Category Archives: Fourteenth Century

King Richard’s Palace – Portchester Castle

Richard II's Palace 2

Richard II’s Palace, Portchester Castle

Portchester Castle stands on the edge of the water of Portsmouth Harbour across from Portsmouth. For those of you not from these parts and worried by that conglomeration of consonants in the middle, the first ‘t’ is silent, as it is in ‘castle’.

The castle is rather wonderful. It was originally the site of a huge Roman fort, built to keep the Saxons out. Later it was used by the Saxons, so you can see how successful that plan was. When the Normans arrived in the eleventh century they built a keep and the Plantagenets used it as their base for invasions of France in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries.

I’ll come to the history of the castle in a future post, but today I want to concentrate on something a bit more domestic. Richard II agreed a peace treaty with France at the end of the fourteenth century and the castle no longer had a military purpose. In 1396 he had a palace built in the inner bailey. It’s true that he was restrained by the available space, but the palace is small.

Take the great hall, for instance. It’s not very great. The hall at Stokesay Castle is of a similar size and that was built by a merchant.

Richard II’s hall was on the first floor. For the king, his guests and household it was reached via stairs in the porch. The servants also had to climb stairs, but theirs were from the kitchen.  I’ve marked up the photograph below to show their entrances and exits.

Richard II's Hall diagram

King Richard’s Great Hall, Portchester Castle

Guests would climb up the stairs from the porch to a screened area. They couldn’t go directly into the hall.

Windows of the Great Hall

Windows of the Great Hall, Richard II’s Palace, Portchester Castle

The windows of the Great Hall were glazed and decorated with coats-of-arms and heraldic designs. There were windows only on the side of the hall facing the inner bailey.

Niche for langern 2

Niche for lantern, porch of Richard II’s palace, Portchester Castle

The porch was lit with lanterns.  The pillars on either side of the entrance each have a niche into which a lantern could be placed.

Windows - upper Richard II's Bedchamber

Richard II’s Palace, Portchester Castle

These might look like fireplaces, but they’re blocked windows. They’re designed to let in the maximum amount of light whilst offering a very small target to enemy arrows, since they’re on the side of the palace facing the outer bailey.

It’s believed that the upper of these two windows belonged to Richard II’s bedchamber. I don’t know about you, but I have always imagined that kings of any age would have huge and luxurious bedchambers. Not only was Richard II’s bedchamber only twice the size of mine, but his windows weren’t as large.

Richard II didn’t spend much time here, any more than he did in any of his other palaces. Like all medieval kings, he moved from place to place with his household, often staying only a few days.

Just for fun, here’s a short video I made showing the outside of the palace.


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, Medieval Kings

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles

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The Tring Tiles

Following a visit to the British Museum just over a week ago, I’m writing an occasional series of posts about some of the objects I saw there. Some of the posts will cover old ground, but I have new information to record.

The galleries in the British Museum are generally kept dark in order to protect the objects on display, so not all of the photographs are of good quality, but I’m hoping that my photographs will give you an idea of the size of the objects that you don’t get in ‘official’ photographs. I almost walked past an object I know well from photographs because it’s much tinier than I had been led to expect.

I was very excited when the first thing I saw in the gallery were some tiles. I love tiles and I was thrilled to see the Tring tiles in the flesh, as it were.

No one is quite sure where the Tring tiles originated. Although the tiles were, for the most part, found in a curiosity shop in Tring, it’s not entirely certain that they came from Tring parish church which was renovated in the late nineteenth century. No one can quite work out why such an ordinary church would be decorated with such unusual tiles. They are decorations for walls rather than floor tiles.

The tiles are made using the ‘sgraffito’ method, which was mainly used in the early fourteenth century. The tile was covered in white slip. Slip is essentially watered-down clay, with a ratio of approximately 75% clay and 25% water. The design was cut into the slip and the unwanted slip was scraped away with a small tool. No other tiles made in this way have been found in England, although the technique was used in France.

These tiles date from about 1330 and tell apocryphal stories about the childhood of Christ, filling gaps in the Gospels with stories of him playing with friends and being chastised by his teacher.

The tiles are remnants of a larger group. They are associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary, which was at its height in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the stories told on the tiles it’s the Virgin, not her son, who restores order after a death or some other catastrophe. It’s not immediately obvious, but the children with their legs in the air are dead. Both are restored by the Virgin.

The picture taking up both halves of a tile is the Wedding Feast at Cana, the first miracle of Jesus’ public ministry and, presumably, the end of his childhood.

