If you were to travel through medieval England, you’d encounter a world very different from our own. Of course, you’d probably expect a more rural landscape and you’d no doubt be keen to see some of its grand castles.
But what would you encounter if you could travel back in time and wander through medieval England? What would England look like if you were to pay it a visit back in the early fourteenth century? This is the England of Edward II and the early years of Edward III. It was a time just before the black death ravaged the land and forced dramatic change on late medieval society.
Around ninety percent of England’s medieval population lived in small rural communities. Travelling across the country would primarily consist of time spent passing through woodlands and farmlands. Significant urban conurbations would have been a rare sight. Compared to the vast urban sprawls we see in England and other developed countries today, the contrast would be striking.
However, even the countryside itself would look somewhat different from anything we’re used to.
Wandering through English woodland was a very different experience back in medieval times. In wintertime the first thing that might strike us would be the virtual absence of evergreens. Most varieties of fir tree were brought to England from Scandinavia after the Middle Ages. Woodland appeared quite drab, with little or no greenery, save perhaps a holly bush or two. Holly, as one of the few evergreen plants of the time, would really stand out in a sea of browns and greys.
Another difference we’d see is on the woodland floor. For the most part it’s free of sticks and dead wood. It appears disturbingly bare compared to the woods we’re familiar with. This is because local villagers regularly harvest sticks, twigs, and dead wood to use as firewood. Some sights might look more familiar, however. We might well see a rabbit or perhaps a fox. Any squirrel we catch a glimpse of would, of course, be a red one.
A typical rural community would be centred around a village. If they were of any size, they would also have a local manor house and parish church somewhere nearby.
The land around would consist of farmlands, woodlands, pasture, and meadows. Some land would be left fallow to allow it to recover its fertility. Any cultivated land would be divided between land rented to the local villeins and husbandmen, and the demesne lands. The demesne lands were set aside for the exclusive use of the lord of the manor.
The village would also need a nearby water source – a stream, pond or lake. Without easy access to water and wood, a medieval community could not function.
Medieval farmland would, of course, be a common sight. However, it would be arranged quite differently from modern English farms.
It was not divided up into relatively small, enclosed fields as it is today. A typical medieval field would be around one hundred times larger than its modern counterpart (fully seven to twelve hundred acres). Each one would be sub-divided up into smaller allotment sized strips. Each of these is potentially tended by a different farmer (although some of these farmers will rent several strips). If you were to enter the field, you’d find a sea of strips stretching out in a patchwork before you, almost as far as the eye can see, uninterrupted by any kind of fence or hedge.
Most villages would be quite small. At first sight they appear to be quite a jumble, certainly not laid out in any easily discernible pattern. A mishmash of barns, hen houses, privy huts, and single-story thatched cottages of cob construction.
However, whilst the layout might appear chaotic to us, there is a logic to it that may not be immediately apparent. Buildings are situated with a view to practicality. Perhaps to be near to a well, or away from ground at risk of flooding, or to a avoid a patch of land susceptible to frost. People have built within their environment as much to fit in with the demands of nature as to tame it. Something as basic as the layout of a village stands as testimony to just how limited people still were by the constraints of the natural world around them.
Much of this rural medieval world is about practicality, about survival. Visiting this village in summer you’d see no flowers growing in the gardens. Instead, the gardens would be full of herbs and vegetables. Knowledge of how to make the most of the land around you made all the difference between life and death in this environment.
The local villagers would mainly fall into two quite distinct groups. Most would be villeins, the feudal subjects of the local lord. However, a significant number would be husbandmen. The primary difference between the two came down to whether they were ‘free’.
The husbandman was free. He would still have to rent his property from the local lord but, aside from this, he was a free man.
The local villeins, on the other hand, were not free. They had to provide the local lord with free labour to tend demesne lands for a certain number of days each year. The lord could not compel them to do absolutely whatever he wanted but he had significant power over their lives. He could, if he wanted, arrange their marriages. Villeins could not even leave the village without his permission.
In return the villein received their lord’s protection, his justice if they were wronged, and the right to rent a hut and their farmland. Yet, in many ways, they were their lord’s chattels, just like his lands and his buildings.
The Parish Church
Near to most villages would be the local parish church. Compared to the cramped huts of the villagers, it would be quite an impressive sight. Of course, if you travel through England today, you can still see many of these churches. The crude medieval huts are long gone but the old churches still stand. That’s because, unlike the other buildings in the medieval village, the church is likely to be of stone construction.
Imagine how impressive it must have appeared. It would almost certainly be far taller than any other building in the village. Go inside and the space would seem cavernous compared to the interior of one of the little huts. The light filtering through its stained-glass windows would have been quite a sight indeed.
Such churches were at the centre of community life. People often attended daily masses. Not only this but the churchyard and lands immediately near to the church were often used for games and sports in the summer months. If you were lucky the local clerics might even put on religious play. We don’t know a huge amount about these plays (called mircula) since no more than fragmentary record of their content survives. Accounts of them left by the senior clergy are mostly disapproving! They were foolish, inappropriate, and sometimes associated with shameful behaviour. In other words, probably fun.
Aside from the church, the most imposing building in the area was the local manor house. This would be where the local feudal lord and his family lived. Some manor houses were quite large, solid, stone structures. They could be fortified and might even have their own moat and portcullis like a small castle.
If your local lord was a rich knight, he might own such a manor house. It would probably be set away from the village on the best land. However, most manor houses were not such grand buildings. They might not even be of stone construction. And many had no significant defences beyond a sturdy wooden door.
Of course, most of the more modest manor houses did not survive into modern times. The ones that endured were all the grander stone buildings.
