Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Lords Appellant Part 2: Radcot Bridge

Battle of Radcot Bridge (saved from
In Part 1, we saw the first year of the Appellants’ attempt to control the kingdom by a ruling council. Richard spent most of that year traveling around the kingdom, trying to secure support (mostly from York, Chester and north Wales). He questioned eminent judges concerning the legality of the last Parliament, trying to reestablish his royal preeminence. Knowing this approach was explosive, Richard swore all parties to secrecy, but in a couple of months the story leaked out, and the Appellants knew that their very existence was threatened unless they struck the first blow. As Anthony Steel tells us in his Richard II, “if the old, lax conception of treason were going to be revived, it was vital for them to make the first use of it.”

By the time Richard returned to London, the three Lords Appellant (Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick) had already made their move and gathered with their forces at Waltham Cross, about twelve miles north of the city. This was on November 14, 1387. A meeting was arranged for three days later, and Richard met the three lords at Westminster hall. There they formally initiated their appeal against five defendants:
Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Richard’s close friend. Robert was a few years older than Richard and had no experience in government but had already been created marquess of Dublin and duke of Ireland for life, a status which exasperated the entitled peers to no end.
Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, impeached from the chancellorship in 1386. He was accused of influencing the king against Gloucester and Warwick.
Robert Tresilian, chief justice of the king’s bench. Historians remember him as the pitiless judge during the aftermath of the Peasant Revolt. He was the main man who influenced the judges who pronounced against the Merciless Parliament.
Sir Nicholas Brembre, former mayor of London, member of the Grocer’s Company. He frequently supported the king in his disputes against London.
Alexander Neville, archbishop of York, irascible and uncompromising, who seemed to have the uncanny ability to offend almost everybody. Except the king.

Apparently, the Appellants intended to pursue their complaint in the Court of Chivalry, over which Gloucester presided. However, Richard had a different answer: he proposed, according to Tuck (Richard II and the English Nobility), “that the matter be referred to a parliament, an intelligent move, for it gave de Vere time to bring his army south and perhaps reverse the whole situation. It also gave the other accused time to escape, and Pole and Neville used the breathing space to flee overseas.” The next Parliament was scheduled for the following February. It must be remembered that Richard had no standing army, nor even armed retainers to oppose the bristling forces standing by at Waltham Cross. Nor did London agree to support him. The king was vulnerable and he knew it. Sending de Vere to Chester, Richard waited while his friend gathered around 3000-4000 men and tried to march them to London.

Alas, although Robert de Vere seemed brave enough, he had no military experience. Arundel soon discovered what he was up to and the knowledge apparently shocked Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas de Mobray into action, bringing the number of Lords Appellant up to five. In fact, it was Henry who succeeded in trapping de Vere at Radcot Bridge (in Oxfordshire), where the royalist forces—those who hadn’t already deserted—were swiftly routed, captured, and disarmed. De Vere made a dash for freedom; unable to find a ford he stripped his armor off, abandoned his horse and swam across the Thames. His possessions were found, along with a letter from the king authorizing de Vere’s actions. For the moment, it was assumed that he drowned in the river, but it was later discovered that de Vere managed to limp his way over to France (never to return alive).

That was the end of Richard’s resistance. The Lords Appellant marched their army back to London where they encamped at Clerkenwell and paid a visit to the king who had taken refuge in the Tower. In the last week of December, the five lords entered the Tower with 500 heavily-armed followers and shut the gates behind them. Richard took them into the privacy of his chapel and nobody really knows what went on behind that closed door. There’s a story that Bolingbroke drew Richard to the window and showed him the mob outside waiting to depose him. Undoubtedly the lords berated him for his duplicity and insisted that he arrest the five “traitors”. It seems there is a consensus among historians that Richard ceased to rule the last three days of 1387; a strong probability exists that he was actually deposed for two or three days—at least Gloucester admitted such in his last confession ten years later. It is thought that Gloucester wanted the crown for himself, but Henry of Bolingbroke wouldn’t go along; his father’s claim—and therefore his own—was stronger. So in the end, they decided to put Richard back on the throne. The immediate crisis was over, but Richard would neither forgive nor forget his humiliation and degradation. Sadly for him, the worst was yet to come.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Lords Appellant Part 1: A Great and Continual council

Arundel, Gloucester, Nottingham, Derby, and Warwick,
Before the King Source: Wikimedia
Although the word appellant in modern terms refers to a petitioner appealing to a higher court, when we look at the fourteenth century the whole concept takes a left turn. First of all, you always see the words Lords Appellant capitalized, and it only seems to refer to those involved in the first legal crisis of Richard II’s reign. The Lords Appellant “appealed” (in essence, accused) Richard’s supporters of treason. Not only were their motives questionable, but the whole process had no legal basis from which to act, and the Appellants were forced to make up the rules as they went along, twisting the system to accommodate their self-serving objectives.

