A merry band of minstrels. © Harrogate Council Museum and Arts Service
After the Dark Ages, the Vikings and the Norman invasion, Britain's medieval period really got into its stride, giving us all those half-timbered houses, fantastic illuminated manuscripts and chillsome cathedral undercrofts. (Not to mention knights in shining armour, hog roasts, the Peasants' Revolt, wandering minstrels and poor hygiene…)
This trail is a guide to some of the buildings, sites and collections where you can find out more about all things medieval, be it the monks' plainsong, the apothecary's herbal remedies, or the stonemason's technique. It focuses on the time between Henry Plantaganet coming to the throne (1154) – and Richard III's defeat at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, when victorious Henry Tudor ushered in a new culture against the backdrop of the Renaissance in Europe.
Wells Cathedral. © 24 Hour Museum
Cathedrals and Abbeys
Masterpiece religious buildings are one of the most amazing legacies of the medieval period. Gargoyles, stained glass and intricate gothic architecture, not to mention the incredible acoustics of these high-ceilinged arks, still have the power to dumbfound atheist and believer alike.
Norwich Cathedral Cloister © Richard Moss
To pick a few pinnacles of the stonemason's craft, we have Canterbury Cathedral, with its scandalous murder story, Wells Cathedral, hosting the oldest clock in Britain, and Norwich Cathedral, where the statue of Julian of Norwich reminds visitors of the ascetic role of the anchoress.
Anchorites and anchoresses would live a hermit's life in a cell built against a church, with the door permanently bricked up, receiving food and giving counsel through a small window. Julian's cell, or anchorhold, still stands next to St Julian's Church in the city.
St Andrew's Cathedral. Photo: Caroline Lewis © 24 Hour Museum
Only the south nave wall of St Andrew's Cathedral in Fife, Scotland, rises up to evoke the grand building that was erected there during the reign of Robert the Bruce (1306-29). Legend has it that the relics of St Andrew were brought there. Nearby you can explore the ruins of a windswept 13th century castle.
Ruined monasteries in remote locations, with their huge, arched, stone transepts now looking onto the exterior in both directions, speak of the simple Cistercian lifestyle of prayer and work. Wander in the cloisters of Rievaulx, Fountains or Byland Abbey (all in Yorkshire) and you can experience a sense of the serenity that lingers from the days before their dissolution in the 1500s.
The Cistercian order was founded in the 11th century in France, reviving the ideals of poverty and isolation that had become lax in religious life in previous centuries. They lived solely off the land and became agricultural experts and wool producers. Their specialism actually made many abbeys rich and contributed to the medieval economy.
An actor revisits the world of Rievaulx's days as an active monastery. © English Heritage
St Fagans, National Museum of Wales, has a smaller scale 13th century church, St Teilo's – moved to its current position piece by piece in 2007.
The powerful Church was also behind the ongoing military campaign in the Middle East, the Crusades. Find out about the Knights Hospitaller and the mission to take back the holy lands from Muslim occupiers at the Museum of the Order of St John in London.
An Icon of The Lady Julian painted by Anna Dimascio. © The Friends of Julian of Norwich
In Ulster Museum a star religious object is the Shrine of St Patrick's Hand. The hollow, gilt-silver forearm, made about 1400, reputedly once held a bone from the saint's arm. (While Ulster Museum is closed, the forearm is on show at Down County Museum.)
Royalty, Banquets and Battles
In contrast to the monastic lifestyle, medieval culture is also renowned for its lavish banquets with decadent platters of swan, peacock, pheasant and wild boar, washed down with goblets of mead. Such banquets might well follow a grand pageant or jousting tournament.
A spit roast at Tatton Park. © Tatton Park
Your best bet for soaking up some of the atmosphere of such medieval activities is to seek out a re-enactment at a historical venue. English Heritage holds a Festival of History each year with plenty of medievally dressed folk, and other medieval fayres happen around the country - check the 24 Hour Museum what's on section.
