Category Archives: Church

Medieval Anchorites and Anchoresses

By Unknown artist of the 14th or 15th century. – Detail from MS 079: Pontifical held at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge., Public Domain,

Last week we looked at religious hermits, who were allowed to leave the places in which they were based. Today we’re looking at anchorites and anchoresses, who were not allowed to wander; they had a fixed place where they lived and had to stay. When I write ‘anchorite’ in this post I also mean ‘anchoress’. I’m just too lazy to type both every time. When I write ‘anchoress’, though, I don’t also mean ‘anchorite’.

Anchorites were also known as recluses. Sometimes they were literally walled in and were not able to leave their cell. They had to have the permission of their bishop for this and he would officiate at a service, similar to the one for lepers entering a lazar house, during which they renounced the world. For both lepers and anchorites it symbolised that they were dead to the world and everyone in it.

To be walled up meant that there was no way in or out of the cell, only windows which looked out onto different parts of their, very small, world. The bishop was involved because he had to be satisfied that the anchorite’s character was such that he could survive spiritually and physically. Anchorages were usually attached to a parish church in a town, which meant that there were people around to look after them. Anchorites had one or two servants. One of them was for errands and one for protection. I’m not quite sure how that worked for anchoresses. Mother Julian of Norwich, for example, had two women, Alice and Sara. We’ll come on to Mother Julian in a moment.

A cell usually had three windows, an altar, a bed and a crucifix. Through one window the anchorite could see the altar of the church to which the cell was attached. Through the second window the servant passed food. This window connected to the servant’s quarters. Only one window looked onto the outside world. This was the parlour window (the smallest) and the anchorite could speak to visitors through it. It was small so that the anchorite could see very little and thus not be tempted by the outside world.

The three elements of the anchorite’s life were silence, prayer and mortification. In this instance, mortification means the subduing of the body’s desires. These might be for food, comfort, alcohol, sex or movement in the outside world. The requirement for silence wasn’t absolute, since the anchorite could speak to visitors and the servants. It was mental and spiritual detachment that were important rather than physical isolation.

Like the hermits who lived in their cells in a monastery, there was a sense of community among anchorites. Their servants carried verbal messages between them, so these were clearly not long and involved communications.

One of the earliest books written in English, the Ancrene Riwle, was written for anchoresses. It was written for three sisters and set out a rule of behaviour for anchoresses who were not attached to any particular order.

Probably the most famous English anchoress of the fourteenth century was Mother Julian of Norwich. She was the first woman to write a book in English. I have to add, that we know about, since books are such fragile things and someone else could have written a book that has since been lost or destroyed. Her book was Revelations of Divine Love, which was about some visions she had in 1373. All but one of them took place in a single night. She wrote them down and spent the next twenty years meditating on them. Her cell was attached to Saint Julian’s church in Norwich, and it’s possible that she took her name from the church. It’s just as likely, though, that it was her own name, since it was a common name for women at the time. Very little is known about her apart from what is in her book and what Margery Kempe included in her own writings about a visit she made to Julian.

Anchorites either had to have enough wealth to pay their own expenses or have someone who paid for them. Edward of Woodstock, later known as the Black Prince, supported an anchorite in Cornwall, of which he was the duke, who said masses for Edward’s ancestors.

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar

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.

Available now:




Filed under Church, Fourteenth Century, The Medieval Church

Medieval Shrines

Pilgrim badge, Becket’s shrine

Some time ago I wrote a post about pilgrimage and how many people travelled from their homes to visit shrines. The shrine didn’t have to be far away or even devoted to an important saint, but it had to be a shrine that contained a holy relic of some kind.

Some shrines were huge and the pilgrims could go inside. Others were much smaller. The main thing was that the shrine should contain a holy object. In some places the pilgrims were permitted to see the relic, in others the relic was only displayed on special occasions, if at all. A relic could be a part of a saint’s body, something the saint had touched, something associated with a miracle performed by Jesus or an object associated with him. Most famously these last were parts of the True Cross or the crown of thorns. All these objects were believed to have the power of healing, protection, forgiveness or spiritual guidance depending on the saint involved.

