Monks, knights, peasants, merchants - a Mediaeval trail

By Caroline Lewis | 11 June 2008 | Updated: 16 June 2014
Photo of four people with instruments dressed in medieval clothes

A merry band of minstrels. © Harrogate Council Museum and Arts Service

After the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings and the Norman invasion, the High Middle Ages found their way to the British Isles, 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 mediaeval, be it the monks' plainsong, the apothecary's herbal remedies, or the stonemason's technique. It focuses on the time between Henry II Plantaganet coming to the throne (1154) – and Richard III's defeat at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, which brought a final end to the tenacious Plantaganet dynasty, along with the mediaeval period in England.

Detail photo of stone carvings

Wells Cathedral. © 24 Hour Museum

Cathedrals and Abbeys

Masterpiece religious buildings are one of the most amazing legacies of the Middle Ages. 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.

Shows a photograph of cloisters in Norwich.

Norwich Cathedral Cloister © Richard Moss

To pick a few pinnacles of the stonemason's craft, we have Canterbury Cathedral, boasting the scandalous murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170; Wells Cathedral, hosting the oldest clock in Britain; and Norwich Cathedral, where the statue of Julian of Norwich reminds visitors of the renowned anchoress.

Anchorites and anchoresses lived the life of a hermit 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.

Photo of a ruined cathedral wall

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 between 1154 and 1318. Despite its ruinous state, St Andrews remains Scotland's largest cathedral, and was the third most important site of pilgrimage in the Catholic world until the Scottish Reformation, when the relics of St Andrew were disbursed. Nearby you can explore the ruins of a windswept 13th century Bishop's Palace.

Ruined monasteries in remote locations, with their huge, arched, stone transepts, 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 business acumen made many abbeys rich, and in time they became cornerstones of the mediaeval rural economy.

photo of a man in a monk's robes standing in a ruined abbey

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.

Owned by the Knights of St John, this Church was also involved in the ongoing military campaign in the Holy Land, the Crusades.

Find out about the Knights Hospitaller and the Crusades at the Museum of the Order of St John in London.

a painting in iconic religiuos style of a woman wearing a habit with head bowed and a golden halo behind her

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.

The online resource from the Corpus Viterarum Medii Aevi of Great Britian and its online magazine Vidimus allow you to look at medieval stained glass from the comfort of your chair.

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.

Photo of two female medieval re-enactors roasting some meat on a spit

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 mediaevally 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 (r. 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.

Find out more about the Arthurian tradition and the Knights Templar at Glastonbury Abbey, or head down to the dramatic remains of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall.

Photo of a great medieval hall with vaulted ceiling and a round table on the far wall

The Great Hall and Round Table at Winchester Castle. © Hampshire County Council

There's a frightening statue of Edward I 'Longshanks' in York Minster, depicting him with wildly curly hair emerging from his crown. The 'iron ring' of castles including Caernarfon, Conwy and Beaumaris are remnants of his successful campaign to dominate Wales. His son, later Edward II, was born at
Caernarfon, giving rise to the traditional title of the heir apparent, Prince of Wales.

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.

Photo of two knights on horseback jousting

A jousting re-enactment at Royal Armouries, Leeds. © Royal Armouries

Much could be said about Edward I, who was determined to have Scotland as well as Wales under his control, and executed William Wallace in 1305. Stirling is Braveheart-land, with its National Wallace Memorial at the site of the Stirling Bridge battle and Wallace artifacts in the Smith Gallery.

The legacy of the 'Hammer of the Scots' can also be felt down south at the mediaeval market town of Lewes in Sussex. Capital of the 'rape' of Lewes, the town also became the administrative capital of the whole of Sussex under the Normans, and was the site of an important battle between the young Prince Edward and the rebel Earl Simon de Montfort, in 1264.

Taking place in view of the now picturesquely ruined Lewes Castle, this battle was a defeat for Edward, but not a final one. He went on to crush de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, and was one of the last European monarchs to personally go on a Crusade to the Holy Land. 

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.

Photo of a stone tower with the name Bruce picked out in stonework

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.

Photo of a dummy of a medieval king

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 hard agricultural work.

Peasant farming communities surrounded by fields were overseen by the lord of the manor house and a church. A carpenter's and a blacksmith's shop, a mill and a wheelwright were other common village features.

Shows the museum

© Weald and Downland Open Air Museum

Find out about rural life and agricultural techniques in medaieval times at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, Sussex, or Chiltern Open Air Museum with its surviving medieval field system.

Malton Museum in Ryedale, Yorkshire, has the fantastic Wharram Percy exhibition, showing what life was like in a mediaeval village with illustrations from the well-known archaeological excavation at Wharram Percy.

Shows an artist's impression of a medieval village, made up of primitive houses in a grassy, wooded valley.

An impression of the village of Wharram Percy in its mediaeval 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.

Photo of a large wood built barn with sloping tiled roof

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 John 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 mediaeval life in the capital, the Museum of London's Medieval Gallery is a must-see.

Detail of a medieval map featuring ye beerhouse

In between toiling in the fields, no doubt the villeins found some time to spent in ye Beerhouse, shown on a mediaeval map here. © Coggeshall Grange Barn

Despite the plague and the taxes and the sheriffs, some peasants were comfortably off. So were many of their town-dwelling contemporaries, who led the life of mediaeval 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 mediaeval 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, a merchant's hall, is another one of the fine mediaeval buildings in Norwich, and King John's House in Romsey, dating to the 13th century, has an unusual bone floor!

Elaborate wooden arches inside the roof of Dragon Hall

Dragon Hall. © The Norfolk & Norwich Heritage Trust

The Guilds

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.

Photo of a wooden painted and carved decoration on a medieval building beam depicting a centaur

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 mediaeval 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.

Colour illustration of an angel and other characters from a medieval manuscript

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.

It's one of the treasures of the British Library and you can find out more about it on the British Library website.

Shows a photograph of the medieval manuscript, the Macclesfield Psalter.

The Macclesfield Psalter, c.1320, was saved for the nation by the Art Fund for display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Seek out the Macclesfield Psalter at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum, the Bedford Hours at the British Library, or see the online exhibition The Cambridge Illuminations for more.

One of the more important texts to be written in mediaeval Britain was Magna Carta, sealed in 1215 at Runnymede, Surrey, by King John. There are just 4 of the original 13 copies of the document still in existence, but there are also a number of later copies and re-issues – one is at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which also launched a website of digitised medieval manuscripts in 2008. Go to images to see such delights as the Ashmole Bestiary and the Ormesby Psalter online.

Also in Oxford, you can see Mediaeval coins and jewels at the Ashmolean Museum, or in London, go to the British Museum.

detail of a medieval handwritten document

Part of the Magna Carta. © British Library

The Black Death and Witchcraft

The arrival of the Black Death wreaked havoc in mediaeval England, killing up to 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.

Shows a photograph of the interior of the Old Operating Theatre. There is a table with a couple of pestles and mortars and a skeleton hanging from the ceiling.

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 mediaeval 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.

Colour illustration of a man in a crown and other people at the door of a building containing a unicorn, from a medieval manuscript

Detail from 'Romance of Alexander'. © Bodleian Library


Many areas of mediaeval 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?

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