A Heritage Asset Assessment of Letheringham Lodge, December 2014 by Philip Aitkens
This report has been prepared on the instructions of the owners of Letheringham Lodge, Matthew and Pauline Bickerton. It is assumed that the reader already has some knowledge of the house and its significance. The report begins with a précis of research on the architectural history of the building which has already been carried out.
The house is listed Grade II* by English Heritage in recognition of its national importance (about 90% of all listed buildings are assessed as just having regional importance, and therefore Graded II). However, certain aspects of the listed building description are now known to be in need of reconsideration. An example of this is the construction date of the building. Tree ring dating has established that at least one timber was felled in 1472-5 and we may safely assume that the building was constructed in the 1470s, considerably earlier than had previously been thought. For this and other reasons, the building is now seen to be even more historically important and it is suggested that it should be considered for upgrading to Grade I.
The assumption that the building dated from the early 16th Century was partly based on heraldic
imagery carved into panelling which had been fixed to the walls of the first floor landing until the
early 20 Century. The heraldry was associated with Anthony Wingfield, and was likely to have been made in c.1530. We believe this probably coincides with a phase of structural alteration.
Original and secondary phases of construction are discussed in this report. It has been clearly established for some time that the house was extended in 1610 on the basis of documents and on a carved date over the (then) front door. However, a further alteration phase of c.1800 has perhaps been unjustly ignored. A study of the structure shows that the building must have been in poor condition at the time, and extensive rebuilding of both walling and roof structure was carried out, re-using original components.
This phase of re-use provides vital clues in the carpentry of some of the timbers - regarding the original roof structure, for instance. We are now attempting to answer a number of outstanding questions about the original intended design and function of Letheringham Lodge. Two research techniques are being used in parallel:
• The introduction of models, against which we attempt to match the physical evidence. Models are frequently based on other buildings which share features seen in the subject building. The other building may have an element which is better preserved and will help us to understand
an incomplete feature in the subject building.
• The reconstruction of the archaeological details in order to understand as much as we dare
about the existing structure.
A Discussion of some of the Structural Evidence within the Building
One of the most important pieces of evidence in the house is the North wall of the original building, which has been preserved to a large extent by the addition of the kitchen block in 1610. Please refer to the attached drawings. Being structurally supported and being protected from the weather, it has undergone little alteration and is the tallest part of the medieval building, continuing up into a gable above eaves level. This gable shows that the building was not jettied at a second level, and probably that there was not a further full upper floor: it is the starting point for a reconstruction of the design of the missing original roof.
There is some evidence that there was a gallery attached to the North side of the building giving access to an external entrance doorway at first floor level. If the gallery structure was large, it might also have been used for viewing the hunt. Late-medieval galleries in Suffolk are commonly constructed in a distinctive way. The first floor joists of the main structure continue outwards beyond the wall face for the full width of the gallery floor, which might be about 1.5 metres. If the gallery was removed later, then the sawn-off ends of the joists would remain as evidence. At Letheringham, the main first floor structure could lend itself to this type of design. At the east end, the evidence is concealed within the later floor; but at the west end the rounded original joist-ends of the jetty (exposed within the kitchen) suggest that there was no such floor extension at the west end of the north wall. Any eventual discovery of either sawn-off joists or a first-floor doorway at the east end will prove that there was a gallery. Perhaps there was just a flight of steps and a landing.
As the building is square (about 9.4 metres internally in both directions at first floor level) it is possible that all four elevations presented a gable at roof level. A single timber now built into the South roof slope shows that the original roof incorporated a valley in at least one location. This is strong support for a design which had valleys descending to the four corners of the building with a gable on all four sides. The corner posts with expanded heads which are positioned beneath the eaves can be interpreted as one of the very few appropriate construction forms which would combine well with such a roof design.
Although it is now possible to construct a model of the most likely original roof form, this does not answer the question under discussion about the design of the apex of the roof: did it incorporate a chimney shaft, was there a viewing lantern, or was there nothing at the centre of the roof? The present chimney stack appears to have incorporated four fireplaces by 1610. However, there is debate about the age of the present chimney. It may be possible to resolve this by thermo luminescence dating. If the chimney does turn out to be an introduction of 1610, this still does not tell us whether there had been a chimney previously. Chimneys were quite rare in 1475, and a special case would need to be made for one in a remote leisure-oriented structure which might have had more use in the summertime than in the winter.
The planform of the building incorporates a large room on each floor with an elaborately moulded ceiling. Such ceilings are nearly always found in the early or mid 16 Century, and unless a mistake has been made with the dating, this example is precociously early. It is a reminder of the great wealth of the Wingfield family and asks questions about the significance of the building. Early buildings constructed in parks are usually plain. We may interpret this on the basis that their purpose was usually outward looking – to observe the hunt. This building seems, at the moment, to be inward looking, and best described as a banqueting house. However, if evidence is found for a rooftop ‘lantern’, then this would of course be outward-looking but very unlike a typical standing such as the one built by Henry VIII at Chingford in the 1540s.
A Reconstruction of the Roof Structure
This discussion of the structure of Letheringham Lodge relates to the floor plans and the North elevation sketch. The building is both square in plan, and diagonally-oriented in structure, an interesting choice of form which could be regarded as suitable for a building intended as a landscape feature. It was visible from Letheringham Hall and was probably associated with a laund stretching North Eastwards away in that direction, so we can see why it was intended as an eyecatcher. The fact that it was jettied at first floor level on all four sides necessitated corner posts of a type that we now call ‘dragon posts’. However, the second tier of such posts which rises to eaves level is surprising and possibly unique. At one time it was thought that these were evidence for a further jettied storey which has now been removed. However we can now see that the posts are roof-related.
