Architecture guide


Rectory Cottages, near the parish church at Bletchley, contains a rare secular example of a medieval hammer-beam roofed hall, probably built c.1475 by the de Grey family who were lords of the manor. Though well-known since 1913 it has never till now been recorded in detail.


Rectory Cottages (SP 863336) are L-shaped in plan, the top of the L being at the West end, the angle at the South-East and the short end of the L to the North (see plan, Fig. 2).

At the W end lies the hammer-beamed hall which is the principal feature of interest (P1. I). It is about 27 ft (8 m) long, 18 ft (5.34 m) wide and 25 ft (7.4 m) high to the apex of the roof. There is no sign of a passage; the marginally better-carved faces of the trusses face East. The principal members of the end trusses are tie beams which support queen struts and collar beams (Fig. 3c). Arch braces rise from the queen struts to the collar beams, and curved braces from the main posts to the tie beams. The two intermediate trusses are of true hammer beam construction. The hammer beams have curved braces from the main posts and support hammer posts which, together with arch braces, support the collar beams (Fig. 3a). The hammer beams have crudely carved heads on their inner ends (Pls. II – IV) and one is known to have a dovetail tenon 14 in (355 mm) wide at its outer end: presumably the others are similar. There is some simple ornamental tracery in the spandrels of the hammer beams. Between the two hammer beams on the N side is a smaller hammer beam reaching out some 3 ft (910 mm) into the hall and bearing a lugubrious carved head (Pl.V and Fig. 3b), with a hammer post ostensibly supporting the lower of the moulded purlins above it. There is good evidence for the former existence of five more such hammers at the halfway position of each bay on both sides of the building (Fig. 3d).

The roof of the hall is open, having the rafters halved and coupled at their apices. There are two sets of purlins, trenched into the backs of the principal rafters. The purlins have curved weatherbraces below; most are original but there are two replacements.

The wall plate on the N side is original and has moulded cornice boards (Fig. 4g): that on the S has lost its cornice boards and, being found frac-tured behind the SW hammer beam in 1968, has had its W end replaced. The moulded wall posts had rotted at their lower ends and were reset onto a new pair of sill beams. There was no evidence of how they had originally been reared: we found no remains of earlier sill beams nor padstones, nor of any stone foundation under the hall. The hall framing had in its upper parts a number of large downward curved braces from the wall posts mortised into a middle rail.

The E end tie-beam truss (Fig. 3c) has a horizontal transom some 8 ft (2.4 m) from the ground and vertical studs 2 ft (600 mm) apart: it is of poor quality and seems to be a later in-sertion, perhaps as late as the eighteenth century. The W end tie beam truss has no infilling nor any sign that it ever had any. This truss is not parallel with the others, the bay being a foot (300 mm) shorter on the S side. There has been a door head cut into the tie beam, possibly to allow entry to an upper storey beyond: the gap was repaired in 1968. The W end wall appears to be modern – it does not match the truss. At the time of the restoration the training of an old pear tree indicated that there had been a continuation W on the S side, but excavation showed no sign of any foundation. The remains of the ends of two flimsy clasped purlins above the W end collar beam are presumably from this structure.

Fig. 1. Fenny Stratford and Bletchley: location of Rectory Cottages

East of the hall lies a small room nowadays used as a tea room and film projection room, which has been heavily rebuilt at some time: one of the ceiling joists is a reused passing brace – it has a diagonal trench – from an aisled hall or barn. North of this is a passage paved with local tiles formerly in the back room of the N wing. North of the passage is an outshut which contains the staircase; it is probable that an original staircase rose here, but the staircase removed in 1972 was apparently of this century or the last.

