There are three ways in which we can find out about the architecture of the Anglo-saxons and Vikings: surviving examples, archaeological excavations, and early descriptions in chronicles, sagas, poems and letters. The best of these would of course be to go and see surviving structures for ourselves. Unfortunately such examples are extremely rare. As I will explain later on, the vast majority of buildings are made of wood and as an organic material it decomposes over time. It is also susceptible to the elements such as storms and fire, more so than stone built buildings. One of the biggest threats to the early buildings however, was from people. Wooden buildings could be easily dismantled to be used in other structures, destroyed in battles, or as in the case of the Normans in England, demolished for their own buildings to be built over. In this particular example the newer and better built structures in stone served as a form of demoralising, punishing and/or suppressing the local community (another more modern example of this would be Henry VIII’s reformation and destruction of most of the catholic churches). As a result of all this there are nearly no examples of complete wooden buildings from the Anglo-saxon era and only a few stone examples.
We then have to turn to archaeology and the written sources for our descriptions.
Both Anglo-saxon and Viking buildings were by and large rectangular or square in composition and wood was the material of choice as it was a fairly accessible renewable source. In Anglo-saxon England the most common buildings, both for domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes, were constructed with wattle and daub. Thick wooden posts were first sunk into the ground along the line of the proposed walls. Between these large posts smaller rods of wood (from saplings and branches) were spiked into the ground and interwoven with horizontal rods like a basket to flesh out the skeleton of a wall. This latticework was then reinforced with ‘daub’, a concoction of mud, straw, horse hair and cow or horse dung which was combined to fill in the holes in the lattice like a type of plaster. It mightn’t sound very strong but as a technique in building, wattle and daub has been used right up until the end of the 19th century.
For those who had a bit more money to spend on their houses like the aristocracy, longitudinal wooden planks could be set side by side, sometimes in a trench or on stone foundations, forming a solid wall of wood. For the everyday peasant it took too much money and time to have wooden planks hewn and crafted to the right lengths and shapes. For them wattle and daub was a cheaper alternative.
For Viking houses, wooden planks overlapped horizontally to form walls as well, or else dressed logs were used like traditional log cabins.
With the exception of important Christian buildings, stone was a material that wasn’t utilised as much as it was during the Roman period. There are several well-known stone buildings from this period still standing today, as well as numerous stone crosses, hogback carvings and other examples of this craft throughout Britain. Some people have suggested that the Anglo-Saxon didn’t posses the knowledge of crafting with stone and that is why they used mostly wooden buildings. I think this train of thought doesn’t necessarily imply that they were too stupid to learn. We have to remember that after the Romans left Britain the whole empire retracted a bit in response to the ‘barbarian invasions’ (amongst other reasons of course. I’m not saying it was ever that simple). Amongst these barbaric groups were the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who then settled and fought with the remaining Romano-British population. At this point, they had the opportunity and capacity to learn from the Romano-British how to work with stone and probably did, but making buildings out of stone is a lot different to making buildings out of wood. I personally think that the lack of stone structures stems more from being economically non-viable than not knowing how to build with it at all. Building a house of wood was a lot more cost and time effective than building in stone and so only those who could afford it, like the Church, built this way. We know from surviving examples such as York Minster, Hexham and Ripon that the builders (whoever they may have been) made great use of the stone from the decaying Roman buildings around them. No doubt a sense of wanting to please God and create a church worthy of Him had a large part to play in it, but the church would have been one of the few groups in society who not only had the money to commission such works, but the contacts to hire the specialist craftsmen needed. These people often had to be sent from Italy and the early French kingdoms for the use of their skills. As a result of these reasons, stone working and building was left in the hands of a few specialists, which you could then argue resulted in the craft being lost or discontinued amongst the Anglo-saxons. But that is just my own personal interpretation.
