In his contribution to a new volume of essays on the history of cruck construction, the architectural historian Richard Suggett remembers an occasion on which his mentor, Peter Smith – the great authority on vernacular architecture in Wales – stood completely lost in thought while contemplating a Denbighshire cruck. After a while, Richard ventured to ask what Smith was thinking. He replied, though not unkindly, to the effect that ‘if I needed to ask, I probably would not understand the answer’.
Peter Smith’s appreciation of the aesthetic appeal of this form of medieval timber architecture is all the more striking because cruck construction has long been viewed as a primitive building style, deployed by peasants and those who could afford nothing better. Crucks are made quite simply by selecting an oak (or occasionally an elm) with a stout lower branch, felling the tree and squaring off the trunk, then sawing it in two vertically. The result should be a symmetrical pair of curving or elbowed ‘blades’. When placed opposite each other and joined at the apex, the blades form an arch which, if you are of a Romantic bent, could be described as Gothic – some crucks even have a double curve and form an ogee arch. If you add a tie beam to connect the two blades, you create an A-frame, a triangular structure that is very strong, resistant to lateral forces, and capable of bearing the weight of additional timbers, such as the purlins and rafters that support the roofing materials.
Enthusiasts for vernacular architecture see something admirable in this building technique. Crucks were portrayed as the oldest form of architecture, the primordial carpentry technique, truly vernacular and belonging to a quite separate building tradition and social class from so-called ‘polite’ architecture. James Walton, one of the first members of the Vernacular Architecture Group (VAG; founded in 1954, see CA 307), published papers in 1948 on Yorkshire crucks, which he likened to prehistoric huts and the dwellings of peasants across Europe, with cut boughs reaching from the ground to the ridge. F W B Charles’s Medieval Cruck Building and Its Derivatives (1967) pointed to possible links with early buildings in Ireland, while J T Smith published papers in the 1960s revealing an exclusively western distribution to crucks and their absence from eastern and south-eastern Britain. His conclusion that ‘crucks are an ancient form, perhaps of Celtic origin’, added the further Romantic element of Celtic mist to the foundation myth of cruck construction.
Those of a different cast of mind thought of crucks as inherently inferior to buildings of stone or based on a rectilinear box frame. The curvature and the height of the cruck blades places a limit on span, room width, headroom, and the overall height of the building. Crucks do not lend themselves easily to the construction of upper storeys, or to their extension by the addition of side wings – the solars and service wings that flank the open hall of box-framed buildings. For these reasons, and for the fact that some crucks are made from ill-shaped, unmatched, and scrappily finished hedge trees, some commentators have characterised crucks as rough, primitive, inherently awkward, ‘uncouth’, and put together in a rudimentary manner.
Tried and true crucks
Purists have argued in the past that ‘true’ crucks must have blades that spring from a point close to the ground and continue in an uninterrupted arch up to the apex. It is possible that early crucks were just like this, their feet set into post-holes or stood on the ground without an intervening padstone – they will have suffered the inevitable fate of rotting at the base. Archaeological evidence for post-holes has proved to be elusive, but there are examples of crucks that have been modified later in their life by the removal of a section of the cruck blade’s base and the replacement of the removed timber with a supporting stone or a low wall, suggesting that the bottom of the cruck blade had deteriorated. By far the majority of crucks that spring from a low point in the building do so from a timber sill plate, from one or more padstones, or from a low wall. And it is true that these ‘full crucks’ can be of limited span and height.
But the full cruck is just one member of a family of cruck forms that has grown over the years, not without some disagreement over where the boundaries lie between crucks and other kinds of timber construction. Nevertheless, a consensus has emerged over time and the cruck category now includes buildings with raised crucks, in which the feet of the blades are embedded within or rest on solid walls, considerably increasing their height and potential grandeur. Nat Alcock provides a handy rule of thumb when he suggests dividing the supporting wall into thirds: if the blades are embedded within the bottom third of the wall, it is a ‘full cruck’; those with their feet embedded within the middle third of the wall are called ‘raised crucks’; and those that stand on or within the top third of the wall are placed in a separate category, or excluded altogether from the category of ‘true crucks’.
The building that has become the symbol of just how impressive crucks can be is Leigh Court Barn, in Worcestershire, now in the care of English Heritage and an outstanding example of English medieval carpentry. Built for Pershore Abbey from trees felled in 1344, it is over 42m long with nine pairs of curved truss blades like giant ribs that support the main structure, rising 10m to the apex and spanning 10.4m. This makes it the largest surviving cruck-framed structure in Britain, with the largest span of any known cruck building. The unusual length and straightness of the barn’s cruck blades shows that the carpenters had access to some massive trees. They might also have had to cut down, shape, and then reject a number of trees, because large trees often have rotten centres, an irregular grain, or multiple knots making them difficult to use.
