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Life in a Medieval Castle
By Brenda Ralph Lewis
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Brenda Ralph Lewis
All rights reserved.
A Land of Castles
The medieval world was a military society. It had to be. In around AD 476, the Roman Empire finally fell before concerted barbarian onslaughts, leading to an era of near perpetual violence, invasion and instability. Marauding tribes – Huns, Goths, Vandals – spread terror across great swathes of Europe. This was no brief encounter. Even before the Romans abandoned their imperial province of Britannia in around AD 426, its inhabitants were receiving the destructive attentions of Anglo-Saxons from Germany and Denmark. Raiders were still coming three, four and five centuries later, as the Vikings crossed the North Sea from Scandinavia first to raid along the east coast of England, later to displace the established population and settle their territory.
Wherever they went and whoever they were, the attackers left a trail of disaster and death behind them. They ravaged settlements, villages and towns. They sacked monasteries and churches where tempting treasure could be found. Murder, mayhem and pillage became the currency of the time, and survival was at a premium. Early victims – like the Britons living in Scarborough, which was raided by the Anglo-Saxons in AD 409 – were virtually helpless before this storm of brutal aggression. In time, though, the response that developed was characterised by self-defence of ever-increasing power and ingenuity.
The earliest defences comprised huge earthworks, timber-built forts, sometimes incorporating stonework, or motte and bailey castles. The motte and bailey, the first of which was built on the River Loire in France around AD 990, was a mound, sometimes with a wooden tower, surrounded by a moat and topped by a wooden palisade. This was primitive compared with the more romantic, yet at the same time much more daunting, medieval castle, a vast, complex stone-built structure with walls several feet thick, heavily fortified towers and a drawbridge spanning a deep moat.
This mighty fortress developed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but despite its fearsome aspect and the chances it offered for tenacious defence, its purpose was no longer solely military, but political and social as well. Gradually, over time, the nomadic raiders who once lived in the saddle, moving from one scene of pillage and slaughter to the next, settled down into more permanent communities. Now, they lived in towns, villages or hamlets, and became farmers, woodsmen or fishermen.
This did not mean a peaceful or even civilised society. Europe was still a dangerous place, still at the mercy of outlaws, brigands and troublemakers. In this context, the castle acquired a fresh function for the ruling elite, as a means of control over their neighbourhood and its inhabitants. It became a forbidding presence looming over the landscape, and acted as a warning to potential wrongdoers. It was also an unmistakable statement of wealth and power and stood as a sign that the local lord could be disobeyed or challenged only at great personal risk.
The Normans who constructed the first substantial castles in Britain after their invasion of 1066 certainly used them as a deterrent to anyone minded to resist their rule. The punitive nature of the Norman resolve to be absolute masters in their newly conquered territory was demonstrated in the north of England where their response to rebellion in 1069–70 was savage in the extreme. They devastated the region, set fire to crops, killed cattle, burned homes, slaughtered the inhabitants, and smashed the farming implements that might have enabled the survivors to remake some sort of life for themselves.
Fortunately, the depredations in the north of England were not an everyday event. But it came to typify just how far King William was willing to go to assert his authority. The dread lesson sank deep into the English consciousness. Afterwards, even a glimpse of a Norman castle across a field or rising above the horizon or the trees in the forest was a stern reminder of the price disobedience exacted and might exact again.
Ironically, this grim symbol of strength and retribution also suggested a certain weakness in the feudal system by which the Normans and their Plantagenet successors ruled in England. Feudalism was a pyramid arrangement, with the king at its apex. His magnates and the tenants and labourers on their estates occupied the ranks below and each owed fealty and obedience to those who belonged to the rank above. Although this gave the appearance of binding society tightly together through interlocking duties and obligations, the system was essentially decentralised.
Decentralisation was not normally a problem where a king, such as William I, exercised firm control over his realm; but it was a recipe for trouble where a king was too weak, too lazy or too preoccupied elsewhere. This last was the case with several Norman and Plantagenet monarchs who spent a lot of time out of England, in Normandy, Aquitaine, Anjou, Maine or any other of their many possessions in what is now modern France. In this situation, ambitious magnates acquired too much independence to do as they pleased. What they often pleased to do was to use their private armies to attack their neighbours, purloin their lands and their castles and sometimes their entire estates.
In this situation, the features of the classic medieval castle could not afford to derive from architectural fashion or even to reflect the creativity of its designers. Everything about a castle had to serve some purpose of defence for a garrison tasked with fighting off would-be attackers and protecting the magnate and his family and the tenants and workers who fled within its walls for safety in time of war.
