The mystery of the Nunney dovecotes
For hundreds of years Nunney had at least two notable dovecotes. Where were they, why were they there and what happened to them?
Pigeon houses – also called dovecots, dovecotes, doocots or culverhouses – were once common near monastries and manor houses, such as Nunney Castle.We know that Nunney had at least two dovecotes at one point, because they were included in wills and title deeds relating to the manors of Nunney Castle and Nunney Maudley.
These manors were roughly consistent with the castle itself and the manor house and farm next to it – plus the land, cottages, fishing rights and other assets that came with both of them. Sometimes these manors were held by the same family, sometimes one or both of them was rented out to others.
Dovecotes were often substantial round or rectangular structures with a thatched roof, in which hundreds of pigeons were kept for meat, eggs, dung and feathers.
William the Conqueror distributed much England to his loyal followers after the Conquest of 1066, including the various manors of Nunney.The Normans didn’t just show up one day and take over the country. Particularly in the area around Nunney, there were uprisings against the Norman occupation. Nearby fortified houses all along the border of Somerset and Wiltshire were burned down.
For Nunney this meant more than just a change of leadership. Colo, the Saxon leader of the village at the time, lived next to the church at Court Farm House. Instead of moving into to this property – the best in the village at the time – the new Norman leader Turgis decided to build a new house with farm on the other side of the Nunney Brook.
Because All Saints Church – or the Church of St Katherine as it was called at the time – had already been built in the highest point in the village, the new Norman manor was built at the bottom of a hill right next to where the castle was built centuries later.
We don’t know whether it was at this point that Nunney first got a dovecote, but it is highly likely. Like rabbit warrens, dovecotes were said to have been brought to Britain by the Normans although pigeon holes have also been found in Roman ruins at Caerwent.
In order to collect the right amount of tax William the Conqueror commissioned Domesday Book, a detailed list of all the oxen, cattle, pigs and sheep kept in England in 1085.
Only the rich could afford to eat meat at the time, and many words used to describe it – veal, mutton, beef and pork, for example – have Norman-French origins.
Nunney appears in two entries in Domesday Book. The first (shown above) is for a part of Nunney that belonged to the Abbey of Sainte-Marie Montebourg in Normandy; this entry records 10 pigs, 60 sheep and 18 goats.
The second entry is for the Norman-held part of the village, with William de Mohun as tenant-in-chief and Turgis as his local representative. Livestock for this part of the manor consisted of 1 horse, 8 cattle, 20 pigs and 100 sheep.
The earliest documentary evidence that dovecotes were built in England dates from the middle of the twelfth century, however, and the earliest ones to survive date from the fourteenth century.
Many of the earliest examples were constructed in much the same way as stone castle, using rubble filler to create walls which measured between three and five feet in thickness.
Many dovecotes were squat, whitewashed or plastered, domed cylinders, empty inside apart from the thick interior walls and row upon row of nesting boxes.
Circular dovecotes typically measured between 13 and 20 feet across. Dovecotes contained between 200 and 1,500 doves and squabs – young pigeons too young to fly and most prized for their meat -, although on the rare occasion dovecotes housed up to 3,000 birds.
Each pair of dovecote pigeons produced two eggs, which they would incubate for seventeen days. After four weeks the squabs would be as big as their parents, but because they had never used their flying muscles their meat was very tender.
Older birds were not as tasty and were kept for egg production or given away to the poor to eat. Feathers were used for bedding and the dove dung was used as fertiliser.
The poor had to go without meat, except for the odd piece of bacon and some poached rabbits. Poaching was rife in Nunney right up until the 20th century. The Rev. John Ireland wrote in 1819 that the poor in Nunney were “being brought up in a complete course of depravity and poaching”.
Temptation was always just on the doorstep. Trudoxhill, until quite recently part of Nunney, was included in the Royal Forest of Selwood, which covered an area from Warminster to dovehouses.
Selwood was subject to strict laws that protected the King’s deer. The Forest Pleas list the names of many local men caught poaching, including Simon Long, Richard atte Pyle (who lived at Pyle Farm in Trudoxhill) and Gilbert la Irysse.
Henry de Montfort is perhaps best known for being the Lord of the Manor who obtained Nunney’s royal market and fair charter in 1260. He was also a verderer of Selwood Forest, responsible for preventing poaching. He seems to have been a poor watchdog, however, as on one occasion he was himself imprisoned at Ilchester for trespass in the forest.
Poaching happened all the time. In 1261 members of the household of Witham Charterhouse entered Selwood Forest with bows and arrows, crossbows, hatchets, nets and dogs. They killed a doe, which was taken to the charterhouse.