There are some very good photographs of the tiles here.



Masterpieces: Medieval Art by James Robinson

Medieval Tiles by Hans van Lemmen


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Interiors

What’s It Worth?

Medieval coin

Since I mentioned the bizarre monetary unit of a ‘mark’ last week, I thought it was probably time to try to understand fourteenth-century money. Even within my lifetime, some of which took place pre-decimalisation, odd monetary units have been used. In the 60s, my first piano, an upright which even then was more than fifty years old and had spent most of its life in pubs, cost my parents 7 guineas.  What, you might ask, is a guinea? It was one pound and one shilling and it was replaced by the pound as the main unit of currency in 1816. The concept continued to be used, mainly for luxury goods, for another hundred and fifty years. It was a good way of making things sound less expensive than they were, because you really weren’t paying attention to the shillings. The term fell out of use after decimalisation in 1971.

Up until the 1340s most of the money used in England was low-denomination silver coins. In the 1340s high-denomination gold coins were introduced. These new coins were mostly used by merchants for making large sales/purchases and for international exchange.

The main units, as they were until 1971, were pounds (£), shillings (s) and pence (d). There were 12 pence (12d) in a shilling and 20 shillings (20s) in a pound.  This is not as complicated as it sounds, provided you know the 12x table, which we all learned very early in the pre-decimal days.

The ‘s’ which denotes a shilling is not an abbreviation of shilling, but of solidus. The ‘d’ for pence comes from denarius and the ‘£’ from libra ponda. The first two were the names of Roman coins given to early English coins. The last was a weight.

Originally a shilling was a twentieth of a pound weight. Later it was the name given to the silver coin which was a twentieth of a pound in value. A pound was how much 20 silver shillings or 240 silver pennies weighed. There was no coin that was worth a pound, but it was used for accounting purposes.

Pennies were not the smallest denomination in the fourteenth century. If you were a skilled labourer earning 4d a day you needed smaller units if you were buying something, or your money would disappear very quickly. A penny was divided into two halfpennies. These were first issued in 1279 and went out of circulation in 1969. Post-decimalisation there was also a halfpenny, but it only lasted from 1971 to 1984. The halfpennies of my childhood were quite large, but the post-decimal ones were smaller than my little fingernail (or seemed to be) and were more or less worthless as soon as they were introduced, even though they were, technically, worth more than the old halfpennies, there now being only 200 of them to the pound rather than 480.

In the fourteenth century the halfpenny was also divided in two, into farthings. Ferding was an Old English word meaning quarter. The farthing was also introduced in 1279 and went out of circulation in 1960.

Before 1279 farthings and halfpennies were silver pennies cut into halves and quarters. Since this was rarely done accurately, nobody could really be sure that what they thought was a farthing was really a quarter of the weight of a silver penny. The problem wasn’t entirely resolved when halfpennies and farthings were minted in their own right.

On and off during the fourteenth century the groat was available.  It was also first minted in 1279 and was worth 4d. It was not popular because its weight did not match its value. In was reissued more successfully in 1351 along with a half-groat (2d).

One of the gold coins that Edward III introduced in 1344 was the noble. It was worth a third of a pound (6s 8d), or half a mark and fell out of use in the 1460s.

The mark came from Denmark with the Vikings. It was not a coin, but a unit for accounting, like the pound. It was originally made up of 8 ore, each of which was worth 20d, which comes to 13s 4d, or two-thirds of a pound.

The gold florin was introduced in 1344. It was based on a coin produced in Florence which could be used internationally. Unfortunately the weight of the coin was less than its value (6s), so did not gain the acceptance necessary for it to be used abroad. It was withdrawn before the end of 1344.

The question about what the exchange rate would be between fourteenth-century England and twenty-first-century Britain can’t really be answered. The things that people did with money then had a different value. Even if you equate the skilled labourer’s 4d a day with the wages of his twenty-first-century equivalent, you still have no means of comparison. The way in which the fourteenth-century labourer used his money was different. He didn’t have a mortgage, nor did he go on holiday. He didn’t have a car, but he might have had a horse. He rarely had to pay tax, but there were tolls and fees for almost everything he wanted to do. There is no way of saying that his shillings and pennies would be worth so many pounds today.



Edward III by W. Mark Ormrod

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



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

You Can’t Wear That!


You probably regard what you wear as being entirely up to you. Despite this we all conform to dress codes at various times: school uniform, no jeans in the office, evening dress, smart casual in the pub. There are, however, no laws setting out what we can and can’t wear. The fourteenth century was, of course, completely different.

