The Medieval Household by Geoff Egan – A Review

Published: 1998
Pages: 342

I don’t usually write a review until I’ve read all of a book, but I have to confess that this isn’t going to happen with The Medieval Household, or, indeed, with any of the other books in this series. I’ve read bits as I’ve needed them, but I’m not going to read all the details about the digs or the preservation techniques or the individual designations of the objects included in the book. It’s the objects themselves and their uses that interest me and there are lots of them.

The book’s subtitle is ‘Daily Living c. 1150 – c. 1450’ and this is what it delivers. Many artifacts have survived centuries of building works in London, both partial and intact, and they all have a tale to tell. Their stories contribute to our ideas about how people lived during this period. The Medieval Household is an illustrated catalogue of findings from archaeological digs in London between 1972 and 1983. The illustrations are mainly line drawings, but there are also lots of black and white photographs and a few colour plates. The introduction also has a few medieval paintings (in black and white) showing the interiors of medieval houses.

The chapters cover just about anything you might want to know about what a medieval household contained: Fixtures and Fittings, Furnishings, Security Equipment, Heating Equipment, Lighting Equipment, and Miscellaneous (kitchenware, tableware, storage and urinals). I have found the introductions to each section to be the most useful things in the book. They talk about how the objects were used and what type of object might be found in different kinds of households.

As with every book I’ve ever read about the Middle Ages, there are some surprises; there are photos of some amazing enamel glassware; there’s a drawing of a flesh hook used to retrieve meat from the stewpot; there are examples of very complicated locking mechanisms; and a broken wooden bowl that was sewn back together again. I have got to find a way to include this last in a novel.

The book goes into far more detail than I’ll ever need for a novel, or even for a blog post, but it’s fun to look at some of the objects and think about how they would have looked when new and to imagine someone using them every day. It’s not a book that I would recommend for someone with a passing interest in the Middle Ages, but, if you really want to get to the details of medieval life. this is definitely a book for you.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Book Review

Two Offerings

I have two offerings for you today, neither of which is mine. The first comes as the result of a conversation in a car returning from a pub quiz (which we won despite there being no questions about the Middle Ages). I realised that it has been a while since I shared a Bardcore video. So here is the latest from Hildegard von Blingin’.

She has been doing some wonderful things since I shared her version of Jolene a couple of years ago, so please have a look at everything else.

The second offering is a video of a handcart being trundled across fields and through a wood, with no commentary. It’s worth watching just to see the glory of an English bluebell wood in spring.

Jason Kingsley has made some amazing videos about the Middle Ages. He jousts and there are some videos about how he trains his horses to be used in jousts. There are lots of videos about life in the Middle Ages and there’s also another video about how the handcart was made and how it might be used.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:



Filed under Medieval Life, Medieval Music

Minor Orders? Secular Clergy?

I was looking through one of my dictionaries this week in an effort to find definitions of some of the terms I used in last week’s post. Instead, I stumbled across something far more interesting, to me at least.

I have always been confused by the terms minor orders and secular clergy. When I came across both in the same article I thought it was time to clear up the mystery for myself.

We’ll look at secular clergy first. I’ve always thought of secular being the opposite to religious, so the idea of secular clergy made no sense. It does, however, when you realise that secular means ‘in the world’ in Latin. There were two types of clergy: the regular clergy (so called because they lived according to a rule (regula in Latin)) who lived in monasteries and secular clergy who did not. The latter included archbishops, bishops, archdeacons, deans and parish priests. Friars, although living mostly in the world, were included among the regular clergy.

All of these regular clergy and secular clergy were part of the major orders, of which there were three: deacons, priests and bishops. This last included archbishops.

Like members of the major orders, members of the minor orders had to receive the tonsure from a bishop. This meant that their heads were shaved to leave a bare circular patch on the top and their hair was cut short. This shape was symbolic of the crown of thorns inflicted on Jesus on Good Friday.

