Little Moreton Hall is a moated 15th-century half-timbered manor house 4 miles (6.4 km) southwest of Congleton, Cheshire. It is one of the finest examples of timber-framed domestic architecture in England. The house is today owned by the National Trust. It is a Grade I listed building and protected as a Scheduled Monument. So picturesque is the house that it has been described as “a ginger bread house lifted straight from a fairy story”. The earliest parts of the house were built for the prosperous Cheshire landowner Sir Richard de Moreton circa 1450, the remainder was constructed in various campaigns by three successive generations of the family until c.1580. The house subsequently remained in the ownership of the Moreton family for almost five centuries.
The building is highly irregular, with asymmetrical façades which ramble around three sides of a small cobbled courtyard, with “bays and porches jostling each other for space”.
History and Design
The de Moreton family’s roots in the area of Little Moreton can be traced to the marriage in 1216 of Lettice de Moreton to Sir Gralam de Lostock who inherited land at Little Moreton. A few generations later the de Lostocks adopted the de Moreton name. The family fortune was substantially increased when they purchased vast tracts of land acquired cheaply as a result of the falls in land values in the aftermath of the black death epidemic of 1348; the family also acted as tax collectors in the area. So it is likely that they held the manor of Little Moreton long before Sir Richard de Moreton decided to build his new house circa 1450.
While the building technique of Little Moreton Hall is unremarkable for Cheshire houses dating from this period—an oak framework filled with wattle and daub set upon stone footings the architecture is interesting because while medieval and provincial in concept, the long period of its evolution encompassed the Renaissance era. As a result of this, Renaissance motifs can be seen in the carving of the beams and some of the interior fireplaces. However, any Renaissance ornament is overpowered by the patterning of the wooden framework. Diagonal black oak beams creating chevron and lozenge patterns adorn the façades. The geometric shapes formed are filled by white painted wattle and daub or windows. Higher in the façades under the eaves and in the numerous gables a recurrent quatrefoil motif is evident on the woodwork.
The house as completed forms an “H” plan. It was enlarged in ratio to the increasing fortunes of successive generations of the Moreton family, who reached the zenith of their wealth during the Elizabethan era. The earliest part of the building is the great hall built for Sir Richard de Moreton, which dates from around 1450. The adjacent kitchen wing was added in about 1480 for William Moreton. The east wing of the building dates from about 1559 to 1570. This part of the house includes the chapel and the withdrawing room. The chapel contains Renaissance style tempera painting which is thought to date from the 16th century.
At the junction of the east wing and the great hall there is a large pair of gabled bay windows, over which the carpenter who designed them carved his name with the following inscription:
“God is Al in Al Thing: This windous whire made by William Moreton in the yeare of Oure Lorde MDLIX. Richard Dale Carpeder made thies windous by the grac of God.”
The last major extension was the south wing of circa 1570–80, built for William Moreton’s son John. The south wing includes the gatehouse and a third storey containing a 68-foot (21 m) long gallery. The gallery appears to have been an afterthought to the design. The weight of the structure with its heavy roof of quarried gritstone has caused the lower floors which support it to bow under the load. It seems the addition of the long gallery always caused structural problems to a building with little or no foundations. The gallery is today supported by concealed steel rods inserted in the 19th century. The end tympana of the long gallery have plaster depictions of Destiny and Fortune, copied from Robert Recorde’s Castle of Knowledge. The gatehouse is also ornamented with Renaissance motifs. This range of buildings has each upper floor jettied out over the floor beneath in typical 16th century mode. A small domestic block was added to the south wing in around 1600 in the same style. This was the final stage of the building of Little Moreton.
The fortunes of the Moreton family declined with the outbreak of the English Civil War. Strong supporters of the Royalist cause, they found themselves isolated in a community of Parliamentarians. The house was requisitioned by Parliamentarians and used to billet Cromwell’s soldiers. The Moretons survived the Civil War with their ownership of Little Moreton intact, but financially they were crippled. Their fortunes were never to fully recover. By the beginning of the 18th century, the mansion was let to tenants as a farmhouse. Much of it was unoccupied and used for storage, the deconsecrated chapel being used for the storage of coal. By the 19th century, the house was in a ruinous condition, its windows boarded up and its roof caving.
The Building Today
During the 19th century the building’s antiquarian value began to be appreciated, and Miss Elizabeth Moreton, an Anglican nun, began restoration of the near derelict mansion, and had the chapel rededicated. However, the distinctive black and white colour scheme so typical of houses dating from the Tudor period is not authentic but a product of the romanticism of the 19th century. Originally the oak beams were allowed to fade naturally to silver-grey, and the wattle-and-daub was painted or stained a light shade of ochre.
The building was never again occupied by the Moreton family. In 1912, Elizabeth Moreton bequeathed the house to a cousin, Charles Abraham, Bishop of Derby, with the stipulation that the house must never be sold. Abraham continued the preservation effort until 1938, when he and his son transferred ownership to the National Trust.
During the 20th century, the long-abandoned gardens were returned to their Tudor condition. The knot garden was replanted in the early 1980s, to a design taken from Meager’s Complete English Gardener, published in 1672. The intricate design of the knot can be viewed from one of the two original viewing mounds, a feature common in 16th-century formal gardening. Other authentic features of the grounds include a yew tunnel and an orchard growing fruits which would have been familiar to the house’s Tudor occupants – apples, pears, quinces and medlars.
Today, fully restored, the house is open to the public from March to December each year. Money for its upkeep is also raised from its use as a film location. In 1996 it was the setting for Granada Television”s adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. In 2007 the house’s architectural significance was highlighted in David Dimbleby”s documentary, How we built Britain.