Status was everything.  What you wore, what you ate and the way you spoke showed with pinpoint accuracy exactly what your position was in society. People in the upper echelons were so obsessed with status that they were buried in clothes and with possessions reflecting their rank, so that everyone would know on the Day of Resurrection what their station was. When Alais’ mother dies in The Traitor’s Daughter having lost all her possessions, Hugh puts an amber bracelet into the grave to show that she was a noblewoman.

Whenever people are taken up with their own status, they’re generally worried about other people passing themselves off as being of the same status, which is just what people started to do in the fourteenth century.

In part this led to two sumptuary laws being passed in the fourteenth century. They had different causes, but the results were the same. In March 1337 a statute banned the export of English wool and the import of foreign cloth. Foreign cloth could not be worn by anyone. Furs could only be worn by those with an income of £100 per annum. Foreign weavers (mainly Flemish) were encouraged to move to England. The intention was to frighten the Flemings and to create a royal wool monopoly. It was a protectionist measure and it failed.  Wool was England’s most valuable product. Much of it went to weavers in Flanders where it was woven into cloth. Edward III used the export of wool to coerce the counts of Flanders into being his allies against France. It was not a particularly successful policy.

In the 1340s there was a big change in the way people dressed. Clothing became more ornate and fitted. Compare the loose-fitting clothes worn in the first half of the century in this picture with the gown from the end of the century at the top of the post.


After the Black Death (1348 – 1351) wages rose, despite the efforts of Edward III and his parliaments to prevent it. This meant that some people of lower status had more disposable income, and they used it to buy clothes or food. People who had not been able to afford them before began to buy richer fabrics and wore more fashionable clothes.

Parliament believed that inflation was caused by people wearing clothes and eating food beyond their station. In reality it had more to do with the shortage of labour leading to higher wages, although this was not the only reason. Bad harvests in the 1350s and 60s were also a factor. In 1363 Edward III passed another sumptuary law regulating what people could wear and eat.

Many people were afraid that the distinctions between gentility and peasants were becoming less marked. The legislation of 1363 allowed people with an income of £100 or more to eat and dress more luxuriously than everyone else. People were genuinely worried about not being able to tell what someone’s status was from their clothes.

Servants and artisans were not allowed to buy cloth costing more than 2 marks a length. A mark was worth 13 shillings and 4 pence which was two-thirds of a pound. No, I don’t know why either.

Ploughmen, agricultural workers and others with less than 40 shillings of goods could only wear blanket and russet wool cloth costing less than 1 shilling a length.

Regulations about what people could and could not wear were, of course, completely unenforceable and parliament asked for free trade to be reinstated in 1364. Attempts to restrict what people wore continued on and off for another hundred years.



England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh

A Social History of England 1200-1500 – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

Medieval Church Tithes


Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn exterior 4

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn Exterior

On a recent journey to Bath I drove through Bradford-on-Avon, where there is a splendid fourteenth-century tithe barn. Sadly, the weather was dreadful on that day, so the photographs are very dark, but you should be able to get an idea of the size of the barn.

There are about 200 surviving tithe barns in England of varying sizes. English Heritage, who are responsible for it, tells me that this one is 51 metres long or, if you prefer, 55.77 yards.

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn exterior

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn Exterior

Tithe barns were built to store a parish’s tithes. The tithe was the tenth of the crop given to the church. The object of the tithe was to provide for the parish priest, to pay for the upkeep of the church building, to provide alms for the poor. A proportion was also sent to the local bishop.

As soon as the crop had been reaped a tenth was taken from the field and stored in the barn.

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn interor 6

Bradford-on-Avon Tithe Barn Interior

There were three different types of tithes:

  • praedial tithes, based on the income from produce;
  • mixed tithes, based on income from stock and labour;
  • personal tithes, based on income entirely from labour.

Whether you were someone who had your own land and produced your own crops, or earned your living from labour, you paid a tenth of it to the church. Income from woodland was exempt. I haven’t discovered why this should be the case.

Not all parishes had an incumbent rector, i.e. the priest responsible for the parish who lived and worked in it. Somethings this was because the rector was an institution, such as a monastery or a college. This was the case at Bradford-on-Avon, where Shaftesbury Abbey had the living. An absent rector would appoint a deputy, a vicar (from the Latin vicarious, meaning deputy) to look after the parish. The tithe would be shared between the rector and the vicar.

