Category Archives: Fourteenth Century

Medieval Officers of the Law


Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at the various courts of fourteenth-century England. Today it’s the turn of the officials who ran the courts.

I’ve already written about the person who managed the manorial court. This was the manor’s reeve.

At the county, or shire, level the sheriff was responsible for the court, which was held once a month or so. He was the chief officer in a shire, or the shire reeve. The sheriff represented the crown and investigated crimes in his jurisdiction. He could also try minor offences. When someone was accused of a serious crime, he had to detain them until a judge visited the county. Sheriffs collected revenue, fines, and rents. They also executed writs, put together juries, guarded prisoners and presided over the county court. It was also the sheriff’s job to investigate things other than crimes and report back to the king.  They had military as well as legal responsibilities. They gathered men to fight in the king’s wars and kept them fed.

It won’t surprise you to learn that sheriffs could be bribed. They had great power and any threat they made to extort money could probably be carried out with impunity. Despite it being illegal, it wasn’t unknown for them to torture prisoners, and they could make money by threatening well-off prisoners with torture. Should someone escape from one of his prisons or if he caught someone committing a crime, the sheriff could behead them then and there, provided the coroner was present. He was a man greatly to be feared.

The bailiff was the chief officer of a hundred. He was subsidiary to the sheriff and he also represented the crown. Of the 628 hundreds in England, 358 were in the hands of lords of the manor. Usually they allowed sheriffs access to their courts, but they didn’t have to, and some of them did not. Many of these lords had the right to appoint coroners and hang criminals without reference to the sheriff.

Judges travelled out to local courts. This was supposed to be a way of decreasing corruption. As we saw in the post about outlaws, local courts could be swayed by fear and bribery. Since the judges, their wealth and their families were not located in the areas where they were administering justice, they were supposed to be ‘untouchable’. As we saw in the case of Sir Richard Willoughby, this was not necessarily the case.

The coroner was another court official. One of his duties was to make sure that goods and chattels belonging to an executed man or any fines taken in the hundred and county courts went to the king, and not to anyone else. Coroners held inquests on dead bodies. Much as today, it was their job to find out whether the person had been murdered, committed suicide, died naturally or by accident. They heard appeals and the confessions of outlaws. They recorded and reported burglaries, arson and homicides to the royal justices.

A town was a division of a hundred. It was usually part of a manor. The town constable was responsible for making the bailiff aware of crimes and bringing cases to the hundred court. The constable watched suspicious people and organised the pursuit of wrong-doers when the hue and cry was raised. This was a loud noise telling the people of a town or village that a burglary or murder had been committed. Everyone who heard it was supposed to leave what they were doing to view the scene of the crime and to pursue the criminal.

The chief tithing-man had to report to the manorial court or the constable, depending on where the tithing was.

In 1361 the position of justice of the peace was created. This was a local lord of the manor who held quarter sessions. The trials were before juries and the justices had the ability to give the death penalty. They gradually replaced sheriffs and hundred courts. Justices of the peace could punish rioters and people who broke the peace. They could arrest and imprison them or hold their goods and money against their continued good behaviour in the future. They could try people for certain crimes. The powers of the justices of the peace increased over the rest of the century. One of their later powers included supervising laws preventing workers from overcharging for their labour, which was a common occurrence after the Black Death.



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

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

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




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Medieval Courts of Law


The fourteenth century was a time of great change in legal proceedings in England and many things which had been important at the beginning of the century had ceased to apply by the end.

England was divided into various administrative units, of which the county was the most important. There were 39 counties (or shires) and 4 county boroughs (towns administered like counties). Below the county was the hundred, which originated as an Anglo-Saxon administrative district. There were 628 hundreds across the country and the number per county varied. Each county and hundred had their own court.

We looked at the manorial court last week. In summary, it dealt with local customs and disputes between tenants on the same manor, but there were obviously occasions when there would be a dispute with someone from another manor, or a different part of the country altogether. These disputes had to be taken to a different court.

Every manor and town had their own bylaws, but the king’s law was the common law which applied to everyone, in theory. Parliament often updated old laws and created new ones. Some of the laws created in the fourteenth century are still in force today.