The King’s foresters caught up with them, and the nets – important evidence – were handed over to the custody of Henry de Montfort. Once again he proved ineffective. Those poachers who were still at large forcibly rescued the nets from him at Nunney.
In 1298 Trudoxhill was declared to be outside the Royal Forest of Selwood, however, which must have been a relief to the villagers.
The rich lived on a diet that consisted mainly of meat, fruit and berries. Vegetables that grew on the ground were considered suitable only for the poor, with the exception of leeks, garlic and onions.
The normal diet for peasants consisted of barley or rye bread (wheat bread was a luxury), porridge and ‘pottage’ stews of beans, peas and root vegetables plus cheese and other dairy products. Cider and ale made without hops were the standard drinks.
So how many pigeons did an average Lord of the Manor and his household eat? It varied throughout the year. The first squabs were hatched early in March each year. They were ready to eat 3-4 weeks later, unless Lent intervened.
The religious calendar dictated that no meat or fish was eaten in periods such as Lent (a period of 40 days before Easter) and specific days of the week, in total for about half of the year.
Any squabs that matured during Lent were kept as breeding stock. Household accounts show that for centuries it was custom that the first squabs were eaten on Easter Sunday.
Large quantities of young pigeons were taken from the dovecote for eating during April and May, then the supply dipped until August, September and October, when most young pigeons were produced.
The accounts of the household of Dame Alice de Bryene of Acton, Suffolk, for 1412-3 clearly show this seasonal fluctuation. Her household of about twenty persons ate 100 pigeons in April, 239 in May, 54 in June, 54 in July, 336 in August, 340 in September, 275 in October, and 147 in November.
No more pigeons were eaten in December, January or February, and only 4 in March. Every other set of household accounts from the thirteenth century to the eighteenth century confirms this seasonal pattern.
It isn’t hard to imagine that the occupants of Nunney Castle would have consumed a similar number of young pigeons throughout the year.
It has often been argued that the main reason for having a dovecote was to provide a cheap and valuable supply of fresh meat, particularly during the winter months.
Cattle and other animals bred for human consumption were largely killed at the end of the autumn, and salted down for the winter as the unscientific farming methods of those days produced very little winter feed. The few stall-fed animals which were kept through the winter were often so weak when spring came that they actually had to be carried out into the fields.
This meant that throughout the winter only salt meat was commonly available, so that pigeons from the dovecote were not merely a luxury, but were almost a necessity – or at least a most valuable addition to the sparse winter diet.
John and Pamela McCann, authors of The Dovecotes of Historical Somerset, have debunked this argument by pointing out that young birds were only available from March to November. They produced five or six broods a year, but not in the winter.
Where was the Nunney dovecote?
There is no documentary or physical indication of where the Nunney dovecotes were. We can, therefore, only speculate where they may have been located.
Although much larger, Bodiam Castle, built in East Sussex in 1385, bears striking similarities with Nunney Castle. Here the upper part of the southwest tower was arranged as a pigeon house; there is no evidence that this was the case in Nunney.
What we do have are the remains of a fishpond in a corner of the castle grounds at Nunney Castle. It has been suggested that this originally was fed by a well, which in turn fed water into the moat. It was only much later that the moat at Nunney Castle would get its water from the Nunney Brook.
Quite why the castle needed a fishpond to ensure a steady supply of fresh fish is in itself bewildering. It is only a couple of generations ago that the Nunney Brook had a reputation for “excellent trout and eels”. Perhaps it was just convenient.
In 1600 Oliver de Serres wrote in his book on agriculture that ‘no man need ever have an ill-provisioned house if there be but attached to it a dovecot, a warren and a fishpond wherein meat may be found as readily at hand as if it were stored in a larder’.
The Praters boys famously had frequent run-ins with their neighbours at Manor Farm, the Maudleys. Although vandalism was a recurring theme, this doesn’t seem to have involved dovecotes.
The dovecote that belonged to the manor farm may have been a freestanding structure or it may have been part of one of the ancient barns. Again, there is no evidence at Nunney that a dovecote was part of – or added to – the listed 15th century barns that still remain next to the castle, although there are irregular square holes in the brick walls.
The 1722 deed refers to ‘stables, dovehouses, outbuildings’, which may suggest that the dovecotes were not an integral part of an existing barn, but freestanding structures.
The only tantalising hint is an unexplained stone structure shown on the 1786 map of the manor of Nunney belonging to James Theobald. This shows as rectangular structure between the Manor Farm and the castle, roughly to the left of the path that nowadays runs along the moat.
Although the popular engraving of the northwest view of Nunney Castle by Buck, Simon and Nathaniel, dated 1733, doesn’t show this structure, in fact it doesn’t show any of the outbuildings – including the 15th century barns next to the castle.
