the other, in larger manor houses in Normandy and Brittany. Access from the ground-floor hall to the upper (great) hall was normally via an external staircase tower. The upper hall often contained the lord's bedroom and living quarters off one end.

Occasionally the great hall would have an early listening device system allowing conversations to be heard in the lord's bedroom above. In Scotland these devices are called a laird's lug. In many French manor houses there are small peep-holes from which the lord could observe what was happening in the hall. This type of hidden peep-hole is called a judas in French.

Many great halls survive. Two very large surviving royal halls are Westminster Hall and the Wenceslas Hall in Prague Castle. Penshurst Place in Kent, England has a little altered 14th century example. Surviving 16th century and early 17th century specimens in England, Wales and Scotland are numerous, for example those at Longleat (England), Burghley House (England), Bodysgallen Hall (Wales), Muchalls Castle (Scotland) and Crathes Castle (Scotland).

By the late 1700s the great hall was beginning to lose its purpose. The greater centralisation of power in royal hands meant that men of good social standing were less inclined to enter the service of a lord in order to obtain his protection. As the social gap between master and servant grew, there was less reason for them to dine together and servants were banished from the hall. In fact, servants were not usually allowed to use the same staircases as nobles to access the great hall of larger castles in early times; for example, the servants' staircases are still extant in places such as Muchalls Castle. The other living rooms in country houses became more numerous, specialised and important, and by the late 17th century the halls of many new houses were simply vestibules, passed through to get to somewhere else, but not lived in.

Many colleges at Durham, Cambridge, Oxford and St Andrews universities have halls on the great hall model which are still used as dining rooms on a daily basis, the largest in such use being that of University College, Durham. So do the Inns of Court in London and King's College School in Wimbledon. The "high table" (often on a small dais at the top of the hall, farthest away from the screens passage) seats dons (at the universities) and Masters of the Bench (at the Inns of Court), whilst students (at the universities) and barristers or students (at the Inns of Court) dine at tables placed at right angles to the high table and running down the body of the hall, thus reproducing the hierarchical arrangement of the medieval household.

From the 16th century onwards halls lost most of their traditional functions to more specialised rooms, both for family members and guests (e.g. dining parlours, drawing rooms), and for servants (e.g. servants halls and servants bedrooms in attics or basements) . The halls of 17, 18th and 19th country houses and palaces usually functioned almost entirely as vestibules, even if they were architecturally impressive. There was a revival of the great hall concept in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with large halls used for banqueting and entertaining (but not as eating or sleeping places for servants) featuring in some houses of this period as part of a broader medieval revival, for example Thoresby Hall.



Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace

The Great Hall at Christ Church College, Oxford

The Great Hall at Lincoln's Inn
The Great Hall in Barley Hall, York, restored to replicate its appearance in around 1483. Notice the fireplace in the centre of the room.
The Great Hall of Gainsborough Old Hall - Note the fireplace in the centre of the room and also the three doorways to the buttery, pantry and kitchens.

Bed Chambers

The room in the castle called the Lords and Ladies Chamber, or the Great Chamber,  was intended for use as a bedroom and used by the lord and lady of the castle - it also afforded some privacy for the noble family of the castle. This type of chamber was  originally a partitioned room which was added to the end of the Great Hall. The Lords and Ladies chamber were subsequently situated on an upper floor when it was called the solar.

The lord and lady's personal attendants were fortunate to stay with their master or mistress in their separate sleeping quarters. However, they slept on the floor wrapped in a blanket, but, at least on the floor, they could absorb some of the warmth of the fireplace. Even during the warmest months of the year, the castle retained a cool dampness and all residents spent as much time as possible enjoying the outdoors. Oftentimes, members wrapped blankets around themselves to keep warm while at work (from which we derive the term bedclothes).

The lord, his family and guests had the added comfort of heavy blankets, feather mattresses, fur covers, and tapestries hanging on the walls to block the damp and breezes, while residents of lesser status usually slept in the towers and made due with lighter bedclothes and the human body for warmth.

