The Lord of the Manor


In the fourteenth century, land ownership was split almost equally between lay lords (including the king) and ecclesiastical lords. In theory, all land in England belonged to the king, but, in practice, much of it had been given to the church. This was partly as a means of ensuring that prayers were said for the souls of the donor and his family after their deaths and partly because it was sometimes politically necessary to do so. Sometimes, of course, it was simply an act of piety. Lay lords held land from the king in return for paying him homage and promising to support him, with arms if required. The land that these tenants-in-chief held was sometimes given to their followers in turn, and these followers pledged their support to the tenant-in-chief. At the bottom of the ladder, the land was tended by tenants who paid rent for it by means of grain, livestock, their own labour on the lord’s demesne or money.

Some manors were vast, especially those belonging to bishoprics and earls. The ecclesiastical manors were the slowest to change and, throughout the fourteenth century, there were more serfs living and working on these manors than there were freemen. This was reversed on the manors belonging to lay lords, and the proportion of free to serf increased as the size of the manor decreased.

The demesne was the lord’s own land. Its produce was used to feed his household and any excess could be sold at market. If he had serfs who owed him labour services, they would work on the demesne for a specified number of days each week, as well as at plough time and harvest. Where there were no serfs owing labour services, the lord had to hire men (usually his tenants) to work on the demesne for him.

The produce of the demesne provided only part of lord’s income. He also made money when the land his tenants rented from him changed hands. If there was a marriage, or a death, or if a tenant took over from another tenant, a fee had to be paid to the lord of the manor. Because the lord technically owned the serfs, they also had to pay him a fee to be away from the manor for longer than one day. He also benefited from fines. If a villein left the manor for more than a day without the lord’s permission and was found out, he had to pay a fine.

I have so far been referring to the lord as a man, but often they were women. Just as land was given to monasteries, so it was also given to convents, which meant that many abbesses were lords of manors. Women also inherited manors. Joan of Kent inherited many manors all over England on her brother’s death.

Being a lord of a manor meant that the lord had to put in place the machinery to run the manor. If he was away from the manor frequently, and some lords had so many manors spread over a wide geographical area that they couldn’t hope to visit them all, they had to have officials in place to run the manor for them. These included a steward, a bailiff and a reeve, plus others depending on the size and type of manor.

Because they were the only ones with capital, lords of the manor usually provided the local infrastructure. As with giving land to the church, this was sometimes done because it benefited the lord himself and sometimes it was the result of a charitable impulse. Lords of the manor frequently built bridges, especially if these were on roads leading to a market to which the lord had the rights. Once built, the lord would charge people wishing to cross the bridge a toll, ostensibly for the bridge’s upkeep, but sometimes just as a means of making money. Where it was not practical to build a bridge, the lord might maintain a ferry to enable people to cross a river. They often built mills on their land. Their serfs had to use them and the lord of the manor benefited from a tax on their fee for using the mill, or a fine if it was discovered that they were not using it, either because they were taking their grain elsewhere or because they were grinding it at home. Lords of the manor endowed churches, both for their own use and for the use of their tenants. By far the most popular right with the lord’s tenants was his right to establish fairs and markets, as this provided them with somewhere to sell their surplus and to purchase things they could not make.

Among the lord’s less popular privileges was his right to fold all his tenant’s sheep on his demesne so that he could have the benefit of their manure. Conversely, if a tenant’s animal strayed onto the demesne, the tenant would have to pay a fine to have it released to him.

Wealthy lords with extensive estates might have forests, parks or chases where animals were protected so that the lords could hunt them. The kind of hunting they undertook was both prestigious and necessary. Hunting was a skill highly esteemed by nobles. It was necessary, in that it put meat on the table of the lord and his household.





Filed under Fourteenth Century

Praying for the souls of the royal family


This week I was in Coventry and was fortunate enough to be able to go into the church of St John the Baptist in the city centre. It is referred to as Coventry’s medieval gem, and this is no exaggeration. The church was founded in the fourteenth century, under circumstances that we’ll go into shortly, but underwent huge alterations in the fifteenth, sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much of the centre of Coventry was destroyed during the war, so it’s wonderful that St John’s has survived.

