The Medieval Steward

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn exterior

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn Exterior

In the novel I’m currently working on there’s a secondary character who’s a steward. I got a little confused about whether he would be called a steward or a seneschal, so I decided to check.

It turned out to be even more confusing than I thought. There were also two different roles with the same title. In the domestic sphere, the steward was the official in charge of the daily running of a castle or house. In the administrative sphere, the steward was responsible for the lord’s estates.

The difficulty of whether it was steward or seneschal was easily solved. A seneschal was a steward of a great estate.

Essentially, the steward was his lord’s deputy. It was his job to defend his lord’s rights and to look after his property.

Legal knowledge was an important qualification, since he had to represent his lord in court. This was not as hard to come by as you might think. Many people were familiar with the law in the fourteenth century, because it was a very litigious time.

If he had many estates under him, the steward was supposed to visit them and liaise with the bailiffs. The bailiff was the lord’s permanent representative on the manor. The steward had to instruct and guide these men. Lords were advised to appoint older men to the position of steward, because they would know a bit about managing others and they would have some experience of life. Lords were also advised to appoint honest men, although that was more difficult. As well as being a very litigious time it was also a fairly corrupt time.

The steward was supposed to audit the manorial accounts, so being good with numbers was also a requirement. He went to each manor two or three times a year and stayed for a day or two. He supervised any large building projects, such as mills or barns. He gave permission (or not) for any larger than usual expenditure.

The steward presided over the manorial court. He was not the judge, as the decisions were made by villagers acting as jurors. His role was to give weight to those decisions.

The stewards of great lords were usually knights. Not all lords of estates were laymen, many of them were abbots. In the latter case, their stewards were usually clerics. An abbey’s steward might be known as the cellarer.

Sources:

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

Life in a Medieval Village by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies

The English Manor by Mark Bailey

 

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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27 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

27 responses to “The Medieval Steward

  1. Bradford on Avon is my ‘local’ tithe barn! Your final sentence is interesting: does it have any connection with wine/alchohol?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I suppose these days they would be the estates manager. Have met a few on my travels to castles etc.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. So you were powerful yet vulnerable if anything went wrong? Tough job, but really interesting and satisfying I should imagine. The whole steward/seneschal has had me puzzled for some time, so I’m pleased to have that sorted out in my mind. Thanks April.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Thanks for another enlightening peek back in time. It helps understand the meaning of today’s stewardship roles.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. One of my ancestors was a mistress of one of the Stewart kings (don’t remember which one, but I know he was murdered). The offspring’s surnames were Stewart, which I suppose was either an honorarium or just adopted by my canny ancient granny to promote her young’uns. Way back then they also spelled it Stuart.

    I presume the original stewards from whence the name originated must have feathered their nests pretty well to latch onto a Bruce daughter in 1296.

    Am interested in the occupations of medieval stewards, as it had to have been a lucrative trade. That so many today carry the surname Stewart, or variations thereof, indicates to me it must have been a better position for advancement than seneschal. But this is only speculation.

    As always, you open doors, windows, cupboards & trap doors (:-o) of discussion!

    Thank you, April! ☺

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Wow—stewards, seneschals, oh my! I don’t know how you keep all these similar terms straight, April. Thanks for the detailed explanation. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Sarah. I write about them so I don’t have to keep them straight in my head. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Diana

        I’m writing a little story about a steward’s daughter who is also a lady in waiting to the lord of the manor’s daughter and wanted to know how would she be addressed by the servants of the lord’s castle? Would it be Miss or My lady?

        Like

        • Hi Diana, there are so many questions there. Household servants weren’t married, so your steward’s daughter was probably illegitimate. She would be a maidservant, not a lady-in-waiting and it’s unlikely that the daughter of a lord of the manor would have a maidservant of her own. Such a servant would be addressed by her name by everyone and would be a very lowly servant. Lords of manors lived in houses, not castles, although men who had castles were lords of many manors.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Mark Bailey has an appropriate surname for one writing about about manors – assuming it’s derived from bailie or ballie, an alternative version of bailiff.

    Stewards don’t seem to feature in historical fiction very much. Odd, because they were powerful members of the household, and must have often had a much better idea of what was going on than the lord and lady did.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I thought that too.

      I’ve come across stewards or estate managers far more in books set in the nineteenth century. I’ve had a steward as a very minor character before, but this one has quite a lot to say and do.

      Liked by 2 people

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  10. I’m reading Conn Iggulden’s Dunstan at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it. Do you know it/him?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ll look out for him next time I’m in the library.

    Like

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  14. John Wray

    Hi there! thanks for an informative piece. Could you by chance help me determine the proper form of address for a Steward during the Elizabethean period?

    Liked by 1 person

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