Initially there were three Appellants: Richard FitzAlan, 11th Earl of Arundel (who served in the wars with Edward III, mostly as admiral), Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester (the youngest son of Edward III), and Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick (also served with Edward III in the French war). Later on they were joined by Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby (son of John of Gaunt and future Henry IV) and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, 1st Duke of Norfolk (great-great grandson of Edward I). All these Lords had impressive pedigrees, but the first three had age and experience on their side and considered the young king more of an upstart than a man to be respected. After all, when the Merciless Parliament was called in 1388, Richard may have been 21 years of age but he still hadn’t officially reached his majority.

I’ll refer to events leading up to this pivotal moment in future posts. For now, suffice it to say that the barons wanted to control the young king who was attempting to rule in a way that was detrimental to their interests. Richard’s advisors, supporters, and friends were accused of giving him bad advice; since the nobles didn’t have enough ammunition to go against the king himself, they would have to be satisfied with eliminating his close supporters. The lords were determined to clean house, so to speak, and appoint a council of their choosing to take over the ruling of the country.

This happened in several steps. The king wasn’t to know it until later, but when John of Gaunt left the country in 1386 to pursue his Castilian interests, Richard lost the only impediment to the barons’ collaboration. Their first target was Michael de la Pole, Chancellor and newly created Earl of Suffolk. Alas, his long service to Edward III accounted for nothing once the Appellants had their hackles up and they “called for his dismissal—adding that they had ‘business to do with him which they could not transact so long as he remained in office’ “(Nigel Saul’s Richard II  p.157). What business was this? Why, nothing less than the first impeachment of any official in English history! Richard was furious and stood his ground: he would not dismiss so much as a kitchen scullion at their request. And at that, he withdrew from the Wonderful Parliament, as it was called, and went to Eltham. Ultimately, Gloucester and Arundel followed him there, and with a combination of bullying, falsehoods and cajoling, they persuaded him to return to Parliament—primarily because of their veiled reference to Edward II’s fate. Cowed, Richard dismissed Michael and the commons launched immediately into impeachment proceedings against him, alleging embezzlement and dereliction of duty in office. He was found guilty and briefly imprisoned, but Richard procured his release and kept his company for much of the next year. Arundel’s brother Thomas became chancellor in Michael’s place.

Satisfied with the first part of their strategy, the nobles and commons insisted on a “great and continual council” to implement financial reforms, clear up the backlog of debt, and curb the king’s expenditures. Their commission was to last one year and their powers were wide. After some tiresome attempts to interfere with their efforts, Richard took off on a long tour of the north, only returning nine days before the expiration date. Although contemporaries thought he was wandering around aimlessly, in reality it seems he was trying to consolidate his power base and start the recruitment of an army loyal to himself. In the process, he also called two meetings with eminent judges in which he questioned them as to the legality of the previous Parliament; did the House infringe upon the royal prerogatives? Did they have the authority to impeach a Crown officer without the consent of the king? Whether the judges acted under pressure or not is unknown, but their response was that Parliament overstepped its bounds and the offenders should be punished ‘as traitors’.

This was an interesting development, because the Statute of Treason from 1052 “had limited the definition of treason to such acts as aiding the king’s enemies and levying war against the king in his realm” (Nigel Saul p.166). This is why the judges did not call the Appellants traitors per se, for the definition wouldn’t fit. But Richard’s questions did give him some ammunition to use against his enemies, though in the end his strategy backfired. Click here for Part 2.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

What was Livery and Maintenance (or Retaining)?

Medieval court scene from BL MS Harley 4375 f.141.
Source: Wikipedia
Livery and Maintenance went hand-in-hand with chivalry, and created problems throughout the high middle ages. Once I realized that “retaining” was the verb for “retainer” I started to get the idea. The noble or king had his retainers, who were either in his household (given food and clothing) or part of his social and political network (fee’d retainers, paid an annuity for fealty and service). The retainer looked to the lord for “livery”—or clothing (hoods or “chaperons”, cloth, and more specifically, badges; think of Richard III’s white boar)—and “maintenance”—or maintaining the cause, or dispute, of the client. The lord was their protector; if they misbehaved, the retainers were pretty sure they could get off scot free, so to speak, usually by interfering with justice. Not only were judges and juries intimidated and bribed, but, according to Anthony Tuck (Richard II and the English Nobility) “there was a great trade in pardons in the fourteenth century to produce revenue”. This was applicable only when the accused showed up for trial, which rarely happened, anyway; there was no way to force the offender to cooperate.

As might be expected, wearing a lord’s livery fostered a lively atmosphere of competition, faction-fighting, and strife. The armed livery retainers were starting to look and act like thugs. I keep thinking about the incredible sword-fight in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, where Tybalt and Mercutio led their howling followers in a violent brawl up and down the streets. Innocent bystanders had to fend for themselves. When convenient, anyone could be threatened or abused depending on the inclination of the liveried bully. Law and order was a farce.

All the way back to Edward I’s days, attempts were made to control this disregard for the law. By Richard II’s reign, Parliament tried to order the nobles to cease the practice of liveries, but the Lords insisted they could control their own offenders. Of course, they couldn’t and this caused a constant conflict between the Lords and the Commons which Richard took advantage of, even offering to abolish his own livery if the nobles would do the same. This offer was scorned by the Lords, but it served to create a badly-needed rapprochement between King and the Commons.