There were four types of minor orders:  acolyte, exorcist, lector, and porter. An acolyte was an assistant to a priest who mostly helped with tasks connected to the altar. An exorcist assisted at and performed exorcisms, but also poured the water during mass. A lector, as the name suggests, was a reader who read aloud in church. I can’t find a definition of porter, so must assume that he had something to do with the door of the church, possibly unlocking and locking it each day. If anyone knows what a porter did, please put something in the comments.

Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under The Medieval Church

The Great Schism

Some years ago, when this blog was young, I wrote about the popes of the fourteenth century and why they were mostly French and based in Avignon rather than Rome. Last week the Great Schism came up in the comments, so I thought I’d write something about it. I’m afraid it turned out to be rather long, so I hope that you can spare the time to read it.

In 1305 Clement V, a French pope under pressure from the French king to stay in France, moved the papacy to Avignon, which wasn’t then in France but most definitely wasn’t Rome, and made lots of French cardinals who, unsurprisingly, elected a French pope when he died. This pattern continued for most of the fourteenth century, with each pope saying that he wanted to move the papacy back to Rome, but now just wasn’t the right time.

The English weren’t happy having French popes. They believed, not without foundation, that the French popes supported France in the Hundred Years War. The popes made many appointments to important clerical posts in England (and other nations) from men who attended the papal court in Avignon. Again, these were mostly French.

This was mostly seen in the appointments to canonries, prebends and archdeaconries of cathedrals. In 1326 the bishop of Salisbury complained that out of fifty posts available within the cathedral administration, twenty-eight had been filled by order of the pope and only three of the office holders had ever been seen in Salisbury. Half the chapter of York and a quarter of that of Lincoln were foreigners around the middle of the century.

In 1376 Gregory XI managed to return the papacy to Rome. When he died two years later the people of Rome didn’t want yet another French pope and a mob stood outside the building in which the cardinals met to choose his successor shouting that they wanted an Italian, preferably Roman, pope. By now the number of non-French cardinals must have been fairly small, so the options for finding a pope of different nationality were reduced. This can be the only reason why the cardinals chose the archbishop of Bari, who became Urban VI. It soon became clear that since his election he had developed a temper which sometimes drove him to physical violence, even during services in church. This was not a desirable attribute in a pope. The cardinals reconsidered their choice and left Rome, all but three of them. In Anagni they said that they had been coerced by the mob and declared the election invalid. They had another election and chose someone who was neither French nor Italian: Clement VII. This was the beginning of the Great Schism.

When the appointment of another pope was announced, Urban VI simply made new cardinals and stayed in Rome. Clement VII went to Avignon and each pope excommunicated the other. It seems that neither man was really someone who should have been pope. They held similar views and ran things in a similar way. Which pope you supported depended on your nationality. Scotland, France and Spain supported Clement VII. England, the Italian states and most of the Holy Roman Empire supported Urban VI.

This wasn’t the first time there had been two popes at the same time. For 75 years between 1059 and 1179 there were always two popes, each one declaring the other an antipope. The issues here were mainly about the relationship between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.

This new schism was a real challenge to the unity of the church that previous schisms had not been. There had been disillusionment with the church since the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century and the appearance of two popes who were divided by no great theological issues or by different approaches to running the church caused people to question papal authority. No one could work out how to solve the problem and both popes died before it was resolved. Rather shockingly, both popes were replaced. These new popes promised they would resign should it become clear that their resignation would bring about the unity that everyone desired, but neither they nor their own successors, who made the same promise, did so.

You would think that the situation could not get worse, but it did. The one thing everyone agreed on was that the only way to end the schism was to call a general council of the cardinals, but only the pope could do that and there was no agreement as to who that was.

In 1409 all the cardinals, regardless of which pope they supported, called a council themselves, declared both popes invalid and elected another pope. You can probably see where this is going better than they could. Since it wasn’t clear that the council was entirely legal, the two existing popes didn’t see any need to accept its decisions and remained in post. Alexander V (the third pope) took up residence in Pisa. You won’t be surprised to know that when he died a successor was elected.

