In France structures of the Middle Ages that elsewhere are referred-to as half-timbered buildings are called “batiments à colombages.” Elsewhere, except in England and the United States, where they are called Tudor-style buildings. This might lead you to think that somehow the Tudors, the dynasty of English monarchs that began with Henry VII and ended with Elizabeth I, had something to do with its creation.
That would be a mistake, because half-timbered buildings abounded through most of northern Europe for hundreds of years before the first Tudor was born (in 1457). Even today In Paris you can find two half-timbered buildings at 11, rue François Miron in the Marais district that date from the 1300’s. Sélestat in Alsace has one from the 1200’s. Germany has many half-timbered buildings from the 14th century, as well. Here and there in French towns such Troyes, Rouen, Rennes and Dinan, you will find many half-timbered buildings that predate the Tudors. The same is true in Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Poland.
The reason that half-timbered buildings are found in so many different parts of Europe is due to the fact that once upon a time a gigantic primeval forest blanketed most of northern Europe. It was, of course, full of many old trees which, when cut down, could be turned into wooden beams that were ideal for making the skeletons of buildings. Wood was cheap, and relatively sturdy. You filled in the spaces between the beams with whatever you could get your hands on: mud, stones, bricks, even cloth, in a pinch.
As urban societies emerged after the period of lawlessness that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, known as the Dark Ages, and evolved into the Middle Ages, half-timbered buildings became structures that were preferred and which gradually prevailed. They were relatively inexpensive and were easily adapted to different locations and circumstances with diverse variations. If you were rich and wanted everyone to know it, you might do the basement and or the ground floor in stone, and reserve the half-timbering for the upper floors. A good example of that is the Grand Veneur Museum in Reims, or the tourist office in Bayeux.
If you really wanted to flaunt it, you might build the medieval equivalent of a sky scraper by going up several floors, such as you often see in Rennes. Another way to communicate wealth was to fill in the spaces between the beams with stone or bricks that could be aligned in attractive designs. If, on the other hand, you were poor and needed to be frugal, you could eliminate tiled roofs and supplant them with thatched straw. Many of those can be seen in the thatched cottages of Vasnier marshes west and north of Rouen. Today people who own such structures tout their climatic virtues, explaining how they stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
So how did the Tudors get mixed up with half-timbered buildings? Through misnomer. During the era of the Tudors people of means began using other materials to make more substantial and sturdy buildings. Brick was used extensively and features of Italian Renaissance architecture made their appearance in England, often appended to the half-timbered styles that had been dominant previously. Tudor-style architecture was in fact a transitional architecture that moved away from half-timbering to more sturdy structures. Low arches are a common feature, as were oriels, patterned brickwork and sometimes ornate chimneys. What was distinctive in Tudor style architecture, versus half-timbered architecture was the ostentatious communication of the wealth and importance of the owner, what came to be known as prodigy houses.
History is full of misnomers, such as the Bayeux Tapestry, which is actually an embroidery. Or calling the Nazis national socialists, when socialism was not any part of Nazi ideology. Voltaire remarked about the Holy Roman Empire that it was neither holy, Roman nor an Empire. The next time someone tells you that a half-timbered building is Tudor, do not hesitate to set that person straight.