What is a dovecote?
Dovecotes are structures designed to house pigeons or doves. They are also referred to as ‘culverhouses’ (English), ‘columbaria’ (Latin) and ‘doocots’ (Scots).
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, we find timber-framed dovecotes that are rectangular, square or even polygonal in shape, and others with domed roofs.
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.
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, being associated with the Holy Spirit in Christian thought.
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.
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.