Since the popes were supported along national lines, mainly decided by who was or wasn’t at war with one another, this made it even harder to obtain agreement about who was really the pope. It was the nations that took the first step, however, with enemies joining together in support of calling a council to resolve the issue. Eventually a pope was forced to call a general council in Constance. After thirty years, though, a divided church had changed greatly. It was no longer as international as it had been and the rulers of Europe were growing used to having more control over their national churches. It was clear that whoever emerged as pope would not have the pre-eminence his predecessors had had.

It was during this time of schism that theologians such as John Wyclif and Jan Hus were teaching against the pope. One of the actions of the council was to declare Hus a heretic and burn him.

Each of the three popes fought hard to remain pope, but all three were deposed. Eventually Odo Colonna was elected and he became Martin V.

One of the remits of the council was to reform the church, but it didn’t. The cardinals didn’t really get to grips with reform until the Council of Trent in 1545. By then it was already far too late. Luther had issued his 95 theses almost thirty years earlier. Having a single pope didn’t really solve any of the issues around the church’s loss of authority, and the abuses that had prompted talk of reform in the fifteenth century were much worse a century later.

The Time-Traveller’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer
The Fourteenth Century by May McKisack
Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages by R. W. Southern
The Pelican History of Medieval Europe by Maurice Keen

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:



Filed under Fourteenth Century, The Medieval Church

Presented to the Living

St. Michael’s Church, Southampton

Last week a reader asked a question on the Glossary of Medieval Terms page and I thought the answer was interesting enough to warrant a post of its own, albeit a short one. The question is: what does “presented to the living” mean?

A benefice is an office of a priest, vicar or rector, usually associated with a parish. In return for carrying out parochial responsibilities the rector was given some land and its revenues. The rector was the priest responsible for the parish. He wasn’t paid a salary, but lived on the revenues of the land associated with the parish and its tithes. For this reason, it was known colloquailly as a living. It should be noted that not all priests were parish priests and not all benefices were parishes where a priest had responsibility for parishioners.

England was, and is, divided into parishes. Although the number of parishes now is almost 25% greater than it was in the Middle Ages, the population is 18.5 times greater, so there are many more people in most parishes than there were then.

The parish system was fully developed by the end of the twelfth century. There were about 9,500 parishes in England and most of the appointments to parish priest were made either by the local bishop or a monastery. Monasteries were responsible for about a quarter of parishes, which meant that a monastery was the rector for these parishes, a role that it could not fulfil, since a monastery isn’t a person. Monasteries had to appoint a vicar to carry out these duties on their behalf. A vicar is a substitute, that is someone who represents someone else.

The practice of rectors appointing substitutes wasn’t just limited to the instances where a monastery was the rector. Going into the church was an established way for younger sons of nobles to make a living. They were not going to inherit, so there was little point marrying and raising a family. Generally, though, they didn’t have the money to marry and raise a family. If they went into the church, they weren’t necessarily guaranteed a glittering career ending up as a bishop or archbishop, either. The best they could hope for was to be presented with the living of one or more parish, hire someone to do the work in their place and live off the difference between what they paid the vicar and the revenues and tithes provided for the rector.

You’ll note that I wrote ‘one or more parish’. In the Middle Ages it was possible for a priest to be responsible for more than one parish. Although this pluralism was banned at the Lateran Council of 1215, it was easy enough to get a dispensation from Rome.

In England (and probably in other countries) the situation was exacerbated by the fact that many pluralists were foreigners appointed by the pope, or at his behest. Since they didn’t speak English, it was clear that neither they, nor the pope himself, expected them to take up their parochial duties.

When Pope John XXII suspended all earlier dispensations in the early fourteenth century and declared that a priest could only have one living, about 200 benefices became available in England. Whilst it might look as if the pope was concerned about the negative effect of absentee priests on parishes, it was more an attempt to gain more control over appointments to benefices.

In 1291 Bogo de Clare, the son of an earl, had twenty-four parishes, plus a few other church positions, all of which brought him £2,200 a year. I’ll just remind you that a skilled labourer in the mid-fourteenth century earned 4d a day. I don’t know how much parishioners knew about all this, but had I been one of Bogo’s parishioners I expect I would have been horrified to know how much money he was making.

