The Medieval Review 11.02.26

Blatherwick, Simon and Richard Bluer. Great Houses, Moats and Mills on the South Bank of the Thames: Medieval and Tudor Southwark and Rotherhithe. Museum of London Archaeology, Monograph 47. London: Museum of London Archaeology, 2009. Pp. xvii, 246. 46.00 ISBN 9781901992830. .

Reviewed by:

Maryanne Kowaleski
Fordham University

This archaeological report focuses on two sites on the south bank of the Thames that contained four grand houses (two of them founded by kings, Edward II and Edward III), as well as tidal mills, moats around all four houses, ponds, drains, cesspits, wharves and jetties, a possible fish tank, extensive river revetments, and a variety of other structures, including a brewhouse. Like most archaeological reports, it is a joint effort with many specialist contributors who include a good deal of technical language, such as "bridled scarf," "tenoned posts," and "chase-mortice." It is, however, a model of its kind in the clarity of its prose, copious and clear illustrations (many in color), integration of documentary and archaeological evidence, and attempts to place its findings in a larger context. The volume also displays the expertise that London archaeologists have developed in dealing with waterside locations, including the drainage features of a marshy landscape and the timber remains (many of them planks from old ships) and craft expertise employed to shore up the waterfront. The specialist appendices on architectural fragments, building materials, pottery, woodwork, plant and animal remains, and other finds add valuable context on the sites. The discovery of expensive window fittings, high-quality imported pottery, elaborate chafing dishes, a large paneled door made of Baltic oak, and the bones of crane, swan, and turbot, all high-status food, point to the higher standard of living that the residents of the moated houses enjoyed.

The first site, Platform Wharf in the manor of Rotherhithe downstream from the Tower of London, was the smallest. Archaeological evidence suggests the site was occupied by the Bronze Age and into the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, but the earliest documentary evidence, aside from the Anglo-Saxon place name (meaning "place where cattle are embarked or landed"), does not surface until the late eleventh and early twelfth century in grants by the king of half of the manor to the honor of Gloucester and the other half to the monks of Bermondsey. The plots acquired by the king were probably in the half owned by the honor of Gloucester. Although we have little information on the pre-existing "old houses" and "old chambers" on the site, the royal building accounts offer much detailed information on the rebuilding of the house, wharf, moats, gardens, and other features in 1353-61 when over ₤1200 was spent. Preliminary excavation in the first decade of the twentieth century revealed enough remains of the main building to allow the excavator to record almost 20 feet of the northern and 8 feet of the eastern wall. The building was at first thought to be simply a storehouse or high-end commercial building, but in light of more recent work, is now considered to be the remains of Edward III's great house. The measurements and drawings produced from this early excavation were combined with the more recent archaeological work to produce good if speculative illustrations of what the northern façade of the inner court looked like, with windows on both the ground and first floors, and a tower gatehouse with access to the Thames. The inner court was surrounded by a revetted moat, but very little is known of the layout of the buildings within the inner court because of the decision to display these remains in situ as part of a new housing development constructed on the site.

Edward rarely stayed at his Rotherhithe house once rebuilding was completed; his last visit was in 1370, seven years before he died. The authors suggest that the modest size of the house precluded hosting the large royal retinue, which could have been the reason Edward acquired another set of properties nearby. After Edward III's death, his Rotherhithe estate was given at his request to the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces by the Tower, which in turn granted it to Bermondsey abbey for a yearly fee farm rent. At the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539-41, the once royal property had been divided into at least two parts, one called "le Mote place" with a wharf, and the other called "moted place" with tenements, orchards, and gardens. Surviving deeds and accounts show that the properties were further divided and built up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and held by a variety of people from local gentry and London citizens to mariners and shipwrights. Archaeological evidence of activities on the site is sparse from the late medieval into the early modern period, consisting mainly of pottery, ceramics, and other small finds from excavated pits and backfill of the moat around the inner court.