For example, the roofs at the top of castle towers were rounded and slanted so as to deflect missiles flung by siege machines. The slits in the walls that served as windows were to protect the archers stationed behind them, while they, by contrast, could fire at enemies with impunity. The drawbridge that spanned the castle moat and comprised the main entrance was hinged at one end to allow it to be drawn up and placed flush against the walls to prevent enemies getting in. This and other gateways could be blocked by a heavy metal grating, the portcullis. Other entrances could be hidden by cunning stonework design and remain unknown to everyone except the castle's inhabitants. Enemies who managed to get past these devices and penetrate the castle would find themselves confronted with steeply winding spiral staircases where the advantage was with the defender: he would be striking downwards with sword or spear at a foe fighting upwards while attempting to climb the stairs and avoid being unbalanced in the process.
The castle as fortress inevitably led to the castle as home. For the members of a noble or royal family, it was the only accommodation that could be regarded as reasonably secure. 'Castle families' were not usually permanent residents but were constantly moving between their scattered manors or estates.
An important reason for frequent moves was the need for a magnate to pay regular visits to his estates, where his feudal duties included settling disputes, hearing petitions, sorting out problems of inheritance following the death of a tenant, even arranging remarriages for widows or at least suggesting suitable candidates. The lord might convene a council in order to take advice from his vassals over important decisions, such as going to war. There were fiefs or grants of land to be made to a new vassal, and the symbolic commendation ceremony to be performed in which the newcomer paid homage to the magnate and swore an oath of fealty to him.
Just as a feudal manor and its adjacent lands formed an essentially self-contained unit, so its castle had to be self-sufficient. Huge supplies of food and water needed to be kept in store, together with plenty of kindling for fires, straw for the stables, rushes for bedding, cooking utensils and a myriad other items that catered for the comfort, sustenance and personal requirements of the magnate's family and retainers.
Despite their peripatetic existence, a noble family found it possible to enjoy a fair standard of luxury, with many refinements not usually featured in the popular view of castle life. The communal sleeping arrangements that obtained before the thirteenth century appear crude, with everyone bedding down on straw palliasses laid out on the floor. But in time the magnate and his lady were able to withdraw to their own room, the solar, where a soft bed covered with fine linen sheets awaited them. This afforded a previously unknown degree of privacy. Advances were also made in the way castles were heated, with fireplaces set into the walls. Sophisticated systems fed water directly into the castle. Some castles even had bathrooms with piped water for washing instead of the tubs that had to be laboriously filled by a team of servants.
Not all castles promised such benefits, of course, but those that did offered a very welcome prospect for a household on the move. However, whether or not comfort lay at the end of the journey, the way there led along rough, potentially dangerous roads and across a landscape where security could never be guaranteed.CHAPTER 2
On the Road
Travelling from one castle to the next was an expedition rather than a journey. In medieval times, royal and some of the greater noble households took to the roads, on average, about once a month, sometimes even less, and did so in all weathers. This meant that the marshal, the high-ranking, often military, officer who was in charge of organising the journey, had many factors to take into account. Not least was the sheer size of a medieval household on the move. The lord, his lady and their entourage took to the roads in procession, together with hundreds of servants, packhorses and hunting dogs, and an assortment of carriages, carts and wagons loaded with luggage, household goods, cooking utensils and supplies. Kings or important nobles might need as many as twenty wagons and carts to hold everything they needed to take with them, including their treasuries.
A vital component of the journey was an escort of heavily armed and armoured soldiers – anything up to one hundred men – whose task it was to protect the household and particularly the money, jewels and other valuables it carried, against the perils to be found on the open road. This particularly applied to roads that led through, or ran close to, the forests.
Wolves, boars, wild dogs, wild cats and bears, all regarded as predatory beasts in medieval times, proliferated in the forests. So did outlaws, whose image might have been romanticised in medieval tales, but who were, in reality, a constant danger to travellers. It has been reckoned that for every miscreant convicted by the courts, ten others were pronounced outlaws. These criminals and desperadoes, often violent and dangerous, had managed to escape the law, usually by running away, but were sentenced instead to an even worse fate than retributive medieval justice could normally devise.
The outlaw was a non-person who had lost everything that mattered – work, income, food, home, family and freedom – except for the dubious freedom of the forest. Above all, he was denied the protection of the law, and had no feudal liege lord to call his own. In towns or villages, an outlaw was always in danger of being recognised and apprehended. His only hope was to elude his pursuers by reaching sanctuary in a church. Even then, sanctuary was limited and the moment would surely come after a few days, or even hours, when the fugitive was either handed over to the authorities or turned out to face the mob waiting outside.