Leigh Court Barn was used as the frontispiece for the first VAG catalogue of crucks, published in 1973, and again for the landmark publication on Cruck Construction (1981; Council for British Archaeology Research Monograph No.42), in which Nat Alcock, the editor, wrote, ‘the smooth sweep of the crucks at Leigh Court soaring into the gloom, five times the height of man, has an impact that cannot be ignored’. In the nearly five decades since that first catalogue, the number of known crucks has more than doubled from 2,045 to 4,426. In the past, the lack of dates has been a barrier to understanding their structural development and the nuances of their distribution. Today the position has been transformed, because we now have felling dates for more than 10 per cent of the known true crucks: some 400 tree-ring dates have been added to the Vernacular Architecture Group’s database since the first dendro dates were published in 1980. All the more reason, then, to review the current state of knowledge.
Spanning social classes
The earliest surviving cruck (the Royal George in Cottingham, Northamptonshire) has been dated to 1262, and the latest in England and Wales to 1742 (1690 in Ireland and 1801 in Scotland). More than 75 per cent were built in the 15th and 16th centuries, with 12 known from the 13th century and 53 from the 14th. These early examples survive only as a single blade or as trusses reused in later reconstructions, and it is not until the 14th century that we have intact cruck houses. One of these is No.18, The Street, in Wilsford, Wiltshire, with a felling date of 1309. The house is small but exceptionally complete, with three trusses forming a two-bay open hall and two forming flanking bays. Part of the original wall-plate survives, along with some smoke-blackened thatch from the hall’s brazier or open fire. Rotten truss-feet were removed in 2000, but one truss blade stands on what looks like the original sill beam.
Proving the point that early crucks span the social classes is the spectacular Great Hall at Stokesay Castle, with timbers dating from 1284 to 1290. Now in the guardianship of English Heritage, Stokesay was built by Sir Laurence de Ludlowe on the enormous profits that he and his brother amassed from his business as a wool merchant and from their astute lending of money to a number of individuals, including Edward I. Both brothers drowned off the coast of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, in 1294, when the king’s wool fleet, commanded by Laurence and heading for Bruges, was caught in a storm in which many ships and their crews were lost. Before that, in 1284, he had taken advantage of the newly established peace on the Welsh border following Edward I’s conquest of Wales (1277-1283) to build one of England’s first fortified houses (for it is a house, despite the later ‘castle’ name).
Laurence obtained a licence to crenellate the house in 1291, a date that is consistent with the dendrochronology. The style of the carpenters’ marks on the timbers of the Great Hall roof point to the use of the same team of carpenters throughout, and the trusses have survived in their original state, with very little subsequent alteration. This tells us that the mixture of raised crucks, aisled end-trusses, and collar-purlins dates from the same period and is not the result of later modification. This demonstrates an important point: that skilled professional carpenters could construct cruck trusses and other types of roof – they were not wedded to one particular style of truss construction to the exclusion of other forms.
In fact, there are examples throughout the Midlands and the March and into Wales of buildings that have a cruck-built open hall flanked by box-framed wings of two storeys. Craftsmen and workshops could clearly choose from a repertoire of possible truss and framing techniques, depending on the requirements of their employer. This raises interesting questions about the role of the patron, why they might choose one type of truss over another, and what crucks might have represented in cultural terms.
Reviewing the evidence for Wales, Richard Suggett argues that, contrary to the idea that crucks were peasant-class houses, they were ‘a nuanced indicator of social status’ linked to Edward I’s conquest and his subsequent construction of the so-called ‘ring’ of castles in north Wales that now collectively form a World Heritage Site. Until then, the halls of the Welsh princes had been aisled structures. We have archaeological evidence for this, as well as documentary evidence (Welsh laws state that a royal hall must have six columns), and literary evidence (The Mabinogion includes an episode in which the defeated Irish build a hall with 100 pillars for their conqueror, Bendigeidfran, but then use them treacherously to hide armed warriors).
Castle-building turned north Wales into the largest building site in Christendom in the 1280s, and it was out of this creative milieu that the cruck truss became increasingly popular as a timber version of the fashionable pointed Gothic arch in stone. Perhaps because the cruck marked such a stylistic contrast with the past, it was readily adopted in Wales and the March. The style continued to develop and the Welsh gentry commissioned some astonishingly sophisticated cruck-built halls with refined carpentry, flamboyant decorative detail, and high social status in the 15th and 16th centuries. ‘Building in timber became a form of high craft during this period, and the cruck truss was at the centre of the craft’, Richard concludes.