Fig 2. Plans of ground floor (left) and first floor (right). Hall to left.
Fig 3 a,b,c.
Sections (a) Hall, western hammer-beam truss, with cornice restored on S. side.
(b) Hall, intermediate hammer beam
(c) Hall, eastern truss, looking east, showing mortise for missing cornice
Fig. 3d Hall, long section, looking north

At the SE corner of the building is the ‘front room’ about 18 ft (5.34 m) by 15 ft (4.45 m). It has a moulded ceiling joist (Fig. 4j) consistent with a date around 1500. The fireplace was once larger and had a wooden lintel which has been cut through when a smaller fireplace was inserted in 1723 – if the date in the plaster over the fireplace is to be taken at face value. The stonework of the chimney is to be seen in the cupboard at the left side of the fire. Above the fireplace is the coving for the hearthstone of the fireplace upstairs. There are two windows, facing S and E; the latter has had its sill raised when the brick cladding was added to this part of the house. The window frames are Victorian; the leaded lights are modern reproductions in the style of those found in 1966. There was a door, possibly original, from this room to the S, which was blocked in 1972.

Fig. 4. Rectory Cottages, Bletchley: mouldings. (G) Cornice, hammer beams and tiebeams. These members are all on the same level, and the moulding is carried round the hall on all of them. (G2) Main posts, wall plates and principal rafters. (H) Corner post at SW corner of N room in cross wing. (I) Ceiling beams, N room of cross wing. (1) Ceiling beam, S room of cross wing.
Fig. 5a Perspective cut-away drawing from SW

The central chimney, 10 ft by 8 ft (3 m x 2.4 in), built of poor chalky stone in its lower levels, lies in the middle of the E range. There is a passage from front to rear of the wing past the W side of it; the N or ‘back room’ is entered from this passage through a doorway having a reused door on iron pintles. The N room, 15 ft by 12 ft (4.5m x 3.6 in), has a fireplace 8 ft wide by 3 ft deep (2.4 in x 910 mm), built of stone with brick repairs, and having a straight chimney with a mid feather. There is a horizontal iron bar to hang a kettle or cauldron; up the chimney are hooks for hanging hams. At the left side of the fireplace a brick insertion has been built, consisting of a circular bake-oven with the fire and flue for a washing-copper beneath it; the flue re-enters the chimney above the bake-oven, and the roundel for the exterior of the copper may be seen outside the back door. There are small windows on either side of the back door, and a further Victorian window with modern leaded lights looking N over the garden.

The ceiling of the N or ‘back room’ has heavily moulded timbers (Fig. 4i) crossing the room in both axes, and a dragon beam leading to the NE corner. The flat plates under the outer ends of these timbers indicate that they were designed for a jettied building. The dragon beam does not meet the corner post properly, which it would have done had the post been original.
Upstairs in the cottage the rooms follow the pattern set below. Over the projection room is a bedroom, backed on the N by the roof of the outshut containing the upper part of the staircase. Above the front room is a further front room showing more of the timber framed con-struction. At some time within the last century, the headroom here was unwisely increased by sawing out the tie beam, causing fracture of the purlins and failure of the roof above. There is now a modern tie beam (‘1968’ is carved into it) with a triangular truss of reused timbers over it in the loft. There is a four-centred fire-place in the main chimney stack.

The upper chamber in the N block may origi-nally have been open to the roof. There is a ceiling at eaves level with a ladder staircase into the resulting attic. There is a four-centred fireplace here too, now having an inserted Victorian coal fire basket, and a cupboard built into the chimney breast – perhaps once a wardrobe, now a larder.

The attic over the chamber has halved and coupled rafters. The attic door is of wide boards and exiguous iron straps with an original wooden doorpull and a wooden cased lock of c1750 (information from H. C. Weatherhead).

The loft must at one time have been divided into garrets as there is a surviving door frame in the roof truss (Fig. 2). The door in question is rather less than four feet high (1.2 in) and it seems likely that the garrets were for children, servants or storage. There are no signs in the roof of there ever having been any dormer windows.

The roofs are tiled. The angles inside the rafters are: hall 77º, N block 72º and SE roof 81º. These angles are rather greater than those commonly used locally for thatched buildings and it is our view that the building has probably been tiled since it was built.

The chimney stack is about 30 ft (8.9 m) high. It is of stone to eaves level, beyond which it has a cruciform stack in narrow brick with an ovolo moulding just above the ridge tiles. In order to stop water and birds entering, in 1973 the stack was capped, with airbricks for ventilation.


There is evidence in the existing building for five phases of construction and there is a possibility that there was once an earlier phase now demolished.

