THE HISTORY OF BATTEL HALL
Built in the early 14th century as a medieval hall-house, Battel Hall is a fine example of local Kentish architecture of the middle ages, with some fascinating original details. Following many additions and alterations over the centuries as you see it today it is a large and comfortable building boasting character and distinctive features echoing its long and interesting history.
Built by Thomas de la Bataille the master mason to King Edward II, the many fine architectural features suggest that it was specifically intended for a person of high status, and was probably occupied by a senior member of Queen Isabella’s retinue during her ownership of Leeds Castle and manor from 1327 until her death in 1358.
In the 1330s when Battel Hall was built, the front and rear of the building were in reverse of how they are used now, so that the original entrance was from the south garden side. However, both the front and rear doors of the medieval cross passage survive in their proper locations – the current front door being the original back door.
Battel Hall was of a typical hall-house form, of a large open two bay hall, with a ‘lower’ end accessing the service rooms such as a buttery and pantry, and the ‘upper’ end hosting the private areas usually on multiple levels. Here the lower end to the west has been demolished and the surviving upper end is to the east – now used as the kitchens on the ground floor and guest bedrooms on the first. When first built the main hall and the upper end were separated by a solid wall on the ground and first floors and only linked via a stair turret on the front south side of the building.
The stair turret is unusually placed for a hall-house of this period being constructed on the south front of the building (now the rear garden side). This type of access structure is normally located at the rear, but at Battel Hall the stair turret can be seen on maps from the 18th century and was extant until 1953 when it was demolished as part of the remodelling of the building carried out during Lady Baillie’s ownership.
Despite the placement of the stair turret on what was the front of the building, it is likely that it served a defensive purpose. It meant that if the main hall was breached by attackers, the residents could retreat to an entirely separate first floor area that was a place of safety. This feature as well as the portcullis groove in the original front doorway suggests that although Battel Hall was used as a private residence and a place for feasting during the medieval period, the threat of attack was never far away and that a carefully planned place of safety was created for the inhabitants.
The medieval building would have had floor to ceiling windows and an impressive central arch that spanned the entire width of the building. The base of the arch is still visible today in the panelled Dining Room – once part of the open Great Hall – and the intricately carved stone faces, known as ‘corbels’ supporting the arch, can be seen in situ.
The most striking original detail is the highly decorative niche just inside the front door. Called a piscina or laver, these first appeared in English architecture in the 13th century, initially in private chapels and were used to wash the chalice during the ritual of Holy Communion. They soon came into use in secular buildings like hall-houses, where they would be situated in the Great Hall and used for handwashing before eating which was an important part of a formal feast.
The laver is of a particularly rare and interesting design featuring an elaborate foliate carving around the Gothic arch, trefoil shaped tracery inside the arch, and the cistern made to look like two crenelated towers of a building. The lion masks at the base of the towers are spouts where the water would have poured from the cistern into the basin below. It is the laver that forms the design basis for the Battel Hall identity.
The last feature to mention is the equally rare medieval ‘retable’ which depicts five female and one male Saint, the faces of all of whom were sadly defaced during the Reformation. A replica of the 15th Century retable resides half way up the staircase at Battel Hall and the original now hangs in the Castle chapel for all to see. Through extensive recent analysis with the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge we now know that it is one of only five of its kind in existence and is totally irreplaceable.
Battel Hall has undergone many changes since the 14th century, but the original medieval building can still be seen and appreciated under the later layers, and the atmosphere of those distant medieval times is still be brought to life today.
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