The Weight of Medieval Armour


Following last week’s post about medieval armour there were a few questions in the comments about the weight of the armour worn by the men in the video, so I thought it would be worthwhile doing some research to try to find out how much weight a medieval knight might be carrying when he went into battle.

Discovering the weight of the plate armour itself isn’t a problem. Enough of it has survived from the fifteenth century for us to know what it weighed. Similar sets of armour to those in the video weighed anything from 20 to 30 kilos. That’s just for the plate armour. Underneath a knight would have worn chain mail and padding of some sort.

The chain mail tunic (hauberk if it was long or habergeon if it was short) weighed about 10 kilos. Mail was made up of thousands of interlocking rings made from steel or iron riveted together. The way that the rings were linked made it a very flexible material. Hauberks would have lengths added or taken away depending on the size of the man who had inherited it or purchased it, which meant that the same hauberk could be used over several decades, or even centuries.

Apparently the easiest way to get out of a hauberk was to do a handstand and let it fall off, as illustrated by the picture at the top of the post. Mail could be pierced by arrows or crossbow bolts, so something more substantial was required as bows became more powerful.

Very few examples of fourteenth century armour have survived. Armour was refashioned and reused, so bits of it could still be in use centuries later, but in different forms. Most of what is known about armour from the period has been learned by studying pictures and tomb effigies. One of the difficulties of doing this is illustrated by the picture below. Just what is that knight below wearing under his surcoat (the flowing garment)?


It was difficult to make pieces of metal large enough for armour in the early part of the fourteenth century. Boiled leather (cuir-bouilli) was hard enough to provide some protection, but plate metal was preferred when even small pieces became available.

Eventually, pieces of plate metal could be made large enough to protect the extremities. These pieces of armour did not need to be particularly large. Brassarts covered the arms, poleyns covered the knees, and greaves protected the front of the shins or the whole lower leg. Some knights had a coat of plates, which was a piece of leather or thick cloth onto which iron plates had been riveted. Over all of this a knight wore a surcoat. It often displayed the knight’s arms. By the end of the century the surcoat was no longer worn and had been replaced by the jupon, a more fitted garment.

The Hundred Years’ War accelerated the development of plate armour and knights were soon wearing breastplates and backplates under their surcoats. A backplate was made up of two or more pieces of plate, as was the breastplate.

Going to war was not cheap and armour was often passed down from father to son, or sold. When an army was on campaign it members might be sporting the current fashions in armour, or those from 60 years before, or anything in between, or even a mixture of styles.

Some men wore padded armour (an aketon or a gambeson) under their plate armour. Others wore it over the armour. This gave additional protection against weapons which could pierce armour, but which would be slowed down by the padding.


By the end of the fourteenth century a knight could be almost completely encased in plate armour, with sabatons on his feet, greaves all around his lower leg, poleyns to protect his knees, and a single breastplate with a skirt made from several plates. The cuisses now covered the front and outside of the thighs. The arms were protected by rerebraces at the top and vambraces at the bottom. The hands were covered by gauntlets and the elbows by couters. The spaulder covered the shoulder. A basic bascinet (pictured above) covered the head and an avantail of mail protected the neck.

For those of you who, like me, are now addicted to videos of men in armour doing energetic things, here’s another one, made up of a number of clips. The men in the second clip are wearing armour that’s similar to what was worn in the fourteenth century.



Masterpieces of European Arms and Armour in the Wallace Collection – Tobias Capwell

Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience – Michael Prestwich

Knight: The Warrior and World of Chivalry – Robert Jones

Knight: The Unofficial Medieval Warrior’s Manual – Michael Prestwich


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Medieval Armour and Mobility


This is a very short post this week, because I really want to do no more than share the video at the bottom of the page.

Before I saw it I thought medieval knights must have been very clumsy in their armour. I also thought that it would be hard for them to move around. On the other hand, a knight who can’t move is surely a dead knight. It was a conundrum which the video solves.

