The Mighty Medieval Tithe Barns

Cathedrals and abbeys were not the only great architectural achievements of Medieval Europe. Dotted throughout the countryside were imposing tithe barns, many of them still standing.

Built from around 1100 onwards and in use for more than 700 years, these tithe barns were used to store the produce and other goods that farmers were legally required to give to the Church once a year.

Tithe barns are remarkable buildings, noteworthy for their size, sturdiness and, in some cases, complexity or intricacy. But above all, they were built to serve a purpose, and they stand as testament to the reality of rural life across Britain and northern Europe between the 12th and the 19th centuries.


A History of Tithe Laws

In the Middle Ages, peasants were taxed not on their money but on their produce. Tithes – from the Anglo-Saxon word “teotha” meaning tenth – was a system whereby they gave one-tenth of what they produced annually to support the local church and clergy.

In 885, King Ethelwulf issued a royal decree granting churches the right to demand tithes. The right was then legally affirmed with the Statute of Westminster of 1285.

Read More: A Graveyard of our Ancestors – 6000 Years Old

In theory, peasant farmers could pay the tithe in money. However, since almost all of them were impoverished, they paid in goods. These could include everything from vegetables, grain and seeds through to milk, eggs and wool.

Failure to pay the tithes, the peasants were told, would result in them being condemned to hell for eternity. The goods received would be stored in tithe barns, even though in many cases it simply spoiled or was eaten by rats.

Winterborne Clenston Tithe Barn, Dorset.
Winterborne Clenston Tithe Barn, Dorset, was built in the 1500s. Sadly now suffering from neglect. The barn is unique in the sense that it has a hammerbeam roof. It is thought that it came from a monastic building at Milton Abbey. This beautiful building has suffered from a partial roof collapse. Historic England stepped in and funded the erection of scaffolding as a temporary roof support.

The large amounts of wealth being generated for the Church by the tithing system was not lost on the Crown. Indeed, one of the key motivations behind King Henry VIII’s drive to reform the Church was a wish to get some of its money.

As a result, the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541 took land off the Church. However, it was simply passed onto the Crown or to noble, secular landowners, who inherited the right to demand tithes from the peasants working it.

Construction of Tithe Barns

Despite growing opposition, including both from the Quakers on moral grounds and Adam Smith on economic grounds, tithing endured well into the 19th century. It finally came to an end with the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836, though across Britain, just as across much of the rest of Europe, the tithe barns remained standing.

Right across Europe, the Church reminded medieval peasants of their duty to pay tithes – if questioned, clergy could cite the Bible, “…bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns…” (Deuteronomy 14:22-29).

From around the 12th century onwards, then, barns designed specifically for the storage of tithes were built not just across Britain but also right across northern Europe, particularly in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

There was no one uniform design for tithe barns. However, they were almost always designed with practical considerations in mind. Barns were, therefore, usually long and wide, to allow as much produce to be stored as possible.

For example, the Middle Littleton Tithe Barn in the English county of Worcestershire, built in the 13thor 14th century, stands 130 feet long and 42 feet wide and also has several lean-to extensions on its exterior walls, likely used for the storage of apples or other fruits.

Cerne Abbas tithe barn.
This beautiful tithe barn of Barton Farm, Cerne Abbas, Dorset, c.1350 was monastic as it belonged to the abbey. The conversion at one end the barn was done in 1813. Writer Thomas Hardy, cycled to the barn in 1907. Hardy later said that the barn was ‘one of the chief models…[for] the description of the barn’ in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. Mike Searle CC BY-SA 2.0

Horse and Cart

In many cases, barns were built in a cruciform layout. There would be two porches, one on either side of the barn, with doors large enough to allow a horse and cart to enter. Often, one of the doors would be lower than the other – the taller one was the entrance where fully-loaded carts would enter, the other, the exit where the empty carts left.

In the middle, there would be sufficient space to unload and, if necessary, sort the goods being offered as tithes, for example, sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Abbotsbury Tithe Barn
The colossal Abbotsbury Tithe Barn, Dorset. Built in the late 1300s it is the only surviving building of the Benedictine monastery. The tithe barn is the largest example of its kind in the UK. Having lost many of its bays, it is now half its original size. Previously it possessed the longest thatched roof in the country.

The materials used to build tithe barns varied and often depended on what materials were available nearby or on the budget of the local church.

For example, wooden tithe barns were more commonly found in the east of England or in some parts of Germany, in places where the Church was granted use of nearby woodland. In other places, like in Wales or the Mendip Hills, stone was taken from sizeable quarries.

