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Chapter three The English Dovecotes

Before going on to the main purpose of this book, the description, namely, of a few of the most interesting dovecotes still surviving in England, Wales, and Scotland, it will be well to spend a page or two in treating of them as a whole. It may be asked, for instance, why these buildings, formerly so common, have in many cases disappeared; why those still stand-ing are, with some exceptions, silent and un-tenanted, or turned to uses other than the purpose which their builders had in view. If they were needed in old days, then why not now?

It will be neither jest nor paradox to say that dovecotes were in a great measure doomed when first the turnip and the swede were introduced to British agriculture, early in the eighteenth century. For these useful vegetables, with assistance later from oil-cake and other feeding-stuffs, solved a problem which had long baffled the British farmer; that of maintaining sheep and cattle through the winter months. The agriculturist of Norman and much later days, not having these resources, had but one course to pursue. He fed his flocks and herds through spring and summer upon grass; then, when the grass grew scant in autumn, there was a universal slaughter, all save a few breeding animals being killed and salted down for winter food. November in Old German was called Slagtmonat, or slaughter month, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent being Blodmonath or blood-month. On pillars in Carlisle cathedral are seen carvings which display the various occupations of the months. That for December shows a man, a poleaxe, and an ox about to die.

With this elimination of fresh beef and mutton from the winter bill of fare, we understand how welcome would be any smaller creatures which would live through the lean months and yield a never-failing stock of appetizing food. Such a place was filled to perfection by the pigeon, a bird needing little space for the accommodation of several hundreds; exceedingly prolific; and, moreover, capable of procuring its food over a wide range of country and at little cost.

With the introduction of "roots" and the resulting possibility of winter-feeding stock, the need for dovecotes naturally decreased; while there gradually arose a more positive reason for their falling into desuetude. The peasant agriculturist of Norman days had seen, no doubt with pain, but certainly with little thought of remonstrance, still less of rebellion, the pigeons of the lord, the abbot, or the parson, battening daily on his scanty crops. It was a privilege which it would hardly occur to him to dispute; he looked upon it as the natural course of things that he should labour to raise crops from which the birds of his superiors took a heavy toll, and he was doubtless thankful for the little left for his own use.

But with the gradual disappearance of oppressive privileges these pacific sentiments would no longer obtain. The dovecote, whence there issued with the dawn hundreds of birds who found their living in the farmers' fields, would be among those objects upon which reformers turned their eyes. Nor had they far to look. We have it on the word of Samuel Hartlib, Milton's friend, that towards the middle of the seventeenth century the number of English dovecotes was estimated at twenty-six thousand. If we allow five hundred pairs of pigeons to each cote - a fairly modest computation, many dovecotes having upwards of one thousand nests - and then remember that a pair of pigeons will consume annually four bushels of corn, the enormous loss of grain to farmers will be seen.

It is to be understood that for many centuries the right to erect and maintain one of these structures was strictly limited. Those so favoured by the Norman laws were the lords of manors, a class which included not only a vast number of land owning laymen, but also abbots and other ecclesiastics, the parson of a parish being frequently among the number. As to this last-named class there will be something more to say, especially with reference to the kind of dovecote which they sometimes used.

This feudal privilege is generally stated to have been abolished during the reign of Eliza-beth. It is certain that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was a large addition to the number of our English dovecotes, many being built; but restrictions still existed till much later times. In 1577, for example, a tenant who had erected a dovecote on a royal manor was ordered by the Court of Exchequer to demolish it. Ten years later, in another case of the same kind, it was still held that none save the lord of the manor might build a dovecote; but two out of the three judges decided that there was no ground for prosecution before the Manor Court, the great man's only remedy being a civil action. This decision seems to have been reaffirmed in the days of James I., the lord of the manor's sole right to a dovecote being still expressly upheld. The law upon the point appears to have been still unchanged as late as the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

The dovecote introduced into this country by the Norman conquerors was of one universal type; a circular and very massive building, having walls three feet or even more in thickness, and a low-domed vaulted roof. This last was, at first, most often open in the centre, a round hole admitting not the pigeons only, but both light and air. Inside, the nest-holes, well designed and accurately built, usually covered the entire surface of the walls.

The "potence" we have seen in France, and are to find again in many English instances, as well as north of Tweed. But it was often absent from the earlier Norman specimens. The open centre to the roof would render difficult the placing of a socket for the upper pivot of the beam, and it is doubtful whether the alternative framework of powerful cross-timbers to support the upright was made use of until later times.

Gradually the circular dovecote was to some extent displaced by the lighter and more ornamental style of the octagonal form, or by the more easily built square or oblong pigeon house. Six-sided dovecotes, though comparatively rare, are not unknown, while at least one English example was pentagonal. The walls, too, come to be less massive; windows, either in the walls or in the form of dormers in the roof were introduced; while a cupola, lantern, or "glover," crowned the whole.

Stone was of course the first material, brick not coming into use till later days, and even then only in certain districts. But there were local substitutes. In Sussex chalk or rubble is not uncommon, while in Somersetshire use was sometimes made of clay or "cob," that ideal fabric for house walls, which, cool in summer, warm in winter, is just now again enjoying its former high repute. And in the wooded counties of the March and Borderland of Wales, where "black and-white" half-timbered houses, with the interstices of their wooden framing filled with " wattle and daub," add so much beauty to the countryside, half-timbered dovecotes of great elegance of form and often richly decorated may be seen.

It is to this Welsh Border country that the pilgrim who would go in quest of dovecotes shall forthwith be led.

Dovecote: Table of Contents