Viollet-le-Duc's impression of a XIV to XV Century Castle Bed chamber

The Solar

The room in the castle called the Solar was intended for sleeping and private quarters and used by the Lord's family. It became a private sitting room favoured by the family. The solar suite of rooms was extended to include a wardrobe.

The solar was a room in many English and French medieval manor houses, great houses and castles. In such houses a need was felt for more privacy to be enjoyed by the head of the household, and, especially, by the senior women of the household. The solar was a room for their particular benefit, in which they could be alone (or sole) and away from the hustle, bustle, noise and smells of the Great Hall.

The solar was generally smaller than the Great Hall, because it was not expected to accommodate so many people, but it was a room of comfort and status, and usually included a fireplace and often decorative woodwork or tapestries/wall hangings.

In manor houses of western France, the solar was sometimes a separate tower or pavilion, away from the ground-floor hall and upper hall (great hall) to provide more privacy to the feudal lord and his family.

The etymology of solar is often mistaken for having to do with the sun but this is not so. This error may result from the common usage of the solar; embroidery, reading, writing, and other generally solitary activities. These activities would need good sunlight, and it is true that most solars were built facing south to take maximum advantage of daylight hours, but that characteristic was neither required nor the source of the name. The name fell out of use after the sixteenth century and its later equivalent was the drawing room.


Solar at Kentwell
Solar at Smithills, Bolton

Bathrooms, Lavatories and Garderobes

Bathrooms, so common in the classical world disappeared in Medieval Europe - except in monasteries. Except in certain circumstances baths were not required for ordinary people - until Victorian times cleanliness was fundamentally ungodly.

Baths were taken in transportable wooden tubs, In summer the sun could warm the water and the bather. The tub could be moved inside when the weather worsened.

Privacy was ensured with a tent or canopy.

In English a garderobe has come to mean a primitive toilet in a castle or other medieval building, usually a simple hole discharging to the outside. Such toilets were often placed inside a small chamber, leading by association to the use of the term garderobe to describe them.

Technically garderobes were small rooms or large cupboards (closets) in which the latrine was located. These closets were often used for storing valuables

A description of the garderobe at Donegal castle indicates that during the time when the castle garderobe was in use it was believed that ammonia was a disinfectant and that visitor's coats and cloaks were kept in the garderobe.

Depending on the structure of the building, garderobes could lead to cess pits or moats. Many can still be seen in Norman and Medieval castles and fortifications. They became obsolete with the introduction of indoor plumbing.

Given the likely updrafts in a medieval castle, a chamber pot generally remained close to the bedside.


Kitchens, Pantries, Larders and Butteries

In most households, including early castles, cooking was done on an open hearth in the middle of the main living area, to make efficient use of the heat. This was the most common arrangement for most of the Middle Ages, so the kitchen was combined with the dining hall. Towards the Late Middle Ages a separate kitchen area began to evolve. The first step was to move the fireplaces towards the walls of the main hall, and later to build a separate building or wing that contained a dedicated kitchen area, often separated from the main building by a covered arcade. This way, the smoke, odours and bustle of the kitchen could be kept out of sight of guests, and the fire risk to the main building reduced.

Many basic variations of cooking utensils available today, such as frying pans, pots, kettles, and waffle irons, already existed in great households. Other tools more specific to cooking over an open fire were spits of various sizes, and material for skewering anything from delicate quails to whole oxen. There were also cranes with adjustable hooks so that pots and cauldrons could easily be swung away from the fire to keep them from burning or boiling over. Utensils were often held directly over the fire or placed into embers on tripods.

There were also assorted knives, stirring spoons, ladles and graters. In wealthy households one of the most common tools was the mortar and sieve cloth, since many medieval recipes called for food to be finely chopped, mashed, strained and seasoned either before or after cooking. This was based on a belief among physicians that the finer the consistency of food, the more effectively the body would absorb the nourishment. It also gave skilled cooks the opportunity to elaborately shape the results. Fine-textured food was also associated with wealth; for example, finely milled flour was expensive, while the bread of commoners was typically brown and coarse. A typical procedure was farcing (from the Latin farcio, "to cram"), to skin and dress an animal, grind up the meat and mix it with spices and other ingredients and then return it into its own skin, or mold it into the shape of a completely different animal.