This belief in the powers of relics went back to the first days of Christianity. Since shrines and reliquaries contained objects of power, they also, by association, became objects of power themselves.

One of the outcomes of the second Council of Nicaea in 787 was that every church should have a relic, in or on the alter or beneath it in a crypt. Even small parish churches needed a relic in order to be consecrated.

Much has been made of the vast number of fake relics during the early Middle Ages, as there was easy money to be made from selling them to churches. There were, for example, many heads of John the Baptist. Many people were aware that fake relics were in circulation. They could accept that a particular relic might not be all that was claimed for it, but still believed that it had power because people accepted it as a relic. Others simply believed that relics possessed the power of self-replication.

Most pilgrims brought money to shrines. At some of the larger pilgrimage sites part of the money was spent on souvenirs of the trip in the form of pilgrim badges like the one at the top of the post. These were a proof that the pilgrimage had been completed, which was useful if the pilgrimage was a form of penance ordered by the pilgrim’s priest, or a punishment.

Pilgrims didn’t just buy souvenirs, they also left gifts at the shrine. A gift could be money, but it could also be a precious object. Pilgrims who undertook the journey to thank the saint for a healing miracle, for example, might leave a model of the affected body part made of gold or silver. Sometimes, however, the person giving thanks was not very wealthy and their models were made of wax. Wealthy pilgrims might also give money to the church housing the shrine.  Pilgrimage was a commercial proposition from the beginning of the fifth century. Offerings left at the shrine, however, were rarely touched by the church housing the shrine, even in times of great financial need.

Most English shrines were dismantled during the Reformation and the precious metals left by the pilgrims were taken to the royal mint.

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar

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.

Available now:




Filed under Church, Medieval Buildings, Pilgrimage, The Medieval Church

God’s House Tower and Gate, Southampton

At the south eastern corner of the medieval town are God’s House Gate and God’s House Tower. The gate was built in the early fourteenth century following the construction of a new quay here at the end of the thirteenth century. The gate provided access to the town from the quay. The gate was protected by two portcullises, but I’ve only photographed the grooves of one.

The tower dates from the fifteenth century, probably the reign of Henry V. It protected the sluices controlling the flow of water into the tidal moat along the eastern side of the town. I think the water ran under the archway you can see around the woman in my photograph.

God’s House Tower

Soldiers and the town’s guns were kept here. When we get to some of the other towers dotted around the walls, we’ll see how progressive Southampton was in the use of cannon. The guns in the tower were used in 1457 when a French fleet threatened the town. They were effective and the fleet sailed further round the coast.

God’s House Gate from within the walls

The tower served as a prison in the eighteenth century and was used for storage and as a mortuary in the nineteenth. For fifty years at the end of the last century it was a museum of archaeology and now it’s a space for the visual arts.

Most of these photographs were taken from outside the medieval town. Where I stood to take them would have been on the quay or a beach in the fourteenth century. I’m not sure which. Today it’s reclaimed land and there are docks and a quay opposite the gate and tower.

The oldest bowling green in the world

This building looks very modern, and it is, but the fence surrounds the oldest bowling green in the world. It has been here, just outside the medieval walls, since at least 1299. I should probably qualify that by saying that it’s the oldest bowling green still in use, as there’s a record of one in Chester in 1294.

The tower and the gate were called after God’s House, a hospital, which was nearby. God’s House itself was on the left of the photograph below. It was built at the end of the thirteenth century by Gervaise de Riche. Yes, his surname does mean that he was rich. There’s very little of God’s House left, mostly St. Julien’s church, and it was heavily ‘restored’ in the nineteenth century. It was used by French Protestants from the sixteenth century until 1939.