Phase One

This consists of the hall with its hammer beam roof and a bay in addition at each end, that to the E possibly of two storeys. The evidence for this bay is clear in the roof space – the absence of weathering on the E face of the E truss, coupled with mortises for a purlin and brace extending to the E are conclusive. As this bay has been extensively rebuilt at some time, it may be that a fireplace for the hall stood here, if there ever was one: there is little sign of soot in the hall roof.

The form of the bay to the W is uncertain, but its existence is established by the fact that the W end truss is open. It has been postulated that there was formerly a heated hall at the W end of that now existing because:

  1. it is unusual for a hall to be unheated, but here there is neither louvre nor certain evidence of a fireplace, nor is there a significant amount of soot staining;
  2. the W end of the existing hall is distorted as if it had been crammed into a pre-existing confined space;
  3. there is a reused passing brace in the ceiling of the parlour rebuilt in Phase Three.

If such a previous heated hall existed, it could readily have had service rooms in common with the existing hall. We refer to this putative hall as ‘Phase 0′.

The existing Phase One hall, with its interesting proportions – longer than the domestic hall of the period – and its carved heads on the hammer beams, must surely have had some purpose beyond the merely domestic. What this may have been is discussed later.

The carved heads are paralleled among secular hammer-beamed halls in England only by the Pilgrims’ Hall at Winchester.

Phase One is securely dated by dendro-chronology to 1475 +/- 9 years (see pp. 12 – 13).

Phase Two

This consists of the southern corner and the wing extending NE. It comprises two parts – the NE block which is gabled to N, and the SE block which is gabled to E. The W tie beam of the SE block at its N end has a plain square finish and shows no sign of weathering: it has always been protected by the NE Block. Either the two blocks are coeval or the SE block is later, but there are no signs of a structural partition and between the two is a common chimney stack. We saw no evidence during the restoration to suggest that the chimney was otherwise than of one build at ground floor level.

In the NE block the clear evidence of jettied construction is irreconcilable with the corner posts of the N gable and the studs to the E. On balance, because the dragon beam does not extend to the corner of the block, we think the corner posts are later. It may be that the jettied timbers were second-hand, or that an alteration was made during construction. We have no dendrochronological date for this part of the house.

The staircase for this range must have been in the NW corner of the N room, rising SW into what is now the bathroom; there was a staircase in this position until 1972. There is evidence for a window having been at the top of this staircase: there is still a window in the same place.

The shaped post (Fig. 4h) is weathered on its W side, as if it had stood just outside the NE corner of the former E bay of the medieval hall. Its shape may be accounted for by its having a recess for an exterior door cut into it, but this is problematical.

Phase Three

The E Bay of the medieval hall was removed, perhaps with the original fireplace (if there had been one), and a two storey block replacement was built, having a moulded plinth and a two -course brick band marking the upper floor. On the ground floor the brickwork was carried round the S and E of the SE block, probably against the face of the existing cladding. A door-way into the SE front room was most probably put in at this time; it was blocked in 1972. An old passing-brace was reused as a ceiling joist down-stairs in the replacement block.

The upper part of the main chimney stack was rebuilt in narrow brick to allow the construction of first floor fireplaces to N and S; these are of plastered brick, and have four-centred heads. The chimney stack is cruciform and has a string course with an ovolo moulding, and first floor fireplaces. These characteristics point to a date in the mid to late seventeenth century.

Either during this phase or the next, the hall was relegated to use as a barn. Wheel-hub marks on the adjacent sides of the principal wallposts on the N side were visible before 1968. The three-bay arrangement with wagon doors to the middle bay suggests use as a threshing floor.

Phase Four

In the SE front room, the initials and date marked in the wet plaster over the fireplace indicate the period of some alterations. It may well have been at this time that the E bay of the existing hall was incorporated into the house, leaving the hail with two bays. Possibly at this time the brickwork was extended W along the S front of the hall, building the small extension now used as a draught lobby. Until 1968 there was a small unheated room here. The window head is slightly different from the heads of the two windows further E: the westernmost window is now the doorway into the draught lobby.

Phase Five

This probably took place in the early to mid nineteenth century when the house was divided into two cottages (hence its present name). Two iron fireplaces and an iron fire bracket to burn coal were installed: coal was not generally available here until the canal opened in 1800 and became common after the opening of the railway in 1838.