The barn at Bradford-on –Avon belonged to Shaftesbury Abbey, almost 30 miles away, which meant that the parish would have had a vicar.

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn cruck roof 2

Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn Cruck Roof

The barns were not only used for storage. They were large, roofed buildings and provided shelter against snow, rain and cold. Cows could be milked inside. Ewes could be kept warm and safe during lambing. On wet days a barn provided a space where labourers could carry out tasks that would normally be done outside.

In theory, the contents of the tithe barns could be used to dispense food to people in times of need.



The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys – Stephen Friar

Medieval Lives – Terry Jones

The English Manor c1200 – c1500 – Mark Bailey


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Buildings, The Medieval Church

Fortune’s Wheel


If she were constant and behaved reasonably, so that she was just and true to everyone, she would not be Fortune. Machaut

In last week’s about gambling I used a picture of Fortune’s Wheel to illustrate the chancy nature of such activities. In one of the comments Fragglerocking said that it wasn’t clear what it was, so I thought I would crop the picture and enlarge it a bit.

Although it was a Christian society, some people held beliefs in the fourteenth century that we would struggle to reconcile to Christianity. Fortune’s Wheel is one of them.

The basic concept is that Fortune raises men up and can cast them down again when they least expect it. It’s almost a protection against pride. All men are on the wheel and the wheel turns all the time.

No one knew better than a fourteenth-century Englishman, or woman, how randomly the wheel was spinning. At either end of the century an anointed king was deposed and, probably, murdered. Men who had been a king’s favourite were executed. The ravages of the Black Death struck as if it were Fortune herself. Both high and low were taken, even the Archbishop of Canterbury and a daughter of the king. No one could predict who might be next.

In the image above you can see a man being raised up, a king, a king losing his crown and a man with nothing. Fortune sits in the middle spinning the wheel. There are many medieval pictures showing variations of this image.

The belief in Fortune’s Wheel dated at least from Roman times and the wheel itself was a popular literary figure in the fourteenth century.  It appears in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.  Troilus complains that Fortune has treated him unfairly and his friend points out that Fortune can’t be expected to do otherwise. If she stopped turning her wheel which raises up men and casts them down, she would no longer be Fortune.

Boccaccio used similar imagery in The Decameron, a book of tales he put into the mouths of people who had fled from Florence to avoid the Black Death.


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

Medieval Gambling


Last week we looked at the games that medieval people played, and where there are games there’s usually gambling.  Most of the games played were games of skill, but dicing and coin tossing were won or lost by pure chance, and these were the games that came in for the most criticism.

It wasn’t just the risk of huge losses involved in gambling that caused it to be frowned on, but also the locations where it took place. Gambling during mass in church must have been fairly widespread, because it was something that had to be managed in several places. There were no pews or chairs in medieval churches and the parishioners stood whilst they were in church. This must have provided good cover for men who didn’t have anywhere else to meet without drawing attention to themselves.

Gambling was rife in inns, as innkeepers acted as bankers and pawnbrokers. They would hold a gambler’s property in exchange for money so that they could continue to gamble. Many men lost everything in this way, including their clothes. This is one of the reasons why dicing was banned in many towns. Men who had very little in the way of possessions could lose them all very quickly.

Great losses weren’t limited to the poor, however. The aristocracy also gambled and they could lose much larger sums of money. Edward III lost almost £4 in one day in 1333. Using our usual guide to the value of money – the 4 pennies that represented a day’s wage for a skilled labourer – the king’s losses represent 240 days of work.

Gambling wasn’t only considered a problem generally, but it was also recognised as a specific problem in armies. Richard I banned gambling in his army when he was in the Holy Land in 1192. If a soldier was discovered gambling, he was stripped naked and whipped for three days.

Problems with gambling weren’t limited to the English. Geoffrey de Charny, the standard-bearer of the Oriflamme (the French war flag), who was killed at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, wrote a book called The Book of Chivalry. It was a subject in which he was well-versed, although some of his actions seem less than chivalrous today. He was completely opposed to gambling, which afflicted the French aristocracy as much as it did the English. He also condemned tennis, because of the wagers made on the games.

Try as I might, I have no idea why this might be, but in 1343 playing with dice while wearing a mask was forbidden by a bye-law in London.



A Social History of England ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

By Sword and Fire by Sean McGlynn

Edward III and the Triumph of Britain by Richard Barber



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

The Games Medieval People Played


Last week we were looking at medieval holidays. It was all very well having time off work, but what did people do with it? Fairly obviously, eating and drinking played a part, but there were other activities which varied according to the time of year.

