When was Priest House Built?
It was built in the late fifteenth century. We know this because there is an ancient document in the Essex Record Office, written in Latin and consisting of parchment membranes sewn together, which lists the tenants and freeholders of Doddinghurst. The list is dated as in the first year of the reign of Henry VII, that is between August 1485 and 1486. The extract referring to Priest House was translated in 1780 as ‘The churchwardens of Dodynhurst hold three perches of land in length and twenty one foot in breadth nigh the churchyard on which the church house has now been built’. These dimensions tally with the size of the original building.
Why Was Priest House Built?
So why was it built? In the early part of the fifteenth century Doddinghurst had a church, a manor house (Doddinghurst Hall) and a few farms scattered about with cottages for the peasants. The lands were owned by the Earls of Oxford, whose principle seat was Castle Hedingham. As Lords of the Manor they appointed the rector, who probably lived at the manor house. However, these were the turbulent years of the Wars of the Roses, during which the Houses of Lancaster and York fought for control of the country. The Earls of Oxford were Lancastrians and when the Yorkists had the upper hand, the 12th Earl, along with his son, was beheaded and his estates were forfeited. What happened to the poor rector and his family then? Perhaps the churchwardens decided they should build him a little house in the church grounds. It is just a theory, but a credible one! Of course, the Lancastrians won in the end and the lands were restored to the 14th Earl of Oxford when Henry VII came to the throne in 1485.
How Was Priest House Built?
Priest House was built by placing substantial oak timbers on firm ground and using these as the foundations. There was one main room, known as the hall, in which the priest would have cooked, ate and entertained. The fire was in the middle, with the smoke venting through a louvre in the roof, which explains why soot was found up there when the experts explored the building in the 1980s. They also saw the king post (now plastered in) which extends vertically from a crossbeam to the apex of a triangular truss. Such posts were used from Roman times and are common in medieval buildings. The posts and beams are still there and are very visible in what is now the kitchen.
There was no west wing then. It was added in the nineteenth century. However, on the north side there were two rooms, one above the other. One was probably a withdrawing room, where members of the family could get away from the hustle and smells of the hall. The other was called the ‘solar’ (from the French word ‘seul’) where the lady of the house could be on her own. The doorway from the hall to what was originally the two-storeyed part of the house is just as it was. The wooden step is very worn!
It would appear that the parish priest lived in Priest House until a rectory was built, probably in the 16thcentury, a precursor to the Georgian one demolished in 1959. After that, we cannot be sure, but the 1817 terrier (inventory of church possessions), informs us that the parish clerk, who assisted the priest, was the occupant. Later in the nineteenth century, elderly paupers were housed there, until the late 1880s, when it was occupied by school teachers and their families. In the twentieth century, two successive churchwardens became tenants: Edgar Parrish and Harry Shipton. Harry’s daughter, Lily Shipton, was the last person to live in Priest House and she left in 1971.