A county was divided into hundreds, each of which had its own court.  The hundred court was held every three weeks. 12 freemen from across the hundred were called to make up a jury. The cases they were asked to attend included fights, fraud, disputes over small debts, and theft of household goods and animals. Most cases were dealt with by means of a fine. If you started a fight you could be fined between 6d and a shilling (12d).To put this in context, the daily wage for a skilled labourer was about 4d. If blood had been drawn in the fight the fine was over 2 shillings (24d).

The hundred court was the place to take complaints about freemen, as they were not covered by the manorial courts. Private hundred courts (i.e. those run by a lord of the manor) were court leets. These could cover a hundred or just a manor. The leet court could only issue fines. It dealt with breaches of the peace and administering the tithings within its area of jurisdiction.

Cases of murder, grievous assault, and rape were heard at the sheriff’s tourn, which was a special hundred court. The sheriff’s tourn usually took place around Easter and Michaelmas (29th September). This was the time when the sheriff appeared in the hundred court, hearing about cases that needed to go to the royal courts. He had to makes sure that all the accused were in custody. During the tourn the sheriff checked on the tithings and adjudicated minor issues. This was the place where the tithings could be fined for not reporting a crime by one of their number. The fines were huge. A tithing could be fined £10 and more. £10 was 2,400d. Even if there were 15 men in the tithing, £10 was almost an impossible sum to find between them. The villeins in a tithing were not skilled labourers and usually only made money by selling surplus crops that they had grown. Avoiding such a large fine was a great inducement to the tithing to hand over the man they thought was responsible for the crime, whether or not they wanted to protect him.

The next court was the county court. It was for small claims where the amount in dispute was less than £2. Preliminary hearings of cases going to the royal courts were held in the county court. This was the court which could declare men outlaws, if they were called and failed to appear four times. Once a man had been made an outlaw, he could be beheaded on sight. The county court also heard appeals and read out statutes, ordinances and proclamations from the king and parliament.

There were three royal courts: the Court of the Exchequer, the Court of the King’s Bench, and the Court of the Common Pleas. The first heard cases about financial arrangements with the Crown. The King’s Bench heard cases from lower courts and appeals. The Common Pleas was a court of appeal where people could sue one another for debt, theft and fraud.

Parliament was the highest court and it usually tried cases of high treason. The penalty for this was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This meant that a man was stripped and hanged until he was near death. Then he was taken down, disembowelled and emasculated. Finally he was beheaded and hacked into four pieces. It was not a punishment which was used very often in the fourteenth century. Punishment of crimes was either hanging, if it was a capital crime, or a fine.

In addition to these courts, there were also ecclesiastical courts for clerics, which we’ll look at later. The king’s forests were also outside the common law. They were under forest law, which had its own set of officials and courts. The forests were not forests full of trees, but were the king’s hunting preserves, such as the New Forest in Hampshire. William the Conqueror had towns and villages removed across the country so that there were large areas across which he could hunt. These were maintained by later kings.



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

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

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


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Manorial Courts


This is an updated version of a post I wrote for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It appeared there on 8th December 2016.

The manorial courts were one step up in law enforcement from the tithings that we looked at last week. Each manor had a court and the court governed the lives of everyone who lived on the manor, even determining when they could plant and when they could harvest. It fined them if they allowed their animals to stray onto the lord’s demesne, and it was where they took their claims against one another to be judged.

The manor was made up of the lord’s demesne as well as the land that he leased to tenants. The demesne was the farm that the lord kept for his own benefit.  The people who worked the manor’s land were both freemen and serfs (cottagers, smallholders or villeins). The manorial court dealt with the serfs’ issues, while the freemen were able to go to other courts, which we’ll come to later.  It was also able to create new bylaws for the manor.

Some lords had more than one manor and could not look after all of them closely, or they were away at war or absent for some other reason. The manorial court was one of the ways in which the manor could be managed whether the lord was there or not. He had a steward, who looked after his interests in his absence, but it was the village officials (reeve, hayward and beadle amongst others) who made sure that things happened as they should.

The manorial court decided the land boundaries and the days on which animals could graze in the fields. The steward presided over the court, but the village elected the officials from among themselves. The steward could not tell the court what to do and the court could appeal to the lord if necessary. Usually the business transacted by the court had no direct reference to the lord’s own affairs since it dealt with village problems such as loans not being repaid; men not turning out to work on the lord’s demesne; theft; the erection of a fence in the wrong place; or one villager injuring another.

