Treasures of the Essex Record Office: Nether Hall
PUBLISHED: 15:10 01 August 2016 | UPDATED: 15:18 01 August 2016
Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office takes a look at the history of Nether Hall near Roydon, once one of the grandest medieval manor houses in Essex
On the Essex-Hertfordshire border, at Roydon, stands a picturesque ruin of a gatehouse, which was once part of one of the grandest medieval manor houses in Essex, Nether Hall.
The gatehouse survives along with fragments of a curtain wall, surrounded by a rectangular moat. The complex was built during the Wars of the Roses, when the houses of Lancaster and York battled for the English throne.
At this time the manor of Nether Hall was in the possession of Thomas Colte, who was from a northern family and supported Richard Duke of York’s claim to the throne. Thomas probably fought for Richard at the first battle of St Albans in 1455 and at Wakefield in 1460, where Richard was killed. Thomas was stripped of his lands, but after the 1461 Yorkist victory at the battle of Towton, his property was restored and augmented by the new king, Edward IV, Richard’s son.
The mid-15th century construction work at Nether Hall was a major undertaking. The land was reshaped to build the moat and an older farmhouse and farmyard became an outer court to the entrance of the new, walled-in manor house (the farmhouse still stands today, in much better condition than the gatehouse).
The gatehouse is about 20m high, and would have been a grand entrance to the rest of the buildings that lay within the moated site. Gatehouses of this style were fashionable in the 15th and early 16th centuries — grander examples can be found in places such as Hampton Court Palace and Trinity College Cambridge.
The gatehouse is built of brick, a building material we take for granted today but which was a consciously fashionable choice in the 15th century. This was especially the case in the East of England, due to the lack of local quality stone and proximity to the Low Countries where bricks were popular.
The gatehouse is principally of red brick, but decorated with patterns picked out in grey-blue bricks. The darker bricks are used to create a diaperwork pattern made up of lozenge shapes and, more unusually, crosses.
Restoration work in the 1990s uncovered the fact that the gatehouse is actually built around a timber frame that is reinforced with iron. There are no known parallels for this method of construction, although it is reminiscent of a building method in the Low Countries where external walls are tied in to floors using iron work.
This method can also be found in locations in England, such as in Great Yarmouth, which suggests foreign influence if not actually the employment of foreign craftsmen. David Andrews, in his examination of the Nether Hall gatehouse during its restoration, suggests that given the unusual building method and quality of the brickwork, it is possible that foreign craftsmen may have been employed on the project.
Nether Hall can be categorised as a fortified manor house, which not only acted as a grand status symbol for its owners, but also included several defensive features. The curtain wall and gatehouse are punctuated with loopholes through which arrows could have been fired at attackers. The gatehouse would have been approached by a drawbridge and also included murder holes, through which boiling water or oil could have been poured down upon invaders. The structure would likely not have stood up to cannon fire, but would certainly have made local mobs think twice.
Unfortunately, Thomas Colte may not have lived to see his grand project completed. He died in 1467, just six years after the restoration of his estates and the likely beginning of the grand building work at Nether Hall.
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