I went to the church to look at some needlework panels showing over a thousand years of Coventry’s history including St Osburga, Lady Godiva, the Civil War, the industrialisation of Coventry and the Second World War, but the real interest for me was the founding of the church, which is documented at various places inside the building.

In 1344 Queen Isabella, widow of Edward II and mother of Edward III, gave some land to the guild of St John the Baptist in Coventry. The land was part of her manor, Cheylesmore. The chapel was to be a chantry, where Masses would be said for members of the royal family, including her husband, the late king. Since the official date for the death of Edward II was September 1327, the timing of this endowment has been taken by many to confirm the theory that he didn’t actually die until the early 1340s, having escaped, or been allowed to escape, from Berkeley Castle and gone to the Continent.


The impy on a pillar inside the church


The grant of the land includes the stipulation that, in addition to saying Masses for the members of the guild (living and dead), two priests had to say Masses daily for Edward III, his wife Philippa, and Edward, the Prince of Wales (the Black Prince) during their lifetimes and for their souls after their deaths.  It has been suggested that she founded the guild of St John herself specifically to say Masses for the royal family. The chapel was consecrated on 2nd May 1350.


The position of the chapel – probably


The photograph above shows the aisle that is believed to mark the original foundation, with the needlework panels I’d gone to see down one side. On Isabella’s death in 1358 her grandson, the Black Prince inherited the Cheylesmore manor and donated more land to the guild.

The guild flourished and by 1393 there were nine priests.

The chantry was dissolved in 1548 and became a parish church in 1734.


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Uncategorized

The Goldsmith


Somewhat arbitrarily, I made one of the characters in my current work in progress a goldsmith. Edmund Attgate is pursued by various women for his wealth and his good looks, to the annoyance of his wife. Once I had decided that he was going to be a goldsmith, however, I had to do some reading to make sure that the life he lived would have been recognisable to a real goldsmith from the fourteenth century. This also entailed looking at some glorious photographs of work produced by medieval goldsmiths, including the one of the Dunstable Swan above. It is made of gold covered in white enamel, and stands a mere 3.2 cm high.

Precious metals and jewels were used so much in cathedrals and monasteries that, up until the thirteenth century, some monks were goldsmiths, working to produce works of art for their churches. The church said that displays of beautiful gold and silver praised God, and encouraged their use in the production and decoration of objects used or displayed in churches. Gold and silver, as ‘pure’ metals, were symbols of the divine and they were used to make chalices, bowls, reliquaries, censers, covers for gospels, croziers, shrines, candlesticks and crucifixes.  It was this kind of display of its enormous wealth that had led to the church being attacked since the beginning of the thirteenth century.

Since their clients were mainly bishops, kings, dukes and wealthy nobles, goldsmiths were far more likely to be found in places like London, Paris and Avignon than in provincial towns, but there was also work for them outside the capitals.  Provincial goldsmiths were often situated near cathedrals and monasteries, or in towns with large merchant populations. In Paris and Florence the goldsmiths were clustered together on the bridges which were the main routes in and out of the towns, in order to catch the passing trade. In London they were situated around Cheapside.

St Dunstan and St Elegius (Eloi in French) were the patron saints of goldsmiths. St Dunstan had been a silversmith making church plate and St Elegius had been a goldsmith. Both rose to become bishops, with St Dunstan becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. Since St Dunstan was English and St Elegius was French, it is no surprise that the English goldsmiths adopted St Dunstan.

Aside from the needs of kings and bishops, goldsmiths also catered to more everyday demands by making belts, buckles, chains, rings, brooches, necklaces and bracelets. Although some of them worked with jewels or did enamelwork, many did not. Most carried out repair work.

Goldsmiths were not just skilled craftsmen; some of them were also required to be artists. Gold objects with decorative details usually had to be cast and the method most commonly used was the ‘lost wax’ process. The goldsmith modelled the object in wax and sculpted the details onto it. The wax model was covered in soft clay. This was heated so that the wax ran out of a hole left at the top. The molten metal was then poured into the space left by the wax. When it had cooled the clay was broken off, leaving the gold object behind.  A rabbit’s foot was used to smooth, polish and wipe the gold.

A goldsmith’s wife would sometimes be part of the business, burnishing the finished objects and looking after the shop in her husband’s absence.