Even Palaces of the kings were made of wood and not stone. One interesting exception to this is found at Bamburgh castle in Northumbria, Eynsford Castle in Kent, and a building on Lower Brook Street in Winchester. At Bamburgh a stone wall that formed part of its defences is mentioned in the historical sources and may have at one time been mounted with wooden ramparts. There is also evidence that part of the great hall on the site was made from a mixture of stone and wood, and of course the church was also made of stone. At Eynsford Castle a stone building measuring 2.4m tall made entirely of stone was excavated and possibly had either a simple timber roof or another wooden story on top of this. There is also another stone building in Winchester which was at least two stories high and dated to around 800AD. It is possible then that there are many other examples in the country that have been long forgotten or yet to be unearthed that are stone built or partially stone built structures.
For those places where timber and stone were a bit harder to come by, such as the Scottish islands and many Danish and Norse settlements in Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland, turf houses were very popular. The structures were essentially the same in size, shape and dimensions as normal houses. A wooden frame was usually made and filled out with cut cubes of turf stacked one on top of each other to form walls and even the roof of a structure. Moss and ferns and other organic materials were also known to have been used in wattle and daub buildings and to create insulation and stop up cracks and holes. Rocks and bolders were also employed in the counstruction of the walls to make them more steadfast.
The roof of a typical building was usually A-framed and thatched with straw, water reeds or sometimes heather. Turf was not unusual either, nor were wooden shingles if you could afford them, and for the more expensive buildings such as the stone churches you could use lead and tin sheets.
Floors ranged from compacted earth to wooden floorboards and stone slabs. These would then be usually covered with rushes, straw and herbs. This was done to absorb the mess of eating, drinking and animal waste with the straw then being easily collected and burnt on the fire or used as compost. The herbs were necessary to mask any odours of the house (ranging from animal and food waste to smoke from the hearth). Some archaeological sites have also shown evidence for buildings that have their floor sunken below ground. Some have suggested that this was the actual floor level and that you had to step down into the building. Others have suggested that this is evidence of a cellar or below ground storage and that a wooden floor once overlay it. These cellars seem to be more prevalent in the later Anglo-saxon period and in areas of higher populations such as towns and cities where space is at more of a premium than in the more spacious rural landscape.
As well as loose rushes there is evidence from Dublin archaeological sites that mats of wattle were used in the in 9th and 10th century. It has been suggested that this could have been adopted by the Anglo-saxons as well.
As far as windows were concerned when they did make an appearance, which wasn’t very often, they were fairly small. Thin animal skins were used as a suitable covering which kept the weather out but enough sunlight in, and in the more affluent churches there is evidence for proper glazed windows. Most domestic buildings did not have windows. Light came either from an open doorway, holes in the roof or from candles and the hearth.
The interiors of these buildings varied considerably depending on the building’s use. Most domestic buildings including the great halls were furnished with one or more central fire pits or hearths depending on the buildings size. This provided light and warmth but also acted as the residents’ main source of cooking their food. There were no chimneys so the smoke often wafted out of the open doorways or through gaps in the thatched roofs. This meant that typical Ango-saxon buildings could get particularly smoky, especially if proper ventilation was lacking.
Furniture was fairly utilitarian- tables, chairs, beds or sleeping platforms like long benches- but they were often embellished with carvings and bright colours. They whitewashed the walls of their homes inside and out and then used dyes and pigments like those used in dying wool to paint colourful decorations. Residues on the monastery of Monkwearmouth shows us that at one time the walls had been coloured a light pink hue.
- Early English Architecture (http://www.octavia.net/anglosaxon/earlyEnglishArchitecture.htm)
- Regia Anglorum (http://www.regia.org/houses.htm)
- The Ravens Warband (http://www.millennia.f2s.com/living_history.htm)
- Anglo-Saxon Archaeology: Bede’s world at Jarrow (http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/canterbury/jarrow.html)
- Ealdfaeder (http://www.ealdfaeder.org/v03/weststow.html)
- Middangeard Anglo-Saxon Mead-hall (http://brn227.brown.wmich.edu:7000/3708/)
- Britain Express (http://www.britainexpress.com/architecture/saxon.htm)