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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: May 2015

1 - The Development of the Vernacular House in South-West England, 1500–1700

from I - The Form and Development of West Country Houses
  • Edited by John Allan, Consultant Archaeologist to the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral, Nat Alcock, Emeritus Reader in the Department of Chemistry, University of Warwick, David Dawson, Independent archaeologist and museum and heritage consultant
  • Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
  • pp 9-34


This paper offers a review of current understanding of the ways in which the West Country house developed between the late medieval period and the end of the 17th century. Its central focus is in Devon, where the writer's principal research interests have lain, but it also discusses developments in Somerset and Cornwall.


In 1647, Robert Herrick, the poet and vicar of Dean Prior, Devon, published a poem entitled ‘A Thanksgiving to God for his House’, part of which reads:

Lord thou has given me a cell

Wherein to dwell;

An little house, whose humble Roof

Is weather-proof

under the sparres of which I lie

Both soft, and dry

Low is my porch, as is my Fate,

Both void of State;

And yet the threshold of my door

Is worn by th' poor

Who thither come, and freely get

Good words, or meat;

Likeas my Parlour, so my Hall

And kitchin's small;

A little Butterie, and therein

A little Byn

Which keeps my little loafe of Bread

unchipt, unflead;

Some brittle sticks of Thorne or Briar

Make me a fire

Close by whose living coals I sit

And glow like it.

In 1646, Herrick, a Royalist, had been replaced at Dean Prior by a Presbyterian minister, so this poem, published a year later, looked back to the calm before the storm of the Civil War had swept over Devon. His nostalgia has given us a perfect penpicture of a Devon house, with its chamber under the thatch and rafters (spars), a low porch, small parlour, hall, kitchen and buttery, with a fire of thorn burning in the hall. This paper explores the realities that lie behind his description, and especially how the character of houses in South-West England diversified from the great uniformity of the medieval period up to the end of the 17th century. It concentrates on Devon, since this is where the author's experience mainly lies; many Somerset houses share the character of Devon ones, though with a wider range of walling materials.

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West Country Households, 1500–1700
  • Online ISBN: 9781782044574
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