Goldsmiths also cut seals, although these were not usually made from precious metals. Each one was unique so that, when it was pressed into hot wax, it identified the signatory of a document.

A touchstone, a piece of fine-grained, black rock, was used to assess the purity of gold. When a piece of gold was rubbed on the surface of the stone, it left behind a smear, which could be assessed for purity.

It will not be a surprise to learn that goldsmiths could be as dishonest as other tradesmen. Some would pass off hollow rings and buckles as solid. Some set glass stones instead of jewels and some set real stones in a non-precious metal made to resemble gold or silver.






Filed under Fourteenth Century

The student and his learning


Students and their lives have changed very little over the  centuries. In the fourteenth century, as now, student debt was a problem. Students could only afford to attend university if they had a patron to give or lend them the necessary funds, and their future employment was never certain. Students lived in dark and cold lodgings. In Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale two Oxford students lodge with a carpenter. Students were generally known for their violence and dissipation, both demonstrated by Chaucer’s students, one of whom cuckolds his landlord and causes him to break his arm. Students were often involved in fights – with one another and with the people of the town in which the university was located. One thing that was very different then, however, was the time of the lectures. They started early in the morning, usually before dawn.

The universities had a reputation for being repressive, which was one of the reasons why the students often felt the need to do outrageous things outside of the university in the town that housed it.

A university was made up of the guild of teachers and the first universities were in Paris and Bologna. The latter was famous for law and the former for theology. Other universities were formed when teachers left these universities, usually after quarrelling with the town authorities. In Spain and Portugal the universities were royal foundations. Many universities were founded specifically to provide men for the medieval equivalent of the Civil Service.

Teachers were paid by their students, but most academics could not afford to do nothing other than teach. The had to combine study with a career, unless they were a friar. The friars needed well-trained theologians, so enabled clever men to remain in the universities to continue their education. At Oxford in the early fourteenth century there were ninety Dominicans and eighty-four Franciscans. The Dominicans had taught at the university first. The General Chapter of the Dominicans (their ruling body) had decreed in the thirteenth century that every community in the Order should have a friar in charge of theological study. His duties included arranging discussions and directing the reading of the friars in his house. None of them was permitted to preach in pubic until they had studied for three years and each province (a Dominican administrative area) was supposed to support three students in a university at any one time.

Students were clerics and wore the tonsure. They needed a benefice (a salaried ecclesiastical position, usually that of a rector or vicar) when they finished their studies in order to get started on their career. At the beginning of the fourteenth century in England there were many more clergy than there were benefices.

Medieval universities were ecclesiastical establishments. They were the means by which sons of commoners or peasants could rise to eminence. Most teachers were under thirty. The students were usually between fourteen and nineteen years old, but could be older, since some took 20 years to finish their degree.

Lectures at universities were given in Latin, which had to be learned before a man could become a student at a university. Latin was taught in schools, which any boy could attend if his parents could afford the fee and, if he was a villein, he had the permission of his lord of the manor. This could usually be obtained by paying a fine to the lord. In fourteenth century Paris the teachers began to lecture in the vernacular, but many years passed before other universities did the same. Teaching was mostly oral due to the cost of books, and students were expected to learn by discussing and debating with their teachers and with one another.

The curriculum was designed to create men who could administer the church and the state. The curriculum was the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Students also studied the Trivium: rhetoric, grammar and logic. By the fourteenth century the Quadrivium were the four most important subjects. Universities were mainly training men for the church, so theology originally predominated. Medicine and law were also taught.  Theology and law were higher degrees. Theology included the study of the world created by God.  Most of Edward III’s bishops had legal training. By the mid-fourteenth century there were more graduates in law than in anything else. Legally trained clerks from the universities were in demand as administrators and bureaucrats.

Rather surprisingly, the universities did not concern themselves with the spiritual condition of their students until the end of the fourteenth century. Equally surprisingly, given that many of the students went on to serve kings and popes, they did not bother teaching them how to behave.


The gate to New College, Oxford. New College was founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham,  Chancellor under both Edward III and Richard III, to enable poorer students to attend university. He also founded Winchester College in order to provide educated students for it.

The oldest university in England is Oxford. It was probably founded some time between 1164 and 1169.  It was founded when students and teachers left Paris after a conflict with the Parisian authorities. Cambridge University was founded in 1209 when teachers at Oxford argued with the town authorities and left. There were around 1,500 to 2,000 students in Oxford at the beginning of the fourteenth century.



