Lords and Ladies: Castle Furnishings and Management

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Lords and Ladies: Castle Furnishings and Management


Privacy. The medieval keep did not allow much personal privacy. Most of the rooms were multifunctional, and the keep was the primary living space in the castle. Soldiers, servants, and even lords- and ladies-in-waiting were expected to sleep in groups segregated by sex. For example, the women may have slept in the bedchambers while the male servants, courtiers, and soldiers slept in the great hall. Even the lords and ladies of castles, when they were in residence, often shared a room with a servant or conducted some business in the same rooms in which they slept. Since the staff of a major castle could include at least two dozen household officials, another dozen knights, and other aristocrats, several dozen foot soldiers, and assorted servants and spouses, the keep could also become quite crowded. The castle was not a place to seek privacy.

Furniture. The furnishings of a medieval castle varied depending on who was in residence. Many medieval lords lived itinerant lives, and when they moved they brought their favorite and most valuable furnishings with them. The baggage trains involved could be enormous; for example,


The Gafitulare de mllu is a ninth-century manuscript that describes the appropriate management of the properties belonging to the king of the Franks. This excerpt from section sixty-two lists some of the duties of a medieval steward.

Every official is to report annually on our total yield: how much profit he made with the oxen in the service of our cowherds, how much he made off the manses to provide plowing, how much from pig tax and other [property] taxes he collected, how much he has received in fines and how much for keeping the peace, how much for game caught without our permission in our forests, how much from fines, [fees] from mills, forests, pastures, how much toll from bridges or ships, how much rent from freemen and tithing areas on cultivated lands belonging to the crown, the income from markets, vineyards and from the wine tax, how much hay was harvested, how much wood and how many torches, shingles and various other lumber, how much was harvested from abandoned fields, the amount of vegetables, millet, wool, flax and hemp, fruit, and nuts, how much was harvested from grafted trees and gardens, in beet fields and in fish ponds, how many skins, pelts, horns were collected and how much honey, wax, fat, tallow and soap, how much profit was made from blackberry wine, spiced wine, mead, vinegar, beer, cider and old wine, old and new harvest, chickens, eggs, geese, how much was taken in by fishermen, smiths, shieldmakers and shoemakers, how much money was made with kneading-troughs, chests or shrines, how much turners and saddlers took in, how much profit was made by ore and lead mines, how much was collected from other people who had tax obligations, how many stallions and breeding mares they had; all this is to be presented to us by Christmas in the form of a detailed, exact and clear list, so that we will know what and how much of each we own.

Source: Hans-Werner Goetz, Life in the Middle Ages from the Seventh to the Thirteenth Centuries, translated by Albert Wimmer, edited by Steven Rowan (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), p. 116.

when the countess of Leicester decided to stay at Dover Castle in 1265, she arrived with a baggage train that required more than 140 horses to transport it, and more goods were sent later. Among the most valuable and important furnishings were those for the bedchamber. A wooden bedstead with cords woven across it provided a base for several layers of mattresses. The first was likely of straw, the second of wool, and the third of goose down—essentially going from hardest to softest. Linen sheets, wool blankets, quilts, and furs were laid on top of these mattresses. A long pillow called a bolster stretched the width of the bed, and a feather pillow or two was set on top of it. Then heavy curtains were hung all around the bed for decoration and warmth. Probably the most common form of medieval furniture was the chest. Almost all household goods were placed in chests for storage or moving, including

clothes, documents, pots, and pans. When a lord arrived in a castle, his servants took the clothes out of the chests and hung them from wooden rods suspended from the walls. Each of the great chambers included tables, but in many cases they were probably only boards on top of trestles; this structure allowed them to be stored when the room was used for something else and made them easier to move when the lord relocated. Wooden stools and benches were the most common seats. Chairs were a mark of status. Generally, most furniture was made out of wood, which could be carved, gilded, or otherwise decorated. Metal was used to reinforce corners, for decorative handles, and for locks. Leather could be made into seats but was more often used as strapping or for ties.

