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  • Writer's picturejulesfrusher

Castles, Towns and Other People Places

When is a Dungeon Not a Dungeon?

The history books tell us that deep, bottle-shaped shafts in castles were ‘oubliettes’ (from the French for ‘to forget’) where prisoners would be thrown and left to starve among the rotting corpses of their predecessors. However, this now seems to have been an invention from the imaginations of writers of Victorian Gothic. Recent investigations have shown that these shafts were most likely strongrooms built to hold valuable documents and possessions.

A Cottage Getaway

According to Kathryn Warner’s wonderful book, Edward II, The Unconventional King, Edward took possession of a cottage inside the grounds of Westminster Abbey in 1320. He named this cottage ‘Burgundy’, and it seems to have been a place where he could get away from his royal trappings, while the rest of his entourage stayed in more luxurious surroundings, either at the Palace or the Tower. Of course, this was seen as yet another example of Edward’s eccentricities and was very much frowned upon by contemporary chroniclers.

Windsor Saves Windsor

In 1296, a royal watchman named Richard de Windsor saved the life of the future Edward II from being burned to death in his bed in Windsor Castle. The fire destroyed the great hall in the lower ward. Prince Edward later rewarded de Windsor and other night watchmen with 10 shillings each.

The Earl of Lincoln's Garden

Henry de Lacy, the third Earl of Lincoln, seems to have enjoyed a good garden. His plot at his house in Holborn became famous for its flowers, fruit and vegetables and he sent abroad for new types of apple and pear trees. Having such a surplus of produce, he was also able to sell at market, bringing in a sizeable profit. He also sold ‘small plants’, bringing to mind the sort of commercial garden centre business that you see today. With so much garden to maintain, he had a small army of gardeners, the head of which was paid a princely sum of 52s. 2d. a year, plus robes.

Rural Job Descriptions

All medieval towns had officers who were charged with keeping order in what was then a very rural environment. For example, there were the pinders whose job it was to round up and impound any stray household pigs, sheep, cattle and fowl; pound-keepers who looked after animals on market days; the hayward, who looked after the fences and enclosures and also similarly, the hedge-looker who also looked after the hedges and enclosures; pasture masters and grassmen who looked after the common land and grazing; mole-catchers, brookwardens and woodwards.

A Watchman's Duty

To be a royal watchman was a very important duty. It was his responsibility to call the night watch, to call the hour every four hours during winter nights, and every three hours during the summer nights. He also was required to patrol the corridors of the palace, making sure that everything was as it should be and that there were no thieves at large. He also kept watch for any signs of fire.

Bridge Wardens and Carters

The London Bridge Wardens, as well as being responsible for the maintenance of London Bridge, also had their own transport department based at Southwark. The carters were used to transport mainly stone and other building materials to sites around the city. It was hard and heavy work and both horses and carts tended to wear out quickly. However, although not well-paid, the carters did receive many other benefits in kind, such as new clothing at Christmas, and they also probably benefited from doing a little moonlighting too.

The Sweet Water of London

From the late 12th century pen of William Fitzstephen: ‘There are also round about London, in the Suburbs most excellent wells, whose waters are sweet, wholesome and clear, and whose runnels ripple amid pebbles bright. Among these, Holywell, Clerkenwell and Saint Clement’s Well are most famous and are visited by thicker throngs and greater multitudes of students from the schools and of young men of the City, who go out on summer evenings to take the air.’

Green and Pleasant London

It appears that beyond the walls of Norman London was quite a green and pleasant place, as William Fitzstephen describes in his late 12th century description of London : ‘On all sides, beyond the houses, lie the gardens of the citizens that dwell in the suburbs, planted with trees, spacious and fair, adjoining one another. On the North are pasture lands and a pleasant space of flat meadows, intersected by running waters, which turn revolving mill-wheels with merry din. Hard by there stretches a great forest with wooded glades and lairs of wild beasts, deer both red and fallow, wild boars and bulls.’