The long, slow, well-equipped, well-supplied parade of a household with a treasury and other valuables on board was a great temptation to outlaws. Many of them had been pushed so far beyond the bounds of misery and desperation that there was no one, however mighty, however well protected, whom they feared to attack. Outlaw bands were known to haunt several medieval roads and there were even 'black spots', such as stretches of the Great North Road between London and the north of England or parts of the countryside near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire where ambushes, assaults and robberies were common.
In addition, the roads themselves were a risky proposition. In wet weather, they could become virtual rivers. In freezing temperatures, they iced up and might be almost impassable for wheeled vehicles. There were no signposts, although some roads had milestones. The splendid Roman roads, built a thousand years earlier, had long ago decayed and had never been properly restored. A household journeying between the more far-flung estates of their lord could use major roads – London to Exeter, London to Bristol – but even in the best conditions, the way could be uncomfortable as well as protracted.
Except for the towns, most medieval roads were unsurfaced and unpaved. Rural roads were often little more than well-worn tracks with big grass verges on either side. Some, at least, were reasonably wide, since they had to cope with the mass movement of troops or large herds of sheep and cattle. A decree of King Henry I, issued in 1118, established that the 'royal way' must be wide enough to allow two wagons to pass each other or sixteen mounted knights to ride abreast.
A travelling household, however, had to confront whatever conditions prevailed on the road as it wound and jolted its way through the countryside, stretched out for perhaps hundreds of yards, far from centres of habitation and succour for a large part of the way. In these circumstances, a household had to be self-sufficient. Enough food, drink and fuel for cooking needed to be carried, with a good supply of blankets for colder weather or protection against sudden storms. Chairs or ground-coverings, such as carpets, were required to allow the riders to dismount and relax or relieve any saddle-sores they had suffered on the road. All supplies and utensils had to be unpacked, laid out, packed again and stored away before the household could set off once more.
Although these breaks in a long and arduous journey were very necessary, they naturally increased travelling time. It has been reckoned that in medieval England, it was possible to cover about 20 or 30 miles in a day. But that was on horseback, whereas large numbers of people in a household on the move made their way on foot. Carts and wagons bumping over the unmade roads slowed the procession down even further and more halts had to be made to rest the horses.
All this made for a very long, very tiring day for all concerned and had an important influence on the logistics of the journey. Starting out at, or soon after, dawn was imperative if optimum use were to be made of daylight, especially in winter. Even then, many journeys could not be completed in a single day. The marshal of the household had to organise overnight halts – sometimes as many as three during a single journey – either at a monastery, the more respectable and comfortable choice, or, if none were located along the route, at an inn or tavern.
Although inns as such were not a new innovation in medieval times (they were popular as far back as the days of ancient Rome) they did not arise in any great number in England until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The catalyst, it appears, came about after 1170, when Thomas Becket, King Henry II's Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in the town's cathedral. With this, Canterbury became the focus for pilgrims visiting Becket's shrine. They arrived in such great numbers that inns were set up along the route to cater for them. The inns, which provided lodgings and substantial feasts if required, must have been a cheery sight for weary travellers, with their bright, warm welcome at the end of a hard day on the road.
The tavern was a more lively, even riotous, alternative to the inn, the ancestor of the English pub, offering plenty of wine to drink – apparently the only drink they sold. Customers could gamble, enjoy music and singing or procure prostitutes as part of the entertainment. It was also possible to buy wine there to take away. Branches and leaves were hung over the door as a sign that this was for sale. Food could also be purchased, although this was frequently obtained from an independent cook shop nearby and consumed in the tavern.
Next morning, the itinerant household moved on, perhaps spending another night at the next inn or tavern along the way. As they approached their destination, it was time to alert staff at the castle to their imminent arrival. While the lord and his household were elsewhere, the castle was relatively quiet and life could be leisurely. Domestic staff and even the garrison might be reduced, unless there was a particular danger in the area that meant a castle needed a comprehensive defence. By contrast, the imminent arrival of the lord, lady and their household was a clarion wake-up call.
The first sign of their approach comprised a party of outriders galloping on ahead to make sure that all was ready to receive them. For security against an enemy attempting to trick the guards into opening the gate, an outrider would carry a spear from which the lord's personal standard fluttered, so that the guards, recognising it, would grant entry to the advance party.
Excerpted from Life in a Medieval Castle by Brenda Ralph Lewis. Copyright © 2011 Brenda Ralph Lewis. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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