In Richard’s reign, retaining took on a special urgency. In return for his loyalty, a retainer expected patronage, advancement, or even acquisition of lands. If the lord couldn’t extend his patronage (for instance, if the king denied him access or offered a better deal), he might very well lose the allegiance of his retainers. This was one of the major grievances of the Lords Appellant, for as young Richard II distributed lands and honors to just about anybody who asked for them, the great magnates saw their influence waning. This was especially true in the late 1380s, after the Merciless Parliament when Richard needed to rebuild his support base. As Anthony Goodman tells us (The Loyal Conspiracy): “As he (Richard) progressed, he retained… The nervousness it aroused was reflected, too, in the arrest near Cambridge of a servant of the king who had been distributing liveries to the gentry of East Anglia and Essex, on receiving which they swore to do military service when summoned by the king, no matter which lords had retained them.” By the end of Richards’s reign, he had retained so many followers that he beat his enemies at their own game; he alarmed London by filling it with an army of Cheshiremen, and in his last two years, his tyrannical behavior was ungovernable. Alas, for Richard, the more easily acquired, the easier they were lost, and when the final showdown occurred, his standing army evaporated and he faced the usurper alone.

It wasn’t until the Tudors that an end was put to maintenance, and enforceable laws were introduced. By then, chivalry had run its course and the Wars of the Roses had wiped out the overweening might of the aristocracy, leaving a more pliant nobility.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Poll Tax, Part 2: The Peasants’ Revolt is Sparked

The Death of Wat Tyler: Library Royal MS 18.E.i-ii f. 175
By the Parliament of 1380, the Commons were up against the wall. The government under the new Chancellor Sudbury was desperate for money. In France, the earl of Buckingham had squandered the money raised from the last Poll Tax; the army was a half year in arrears; Gaunt needed money in Scotland; the coast needed to be protected against invasion; and the wool subsidy was not producing any funds because of a riot in Flanders. They needed £160,000 to make ends meet, including—unknown to the Commons—about £60,000 for Gaunt’s proposed Castile campaign. Impossible! After much discussion, the commons agreed to grant £100,000 if the rest was raised by the clergy, and it was decided a third poll tax would be put in place.

Unlike the second Poll Tax, which didn’t raise enough money, this one would demand three groats per person (the first poll tax was one groat), again on a sliding scale, though this time no specifics were outlined: “the sufficient shall (according to their means) aid the lesser…” (RB Dobson). This may have worked in the towns where a great landowner happened to reside (as long as the landowner helped out), but in the areas where there were no wealthy residents, the poorest households faced the most onerous burden. No one was happy. Since the tax was collected based on the population of a town or shire, here is where the infamous evasion was practiced all over the country: the population numbers between 1377 and 1381 suddenly dropped—on paper. For instance, Kent went from 56,557 to 43,838; Somerset fell from 54,604 to 30,384. Try Cumberland, that went from 11,841 to 4,748 and Devon, that fell from 45,635 to 20,656. Taken as a whole, “the adult population of the realm has ostensibly fallen from 1,355,201 to 896,481 persons” (Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381). It seems that many quit counting unmarried daughters, widowed mothers, etc. Or who knows? It soon became obvious that all was not as it should be!

So the government appointed new commissioners in March, 1381 to investigate the widespread tax evasion. Commissioners were hard to find, for this was a task bound for trouble. But they were reportedly allowed to keep the profits raised above and beyond their quota, so ambitious men came forward, each accompanied by two sergeants-at-arms to provide additional persuasion. Not only were they bitterly resented, for the people declared they had already paid their taxes, but ugly rumors abounded about their methods. It was even said that one commissioner lifted girls’ skirts to test whether they were virgins or not! Huh? Maybe he was looking for pubic hair? By the end of May, resentment had reached the boiling point.

It wasn’t an accident that when Sir John de Bampton came to Brentwood to start his commission in Essex, there was a crowd of about 100 waiting for him from the surrounding towns. They were angry, rudely armed, and ready for resistance. Bampton ordered his sergeants to make some arrests, the mob promptly attacked, stoning and beating the offenders until they headed back to London, their proverbial tail between their legs. And so started the Great Revolt.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Poll Tax, Part One: The Cupboard is Bare

National Archives (catalogue reference: E 179/155/94)
Although the poll tax was said to have been used all the back to ancient times, it’s most widely remembered in relation to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. According to Wikipedia: “The word ‘poll’ is an archaic term for ‘head’ or ‘top of the head’. The sense of ‘counting heads’ is found in phrases like polling place and opinion poll.” Well, that answers my question as to whether our current use of the word relates to its original use. Apparently so. But how did it set off the greatest rebellion of the middle ages and nearly bring down the monarchy?

From what I can gather, it was widely believed that the infamous Poll Tax was the first of its kind in Medieval England. In reality, there were three Poll Taxes between 1377-1381—each with its own experimental application, and each imposed to cover a shortfall caused by continual losses in the French wars. It could also be said the need for more taxes should be laid at the feet of inept and possibly corrupt royal ministers. Money was wasted shamefully in the early years of Richard II’s reign.