The court was run by the rich villeins who provided the jurors and officials. The court was supposed to meet every three weeks, but some met less often. All the serfs in the village had to attend. Those who did not were fined. The court was often held in the nave of the church, the part that ‘belonged’ to the village. There were not many places in the village large enough to hold the court and many were simply held in the open air, often in the churchyard. Some manorial courts met in the hall of the manor house itself.

The jurors pronounced judgement on their fellow villagers (and occasionally on the lord) and this was sometimes put to the rest of the village as well for their assent. When making a judgement they had to take into account what they knew of the law, the customs of the manor and the manor’s bylaws. All the jurors and everyone else in the court knew both parties in every case that was brought before them, which was supposed to make it easier to come to a correct judgement. The system of justice was mostly based on the way in which society worked. People lived in small communities where everyone knew everyone else’s business and character. If you, as a villein, were asked whether your neighbour, Peter, had stolen from another neighbour, John, you would know the characters of both men and could assess whether John was making a false claim against Peter or whether Peter was a known thief. You did not have to have seen the (alleged) crime take place in order to be able to work out what had happened, nor did you need any evidence.

Villagers had to pay a fee to the lord get their case heard. The lord of the manor benefited from any fines issued by the court and the court was often the source of a large part of the lord’s income. The manorial court also required payments to the lord on all kinds of occasions – death, inheritance and marriage all had their appropriate fee. When these things happened part of the lord’s land was transferred from one person to another and the fee was to obtain the lord’s permission for that transfer. The court could generate a lot of income for the lord, and fines and fees tended to increase after the Black Death when there were fewer tenants to pay rents. The steward’s clerk recorded the cases and any fines or fees. As well as fines which went into the lord’s coffers, the court could also award damages to be paid by the guilty party in a case to the injured party.

One of the commonest cases to come before a manorial court was the accusation that someone was selling ale before it had been tasted by the ale taster. Ale was brewed at home and sold to the neighbours, who came to the brewer’s house to drink it. The ale taster’s rôle was to ensure that a consistent quality and price were maintained.

It is thanks to the surviving manor court rolls that so much is known about everyday life in the Middle Ages in England. What they show, however, is the things that went wrong and not the things that happened exactly as everybody thought they should.



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

Medieval Lives – Terry Jones

Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

Making a Living in the Middle Ages – Christopher Dyer

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



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Medieval Tithings

Medieval violence

Following on from last week’s post about outlaws, I thought I ought to find out about the legal system and the courts in the fourteenth century. If the outlaws in my novel are to be brought to justice, I should understand how that might happen. Somewhat predictably, this is rather complicated, so I’m going to tackle it in a piecemeal fashion over a few posts.

The tithing was the smallest and lowest unit of law enforcement in England. Every boy or man over 12 was supposed to be in a tithing. This was a group of 10 men, sometimes more, sometimes less. Together they were responsible for producing one of their number in court if required.  If they could not produce him, they were fined and the person they were supposed to bring to court would be outlawed.

Although this was supposed to apply to all men whether free or not, many groups were exempted: magnates, knights (and their kinsmen) and clerics. People who were in a household were also excluded. This would cover servants in a smaller household and soldiers as well as servants in a larger one. The head of the household was responsible for making sure anyone in it appeared in court if they were accused of a crime. The head of the household was not considered to be responsible for the crime, only for getting the accused to court.

Women were exempt because they were the responsibility of the head of the household of which they were a part: father, husband, brother, son or another male relative.

The system of tithings was known as frankpledge and had come down from the Anglo-Saxons.

The number of men in a tithing was usually related to location. If there were only 8 eligible men in a village, there would be 8. If there were 15, there would be 15. In towns all the men in one street might be in a single tithing.

The tithing was meant to be a self-policing group. Another of their responsibilities was to report crimes. If they did not, they were all fined. When a boy joined the tithing at 12 he had to take an oath to observe and uphold the law.

The leet court, the lowest of England’s courts, ensured that everyone who should be in a tithing was in one by checking once or twice a year. The members of the tithing had to pay for this inspection.

As with many other things, the tithing became less important in the time of social change after the Black Death and continued to decline thereafter.

You can probably see that the system was open to abuse. The tithing was responsible both for reporting the crime and for handing over the accused for justice. It would be a very easy matter to punish one of their number who was unpopular.