The men in the video are wearing full armour based on that worn in the fifteenth century. This is a bit later than the period I usually cover, but the video is so good, it’s worth sharing.

Not only does the video show how easily an armoured knight could move, it also shows how much of his body was not covered in armour. Depending on what he was dong, various parts of the body could be horribly exposed, even if it was covered by a gambuson.

I hope you enjoy it.



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Lady Day and the Lost Eleven Days


I have put off getting to grips with this topic for as long as possible, because it’s complicated, but the time has come to talk about the medieval New Year and why the English tax year begins on 6th April. It was not until I went to work in Germany that I realised that 6th April is an odd day for a tax year to begin. In Germany, and many other countries, it begins on 1st January. There is a reason why it begins on 6th April in England, but, as I said, it’s complicated.

Lady Day, or the Feast of the Annunciation (25th March), was the first day of the year in the Middle Ages. It was the celebration of the day on which the angel told Mary that she was pregnant, nine months before Christmas Day. Everything in the Middle Ages was based around the church calendar and 25th March was a sensible date to choose for the first day of the administrative year. You or I might have chosen the major feasts of Easter or Christmas, but Easter is a movable feast (in that its date changes from year to year), which makes it less than perfect as the beginning of the year. Christmas was such a big celebration that very little work was done. This made it less than suitable for a time requiring a lot of administrative work. The liturgical year began on the first day of Advent, which had much to recommend it, but that was also a date which changed from one year to the next. Lady Day was always on 25th March and was an important feast.

Lady Day and Christmas Day are two of the four quarter days. The others are  Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael and all Angels on 29th September, and Midsummer, on 24th June. Contracts would usually run from one Lady Day to the next. In later centuries the quarter days were hiring days for labourers and the days on which rents were due. They were days of reckoning and debts had to be paid by the end of the quarter. The quarter days were important well into the twentieth century and some rents are still paid on quarter days.

Why does this mean that the English tax year begins on 6th April? This is where things get complicated. In the Middle Ages England used the Julian calendar, which came into use in 45 BC. This calendar had a Leap Year every four years, which meant that, over time, important dates, such as the vernal equinox and the solstices, got out of synch with the reality. Every 128 years the calendar would get out by a day. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar in which there is a Leap Year ninety-seven times in four centuries rather than a hundred. This means that it take more than 3,000 years before the calendar is a day out.

By the time the Gregorian calendar was implemented in England in 1752 there was an eleven-day disparity between the two calendars and 3rd to 13th September did not exist in that year. The calendar went from 2nd to 14th September.

This is why the beginning of the financial year in England is 6th April. It’s not a wholly satisfying solution, until you realise that a tax year has to be 365 (or 366) days. Having a tax year with only  354 days would have caused all kinds of difficulties and arguments.

In the same year that this was introduced 1st January became the official start of the calendar year in England. This had long been the practice in Scotland and other countries. This meant that neither 1751 nor 1752 was a full year in England. In 1751 the calendar year ran from 25th March to 31st December. In 1752 it was from 1st January to 31st December less the eleven days in September. In order for the tax year to be a whole year, it had to run from 25th March 1752 to 5th April 1753.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to discover why those particular eleven days in September were chosen to be deleted. If you know, I’d love to hear from you.




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Medieval Bread


A couple of months ago I touched on bread in the post about peasant food, but it really deserves a post of its own.

Bread was eaten by everyone, but not all bread was the same. Different crops were better suited to different parts of the country and wheat could not be grown everywhere. The other grain crops were rye, oats and barley.

Wheat could only be grown on good soil, so it was usually only the lord of the manor who ate white bread. Maslin was the bread eaten by most people. It was made from wheat and rye flour mixed together. Rye was used on its own to make a darker loaf.  In the cold, wet north and west of England, oats and barley were used to make bread.

The lord’s white bread was called pandemain. This was made from finely ground and sifted wheat flour. Wastel was another white bread. The wheat it was made from was not as finely sifted as that used for pandemain. The last type of white bread was cocket.

