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What is a Dovecote?

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Image of Rachel Delman
Rachel DelmanHistorian, University of Oxford
A round two-storey building set with a conical roof is set into a wall, made of the same greyish stone. There's a stairway within the wall to the left of the building and behind it is a pink flowering cherry tree. It's a bright, sunny spring day and the sky is blue.
Dovecote at Nymans, West-Sussex | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Dovecotes are structures designed to house pigeons or doves. They are also referred to as ‘culverhouses’ (English), ‘columbaria’ (Latin) and ‘doocots’ (Scots). Doves and pigeons were kept by wealthy, elite families for food as well as their feathers, and to have a dovecote was an easily recognisable status symbol. You can see fine examples of dovecotes at Wichenford Court in Worcestershire and Willingdon in Bedfordshire, among others.

Why did people keep doves?

In England, the creation of dovecotes can be traced back to the Norman period (1066–1154). Until the seventeenth century, the right to keep doves was a privilege enjoyed exclusively by the aristocratic elite. For this reason, dovecotes created before this period are almost always found within or close to castles and great houses.

Food and feathers

On a practical level, doves and pigeons provided a source of food for the table, as well as feathers for the aristocratic household and manure for the estate. Doves were also valued for their religious significance due to their associations with the Holy Spirit in Christian thought.

Status symbols

Lords often showcased their right to keep doves by placing dovecotes in highly visible positions on their estates, such as close to approach roads or next to the main entrance or gatehouse to their residences. This meant that the inhabitants of the neighbouring settlement and those travelling through the local landscape could easily see and admire them.

A square two-storey, half-timbered Tudor-style building with a pitched roof and a cubed chimney-like block on the top designed for doves to enter the building. The structure is set among trees and woodland behind it with vibrant green grass in the foreground.
Wichenford Dovecote, Worcestershire | © National Trust Images/Robert Morris

Dovecote design and architecture

While nesting boxes are sometimes found as an integral part of great houses, dovecotes more commonly take the form of free-standing buildings. In the medieval period, they were usually large, circular structures built of stone and topped with pointed roofs. Occasionally, however, you’ll find timber-framed dovecotes that are rectangular, square or even polygonal in shape, and others with domed roofs.

The dovecote as historical source

When considered as part of the wider aristocratic estate, dovecotes can teach us a number of things about life in medieval and early modern England– from what people ate, to how they expressed their power and wealth to others. Their survival helps us to better understand what everyday life on a landed estate was like for those who encountered, inhabited and used such spaces.

Where can I see historic dovecotes?

Kinwarton Dovecote, Warwickshire

This rare 14th-century circular dovecote is found in the heart of the Warwickshire countryside and has metre-thick walls, over 580 nesting holes and an original rotating ladder.

Wichenford Dovecote, Worcestershire

A 17th-century half-timbered dovecote in the grounds of Wichenford Court in Worcestershire.

Hawford Dovecote, Worcestershire

Surviving virtually unaltered since the late 16th century, this picturesque dovecote is the last remnant of a former medieval monastic grange and retains many of its nesting boxes and original features.

A small, two-storey rectangular building with a pitched roof and angular, stepped brickwork, presumably designed for dives to perch on. The dovecote is set in farmland with an oak tree to the right and livestock fields behind. The sky is blue and it looks like a warm summer day.
Willington Dovecote, Bedfordshire | © National Trust Images/Mike Selby

Willington Dovecote, Bedfordshire

This 16th-century stone-built dovecote and stable buildings sit alongside Willington church in Bedfordshire. Home to over 1,500 resident pigeons, it’s a great spot for birdwatching, too, as it’s now also used as a nesting site by barn owls and kestrels.

This article contains contributions from Rachel Delman. Rachel is a researcher from University of Oxford who is researching residences that were commissioned and/or headed by high-status women in late medieval and early Tudor England.

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