The kitchen staff of huge noble or royal courts occasionally numbered in the hundreds, including: pantlers, bakers, waferers, sauciers, larderers, butchers, carvers, page boys, milkmaids, butlers and scullions. Major kitchens of households had to cope with the logistics of daily providing at least two meals for several hundred people. Guidelines on how to prepare for a two-day banquet include a recommendation that the chief cook should have at hand at least 1,000 cartloads of "good, dry firewood" and a large barnful of coal.

A cook at the stove with a cook's trademark ladle; woodcut illustration from Kuchenmaistrey, the first printed cookbook in German, woodcut, 1485.



A pantry is a room where food, provisions or dishes are stored and served in an ancillary capacity to the kitchen. The derivation of the word is from the same source as the Old French term paneterie; that is from pain, the French form of the Latin pan for bread.

In a late medieval hall, there were separate rooms for the various service functions and food storage. A pantry was where bread was kept and food preparation associated with it done. The head of the office responsible for this room was referred to as a pantler. .



A larder is a cool area for storing food prior to use. Larders were commonplace in houses before the widespread use of the refrigerator. Essential qualities of a larder are that it should be:as cool as possible, close to food preparation areas, constructed so as to exclude flies and vermin, easy to keep clean, and equipped with shelves and cupboards appropriate to the food being stored.

In the northern hemisphere, most houses would arrange to have their larder and kitchen on the north or east side of the house where it received least sun.

Many larders have small unglazed windows with the window opening covered in fine mesh. This allows free circulation of air without allowing flies to enter. Many larders have tiled or painted walls to simplify cleaning. Older larders and especially those in larger houses have hooks in the ceiling to hang joints of meat or game. Others have insulated containers for ice.

A pantry may contain a a stone slab or shelf used to keep food cool in the days before refrigeration was domestically available. In the late medieval hall, a thrawl would have been appropriate to a larder. In a large or moderately large nineteenth century house, all these rooms would have been placed as low in the building as possible, or as convenient, in order to use the mass of the ground to retain a low summer temperature. For this reason, a buttery was usually called the cellar by this stage.

In medieval households the larderer was an officer responsible for meat and fish, as well as the room where these commodities were kept. . The Scots term for larder was the spence, and so in Scotland larderers (also pantlers and cellarers) were known as spencers. This is one of the derivations of the modern surname.

The office only existed as a separate office in larger households. It was closely connected with other offices of the kitchen, such as the saucery and the scullery.




A buttery was a domestic room in a castle or large medieval house. It was one of the offices pertaining to the kitchen. It was generally a room close to the Great Hall and was traditionally the place from which the yeoman of the buttery served beer and candles to those lower members of the household not entitled to drink wine.

The room takes its name from the beer butts (barrels) stored there.

The buttery generally had a staircase to the beer cellar below. The wine cellars, however, belonged to a different department, that of the yeoman of the cellar and in keeping with the higher value of their contents were often more richly decorated to reflect the higher status of their contents.

From the mid-17th century, as it became the custom for servants and their offices to be less conspicuous and sited far from the principal reception rooms, the Great Hall and its neighbouring buttery and pantry lost their original uses. While the Great Hall often became a grand staircase hall or large reception hall, the smaller buttery and pantry were often amalgamated to form a further reception or dining room.



Buttery (Barleyhall, York)

Gatehouses and Guardrooms

A gatehouse is a fortified structure built over the gateway to a city or castle. The modern gatehouse is a feature of European castles, manor houses and mansions.

Gatehouses made their first appearance in the early antiquity when it became necessary to protect the main entrance to a castle or town. Over time, they evolved into very complicated structures with many lines of defence.

Strongly fortified gatehouses would normally include a drawbridge, one or more portcullises, machicolations, arrow loops and possibly even murder-holes where stones would be dropped on attackers. In the late Middle Ages, some of these arrow loops might have been converted into gun loops (or gun ports).