As we move through the brown breads the ingredients become increasingly unappetising. Cheat was made from whole wheat from which the bran had been removed. This was still bread for the wealthy. Tourte was made from husk and flour and was probably used for trenchers. Maslin was the next grade. Horse bread was made from any grain at hand and usually included peas and beans. As its name implies, it was intended for horses, but it could be eaten if nothing else was available. Bran bread was made mostly of bran.

Trenchers were slices of stale bread used as plates. Bread was sliced horizontally for this purpose. They were most useful for things like meat, which did not need to be eaten from a bowl. After the meal the trenchers were given to the poor.

Making bread was not a cheap business for ordinary people. The grain had to be grown or purchased. Some peasants would be paid for their labour with grain, some grew their own and some had to buy it. Once harvested or purchased, the grain had to be separated from the chaff then ground. This usually entailed some expenditure. Serfs had to take their grain to their lord’s mill and were fined if they did not. Some tried to use hand querns secretly, but these were slow and inefficient. It was generally better to take the grain to the miller and pay him to grind it.

Once ground, the flour could be made into dough. The yeast and the liquid for the dough usually came from beer. This would either be from a batch of beer that was brewing in the house or from a neighbour’s batch.

Baking the dough usually required another transaction. Few houses possessed an oven and householders who had one charged for its use or sold the bread they made to their neighbours. In some places there might be a communal oven, but using that also meant that money would change hands. A riskier option for those without an oven was to bake the bread in the embers of a fire. The bread had to be turned to make sure that it didn’t burn. Watching the bread and turning it seems to have been a task for men. If you lived in a town where there was a baker, you might not bother making bread at all, but simply go and buy a loaf. Bread prices were fixed by law.

Bread ovens were large and gave off a lot of heat, which is why most people didn’t have one. At the manor house the oven would usually be in a separate building to reduce the risk of burning down the house. A fire was built inside the oven. When the oven was hot enough the wood was raked out and the floor of the oven cleaned as well as possible without losing the heat. This was not easy, as it would have been difficult to get close enough to the oven to do much more than pull out the burning wood.

The bread was put inside the oven to bake, using long-handled paddles. Since the surface on which the bread was baked could never be completely cleaned after the fire had been removed, the bottom of the bread was usually black. This would not have appealed to the lord of the manor, so the bottom of the bread was sliced off to be eaten by the lowlier members of the household and the lord ate the upper crust, hence the eventual use of that expression to refer to those of high social standing.

For the poor, grain was more likely to be used in pottage rather than in bread. Pottage was much cheaper to make and used less grain. Bread was useful if someone was in the fields all day and needed to take something with them to eat.

This post was inspired by the cartoon antics of bread detective Ray Wry created by Clare Scott. That’s bread detective as in he’s a detective made out of bread. Thanks are also due to Ellen Hawley, from Notes from the UK, for drawing my attention to the origin of ‘upper crust’.


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The Medieval Floor


Encaustic tiles

Fourteenth century tiles

You might not have given much thought to medieval floors, but they were quite varied and offer good opportunities to a novelist in scene-setting or showing a character’s state of mind. In Beloved Besieged Elaine covers the floor of her father’s hall with rushes strewn with sweet-smelling herbs and flowers for her betrothal celebration. In my current work in progress, the heroine drops to the floor of the main room of the inn in which she’s staying, even though she suspects it will result in an unpleasant stain on her clothes.

Not all medieval floors were equal. In most houses, the floors of the rooms on the ground floor were simply beaten earth. It always sounded unpleasant, especially when I saw the state of the floors in castles that I visited. Thanks to them I had visions of lumpy, uneven floors being swept away when they were brushed or of bits of a floor sticking to shoes if someone entered the house from the rain or of it being scratched up by dogs or cats. Then I saw one in the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. That floor is very solid and secure and would last for a long time with only a little maintenance.