Ever since 1334, taxes were raised by the standard subsidy called “tenths and fifteenths”, which meant one tenth of the value of personal properties—called movables—for lay persons in cities, boroughs and royal demesne lands, and one fifteenth for rural counties. It was easier to tax the local community as a whole and leave it to the inhabitants to sort out the distribution. But by 1377, the government’s financial crisis was such that a new system of taxation had to be devised by Parliament, and they finally settled on the first Poll Tax, which would require a groat—or four pence—from each and every lay person over the age of 14, with the exception of public beggars. (The churchmen were taxed too, on a slightly different scale.) A simple laborer might earn three pence in a day and a skilled workman could earn five pence, so the tax was not too onerous except for the fact the poor man’s burden was much higher proportionally than a wealthy man. Nonetheless, the first Poll Tax was considered a success—raising £22,580 from the laity alone—and it temporarily eased the pressure. But not for long.

In 1379, England was in a panic because of a threatened invasion from France. Once again, the commons in Parliament decided to impose a second Poll Tax—this one to be implemented on a sliding scale, depending on the person’s rank. Here’s a sample from the thirty-three separate categories, drawn from RB Dobson’s The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381:
– The Dukes of Lancaster and Brittany, each: 10 marks (i.e. £6 13s 4d)
– Each earl of England: £4
– Each baron and banneret or knight who is able to spend as much as a baron: 40s
– Each squire not in possession of land, rents or castles, who is in service or in arms: 40d
– Each sergeant and great apprentice of the law: 40s
– Other apprentices who follow the law, each: 20s
– All other apprentices of lesser estate, and attorneys, each: 6s 8d
– Each alderman of London is to pay, like a baron: 40s
– All the municipal officers of large towns and the great merchants of the kingdom are to pay, like a knight: 20s
– Farmers of manors and parsonages, and great merchants dealing in stock and other lesser trade, according to their estate: 6s 8d
– Each married man, for himself and his wife if they do not belong to the estates above and are over the age of 16 years, genuine beggars excepted, is to pay: 4d
– Each foreign merchant of whatever condition is to pay according to his estate like the others above: 20s, or 6s 8d

This seemed more fair than a straight head count, but it ended up a miserable failure (blamed again on corrupt administration). It garnered about £22,000, half of what was expected “at a time when the half-year’s wages of English troops on an ill-fated Breton expedition exceeded £50,000” (Dobson, p.111). The money was gone in a heartbeat, the fleet languished in port before sailing late in the year only to be wrecked by storms, and the Scots were causing trouble on the border. The king’s jewels had already been hocked, the treasury was empty. According to Juliet Barker in 1381, The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt, “Over a quarter of a million pounds had now been spent on the war in the two and a half years since Richard’s accession—yet there was virtually nothing to show for it.” Chancellor Scrope was obliged to resign in disgrace. Even though the ministers promised they wouldn’t call Parliament again for eighteen months, everyone knew they would have to renege.

Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury was created new Chancellor, which proved to be the worst thing that could ever have happened to him. The poor man may have been a brilliant scholar and a devoted churchman, but he was most certainly not cut out to be a good administrator, which would be proven when they introduced the third, and most catastrophic Poll Tax in 1381. (Part Two)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Great Seal, Privy Seal, and Signet: What’s the difference?

Great Seal of Richard II, After F. Sandford, A Genealogical history
of the kings and queens of England … (London, 1707)
We know the Great Seal was an indispensable tool for keeping the government running. Historians pay close attention to the use of the Seal; not only does this help identify the time and reign of a particular warrant, but the use of lesser Seals helps us follow the movements of our itinerant kings.

Edward the Confessor is thought to have been the first English ruler to use the Great Seal, and each successive medieval monarch remade the design in his own image, to be stamped into wax. Charters, letters, and writs required a seal to initiate legally binding orders; the clerks of the Chancery wrote these orders, and the head of the Chancery was the Chancellor, usually a Bishop. So the Chancellor was officially in charge of the Great Seal and guarded it against improper use. In fact, counterfeiting the Great Seal was a serious crime, defined as High Treason in the reign of Edward III.

In official use, there were three Seals (there were many other seals—the Exchequer, Ecclesiastic Seals, Guild Seals; the list goes on and on. I am only referencing the king and his Chancery). The Great Seal was required for any state document, but if the king was traveling around, he could use a Privy Seal—first employed by King John—to move (or authenticate, or instruct) the Great Seal. Under the early Plantagenets, the Privy Seal was under the custody of the Keeper of the Wardrobe; this evolved into the Keeper of the Privy Seal. By 1312, the Barons ensured that the Privy Seal clerk was appointed by the king in Parliament and approved by them. Hence, the Privy Seal office became a sort of second clearing-house for official documents. Eventually, almost all non-judicial documents required a warrant from the Privy Seal before it could pass under the Great Seal.

