Dendrochronology, as you doubtless know, is – put simply – the science of dating timber from the pattern of the original tree’s growth rings. It is a very valuable tool in historic architecture, as well as in dating paintings on board or with wooden stretchers. It is based on there being a data base of tree growth from authenticated samples, and at the time of writing, in the Northern hemisphere, that stretches back 13,900 years. Each ring indicates a period of growth (not necessarily just one year; in poor years several rings can merge together), and both the quality of the rings themselves and the gap between them varies according to meteorological conditions as they affected the growth.
It is thought that the Greek botanist Theophrastus, who lived between 371 and 287 BC was the first academic to comment on these rings, but it was Leonardo da Vinci who noted that the passage of time could be illustrated by the number of tree rings. The first scientific research on the subject was undertaken by two French botanists in 1737, Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau and Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon. Working in 1737 they knew that 1709 had been a very harsh year, and they saw the evidence of this in particularly dark rings, which helped further their thinking.
The American Alexander Twining and the Briton Charles Babbage furthered the science in the mid-Nineteenth century, with Babbage using the rings to date deposits in prehistoric peat bogs. A few years later Jacob Kuechler, a German, built up a data base of the age of oak trees (different types of trees show evidence of different rates of growth and some are easier to work with than others) as a record of the climate in Texas. A number of Russians, Dutchmen and more Germans took the science further forwards, and a laboratory of tree ring research was founded in Arizona in the first half of the Twentieth century by the astronomer A E Douglas. Towards the end of the last century computerisation of records moved the science forwards massively.
A E Douglas explaining dendrochronology on an impressively large sample
A ring sample bored from a piece of timber
Analysis of a core sample – from a medieval mill near Cromer in Norfolk
In 2003 a dendrochronological survey was undertaken at Combermere Abbey by R E Howard, Dr R R Laxton, and Dr C D Litton of the Centre for Archeology at the University of Nottingham. The survey was commissioned by English Heritage to provide information ahead of a scheme of repairs, and to understand the age of the timbers in the Library as well as the end of the North Wing. It provided crucial evidence of the importance of the Library within the house, as well as supported the application for an enabling development to save the North Wing. A total of ninety seven samples were taken and dated, and an earliest date of 1363 was found.
The dates of timbers always have to be treated with a certain caution as they may not be indicative of the date of the structure which surrounds it. As we know, timber – especially great lengths – were very valuable, and they were often re-used, so a beam might pre-date the room or building in which it sits by quite a long time. On the other hand, later timber might be inserted by way of repairs of an extension to the accommodation, so that the wood is in fact younger than the rest of the structure. In every case the building must be looked at in the round to give an accurate date, and any evidence of alteration must be taken into account. Where very similar dates are identified these worries can be set aside and it can be concluded that the work was undertaken contemporaneously.
The Library, on the first floor in the centre of the Abbey – once the Abbot’s Lodging – is the highest status room in the house, and probably the least changed, certainly from Tudor times. The timber work sits on a sandstone plinth which comprises the ground floor.
The Library has a later ceiling but was originally open to the hammer beam trusses of the roof. Before the fireplace was built there was a hearth in the centre of the room and a corresponding smoke hole in the roof. There was a raised dais at the north end indicative of a raised table for high status dining, with a canopy over. Pevsner suggested that the roof was mid-Fifteenth century, and that there was evidence of re-working, probably just before the Dissolution.
The other areas surveyed on the first floor were the room at the furthest north east corner – notated as Bedroom A (see plans below) – which would have abutted the Wellington wing after its erection ahead of The Iron Duke’s visit in 1820, and the adjoining room, the Oak Room. The room which in turn adjoins the Oak Room to the south, and looks over the lake – the Orange Room (so called because it was where King William III, William of Orange, slept ahead of embarking for Ireland and subsequently fighting The Battle of the Boyne) – was also surveyed.
Decayed Tudor timbers ahead of restoration in the North Wing (2013)
Overall the survey suggested that there had been programme of works in the Abbey at three distinct points in time; the early Sixteenth century, the mid-Sixteenth century, and the early Eighteenth century.
Samples were taken were from struts, trusses, purlins, rafters and beams in what was originally the exposed roof of the Library – thirty samples in all. The earliest ‘last measured ring’ dates were 1437, 1454, 1457, 1462, and 1465, but the majority of the Fifteenth century dates were from the 1470s and 1480s. The dates then leap forward in time to 1502 and 1544. The tie-beams in the roof all date the timber to 1544/5, which is of course when the wood was felled; it is unlikely that it was actually used in construction at that date as we shall see.
The surveyors concluded that the current roof beams in the Library were felled in 1502, putting it in the reign of Henry VII, and making Pevsner’s date too early. One piece of timber was older, but the assumption that it had either been in storage or was re-used, as it seems certain that all the construction work was undertaken at the same time. This discovery was fascinating, showing that a major programme of re-building had been undertaken during the tenure of Abbot John. This was probably essential work rather than improvements or aggrandisation as the Abbey was, as ever, in dire financial straits. Only six years previous, as a result of special pleading, Combermere was exempted from clerical taxation on account of its extreme poverty. If the Abbot had any inkling that his monastic house would exist for less than four decades from that point he might not have bothered, but Dissolution was utterly unimaginable at that point.
The dendrochronology showed that around the year 1564 there was another sequence of substantial work at the Abbey; in the Abbot’s Lodging roof, and the wall and floor timbers of both Bedroom A and the Oak Room. This is entirely consistent with what we know about Richard Cotton’s creation of a private residence from the central block of the Abbey. The estate was granted to Richard’s father, Sir George Cotton after its Dissolution in the summer of 1539, and the church and everything apart from the block which was domesticated was demolished. We do not know when that happened, but it is likely to have been sooner rather than later to avoid decay in the valuable building materials.
