These texts were researched by Anne-Karoline Distel and are read by Seán Hackett.
The plot Rothe House stands on goes back to a burgage plot of the early 13th century. Burgage plots are the Anglo-Norman way of laying out properties in a town. You will find similar examples in England and Wales, where the Normans settled after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and founded new towns. Rothe House, however, stands on the only complete burgage plot in Ireland with its three houses, three courtyards and the garden and orchard.
The Irish for burgage plot is boirís, so all the place names which contain “Borris” like Twomile-Borris in Tipperary, Borris in Carlow and others go back to this principle as well.
In a charter from 1207, William Marshal – son-in-law to Strongbow – laid out that a burgage plot was to be 20 feet wide which converts to 6.1m. This constituted the minimum width of a Kilkenny burgage plot.
The geographical idea of a burgage plot is that the main house fronts the main street, often called High Street. This house often had a trading room like a shop or workshop in the ground floor and possibly storage in the basement. The family lived in the rooms above the shop. If the family grew to a substantial number like the Rothe family with their 11 children, more buildings were added to accommodate the family, apprentices, servants and livestock. To the back of all the buildings is a garden and or orchard which supplied the family with their basic food. It is quite possible that the family also kept a pig, chickens, ducks and bees.
The whole burgage plot reaches all the way back to the town wall built in the mid 13th century. Remember this when you visit the garden. Access to the private quarters was likely not through the front, but via New Row (now New Building Lane) to the right of the house. The reason for the high numbers of lanes off the Main Street – and there used to be even more – is them providing access to the burgage plots.
The layout of main street and lanes has been compared to a fish skeleton with the spine being the main street and the other bones representing the lanes.
Before the dissolution of monasteries, the plot was inhabited by the Abbot of the Cistercian Abbey in Graiguenamanagh, also known as Duiske Abbey. Inviting Cistercians to settle in Ireland was one way the Normans succeeded to settle. Cistercians were experts in farming and improved agriculture in Ireland in many ways, introducing new types of mills etc. In Graiguenamanagh, now about a 40 min drive from Kilkenny, the Cistercians kept sheep and processed the wool in woollen mills. There is actually still a woolen mill in Graiguenamanagh at the same spot where the Cistercians had theirs in 1204.
For whatever reason, the abbot decided to have a town house in Kilkenny. Due to the lack of evidence, we know nothing about the layout or material of the house. However, during archaeological excavations, a broken French wine bottle and swan bones were found in a medieval cesspit, so we can assume that the abbot lived a fairly decent life away from the constraints of the monastery. These shenanigans came to an end with Henry VIII’s decision to follow the reformation which resulted in the dissolution of monasteries.
The plot as many like it went into the possession of the Ormondes at the castle. It was bought by the merchant and burgess John Rothe who merged it with a neighbouring plot and built the first house in 1594 for himself and his family.
If you want to hear more about burgesses, listen to the next track.
The term burgess refers to a citizen of a town or city in Ireland and Britain or a freeman of a borough. The words burgess and borough are actually related, even though it is hard to tell by their pronunciation today. There are cognate words in French – bourgois and German Bürger. To gain the status of a burgess, one had to fulfill three conditions: be male, be wealthy and be of a certain age. Once that age was reached, the young man went to the town hall with some money. Once his case was approved and he had paid his fee to prove his or his parents’ wealth, he was given the title of burgess. He was then made to sign a register with his name and the date. This libri civium can serve as a valuable source for researchers of family history.
The status of a burgess allowed the young man to vote in the council election and to stand for office. They could thus become council members, souvereigns or mayors of a town and members of Parliament. Once the status of a burgess was achieved, a burgage plot could be purchased and a business started. If the father already had a business, the young man – if he was the eldest son – had to wait to inherit. With the low life expectancy, that usually did not take too long. In the case of John Rothe’s son Peter, his father died when Peter was 30.
Both were members of Parliament, John was sovereign of Kilkenny twice and mayor once; Peter was the mayor three times.
- John Bradley: Kilkenny, in: Irish Historic Town Atlas, no. 10, Royal Irish Academy 2000. (available online at https://www.ria.ie/irish-historic-towns-atlas-online-kilkenny)
Background sounds from freesound.org.