Some of them were of a fairly martial nature. Archery practice was important all year round, and men practised at the butts and at something called shooting at cock, which involved a live cockerel. I assume that this has less to do with cruelty than with the benefit of shooting at a moving target.

Other martial activities included wrestling, javelin-throwing and throwing a knife at a peg. These were fun, but were also developing skills useful in warfare.

There were ball games: handball, football and bowling. Football was a vicious game and injuries, even deaths, were not uncommon. Teams varied in size: a tithing could take on another tithing or a village another village. The distance between the goals varied according to the number of players. Bowling was a bit more sedate and took place out of doors anywhere where there was enough flat ground. A round stone was used as the bowl.

On the side of pointless entertainments were quoits, blind man’s buff and skittles. Again, these were mostly outside activities. In the summer boating and swimming were popular, but led to many fatalities.

More sedentary occupations were dicing and board games, which were played by rich and poor alike. The most popular dice games were raffle, with three dice, and hazard, with two.

One of my favourite medieval board games is merrelles, or nine men’s morris. It’s for two players who each have nine pieces in two colours, e.g. player A has white and player B has black.  The aim is for a player to get three of the pieces in a line horizontally or vertically, removing the opponent’s pieces until they only have two pieces left and can no longer play.


The board is blank at the beginning and the players take it in turn to place their pieces. If one of them succeeds in making a line of three, they can remove one of the other’s pieces. Once all the pieces are on the board, the players take it in turns to move their pieces trying to join three in a row. The piece can only be moved to an adjacent space and cannot leap over any other pieces.

It’s a very ancient game, dating back at least to Roman times. It needs no complicated equipment. The lines can be scratched on the ground and small pebbles used as the pieces.

Dancing was an activity in which everyone could take part. At certain holidays this was done round a bonfire.

The aristocracy hunted, feasted and jousted. Although these were entertaining, they also had serious uses, in that hunting provided food for the household, feasting ensured that the aristocracy were healthy and in good condition for war and jousting meant that they were well-practised when it came time to fight in a battle or skirmish. They could also play tennis. Tennis is mentioned in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, dating from 1385, which shows that it was already fairly well-known in England. Tennis was the same game as handball, but was played with racquets.

Chess is another game mentioned in Troilus and Criseyde, as Criseyde reflects on how pleasant her life is without a jealous and controlling husband to shout ‘Checkmate!’, or ‘Chek mat!’ as Chaucer has it.

Aristocratic women probably had more leisure time than anyone else. They sewed, chatted to one another, listened to books being read aloud, or read books themselves.



Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 – ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment

Medieval Holidays


Neither holidays nor weekends as we know them existed in the fourteenth century, although the biography of Edward II that I’m reading at the moment does talk about a holiday he took in the Fens in the autumn of 1315 much to the bemusement of his barons.

Despite this, there was leisure time and quite a lot of it. The longest period was the twelve days of Christmas. This started on Christmas day and ended on the feast of the Epiphany – 6th January. It was very handy that the longest holiday coincided with the shortest days of the year when very little work could be done anyway.  Houses and churches were decorated with holly, ivy, and bay leaves.

Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins, was also a holiday. It was the last time for 46 days people could eat meat, if they had any. During Lent there was fasting from many types of food, so Shrove Tuesday was a day for eating up what was left of any of these ‘forbidden’ foods.

Easter brought another holiday: seven days without work. The second Monday and Tuesday after Easter were known as Hocktide. This holiday was celebrated by contests between men and women. The women always won.

Whitsun (Pentecost) at the end of May was followed by another week of holiday. This was when people went to watch the mystery plays if they were being performed nearby.

All of these long holidays took place during the slack period of the agricultural year, although things were starting to pick up by Whitsun.

The feast day of the patron saint of a church was also a holiday for the parish.

Most people didn’t work on Sundays and some didn’t work on Saturdays or the vigils of feasts.

A local fair was also the occasion for a day off to see the travelling entertainers and to buy things which might not be available locally.  A fair was usually held once a year.

When all these days are added together, there could be up to 115 holy days a year, in theory. On those holy days only essential work would be done, such as making sure animals had enough to eat drink and milking cows. Even during harvest most people wanted to observe holy days and cease work. If you were a servant, however, you would still have to work for many of the holy days.

In practice, many people were denied some of their holidays. It wasn’t unknown for lords of the manor to be taken to court by their villeins for allowing them only two or three days for Christmas and Easter, and correspondingly fewer holidays during the rest of the year.