Edward II, chafing at the strictures of Parliament, started using a secret seal which eventually evolved as the Signet—the king’s personal Seal—and was guarded by the king’s Secretary (precursor to the Secretary of State). In the early years, Richard II would use the Signet to move the Privy Seal, which would move the Great Seal. But in 1383, Richard got the idea that he could bypass the usual procedures, and he started using his Signet ring for everything—circumventing the Privy Seal office altogether to communicate instructions directly to the Chancery. Why did this matter? The Barons interpreted Richard’s “abuse” of the Signet as an attempt to take personal charge of government affairs, trying to shake off control of his actions. He was even recorded ordering money from the treasury for his personal use. In 1386, however, this came to a screeching halt when Parliament ordered the reorganization of his administration and impeached Michael de la Pole, his friend and his Chancellor. Richard was forced to stop issuing Signet letters “to the damage of the Realm”, and his use of the Signet fell off dramatically.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Non-native Species in Britain (for research)

When writing historical fiction, one little slip like giving King Alfred a tomato can wreak havoc with an author's credibility. The other day I was called to task for using a rabbit in Canute's Britain, because the reviewer said that rabbits were introduced by the Normans. Yikes! I was saved by the recent archeological discovery of 2000-year old rabbit bones in Norfolk, but just barely. According to an article in the Telegraph, "Years of division among academics over whether the Romans or the Normans introduced rabbits into Britain appears to have been resolved." OK, you get the idea. It's hard to research every little tidbit of information that could trip us up, but it put me to thinking. So I went onto Google and did a homely little search of my own about some of the more "obvious" non-native species in Britain; as an American, I admit this is not second nature to me! I'm certain my list is far from exhaustive, but I welcome any input that would enlighten the overburdened author.


CARP: The logical conclusion is that carp were imported some time during the 14th century, because after the (anonymous) Treatyse, references to the fish multiply, presumably reflecting what the carp were doing, thanks to the new craze for fish ponds. (see

DEER (CHINESE WATER): Chinese water deer were first kept at London Zoo in 1873 but escaped from Whipsnade Zoo in 1929. Numbers increased through introductions into deer parks and subsequent escapes and releases (see

DEER (SIKA): Sika were introduced from the Far East into Britain in 1860. While several subspecies, including Chinese, Japanese, Formosan and Manchurian, were introduced into parks the only free-living form in Britain is the Japanese sika. (see

EDIBLE DORMOUSE: In Roman times, they were fattened, stuffed and served as a delicacy . But the edible dormouse escaped from Lionel Walter Rothschild's private collection near Tring, Hertfordshire, in 1902. (see FERAL GOAT: They were brought here in Neolithic times (about 5000 BP) as domestic stock, derived from the Bezoar Capra aegagrus, a native of the Middle East (see

FERRET: The first reference to ferrets in England was 1223 when a ferreter was listed as part of the Royal Court. (see

GREY SQUIRREL: Grey squirrels (Scirius caroliniensis) are native to North America and were first released in the UK in 1876 in Henbury Park, Cheshire. It's not clear why they were introduced and the Victorians had no idea of the risks of introducing non-native species. (google).

MINK: A widespread modern misconception is that the UK’s wild population of American Mink originated from mass releases of mink from fur farms by animal rights activists in the 1990s. Many people will remember these dramatic events for the sheer numbers of mink involved. In fact, the wild population was established decades earlier from multiple escapes (and perhaps deliberate releases) all over the country. (see

PARAKEET: Despite rumours they escaped from film studios during the filming of the African Queen, ring-necked parakeets actually arrived from India much earlier in 1855 (see

PARTRIDGE RED-LEGGED: The red-legged partridge (redleg) is not native to Britain, but was successfully introduced to East Anglia in about 1770, using stock from France. (see

PHEASANT (COMMON): As far as post-Romano Albion is concerned, the first documentary evidence of the pheasant’s existence, a starting point for the history ofthe pheasant, is an order of King Harold who offered the canons of Waltham Abbey a “commons” pheasant as an alternative to a brace of partridges as a specific privilege of their office in 1059. (Harold wasn't king then, but whatever...) (see

RABBIT: The Romans introduced rabbits. Marcus Terrentius Varro (116-27BC) wrote that the legions brought rabbits from Spain, where they were reared in walled enclosures and then served up as a gourmet dish. (see

RAINBOW TROUT are natives of North America and were been introduced to the UK in the 19th century.(from

TURKEY: Turkeys are believed to have first been brought to Britain in 1526 by Yorkshireman William Strickland - he acquired six birds from American Indian traders on his travels and sold them for tuppence each in Bristol. (see


APPLE: There is evidence that apples grew wild in Britain in the Neolithic period but it was the Romans who first introduced varieties with sweeter and greater taste. The earliest known mention of apples in England was by King Alfred in about 885 AD in his English translation of "Gregory's Pastoral Care". (see

PEA: Before the end of the 16th century, botanists in Belgium, Germany, and England described many kinds of peas: tall and dwarf; with white, yellow and green seed colors; smooth, pitted and wrinkled seeds. By the 1560s Peas became a familiar Lenten dish in France and England. (See