The tithing had a number of duties:

  • to ensure their members attended court as required;
  • to offer testimonies;
  • to hand over the belongings of fugitives to the crown;
  • to pursue and capture the suspects when a crime was committed in the area covered by the tithing;
  • to send representatives to the hundred court;
  • to present all crimes (including murder, assault, poaching, theft, breaches of the peace, trading offences, counterfeiting and obstructing the king’s highway) in their area to the hundred court. Minor offences were dealt with elsewhere.

Each tithing had its chief tithing-man, sometimes known as the capital pledge. He was supposed to make sure that all the men eligible to be in his tithing were in it and that they observed the law.

In my novel it would be the duty of the tithing to report the crimes of the outlaws. As we saw last week, outlaws were good at terrorising those who would bring them to justice. They also tended to be led by minor aristocrats, whilst the members of tithings were more likely to be villeins or at the lower end of society.  It would take a very brave villein to accuse an aristocrat of a crime, especially when he had many heavily-armed friends.


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

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

The English Manor c1200 – c1500 – Mark Bailey

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



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Medieval Outlaws


I haven’t really looked at crime before on the blog, except to say that there was a perception that there was more of it after the Black Death, but I’ve written the first draft of a novel in which a band of outlaws terrorises an area of Oxfordshire and, as always, I want to know that what I’m writing about is correct.

Put all thoughts of Robin Hood out of your head, though. These were not men who robbed the rich to give to the poor. They would rob, rape or kill anyone on behalf of anyone, or nobody. Like Robin Hood, however, the leaders usually came from the aristocracy. Because any inheritance went to the oldest son, younger sons often had nothing. Like everyone else, they couldn’t marry unless they had the means of supporting a family. They were usually brought up as squires and trained to fight. Such men tended to make a living from wars, taking ransoms or booty to set themselves up. When there was no war to make them rich, these men often became mercenaries or turned to crime, unless they already had enough money to settle down. Since they were usually trained soldiers, outlaws were often pardoned because the king needed them in his army when he went to war.

There were several large gangs of outlaws in the fourteenth century. One of the most famous was the Folvilles. There were seven brothers, sons of a minor aristocrat. The oldest of them inherited their father’s manor and the others made crime their livelihood. They robbed, raped, kidnapped, beat and killed people as a way of life. It’s possible that the ‘law-abiding’ oldest brother assisted them with information, even if he didn’t physically take part in their criminal activities. At various times some of the brothers were caught and tried for murder, but acquitted. One of them, Richard, was even a priest for over twenty years, until he was dragged from his church and beheaded.

The oldest Folville son, John, inherited and did not become an outlaw. The second son, Eustace, inherited a small manor near his older brother, but obviously considered it insufficient. He and two of his younger brothers joined two other men to kill an old enemy in 1326. By the end of 1328 Eustace had been accused of four murders, a rape and three robberies. He probably committed more than these known and recorded crimes. The members of the gang were pardoned by Roger Mortimer so that they could fight for him against the earl of Lancaster, who had rebelled against him and Queen Isabella.

The Folvilles returned to their life of crime shortly afterwards. By 1331 they were criminals for hire. They joined with other gangs and kidnapped Sir Richard Willoughby, a wealthy judge. They robbed him and ransomed him for 1,300 marks (or £866 and a few pennies). To put this in context, a skilled labourer earned about 4 pennies a day. There were 240 pennies to a pound. £866 represents about 52,000 days labour, or 142 years (provided I’ve got the sums right).

Following this, serious attempts were made to capture and punish those involved. Two hundred members of the various gangs were arrested, but only fifty appeared before judges. Most of those were acquitted, since those involved in bringing them to justice were terrified of them.

Another famous group of fourteenth-century outlaws was the Coterel gang who operated in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire from 1328 to 1332. They were also minor aristocracy and served Edward III as well as committing crimes. They were even bailiffs and Members of Parliament. Occasionally they worked with the Folvilles.

In 1338 many members of the gangs went with Edward III to the Low Countries at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. Eustace Folville gave up crime, was knighted and served on the Crécy campaign in 1346. He died peacefully the following year, living longer than other members of the gang. When Eustace gave up crime, leadership of the gang went to his brother, Richard, who was rector of the church on Eustace’s manor. Members of the gang sought sanctuary in the church when men arrived to arrest them. Instead of respecting sanctuary, their pursuers dragged them from the church and beheaded them.