The second (larger) site, in the manor of Southwark, lay next to the southern end of London Bridge, and contained three great houses. By 1300, the site already included several tidal mills and a large moated house, known as Dunley Place because it was owned by the prominent Dunley family of Southwark. Around 1324, Edward II obtained land to the east of the Dunley house on which he built a moated pleasure-house across the river from the Tower of London. Called the Rosary, this house was rarely visited by Edward and was probably not finished when he was died in 1327. The famous architect/mason, Henry Yevele, acquired lands west of the Dunley house in 1388 and rebuilt the tidal mills there. In 1440, the well-known solider of the Hundred Years War, John Fastolf, acquired both Dunley's Place and the land on which the Rosary was built. Not much remained of the two earlier moated houses even when Fastolf took possession; indeed, until recently, the location of Fastolf's Place and its moated house was thought to be nearer to the Rosary, but the authors now argue that it was situated to the east, in Dunley's Place. Later accounts of repairs to Fastolf's property give us an idea of the residential complex (including his counting house and the "Round Tabull" in his chamber), which was surrounded by a large, buttressed brick wall pierced by at least two gatehouses and two causeways. The site also included a brewery (or perhaps a granary) as early as 1428 with its own inlet or dock. A decades-long legal battle over title to Fastolf's lands after he died in 1459 ended with the division of his Southwark property into several different parts, a division that accelerated in the following centuries as the area underwent extensive development and settlement. This volume includes a particularly full account of the archaeological and documentary evidence on the construction and repair of the tidal mills, wharf, moats, mill-ponds, and revetments in the late medieval and early modern periods. Findings from the eighteenth century on are being published separately for both the Southwark and Rotherhithe sites.

The Southwark site was largely reclaimed marshland with sand-and-gravel islands providing more secure foundations for building, although the area was always highly susceptible to flooding. Documentary evidence for this area is quite full, due in part to the establishment of town houses by various monastic establishments seeking a London base, and to the survival of some royal accounts for 1324-5 showing the nature of the building on the Rosary and Edward II's visits during the construction phase. The archaeological evidence for the Rosary, however, is limited, due partly to the rescue conditions under which excavations had to occur and perhaps because the Rosary may have been largely a timber building which would have left less of an imprint on the landscape. The excavations on Dunley's Place, later Fastolf's Place, are far more revealing, particularly in terms of the location and construction of the moats, a jetty, bridges over the moats, a possible bargebed for unloading cargo from flat-bottomed river craft (including the stone and timber needed for the building program), and a wide variety of riverfront revetments, many bolstered by large timbers taken from clinker-built and (later) carvel ships. The buildings in the inner court of Dunley's Place and Fastolf's Place are less well known because of the limits put on excavation by the developers and the truncation of important features by nineteenth- and twentieth-century building foundations. Other limitations on our understanding of the chronological sequencing of these sites arise from the piecemeal nature of the excavations under rescue conditions, which too often separated finds from the structures to which they were related, and the extensive reuse of old ship timbers, which made dendochronological dating less accurate.

An interesting subtext running throughout the volume is the heavy reliance of archaeologists on the good graces (and funding) of government agencies and powerful private development corporations. English Heritage, the British government agency that controls archaeology and the entire "heritage" industry, provided funding to help analyze and publish finds from these backlog sites, which had been originally excavated in the 1980s and early 1990s, while the excavations themselves were funded by a variety of corporations, including the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). Once the Rotherhithe excavation uncovered the possibility of a royal house, the developers rethought their entire strategy for the site in order to incorporate the remaining building into the site as a tourist attraction and centerpiece of the new development. This decision, combined with a new government policy initiative in 1990 (PPG 16) that mandated access of archaeologists to sites of known historical significance but also favored preservation of remains in situ if possible, meant increased funding and access for the archaeologists, but also prevented a full excavation of the entire site, including a sequence of Anglo-Saxon and early medieval features and the layout of the inner court. In contrast to the conservation exercise represented by the Rotherhithe site, the Southwark excavations were all about rescue archaeology under sometimes stressful conditions. The site was controlled by the LDCC, which had unusually wide powers to circumvent local planning processes. Archaeologists had to negotiate access to specific locations within this large site, and tended to have very limited access, especially since most of their excavations occurred before PPG 16 was in effect.

Despite these limitations, the excavations uncovered extensive and fascinating evidence about the watery landscape of the Thames riverfront, including unusual details about the medieval and Tudor carpentry and joinery skills employed in an impressive variety of waterfront structures. Especially notable is the detailed discussion of the tidal mills, moats, and docks that will be of particular interest to historians of technology and environmental historians. The great moated houses built by such well-known figures as Edward II, Edward III, and Fastolf will also draw the attention of scholars interested in the material culture of the affluent and powerful people of the period.