The brief life and times of the Great Hall, Nevern Castle
What do the physical remains of Nevern Castle’s Great Hall tell us about its appearance and use at the time of Archbishop Baldwin’s reputed visit in 1188?
The Norman castle: symbol and sanctuary
The castle was the private fortress of a king or great lord. As such, it was a potent symbol of the feudal system created by the Normans under which a person, or ‘vassal’, owed personal services and allegiance to the king or a lord in return for grants of land, rights or freedom from obligations.
The castle was also a sanctuary for the lord and his household against lawlessness and conflict. Whilst the keep provided a final refuge in times of strife, the great hall was the centre of administrative, domestic and social life – and it served also as a local court. As an overt expression of power, privilege and wealth, the castle, and its great hall, were designed to intimidate – but also accommodate.
Nevern Castle’s Great Hall: what remains?
Dr Chris Caple’s important excavations (2008-18) for Durham University, uncovered impressive clay-mortared slate (a traditional Welsh construction technique) buildings arrayed prominently along the naturally well-defended south boundary of the Castle. The excavations revealed that these buildings, which included two halls, had been greatly denuded of their materials owing to extensive robbing of stone during the centuries following the Castle’s destruction in 1195. The remaining evidence was, therefore, sparse and sometimes inconclusive.
The first hall (15m x 6.2m) on the site, with its gable ends facing north-south, was almost certainly constructed by the Lord Rhys in the mid-12th century, and he was probably also responsible for extending this building to the south boundary giving, for the Great Hall (as it became), final dimensions of 22.2m x 6.2m. At the same time, the long, narrower, East Hall (21.4 x 5.5m) was constructed at right angles to it. These buildings probably formed part of Rhys’s llys (court), centred on the Great Hall.
Traces of burning on the clay floor of the extended Great Hall revealed the presence of a large, central hearth: evidence that the Hall had been open to the roof timbers to allow smoke to escape through vents in a roof probably of local slate. Other works to the Great Hall – either by the Lord Rhys in the late 1160s or, more probably, by William FitzMartin in the 1170s – included the laying of a new clay floor and, a little later, the erection of five posts running (approximately) in a central position the length of the Hall as evidenced by surviving post-holes. The function of these posts could only have been to provide additional support for the roof.
The Great Hall: how might it have appeared in 1188?
‘Traditional’ medieval great halls (of later date than Nevern Castle’s) were usually of three units, or cells. At one end of the hall the lord sat (often on a low platform or ‘dais’) at mealtimes at the ‘high’ table with his immediate family and important guests, facing, at right-angles, his household, and guests of lower status. The second unit lay behind the high table on the other side of a screen that divided the hall from the lord’s great chamber, or solar, often at first floor level, with a parlour beneath. At the ‘lower’ end of the hall, beyond another screen and a passage between two opposing doors to the outside (the ‘screens passage’) could be found the service rooms (buttery, kitchen and pantry).
Fig. 3 (left) suggests that Nevern’s early Great Hall was a single unit, without divisions, and open to the roof throughout its length. The lord’s dais (if any) would have been in front of the north wall (bottom, in fig. 3). The main, and it appears, only, entrance to Nevern’s Great Hall, was towards the south end of the long west wall but (as found in many later halls) there is no opposing door in the long east wall and so no screens passage and service rooms within the Hall itself. Instead, as Dr Caple suggests, the East Hall (physically joined to the Great Hall) may have housed the services and the lord’s accommodation. It is not clear how direct access (if any) was achieved between the two halls: perhaps the lord’s quarters were accessed via a wooden staircase on the east side of the lower part of the Great Hall to the first floor of the East Hall.
In the early Anglo-Norman period, the kitchen was often located separately from the hall and constructed of wood around an open hearth, the internal walls plastered to reduce fire-risk.
The post-holes uncovered during excavation of the floor of the Great Hall provide evidence of its roof structure. Early halls were sometimes aisled, with arcades (like church), where the space to be spanned was more than the safe capacity of the transverse tie beam forming the base of a roof truss. Alternatively, in certain areas crucks (long curved timbers joined at the apex of the roof) were often employed – see fig. 4 below).
Fig. 4: Great Hall, Stokesay Castle, Shropshire (a fortified manor house) c. 1270-80, lower end, dimensions 15.2m x 7.9m (compare Nevern’s 22.2m x 6.2m). The staircase leads to the upper (domestic) part of the adjoining north tower; the kitchen was probably in the basement of this tower. The size of the Gothic windows is surprising for such an early date. The (altered) roof structure is raised cruck.
There is no evidence, however, that either of these roof structures were employed at Nevern’s Great Hall. Instead, it is suggested that five basic triangular trusses, corresponding to the number of post-holes, supported the roof. The tie beam forming the base of the triangle rested on wall plates (two beams running along the top of each long wall) and supported two principal rafters and a collar beam. There may have been additional struts within each truss to form, for example, a crown strut roof (see fig. 5, below) and, because the roof was open and intended to impress, some of the timbers may have had carved decoration. The whole structure was kept rigid using longitudinal purlins.
It appears that additional support was required for the Great Hall roof. The internal width of the Hall, at 6.2m, is close to the safe maximum span of a single timber beam and, not long after the extension of the Hall, a decision was taken to raise five vertical posts to prop up the underside of each truss.
