The Importance of Looking Up

In the last post I caused some confusion by mentioning ground and first floors. I believe they don’t mean the same thing to Americans as they do to me. Since there was more that I could write on the subject of looking up when visiting a medieval site, I thought I’d add another post, with a few more photographs to explain what I mean.

I made this diagram last year to show where the great hall was in Richard II’s palace at Portchester Castle.

Richard II's Hall diagram

King Richard’s Great Hall, Portchester Castle

As you can see, the great hall was above the servants level, which is at ground level. Medieval lords and abbots lived above: on the first floor. Great halls, refectories and solars were upstairs. The halls of men of lower status were on the ground floor.

People had to climb stairs to reach King Richard’s hall. It showed that he was a man of high status. His hall also had large windows, not that you can see them in the photograph. The wall on the right is an exterior wall of the castle, not just of the hall. It has no windows for the sake of security.

When I first started visiting medieval sites properly, I was confused by many of the things I saw. It was ages before I understood even a little about how to look at medieval buildings. This photograph from Rievaulx Abbey will illustrate this well.

Undercroft and refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

This space is labelled ‘Refectory’ and you might wonder, as I did the first time I saw something similar, why there are walls in the refectory. The refectory should have been a large open space where the monks had their meals. The refectory is not at the bottom of the picture, though, but at the top. The walls below are what remains of storage rooms. The refectory starts where the walls change from rough stone to the paler, more finished blocks of stone above. These walls would have been plastered and painted with colourful designs.

This is another refectory, this time in Easby Abbey. Since I was on ground level when I took it, it’s a bit easier to see the vaults below and the magnificent windows of the refectory above.

Easby Abbey refectory 6

The refectory, Easby Abbey

The photograph below shows John of Gaunt’s great hall at Kenilworth Castle. It looks very odd when you see a fireplace halfway up a wall, but, once again, the hall sits on top of storage vaults. The huge windows and the fireplaces are the clues that it was in the room upstairs that the lords of the castle spent their time.


Fireplace in the Great Hall, Kenilworth Castle

Looking up and asking questions about what you’re seeing at a medieval site is a good way to learn more about how people lived in the Middle Ages.


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, Medieval Buildings, Monastery

21 responses to “The Importance of Looking Up

  1. You’re right about the confusion: A first floor in the U.S. is at ground level. Which makes perfect sense to us….

    Liked by 6 people

  2. The Upstairs/Downstairs social divide seems to have lasted for a fair while.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I need to do Rievaulx. Cool photos.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Nicely done, April. Just be grateful castles didn’t have 13 floors – in the US they are sometimes missed out entirely. An architect once gave me the very useful advice to ‘look up’ when walking down any high street – above the boring shop fronts, he pointed out, you’ll see the earlier buildings and grab something of the history of a place. I seem to remember we were walking through Tottenham at the time.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Fascinating photos and explanations, April. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks for shedding some light on this topic, April. I had no idea Europeans used the terms first and ground floor differently!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Very informative April, thanks. I feel as if I need to revisit places and look at it in this way.

    Liked by 1 person

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