Sometimes gatehouses formed part of town fortifications, perhaps defending the passage of a bridge across a river or a moat, as Monnow Bridge in Monmouth. York has four important gatehouses, known as "Bars", in its city walls.

The French term for gatehouse is logis-porche. This could be a large, complex structure that served both as a gateway and lodging or it could have been composed of a gateway through an enclosing wall. A very large gatehouse might be called a châtelet (small castle).

At the end of the Middle Ages, gatehouses in England and France were often converted into beautiful, grand entrance structures to manor houses or estates. Many of them became a separate feature free-standing or attached to the manor or mansion only by an enclosing wall. By this time the gatehouse had lost its defensive purpose and had become more of a monumental structure designed to harmonise with the manor or mansion.

Gatehouse at Stirling Castle in Scotland

Chapels & Oratories


Throughout the medieval period Christianity of the form currently in power was obligatory, with the interment exception of Jews. Almost everyone was obliged to profess Christian belief and to act accordingly. Only the most powerful nobles (like Frederick II) were able to express disbelief without risking their lives.

The room in the castle called the Chapel was intended for prayer and used by all members of the castle household. It was usually close to the Great hall. It was often built two stories high, with the nave divided horizontally. The Lord's family and dignitaries sat in the upper part and the servants occupied the lower part of the chapel

An Oratory was intended for use as a private chapel. It was a room attached to the chapel that could be used for private prayer by the Lord's family.

Today, the owners of Many Castles and Manor Houses will (for a fee) allow people to get married in their Castle chapels with the reception then taking place in the Castle.

Click here for a list of Castles offering Weddings and Civil Partnerships

The Chapel at Windsor Castle

Cabinets and Boudoirs

Heating the main rooms in large palaces or mansions in the winter was difficult, and small rooms were more comfortable. They also offered more privacy from servants, other household members, and visitors. Typically such a room would be for the use of a single individual, so that a house might have two or more. Names varied: cabinet, closet, study (from the Italian studiolo), or office.

A cabinet was one of a number of terms for a private room in the castles and palaces of Early Modern Europe, serving as a study or retreat, usually for a man. A cabinet would typically be furnished with books and works of art, and sited adjacent to his bedchamber (evolving into the equivalent of the Italian Renaissance studiolo and the modern English studio). Such a room might be used as a study or office, or just a sitting room.

In the Late Medieval period, such requirements for privacy had been served by the solar of the English gentry house.

Cabinets could be used for small private meetings - for example between the king and his ministers. Since the reign of King George I, the Cabinet – which takes its name from the room – has been the principal executive group of British government, and the term has been adopted in most English-speaking countries. Phrases such as "cabinet counsel", meaning advice given in private to the monarch, occur from the late 16th century.

The word c cabinet in English was often used for strongrooms, or treasure-stores - the tiny but exquisite Elizabethan tower strongroom at Lacock Abbey might have been so called - but also in the wider sense.

In Elizabethan England, such a private retreat would most likely be termed a closet, the most recent in a series of developments in which people of means found ways to withdraw from the public life of the household as it was lived in the late medieval great hall. This sense of "closet" has continued use in the term "closet drama", which is a literary work in the form of theatre, intended not to be mounted nor publicly presented, but to be read and visualised in privacy. Two people in intimate private conversation are said to be "closetted".

Much later closets were ideal locations for lavatories - which thus became known as water closets or WCs.

There is a rare surviving cabinet or closet with its contents probably little changed since the early 18th century at Ham House in Richmond, London. It is less than ten feet square, and leads off from the Long Gallery, which is well over a hundred feet long by about twenty wide, giving a rather startling change in scale and atmosphere. As is often the case (at Chatsworth House for example), it has an excellent view of the front entrance to the house, so that comings and goings can be discreetly observed. Most surviving large houses or palaces, especially from before 1700, have such rooms, but (again as at Chatsworth) they are very often not displayed to visitors.



A boudoir is a lady's private bedroom, sitting room or dressing room. The term derives from the French verb bouder, meaning "to pout" - because the room was seen as a "pouting room".