PEAR: It is probable that pears were cultivated in Britain during the Roman occupation but the production of the fruit was slow to develop although there is mention in the Domesday Book of old pear trees as boundary markers. By the 13th century many varieties of pears had been imported from France and the fruit was used mainly for cooking rather than eating raw. (see

POTATO: The potato arrived in England from Virginia, brought here by the colonists sent there in 1584 by Sir Walter Raleigh. They arrived back here in 1586 and Joseph Banks says that they probably brought the potato with them. (see

SPINACH: Spinach came to England and France in the 14th century from the Spain. It became very popular there because it grew in spring when there were no other vegetables in that period of history. (see

TOMATO: It was introduced in 1597, but it remained viewed as unhealthy, poisonous and unfit to eat in both England and its North American colonies. That changed in mid-18th century after many advances in selective breeding from Spain and Italy. (see

What did I miss? That was kind of fun!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The English Manor Part 3: The Burden of the Serf

Source: British Library MS Royal 2.VII
The difference between the free and unfree peasant on the English Manor was dramatic. While all had to pay rent, for the most part the responsibilities ended there for the freeman, with the exception of a few boon days required by everyone during harvest time. The serf, on the other hand, was obliged to dig into his pouch again and again; his obligations were so numerous it’s amazing he had enough left over to live on. And, because he was bound to the land, technically the lord owned everything—even the clothes on his back. Also, his children were the lord’s property, which made it a problem if one of them wanted to marry someone from another manor. Compensation had to be paid, for the lord would be losing potential income.

Here are the most common Obligations of the Serf:
– Had to pay a yearly rent
– Had to provide week-work (2-3 days a week or 3-5 days a week, depending on the season—and not always every week): ploughing, carrying, weeding, haying, cleaning, threshing, winnowing grain, trimming hedges, making fences, etc.
– Had to provide boon-work along with the rest of the population of the manor at harvest time: extra hands were needed to bring in the harvest, and were usually given meals and drink on the longest work-days. Needless to say, the serf’s own harvest was secondary
– Had to pay a yearly wood-penny for the privilege of gathering wood; he was not permitted to cut down any trees
– Had to deliver a hen or eggs at set seasons to the manor house for the privilege of keeping poultry
– When he sold an animal, he had to give the lord part of the purchase price
– Had to pay a fee when giving his daughter (and sometimes son) in marriage (known as merchet fine)
– Had to pay to let his son go away from the manor for education, or take holy orders
– Could only have his grain ground at the lord’s mill; he had to give up about 1/20th for the lord’s profit
– Could only bake his bread in the lord’s oven
– Responsible for “Tallage at Will”, a tax arbitrarily imposed by the lord whenever he needed money; by 1300 it started to become more fixed and only once a year.
– Responsible for “Heriot” to the lord, a kind of a death tax, where the survivor had to give up their best beast (I believe free peasants were often obliged to pay Heriot as well). Sometimes the widow additionally had to pay a “relief”, a cash sum allowing her to take over the holding (gersuma). At times, payment of Heriot left the widow so badly reduced in circumstances she didn’t have enough to survive on. That was too bad for her. I suppose she didn’t have much choice but find another husband. The widow usually retained a life interest in the lands held by her first husband; if she married again, the second husband gave up the holding at her death. The holding went to one of her children from the first marriage.
– Responsible for “Mortuary” to the church, a death tax where the inheritor had to give up their second best beast (as long as the deceased owned three or more).

According to Bennett, the imposition of all those fines and duties is what distinguished the serf’s servile status. As the author said in his Life on the English Manor, “although medieval England saw a large part of its population of servile condition, this state of affairs was not willingly assented to by the serfs themselves, and unceasing attempts were made by them to alleviate their condition.” As time went on (late 14th-early 15th century), it became easier for the villein to make a money rent in lieu of services. Manumission was the ideal way for a serf to gain his freedom. The exactions of the king, foreign wars, and the growing luxury of the aristocracy made the collection of annual rents more attractive to a landlord who was strapped for cash. But flight was not at all unusual if a man had no family to be concerned about; without a doubt he would be forced to leave everything behind. Where could he go? Some traveled far and started a new life on another manor, but many found refuge in the local town; sometimes the town was right next door to the manor. How could he resist? The towns increasingly were buying their own freedom and establishing themselves as boroughs, and the inhabitants were free by extension. This offered a temptation to the villein, for often the serf and his skills were welcomed and the town would offer its protection.

If a serf ran away, the lord of the manor was allowed four days to pursue and bring him back. But after four days, things got more difficult for the lord; Bennett tells us, “by then he (the villein) was in possession libertatis—in other words, he had a seisin of liberty—and the lord would have to seek the aid of the courts to get possession of him.” Apparently, the courts tended to be in favor of the peasant and proceedings were stacked against the lord: “The courts of the fourteenth century and later were making it more and more clear that serfdom was repugnant to the law of England…”. Furthermore, if the serf found refuge in a Chartered Town or Royal Demesne, as long as he made himself useful by joining a guild or becoming a burgess, and if he lived there for a year and a day, he was essentially free and could not be claimed by the lord. But he must stay within the borough walls or he could be apprehended. Mere residence wasn’t good enough; he had to be willing to “accept communal burdens, and wishes to be part of the borough and not a mere parasite upon it” (i.e. pay taxes, etc.).