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Uncategorized

The Reeve


In the countryside, where most of the population lived, the most important man in a fourteenth century village was the reeve. Although he was a villein, he had great responsibility. The village housed the serfs and tenants of the lord of the manor. There were three main officials who ran the manor:

  • the steward
  • the bailiff
  • the reeve

The first two looked out entirely for the lord’s interests, but the reeve also had responsibilities to the villagers.

Men who worked the land were either free or serfs (cottagers, smallholders or villeins). Serfs were not slaves, but they could do very little without the permission of the lord of the manor. The reeve was a villein, which meant he was a serf. He was selected for the position by the other villagers. Usually he came from one of the better-off families. The position of reeve meant that he had further opportunity to increase his wealth.

He came into the position at Michaelmas (29th September). This was when the agricultural year began. He served a fixed term, a number of years, and one of his main tasks was to make sure that those who owed labour to the lord reported for work and gave what they owed. He was responsible for every activity on the lord’s demesne as well as the livestock. The demesne was the farm that the lord kept for his own benefit. The rest of the land was leased to tenants. The demesne was worked by the lord’s own serfs, who were normally required to work for him for three days a week and to provide additional services at ploughing and harvest times. The serfs lived off their own strips of land, which they worked when they were not working for the lord. These strips also belonged to the lord.

Some reeves sold produce from the lord’s demesne and some collected rents. The reeve had to provide the demesne account at the end of the agricultural year, which he usually did by reading the marks on his tally stick to the lord’s clerk, who wrote it down.

The reeve was not paid with money, but the benefits he received made the position more than worthwhile. He did not have to provide any agricultural labour to the lord, and he might eat occasionally at the lord’s table. In many places, however, where quotas were required to be met by the village, the reeve would probably have to make up any shortfall himself.

Reeves were sometimes accused of using their master’s property, seed and labour provided by the villeins on their own holdings.

One of the reasons why the position of reeve was unpopular (some men paid to avoid the responsibility) was that the demesne was usually about ten times or more the size of anything the reeve had managed before and there was always the risk that he might not be capable of managing it, if it was his first term. The risk of a bad choice being made by the villagers was felt by both the lord and the reeve. The reeve had local knowledge of the land, the labour, the nearby markets, the best crops to grow and the best animals to raise, but he was responsible for making it all work together, ensuring that the harvest was sufficient for the lord’s household with enough to spare for sale. There was always a chance that an inexperienced reeve would be overwhelmed by the size of the task. The lord bore another risk – that the reeve would prove to be dishonest. To mitigate this risk most manors had stewards and auditors to check on the reeve.

If he was any good a reeve could usually make a profit from his office, not however, to the extent depicted in the Canterbury Tales. There is an old reeve among Chaucer’s pilgrims. Chaucer implies that he is as much a crook as the miller, his fellow pilgrim, since he is richer than his lord.



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Uncategorized

The Food of Love, or King Alfred’s Last Resting Place


Last week I had the privilege of performing in St Bartholomew’s, Hyde, a medieval church in Winchester. Rather confusingly the performance was commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death as  part of the Hyde900 festival, which originally commemorated the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Hyde Abbey where Alfred the Great was buried, but is now an annual festival. The occasion was a semi-dramatised performance of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, which is really rather risqué for a church setting.

Winchester was the capital of King Alfred’s Wessex, and he was originally buried in its minster (the Old Minster), but, shortly after the Conquest, the Normans wanted to build a larger cathedral and Alfred’s body, together with those of his wife, Alswitha, and their son, Edward the Elder, was moved to the newly-built abbey at Hyde.


The Norman doorway


A church was built near the abbey gate around 1110 by the monks as a place where their tenants could worship, but it was probably destroyed in a fire in 1141. A new church was completed by about 1185. After the abbey was dissolved in 1539 some stones were salvaged to be used in the church, which was left to serve the parish, but the church fell into disrepair fairly early on and apparently fell out of use altogether during the Commonwealth. It wasn’t until 1690 that regular services were held again. Despite this, the necessary repairs were not carried out. As the diocesan website remarks succinctly “The Church was extensively repaired by the Victorians”.