Similarly, while some tithe barns had thatched roofs – in fact, Abbotsbury Great Barn in Dorset is the largest thatched building in the world at 272 feet long by 31 feet wide – often making use of local materials or craftsmanship, others had tiled roofs. And, as with so many medieval constructions, much of the material used was ‘recycled’ from older buildings.

Decoration and Variants

The walls of a tithe barn were built thick, so as to keep the produce cool in the summertime. Small airholes in the walls helped keep things fresh and may even have been designed to allow owls or other birds in to prey on vermin and pests.

Again, the main consideration in the construction of tithe barns was practical use. However, some thought was also given to the aesthetics of a barn. Indeed, in many cases, barns were finished off with simple or even ornate decorations.

Tithe Barn Pilton
This tithe barn in Pilton, Somerset, is one of four that belonged to Glastonbury Abbey. Built in the 1400s. There is some thought that this was more of a farm barn for farm produce as opposed to the storage of tithes. In 1963 the thatched roof caught on fire after a lightening strike. It was to remain a burnt out building until 1995. In this year the organiser of Glastonbury Festival, Michael Eavis, bought the barn and gave it to the Pilton Barn Trust.

In many cases, decorations are simple. These may include the names or initials of the people who paid for their construction or the year in which the barn was completed – the date 1595 is clearly inscribed on the doorway of the tithe barn of Northolt, in the county of Middlesex, for example.

In other cases, tithe barns were decorated with depictions of animals or fruit or crops, symbolising what they were used for. Or they may have been adorned with religious imagery, most notably depictions of saints or local Church leaders.

Roof of the Great Coxwell tithe barn
Very complex roof of the Great Coxwell tithe barn

Within a parish or a region, several tithe barns were often designed and built by the same people. As such, a common style is evident.

This is particularly the case in barns located around notable abbeys. The barns found close to Glastonbury Abbey in the south-west of England, for example, all boast high levels of craftsmanship and, though they differ in size, share a similar style. Such patterns are evident right across Britain and Europe.

Identifying Tithe Barns

Today, many of the old buildings called ‘tithe barns’ were actually built as normal barns, either for farmers, for local landowners or even for the Church. There is no real proof that they were ever built to store tithes offered up by peasant farmers.

Great Coxwell Tithe Barn, Oxfordshire
The mighty medieval Great Coxwell Tithe Barn, Oxfordshire. A very early barn built in 1292. Image credit: Andrew Mathewson CC BY-SA 2.0

The surest way of determining what is a ‘real’ tithe barn and what is not is to find historical proof. In many instances, the evidence does indeed exist, often to be found in local parish records.

For example, there are records to show that the large barn found in the town of Wells in the county of Somerset was built to store tithes for the local bishop. Likewise, in the case of nearby Dunster, there are records showing that its barn was used to store tithes that were paid to the local priory from the 1500s onwards.

Great Hall

Conversely, sometimes the records show that old barns were not used for tithes – thought that doesn’t make them any less interesting.

The Cressing Temple estate, the first rural estate in England established by the Knights Templar, is home to two exceptional 13th-century barns, used by the military order of monks to store the grain they grew rather than anything they took in taxation.

Or then there’s the 14th-century Charing Palace ‘Tithe Barn’ in Kent, which actually served as the Great Hall of the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, before being used to store crops.

Where there are no written records proving a buildings status as a tithe barn, local historians can often make educated assumptions. Tithe barns were usually erected right in the centre of villages or even towns.

This made it easier for all the local peasant farmers to use them. In comparison, barns found outside of towns or villages tended to be used just by one farmer for normal storage. Alternatively, the simple design of a barn, combined with its proximity to a church or abbey, can be a sign that it was used to store tithes at least at some point during its existence.

Tithe Barns Today

With the passing of the Commutation of Tithes Act of 1836, the system of paying tithes in goods was replaced by money payments. Local churches therefore no longer needed large barns to use for storage. The tithe barn effectively became redundant overnight.

Since then, tithe barns have been demolished, modified or, in a few cases, preserved or restored back to their original state. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries farmers who inherited tithe barns would often reform them, sometimes adding mezzanine floors, adding windows or chimneys.

Thatched roofs were replaced with tiles, extensions added, doorways expanded to allow tractors or other large farm machinery to enter, and electrical wiring installed. Lots of medieval barns are still used by farmers to this day

Many tithe barns have found different uses. They are used as wedding venues or meeting halls, pubs or even homes. Some are preserved by heritage associations, in Britain, by the National Trust or English Heritage as well as by private individuals or local history groups, and are often reformed to their original glory and open to visitors, offering a fascinating insight into the realities of medieval life.