Williamson1 writing in 1923 records that the ‘Barn originally had a Chestnut wood floor several inches thick. This however was rotten when the present rector took up the living and now has a floor composed of deal boards, raised as formerly, several inches above [the] surface level of ground1.’

Rectory Cottages in 1964 before restoration. Note the irregular line of the cottage roof (right) because of incipient collapse provoked by some ill-advised person having sawn out the tie-beam which held the front wall of the cottage to the chimney. The cladding of the barn was of wainy-edged boards which it was not possible to re-use. The taller chimney was from a fireplace in the S bay of the hall and from the charring inside the chimney, we are lucky the place did not burn down.
After restoration. The tall chimney has gone, as has the former door towards the S (right). The new door replaces the left window. The two iron straps holding the upper storey together have been replaced and a new small window has been inserted (top right) to lighten the main upstairs room. The Hall has been re-clad and sill beams have been inserted under the timber frame. It now stands about two to three feet above the original ground level, and substantial foundations have been inserted (there were none at all before). A porch has been contrived with double doors (centre).

Inside the Hall, looking north. Tie-beam truss at far end; note clasped purlins of former northward extension just above and at either end of the collar beam. The right hand curved brace below the tie beam has been replaced at some time. The northerly hammer beam truss is plainly visible; a head from the southerly hammer beam truss is just visible in the top right hand corner (with tongue sticking out). Between them on the right side may be seen the lugubrious face on the small intermediate hammer beam.
Note that there is no ridge pole; ridge poles apparently came late to Buckinghamshire. The low beam at chair top level is an old timber inserted at a much later date ??1904.

True hammerbeam roofs – with hammerbeams and hammerposts – are structurally unsound and there are only a dozen of the type left in England from the Middle Ages. They first come on record in Villard d’Honcourt’s notebook in c.1240.

Others may be found at Westminster Hall (c.1394) Eltham Palace (c.1468), Hampton Court (c.1520), Dartington Hall (c.1490, rebuilt 1932), Chester Cathedral refectory (c.1283, rebuilt 1939), the Pilgrims’ Hall at Winchester (c.1295); Tiptofts, Wimbish, Essex; Upton Court, Slough; Abington Priory, Northampton; the Old King’s Head, Aylesbury. There was another at Harrold Nunnery, Beds., which was demolished in 1840. The chancel of Dunton church, Bucks., seems to have had one.

The false hammerbeam roof, with a great curved arch brace from one side of the hall to the other, is a later and structurally sounder construction. Westminster Hall has elements of this type; others may be found at Rufford, Lancs; Samlesbury, Lancs; it is favoured in Oxford and Cambridge colleges and is to be seen in numerous churches, the finest probably being March, Cambs. Curiously, on de Grey lands in Dyffryn Clwyd, North Wales there are six hammerbeam roofed churches and three houses. Other neighbours in Wales copied them, mainly around 1460 to 1490, so they are contemporary with Rectory Cottages.

The hammerbeam roof has been built as a ‘prestige’ job from the Middle Ages down to the present; there is a fine example by Waterhouse in Manchester Town Hall (19th century)! We do not know why someone built a small and comparatively crude hammerbeam hall in Bletchley in the middle of the Wars of the Roses. The times were troubled; the climate was colder in those days – we are inclined to underestimate the effect of climate on population – and with a civil war in progress, few people kept written records and few of those have survivied. Perhaps the de Greys were doing their best to keep up appearances while keeping their heads well down on their country estates?

Rectory Cottages is very much a country cousin, but it keeps some distinguished company.

Head on NW hammerbeam. Note the teeth. [photograph Susan Brown,1988]

Head on NE hammerbeam. Note teeth and protruding tongue! [1988]

Head on SW hammerbeam. She does not look amused, which is why she is called (with gross inaccuracy) ‘Queen Victoria’. Note tenon of repaired beam in her forehead; there was an irregular hole there before 1968. [1988].

Head on small intermediate hammerbeam, north side of hall. We know of no comparable carving and would be glad to hear of any. [1988]