These encaustic tiles from the abbey were on display as part of the Hyde900 weekend.


Hyde’s connection with Shakespeare is that it was part of the estate of the earls of Southampton. The first earl was partially responsible for the demolition and ’looting’ of the abbey and received the abbey’s estates in return.  The earl also took over the estates of two other wealthy abbeys: Beaulieu in the New Forest and Titchfield to the east of Southampton. Titchfield became the seat of the earls of Southampton. The third earl was Shakespeare’s patron for a time and Venus and Adonis was dedicated to him. As one of the festival organisers remarked, with a trace of bitterness, it was the first earl’s looting of Hyde Abbey that gave the third earl enough money to be a patron to Shakespeare. This allowed Shakespeare to write poetry, a gentleman’s pursuit. Writing plays was not something that a gentleman did, apparently.


Stonework salvaged from Hyde Abbey


“The food of love” is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – “If music be the food of love, play on”. Since we were providing the musical interludes for Venus and Adonis, this seemed an appropriate name for our sextet.


Filed under Church

The Miller was a stout carl, for the nones


Millers were vital members of fourteenth century society. Everyone ate bread, and grain had to be ground into flour. This could be done by hand, using a quern, but it was very time-consuming. Powered mills (by water or wind) were labour saving devices, allowing the man who had grown the grain (or his wife and children) to do something else while the grain was being ground. The quality of the flour from a mill was also better, being more finely ground and containing less grit.

For the lord of a manor a mill was a source of income, if he had one on his land. Many had more than one. His peasants had to pay to have their grain ground and they were not allowed to grind it themselves. Many did so secretly, however, using a domestic quern, which had to be well-hidden. If they were caught they would be fined and the quern confiscated or destroyed.

This monopoly was resented by the peasants. During the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 some men forced their way into St Albans Abbey where confiscated millstones had been set into the parlour floor. The millstones were dug up and broken into pieces.

Mills were expensive to build. Watermills needed ponds, weirs and leats to provide enough water moving quickly enough to turn the millstone. The millstone itself had to be cut properly before it could be used. All of this meant that they could only be built by the lord of the manor.

Windmills were invented towards the end of the twelfth century. They were used in flat areas where the water did not move fast enough to turn a wheel.

The most famous miller of the fourteenth century was the one in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He is described in the Prologue as being a bit of a brute: tall, wide, and strong enough to break a door down with his head, and the winner of every wrestling contest he entered. He was not an attractive man, having a hairy wart on the end of his nose. He stole from his customers, overcharging them for good measure. The tale he tells is lewd, but very funny.

Not all millers were as dishonest as Chaucer’s miller, but he did represent the contemporary view that millers were thieves. Most of what is known about millers comes from court records, which contain mostly complaints about theft, dishonest weights and overcharging. Millers certainly had plenty of opportunity to steal from those who brought their grain for milling.

Millers either rented the mill from the lord of the manor, or collected the tolls and payments for the lord if employed by him. Some mills were by bridges and the miller would also collect the tolls from those crossing the bridge.

Peasants had to pay a multure to have their grain ground. This was sometimes a sixteenth of the grain or flour.  Freemen paid a smaller percentage. Despite the cost, freemen who did not have to use the mill took their grain there and paid to do so. Not only did the mill produce better quality flour, but it was also a more efficient use of their time than grinding by hand, even though it was considered inconvenient to take the grain to the mill.

Some mills used tidal water for their power. Tide mills were less efficient, however, as they could only operate for six to ten hours a day. Eling Tide Mill on Southampton Water benefited, and still benefits, from Southampton’s double tides in order to mill for longer. Travellers are still required to pay a toll to cross the nearby bridge. Although there has been a mill on the site for nine hundred years, the current building dates from the late eighteenth century.

Watermills were made of wood and there is rarely much left for archaeologists to find. Despite this, the team at Guédelon Castle decided to build a watermill as part of their project to build a castle using only techniques from the thirteenth century. Last year I reviewed the DVD Secrets of the Castle about the project. It shows the operation of a wooden watermill, as well the use of a quern. Some of the difficulties involved in operating a watermill are highlighted, not least the problems involved in producing enough power to turn the millstone.