Earthen floor

Earthen floor in the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton


It took a fair amount of effort to make such a floor and sometimes the neighbours were called on for help. As many people as the householder could get would walk on the floor for an afternoon (or longer) until it was flat and smooth. They literally walked round in circles until it was done. They would have a chat or a sing as they walked. This seems to me to be a very satisfactory way of providing a floor surface and is probably quicker and more enjoyable than laying a laminate floor.

The earthen floor would be covered with rushes. Rushes provided good insulation and could help to keep the floor clean. I know that I often point to The Secrets of the Castle for illustrations of many things, but the archaeologists demonstrate the practicalities of medieval life so well. When she moved into a labourer’s hovel near the building site, Ruth Goodman pondered how the rushes might have been laid, since loose rushes would not stay where they were put for long. She concluded that they would probably have been tied together in bunches and then laid on the floor. Other historians and archaeologists have considered whether the rushes might have been woven into mats before being placed on the floor, but everyone seems to be agreed that loose rushes were not strewn on the floor. Rushes weren’t just used in houses. Almost every domestic beaten earth floor would have been covered in them.

In a public building, an inn, for example, the rushes would have contained dreadful things trodden in from outside by people and dogs, but in a hovel, where the rushes would have doubled up as the bedding for the occupants, they would have been kept much cleaner. In the spring and summer herbs and flowers could be added to make the rushes (and the room) smell sweeter and to disguise less welcome odours.

Encaustic Tiles from Hyde Abbey

Fourteenth Century Tiles

Tiles provided a far more upmarket floor surface. Like everything else in medieval times, their production was very labour intensive. They required someone to dig the clay, which had to be cleaned and homogenised until it could be worked. Then it would be pressed into square, wooden moulds. After the tiles had been pushed out of the moulds, they would be dried and stacked in a kiln to be fired. A medieval kiln was more like an earthwork than an oven and firing could take twenty-four hours or more. Disaster was always close at hand. Bad weather could mean that the firing was delayed, or the tiles could be too wet and would explode when the water became hot enough to turn it to gas.

Tiles could be plain or patterned with different coloured clay. Decorated tiles were for the very rich or churches. The photographs in this post are of encaustic tiles recovered from the site of Hyde Abbey in Winchester. The patterns are made by using different colours of clay. Like the ones in the photographs, they were usually of two colours, but they could contain up to six different colours. Because the pattern is not just on the surface, it remains as the tile is worn down.



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The Medieval Mason



Interior Wall, Romsey Abbey


Stone buildings and stonemasons went together in the Middle Ages. It took skill and ingenuity to produce beautiful buildings, many of which have stood for centuries. It also took planning and the use of sophisticated lifting equipment.

Stone was an expensive material to use, even if it was quarried locally, and it needed skilled men to cut and shape it.

Different groups of men worked with the stone needed for a castle, a cathedral or a church. The stone had to be quarried first. Quarrymen were not masons. Their job was simply to get the stone for the masons to work on out of the ground. Usually, local stone was used, but occasionally stone could travel long distances, even from other countries. For Winchester Castle, for example, stone was brought from Selborne (18 miles away), the Isle of Wight (30 miles, but half of them on water), Haslebury (70 miles) and Caen (across the Channel in France). Transport costs, as well as the quality of the stone, meant that stone brought from far away was very expensive.

There were different classes of masons and the first two were the rough masons and the freemasons. The rough masons were unskilled and made the rubble walls, which were often used where neither strength nor appearance was considered important. Rubble was a low grade of stone, which could not be cut or shaped. Sometimes rubble walls were dressed so that an inner core of rubble was covered with smoothly-cut and close-fitting stones. This photograph shows a rubble interior.



Arrow Slit, Arundel Tower, Southampton


Freemasons could cut freestone to make squared blocks (ashlars) or complex shapes. The interior and exterior walls of Romsey Abbey pictured at the top of the post and below are made of cut stone. The freemasons put the stones in place and carved the decorative parts of a building. Freemasons earned more than rough masons, but they were not at the top of the chain.