St Julien’s Church

God’s House was built as an almshouse for some of the sick and old who could no longer work. It also gave hospitality to foreign pilgrims on their way to the shrines of St. Swithun in Winchester and St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Probably its most famous guest was Marguerite d’Anjou who stayed in 1445 on her way to marry Henry VI.

The hospital was supported by the gifts of the wealthy men of the town, at least for the first hundred years or so. The gifts would have been of money and of property. Rents on the properties would have provided a regular income to maintain the hospital. By the middle of the fourteenth century the town was in a bad way financially, as a result of a raid by the French in 1338 and the Black Death in 1348 to 1351. It was only at the beginning of the fifteenth century that the hospital began to receive the money it was due again.

In the early thirteenth century the staff comprised a master, two priests, a clerk, two to three brothers, three to nine sisters and two to three indoor servants. It didn’t take many people to manage a hospital in the Middle Ages.

In the first post in this series, I mentioned the conspirators against Henry V who were executed outside the Bargate in 1415. One of them, Lord Scrope, was buried at St. Julien’s, apart from his head, which was displayed above one of the town gates at York.

Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

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.

Available now:




Filed under Church, Medieval Buildings

Holy Rood, Southampton

Unlike the church in last week’s post, Holy Rood, less than 200 yards away, didn’t survive the Second World War unscathed. On the night of 30th November 1940, it, along with most of the town centre, was destroyed. The ruin was dedicated to the Merchant Navy and there are memorials inside to seafaring Sotonians who lost their lives at sea, including one to members of the crew of the Titanic.

What’s left of the current building was built in 1320, replacing a church that stood in the middle of English Street. The tower is fourteenth century, but the nave, aisles and chancel were rebuilt in 1849-50. The Victorian rebuilding was a lot more sympathetic to the medieval original than many such projects and more people were able to fit inside the church and make use of the building, which was of benefit to the parish.

The site of the present church was given to St. Denys Priory by Thomas de Bynedone, probably the richest man in the town at the time. The old church was more or less exactly where the new water conduit needed to be to bring fresh water into the town from a spring outside. Thomas de Bynedone’s intention was that there would be a cemetery as well as a church, but the town’s mother church, St. Mary’s, objected. Burials of the town’s inhabitants were only to take place in St. Mary’s cemetery and none of the churches within the town’s walls had burial grounds. St. Mary’s was just a few hundred yards outside the medieval town and I’m not entirely sure how it came to be its main church. Perhaps we’ll visit some of the buildings outside the town walls later. The church was reached through the town’s East Gate. The gate is no longer there, but the road that led to it is still called East Street. Although Thomas de Byndone’s plan for a cemetery failed, he was given the right to be buried within Holy Rood itself.

At the height of the Black Death, three separate vicars were appointed to the parish on 12th March, 22nd April and 20th September 1349, their predecessors having succumbed to the plague. The whole town, which hadn’t even started to recover from a raid by the French in 1338, was badly affected by the Black Death and took a long time to regain its former wealth. For centuries it was thought that Southampton was the place where the Black Death entered England, but it’s now believed that this was Melcombe, a few miles round the coast in Dorset.

During the fifteenth century Holy Rood became the church of the wealthier inhabitants of the town, who tended to live in the southern part of the parish. At this time, the church’s bell was rung to wake the town and to announce the curfew each day.

Possibly the most important visitor the church has welcomed was Philip II of Spain. When he arrived in Southampton in 1554, he heard Mass here, then rode to Winchester to marry Mary Tudor.

Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

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.

Available now:




Filed under Black Death, Church, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Buildings

St Michael’s Church, Southampton

St Michael’s is the oldest church in the town and the only one within the medieval walls still in use. It’s in French Street. In the Middle Ages what is now called High Street was called English Street and the two ran parallel to one another. English street, leading as it did to the Bargate, was the main street of the town. The names of the streets reflect the two different communities that inhabited the town after the Norman Conquest.