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams.
A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh
Life in a Medieval Village by Frances Gies and Joseph Gies

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:



Filed under The Medieval Church

The medieval English rabbit: A rare (and sometimes dangerous) beast

This week I’m delighted to welcome Cara Hogarth to the blog. Her new book, The Minstrel and Her Knight, set in 1367, was published on Wednesday. You’ll have to read it to find out if there are any rabbits in it.

Petrus Comestor, Historia scholastica, England ca. 1283-1300 (British Library, Royal 3 D VI, fol. 234r)

Q: When is a rabbit not a rabbit?

A: When it lived in the Middle Ages.

According to the source of all wisdom that is the Oxford English Dictionary, the only thing a medieval English-speaker would identify as a ‘rabbit’ was a baby rabbit. An adult rabbit was a ‘coney’. As John Trevisa wrote in 1398: ‘Conynges … bringen forþ many rabettes & multiplien ful swiþe.’

As John’s spelling indicates, the medieval ‘coney’ could appear in all sorts of spelling guises, including: conyn, conyne, cunin, conig, and konyn. But basically, a medieval English speaker called a rabbit a coney. This aligns nicely with other medieval European terms for the little furry beast:

  • classical Latin cuniculus
  • Old French conil
  • Anglo-Norman coni, conie, conig, coniz, conys, conynge, coning, coninge, couning (in the days before standardised spelling)
  • Italian coniglio
  • Spanish conejo
  • Welsh cwning
  • Irish coinnín
  • Scottish Gaelic coinean

Hilariously, it seems that ‘coney’ rhymed with ‘honey’ and ‘money’ for the first few centuries of its English life. The long ‘o’ sound seems to have been introduced in the 19th century, quite probably to avoid salacious associations.

So, given that English is at base a Germanic language, why is the medieval word for rabbit so French? Because we can blame the French (or at least the Normans) for introducing rabbits to Britain in the first place. I’ve listed so many variants on the Anglo-Norman term for ‘rabbit’ so you can see for yourself how the ‘coney’ came to be. Yes, the Normans reintroduced rabbits to Britain. (The first record of them is in 1176 in the Scilly Isles.) The Welsh, Irish and Gaelic terms for rabbit are all derived from the Anglo-Norman.

It seems that rabbits did hang out in the British Isles during a previous interglacial but since then found the climate inconducive and died out. The current strain of British rabbit seems to have originated in Spain. The Phoenicians spread the Spanish bunny about the Mediterranean somewhat, and the Romans followed suit, initiating a long tradition of rabbit farming.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, medieval monks continued the grand tradition of rabbit farming, generally housing them in specially-constructed ‘warrens’. The monks were doubtless encouraged by their persuasion that baby rabbit was, by ‘a quirk of early-medieval canonical interpretation’, considered aquatic and could therefore be eaten on fast days.

Possibly following monkly example, the French nobility developed a fondness for rabbit (unfortunately for their meat and fur rather than their more endearing qualities) from the 900s on, which led in turn to taking them over the Channel to Britain. Rabbit warrens seem to have been established on islands first (the Scilly Isles and Lundy Island are the first attested warren sites), and later light coastal soils such as in Breckland and coastal East Anglia. This was partly because medieval rabbits really didn’t care for the British climate and did best in light sandy soils and drier regions (which were more reminiscent of Spain, perhaps). It also made sense to make use of unproductive agricultural land by farming rabbits on it.

But, to quote historian Mark Bailey: ‘The rabbit was a rare beast in medieval England’. It seems to have been even rarer in Scotland, not appearing in the wild there until 1792. Essentially, most medieval English rabbits and all medieval Scottish rabbits were farmed rabbits. (Sorry, ‘coneys’ I mean.) Some of the furry blighters inevitably escaped from their warrens – rabbits are good at digging, after all – but until the mid-1700s, wild rabbits were not common in Britain.