The report specifically makes the point that there was no ring dating from just after the Dissolution (the dates of 1544/5 for two timbers in the Abbot Lodging roof are not seen anywhere else). In fact this is not surprising; the Cottons were nouveau riche and did not have established family wealth to use in building their new seat. The Combermere estate seems to have been their only substantial asset, so it is probable that time was needed to amass rental income from the Combermere tenants before the house was begun. Sir George did not have long to enjoy his elevation to the gentry; he died in March 1545. He had however achieved what every Tudor gentleman aspired to – the creation of a landed dynasty.
Richard, his only son (there were four daughters) inherited Combermere and their other manors (including Wilkesley and Pulford). He was only five or six years old, so this is almost certainly a further reason why the re-building of the house was delayed. The boy may have been subject to a wardship. This would have been in the gift of the king, and King Henry VIII – who himself was in very poor health and had only two years to live – may have granted the wardship to Richard’s uncle, Sir Richard, as the family had been – and presumably still were – in high royal favour. This would have helped keep the Cotton wealth in the family; wardships were very vulnerable to rapacious financial management by unscrupulous custodians.
Richard Cotton, son of Sir George Cotton, helpfully identified by his coat of arms; a portrait on board inserted into the hearth in The Library
Richard, who was to have fourteen children by three wives (the first, George – who was to inherit on Richard’s death in 1602 and live to be eighty seven – was born in 1560 when Richard was twenty or twenty one).
Almost certainly George Cotton, son and heir of Richard cotton, again from a portrait in the fire surround in The Library
Obviously the building work took place over some years, and the timbers in the Orange Room show dates ranging from 1545 to 1580. The earlier date suggests that perhaps timber was being amassed for the construction only six years after the Dissolution. However, looking at those two dates, it is unlikely that the work took twenty five years; the later date may indicate repairs or updating. On the other hand, the plans for the house may well have evolved and this room could be later – though the overall shape of the finished house does not suggest this. A completion plaque on the house was dated 1563, but doubt has been cast on that for other reasons, and the timber dating shows that timbers were still being felled and used in 1564.
In the Orange Room the latest date discovered was 1542, but for technical reasons it is actually unlikely to have been felled before 1557. This suggests that it pre-dates the domesticated version of the Abbot’s Lodging. These dates come not from the main structural beams but from the panelling, and the conclusion is that the more substantial timberwork came from the same wood but was created at the same time. This fact contradicted earlier theories that the panelling was imported to the site, which was suggested because of its “plain, modernistic style” and “simple, unmoulded and undecorated form”.
One curious anomaly is that the three tie-beams have evidence of mortice joints in their side faces; that is to say, not where they were joined when in situ in the Abbey roof. The suggestion is that they were re-used, but this opinion seems in part to have been inspired by a desire to explain the delay in the building work commencing. It is more likely that the design of the structure was altered during the building work.
On the second floor, in the room to the north of the upper part of The Abbot’s Lodging (marked A8/10 on the plan), the ‘new’ timbers dated from between 1702 and – the majority – 1727. There is one date of 1669, but that seems to be anomalous as the dating chart is incomplete.
In Bedroom A both the wall joists and floor timbers show Tudor dates, ranging from 1513 to 1564, so this suggests that the room existed before the Dissolution and was altered in the 1560s re-building. The Oak Room has a single joist dating from 1522, but all the other samples dated uniformly from 1564. The range for The Orange Room is broader, spanning from 1449 to 1537, so this room can be assumed to be an entirely monastic creation, unaltered so far as its main timbers are concerned during the occupation of the Cottons.
The drawing and oil painting we have of the house close to the later date show the attic rooms under the three gables on the west face of the house, and they may have been enlarged to accommodate an increasing number of live-in domestic staff. It is of course possible that the images of the Abbey were commissioned after a programme of upgrading and perhaps extension, to document the newly-improved house.
The survey shows that while pre-mid-Sixteenth wood was still in place in the Abbey, no timbers were re-used from the pre-Dissolution structures, which further reinforces the theory that all the building materials from the other monastic buildings were disposed of after demolition during the 1539 – 1563 hiatus (again, doubtless, to raise capital).
Astonishingly it also shows that all the timber felled in the early Sixteenth century, without exception, came from trees which had grown very close to each other, but at quite a distance from the Abbey. All the timber came from the English East Midlands. This is difficult to understand; it is surprising that material closer to hand was passed over in favour of imported timber, but also, the cost of transportation – particularly of the very large beams – would have been great, and the logistical organisation of moving large and heavy tree trunk a considerable challenge. There is though a tiny hint in the report that, as a North West chronology continuum was unavailable when the survey was written, new testing might in fact contradict this find.
The report concludes that the timbers used in the two later building phases came from “a local north-west England source”, and the suggestion is that it was grown in Shropshire. This is less surprising than the East Midlands explanation, and if any further research showed that in fact the trees were felled on what was by then Cotton land no one would be particularly startled.
Although the dedication on the 1563 date plaque is written in such a way that it suggests that the building was already completed at that date, the dendrochronology may suggest that in fact it was a foundation stone. It is not impossible that the building of the private house at Combermere actually began in that year, almost a quarter of a century after the Cotton family was gifted the estate. As we have seen, by 1563/4 Richard had achieved his majority, was married and had become a father, and more than twenty years’ rents could have been aggregated from a substantial rent roll. The dendrochronology seems to confirm that the new Cotton mansion was begun when Richard was in his early twenties and – importantly – in full control of the now-worthwhile family finances.