Exterior Wall, Romsey Abbey


The master mason was in overall charge of the building site. He was the designer, engineer and contractor. He was the man employed by the patron to be responsible for all the building work. There would be a contract between the master mason and the patron which set out what the master mason was to build and how much he would be paid for doing so. He designed the building and took on all the men he needed to get the job done. He was paid by the patron and he, in turn, paid all the other men employed on the building site.

Some patrons wanted more of a say in the design than others and some master masons seem to have reused design elements from one building to another. They might even have been employed specifically to incorporate something that they had done elsewhere and that the patron liked.

Designs for decorative work were illustrated on a tracing floor. This was a plaster-covered surface on the ground onto which the master mason could trace the full-size design. From this he made a wooden template for the freemason to use as a pattern.

The masons worked in a lodge – a wooden structure on the building site that provided some shelter while they worked on the stone. It was also a place for them to eat and rest.

The cut stones were heavy. At ground level they could be moved on wooden rollers, but getting them to the tops of ever-growing walls required more ingenuity. A pulley was used to lift stones. Usually, this was done with the help of one or more men inside a treadmill. A hand winch could be used for small blocks of stone.

Most buildings were designed using squares and circles. The master mason used simple geometry to work out the proportions with a compass and a square. He did not necessarily need to understand the mathematics behind his design.

The working season was usually from the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas (2nd February), to All Saints Day (1st November). At the end of the season the work was covered, often with straw, to protect it from the elements until the next season. Work stopped before temperatures fell below freezing, as the mortar was useless once it had frozen.

Medieval building techniques can be seen at the archaeological project at Guédelon, where a castle is being built using techniques from the thirteenth century. The DVD Secrets of the Castle, which was filmed there, shows these techniques.




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The Three Destinations of the Medieval Pilgrim

This week I have have had the pleasure of writing a post for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It’s a companion piece to last week’s post here about medieval pilgrims and looks at the places to which medieval pilgrim travelled, in particular, Compostela.


In the Middle Ages the top three destinations for pilgrims were Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela, in that order of importance. For the English, a pilgrimage abroad was never an easy thing to undertake and wars, thieves and bandits made it even more difficult.

Jerusalem and Rome were top of the list for obvious reasons, but why was Compostela the third? Compostela is in Galicia, in northern Spain, and is a little less than fifty miles from Cape Finisterre, which the Romans thought was the edge of the world.

The cathedral at Compostela is said to contain the remains of St James the Great, believed to be the first apostle to be martyred. One of the legends about St James is that he preached in Spain, before returning to Judea where he was martyred by being beheaded on the orders of Herod Agrippa in 44 AD. His remains were then transported from Judea to Spain in a rudderless, stone boat guided by angels. Santiago is the Galician form of St James.

Click here to read the rest.


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The Abbey at Romsey



Romsey Abbey


Towards the end of last year I wrote about the wall paintings at Romsey Abbey without really mentioning any of the other things contained in the abbey or the history of the abbey. I visited Romsey in October as part of my research for Beloved Besieged, since part of the story takes place there.

Romsey is a small town on the River Test, twelve miles south-west of Winchester. The abbey stands in the centre of the town and was a convent for over 500 years.

The abbey has a very long history, being founded at the end of the tenth century by Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great. The first building was probably made of wood, which was the norm for Saxon churches. The abbey was refounded in the middle of the tenth century and the nuns adopted the Rule of St Benedict.

Ethelflaeda became abbess in 996. She was canonised and is one of the patron saints of the abbey. This thirteenth century tomb is in her eponymous chapel, as is the fifteenth century painting of a priest.


Thirteenth century tomb in St Ethelflaeda’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey




Painting in St Ethelflaeda’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey


The abbey has two Saxon roods. A rood is a crucifix, usually life-sized.  One rood is inside, in a chapel, and the other is on an exterior wall.