As I stated in Part 1 and Part 2, conditions on the English manor varied widely from place to place, and the end of the manorial system did not come about all at once. The Black Death and subsequent reduction of available labor made a big impact on the peasants’ circumstances, regardless of the government’s efforts to hold them back. The Peasant’s Rebellion of 1381 certainly made them a force to be reckoned with; though they were severely put down afterwards, it seems this was the beginning of the end for the manorial system. In another hundred years, the serf was destined to be replaced by the tenant farmer and small landowner.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The English Manor Part 2: The Free and the Unfree Peasants

In Part 1 of The English Manor, I gave a broad generalization of the average manor components. In Part 2, I’m going to do my best to differentiate between the classes of manorial population: the free and the unfree. This is harder than it sounds! One of the reasons this subject is so complicated is that by no means was the manor system consistent across the country. The Custom of the Manor varied from lord to lord and from region to region. So anything we learn must be taken as a broad generalization. One thing we can safely assume is that the work load and financial burdens of the unfree peasant greatly outweighed those of his free companions.

The working year was divided into two parts: Michaelmas (Sept 29) to August, where the Peasant would have to work 2-3 days a week (Week-work), then August to Michaelmas, where he had to work 3-5 days per week. Most of the labor fell on the unfree. During the harvest the peasant was required to give several extra days as his “boon” or “gift”, bringing all of his family to help. This was in addition to tending his own crops. Even the free peasant was required to give some boon-work on these crucial days, and the lord compensated them occasionally by offering meals and drink to the whole manor population.

The free and unfree status had little to do with how much land the peasant was holding. Sometimes the unfree held more land than the freeman; sometimes the freeman did paid work for the unfree. But the division between them was felt very strongly. Here is the manor population as best as I could define it:

STEWARD (or Seneschal) The Steward was at the head of the lord’s officials. He was a man of rank and often was in charge of more than one manor. He was the voice of the lord and presided over the Manor Courts. He would stay in the great house, usually in the absence of the lord. The Steward gave orders to the Bailiff.

FREEMAN (Socage Tenants) The freeman had to pay a yearly rent for his lands, but his obligations were not as onerous as the bondsman. At the top of this class you would have a Bailiff (usually brought in from the outside), who supervised the activities on the whole manor. Then you will see for the most part—but not always—a Hayward (or messor, to manage the sowing and gathering of the crops), a Meadsman (to look after the meadows), a Wood-Reeve, and the Beadle (or constable, policeman of the village).

The Virgaters, the “aristocracy” of the peasant class held 30+ acres of “full land” in the common fields. At harvest, they were obliged to act as overseers—riding about with white wands of office—provide carts and horses for carrying services, and provide their own plow. A lesser class of freemen held “fardels” or “furlongs” of 10 to 15 acres in the common fields. At harvest, they were allowed to combine their resources and put together a team of two or three (or more).

Some freeman may only have held two or three acres, which probably wasn’t enough to support him. These smaller tenants may only have been able to bring their agricultural tools to task—in other words, live by their hands—but since their holdings were much smaller, so was their obligation. It is not at all uncommon for a poor freeman to hire out his services to an unfree villein who had more land than he could manage by himself.

Villeins, top level of bondsman, had a heavier farming work-load than the cottars, for the villeins shared in the common fields. Typical size of a villein’s holding would be around 30 acres. A villein had the right to the hay crop and the lot meadows. The Reeve (official representative of the villeins and usually elected every year) almost always came from the villein ranks. He was in charge of the day-to-day activities. Although he was paid a small wage, his responsibilities were onerous and no one really wanted the job.

Cottars, Crofters and “pytel-holders” held only one to five acres, or sometimes only the bare croft (garden) around their house. These small tenants did not share in the common fields, so their work load was lighter; they usually farmed a few strips in the arable fields. From time to time they were called upon to do a day’s work at the lord’s will: spreading dung, driving pigs to market, helping to repair walls and thatches, odd-jobs. Their duties were so light that they often could commute their work for money payments to the lord; that left them free to provide alternative labor for a wage to support themselves. From this class could come smiths, carpenters, weavers, masons, etc. The cottars were often drafted to be used on the manor as ploughmen, swineherds, carters, shepherds, etc.; sometimes they even resided on the Home-farm, given a wage and food allowance.

Slaves were the smallest population on the manor, and usually lived in the outbuildings connected to the manor hall. They were not permitted to own any land and were obliged to do whatever the lord commanded. Although slave trade was officially abolished in England after 1102, we keep finding mention of them in the occasional document. Frankly, I couldn’t find any substantial information about slavery in Medieval England, so I’m pretty much at a loss.

