Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:27 am
A Bit About Britain is delighted to welcome author April Munday, as a guest writer introducing us to Fiddleford Manor.
Fiddleford Manor, such a great name, is a small manor house in North Dorset. It’s one of those places that you reach via a long lane from the main road that goes on until you’re convinced you’ve gone past it, then you see the English Heritage sign and breathe a sigh of relief. You’ve arrived. I arrived when I visited the house on my way home from a birthday weekend in Somerset.
For the size of the house, the car park is huge. If it was full, there wouldn’t be room for all the drivers to enter the house, let alone any passengers. They would have to queue on the small lawn outside. It is much smaller than most of us imagine manor houses to be. That’s because our houses tend to be larger than those in which most people lived in the Middle Ages, especially if they didn’t live in towns, and we expect the houses of wealthier medieval people to be bigger. A manor house, though, was only the house of the lord of the manor. Don’t be fooled by the use of the word ‘lord’ here. A lord in this context is just someone who has a higher status (and more money) than the ordinary people who lived and worked on his land. Sometimes a lord of the manor was someone important: an earl, a bishop, an abbot or the king himself. More often they were unimportant to almost everyone who didn’t live on the manor.
In this case, however, the lord of the manor was fairly important. He was William Latimer, sheriff of Somerset and Dorset. He obviously had some money to spend on the house, as the timbered roof in the solar is wonderful and the remnants of a wall painting hint at the kind of decoration that would have shown off his wealth to anyone who was admitted.
William Latimer built Fiddleford Manor House in around 1370 and, although it’s been altered a lot since them, there are enough original features to make it worth a visit. Extensions were built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most of which have since been demolished, but the original house was more or less as it appears today. The hall, though, was a bit longer in the fourteenth century. Even though fireplaces were becoming more common when the house was built, according to the smoke stains on the roof beams (most of which date from the fourteenth century) there was a central hearth on the floor of the hall.
The hall was the room in which meals were eaten, less important visitors were received and where the servants and male members of the household other than the lord slept. Trestle tables and benches were set up along the two long walls for meals and the lord and his family sat on a dais at the end of the hall that disappeared when an extension to that side of the house was built in the sixteenth century. At the opposite end of the hall were the service rooms, probably a buttery, in which wine and ale were kept, and a pantry, where the bread was stored. The rather attractive gallery was added in the sixteenth century. In the fourteenth century the doors from the service rooms led straight into the hall, but might have been hidden behind a screen.
Depending on where you lived, drinking water wasn’t necessarily dangerous, but it probably didn’t always taste terribly nice and most people, including children, drank more ale than water. Ale was also drunk with meals. It wasn’t like beer, since it didn’t contain hops and didn’t keep. It had to be consumed where it was made and, unless it was made for a particular celebration, it was very weak. Bread, made from a variety of grains, was eaten at every meal and slices of bread were often used as plates. It travelled a bit better than the ale and was usually carried by labourers to the place where they were working so that they could eat something around midday.
Today you can leave Fiddleford Manor House’s hall and go up some stairs to the solar. In the fourteenth century the solar was reached by means of an external staircase; the internal stairs were built much later. The wall painting in the solar shows the Angel Gabriel telling the Virgin that she will bear the Son of God. The angel is on one side of the window and Mary is on the other, although only the faintest trace of her blue gown remains. Walls were usually painted in the houses of the wealthy. Sometimes it was with simple geometric patterns, or designs of leaves and flowers. Occasionally, as here, the painting had a religious theme. All four walls of this room would have been painted when William Latimer lived here. The walls of the hall would also have been painted. On the other side of this wall is the sixteenth century extension that was eventually turned into farm cottages.
The medieval solar was a strange mix of private and public room. It was the place in which the lord of the manor slept (along with most of his family) and it was the place in which his wife and daughters (and any other female relatives living with them) spent most of their days. It was also, however, the room to which important visitors were admitted, so they had to be impressed by the wealth on display in the room. In this room, too, the roof beams are mostly original.
The manor attached to the house has long since disappeared. There’s a farm here now and the River Stour still flows by, but that’s all. The nearest town, Sturminster Newton, is just over a mile away on foot, though, so Fiddleford Manor wasn’t as isolated as it now appears to be. English Heritage manages the site and entry is free. It’s well worth a visit if you’re ever in that part of the world.
April Munday is the author of romances set in the fourteenth century. She lives in Hampshire, where many of her stories are set. In her head she lives in the fourteenth century, but only in her head; she has learned far too much about life in the Middle Ages to want to live there in reality. She is inspired by the remnants of the past which are part of her local landscape. Her latest series, The Soldiers of Fortune, is set after the Battle of Poitiers, which changes the lives of four brothers.
April’s website – A Writer’s Perspective