Interior Rood, Romsey Abbey




Exterior Rood, Romsey Abbey


Romsey Abbey has housed some famous women including Matilda, later wife of Henry I and mother of Empress Matilda. She was educated in the abbey at the end of the eleventh century. Mary de Blois, daughter of King Stephen, against whom Empress Matilda fought a civil war, was abbess in the middle of the twelfth century. Mary was kidnapped from the abbey and forced to marry when she became Countess of Boulogne in her own right. This caused a scandal and the marriage was eventually annulled, although not until she had borne her kidnapper two children. After the annulment, Mary entered another convent, where she remained for the rest of her life.

The Vikings burned the abbey in the 990s. Fortunately, the nuns had received a warning and were able to escape. The Normans started to replace the Saxon church in the 1120s. Throughout its early history the abbey was rebuilt and extended several times.

The nuns lived in buildings south of the church, but nothing is left of them today. There were normally about one hundred nuns in the abbey, but it must have varied considerably over the years. In 1327 the bishop of Winchester wrote to the abbess to say that no more women could be admitted without his permission, as there were too many of them. It’s not known how many women were in the abbey at the time, but it must have been significantly more than one hundred.

Like many monasteries and convents, the abbey was badly hit by the Black Death in 1348/9. By the time the plague had run its course, only nineteen nuns remained alive. Their numbers never really recovered, providing sufficient cause to dissolve the abbey in 1539.

The nuns of Romsey always had a reputation for lax behaviour.They travelled as much as they could, thus flouting the Rule, which said that a nun should not leave the convent once she had been admitted to it.  The nuns also dressed extravagantly. Like monks, they were supposed to wear simple clothes. Two nuns were even excommunicated in the fourteenth century, although it’s not known what they had done to merit this.


Fifteenth century reredos, St Lawrence’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey


This last photograph doesn’t have anything to do with the abbey. These are just some swans who were also enjoying the late autumn sun on the River Test a short walk from the abbey.



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The Medieval Pilgrim



At the beginning of my latest novel, Beloved Besieged, Joscelin is a pilgrim who is being punished for a terrible sin by being made to walk to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Not all the pilgrims who travelled to shrines were being punished, however.

Pilgrims came from all levels of society and left home for a variety of reasons. Some were pious and wanted to visit a shrine to give thanks for something or to request a miracle. Some went as a penance, whether self-imposed or as a punishment from their confessors. The more serious the sin, the further away the object of the pilgrimage. Some simply wanted to see the world.  Pilgrims could also be of either sex. For most women it was the only way they would manage to see any of the world beyond their own home.

Pilgrimage was very popular in the fourteenth century, having reached its peak around 1300. There were, however, several periods during which English pilgrims had to be satisfied with destinations within England, such as Walsingham, Winchester or Canterbury due to war. There were also local cults which flourished for a short time and then disappeared.

Theological thought about the relics that pilgrims travelled to see or touch was mixed.  Many theologians considered that there was no value in the relic of a saint. Tomas Aquinas, however, found a spiritual justification for pilgrimage. He argued that a relic was the physical reminder of a saint. If someone loves someone else, he said, they love what that person leaves behind them when they die, so it was acceptable to love the saint’s relic. The bodily relic of a saint was connected to his or her soul and the Holy Spirit could work through the body of a saint as well as through his or her soul. Since God worked miracles through the saints’ bodies, he showed that he wanted them to be venerated. This argument goes somewhat awry when you realise that most relics were not parts of the bodies of saints, but an article associated with them. Sometimes this was just an image of them, which they had never seen or touched.

Following the sack of Constantinople in 1204 many relics found their way into the west and different churches claimed to have the same relic. There were, for example, at least three heads of John the Baptist. For most people this was of no importance at all. Some, however, questioned how it was possible that there were so many saints who had left four or five arms, or twenty fingers, behind them to be discovered in circumstances which became increasingly questionable.