Historically, the boudoir formed part of the private suite of rooms of a lady, for bathing and dressing, adjacent to her bedchamber. In this it was the female equivalent of the male cabinet.

In later periods, the boudoir was used as a private drawing room, and was used for other activities, such as embroidery or entertaining intimate acquaintances.

Panelled Cabinet
Cabinet room at 10 Downing Street

Storerooms, Undercrofts & Cellars



A casemate was originally a vaulted chamber usually constructed underneath the rampart. It was intended to be impenetrable and could be used for sheltering troops or stores.

Place of Arms

The room in the castle called the Place of Arms was a large area in a covered way, where troops could assemble.


An undercroft is traditionally a cellar or storage room, often vaulted.

While some were used as simple storerooms, others were rented out as shops. For example, the undercroft rooms at Myres Castle in Scotland circa 1300 were used as the medieval kitchen and a range of stores. The undercroft beneath the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster in London was rented out to the conspirators behind the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.

Many early medieval undercrofts were vaulted or groined, such as the vaulted chamber at Beverston Castle or the groined stores at Myres Castle.

Undercrofts were commonly built in England and Scotland throughout the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.

Buildings with historic examples


  • Banqueting House, Palace of Whitehall, London
  • Blakeney Guildhall, Blakeney, Norfolk
  • Bradenstoke Abbey, Wiltshire
  • Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, West Midlands
  • Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, Kent
  • Carlisle Cathedral, Carlisle, Cumbria
  • Dragon Hall, Norwich, Norfolk
  • Durham Castle, Undercroft, Durham
  • Eastbridge Hospital, Canterbury, Kent
  • Forde Abbey, Dorset.
  • Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire
  • Jurnet's House, Norwich, Norfolk
  • Moyse's Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
  • Norton Priory, Runcorn, Cheshire
  • Rufford Abbey, Nottinghamshire
  • St Nicholas Priory, Exeter, Devon
  • St Pancras Station, London
  • Warwick Castle, Warwickshire
  • Westminster Abbey, London
  • Windsor Castle
  • Wingfield Manor, Derbyshire
  • York Minster, York, North Yorkshire


Other examples

  • Dublin Castle, Dublin, Ireland
  • Dundrennan Abbey, Dundrennan, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
  • Cardiff Castle, Cardiff, Wales
  • Castell Coch, Cardiff, Wales



Undercroft at Fountains abbey
Undercroft of the House of Lords in 1605
Undercroft of Banqueting House, Whitehall

Gravensteen Castle (1180), Ghent (Belgium):



Ice Houses

An ice-house was just that: a special insulated house to keep ice. During the winter, ice and snow would be taken into the ice house and packed with insulation, often straw or sawdust. It would remain frozen for many months, often until the following winter, and could be used as a source of ice during summer months. The main application of the ice was the storage of perishable foods, but it could also be used simply to cool drinks, or allow ice-cream and sorbet desserts to be prepared.

Ice houses are found in ha-ha walls, house and stable basements, woodland banks, and even open fields.

The most common designs involved underground chambers, usually man-made, and built close to natural sources of winter ice such as freshwater lakes. Ice houses varied in design depending on the date and builder, but were mainly conical or rounded at the bottom to hold melted ice. They usually had a drain to take away any water. In some cases ponds were built nearby specifically to provide the ice in winter.

The ice house was formally introduced to Britain around 1660, although there are occasional examples surviving from the medieval period. British ice houses were commonly brick lined, domed structures, with most of their volume underground. The idea for formal ice houses was brought to Britain by travellers who had seen similar arrangements in Italy, where peasants collected ice from the mountains and used it to keep food fresh inside caves.

Usually only castles and large manor houses had purpose-built buildings to store ice. Many examples of ice houses exist in the UK some of which have fallen into a poor state of repair. Good examples of 19th-century ice houses can be found at Ashton Court, Bristol, Grendon, Warwickshire, and at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, Suffolk, Moggerhanger Park, Bedfordshire Petworth House, Sussex, Danny House, Sussex, Ayscoughfee Hall, Spalding, Rufford Abbey, and Eglinton Country Park in Scotland and Parlington Hall in Yorkshire. Game larders and venison larders were sometimes marked on ordnance survey maps as ice houses.

