Dendrochronology solves mystery of when Alfriston Clergy House was built
For over 120 years the exact date of Alfriston Clergy House has been a mystery. Now, tree-ring dating - known as dendrochronology - has solved the mystery once and for all for the National Trust’s first house.
Alfriston Clergy House in Sussex was the first building ever acquired by the National Trust in 1895. It was in poor condition at the time and cost just £10 to buy it, although a further £400 was needed for repairs. Despite owning the house for more than 120 years, there has never been certainty over exactly when it was built, but now tree-ring dating has solved the mystery once and for all.
The house is a type of vernacular building known as a Wealden Hall House. Surviving examples of these houses are mainly concentrated in South-East England, and they were relatively high-status dwellings for wealthy farmers and members of the middle classes in the period 1350-1500. Since the building’s purchase in 1896, the Trust has assumed its construction dated to around 1350, but in more recent years, archaeological assessments had suggested a slightly later build date of around 1400. However, it was not until 2019 that research finally solved the mystery of when it was built – and who first lived there.
Timber dating research
The National Trust commissioned the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory to sample the building’s timbers. Dendrochronology involves taking cores of wood (which look like cigars) from buildings and then studying the tree rings to provide accurate dates for when the tree was felled. The rings can then be matched to chronologies of sampled trees to establish the years in which this example was growing and when it was felled. Each ring marks a complete cycle of seasons, or one year, in the tree's life. Dendrochronology is useful for determining the precise age of samples of wood, especially those that are too recent for radiocarbon dating. The sampling for Alfriston concluded that the trees used to build the original house were felled between 1399 and 1407.
George Roberts, curator for Alfriston Clergy House explains:
“Beautiful natural and historic places matter. Our role is to care for them and ensure they look and feel amazing forever, so that they provide the most benefit to the most people. The timbers in the hall at Alfriston Clergy House are truly remarkable and the National Trust has been sharing this space with our members and visitors for nearly 125 years. Now, thanks to modern technology we know more about the timbers’ secrets than ever before.”
The clergy move in
In 1398, the local parish church was taken over by nearby Michelham Priory which was in financial trouble, so that it could supplement its income from the parish tithes.
George Roberts, curator for Alfriston Clergy House continues: “Obtaining a construction date for the Clergy House allows us to better understand its early history and its significance within the village. In return for taking over the local church, the Priory had to supply a priest for the parish and support him financially. This would have included providing a house for him. The date we now have from the dendrochronology suggests that the Priory purchased or commissioned the building of the Clergy House shortly after taking over the church. We’ve always known that in later years it had been a house for the clergy, this accurate dating changes our long-assumed position that it was originally built for a farmer. Instead, we now see the house being used as a vicarage from when it was first built in around 1400.”
Alfriston underwent several alterations to modernise it as styles and tastes changed. After the Reformation, when vicars were permitted to marry, work took place to enlarge the house to accommodate more people. Church records show that the vicar Hugh Walker, appointed in 1593, had at least seven children living in the house with him and his wife. By the 1700s, the Clergy House had been subdivided into two cottages that could be rented out, with the vicars living elsewhere, often in another parish. Despite this, it was still officially the vicarage until the 1850s, when a new house was purchased for the vicar to live in. After this, it began to fall into disrepair, eventually leading to its purchase and rescue by the National Trust.
Holly Jones, National Trust Operations Manager for Alfriston Clergy House, said: “Being able to pinpoint the age of the house for the first time is a break-through for all of us who love Alfriston Clergy House and work here. This wonderful house captured the heart of Octavia Hill, the National Trust’s co-founder, in 1895, when she knew she had to rescue it and open it to the public. With these findings we are continuing her vision, nearly 125 years later, in researching and telling the story of this fine house. We want Alfriston Clergy House to be loved, explored and enjoyed by as many people as possible.”
Alfriston Clergy House is open every Saturday to Wednesday, April to October. Saturday & Sunday until 22 December, re-opening early spring. Entry is free for National Trust members, adult entry £6.60, children £3.30. Visit here to find out more about the first house saved for the nation by the National Trust.