The three main pilgrimage sites were Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela. Jerusalem was the most important and the most difficult to get to, for which read dangerous, time-consuming and expensive. If you were English, getting there meant a long overland journey to places such as Marseilles or Venice followed by a lengthy sea journey across the Mediterranean, at risk from pirates and storms. There was a very brief period when it was possible to travel overland to Jerusalem from Europe, but very few could afford to go to Jerusalem.

Going to Rome meant braving the wars in northern Italy that were, in part, responsible for keeping the fourteenth century popes in Avignon.

Compostela was, for most of the time, a much safer option. An English pilgrim could sail to Gascony and cross the Pyrenees and follow a route across northern Spain. If there was peace with France he, or she, might even be able to sail to Calais and cross France, following one of the many established routes which led to the south-west.

For most people, however, a pilgrimage was very much a local affair. Cults were constantly springing up and dying down again, so there would often be a shrine near to home, perhaps within a day or two’s walk.

Pilgrims usually travelled in groups for safety. Although the pope had declared that anyone attacking pilgrims was excommunicate and pilgrims announced themselves as such by carrying a staff and wearing a cross on their tunics, they were still frequently attacked and robbed. There were two types of pilgrim – those who set out carrying all the money they needed for the pilgrimage and those who begged for alms or worked as they travelled. The first group were obviously a target for bandits, but even the second group would occasionally be carrying a large amount of money and bandits could not tell which was which. Pilgrims needed money for offerings to be left at shrines as well as for food and accommodation.

There was a pilgrim ‘uniform’. As well as wearing his long tunic (a sclavein), which bore a cross, and carrying a staff, a pilgrim also carried a scrip. This was a leather pouch tied to his waist and it contained food, a bowl, a mug and money. The staff and scrip would be blessed by the pilgrim’s priest before he set out. Usually a pilgrim also wore a broad-rimmed hat. On the return journey he would proudly wear a trinket or badge that he had purchased at the shrine to prove that he had reached it. Pilgrims who had gone to Santiago de Compostela came back with cockleshells. This eventually became the symbol of pilgrimage, regardless of the shrine visited.

Pilgrims were supposed to be exempt from laws prohibiting begging and from paying tolls, but this prohibition was not always observed. Even pilgrims who had set out with a lot of money could find themselves running out.

The pilgrimage routes were not always the same as those followed by merchants, so they were not necessarily well-provided with inns or other forms of accommodation. Pilgrims could stay at monasteries and hostels set up along the pilgrim routes by monasteries. The Carmelite friary at Aylesford welcomed pilgrims on their way to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. The Pilgrims’ Hall, pictured below, is now the dining-room for visitors to the friary.


The Pilgrim’s Hall, Aylesford

Where the pilgrimage was a penance, the pilgrim sought absolution. Some shrines were ‘worth’ more than others in this regard and he had to choose his destination carefully.

Pilgrims expected to witness miracles at shrines. Past miracles were the reason why the shrines were there in the first place. Pilgrims would leave wax offerings at the shrine indicating the kind of miracle they had experienced or hoped for.

Since pilgrimages were a sign of humility, they were supposed to be carried out on foot. Some pilgrims even went so far as to go barefoot or to crawl, if only for part of the way. These were the most highly regarded pilgrims.

A pilgrimage was not undertaken lightly. Even a pilgrimage within England could take someone away from their home for several weeks. Going to Rome or Compostela could take several months.  Preparations had to be made in advance.  A decision had to be made about who was going to manage any property while the owner was away. It was not unknown for a pilgrim to return and find that his ownership of his estate had been contested in his absence and he had lost the right to it. Some chose to leave their property in the hands of the church, but that could be just as dangerous.

Where the pilgrimage was a punishment, some could pay to avoid embarking on it or pay someone to go on their behalf. This was a good option for the elderly or sick. Many people died on pilgrimage. If they had come to a particular shrine for healing, they might wait there until they were healed or died. Often they expected to die at the shrine which was the goal of their pilgrimage. Even if they did not expect to die they made a will before they left home.