Dovecotes had a number of features to keep foxes and rats out. Normally, the only opening in the building was at the centre of the roof, where a small hole known as an oculus allowed birds to enter and exit as they pleased.
Structural features known as string courses, very narrow ledges applied around the outside of the building, prevented rats from scaling the walls and reaching the boxes. Doves can perch on a narrower ledge than hawks, so if a hawk flew into a dovecote it had nowhere to sit and would fall to the floor.
Inside, a device known as a potence – a wooden pole with arm-like rungs, was placed at the centre of the pigeon house. Suspended above the floor, it allowed workers to reach the birds and eggs higher up on the walls, but at the same time prevented predators from reaching the boxes.
Potences only came into use at the end of the 18th century, however, when brown rats became a problem. Black rats are mainly vegetarians.
In the 18th century the floor level and door were raised among several major alterations. The lower tiers of nest holes were blocked to protect against brown rats which had arrived in the Britain in 1720 and reached Somerset by 1760.
Brown rats can’t climb above 3 feet on a smooth surface, so dovecotes with nesting holes blocked below that level pre-date the arrival of the rats in Somerset. Those without holes below 3 feet were built after 1760.
At Bodiam Castle the upper portion of the southwest tower was arranged as a pigeon house. Rochester Castle also kept the birds inside the keep.
When Richard Prater died on 17 April 1578, he was buried in Nunney Church. You can still seen his effigy, alongside that of his widow Margaret Ashfield.
In his will he left the manors of Nunney Castle and Nunney Glaston, two dovecotes and land to his son George, 18. When George himself died in 1623, he still had the two manors, but only one dovecote. He also left 40 messuages (dwelling houses with outbuildings and land assigned to their use), 40 cottages, 30 lofts, 100 gardens, 1,000 acres of land, 300 acres of meadow plus a mill, woods and other land in neighbouring parishes.
George left all of this to his son, the Richard Prater who occupied Nunney Castle during the siege of 1645.
The archives at the Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton contain stacks of ancient deeds for the manors of Nunney Castle and Nunney Maudley. These often beautiful vellum documents with wax seals attached not only deal with change of ownership of the manors, but more often with a temporary lease of one or both of them – complete with entitlement to the income from cottages, land, fishing rights etc – for one or more years.These deeds provide an interesting record of the assets that came with the (temporary) lordship of the two manors. Although mostly formulaic in their phrasing, there are notable variations.
The castle, manor house and farm with outbuildings, orchards, tenements, lands and waterways are meticulously recorded. The only reference to the dovecotes we have been able to find in these deeds during our research, however, is in a one-year lease document dated 22 June 1722 between the widow Elizabeth Culliford and William Bayly and John Morgan for the manors of Nunney Castle and Nunney Glaston.
This document clearly refers to dovehouses – plural. It seems safe to assume, therefore, that Nunney still had more than one dovecote at that point in time.
The third manor in Nunney, that of Nunney Maudly, was long based around the manor house and farm next to the castle. Traditionally within the castle’s perimeter wall, this farm and its outbuildings would have served to produce food and drink for the owners of the castle.
Over time the farm, barns and land were split off and both owned and leased by others than the people who lived in the castle.
By the time the Manor Farm was let in March 1815, there was no explicit reference to a dovecote. An advertisement in the Bath Chronicle refers to “a farm-house, with every necessary and convenient farm building and offices, together with about two hundred and thirty-four acres of arable and one hundred and thirty-three acres of meadow and pasture land (more of less)”.
The Praters had a habit of naming their eldest boys either Richard or George, so it can get confusing. The Will of George Prater, was dated 10 April, 20 James I (1621/2) and proved 5 February 1622/3. It starts:
“To be buried in own chapel at Nonny. My Will is that all my lands shall descend to my son and heir Richard Prater, and to his heirs, paying out of it:
My mother must have £40 by the year as appearith in my father’s Will and she must have for half of the pidgeon house, half the orchard and other grounds yearlie and her chamber in the Castle if she please.”
Note that this clearly refers to a single dovecote. When his son, George Prater, died in 1623, he left in his Will both manors, but:
“40 messuages, 40 cottages, 30 lofts, 1 dovecote, 100 gardens, 1,000 acres of land, 300 acres meadow, with a mill, woods, c., and other lands in neighbouring parishes”.
The Will of the Richard Prater whose effigy is in the church – the grandfather, as it were – was dated 6 December 1577 and proved after his death (in April 1580) on 22 October 1580 by his son George Prater. It mentions ‘my Manors’ (the manors of Nunney Glaston and Nunney Castle) as well as assets in Trudoxhill, Sharpshaw (farm on the outskirts of Nunney) and Leigh-on-Mendip.