As a result of what I’ve learned, I’ve decided that the outlaws I’ve created are far too tame. They’re going to have to be a lot tougher to live up to the reputation of the Folvilles and the Coterels.


Medieval Lives by Terry Jones

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


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Medieval Sanctuary

Church Porch at Boxgrove Priory

Church Porch, Boxgrove Priory

I had almost finished writing a post about outlaws when I realised that it wouldn’t make sense if I didn’t also write about sanctuary. The post was already quite long, so I didn’t want to do it within the post.The dastardly deeds of medieval outlaws will have to wait until next week.

Sanctuary was the protection provided to a person fleeing arrest for committing a serious crime, that is, one with the death penalty. There were, sadly, a large number of crimes in that category. The criminal could take refuge inside a church for up to forty days. This meant, in theory, that he (or she) was safe from those trying to arrest him for that period. In practice that protection was often illusory, especially in more remote areas. In order for the sanctuary to be valid, the person claiming it had to confess their crime to a witness.

It was only a temporary respite, however. As soon as he left sanctuary he could be hanged, unless he promised to leave the country. He was supposed to go to the nearest port and take ship. If he managed to evade his enemies’ revenge on the way, he probably took another name and went to live in another part of the country, or become an outlaw, if he wasn’t one already.

Once the person was inside the church the pursuers had to set a guard to make sure that he did not escape. They were not permitted to starve him out, and he was supposed to be allowed to leave the church to relieve himself and return.

You can probably see many ways in which this could go wrong for the person inside the church. People were often physically removed from the church and killed. If, for some reason, they could not be removed from the church, they could be denied food. Should they survive the forty days they could be killed on leaving the church. If that didn’t happen, they could be killed on their way to the coast. The odds were very much against them surviving to become an outlaw, or anything else.

Sometimes the crime was so bad that the person responsible was refused sanctuary. Isabella de Bury killed a priest in 1320 and the bishop of London said that the church would not shelter her. She was taken from the church where she had sought sanctuary and hanged.


Medieval Lives by Terry Jones

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


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Paying Homage in the Middle Ages


My current work in progress is a novella in which the hero has to pay homage to Edward III. Although I had a basic idea of what this meant, I didn’t know the details and a reader would want details.

Homage was paid by a man to his lord for land. The vassal knelt before the (usually) seated king with his hands joined together as if praying (or begging) and the king put his hands around them.  The vassal was granted land, which he held from the king. He did not own it. Technically he held it only for as long as he provided the services to the king which he promised during his act of homage. The vassal became a tenant-in-chief. The services he promised to provide were usually military support to the king. If the land was given into the care of the church, the bishop or abbot was to provide the service of prayers and charity.  In theory at least, if those services were not provided, the king could take back the land and give it to someone else.

The vassal was unlikely to be able to manage all the land that he had been given, so he would share it out amongst his own followers, who went through a similar process in that they swore to provide a service of some kind to him. This might be military service or it might be labour.

At the bottom of the chain the agricultural service owed to a lord of the manor was gradually replaced by rent in the fourteenth century, especially after the Black Death. Some men still owed field service to their lords, but freemen increasingly paid rent. Field service entailed working in the fields of the demesne – the part of the estate which was for the direct use of the lord of the manor. Some of the men who worked there were paid by the lord of the manor, but some paid for the use of the land they held from him with their labour.

One of the causes of discontent for Edward I, Edward II and Edward III was that they had to pay homage to the king of France. According to a treaty made by Henry III he was the lord from whom they held the duchy of Aquitaine. Part of the homage was promising not to bear arms against the king of France, which put them in a difficult position when he encroached on their territory, or when Edward III decided to assert his claim to the French crown.

On 6th June 1329 Edward III paid homage to Philippe VI, king of France, for Aquitaine. This event is depicted in the image at the top of the page. In 1325 he had done the same to Charles IV, on behalf of his father, Edward II, but Charles had been his uncle. The direct line of Capet monarchs ended with Charles IV. Through his mother, Queen Isabella, Edward III was the only living legitimate grandson of Philippe IV and had, he thought, a valid claim to the French crown. Instead, Philippe de Valois became king.  Philippe VI  had to go back to his grandfather, Philippe III, in order to make his claim, while Edward III’s claim was through his own grandfather, Philippe IV, son of Philippe III. It was later said that the homage paid by Edward III was not real homage, because Philippe VI was merely the son of a count and a king could not pay homage to someone of lower rank.