In fact, the rabbit was not particularly common throughout medieval Europe – which makes its appearance in manuscript marginalia all the more curious. Remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Well, Monty Python turn out to be surprisingly well-informed in the most peculiar of instances. In this case: killer rabbits.

Image Source:

Marginalia are images painted on the margins of manuscripts. Sometimes they appear irreverent and/or grotesque, yet appear alongside deeply serious religious texts. There are all sorts of theories concerning their purpose (parody, allegory, simple scribal boredom), but we don’t really know why medieval people sometimes painted killer rabbits next to their prayers.

Here is a wonderful YouTube introduction to the killer rabbit of medieval manuscripts.

Kabir suggests that: ‘The role reversal of these rabbits in the marginalia was mainly used for humor. The world turned upside-down was portrayed where the innocent rabbits could take revenge from humans and other powerful animals who hunted, skinned, and ate them.’ Perhaps, but rabbits were also considered symbols of cowardice and the furry beasties here depicted are most definitely not acting like cowards! Role reversal, maybe – but remember the Easter bunny? The Easter rabbit is used to symbolise resurrection (rabbits live underground in tomb-like spaces and have a legendary ability for rebirth, i.e. reproduction). By the same token, it is also a symbol of unbridled sexuality. Which makes me wonder how much of a coincidence it is that ‘coney’ used to rhyme with ‘honey’. But evidently the humble coney is a complicated character. It can mean many things. But one thing it wasn’t in medieval Britain: a ubiquitous pest. No, the medieval coney was a rare and valued beast (and it had huge sharp teeth).


Bailey, M., ‘The rabbit and the medieval East Anglian economy’, The Agricultural History Review, vol. 36, no. 1, 1988, pp. 1 – 20.

Dickenson, V., Rabbit, Reaktion Books, 2013.

Kabir, ‘The portrayal of violent rabbits in medieval marginalia’, The Collector, 18th Sept 2020.

Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., 2014,

Veale, E., ‘The rabbit in England’, The Agricultural History Review, vol. 5, no. 2, 1957, pp. 85 – 90.

About the Author:

Cara Hogarth writes historical romance set in the Middle Ages. Her novel The Minstrel and Her Knight explores the disreputable profession of medieval minstrelsy, and her novella ‘To Kiss an Outlaw’, flirts with Robin Hood. Neither book contains killer rabbits, but Cara loves to dive down a rabbit hole of history.

Find out more by visiting

Definitely not a rabbit


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Guest Post, Medieval Life

Animals in the Medieval House

Some time ago I read something that changed the way I think about life in medieval homes. It also changed the way I write about them in my novels. Like you, probably, I think about the human inhabitants of buildings, but we should also be considering the animals that shared domestic spaces with their owners. Be warned, though. People didn’t really keep pets in the Middle Ages. The animals they accommodated earned their keep, one way or the other. One of my chickens hasn’t laid an egg in eighteen months. In the fourteenth century, I’m afraid she would have found her way to the stew pot.

I mentioned in a previous post that people in towns kept pigs. If you had a garden, you kept a pig, usually more than one, because you killed an adult pig in November to eat during the winter. There are many reports of pigs being a nuisance in towns, because they escaped from their gardens, damaged the neighbours’ gardens and added to the general chaos and filth that was a street in a medieval town.

Dogs were also kept by many people, mostly for hunting/poaching. They needed to be exercised, so they would also be in the streets, again, adding to the chaos and mess.

Fewer people owned horses, because they were expensive and most people didn’t need one. I don’t suppose that I need to add that they also contributed to the filth of medieval streets. It’s no wonder that the rushes that covered most ground-level floors had to be changed so often. People must constantly have been treading things in from outside, although they probably slipped off their pattens before they got too far inside the house.

Wealthy people kept hawks of various kinds. These were generally kept in a mews, but wealthy people, then as now, liked to show off their wealth, and their favourite birds went everywhere with them. There would be perches in the solar, where the birds would sit for visitors to admire.

