Tag Archives: King Alfred

Medieval Burgesses

Conduit House, Southampton

Last week Ellen Hawley wrote a post that mentioned medieval burgesses. I read it and wasn’t sure that I agreed with something that she quoted from a website that gave a definition of medieval burgesses. In my head and, I’m afraid, in my novel His Ransom, burgesses were the men who governed a town. This week’s research has shown that my earlier research was sorely lacking and I apologise now to anyone who has read the novel for the misinformation.

It’s true that governing bodies of towns were made up of burgesses, but burgess was not the title of a member of the governing body. A burgess was a free man who lived in a borough, paying rent to the lord of the manor. He was neither a serf nor a villein bound to a particular manor. Instead, he had many rights over the land he rented. Serfs and villeins were not eligible to become burgesses, even though some of them would have been able to afford the rent.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries lords of the manor could create a borough/town within their manor by making their tenants burgesses. Burgesses held a plot of land (usually less than half an acre) and paid a fixed rent for it. This meant that they didn’t have to provide agricultural services to the lord.

Their rights to this piece of land were quite extensive. They could sell it (or leave it to someone who would in turn become a burgess), sublet it or mortgage it. They also had the right to sell and buy goods in the town’s markets without having to pay tolls. This is what many of them ended up doing.

A borough was originally a centre for trade with a wall around it. Alfred the Great created many of them in the tenth century with the idea of having places that could be defended against the Vikings. This was in a time before castles first appeared in England. The borough’s walls and its soldiers provided protection for the market and its inhabitants.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries lords of the manor created boroughs and towns in order to have markets and fairs on their land, which would provide extra income for them. As well as the profit on the rents paid by the burgesses, it also gave the lord’s serfs and villeins somewhere nearby to sell and buy goods, paying tolls to him for the privilege, since they didn’t live in the town.

There were 100 boroughs in England in 1086. By 1300 there were over 500. Some of them had been created by various kings and some by abbeys, but most had been made by lords of the manor.

A burgess was eligible not just to sit on a town’s governing body, but he could also be selected to represent the town in a parliament. Parliament was not a permanent institution, but met for a few days (usually about a fortnight) more or less once a year, at least during the reign of Edward III, at the behest of the king. You’ll note that I use the word ‘selected’ rather than ‘elected’. The method of selection varied from town to town, but the representatives were usually selected by the other burgesses.

A very complicated selection system was used in King’s Lynn, where the mayor chose four burgesses who chose another four, then the eight selected another four. These twelve men selected the men they sent to parliament. There were also rules about which groups could provide the twelve men. The objective seemed to have been to ensure that the town’s representatives in parliament really did represent the views of those who ran the town. You’ll note again, that they weren’t representing the views of everyone in the town, but only those of the burgesses.

Over the years, burgesses tended to become wealthy men from trade. As a consequence, they were expected to look after the poor and infirm. They would, themselves, have seen this as a religious duty. They provided the money for hospitals and gave money to abbeys and friaries for the support of the poor and other good works. In Southampton they paid for a conduit to carry water from a spring about a mile outside the town down the hill and into the town. The photograph at the top of the post is the fourteenth-century Conduit House at the bottom of the hill, halfway between the spring and the town.

England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corédon and Ann Williams
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.

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Filed under Medieval Buildings, Medieval Life

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.



Filed under Fourteenth Century

The Food of Love, or King Alfred’s Last Resting Place


Last week I had the privilege of performing in St Bartholomew’s, Hyde, a medieval church in Winchester. Rather confusingly the performance was commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death as  part of the Hyde900 festival, which originally commemorated the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Hyde Abbey where Alfred the Great was buried, but is now an annual festival. The occasion was a semi-dramatised performance of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, which is really rather risqué for a church setting.

Winchester was the capital of King Alfred’s Wessex, and he was originally buried in its minster (the Old Minster), but, shortly after the Conquest, the Normans wanted to build a larger cathedral and Alfred’s body, together with those of his wife, Alswitha, and their son, Edward the Elder, was moved to the newly-built abbey at Hyde.


The Norman doorway


A church was built near the abbey gate around 1110 by the monks as a place where their tenants could worship, but it was probably destroyed in a fire in 1141. A new church was completed by about 1185. After the abbey was dissolved in 1539 some stones were salvaged to be used in the church, which was left to serve the parish, but the church fell into disrepair fairly early on and apparently fell out of use altogether during the Commonwealth. It wasn’t until 1690 that regular services were held again. Despite this, the necessary repairs were not carried out. As the diocesan website remarks succinctly “The Church was extensively repaired by the Victorians”.


These encaustic tiles from the abbey were on display as part of the Hyde900 weekend.


Hyde’s connection with Shakespeare is that it was part of the estate of the earls of Southampton. The first earl was partially responsible for the demolition and ’looting’ of the abbey and received the abbey’s estates in return.  The earl also took over the estates of two other wealthy abbeys: Beaulieu in the New Forest and Titchfield to the east of Southampton. Titchfield became the seat of the earls of Southampton. The third earl was Shakespeare’s patron for a time and Venus and Adonis was dedicated to him. As one of the festival organisers remarked, with a trace of bitterness, it was the first earl’s looting of Hyde Abbey that gave the third earl enough money to be a patron to Shakespeare. This allowed Shakespeare to write poetry, a gentleman’s pursuit. Writing plays was not something that a gentleman did, apparently.


Stonework salvaged from Hyde Abbey


“The food of love” is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – “If music be the food of love, play on”. Since we were providing the musical interludes for Venus and Adonis, this seemed an appropriate name for our sextet.


Filed under Church