Filed under Fourteenth Century

Fourteenth century society


We’re often told that medieval society consisted of three groups: those who work, those who fight and those who pray. Even by the last quarter of the fourteenth century when Langland had Piers Plowman say to the knight “I’ll toil and sweat for both of us. I’m willing to work all my life because of the good will I have towards you. But this on condition that you, for your part, protect Holy Church and myself against those ravaging villains who destroy everything they come upon” it was no longer true.

Medieval society was far more complex than the concept of the three orders would have us believe. Chaucer reflected this at the end of the century, not only in the assortment of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, but in the subjects of the tales they tell.  His pilgrims included a miller, a knight, a cook, a reeve and a pardoner. Characters in the tales include a carpenter, an alchemist and a priest. When most of us think about the fourteenth century, however, I’m sure that we think in terms of peasants, knights (and their ladies) and priests or monks.

Not only was there diversity within society, but there was also diversity within groups. Not all peasants were poor. Some lived very comfortably and employed other peasants. Some had a lot of land, others had just enough to live. Some, reeves, had authority over the others in their village, rich or poor. Not all knights were rich. Some could barely afford to buy armour or keep their horses. Some became wealthy by capturing and ransoming other knights. Some became poor because they had themselves been captured and had to pay a ransom. The church didn’t just consist of monks and priests, but friars, pardoners and summoners.  Some priests lived well in rich parishes or in the households of wealthy men, others struggled to live on the tithes of their parishioners.

Towns had their own structures and hierarchies. Merchants had apprentices and could aspire to high office. Richard Whittington (of Dick Whittington and his cat fame) was a mercer who became mayor of London. In the towns men practised trades: smiths, bakers, apothecaries, coopers, wheelwrights, bowyers and fletchers.  Some towns had universities, which grew in the fourteenth century, producing scholars and learned texts. Increased access to education meant that there were more people, in towns at least, able to read the texts. Education gave commoners the opportunity to rise in the church or in government.

Fourteenth century society was not static. Women could rise in society by marriage and men could advance through their own efforts and by patronage.


Filed under Fourteenth Century

Wall paintings at Romsey Abbey


On a recent visit to Romsey Abbey I was reminded once again of how wrong my view of life in the Middle Ages is. When I went into the abbey I saw that the walls were just grey stone and it’s easy to assume that they’re unchanged since the church was built in the twelfth century, but that’s not the case.

Most churches would have had a depiction of the Last Judgement painted on a wall that could easily be seen. This would have shown Christ enthroned deciding who went to Heaven and who went to Hell. Hell would be shown as a dreadful place, and the demons leading the damned souls into it usually had sharp teeth and claws with which they tormented their victims. Heaven would be full of light, and the blessed would be led there by beautiful angels. This was supposed to make the parishioners consider their eventual fate.


Wall painting in the Chapel of St Mary, Romsey Abbey


This wall painting is from the Chapel of St Mary in the abbey and is thought to represent the life of St Nicholas. It is from the late thirteenth century. Nicholas lived at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth centuries. He was made bishop of Myra and is said to have been one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed in 325. The colours are faded now and it’s hard to imagine how bright the whole church must have been when all the walls, columns and ceilings had just been painted. A church was considered unfinished until the painting was complete.

Not all wall paintings were there for instruction. Sometimes decoration was just decoration. The ribbed vault and the pillar shown below were painted just because all the stone in the church was covered in plaster and then painted. The effect of all the colour on top of the size of the building itself would have struck those inside it with awe. Although wealthy people decorated their own homes in a similar way, frequently with secular as well as religious images, poor people did not. Their homes would have been dull and drab. For them, coming into the abbey would have been a very different experience from their everyday life.


Painted ribbed vault, Romsey Abbey


Paintings were almost constantly being updated as tastes changed or a new patron took over a church. They were not considered permanent.


Painted pillar, Romsey Abbey


In England the paintings were whitewashed over during the Reformation, but most were destroyed by the Victorians. Instead of exposing the pictures by removing the whitewash, they preferred to expose the stone by removing the plaster onto which the paintings had been painted. This was, of course, very far from the intentions of the medieval builders, who had gone to great lengths to cover over the stone, which was no more than the skeleton of the church, even when it had been beautifully cut and dressed.