It’s difficult enough these days to imagine what the inside of a medieval house or castle would look like when it was full of people, but it’s even more difficult to remember to think about the animals that lived with them.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:



Filed under Medieval Buildings, Medieval Life

Opus Anglicanum by Tanya Bentham – A Review

Pages: 208
Published: 2021

Since my early teens I’ve been fascinated by textiles, although I realised only recently that it was a fascination. I taught myself to knit, crochet, cross-stitch, make clothes and make lace. Sadly, my needlework teacher at school was less than encouraging and, fifty years later, I still believe that I can’t do embroidery. When I bought this book, therefore, it was not with the idea of making any of the projects or even trying to sew in the style of Opus Anglicanum. I bought it to look at the pictures and to read about the techniques.

It is a beautiful book, designed to take a beginner in this style of embroidery to a fairly advanced point. There are eleven step by step projects, each introducing new techniques and getting progressively more difficult. Bentham works her pieces in shimmering silk thread and writes about how important the silk is and how it captures and reflects the light and the illustrations moslty capture this.

I haven’t read it from cover to cover, but I have looked at every picture and diagram on every page and they are worth looking at. Opus Anglicanum, as the name implies, originated in England. It was a style of embroidery that was prized all over Europe from the twelfth to the mid-fourteenth century. Tanya Bentham designs and teaches embroidery pieces based on originals from this period. Some of the designs in this book are more or less straight copies; others, such as the princess with a frog/ handsome prince in her hand or the woman taking a selfie, are adaptations.

There isn’t much history about Opus Anglicanum, but that’s because this is a practical book. Bentham’s enthusiasm for her subject shines through on every page. It was a brave decision by her publisher to allow her to write in her own chatty voice and I can see that this might annoy some readers. I’m not sure how much I would enjoy it if I were working through a whole project. She describes herself at one point as a mum chastising a teenager and there are notes throughout the book in which she says she is nagging the reader, because there’s something she doesn’t want them to forget.

I must repeat that I haven’t tried any of these projects, so I don’t know how useful the book is in teaching the necessary techniques. I can say that it looks as if it would set an embroiderer on the right path. The photographs are great and very clear. There are also complete lists of the supplies needed for each project, including the sizes and types of needles required.

Once you’ve finished the embroidery, there are instructions for what to do next, whether mounting it as a picture or turning it into an aumoniere (a medieval purse). There are templates for all the projects at the back of the book.

So, has this book made me want to try Opus Anglicanum? No. There are other embroidery styles I would rather try before Opus Anglicanum. It’s beautiful, but it’s not really me. Do I regret buying the book? No. I  love picking it up and looking at the pictures and reading a bit about the techniques.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:



Filed under Book Review

Old Sarum Revisited

The castle from the cathedral, Old Sarum

A few weeks ago I visited my first English Heritage site since covid arrived here. It was Old Sarum and I was attending an event put on by English Heritage for members. It wasn’t exactly a guided tour, but an expert member of staff took us to various places on the ramparts while talking about the history of the site in chronological order. Since it was originally an Iron Age fort that was later occupied by the Romans and then, possibly, the Saxons, it took a while to get to the part that really interested me. This isn’t to say that the stuff about the Ancient Britons and Romans wasn’t interesting, it was, but I had come to learn more about the medieval castle.

The day was gloriously sunny, if somewhat windy, and it was wonderful to find out a bit more about Old Sarum, described by English Heritage as ‘one of the most enthralling historic sites in southern England’. This is an interesting claim, given that Stonehenge is, literally, only a few miles up the road.

So, what did I learn about the things I was most interested in: the medieval castle and cathedral? The first was that a tunnel had been built under the outer bailey and the ramparts in the Middle Ages which probably led to a sally port on the other side of the ramparts. What, you might be asking, is a sally port? It was a small, fortified door, probably well-hidden. In this instance the tunnel leads north to Salisbury Plain. Our guide informed us that this was probably where a besieging army would camp. The sally port would allow the defenders of a castle to leave it, probably under cover of darkness, and harass the besiegers. I suspect that they might also have used it to send for help. I had heard of sally ports before, but had no idea how they might work. In other castles the sally port was at the least defensible part of the castle. This would enable the defenders to surprise the attackers and deter them from focusing on that area. The castle at Old Sarum was never besieged, so the sally port, if there was one, was never used in a desperate situation.