Diagonal beams span between these upper corner posts and are visible in the first floor ceiling. They curve downwards at the end in a way which is treated as a decorative feature, but must have a structural purpose. It may not now be possible to observe the complex jointing here at the point where four or five major timbers met, but their relationship is clearly critical. It appears that the North gable which still survives was one of four. A valley was constructed between each of the gables, and must have then ascended from the four corners of the building towards the centre. A beam which has been discovered in a reused context appears to have been designed to support such a valley.
The roof may have been symmetrical in order to reflect the square planform of the building. The central point at which the four gable-ridges met would surely cry out for some kind of finial, or perhaps a larger feature. Was that a chimney, a lantern, or something else? A closer examination of the attic floor structure may go some way towards answering this question, but it will not be easy to answer. Certainly the diagonal beams appear to have been cut short, possibly for the insertion of a chimney stack in 1610. A partition wall spanning from North to South is likely to have supported the inner end of each of these beams.
If the chimney stack or its predecessor was an original feature, then the attic floor frame must have been trimmed around it. The few timbers now visible in this area would in that case be a part of this trimming. If there had been some form of viewing platform (the ancestor of later lanterns), then a trimming would also be required both for its floor, and for the access stair. If it is decided to make a physical investigation to answer this question, then this should be postponed for as long as possible while we gather survey information and a list of examples to be used as the basis of a model. This is because historic lath and plaster would be disturbed, which is not normally desirable.
We believe, but cannot yet prove, that there were main entrance doorways at the East end of the North elevation at two levels. If this is true, it would explain the lack of decoration in the square room or lobby in this corner at both levels. A second first floor room on the South-East side has a simple moulding in the ceiling timbers suggesting that this was a living room, but of secondary importance. The highest quality decoration is reserved for the largest room on both floors on the West side of the building. It is interesting that the main window of these two rooms would have been near or at the centre of the West wall.
By 1610, there was probably an orchard on the West side of the house. The symbolic function of orchards in the late Middle Ages is a subject which Edward Martin could enlarge on, but we could consider the possibility that the use of the Lodge as a banqueting house might have justified an orchard despite the fact that it was positioned at the edge of a park. Whereas a simple standing would not justify its own garden or orchard because its function was purely for observation of the hunt, this building is evidently more opulent and the design of its setting might be given more thought.
The North wall gives us the only opportunity to examine architectural details in the wall framing. There are two types of window. The first type has, in two windows, simply chamfered mullions. These windows give light to spaces that we identify as an entrance lobby. The second type of window has complex roll moulded mullions, the mouldings facing into the room. Externally, the mullions are flat, not moulded, which is unusual. This may be because there was a covered gallery immediately outside. There is no reason why this window should otherwise be different from other windows in the two high status rooms – we would expect them to have roll mouldings of a form which are related to the moulded ceiling joists.
If no other evidence comes to light, we should perhaps assume that there was a central window on the other elevations, and that those on the West side had roll mouldings but those on the other sides were unmoulded.
A Discussion of Some Research on other Buildings
Timothy Easton is a historian with particular interest in leisure, entertainment and gardens. He has discovered a group of buildings of which there are examples at Thorndon, Thrandeston and Southolt in North Suffolk. These all date from the 17 described as a ‘lantern’. This comprised an enclosed space at roof level designed to give a view down to the garden or the more distant landscape. The roof structure of the lantern was of a special type intended to give unobstructed head room, and large windows were provided on all sides to give an unobstructed view. By the end of the Century, this form had become popular in both town and country houses. Sometimes, they would be known as a ‘banqueting house’. An early and famous example is on the roof of Longleat House, Somerset dating from the late 16 Century, although there are others of a still earlier date. Banqueting houses were normally either placed on the roof of a Great House or at a strategic point in the garden during the 16 Century. Popularity increased during the
class. Their relationship with the unique building placed in a park at Letheringham is uncertain, but perhaps it is a prototype for a form of building which became much more widespread.
A clear exposition of the different types of building found in Medieval and Tudor parks has been provided by John McCann and colleagues in ‘Transactions of the Ancient Monument Society’, (2014) Vol. 58. The paper is entitled ‘Buildings of the Deer Hunt to 1642, Part One’. He deals with four types of building: “Standings for Privileged Spectators, Lodges for Employed Park-Keepers, Defensible Park-Keepers Lodges, and Large Lodges for Nobility or Gentry.” John tells me that Part Two of the paper is now going to print. It includes another category which he calls “Watch-Towers or Prospect Towers”. He makes no mention of banqueting houses apart from a paragraph on Letheringham Lodge drafted by Edward Martin - apparently because it is a unique building (at Century by diffusion among the gentry, and the great majority of surviving examples are of this present). On p.47, McCann introduces the subject of deer coursing and describes a building at Lodge Park, Aldsworth, Glos. It is an ornate form of standing, completed by 1634, which was associated with deer coursing. We are told that deer coursing originated in the Middle Ages, and that standings placed beside a deer course incorporating turrets have been found on maps, but no longer survive. Perhaps Letheringham could be linked to this sub-group.
Written by Philip Aitkens (aitkenshistoricbuildings.com)