Filed under Fourteenth Century

Edward III and King Arthur


From the time of Edward I English kings used the legends about King Arthur to bolster their claim to rule all the British Isles. Although Arthur was a British hero, by the thirteenth century he had come to symbolise the English, and the mythology was used, consciously or unconsciously, to unite Britons, Saxons and Normans. King Arthur represented many things: he was the ideal king, the ideal knight, the ideal husband and the ideal Christian.

The myths and legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were known all over Europe and were recorded very early in ‘romances’, long poems which are often regarded as the prototype of the novel. Even though Arthur was associated with Britain, works about him were written in many countries. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a twelfth-century cleric, from or based in Wales, whose book Historia Regium Britanniae contains a very early version of the Arthur stories. Later in the twelfth century, Chrétien de Troyes, who served at the court of Marie de France, Coutness of Champagne, wrote four complete and one incomplete romances about Arthur (Erec et Enide, Cligès, Yvain, Lancelot and Perceval). He is also credited with inventing the character of Lancelot. Another French poet of the late twelfth century, Robert de Boron wrote Josephe d’Arimathe about the Holy Grail, and Merlin. Around the same time Wolfram von Eschenbach was writing Parzival in Bavaria (probably), claiming that Chrétien de Troyes had got the story wrong. In the 1360s the Italian poet Boccaccio wrote a long poem about Arthur. Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt was written in England in the late fourteenth century by an unknown poet referred to either as ‘the Pearl poet’ or ‘the Gawain poet’. Possibly the best known version of the stories is Le Morte d’Arhur written by Sir Thomas Malory in the middle of the fifteenth century. Ironically, given the chivalrous nature of Arthur and his knights, Malory was a less than savoury character, being a thief and possibly a murderer. He changed sides during the Wars of the Roses and wrote down the stories while in prison.

Edward I was obsessed with Arthur, even taking his new bride to see Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury.  He usurped the Arthurian mythology when he conquered Wales. To the Welsh Arthur was the British hero who would return to beat back the English, but Edward I used him to bolster his own legend and to demonstrate to the Welsh that Arthur wasn’t coming back.

His grandson, Edward III, was similarly obsessed. Edward venerated his grandfather, and this was probably why he was interested in Arthur, although, as we shall see, there were other reasons for him to pursue this interest. From boyhood Edward III studied the lives of great kings from the past in order to be a good king and these included King Arthur. He studied the histories about Arthur, rather than the romances. Even though Edward III probably did not read the romances himself, it’s probable that he either heard the stories read aloud or told as entertainment. Both his mother and his wife were fond of the romances.

After he had overthrown his mother, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, in 1330 Edward III’s contemporaries began to talk of him as King Arthur returned, fulfilling the prophecies of Merlin. He, however, was careful to claim no more for himself than the rôle of Sir Lionel, which had been assigned to him by Mortimer during a tournament. In this he learned from Mortimer himself. Mortimer had made himself unpopular by (amongst other things) identifying himself with Arthur.

Mortimer’s family held that they, being descendants of the Welsh kings were also descendants of Arthur. In 1329 Mortimer played the part of King Arthur and Isabella played Guinevere at a tournament, while Edward, the king, was a mere knight, Lionel. Mortimer was clearly putting himself above the king and this was probably one of the many things that made Edward III feel threatened and led to his coup against his mother. Lionel could be understood to mean ‘little lion’ and Edward later used it as a reference to the lions on his standard.  He named his third son Lionel.

When Edward III came to found his order of chivalry in the 1340s, his original vision was that his band of knights should have a round table at Windsor. He even planned a round building to house it. It was Edward I who had ordered the construction of the Round Table which is now in Winchester Castle and Edward III was probably thinking of this when he ordered his own Round Table to be built. Although there is nothing specific in the way the Order of the Knights of the Garter was set up that refers to Arthur, the mere fact that Edward set up an order of chivalry with a small number of knights was enough to make his subjects see the comparison.

Other medieval monarchs used the mythology of Arthur to their own ends. Henry VII named his first son Arthur. Henry was Welsh and, like Mortimer, was claiming descent from King Arthur. He did this in order to legitimise not only his own reign, but that of his son. The use of Arthur as a name for the Prince of Wales is not limited to medieval times; the current Prince of Wales also has Arthur as one of his names, as does Prince William.



Filed under Fourteenth Century