Warmth. Warmth was an ongoing problem for stone castles, even in southern Europe. While stone was the best material for building fortifications, it retains the cold, and even in Italy or on the Mediterranean coast winter can be bitter. Furthermore, fire was a hazard in medieval castles. The framing for the roofs was wood, and the construction of many outbuildings was just a slightly more sophisticated version of that used for wooden peasant huts. Thatch and wood were always flammable. Like peasant residences, early castles often relied on central fire pits for warmth and light, which left the side chambers cold and the main hall smoky. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, stone wall fireplaces were increasingly coming into use, and even a bedchamber might have its own fireplace. Although these fireplaces increased the warmth and light in a room, they were far from perfect heat sources; fires were still allowed to die down at night for safety, and by the morning rooms were quite cold. Probably the first sound that many medieval lords and ladies heard in the morning was a servant stoking the fire.

Decoration. Although the gray, stone walls of surviving medieval castles make them appear bleak and dreary today, in the Middle Ages the rooms were more colorful. Medieval people took some care when decorating a keep. The cloths that covered walls to minimize drafts and retain heat were dyed festive colors and embroidered with elaborate scenes, either by the lady of the castle and her ladies or later, increasingly, by professional embroiderers. (Tapestries are a late-medieval invention.) Moreover, the great halls and the bedchambers were generally plastered and whitewashed. On top of this whitewash were various colors of paint; red, green, yellow, and blue were considered most appropriate for the inside of a castle. As the medieval economy improved, especially in the fourteenth century, prosperous castle lords might commission a painter to decorate their chambers with moralizing, mythical, or recreational scenes such as hunts and picnics. One of the most striking examples of medieval architectural painting is the Sainte-Chapelle built onto the palace of King Louis IX of France in the 1240s; the entire chapel was painted dark blue and gold with stars and fleurs-de-lis, the heraldic device of Louis’s dynasty. The wooden framing of a castle ceiling could also be gilded or painted. Coats of arms, animals, and fantastic figures seem to have been popular designs. Floors were not often decorated. A layer of rushes on top of the wood provided basic insulation and could be discarded when it became too dirty. By the fourteenth century, however, there is some evidence that the most prosperous and stylish members of the aristocracy were installing tiled floors in their castles, and these tiles came in many colors and patterns.

The Soldier’s Life. Although the life of a soldier in a castle garrison was not harsh compared to that of a medieval peasant, it was still far from easy by modern standards. Generally, soldiers were either professionals or men who were required to serve at a castle for a set number of days a year. The professionals could be in permanent residence, while the others stayed at the castle for a month at a time. Among the soldiers there were hierarchies. The knight was at the highest level and enjoyed the greatest privileges as the commander of the whole garrison or of a part of it. Only a great castle had more than one or two knights in residence. The knights were either housed together in a separate chamber, or, if they were placed in the hall with the rest of the soldiers, they were in an area curtained off from the common fighters. Moreover, a knight had one or more servants attending him. During ordinary times a knight was responsible for keeping the castle in a state of

readiness and making sure that the soldiers stayed disciplined and skillful. The ordinary soldier’s primary duties were to take a daily tour of guard duty, to make sure his weapons were maintained, and to keep himself fit. Soldiers ate and slept together, generally in the great hall or in quarters built along the inside of the walls. It appears that boredom was the greatest problem regularly faced by a soldier in a castle garrison.

The Servant’s Life. Servants were the backbone of medieval castles. No lord expected to clean his rooms, prepare his food, or care for his horse. Castles were equipped with a staff ranging from skilled craftsmen to scullery maids and men responsible for cleaning garbage dumps and cesspits. Clearly their standards of living varied greatly, with the craftspeople generally enjoying the greatest privileges. Artisans working at the castle earned a daily or annual wage, bonuses for certain projects, and their clothing, food, and shelter. The food was more varied and contained more meat than the typical peasant menu, and the shelter was probably in a building next to the artisan’s place of work. People at the highest levels of staff may have even been prosperous enough to support families of their own. Although castle servants could expect better pay than the average villager, they worked long hours. Always available at the lord’s whim, a servant could have a working day that lasted from before daylight to well past sundown. There was always a trade-off in service jobs, too; although it might be possible to have a more regular schedule or more time off in a job more distant from the lord, those who directly served the lord or lady were most likely to get special preferment and bonuses, so positions such as a serving maid or chamberlain (the lord’s personal servant) were among the most desired.