When Edward of Woodstock (later known as the Black Prince), heir of Edward III, was made Prince of Aquitaine in 1362, he expected the nobles of Aquitaine to pay homage to him, but not all of them were willing to do so. Many of them believed that they should only pay homage to a king and others refused to pay homage to anyone, maintaining that they did not hold their lands in their own right and not from any lord.

The act of paying homage was not supposed to be private, but public. There should be witnesses to the exact promises made. A thirteenth-century legal treatise known as Bracton has a template for a tenant paying homage to his lord:

[The tenant] ought to place both his hands between the two hands of his lord, by which there is symbolised protection, defence and warranty on the part of the lord and subjection and reverence on that of the tenant, and say these words: I become your man with respect to the tenement which I hold of you… and I will bear you fealty in life and limb and earthly honour… saving the faith owed the lord king and his heirs.



Edward the Black Prince: Power in Medieval Europe – David Green

The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England – ed. Nigel Saul

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


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Kings

Medieval Weights and Measures


I’m sorry, but there is really no way to make this interesting.  In my novels the characters talk about how far they’ve travelled, how much things weigh and how much ale is left in a barrel. In order to do this convincingly, they can’t talk about kilometres, kilogrammes and litres. It turns out that they can talk about feet, yards and miles, though, which is a relief.

Measurements were starting to become standardised in the fourteenth century. Weights were supposed to be standardised to what was used in Winchester, but many towns retained their local weights and measures. I can see that there might have been some very great misunderstandings when people from different parts of the country had dealings with one another.

These are the most common medieval weights and measures:


Furlong – the length of a furrow of a field ploughed by a team of eight oxen. It was forty perches or 220 yards. This was the long side of the acre. The other side was 22 yards.

League – approximately three miles.

Mile – there were officially two different miles. One was the statute mile and the other was the Old French mile, which is 1.25 statute miles. There were also, of course, local miles of varying lengths. The length of a mile wasn’t fixed formally until the end of the sixteenth century.

Rod/perch/pole – five and a half yards.


Ell – used for measuring cloth. It was usually forty-five inches, but could be twenty-seven inches for Flemish cloth. The ruler used for measuring cloth was known as an ell-wand.

Foot – twelve inches.

Inch – the French word for inch will help us here. It’s ‘pouce’, which also means thumb. An inch was the width of an adult thumb.

Yard – three feet, but originally the length of an outstretched arm. Henry I is supposed to have used his own arm as the standard.


Bushel – eight gallons.

Chaldron – 36 bushels.

Hundredweight – 112lb except in Devon, where it was 120lb.

Pound (lb) – 16 ounces (oz), except in Devon, where it was 18oz.

Quarter (or core) – eight bushels. It was used for weighing grain.

Stone – 14lb, except in Devon, where it was 16lb.


Gallon – varied depending on whether it was ale or wine being measured.

Hogshead – sixty-three wine gallons, fifty-two-and-a-half ale gallons. In London it was usually forty-eight ale gallons.


Acre – the amount of land a team of 8 oxen can plough in a day.

Ploughland – the amount of land a team of 8 oxen can plough in a year.

Both of these will clearly vary greatly across the country. An acre in Norfolk will be larger than an acre in Yorkshire or Devon simply because Norfolk is flatter and easier to plough. Edward I tried, and failed, to standardise the size of an acre.

Rood – quarter of an acre.

You’ll have noticed that some of these measurements are almost meaningless. It’s all very well knowing that a bushel is eight gallons, but what was a gallon?

Apart from allowing my characters to discuss their journeys and the amount of land they hold, why is this important? Imagine you’re a merchant travelling from one market to another to sell your wares. You need to know what the units of measurement are in the towns you visit regularly. You will be accused of short-changing your customers if their expectations of what a bushel is exceed what you give them.



The Time Traveller’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century – Ian Mortimer

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


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

Tournaments in the Fourteenth Century


Last week we had a brief look at tournaments in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Today we’re moving on to the fourteenth century and the particular use Edward III made of them.