Next week we’ll have a look at what people did with their leisure time.



Edward II: The Unconventional King – Kathryn Warner

Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 – ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment

Popular Medieval Saints


I’ve just finished reading Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. Written in the first few years of the fifteenth century, its purpose was to refute various claims about the weaknesses and unreliability of women. De Pizan was the first woman known to make her living from writing and she made her case by telling the stories of remarkable women from the Bible, Greek and Roman myths, and antiquity, as well as from the first centuries of Christianity. The final section of the book concentrates on women martyred for their faith. The notes at the back of the book state that the examples chosen were popular saints in the Middle Ages and I wondered what might make one saint more popular than others.

The most popular saints were men – St Peter, St Paul, the Evangelists and St Stephen. These were men who were either with Jesus or who were important in the early years of Christianity. Since they don’t serve de Pizan’s purpose, she ignores them and chooses women. These women were martyrs, thus she ignores St Mary Magdalene, who was not only with Jesus but was also supposed to have died in France.

Like the majority of the early saints, these women have gruesome stories. De Pizan’s first three are St Catherine of Alexandria, St Margaret of Antioch and St Lucy of Rome,

St Catherine was a fourth-century martyr. According to de Pizan she was the daughter of the king of Alexandria and she inherited everything when her father died. Instead of marrying, she preferred to dedicate herself to God and remain a virgin. She was well-educated and, when Emperor Maxentius arrived to carry out an important sacrifice to pagan gods, she went to tell him the error of his ways. He sent for fifty Egyptian wise men, but they thought that convincing a mere woman that she was wrong was a waste of their time. She converted them, however, and the emperor had them killed. A sexual element enters the story now, but the emperor, despite his desire for her, had Catherine tortured and starved. This didn’t work and he had her ground between two wheels studded with sharp blades, which broke. Seeing this, emperor’s wife converted, so the emperor had her killed, which caused many more people to convert. Somewhat bizarrely, the emperor proposed marriage to Catherine. Since Catherine had dedicated her virginity to God, she refused and he had her beheaded. When she was killed milk flowed from her wounds instead of blood.

I’m not sure how the torture of St Catherine of Alexandria on a wheel led to the creation of the Catherine wheel, a popular firework for Guy Fawkes when I was a child, but it did. If you don’t know what a Catherine wheel looks like, here’s a video.

The cult of St Catherine sprang up suddenly in the 9th century and there was no mention of her in earlier stories of martyrs. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she didn’t exist, just that no early record of her has been found. She was a useful saint to have on your side since she was a bride of Christ, she was clever enough to beat the Egyptian wise men and she was considered to be the protector of the dying. She was the patron saint of young girls, students (including the clergy), nurses and craftsmen. She was popular in England and thirty-six wall paintings of her are still in existence.

St Margaret was another beautiful virgin from a well-off family, this time in Antioch. She caught the eye of Olybrius, the local prefect. She turned down his advances and he imprisoned her. When this didn’t work, he had her tortured and the instruments of torture were miraculously destroyed. This caused those who saw it to convert to Christianity. Olybrius had Margaret beheaded.

St Margaret probably did not exist and a declaration to that effect was made by the church towards the end of the fifth century. She was, however, very popular in England as well as in other parts of Europe. Her popularity arose from her promises that anyone reading her story would receive a crown in heaven; those who called on her name on their death-bed would have divine protection from devils; those who dedicated churches to her would receive anything they pray for that was useful; and pregnant women who asked for her help would be safe when they gave birth.

St Lucy of Rome was also a fourth-century virgin. She was kidnapped by a barbarian king, Aucejas. By preaching to him, she managed to convince him not to rape her. Due to her prayers, he was successful in everything he did for twenty years. God told her to go to Rome where she would be martyred. Aucejas went with her as Lucy’s servant. When she was about to be beheaded, Aucejas declared himself a Christian and died beside her.

St Lucy’s existence is so doubtful that she isn’t even mentioned in my dictionary of saints and all I can find online about her is the same story that de Pizan tells.

Like many of the women mentioned in de Pizan’s book, St Catherine, St Margaret and St Lucy provide examples of steadfastness. Despite torture and the threat of death they never waver from their paths.



The Book of the City of Ladies – Christine de Pizan

The Oxford Dictionary of Saints – David Hugh Farmer


April Munday is the author of several books set in the fourteenth century. Find out more here.


Filed under Fourteenth Century, The Medieval Church