What is a dovecote?

The octagonal dovecote in the Walled Garden at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk

Dovecotes are structures designed to house pigeons or doves. They are also referred to as ‘culverhouses’ (English), ‘columbaria’ (Latin) and ‘doocots’ (Scots).

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, we find timber-framed dovecotes that are rectangular, square or even polygonal in shape, and others with domed roofs.

Origins

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.

Keeping birds

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.

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.

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.

Some historic dovecotes in our care

Interior of Kinwarton Dovecote, Warwickshire

Kinwarton Dovecote 

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

Wichenford Dovecote

Wichenford Dovecote 

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

The Hawford Dovecote in the Worcestershire countryside

Hawford Dovecote 

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.

Willington Dovecot

Willington Dovecote 

This 16th-century stone-built dovecote and stable buildings nestle alongside Willington church in Bedfordshire. Home to over 1,500 resident pigeons, a nesting site for barn owls and kestrels, the dovecote is a great spot for bird-watching.

A view across the bridge at Bodiam Castle in East Sussex in early morning sunshine

Bodiam Castle 

The dovecote in the southwest tower at Bodiam Castle contains 300 roosting spaces. Historians believe its location - immediately alongside the kitchen block - suggests the birds were used as a source of food.