In the thirteenth century there might have been up to three thousand men in a mêlée and the mêlée itself would have covered a large area. In the fourteenth century tournaments took place in more confined spaces. Sometimes a wooden castle would be built, with one team attacking it and one team defending.

Since a tournament was often a celebration, there would be dancing, feasting and drinking as well. Tournaments usually took place over three days, with the participants being introduced and paraded on the first day, jousting on the second and the tournament itself on the final day. There were judges, and prizes were awarded to those who had distinguished themselves. It’s not clear how they managed to judge a mêlée end even the scoring systems for jousts varied. Generally, the highest score was given for unhorsing an opponent. The next highest score was for breaking a lance on an opponent and the lowest for striking the opponent’s helmet. The knights usually had three runs at one another.

Tournaments were not as profitable as they had been. The knights could no longer capture and ransom one another. There were still prizes in the fourteenth century, but they were of fairly low value.

Tournaments could be opportunities for settling scores. In 1307 Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s favourite, held a tournament to celebrate his marriage. Showing up with three times the number of men he had said he would bring, he defeated everyone else. A similar thing happened a few weeks later at a tournament to celebrate Edward II’s marriage to Isabella of France. Realising that this meant that he was widely hated among the aristocracy, Gaveston asked the king to cancel a third tournament intended to form part of the coronation festivities.

Edward III became king in 1327 when he was fourteen years old. He enjoyed tournaments and used them strategically to show that he was not like his father, who had been deposed, but like his grandfather, Edward I, who had participated in many tournaments in his youth and had been a great warrior. As a young man, he often appeared at tournaments as a simple knight, showing his solidarity with other knights.

He held tournaments all over the country – Derby, Warwick, Northampton, Pembroke, Oxford, Canterbury, Hereford. Although they were more often held in summer, they could be held at any time of the year. There were tournaments to celebrate Christmas, others to celebrate the knighting of nobles, and others to celebrate the betrothals and marriages of his children.

Edward held at least 35 tournaments in England between 1327 and 1357, using them to gain support for his wars against the Scots and the French. He often celebrated the conclusion of a successful campaign with a tournament. He fought in them himself, often in the company of his sons.

One of the last old-fashioned mêlées was held to celebrate the wedding of Edward III and Philippa in 1328 in York. Cavalry charges became increasingly rare in fourteenth-century warfare. Battles were increasingly dominated by men fighting on foot, rather than on horseback, so mêlées were becoming irrelevant as a means of training knights.

Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, the de facto rulers of England for the first three years of Edward III’s reign, often prohibited tournaments for fear of an armed uprising against them, but they put on four tournaments leading up to Edward III’s marriage to Philippa of Hainault in 1328.

Also in 1328 Mortimer used a tournament to demonstrate that he was more important and powerful than the king. He dressed as King Arthur, in a not very subtle attempt to suggest that he was descended from the Dark Ages leader. Edward III was given the role of Sir Lionel, one of Arthur’s lesser knights. Throughout the event Mortimer took precedence over the king. Mortimer was executed for treason two years later. The king often fought in later tournaments under the name Sir Lionel.

Edward III’s first London tournament was at Cheapside in September 1331.  Queen Philippa and her ladies were almost killed when their viewing stand collapsed. The king, a young man with a quick temper, wanted to kill the carpenters who had erected it, but Queen Philippa begged him to show mercy, which he did.

In the same year, Edward was saved from almost certain death by changing horses during a tournament. The horse he had been riding bolted soon afterwards and almost drowned the knight who had taken the king’s place by plunging into a river.

A tournament at Northampton in 1342 was a bit of a disaster, as many nobles were injured and horses were killed. Lord Beaumont died. On the whole there were few fatalities at the king’s tournaments. This one was an exception.

In 1344 Edward III called on 500 noble women and wives of the aldermen of London to attend a tournament in London. There was a huge banquet for the women in the hall of the castle. Only two men joined them. The Prince of Wales and the earls and barons ate in tents. I’m not sure where the king was, perhaps he ate with his son. During the tournament, the king and 19 knights fought against anyone who wished to take them on for three days.

The king gave tournaments in June 1348 to celebrate Queen Philippa’s churching after the birth of their sixth son. French nobles captured during the Crécy campaign of 1346 were allowed to take part.