The (unglazed) window openings in each of the two long stone walls of the Hall would have been (owing to the exigencies of defence) substantially smaller than those of the great hall of Stokesay Castle (fig. 4) built about a hundred years later.
An Archbishop dines
A source suggests that Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, breaking off from touring Wales to drum up support for the Third Crusade, visited and stayed the night with William FitzMartin at Nevern Castle on Monday, 28 March 1188.
If he did visit, what might have been Baldwin’s impressions of dining in the Great Hall?
On arrival, Baldwin would have been formally greeted by William, and his lady, Angharad, in the Great Hall. At the special feast that evening he would, as an important guest, have taken his place next to William and Angharad at the high table facing, at right angles, the lines of trestle tables occupied by William’s household and lesser guests who were seated according to status: the further from the high table the lower your rank. William’s household would have been almost entirely male: in medieval times castle households contained few women apart from those in the lord’s immediate family, and a few washerwomen.
Nevern’s Hall, although an impressive 22.2m in length, was relatively narrow at 6.2m. Allowing for the space required in the centre of the Hall for the open hearth, and the line of posts supporting the timber roof – and, of course, sufficient room for household and guests to be served – there cannot have been more than two lines of trestle tables running the length of the building.
The blazing fire in the open hearth constituted a rudimentary form of ‘central heating’ (and, at this period, some of the meal – mostly roasted meat – may have been prepared on it) the smoke from which curled up and into the timbers of the open roof (depositing soot and grease) and out through vents, assisted by an equally rudimentary method of ‘air conditioning’ controlled by sliding wooden shutters at the unglazed windows on each long wall.
Although no evidence for the use of limewash or plaster was found during the excavations (the soil is too acidic) evidence from buildings of a similar date elsewhere in Wales (for example, Lamphey Palace, Manorbier Castle and Chepstow Castle) suggest that the stone walls of the Hall may have been limewashed or plastered white, or yellow ochre, and perhaps painted with red lines to suggest regularly coursed, finely cut, blocks of masonry. Further embellishments may have included stencilled flowers, rosettes and other designs, including shields. Alternatively, or in addition, textile wall hangings may have provided decoration and assisted in retaining warmth in the Hall. The decorated walls were complemented by a frieze of gritstone with a carved saltire pattern (fig. 7 below).
The Hall’s primary light source was probably the fire of the central hearth with supplementary illumination from beeswax (the high table) and tallow (the floor below) candles mounted on iron wall-sconces, circular candelabra and free-standing holders. But, in this flickering light, much of the interior of the Hall – the timber roof and corners – will have remained in shadow.
Ritual (see fig. 6, above), including trumpet fanfares, attended the serving of each course of the meal. Wine was served to the elites on high table, ale to everyone else.
Bishop Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln (c.1168 – 1253), cleric and polymath, left a near-contemporary glimpse of the expected conduct by a lord and his household in a great hall, in the form of rules drawn up c.1242 for his friend, Margaret, Countess of Lincoln on her inheriting her deceased husband’s estates.
The rules provide that household and guests shall sit at tables ‘on either side’ of the hall. The lord should make every effort to eat in the hall (‘for this shall bring great benefit and honour to you’) seated always in the middle of the high table his face visible to all – the better to control proceedings and suppress quarrelling. Further, the lord should encourage all to be of ‘good humour and hearty cheer’.
As the evening of the 28 March 1188 progressed in Nevern Castle’s Great Hall then so did the ‘hearty cheer’. The atmosphere thickened with a heady mix of wood-smoke from the open fire, hot tallow-candle wax, roast (and burnt) meat and warm human bodies. The company and guests grew noisy and unruly. No doubt it was at this point (and well before the household had started to settle down on their straw pallets on the floor for the night) that Archbishop Baldwin retired to his lodgings in the East Hall. The following morning, he may have performed mass for William FitzMartin and his family in the small chapel adjoining the East Hall. Then, after taking formal leave of his host in the Great Hall, he would have ridden off to re-join Gerald of Wales in Aberteifi to resume their journey through Wales.
Within seven years, Nevern Castle and its Great Hall were no more.
I am grateful to Dr Chris Caple, Director of the Nevern Castle excavations (2008-2018), and to Dr Alan Wills, for their helpful comments on a draft of this article.
Dr Rob Anthony
Top image: Stokesay Castle, built around 1280.
Other photos © Chris Caple, except where otherwise noted
Christopher Caple, Nevern Castle – Castell Nanhyfer (Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, 2021)
Christopher Caple, Nevern Castle Excavations, Interim Reports, 2017-18
Sarah Pearson, ‘The Provision of Services in Medieval Houses in Kent’ in Vernacular Architecture, Vol, 43 (2012) 28-46
Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England and Wales series
Anthony Quiney, The Traditional Buildings of England (London, 1990)
Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (London, 2009)
Peter Smith, Houses of The Welsh Countryside (London, 1975/1988)
Richard Suggett, Houses & History in the March of Wales, Radnorshire 1400-1800 (Aberystwyth, 2005)
Richard Suggett, Painted Temples: Wallpaintings and Rood-screens in Welsh Churches, 1200-1800 (Aberystwyth, 2021)
Lewis Thorpe (ed), Gerald of Wales: The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales (Harmondsworth, 1984)
Philip Warner, The Medieval Castle: life in a fortress in peace and war (Westerham, 1973)