Anatomy of a Castle – The Household

Richard II's Palace 2

Richard II’s Palace, Portchester Castle

Before I get on to the physical structures of a castle, I wanted to touch on something that most of us forget when we see or visit one.  Apart from tourists, most castles are empty ruins these days. When they were built, however, they were home to many people. They didn’t just house soldiers. It took lots of servants to run and  maintain a castle, especially when the family of the man who had charge of it was in residence.

Castles were expensive and took a long time to build. At Guédelon in France there is a construction project in which a castle designed in a thirteenth-century style is being built using medieval methods. It’s a modest castle, but they’ve already been building for 20 years and it’s not finished. Partly that’s due to the number of people working on it. A medieval building-site would have had many more. They would only have worked a few months each year, though, covering the walls against the winter weather from September to May.

A castle was, therefore, the ultimate medieval home. It was a luxury residence for the fabulously wealthy. When you visit a castle, try to imagine it with paintings and designs on the interior walls. People of the fourteenth century loved colour and their taste often seems garish to our eyes, so think about colours so bright that they hurt.

Some walls would have been covered with tapestries, another luxury item. They served not just to show the wealth of the man who owned them, but also as decoration and insulation.

As well as having a military purpose, castles were often administrative centres. This meant that the households were large and included:

  • The lord and his family
  • Knights (usually young)
  • The lord’s domestic servants
  • Clerks (both priests and administrators)
  • Soldiers
  • Cooks
  • Carters
  • Huntsmen
  • Falconers
  • Artisans
  • Stable lads
  • Men for general labouring work

Such a large number of people would get through the resources of the surrounding area fairly quickly. This meant that the lord rarely spent more than a few weeks in one place. He would move between his estates with about 50 people, leaving a garrison of soldiers behind in the castle together with a few servants.

The next time you visit a castle see the soldiers training in the bailey; watch servants carrying water from the well to the kitchens; hear the dogs barking and the horses neighing; and smell the bread being baked in the bakery.


Castle – Marc Morris

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 Castle, Fourteenth Century, Uncategorized

25 responses to “Anatomy of a Castle – The Household

  1. I’m under the impression that outside of the lord’s family and some of the servants (so the highest and lowest), the population of a castle was largely male. Am I right about that?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Plenty of still lived in castles up here, so not much imagination needed, but haven’t come across any soldiers yet! 😊 Loving this series.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s interesting to think about the difficulty of getting supplied for a large number of people.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The below is conjecture, taken from accounts I’ve read about laundresses of the American Revolution. Since little had changed in laundry methods for hundreds of years, and soldiers & forts were the heirs of garrisons & castles, it makes sense that much would have been the same from A.D. 1400-1800.

    Laundry for the elite was probably handled in or near the castle while the family was in residence. Fine cloth was likely entrusted only to chosen “lavenders”, or women-servants, who had special formulas for cleaning. There might have been laundresses who always handled the family’s clothes, and who traveled in their train. They may have been paid out of the Lady’s household budget, which might account for so little information of them being available.

    Woolens & common linens would have been given to local washerwomen on a customer-by-customer basis. Soap, fullers earth, beater bats, etc. would be the responsibility of the washerwomen. Each unmarried man was usually responsible for seeing his clothes were cleaned by some means.

    Married knights probably had their wives arrange laundering. Bachelor knights would engage laundresses. Perhaps several knights would pool resources and find a local woman. She might have also shared beds with them to earn more. Certainly these women were likely cleaner than most!

    Items of livery, especially tabards, however, would have required a special launderer, who would probably be paid by the Lord, or dealt with by his Lady’s women. Liveries could be embroidered and embellished, requiring care and precision to clean. Tabards were especially intricate. Too expensive to entrust to the locals.

    Laundry might have been washed by local women in town, or they might have come to the far outer parts of the castle grounds, likely early in the week. All would take place outdoors, beside a river or well; a covered area was sometimes used during rains. Cauldrons of water, beater boards, flat rocks, or other unwieldy objects were necessary. Women would bring their bundles & supplies, and all would share the cauldrons, fetch water, and help keep the fires going. There may have been drying lines, or items could have been draped over bushes, fences, or even spread on fairly clean pieces of ground. Firewood would have been provided by a local woodcutter & delivered upon payment (cutting wood required license from the Lord; not just anyone could cut what they wanted).

    I can’t help think that with laundry being a mostly female occupation, little thought was given to improving laundry methods as opposed to things like armor, defenses, arts, & such. Likely soldiers learned how to wash & mend, but if given an opportunity, such chores probably would have been gladly thrust upon women at the first chance. I suppose we must thank the Industrial Revolution for finally taking laundering under its wing!

    I AM speaking as a women whose husband hates to wash clothes! ☺

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is the other comment that went into the spam folder.

      This is interesting and does give a clue about where the answers can be found. The household accounts would list any sums of money paid out by the lord or lady. If washerwomen were used, they would have been paid and they would appear in the accounts.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. For some reason I didn’t get my usual email heads-up on this post – or perhaps I inadvertently deleted it. So I’m a little late here.

    I’ve always wondered about the existence of laundresses in castles, too.
    I suppose that the lady and daughters of the castle may have had maidservants who took care of their washables. Perhaps this work was also undertaken by manservants for the lord and and other men ranked high enough to have their own servants with them in the castle? I’ve also wondered if items requiring less care in the wash were laundered by local women – assuming that there was a village near by – who might not necessarily have lived in.

    These details of essential domestic services are fascinating.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I am so interested in things like this. Bamburgh Castle up in Northumberland is still lived in but open to the public.

    Rachael |

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Also, soap was quite dear, as fats and oils were necessary in the manufacture, and were also a critical part of the food supply. Castile soap, made from olive oil was expensive, and probably used by the elite, as well as soaps made from clear-rendered fats, as from the kidneys. Special tricks by laundresses might be the use of lemon juice and citrus oils for extra fine cleaning, and adding fresh odors. Lavender was especially prized for washing elixirs. Since bodies seldom touched water, strong fragrances were prized. Toilet waters were used for more than a dab behind the ears.

    I’m doubtful soap touched most of the poorer sorts’ clothes. Fullers earth, a fine, chalky powder, was cheap and soaked up a lot of grease. It was beaten in dry, rubbed well, & then beaten out in clouds of dust. Boiling water and a thorough beating was used for linens, and sun bleaching the best way to deal with stubborn stains.

    I’m willing to bet MY ancestors’ clothes reeked, had permanent spots, and were mended & re-mended. They were also worn until they fell apart, were used for rags, or passed down. Rags were saved & possibly sold to ragmen, who sold them to paper-makers, felters, or some other enterprising person.

    The meanest set of holey under drawers were passed down & even mentioned in wills. Yuck!


    • Castile soap probably didn’t arrive in England until the sixteenth century, but there was some sort of soap being made here in the fourteenth century. That’s something else to investigate.

      Fourteenth-century people liked being clean and many of them washed every day. They wore linen next to the skin, since it was easier to wash and dry than wool or the other fabrics used for outer clothing.


  8. Pingback: Anatomy of a Castle – Furniture | A Writer's Perspective

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