He made provisions for his wife Margaret, who gets “in her own maintenance,the Castle & farm house of Nonney.” His Will also specifies gifts of cash and virginals to his children, but does not specify a dovecote. Perhaps it was understood to be included in “the Castle & farm house”.
The privileges of keeping pigeons were strictly reserved to lords of the manor, the monastries and just a few other highly favoured individuals.
Rules on keeping doves were relaxed after 1619 and the number of dovecotes increased dramatically. The French revolutionary wars of 1793-1815, however, sent corn prices soaring. It was no longer economically viable to keep dovecotes when the value of feeding the birds exceeded that of their meat and manure.
Many dovecotes were abandoned, converted or reduced in size – for example by adding a floor and using the bottom half for other purposes. A change in the law in 1827 allowed farmers to shoot pigeons that damaged their crops.
Ancient dovecotes of Somerset
By the time dovecotes began to attract the attention of antiquarians in the 1880s, most of them had been out of use of a long time. According to the Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser of 3 December 1919:
“There are ancient dovecotes at Bruton, Norton St. Philip, Norton-sub-Hamdon, Stoke-under-Ham, Dunster, West Camel, Toomer Court (Henstridge), Nynehead, Nunney, Shapwick, Holbrook (near Wincanton), Halswell, West Bower, Chard’s Farm (Long Sutton), Hurcot’s Farm (Somerset), Godminster (near Bruton) and in many other places in the county.”
W.G. Willis Watson wrote in 1936:
“Other notable dovecotes at Norton St. Philip, at Nunney Castle, and Nunney Glaston, were of the Elizabethan era.”
The Very Rev. Prior Ethelbert Horne of Downside Abbey warned, however, that “the one at Nunney Castle certainly does not exist now, nor do I know its site.” Father Horne was considered an authority on this subject at the time, who documented much valuable information with descriptive and historical notes on Somerset dovecotes.
In November 1919 he had written in the Somerset Herald:
“It would be interesting to collect a list of the places in Somerset where ancient dovecotes still exist, or existed within living memory, for they are fast being destroyed or falling into ruin.”
“The dovecotes in question are not the mere loft over the stable or barrel pigeon-houses on a pole, or a cluster of boxes against a wall. The dovecote proper is a substantial tower-like building, the direct descendant of the Norman columbarium. It is built from the ground, and the whole structure is devoted to the raising of pigeons, although in later examples they were often made in two storeys, the upper one only being used by the birds and the lower room being put to some other purpose.”
In August 1936 Horne of Downside Abbey created a list of 38 places in Somerset where dovecotes were still in existence. Most of them he had photographed, measured and carefully examined.
Nunney is included in Father Horne’s list of other sites of dovecotes. He does not give any description, although it was by then clearly no longer in existence. The Bath Chronicle’s detailed report on his tour of Nunney with a group of Bath archaeologists in September 1935 does not make any mention of the dovecote.
Somerset’s remaining dovecotes
Although many dovecotes has disappeared, some notable ones remain in Somerset.
The remains of a square, two-storied dovecote, which belonged to Bruton Abbey, stand on a hill on the south side of the church. The lower part of the building is thought to have housed the keeper of the pigeons.
According to Father Horne, however, the Bruton dovecote was really only a look-out tower which had 80-100 nest holes added at a later period of its history. In 1915 it was donated to the National Trust.
Nearby Godminster has one of the most artistic dovecotes in the county. It is square on the outside, but octagonal inside with about 500 nest holes.
Witham Friary’s former village reading rooms were based in a 13th century building that was once a dovecote associated with the Priory. The Grade II* listed building is on Mendip District Council’s Historic Buildings at Risk register.
Compton Martin has a dovecote in the roof of the church over the chancel. It is believed to be the only example of a dovecote in a church in Somerset.
Rather controversially, Father Ethelbert Horne didn’t think that the famous dovecote at Hinton Charterhouse was a dovecote at all. “The Carthusian monks who lived at Hinton Priory never ate flesh, either of beasts or birds, at any time, nor did they supply it to their guests,” he wrote in 1936. “Consequently a dovecote would have been no use to them.”
“Any builder who looks at the example at Hinton would tell you that it was not part of the original structure of the place where it is, but was obviously added at a later date to an already existing room.”
“The pigeon holes are not in the walls of the room itself, but in a lining wall that has been built up against them. This lining wall is not even bonded to the real wall, but there is a space between the two that anyone can see on either side of the door at the entrance.”
“After the monks were driven from their home and their property seized by the state, the layman who bought the place fitted up a room in the ruined monastry as a dovecote, which he probably had a legal right to do, as he acquired the manorial rights when he bought Hinton.”