If they did manage to return home, they would always have plenty of stories to entertain their family and friends.


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The Sack of Limoges


To celebrate the publication of Beloved Besieged this weekend, I’m looking at the Sack of Limoges, which is the central event of the novel. It took place on 19th September 1370 and is the event which tarnished the Black Prince’s reputation for chivalry. According to (more or less) contemporary chroniclers, he ordered the massacre of the town’s inhabitants, some 3,000 people.

In many ways his actions at Limoges were a result of what had happened in Castile in 1367. The Prince had gone into Spain to assist Don Pedro, England’s ally. Due to the part he played in the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, in which the English had been the victors, he was known as the greatest soldier of his age. Since he was the Prince of Aquitaine and was living in the principality at the time, he was the obvious choice to send south to Castile. Although he won the Battle of Nájera, the expenses of the campaign were more than the Prince could afford and, whilst waiting in Castile for the repayment of his expenses, he became ill. Don Pedro had promised more than he could deliver, however, and the Prince finally realised that he wasn’t going to get any money from him and went back over the Pyrenees.

After he returned to Aquitaine his enemies soon learned of his weakened state and began to exploit it. The Prince no longer had the energy to defend the borders of his principality against the French. To make matters worse, those who served beneath him lacked both his charismatic leadership and his experience. As a result of his losses in Spain, the Prince had to raise more taxes, which made him unpopular in Aquitaine.

Officially England and France had been at peace since October 1360, but the French began to make incursions into Aquitaine with increasing impunity after 1367. The Prince’s unpopularity and his inability to protect them against the French meant that many towns surrendered without a fight, but the surrender of the town of Limoges after a siege of a mere three days was the last straw for the Prince. Despite his failing health, he took an army across Aquitaine to Limoges, to which he laid siege.

Like most towns in that part of France, Limoges was divided into two parts, each surrounded by walls. One part held the castle and the garrison and the other (the Cité) contained the cathedral. It was the Cité which surrendered.

The state of the Cité’s walls was such that they only held against the Prince’s army for five days. The Prince’s miners built a tunnel under a tower and set a fire beneath it, bringing the tower and some of the wall down. The army then fought its way into the town.

A few reasons have been suggested for what happened next. The most obvious was that showing no mercy would send a message to other towns in Aquitaine contemplating going over to the French. Another was that the Prince knew that his failing health would not allow him to hold on to Aquitaine much longer and he vented his anger on the town. A third was that the bishop who was responsible for the surrender was a friend, godfather to one of his sons, and the Prince felt the betrayal personally. Whatever his reasons, there were rules about sieges, and the surrender of Limoges without putting up a fight meant that the Prince could exact any punishment on the town that he wished.

The Prince was so ill that he had to be carried to Limoges on a litter and did not take part in the fighting. His punishment for the town was to order its complete destruction and the death of its inhabitants.  This was permitted within the rules of siege warfare.

In his Chronicles Froissart described the slaughter of the people of the town, but he either was not aware of the rules of sieges or he chose to ignore them. He wrote about people begging on their knees for their lives and the Prince ignoring them in his anger. According to Froissart, three thousand men, women and children were massacred. Modern historians, however, believe that the number of people killed was much smaller and was probably limited to the members of the garrison left behind by the French together with a few civilians, possibly no more than 300 people. The town, however, was burnt and it was decades before it was rebuilt.

Almost as soon as he had come the Prince was gone and the army returned to the court at Angoulême. When he arrived back in Angoulême the Prince learned that his oldest son, six-year-old Edward, had died in his absence. He must have known then that there was no more that he could do in Aquitaine, for he appointed his brother, John of Gaunt, as his lieutenant and returned to England after Christmas 1370, formally renouncing his position as Prince of Aquitaine in 1372.









Filed under Fourteenth Century