Most of the town’s shops were in English Street, but there were some in French Street. One of them remains in the form of the Medieval Merchant’s House, managed by English Heritage. We won’t be visiting it on this tour, as I wrote a series of posts about it and all the rooms inside here. A market took place in the area in front of the church and it’s still an open space today.

Medieval Merchant’s House

St Michael’s was originally built by the Normans, shortly after 1066 and named after the patron saint of Normandy. The tower is Norman and the spire dates from the eighteenth century. It’s said that the German bombers during the war were careful not to destroy the church as the spire was a landmark on their raids.

The front wall of the church that you can see in the photograph above is Norman, but the door and window are from the fifteenth century. Inside there are Norman arches, but we can’t go inside at the moment. When we’re able, we’ll have to return to St Michael’s to see the treasures it contains.

For many centuries until the mid-1830s the mayors of Southampton took their oath of office inside the church.

In the mid twelfth century Henry II gave control of the churches within the town walls to the Augustinian priory of St. Denys to the north east. I’m not sure how he was able to do that, but it meant that the parish priests would be monks from the priory rather than secular priests who lived in their parishes. Although the arrangement held for centuries, the priory stopped supplying priests quite quickly.

A document of the mid thirteenth century tells us that the parochial churches in the town were to receive tithes from the sales of fish by their parishioners, from the two windmills between the town and the leper house just north of the town, and from the piglets within the town walls. This last made me pause for thought, as the town walls were about a mile and a half all the way round. I wondered how many piglets there could be in such a small area. There can’t have been many to share between the five parish churches. [Edit 28th May 2021. Since I wrote this I have discovered that everyone in towns kept pigs. They didn’t need much looking after and could be fed on household scraps. The piglet tithe would have been fairly valuable.]

Historic Buildings of Southampton by Philip Peberdy
Collected Essays on Southampton edited by J B Morgan and Philip Peberdy
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt

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.

Available now:




Filed under Church, Medieval Buildings

Anatomy of a Monastery – The Abbey Church

Abbey Church Diagram

Now that we’ve examined the monks, it’s time to dissect the monastery itself and we’ll begin with its heart: the abbey church. The church was the largest and most important of the buildings within the monastery. The monks spent between six and nine hours a day there in the opus Dei – the work of God. The opus Dei was made up of prayers, liturgy, and chants or plainsong.

For the first office of the day, at 2 a.m., the monks would get up in the dark. Night stairs connected the monks’ dormitory to the church so that they didn’t have to go outside in the middle of the night. For the other offices they used the main entrance to the church.

The church was in the shape of a cross. As far as the ground on which they were built would allow, the presbytery at the head of the cross was to the east, with the arms north and south. The presbytery housed the main altar and was the most important part of the church, for it was where the Mass was celebrated.

Lay people were keen to be buried in the abbey church as near to the altar as possible. Such a favoured position was reserved for patrons of a monastery, as shown below at Easby Abbey. These tombs are in the nave.

Easby Abbey Scrope family niches

Scrope family niches, Easby Abbey

All churches and chapels had a piscina by the altar in which the priest washed the cups and other vessels used in the Mass.

Piscina, nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Piscina, Rievaulx Abbey Church

The nave ran from west to east. The name comes from the Latin for ‘ship’, presumably because a nave resembles the hull of an upside-down ship. Naves could be made wider by adding aisles.  The naves in abbey churches were unusually long and were used for processions as part of the offices.

The photograph below was taken from the presbytery at Rievaulx Abbey, behind the altar. You can see how the nave stretches away into the distance.

Nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Nave, looking west, Rievaulx Abbey Church

The transepts formed the arms of the cross, one to the north and one to the south.  Architecturally, they were buttresses preventing the weight of the tower above from pushing the walls out. Not every abbey church had a tower where the transept and the nave intercepted, but most of them did. The night stairs usually came down into the south transept.

The photograph below shows the transepts and the presbytery at Rievaulx from the nave.


Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey

Many churches had chapels within the body of the church. These were for private Masses, which became important as the percentage of monks who were priests grew as the centuries passed. Priests believed that they had to say Mass every day, so more altars were needed to accommodate them. This was also where the Masses for the dead were offered. The relatives of a dead person would give the monastery large sums of money to ensure that prayers were made for the soul of the dead person in perpetuity. This would reduce the time that person spent in purgatory.

As always, you should imagine the church as full of colour, with painted statues, walls and ceilings.  This didn’t apply in Cistercian monasteries, as we’ll see later. The church would also be dressed according to the liturgical season.

Painted vault

Painted vault, Romsey Abbey

In Cistercian monasteries the east end of the nave was for the monks and the west end, furthest away from the main altar, was for the lay brothers who did the manual work. The two sections of the church each had their own entrance, altar and furnishings. These churches were plainer than those of other orders. No images were allowed, there were no ornaments and glazed windows were clear. All of this was to ensure that nothing distracted the monks from their worship.

In Cistercian monasteries, the lay brothers were only in the church at the beginning and the end of the day. The lay brothers were divided from the monks by a rood screen when they worshipped.  There was a gap in the screen to allow passage through the length of the nave. The remnants of a Cistercian rood screen are still visible at Roche Abbey.

Screens, Roche Abbey

The rood screen, Roche Abbey

Rood was the old English word for cross. In churches, the rood screen was made of wood or stone and it stood between the choir and the nave. On top of the screen was the cross, usually with a statue of the Virgin on one side and St. John the Evangelist on the other.

This Saxon rood is on the outside of the abbey church at Romsey.


In many Benedictine and Augustinian monasteries the nave or an aisle was also used by the local lay population as their parish church. The north aisle at Romsey Abbey was used in this way and it saved the church from destruction when the convent was dissolved under Henry VIII. The town paid £100 to be allowed to continue to use it. Where the nave was the parish church, there would be an altar in front of the rood screen, as there was in Cistercian monasteries for the lay brothers.

Muchelny Abbey by John Goodall and Francis Kelly
Roche Abbey by Peter Fergusson and Stuart Harrison
Richmond Castle and Easy Abbey by John Goodall
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron


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.

Available now:










Filed under Church, Medieval Life, Medieval Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

Wanderings of Medieval Saints


A short discussion with C J Hyslop (Fraggle) on her post about a visit to a church which claims to have been been one of the resting places of the body of St Cuthbert during his post-mortem peregrination around the north of England and the south of Scotland has made me think again about the importance of relics in the Middle Ages.

St Cuthbert’s body was moved to keep it out of the hands of the Vikings, who were not known for their respect for religious artefacts. The coffin containing his body was taken to various places before it came to rest in Durham.

To our minds, it seems odd that people would put their own lives at risk to carry the body of a man long dead to safety. St Cuthbert died in about 687 and set off on his long journey after the destruction of Lindisfarne by the Vikings in 875. It’s a little under 80 miles from Lindisfarne to Durham, but St Cuthbert’s journey there took more than 100 years. That’s a lot of people over several generations who were willing to risk everything for what should have been a heap of bones, but was said to have been an uncorrupted body.

Being close to a saint’s body was considered the same as being close to the saint himself (or herself). This was the reason why pilgrims travelled long distances. It wasn’t to visit churches or cathedrals because they were important in themselves, but because of the relics of the saints they contained and the miracles they expected to see performed because of the saint’s presence.

Saints’ bodies were often moved from one place to another and rarely with the altruism shown by the people who carried St Cuthbert from place to place.

A church was nothing if it didn’t have some kind of relic. Even a piece of bone could be placed in a shrine for pilgrims to visit. Some churches went to extraordinary lengths to obtain even a sliver of bone. There are stories of respected churchmen surreptitiously tearing off a finger when allowed access to a saint’s remains or, in more than one case, biting one off whilst giving the appearance of kissing the saint’s hand. It’s no wonder that saints’ relics were kept safely hidden in reliquaries and shrines. When a relic was displayed publicly, it was a big occasion.

