It has long been thought that Alfriston Clergy House, Sussex, was built in the mid-14th century, but recent analysis of its timbers has revealed the true date of the house’s construction.
The property was the first to be bought and saved from destruction by the National Trust in 1896, and is an example of a Wealden timber-frame house, a style that involves filling an oak frame with interwoven strips of chestnut or oak and covering them with daub and limewash. This type of house was commonly built by wealthy farmers and members of the middle class between 1350 and 1500, and it was assumed by the National Trust for many years that Alfriston Clergy House – despite its ecclesiastical occupants in later years – was originally built by a successful farmer around AD 1350.
This year, however, samples of the building’s timbers were sent for dendrochronological analysis. This technique uses tree-rings to provide precise dates for wood, and is especially useful for dating trees that are too recent for radiocarbon dating. It revealed that the trees used to build the original house were felled between 1399 and 1407, and that the house is at least 50 years younger than originally thought.
These results also change what is known of the house’s earliest occupants. In 1398, the local church was taken over by nearby Michelham Priory. In exchange, the Priory had to supply a priest for the parish and provide him with financial support, including a house. The fact that the dendrochronology shows that Alfriston Clergy House was built soon after the Priory took over the church suggests that the house was originally built as a vicarage, and has always been intended for use by the clergy, rather than having first been occupied by a farmer.
The house had several phases of transformation over the years, until it began to fall into disrepair after the 1850s, when it ceased to be the official vicarage. It was bought by the National Trust for £10, and a further £400 was put into its restoration. The dendrochronology contributes to the National Trust’s ongoing goal of understanding and telling the story of Alfriston House.
For more information on Alfriston Clergy House and how to visit, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/alfriston-clergy-house.