Early London Tourist Board Blurb

A description of late 12th century London by William Fitzstephen: ‘On the East stands the Palatine Citadel [Tower of London], exceeding great and strong, whose walls and bailey rise from very deep foundations, their mortar being mixed with the blood of beasts. On the West are two strongly fortified Castles, while thence there runs continuously a great wall and high, with seven double gates, and with towers along the North at intervals. On the South, London was once walled and towered in like fashion, but the Thames, that mighty river, teeming with fish, which runs on that side with the sea’s ebb and flow, has in course of time washed away those bulwarks, undermined and cast them down. Also upstream to the West the Royal Palace [Westminster Palace] rises high above the river, a building beyond compare, with an outwork and bastions, two miles from the City and joined thereto by a populous suburb.

The State of the Roads

A recurring problem that plagued the travellers between London and Westminster was the state of the road called The Strand. This piece comes from the The History of the Ancient Palace and Late Houses of Parliament at Westminster: "In the same year [1315], on the 14th of May, a writ was addressed to William de Leyre and Richard Abbot, stating that the pavement between Temple Bar and the gate of the king's palace at Westminster, was so broken and injured, that it was a great nuisance to those frequenting the court, and very perilous both for horsemen and foot passengers; and that a petition had been preferred to the king and council, praying them to provide a remedy for the same. The said William and Richard were, consequently, commanded to cause the said pavement to be repaired, and to distrain for the expense 'pro rata,' upon all persons having houses adjacent to it, between the said Bar and the Palace."

On Preparations for the Coronation of Edward II in 1307:

"One long hall was erected of the entire length of the upper wall of the palace, reaching along the Thames, for the judgments and solemnities of the treasurer and barons [of the exchequer], and the great men and councilors. This hall was appropriated for the royal seat on the day of the coronation, and it was therefore ordered, that it should be covered with boards "de sago" and strongly supported at the back along its entire length, on account of the pressure of the people.

"Fourteen other halls were afterwards made, extending in length from that just mentioned, towards the great door of the palace, approaching as nearly as possible to the door without impeding the entrance and exit of the people and the men at arms. In these halls divers partitions were made for pantries, butleries, dressers, &c. with lattices before the partitions. --Three conduits were ordained to be runnings continually with red and white wine, and with piment, -- "pyamento" -- (wine mixed with spice and sweetened with honey) in the centre of these halls, that every one might come and drink at pleasure." (From The History of the Ancient Palace and Late Houses of Parliament at Westminster)

Water at Westminster Palace

Westminster Palace and its mews at Charing Cross had running water (well, had it delivered to a conduit or two, anyway!): "The Conduit of water coming into the Palace, and into the King's Mews, for the falcons, which in various places was obstructed and injured, and the underground pipes stolen, was completely repaired, and the water returned to its proper course and issues, both at the Palace and at the Mews." (From The History of the Ancient Palace and Late Houses of Parliament at Westminster: Embracing Accounts and Illustrations of St. Stephens Chapel and its Cloisters, -Westminster Hall, -The Court of Requests, - The Painted Chamber, &c, By Edward Wedlake Brayley, John Britton, 1836)

Fire at Westminster Palace

The Palace of Westminster had a disastrous fire in 1298 in which nearly all buildings, apart from the great hall suffered full or partial destruction. Edward I, lacking the money with which to repair the palace (or at least he'd rather spend it on war with the Scots), moved most of his parliamentary and administrative departments up to York. Of course, in the usual way of medieval roaming courts, he returned for parliaments there, but not for long, preferring other (unburnt!) residences. It wasn't until 1307 and prior to the coronation of Edward II, that great repairs and rebuilding were carried out, making the palace a rather splendid royal residence again.

Workmen's Wages

What I love about some old documents is that they give such precise details. In the case of Edward II's Westminster Palace works, we even have the names of the workmen and what they were paid. Here is just one example: 'To John Shiel, "torchiator," (plasterer) working about various walls in the great stables, and in divers other places within the palace, repairing and amending, for six days, (at threepence halfpenny per day, receiving, &c. … 21d.

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