The idea was old even in Medieval times. Ice houses originally invented in Persia were buildings used to store ice throughout the year. An inscription from 1700 BC in northwest Iran records the construction of an icehouse, "which never before had any king built." In China, archaeologists have found remains of ice pits from the seventh century BC, and references suggest they were in use before 1100 BC. Alexander the Great around 300 BC stored snow in pits dug for that purpose. In Rome in the third century AD, snow was imported from the mountains, stored in straw-covered pits, and sold from snow shops.

The entrance to a medieval ice house at St. Germain's House near Edinbugh
The icehouse at Coome Park undergoing restoration
Rufford Abbey Ice House 1



A dovecote is a building intended to house pigeons or doves.

Dovecotes may be square or circular free-standing structures or built into the end of a house or barn. They generally contain pigeonholes for the birds to nest. Pigeons and doves were an important food source historically in Western Europe and were kept for their eggs, flesh, and dung.

In Medieval Europe, the possession of a dovecote was a symbol of status and power and was regulated by law. Only nobles had this special privilege known as droit de colombier.

Their location is chosen away from large trees that can house raptors and shielded from prevailing winds and their construction obeys a few safety rules: tight access doors and smooth walls with a protruding band of stones (or other smooth surface) to prohibit the entry of climbing predators such as rats, martens, and weasels. The exterior facade was, if necessary, only evenly coated by a horizontal band, in order to prevent their ascent.

Dovecote materials can be very varied and shape and dimension extremely diverse:

  • the square dovecote with quadruple vaulting: built before the fifteenth century ( Roquetaillade Castle, Bordeaux) or Saint-Trojan near Cognac)
  • the cylindrical tower: fourteenth century to the sixteenth century, it is covered with curved tiles, flat tiles, stone lauzes roofing and occasionally with a dome of bricks. A window or skylight is the only opening.
  • the dovecote on stone or wooden pillars, cylindrical, hexagonal or square;
  • the hexagonal dovecote (like the dovecotes of the Royal Mail at Sauzé-Vaussais);
  • the square dovecote with flat roof tiles in the seventeenth century and a slate roof in the eighteenth century;
  • the lean-to structure against the sides of buildings.
  • Inside a dovecote could be virtually empty (boulins being located in the walls from bottom to top), the interior reduced to only the structure of a rotating ladder, or "potence", allowing the collection of eggs or squabs and maintenance.

The oldest known dovecotes are the fortified dovecotes of Upper Egypt, and the domed dovecotes of Iran. In the dry regions, the droppings were in great demand and were collected on uniformly cleaned braids.

Dovecotes were built by the Romans, who knew them as Columbaria. They seem to have introduced them to Gaul. The presence of dovecotes is not noted in France before the Roman invasion of Gaul by Caesar. The pigeon farm was then a passion in Rome: the Roman columbarium , generally round, had its interior covered with a white coating of marble powder. Varro, Columella and Pliny the Elder wrote works on pigeon farms and dovecote construction.


Dovecotes of France

The French word for dovecote is pigeonnier or colombier. In some French provinces, especially Normandy, dovecotes were built of wood in a very stylised way. Stone was the other popular building material for these old dovecotes. These stone structures were usually built in circular, square and occasionally octagonal form. Some of the medieval French abbeys had very large stone dovecotes on their grounds.

In Brittany the dovecote was sometimes built directly into the upper walls of the farmhouse or manor-house. In rare cases, it was built into the upper gallery of the lookout tower (for example at the Toul-an-Gollet manor in Plesidy, Brittany). Dovecotes of this type are called tour-fuie in French.

Some of the larger châteaux-forts such as the Château de Suscinio in Morbihan, still have a complete dovecote standing on the grounds, outside the moat and walls of the castle.