Despite his power, your local feudal lord was likely not a nobleman. He might not even by a knight. The chances are he’d simply be a member of the rural gentry of England: i.e., a commoner. Everyone in the village would be his tenants but he himself would hold his lands as a tenant to his own feudal lord – perhaps a local earl.
Most villagers, sooner or later, would need to travel to the nearest town. This would be essential since they would need certain supplies that could only be bought at the town market.
On market days the inns would get quite busy. A small market town might only have a population of around 500 but on market days more than double this number might visit from the surrounding villages.
The town market would be the place to go to get supplies not available in the village. Here you could buy basics such as tools, nails, fabrics, candles, and pots. You might have to make a long journey to get what you needed. If you lacked a horse, which most did, you’d have to walk. It might take you an entire day to walk to the local town, buy what you needed and walk home.
If you could afford it, you might stay overnight at the local inn. You certainly wouldn’t want to travel at night since there are no streetlights of any kind and, if you need to travel across country, it will get very dark, very quickly. On market days the inn might be packed with travelling merchants, tradesmen, perhaps a pilgrim or two and maybe even a visiting friar. If you are lucky a visiting minstrel might provide entertainment.
Cities in medieval England were very small compared to what we might think of as a city today. London was by far the biggest, but its total population was still only around 40,000 in the early C14th. That is smaller than most English towns today. Bristol and York were the two other big English cities but neither one was even half the size of London. No other English city had a population greater than 10,000.
Big modern English cities like Manchester and Birmingham were tiny in medieval times. Neither were big enough to have featured in the list of England’s 30 largest urban centres. Places like Coventry, Lincoln, Norwich, and Salisbury were all larger and more important.
If you should travel to a medieval English city, as you approach, the first thing you’d notice would be the cathedral. It dominates the skyline, easily the tallest building you can see. The next tallest buildings would probably be church spires. Most of the other buildings are at best two or three stories high, maybe four at a push. It is a powerful reminder of the power and dominance of the medieval Church.
As you get closer to any city you might have the misfortune of passing close to a ditch or stream used by the citizens as a refuse dump. The stench would be overpowering. All manner of filth is dumped here. Sewage, offal, rotting vegetation, broken crates, filthy rags, all unceremoniously tipped in a heap. Rats, dogs and even wild pigs, root around in the filth looking for hidden treasures.
Inside the City Walls
Many cities were walled and gated, although not necessarily as well fortified as some of the stronger castles in the land. Passing through most main city gates would see you arrive on the thoroughfare that leads to a central market area.
The main road running from the gate to the market is likely to be one of the best maintained roads a medieval traveller could encounter. It might even be crudely paved or cobbled. The houses on this street are the largest and richest in the city, owned by wealthy merchants, city officials, senior clergy, and other fine citizens. In the largest cities, the grandest of these houses are virtual palaces, some owned by earls, dukes, or bishops.
This main thoroughfare is surprisingly clean compared to most other settlements you might visit. This is because the residents here are rich enough to pay servants to keep the street tidy, sweeping up animal dung and clearing away mess left by passers-by. By the C14th most of these houses are likely to be stone. But before then most would have been of wooden construction. It took that long, after the departure of Rome, for permanent stone construction to recover.
Moving away from the main street, you’d quickly find yourself wending your way through cramped, narrow alleyways. There is less stone construction here and more filth. The city has no sewers so, with no servants paid to keep the streets clean, they quickly become filthy with sewage, rotting vegetable trimmings, animal bones and other unhygienic waste.
At the centre of the city is the market. The main street allows carts to reach the central market with relative ease. Here you can buy a wide array of goods and supplies, some of which would be hard to come by in the town markets elsewhere in the country. There might well be some entertainment here provided by itinerant minstrels and players. The market is a busy, noisy, and vibrant place. It is the beating commercial heart of any medieval city and a likely destination for most visitors.
Sooner or later, if you travelled around the country, you’d encounter one of its castles. A great many still stand today of course, a testimony to their solid construction.
Some were Royal Castles (belonging directly to the king) but many others were owned by powerful noble families such as the Percys and Nevilles. Usually, they were built to protect important locations such as ports, nearby cities, or key thoroughfares. However, sometimes they were simply built to show off. Tintagel Castle in Cornwall was built by Richard of Cornwall (brother of Henry III) mainly for show. It served virtually no strategic purpose and was constructed in manner that made it look old fashioned even when it was new. Richard simply wanted to create a castle to match the romantic Arthurian ambience of the location.
Most castles served a more practical purpose, however. They remained a key source of military power throughout the Middle Ages. Given adequate provisions, a relatively small number of men could defend a strongly fortified castle against a larger besieging force for weeks. Often the only way to take a castle was to starve out the defenders. A full-on assault required overwhelming force and, even then, casualties were likely to be high.
For most of the Middle Ages the castle was king. Controlling them was often the key to military power. This only began to change with the advent of more effective artillery during the C15th. By the dawn of the early modern period, gunpowder had rendered the traditional medieval castle obsolete. Once the key to controlling the country, they gradually became no more than romantic monuments to a bygone age.
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References and further reading
Frontpage image of a Castle: Photo of Outside Wall of Warwick Castle by LisaPB73 (Wiki Commons)
Plan of a mediaeval manor: the William R Shepherd Historical Atlas, New York, Henry Holt and Company 1923 (Wiki Commons)
Manor House Illustration: Drawing, Courtyard of a Medieval Manor, ca. 1889 (CH 18610761) William Brunner (Wiki Commons)
Photograph of the interior of a Southampton Medieval Merchants House Hall by Hchc2009 (Wiki Commons)
Photograph of Conwy Castle: by Llywelyn2000 / Mathknight (Wiki Commons)