Researching the history of church houses

Reconstruction by Norman Young of the Church House at Week

Reconstruction of the church house at Week, near Dartington, Devon by Norman Young, illustrator.

The church house was the medieval equivalent of the church hall. Its chief purpose was to house the festivals and church ales which raised funds for many an English parish church until the rise of Puritanism. A parish was not required to have a church house. The nave of the church itself could function as a secular meeting-place for medieval parishioners, as well as a religious one. Or a nave aisle could be used by a parish guild. However as the open space in churches was filled with pews in the late Medieval period, it could no longer act as a parish hall. By the 15th century a fair number of parishes had bought or built a church house, or had one donated. A common location is by the churchyard. Two surviving examples are:

Church ales were revels which could include sports, plays and Morris dancing, encouraged by a brew of strong ale, made on the premises. For the Puritans such merry-making was unseemly. Under Oliver Cromwell it was banned. (There had been earlier attempts to suppress church ales in the reign of Edward, but they appeared again under Mary.) Redundant church houses could be converted to other uses to benefit the parish, for example a school or an almshouse. Or it might be rented to a former housekeeper, who continued to brew and sell ale, turning the building into an ordinary alehouse.

Church houses should be included in glebe terriers and on tithe maps. Churchwarden's accounts should supply details of building and repair work, as the churchwardens were trustees of such parish property and responsible for organising the festivities.And see images and maps.