You can bet that Winchester Castle Hall saw a few of these. King Henry III (he reigned from 1216-72) had this Great Hall built of local Purbeck stone. His son, Edward I, commissioned the Round Table still on show in this tremendous room. The table was used during Arthurian festivities arranged by Edward in 1290.
The Great Hall and Round Table at Winchester Castle. © Hampshire County Council
There's a frightening statue of Edward in York Minster, depicting him with wildly curly hair emerging from his crown, and the 'iron ring' castles of Caernarfon, Conwy and Beaumaris are remnants of his successful campaign to take Wales. In 1301, he made his eldest son the Prince of Wales, since which time the English monarch's eldest son has always borne the title.
The Welsh hero Owain Glyndwr led a rebellion against the English 99 years later. His palace on the borders was burnt down in 1412, but you can see his seal and gilt bronze armorial mount at the National Museum Cardiff.
A jousting re-enactment at Royal Armouries, Leeds. © Royal Armouries
Much could be said about Edward I, who was also determined to have Scotland under his control and to this end murdered William Wallace in 1305. Stirling is Braveheart-land, with its National Wallace Memorial at the site of the Stirling Bridge battle and Wallace artefacts in the Smith Gallery.
The conquering king's son, Edward II, also attempted to subjugate the Scots, but was defeated by Robert the Bruce, as you will find at the Bannockburn Heritage Centre. Scot hero Bruce is buried at the awe-inspiring Dunfermline Abbey Church, and unusually commemorated in stone tracery on its tower.
A tower honouring Robert the Bruce at Dunfermline Abbey. Photo: Caroline Lewis © 24 Hour Museum
The Middle Ages came to an end when Richard III lost his kingdom and his life to Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth, where a visitor centre now stands.
Richard has been depicted as an evil humpbacked ruler with a withered hand (both in Shakespeare's play and in portraits – probably doctored to give him fictitious deformities). For an alternative view of the king's story, go to the Richard III Museum in Monk's Bar, York, where you can decide for yourself whether he murdered his two sons in the Tower of London.
A lifesize Richard III greets visitors to his museum in York, where you can look at the evidence and decide whether his reputation is deserved. Photo: Caroline Lewis © 24 Hour Museum
Everyday Life – Peasants and Merchants
Banquets were not for everyone. While some feasted, and exotic spices began to entertain the British palate thanks to the Crusades, the majority of the populace was destined for a life of peasantry, or even born into serfdom.
Peasant farming communities surrounded by fields were overseen by the lord of the land's manor house and a church. A carpenter's and a blacksmith's shop, a mill and a wheelwright were other village features.
© Weald and Downland Open Air Museum
Malton Museum in Ryedale, Yorkshire, has the fantastic Wharram Percy exhibition, showing what life was like in a medieval village with illustrations from the well-known archaeological excavation at Wharram Percy.
An impression of the village of Wharram Percy in its medieval heyday, by Stephen Conlin. © English Heritage.
Cosmeston Medieval Village near Penarth is a reconstruction, set in 1350, where you can meet costumed characters who will give you a tour of their buildings.
The feudal system in force meant that peasants (villeins) had to pay rent to the lord or work his land sometimes, as well as paying a tithe (a tenth of their produce) to the church.
A rare surviving tithe barn can be seen at Coggeshall Grange near Colchester. Dating to from the 13th century, it was used as a set in a 1972 film version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Coggeshall Grange Barn. &169; National Trust/ Perry Hastings
Some found the establishment oppressive, and the folk legend of outlaw Robin Hood tells of a downtrodden populace under an evil sheriff. Caves underneath Nottingham Galleries of Justice were once used by the Sheriff of Nottingham as dungeons – perhaps Hood was jailed there?
The Peasant's Revolt, led by Wat Tyler in 1381, was the original popular uprising against the Poll Tax. Around a week's wages for a skilled labourer was levied to pay for numerous wars, whereupon 60,000 peasants got up and marched to London to complain.
Wat Tyler was from Kent, and it is alleged he released his accomplice Jon Ball, the 'mad priest of Kent', from the massively buttressed dungeon building near the Tyrwhitt-Drake Museum in Maidstone. Go to the Museum of St Bartholomew's Hospital in London to see where Wat Tyler was beheaded.