Managing a Castle: The Lady. Noblewomen in medieval Europe had many roles. A few fought alongside their husbands, as did Gaita, wife of a Norman prince, and Duchess Agnes of Burgundy. Even when they did not fight, others accompanied their husbands to war and, thereby, stood in real peril, as did Eleanor of Aquitaine when her first husband, King Louis VII of France, went on crusade. More common, however, were noblewomen with important managerial roles, both of individual castles and of a family’s estates more generally. Such responsibilities increased in wartime, when men were away fighting. A noblewoman’s day began at daybreak. After she dressed and heard mass, she went to the great chamber. After a bite to eat, she began the series of tasks that filled her day. Her work included hearing messengers, resolving disputes in the castle and neighboring territories, and reviewing the castle and manorial accounts. She bought provisions for the castle and negotiated with other lords and merchants for any men or materials she or her husband might need. She had to hear reports from important servants in the castle, such as the garrison commander and the steward, and respond as she felt necessary. She also needed to pay her respects to any visitors that might be taking shelter in the castle. Inns were rare and generally considered inappropriate accommodations for upper-class travelers, so a noble gave temporary housing to traveling aristocrats or important clerics. In addition, a noblewoman was responsible for supervising the care of her children, if not actually doing all the work herself. Essentially, she was like the manager of a business.

Managing a Castle: A Steward’s Day. Nobles did not always live in their castles, or, even when they did, they might need extra help in managing them. For that assistance, they turned to a steward, a highly trusted servant, who was generally a freeman raised in status by the lord. A steward’s tasks were essentially those described for a noblewoman, although he did not have direct responsibility for his lord’s children except in unusual circumstances. In many respects, the steward was a lord’s right-hand man. He was completely dependent on the lord for his wealth and status, and this dependency was seen as a way of insuring


The following report of Simon of Senlis, steward to the bishop of Colchester*, in 1226 suggests the extent of a steward’s authority and responsibilities:

To Richard, whom Thomas of Cirencester sent to you, I have committed the keeping of the manor of Preston, since, us 1 think, he understands the care of sheep, and I will see that your woods at Chichester are meanwhile well treated, by the grace of God, and are brought to their proper state; also I wish your excellency to know that Master R., your official, and I shall be at Alding-bourne on the Sunday after St. Faith’s day, there to make the division between my lord of Canterbury and you. And if it please you, your long-cart can easily come to Aldingbourne on that day, so that I can send to you in London, should you so wish, the game taken in your parks and other things, and also the cloth bought for the use of the poor, as much as you wish, and of which I bought 300 ells at Winchester Fair. For at present I cannot send these by your little carts on the manors because sowing time is at hand. Among other things, know that the crops in your manors have been harvested safely and profitably and to your advantage and placed in your barns.

Know, dearest lord, that I have been to London, where I labored with all my might and took care that you should there have … wood for burning, brewing and repairs. Thanks be to God, all your affairs, both at West Mulne and elsewhere, go duly and prosperously. Also I have taken care that you should have what I judge to be a sufficient quantity of lambs’ wool tor your household against the winter. … Speak also with Robert of Lexington about having beef for your larder in London. … If you think it wise, my lord, I beg that part of the old corn from West Mulne shall be ground and sent to London against your coming ….

Source: Joseph Gies and Frances Gies, Life in a MsMeval Castle (New York: Crowell, 1974), pp, 99–100.

a steward’s loyalty and best efforts. A steward often had the privilege of being given separate quarters inside the castle walls, although they were nowhere near as luxurious as those reserved for the lord’s family. He was supplied with money, food, and clothing; in fact, he might receive the lord’s hand-me-down clothing, which was of far higher quality than that worn by most servants. As the lord’s representative, the steward did not need his own servants; all the lord’s servants were answerable to him. Like the lord’s family, then, stewards rarely had to perform menial tasks such as drawing water, sewing, and cooking. It was, however, their responsibility if other servants performed these tasks poorly.


Sally Crawford, Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England (Phoenix Mill, U.K.: Sutton, 1999).

Georges Duby, ed., A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).

Penelope Eames, Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century (London: Furniture History Society, 1977).

Joseph Gies and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval Castle (New York: Crowell, 1974).

David Herlihy, Opera Muliebria: Women and Work in Medieval Europe (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990).

Eric Mercer, Furniture, 700-1700 (New York: Meredith Press, 1969).

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