The dovecote interior, the space granted to the pigeons, is divided into a number of boulins (pigeon holes). Each boulin is the lodging of a pair of pigeons. These boulins can be in rock, brick or cob (adobe) and installed at the time of the construction of the dovecote or be in pottery (jars lying sideways, flat tiles, etc.), in braided wicker in the form of a basket or of a nest. It is the number of boulins that indicates the capacity of the dovecote. The one at the Château d'Aulnay with its 2,000 boulins and the one at Port-d'Envaux with its 2,400 boulins of baked earth are among the largest ones in France.

In the Middle Ages, particularly in France, the possession of a colombier à pied (dovecote on the ground accessible by foot), constructed separately from the corps de logis of the manor-house (having boulins from the top down), was a privilege of the seigneurial lord. He was granted permission by his overlord to build a dovecote or two on his estate lands. For the other constructions, the dovecote rights (droit de colombier) varied according to the provinces. They had to be in proportion to the importance of the property, placed in a floor above a henhouse, a kennel, a bread oven, even a wine cellar. Generally the aviaries were integrated into a stable, a barn or a shed, and were permitted to use no more than 2.5 hectares of arable land.

Although they produced an excellent fertiliser (known as colombine), the lord's pigeons were often seen as a nuisance by the nearby peasant farmers, in particular at the time of sowing of new crops. In numerous regions where the right to possess a dovecote was reserved solely for the nobility , the complaint rolls very frequently recorded formal requests for the suppression of this privilege and a law for its abolition, which was finally ratified on 4 August 1789 in France.

Many ancient manors in France have a dovecote (still standing or in ruins) in one section of the manorial enclosure or in nearby fields.

The Romans may have introduced dovecotes or columbaria to Britain since pigeon holes have been found in Roman ruins at Caerwent. However it is believed that doves were not commonly kept there until after the Norman invasion. The earliest known examples of dove-keeping occur in Norman castles of the 12th century (for example, at Rochester Castle, Kent, where nest-holes can be seen in the keep), and documentary references also begin in the 12th century. The earliest surviving, definitely-dated free-standing dovecote in this country was built in 1326 at Garway in Herefordshire.

Many ancient manors in the United Kingdom have a dovecote (still standing or in ruins) in one section of the manorial enclosure or in nearby fields.

Early purpose-built dovecotes in Scotland are of a "beehive" shape, circular in plan and tapering up to a domed roof with a circular opening at the top. In the late 16th century they were superseded by the "lectern" type, rectangular with a monopitch roof sloping fairly steeply in a suitable direction. In Scotland a dovecote is known as a Doocot.

Phantassie Doocot is an unusual example of the beehive type topped with a monopitch roof, and Finavon Doocot of the lectern type is the largest doocot in Scotland, with 2,400 nesting boxes. Doocots were built well into the 18th century in increasingly decorative forms, then the need for them died out though some continued to be incorporated into farm buildings as ornamental features. The 20th century saw a revival of doocot construction by pigeon fanciers, and dramatic towers clad in black or green painted corrugated iron can still be found on wasteland near housing estates in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Colombier at Manoir d'Ango near Dieppe
Schematic showing the interior of a dovecote
Interior of Dovecote at Penmon Priory
Dovecote at Nymans Gardens, West Sussex, England
Ross Doocot


Apartments are not modern inventions. Great castles were often divided into apartments, each apartment belonging to an important resident - for example the Lord's widowed mother, his brothers and sisters, and visiting dignitaries.

This model, once common in all great houses, survives among British royalty. Most royal palaces are divided into apartments, each belonging to a senior member of the Royal Family.



Kensington Palace - the official residence of The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester; the Duke and Duchess of Kent; and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent.


More on Life in a Medieval Castle


Introduction to Life in a Medieval Castle

Rooms in a Medieval Castle


Officers & Servants in a Medieval Castle

Medieval Clothing

Medieval Food & Cooking


Medieval Drinks


Medieval Gardens

Medieval Warfare:


Medieval Taxes

Medieval Games & Pastimes

The Feudal System



Rivers & Fishponds

Mills: Windmills and Water Mills


The Great Hall at Christ Church College, Oxford




A baker with his assistant. As seen in the illustration, round loaves were among the most common.



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