Probably my favourite new fact from the day is that the ramparts, being made of compacted chalk, would have been white when they were first restored in the Middle Ages and the outer walls of the castle were whitewashed. Forget the grey blobs of stone that we see on the tops of hills these days; the builders of these castles wanted to make a statement. Old Sarum was built by William the Conqueror very shortly after he arrived in England and he wanted the Saxons to know that he was in charge. A white castle on top of a white hill would have given exactly that message. It was still white a century or so later when relations between the castle and the cathedral had broken down. One of a long list of complaints that the monks sent to the pope was that the castle and its hill were so white that it blinded them to look at it. Not long after this a new cathedral was built a few miles away in what is now Salisbury.

The final thing I learned was that there were probably only about twenty soldiers at Old Sarum, castles being built so that you didn’t need lots of defenders. I think this must have been the number when the king wasn’t in residence, but it does seem a small number for what is a very large site. The hill on which the castle sits is very steep, however, and I for one would not like to try to climb up it whilst arrows and other things were being launched at me from above. Perhaps it would only have taken twenty men to protect it after all

Old Sarum by John McNeill
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:



Filed under Castle, Medieval Buildings

Knight’s Fee

I’ve often come across the term ‘knight’s fee’ in my reading and not known what it meant, so this week I decided to do some reading in order to find out. You’re probably already wondering how the picture of peasants working in a field above has anything to do with knights. I hope all will become clear.

Knight’s fee is a term that applied mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and was the amount of land that came with the obligation of military service. All land in England was held, in theory at least, by the king. William the Conqueror gave large chunks of it to his tenants-in-chief in return for military service. The tenants-in-chief, in turn, gave bits of land to men further down the chain who owed them military service. This obligation was inherited and confirmed by their descendants. The military service was up to forty days a year, which is why you’ll occasionally read about men returning home on the forty-first day. This service was unpaid. It was, of course, the king’s option to pay for more. The knight wasn’t obligated to accept, but it probably wasn’t a wise move to turn the king down.

These knights should not be thought of in the same way as the knights who trained for war since childhood and went off to fight in armour on the backs of magnificent horses, although some of them were that sort of knight. Many of them turned down the opportunity to become a knight of this kind, as the costs were too high. They were, rather, the lowest level of the landholding classes and were sometimes not much wealthier than the peasants who worked their land.

These men usually had one manor from which they had to raise enough money to look after their family and meet their military obligation. Fairly quickly this requirement to go to war themselves was replaced by a tax or fine known as scutage. Henry II collected it as a tax every four years; under other kings it was simply a way in which the landowner could pay for a knight to fight in his stead, either by hiring a knight himself or paying the money to the king.. These men would not all have been trained knights, so paying the king so that he could employ trained soldiers was probably a good option for many of them.

Even in the twelfth century there was no realistic expectation that the tenants-in-chief would be able to call on as many knights as their landholdings indicated should be available. The knights themselves must rarely have performed military service as they might have been too old, too young, too ill or disabled. Scutage, the tax or fine, allowed them to pay for someone else to go in their place.

Towards the end of the twelfth century the size of a manor sufficient to require a knight’s fee was five hides. A hide was generally considered to be 120 acres, but in this context it was usually understood as an amount of money rather than the size of the land itself. A hide was the area that would support a family for a year or that could be ploughed by a team of eight oxen. Both measures would indicate different amounts of land in different parts of the country, since a family could live for a year on a smaller piece of land in an area where the soil was good than they could where it was poor. The hide was a taxation tool more than anything else.

Around 1300 there were about 1,100 to 1,500 knights who technically owed the knight’s fee. By the start of the Hundred Years War in 1327 the vast majority of soldiers, including knights, were paid. In 1352 Edward III stopped trying to call men for their obligatory service and all soldiers who served thereafter were paid.

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The English Manor by Mark Bailey
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Life, Medieval Warfare, Thirteenth Century, Twelfth Century