A tournament was held at Windsor on St George’s day (23rd April) 1349 to celebrate the founding of the Knights of the Order of the Garter. The garter knights were divided into two groups. One side was led by Thomas Holland and the other by William Montague, both of whom believed that they were married to Joan of Kent at the time. Joan was present at the tournament.

A series of tournaments were held after the Prince of Wales’ return to England following his victory at the Battle of Poitiers starting in the autumn of 1357 at Smithfield. Edward III used the event to display his French and Scottish prisoners, including the two kings.

Sometimes the participants wore fancy dress to fight. In 1359 Edward III, his sons and some of their friends dressed as the mayor and aldermen of London for a tournament.

In March 1363 the Prince of Wales held a huge tournament to celebrate the churching of Joan of Kent after the birth of their son, Edward, in Angoulême in Aquitaine. His second son, Richard II, also gave tournaments, attending the feast of one in Smithfield in his full regalia, including his crown. This is probably the only tournament in which he took part, although he held many.

In 1382 William Montague, earl of Salisbury and second husband of Joan of Kent, killed his son in a tournament. Somewhat ironically, William had come into the earldom when his father died in 1344 from wounds he had received in a tournament.

The king was not the only one to put on tournaments; his nobles also organised them. Edward III only tended to ban a tournament when it clashed with one of his own.

Edward III turned tournaments into great spectacles. He dressed his ‘team’ alike and, when he wanted to hide his identity as a participant, they all wore masks.

There were few tournaments while the Hundred Years War was actively being fought. Edward III gave up taking part in his fifties and there were fewer tournaments after that.

Probably the most well-known joust of the fourteenth century took place in 1390 just outside Calais. Calais was a French town held by the English for two hundred years. Three French knights, including Boucicaut who recorded his training regime for posterity, said that they would fight anyone who would accept their challenge. About 100 English knights accepted. Against all expectations, the French knights won, although two of them were so badly bruised that they had to rest for a week.

As you know, there’s little I like more than videos of armour-clad men rushing around to prove how flexible and light medieval armour could be. Here’s one of a chap demonstrating that Boucicaut’s unlikely-sounding training regimen was perfectly possible.




Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages – Michael Prestwich

England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L Waugh

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

Knight – Michael Prestwich

Edward Prince of Wales and Aquitaine – Richard Barber

Edward III and the Triumph of England – Richard Barber (This book contains a chronological list of Edward III’s tournaments)


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Kings, Medieval Warfare

Winter Pottage


I know that it’s not quite winter, but I thought I’d make my winter pottage before I use up all my leeks. They’re the only winter vegetable I have in my garden.

As with the summer pottage I’m assuming that I have garlic and onions available. The leeks and sage are from my garden. I’m also using marrowfat peas. I grew peas in the summer and did let some stay in the pods to dry. There weren’t very many, though, because who can resist eating fresh peas from the pod? For the pottage I used marrowfat peas from the supermarket. I also added barley (again from the supermarket) to give the pottage a bit of body.

The peas were soaked overnight. A medieval housewife would have had to soak her barley as well, but mine just needed washing. I boiled some water with an onion and some garlic. I added the peas, barley and sage for half an hour, then added the leeks for ten minutes. All of this would have taken longer over an open fire.


If you kept pigs in the fourteenth century you would be killing one about now. Most of the meat would be salted to last the winter, but you might add a bit to the pottage. It might not necessarily be a part of the pig that you’re familiar with. I’m a vegetarian, so it’s not something I’m going to try.

You might also have a carrot or two to add to the pot. Carrots don’t grow terribly well in the clay pit that passes for my garden, but they would have added some flavour.

Talking of flavour, it wasn’t too bad. I ate it all without feeling the need to add salt or pepper. I probably made it more interesting than it would have been in a fourteenth-century home by adding two things to give it bulk and texture – the peas and the barley. As always, I can only guess at the quantities that would have been available. It was probably less than I used, since I don’t have to make my ingredients stretch for another six or seven months until next year’s crops start to grow.


What else can you eat at this time of year? Three out of our four chickens are laying at the moment. Medieval chickens were probably not such prolific producers of eggs as our modern hybrids, but a medieval housewife probably had more than four chickens. She probably had a cockerel as well. Spare eggs could be sold at market or swapped for food that the family didn’t grow.



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Food