Friday, May 11, 2012

Oakham, Rutland

Halls and horseshoes

There are ruined castles all over England and their walls and towers, fragmentary as they often are, give us quite a good idea of the ways in which medieval fortifications developed. But there’s one part of the castle that has often vanished completely: the main domestic building or hall.  In peace time the hall was the heart of the castle. It was a combination of dining room, reception room, office, and even bedroom. It would be built inside the castle walls so didn’t itself have to be heavily fortified.

There’s a magnificent hall at Stokesay Castle in Shropshire, but Stokesay isn’t a true castle – it’s a fortified manor house. What did the hall of a full-blown castle look like? One answer is found at Oakham where the castle’s hall has survived while the rest of the castle has disappeared. This hall is a magnificent aisled building, probably constructed in the 1180s or thereabouts, a spacious interior with two sets of four round arches separating the aisles from the central space. One can imagine Walkelin de Ferrers, the lord who held the castle in the late-12th century, presiding over banquets and meeting dignitaries in this large room, which, with its decorated arches and carved capitals is the last word in the domestic design of the period.

The capitals are especially beautiful. They are very similar to those in the choir of Canterbury Cathedral, which was remodelled between 1175 and 1185 under two notable masons called William – William of Sens and the man known as William the Englishman, to distinguish him from his French colleague. Perhaps one of the masons working for the Williams was called up to Oakham to design the hall and supervise its construction. The carved capitals, with their mouldings and leaf decorations, caught the light beautifully on the day I visited.

The hall is also witness to an odd tradition. For centuries the Lord of the Manor of Oakham has required any visiting peer of the realm (or member of the royal family, they being members of the peerage too) to donate a horseshoe when first visiting the town. No one knows how this curious custom began, but it may have its origins in a pun on the name Ferrers (fer being the French word for iron, hence a farrier, one who shoes horses). The oldest horseshoe on the walls was given by King Edward IV in c. 1470, and the most recent come from current members of the royal family, such as the Prince of Wales. Odd as the ranks of overgrown ceremonial horseshoes look, there’s something fitting about this ancient building being the home of such a venerable and whacky custom.


Reggie Darling said...

I love the hugely-overscaled "horse shoes" on the walls of this Hall. Delightfully whimsical and wacky, indeed. And a well-needed alternative to swords and armaments, animal heads, horns, or tapestries, as is the more usual case for covering such rooms' enormous walls, I believe. Reggie

bazza said...

Philip, please forgive my ignorance but I had no idea that the kind of capitals shown in your photograph existed in England that early. Are they 'classical' in style or not and did renaissance architectural style always exist here in some form?
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Reggie: Thank you for your comment. I agree. Visiting castles with walls covered with swords and firearms becomes somewhat boring after a while if one is not an expert on ancient weaponry. It's not uncommon for me to say to my wife before we enter such a building that's new to us, 'I do hope the walls won't be full of old arquebuses.' The horse shoes, gilded overscaled, and decorated, are a joy.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Thanks for your question. These are not exactly classical capitals, but certainly show a classical influence. Most of the surviving English buildings from this period have much plainer capitals, but occasionally these foliate ones appear in grand buildings. There was, I think, a deliberate looking-back to the grandeur of the Roman empire among some of the Norman rulers and their artists, and this sometimes rises to the surface in the form of this kind of semi-classical decoration.