I live in the diocese of Winchester and the cathedral’s patron is St Swithun. His body did not fare as well as that of St Cuthbert. He was the bishop of Winchester when Wessex became the most important of the Saxon kingdoms. He died in 862 and was buried, at his request, in the cemetery of the cathedral.  In 971 his relics were moved inside the cathedral. There was heavy rainfall on the day and this was interpreted as showing his displeasure at being moved. It’s still said that if it rains on St Swithun’s day (15th July) it will rain for the following 40 days. If it doesn’t rain, the weather will be fine for the next 40 days.

This resting place lasted only three years before St Swithun’s body was broken up and placed in two separate shrines within the cathedral. In the early eleventh century his head was taken to Canterbury by Alphege when he left Winchester to become Archbishop of Canterbury. As I said above, even respectable churchmen were not above stealing a relic.

After the Conquest, the Normans built a new cathedral in Winchester and what was left of St Swithun was taken there in 1093, where his shrine continued to be visited by pilgrims until it was destroyed in the Reformation.


The Oxford Dictionary of Saints – David Hugh Farmer


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.

Available now:













Filed under Church, Pilgrimage

10 tips to get the best out of your visit to a medieval site.

Abbey church, Rievaulx Abbey 5

Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey

I visit loads of medieval sites. Not only do I find them interesting in themselves, but they can also help me to set the scene when I’m writing my novels. I visited a small manor house in Dorset a couple of months ago and it’s become the house in which the heroine of my current work in progress learned how to manage a household. In another novel, a fortified manor house in the Midlands became the property my hero has to defend against a band of ruthless outlaws.

Over the years I’ve learned a few things about visiting medieval sites and I thought I would share some of them with you.

1. Wear sturdy shoes

Most medieval buildings are ruins and the ground, stones and steps are uneven. Although climbing on walls is forbidden, you will probably have to walk over bits of wall in your tour of the site. You don’t want to turn your ankle in the middle of nowhere while you’re wandering around an abbey alone. Wear something that will provide a bit of support if you can. The paths are usually gravel and you will undoubtedly encounter grass, which might be wet.

2. Wrap up warm – even in summer

Castles tend to be on hills and abbeys are often in valleys. Since the sides of buildings will be missing and rooves are rare, you will be exposed to the elements during your visit. The weather in England can be changeable. It has rained almost every day this June and it’s mostly cold, but it’s very warm when the sun does make an appearance, so you need to have sunglasses and sunblock ready as well. I took the photograph below in mid-April wearing a thick woolly jumper, gloves and coat. If I’d had a hat with me. I’d have worn it as well. Three days earlier I was strolling around in bright sunshine without a coat.


Barnard Castle

3. Buy the guide book

Guide books are always useful. They usually have a map of the site and this will often use different colours to show when parts of the castle, abbey or house were built.  There is always something you didn’t know or couldn’t work out for yourself in the guide book, including the history of the site. They’re also helpful when it comes to labelling your photographs later.

4. Be prepared to walk and climb

Some medieval sites are quite large and you will walk quite a distance during your tour. If there’s a keep involved, you could be climbing several flights of stairs, some of them very narrow and uneven.  Supplies for Old Sherborne Castle used to be brought up these steps every day from boats, but I found them hard work.

Old Sherborne Castle

The Barbican, Old Sherborne Castle

At many castles you can walk around the outer perimeter and that might be a lengthy walk.

5. Look up.

Those in charge did most things on the first floor, which, in many buildings, hasn’t survived. You will still get some idea of how they lived if you remember to look up occasionally.

This view is labelled the Great Hall at Kenilworth Castle, but you’ll notice that the fireplace and the windows are halfway up the wall. What appear to be arches on the ground, are the remnants of vaults. The great hall was on top of them. Visitors and guests had to go upstairs to visit the largest space in the castle.