In part 3, I will be more specific as to the obligations of the bondsmen, who were the largest class on the manor. From H.S. Bennett, I gathered that a serf had every reason to want to gain his freedom. Once I saw what he was up against, I couldn’t really blame him.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The English Manor Part 1: The Land

I discovered this amazing map in Montague Fordham’s book, “A Short History of English Rural Life from the Anglo-Saxon Invasion to the Present Time” published in 1916. (It’s amazing what you will find on I’ve recently come to the conclusion that any study of the Middle Ages is incomplete without getting your hands around the concept of the English Manor—and I will be the first to admit that my knowledge is sparse! I’m not writing this article as an expert—merely as a student of history.

I was introduced to the complexity of this subject when I recently read the book “Life on the English Manor” written by H.S. Bennett and first published in 1937. This was a very difficult volume to plow through (so to speak), and I don’t think I did it justice. Having finished the book with great relief I immediately shoved it back onto my shelf, but I’ve been fretting over it ever since! So here I am again, and I am going to attempt to pull out the major points so I can get things straight in my own mind, supplemented by what I’ve learned from Fordham (of the map). After all, I’m currently researching the Peasant Rebellion in 1381, and guess what led up to it? It’s only 30 years away from the Black Death, and the peasants were still struggling against the impositions from their betters, trying to keep them from taking advantage of their improved situation. But for the most part, these articles will concern manors before 1350.

The smaller manors contained about 20-30 acres, though others included many villages; the Bishop of Winchester’s Manor of East Meon in Hampshire was 24,000 acres. But this is the exception. Apparently the average manor contained one village and was separated from the next manor by a broad stretch of woods or wasteland. Sometimes two manors split the same village in two. All manors contained a Home Farm (or Demesne), where you would find the hall and barns belonging to the lord; outside of this you would find a mill, a church, the priest’s house, then the village houses, and of course the fields. The lord would probably stay there a month or two during the year; the rest of the time, the bailiff or seneschal would reside at the hall.

To look at this map, we see that the arable common fields were divided into sections called furlongs, shots, or dells. Each furlong was subdivided into little strips, or selions, which were separated by unploughed ridges called baulks. These strips were usually 1/2 to an acre of land, belonging to the peasants (sometimes the lord held some strips as well). A peasant often held more than one strip but they were not contiguous; an example is shown by the black colored-in holdings all belonging to Jack Straw. He must go to the end of his strip and walk on the headlands—more unploughed baulks perpendicular to the furroughs—to get to his other strips of land; the headlands were also where he turned his plough. Presumably the planting was a communal activity, though nothing is really known for sure. Apparently the reason a peasant’s holdings were scattered was the continual division between relatives and children. Bennett gave us an example from the Norfolk manor of Martham: “the 68 tenants of Domesday time had increased by 1291 to 107—a not unnatural growth—but, quite unexpectedly, subdivision had progressed so enormously that the land formerly held by the 68 had been split up into no less than 935 holdings in some 2000 separate strips.” Keeping track must have been a challenge.

If a peasant was lucky, he was permitted to rent, on a yearly basis, a few-acre patch of uncultivated “waste” land, usually on the border of the forest. This was called his “assart”, and he could plant on it what he pleased; it was often a godsend if the man had extra mouths to feed. The wastes satisfied other needs as well; they were used for grazing, and if wooded they provided fuel and wood for farm implements and repairs. Commonly, the peasant was allowed to take wood off the ground or “by hook or by crook”—whatever he could knock off a standing tree.

As best as I can determine, the wastes and the common area around the village is where the animals grazed while the crops were growing. The Lammas Land, or Meadows as they were called, were held in common, guarded, fenced around the outside, and planted between Christmas and Lammas (Aug. 1). When the crop was harvested, the Lammas Land was thrown open for grazing to the community.

I will be following up with more on the English Manor as I sort it out. The most important thing I learned is that there was no consistency from region to region or even from manor to manor. As Bennett put it, if a village was divided up between two manors, “it was possible for two men to be living in the same village, and each holding the same amount of land; but, because they served different lords, they might find themselves very unevenly burdened with services and rents.” So, of necessity, anything we learn about the Manor can only be seen as representational of the medieval peasant’s life.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Moving forward into the High Middle Ages

Richard II BBC
After spending the last 20 some-odd-years studying the eleventh century, I’ve finally finished my fourth book in that era (FATAL RIVALRY) and I’m ready to move forward! Why not expand my blog as well? There are so many interesting topics in the high middle ages, I feel like I’ve been limiting myself up to now.

So I’m happy to announce that my next book will be about Richard II. Way back in my college days, I was inspired  by Shakespeare’s play, performed by Derek Jacobi for the BBC series in 1978. At the time I knew nothing at all about Richard, but the soliloquy at the end tugged at my heartstrings (naturally). I’ve carried him around with me ever since, and now I’m ready; of course, I have to start a new round of research. It’ll be fun to follow with blog entries concerning what I’ve discovered. And while I’m at it, I might as well talk about everything in-between. I do so love the Plantagenets! But I will continue to focus on England; otherwise, I’d have to rename this blog.