For the real story of medieval life in the capital, the Museum of London's Medieval Gallery is a must-see.
In between toiling in the fields, no doubt the villeins found some time to spent in ye Beerhouse, shown on a medieval map here. © Coggeshall Grange Barn
Despite the plague and the taxes and the evil sheriffs, some peasants were comfortably off. So were many of their town-dwelling contemporaries, who led the life of medieval merchants or more noble folk. Some of their houses can still be seen, adding quaint half-timbered character to our streets.
Barley Hall in York is a restored medieval townhouse once home to the Priors of Nostel and the Mayor of York, and down south the Medieval Merchant's House, Southampton, lets visitors into an interior of brightly painted cabinets and colourful wall hangings, as the house would have been when wine merchant John Fortin lived there over 700 years ago.
Dragon Hall. © The Norfolk & Norwich Heritage Trust
Tailors, smiths, shoemakers (cordwainers), potters, tanners, weavers, fullers (cloth treaders), drapers, mercers (textile merchant, especially silk)… If your name is here, your ancestors were probably part of a guild, established by craftsmen to control the secrets of their trades and protect their rights, as well as guarantee standards.
St Mary's Guildhall in Boston, Lincolnshire, was reopened after major restoration in spring 2008. You can now visit the guildhall, which goes back to 1390, and find out about its story down the ages.
A boss from St Anthony's Guildhall in York, home to the Quilt Museum. © J Turner
Another fine guildhall in Coventry shares the same patron saint. Coventry's St Mary's Guildhall is also a fine building, which served as the centre of King Henry VI's court during the Wars of the Roses and was later a prison to Mary Queen of Scots.
St Anthony's Guidhall in York is now home to a modern-day guild - the Quilters' Guild of the British Isles - and houses the Quilt Museum, opened in June 2008.
Illuminated Manuscripts and other treasures
Speaking of medieval crafts, illuminated manuscripts – heavily illustrated and impeccably scribed books – are second only to religious buildings as the most alluring things to come out of the Middle Ages.
Detail of the Bedford Hours and Psalter. Illumination on vellum, between 1414 and 1422. British Library. © By permission of the British Library
The Luttrell Psalter is a famous source of information about everyday life in the 14th century. Its rich pictorial information covers the daily lives that chroniclers and grand architecture do not impart.
The Macclesfield Psalter, c.1320, was saved for the nation by the Art Fund for display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Courtesy Sotheby's.
One of the more important texts to be written in medieval Britain was Magna Carta, sealed in 1215 at Runnymede, Surrey, by King John. There are a few copies around – one is at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which also launched a website of digitised medieval manuscripts in 2008. Go to www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/medieval images to see such delights as the Ashmole Bestiary and the Ormesby Psalter online.
Part of the Magna Carta. © British Library
The Black Death and Witchcraft
The arrival of the Black Death wreaked havoc in medieval England, killing one in three people. Bodies were piled into cemeteries and whole communities were wiped out.
It arrived on the back of a rat that came in through the port of Pevensey. Pevensey Courthouse Museum will tell you all about it.
You can find out more about how the terrible epidemic affected the capital in the Museum of London, or see an example of a plague stone outside Wayside Folk Museum in Zennor, Cornwall, past which villagers were not allowed to tread during the time of the pestilence. Plague stones often held vinegar in a small depression, in which money was washed.
The Herb Garrett at the Old Operating Theatre museum. © Old Operating Theatre
London's Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett museum is a good place to find out about what treatment plague doctors would have used, and the medieval apothecary in general.
Wise women (or 'witches') and herbalists would have been called on by some looking to cure their ailments. The Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, is the best known celebration of the history of sorcery.
Detail from 'Romance of Alexander'. © Bodleian Library
Many areas of medieval history have been touched on here, but if you want to take your online research further, here's a list of websites to get you started:
The 24 Hour Museum's King Arthur Trail
Channel 4's Worst Jobs in History - Medieval
The World of Chaucer
National Archives online exhibition: Uniting the Kingdoms?
BBC Medieval Season