The origins of cruck construction
The cruck hall may have become a status indicator in the early 13th century in Wales, but the origins of cruck construction almost certainly belong to an earlier period. Reviewing the dendro dates, Nat Alcock points out that documentary evidence for crucks (or ‘forks’) pre-dates the earliest surviving examples. The Latin term furca (plural furcae), the Norman French fourche, and the Welsh fforch are found in documents dating from 1189 in Somerset, the 1220s in many parts of central England and Wales, and 1298 in Ireland. In 1221, for example, Ralph de Normanville received the gift of six oaks from the royal forest of Cliff to make six furchias for his hall at Empingham, in Rutland, while at Little Packington, Warwickshire, six furcis were provided for the house being built for the chaplain in 1232.
Nat asks what the combined archaeological, documentary, and dendro evidence tells us about the origins of cruck construction, when and where it appears in Britain, and how it spread. He lays out three options: they are prehistoric or ‘early Celtic’; they developed sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries; or they first appear in the mid 13th century. He rejects the first idea because there is no archaeological evidence for crucks before the 13th century. Instead, archaeology (reviewed in the new volume by Mark Gardiner) suggests altogether different forms for prehistoric, Romano-British, and early medieval buildings. Instead, Nat considers that an 11th-century origin is plausible, on the grounds that, for crucks to become widespread by the 13th century, they must have had precursors. Where did they first appear? Probably close to the later cruck heartland of Wales, the March, and the West Midlands.
The fact that the repertoire of carpenters in central and western Britain included both cruck truss construction and box frame calls into question one of the explanations sometimes given for the distribution of crucks and box frames. J T Smith published papers in the 1960s showing that crucks are entirely absent from a large swathe of eastern England: from Kent and Sussex, through East Anglia and Lincolnshire, and up to the Humber and beyond. Since then, the increase in the numbers of known crucks has reinforced this pattern. One explanation that still finds favour with some architectural historians is that two carpentry traditions developed in the west and east of England, both needing different skills in timber selection and in the design of trusses and joints. These two techniques spread out from their epicentres and, by the time they met, neither set of carpenters saw any reason to change their habits.
Coppicing or cultural factors?
Clearly that theory does not work, and Paul Barnwell offers an alternative explanation, based on regional differences in woodland management and timber supply. He argues that the kind of mature trees of the required size to make cruck trusses might not have existed in eastern England because trees were managed there by coppicing, a regime that did not produce timbers of the right shape for crucks. The ready availability of straight timbers suited to box frames and the relative scarcity of timbers suitable for crucks meant that the crucks never became part of the carpentry tradition in the east, whereas builders in Wales, the March, the Midlands, and the north of England had a choice of material and building technique.
This is a valuable contribution to the debates around the puzzling absence of crucks in the east, but it does not explain another well-established fact: that crucks are almost absent from continental Europe. This is not the result of myopic insularity on the part of scholars. In line with the belief that crucks are a very ancient and fundamental building type, it was naturally assumed that crucks would have a widespread distribution, but scholars who have specialised in continental vernacular buildings have only found 155 examples, despite searching hard. Of these, 135 are in Limousin and Quercy, adjacent provinces in south-western France; the remainder are isolated structures distributed across the continent, from Levka in Bulgaria to Morbihan in Brittany. The crucks in the latter group almost certainly represent independent invention, whereas the French group is located in a region that had strong English connections during the medieval period, where the adoption of an English building type can readily be understood.
Cultural factors clearly did play a part, then, in the rise and spread of the cruck, and the same applies to its demise. In Wales, the cruck- built hall house was no longer restricted to the gentry by the mid 16th century. People lower down the social scale began to adopt the cruck-framed house in the later medieval period, as wealthy peasants imitated the gentry’s way of life. The ‘durable peasant hall house challenged the class-defining distinctiveness of the gentry hall house’, Richard Suggett believes, and this spurred the gentry of Wales to reject the cruck and seek new modes of construction to maintain the principle of social (status) distancing.
The cruck form became an occasional, rather than a mainstream, constructional technique towards the end of the 16th century, and was largely obsolete by 1650 across most of the British Isles, though Cumberland has examples dating from 1723 and 1741, and Scotland has one built in 1808. Having become ‘archaic’, crucks were then ripe for rediscovery: Martin Cherry and Peter Thompson observe wryly that ‘the term “cruck” is creeping back into popular parlance, used promiscuously (as any house recorder will know) to describe the most implausible of old beams’, while the form was revived with great distinction by Arts and Crafts architects, such as Ernest Gimson whose Lupton Hall, at Bedales School, Steep, in Hampshire, was built in 1911 from five great pairs of oak crucks. And, although they are made from laminated timber off-cuts rather than whole tree trunks, cruck-shaped timber trusses have been used in a number of halls and places of worship built since the 1950s, and are increasingly promoted as an environmentally friendly form of construction.
Nat Alcock, P S Barnwell, and Martin Cherry (eds) (2019) Cruck Building: a survey, Shaun Tyas, £50, ISBN 978-1907730795.