The Great Hall, Kenilworth Castle

Glances upwards will almost always be rewarded. This is the Tudor ceiling at Muchelney Church. It’s from a much later period than I’m usually interested in, but it’s beautiful. Sometimes there’s a clue that you should look up. You might just be able to see the mirror halfway down the church, placed there to enable people to view the ceiling without hurting their necks or risk of falling over.

Muchelney Church

The ceiling, Muchelney Church

6. Label your photographs the day you take them

I’m very bad at this and have too many photographs that make me pause and wonder why I thought their subject was interesting. Having the guidebook to hand when you do this will help. Something else I find useful is photographing the boards that are usually to be found scattered around the site telling you what you’re looking at.


7. Show the staff you’re interested

Talk to the staff who look after the site. No one knows as much about the site as they do or is as interested in it as they are, unless it’s their first week at the site, in which case they will probably avoid making eye contact. Unless they’re really busy, they’re happy to answer any questions you might have. Because I ask questions, I’ve been shown things of interest I might have missed, or been told stories that aren’t in the guide book. At one castle the site manager told me his theories about how many times a particular fireplace had been moved and at an abbey the manager told me what he knew about the Saxon history of his site.

8. Do your research

Earlier this year, I visited an abbey founded in the twelfth century to discover that most of the pre-fifteenth-century bits had been destroyed. It was interesting, but not as interesting for me as it would have been had there still been earlier remains. If you’re interested in a particular period, make sure that the site concerned has something to offer you. Many will have been ‘improved’ over the centuries. Most places have websites, but you’ll need to read them with care.

9. Look at the outsides of buildings as well as the insides.

I try to walk around as much of the outside of a building as I can. Sometimes this is unsafe, especially where there’s a river or a moat.


Aydon Castle

There was no hint of this rather wonderful chimney on the inside of the building.

10. Finish the trip with a visit to a good pub

This hardly needs to be said.

I hope these tips are useful and you can find time this summer to visit a medieval site.


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.

Available now:











Filed under Castle, Church, Medieval Buildings

Anatomy of a Castle – The Chapel

During my travels earlier in the year, I saw various kinds of chapels in different parts of castles. I knew that many castles had churches in the bailey and that space inside the castle buildings was at a premium, so I hadn’t really thought that there were many chapels in castles. I was wrong.

I saw three different types of chapel. The first type was the private chapel, usually just off the living quarters of the man who held the castle. The second was a more public chapel for the use of soldiers and members of the household. The third was a huge space, due to the castle concerned having previously been a bishop’s palace. I wasn’t sure whether I should include that one, but I have, as you’ll see below.

The original chapel, from which all others took their name, was the one in which the kings of France kept the cloak (chapele) of St Martin of Tours. St Martin was a bishop in the fourth century. His legend says that he cut his cloak in half to share it with a ragged beggar who later turned out to be Christ. The shrine which held the cloak was a place of private worship for the kings.

Having a private chapel in a castle, however small, seems to me to be a huge luxury.  It’s difficult to imagine the lord, his wife and their immediate family and closest members of their household cramming into a tiny space for mass, though. Unless they were built for royalty, they do tend to be very small.

There is a private chapel at Conisbrough Castle, built into one of the buttresses of the Great Tower. It was built at the end of the twelfth century and shows the great wealth of the man who had it built. It’s off the lord’s solar, so you had to have access to that space in order to enter the chapel.

Chapel, the keep, Conisbrough Castle

Chapel, the Great Tower, Conisbrough Castle

Even while the lord was away, the chapel priest at Consibrough Castle prayed for his soul daily, as well as those of his wife, their fathers and Henry II, who was the king at the time.

The chapel tapers to a point, but isn’t very wide anywhere. It must have been crowded if anyone joined the lord and his wife for mass.

This is the vault of the chapel, which I share simply because the stonework here is rather impressive.

Vault of chapel, the keep, Conisbrough Castle

The vault of the chapel in the Great Tower, Conisbrough Castle

This is the lower chapel at Old Sarum. It was dedicated to St. Margaret and was probably used by the soldiers and servants of the castle. Above it was a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas. It was in the upper chapel that the royal family heard mass when they were in residence.

Lower chapel, courtyard house, Old Sarum

Lower Chapel, Old Sarum

The chapel for the soldiers at Richmond Castle was a lot less spacious. Also dedicated to St Nicholas, it was built in the eleventh century into the wall surrounding the bailey. It’s tiny, not much more than 6 feet wide. You can just see the niche to the left of the main window which is thought to have held candles. There’s a similar one on the other side. There are benches around three of the walls and the arches that you can see above the bench were supported by painted pillars. It’s worth bearing in mind that this chapel, like the others pictured here, would have been decorated with brightly coloured paintings on the walls and the ceilings.


The Chapel, Richmond Castle

At Prudhoe Castle a space in the gatehouse was converted into a chapel in the thirteenth century. Given its size and functional brickwork, my guess would be that it was for the soldiers and not the nobility.


The Chapel, Prudhoe Castle

The building below is presumed to be the chapel at Sherborne Old Castle. The upper space was the bishop’s chapel and the lower space that of the lowlier members of the household. Sherborne Old Castle was built by Roger, Bishop of Sarum, who was chancellor to Henry I.  You’ll recognise that the arrangement is the same as that at Old Sarum, where Bishop Roger also had a hand. Although it was fortified, Sherborne Old Castle was more a palace for the bishop than a castle. When it was first built, it was full of clerics and their servants, and might have been run on monastic lines. I’m not sure how much use such a huge chapel would have seen once the castle took on a more secular role.

Chapel, Sherborne Old Castle

The Chapel, Sherborne Old Castle

A lasting feature of medieval chapels and churches is the piscina.

Piscina, chapel in keep, Conisbrough Castle

Piscina, Chapel, Conisbrough Castle

As you can see, a piscina is a stone basin in which the chalice and paten were washed after mass. It was the priest who washed them, because his fingers had been in contact with the host and the wine, which were believed to have become the body and blood of Christ. His fingers and the vessels had to be cleaned and the water in the piscina drained away to the consecrated ground outside. In a church or an abbey this would be all the surrounding ground, but I’m not sure how this was managed in a castle.

In my novels the castles usually have churches in the bailey, but I’m beginning to see the dramatic possibilities of a private chapel.


Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei

Sherborne Old Castle by Peter White

Old Sarum by John McNeill

Richmond Castle by John Goodall

Prudhoe Castle by Susie West

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

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar

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.

Available now:













Filed under Castle, Church, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Buildings

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Doorknocker in the Shape of a Lion’s Head


Doorknocker in the shape of a lion’s head, British Museum

This object has a cumbersome name, but it’s impressive enough to deserve it. It’s about 14 inches across and dates from around 1200.

Some time ago I wrote about how the idea of sanctuary worked in English law. The doorknocker played a vital role for the criminal who wanted sanctuary, as he had to knock on the church door to gain entry. In theory, but not always in practice, the criminal could remain in the church for forty days without harm from those pursuing him. After that time he had to leave the church and take his punishment or leave England.

Most churches in the fourteenth century had knockers, but they began to be removed and melted down when the laws about sanctuary were repealed in the seventeenth century. Few church doorknockers survive now and this one is such a lovely example.

It’s bronze and was made by the sand-casting method, which means it’s unique since the mould, made of sand, straw and manure, couldn’t be used twice. Once the molten bronze had been poured into the mould it was packed with sand, where it stayed until it had cooled. It was not a quick technique, but it was a proven one, having its roots in antiquity.

No one knows which church it belonged to, but its size and value indicate that it must have been an important one.

Lions were popular forms for ecclesiastical doorknockers and other examples have survived.

Sadly the ring is not original, so no thirteenth-century criminal grabbed it and pounded on the church door in the hope of gaining time for himself.

Here is a better photograph of the doorknocker than mine.



Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson


Filed under Church, Medieval Crime and Law, Thirteenth Century