Category Archives: Development of English

Deck the Halls – where do halls originate?

anglo-saxon-christmas-bayeux-feast-300x222.jpg“Deck the Halls”  is a Victorian favourite but the refraining Fa la la-ing goes back to earlier ballad forms.  It may even be medieval in origin.

My interest isn’t in the origin of the tune or even in the boughs of holly interesting as they both may be.  This year’s History Jar advent is all about the hall – and there are a lot of them one way another – some of them are still family homes whilst others are ruins.  I shall be having a look at  Arbella Stuart whose residence was Hardwick Hall and some Jaocbite artefacts on display in Nunnington Hall if you want a taster of what’s coming. Today though I am exploring the origin of  the hall which will in its turn involve feasting – hence the image at the start of the post from the Bayeaux Tapestry involving Anglo Saxons enjoying a feast.

Healls first made their appearance in England in the fifth century at a point when the country was still under the influence of the Romans. So when we go in and out of our hallways at home without a second thought we are using a word with an Old English etymology.  The root of the word is Germanic and it simply means a spacious, covered place – we’ve arrived at Angles, Saxons and Jutes – as described by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century.

Halls were not places where children deposited coats and bag on bannisters. Nor were there the natural collecting ground of junk mail, plastic bags and stray shoes; oh no!  Halls were rectangular buildings owned by nobility  and monarchs, built out of wood, wattle and daub and covered in thatch.  Windows hadn’t taken off (windows are a compound word meaning the eye of the wind) so they weren’t what you might describe as light and airy.  There would be a large central fire.  The smoke from the fire would work its way out through the aforementioned thatch – ensuring that the inhabitants of the hall were nicely kippered but probably weren’t overly bothered by biting insects.  These kinds of halls are a little outside my period of interest (and well outside my preferred comfort zone) but there are people who go and spend their spare time re-enacting Saxon and Norse lifestyles.

For those of you who like your Saxon Halls a shade older there’re archeological excavations which yield post holes and other clues (such as animal bones and stray coins) about what the Saxons got up to in their rectangular halls.  Lyminge in Kent has hosted a party of archeologists on the trail of Kentish royalty since 2011. The site yielded evidence of three halls built in  succession to one another dating from AD600.  The hall wasn’t somewhere that the Kentish king lived – it was somewhere that he went to entertain his guests and for official duties.  The hall was part of a complex of buildings and when a large space was required then the mead hall was opened up and the party started.  It was a place for feasting, storytelling and drinking – which is why halls are sometimes prefixed by the word “mead” because that was the drink of choice.

There are archeological remains of mead halls in Yeavering (Northumberland), Bamburgh (Northumberland),  Rendlesham (Suffolk), Sutton Courtenay (Oxon),  and another in Hampshire.  Of course, there are probably many more than that lurking beneath the ground just waiting to be discovered but it is interesting in the case of Rendlsham that the location of the hall matches with one of six royal locations identified by Bede.

The next set of invaders also used halls – Scandinavians – added to our understanding of halls with the story of Beowulf and Grendel. In the tale, King Hrothgar had a mead hall which he called Heorot which translates are “hart”.  As well as demonstrating Hrothgar’s importance the hall was also a symbol of his wealth and a place for his warriors to come and relax, show off their ill gotten gains and boast about their martial prowess.  It also doubled up as an extra large guest bedroom where the aforementioned doughty warriors could sleep off their mead and ale induced hangovers.

So all that remains for me to do today is offer you a Saxon toast to good health – “waes hael!

wassail

 

 

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Rules for Medieval Marriage

Marriage_of_Blanche_of_Lancaster_and_John_of_Gaunt_1359.jpg  I have been reading a Social History of Women in England 450-1500 by Henrietta Leyser  in between finding out about John of Gaunt’s retinue as it is sometimes easy to impose our own views and beliefs on the events of a particular period.  Interestingly it was only in the twelfth century that the Church came up with a consistent view of what constituted a marriage and what wordage was required from the couple who it joined in wedlock and whether the marriage needed to be consummated in order to be legally binding.

So here it is very briefly as I understand it: Peter Lombard of Paris insisted that a couple need only exchange the words “I take you as my wife” and “I take you as my husband.” He argued that the Virgin Mary was married to Joseph but had remained a virgin her whole life according to the theology of the time.  Consequentially, if it was good enough for the mother of Jesus it was good enough for everyone else.  Pope Alexander III backed this view.

In 1215 Pope Innocent III clarified the Church’s views on consanguinity by reducing the prohibited degrees of relationship from seven to four. When counting seven degrees of relationship the Church simply counted back up the family tree so that would have meant that a sixth cousin would be unable to may his or her sixth cousin which must have made life somewhat difficult for the intertwined aristocratic families. Properly the first degree of consanguinity is the closest one – parent and child; second degree of consanguinity -siblings; third degree aunt-nephew or uncle-neice; fourth degree- first cousins. However, the Church continued to make its calculations by going back up the family tree four generations meaning that the net of consanguinity covered much more than a first cousin. It included anyone with the same great great grandparent. However, there were such things as papal dispensations which fetched in a handy income for the Church.

478px-Lady_Margaret_Beaufort_from_NPGThe need to apply for papal dispensation where cousins removed were to be married often fitted into a rather lengthy negotiation process where the marriage was more of a seal on an alliance than a love match. Prior to a couple’s betrothal a financial settlement had to be agreed.  A bride’s family was expected to settle a dowry upon her.  This was her share of her inheritance.  It often took the form of goods and cash as well as land which her own mother might have brought into her own marriage.  In return the bride would receive dower rights from the lands which her groom held i.e. the income from those lands was hers.  Once the marriage settlement had been agreed then there would be a betrothal ceremony.  Given that these betrothals often took place where at least one of the participants was a very young child the betrothal wasn’t always binding.  Effectively where children  had not yet reached the age of reason it was much easier to wriggle out of a marriage alliance than after.  Margaret Beaufort was betrothed by her guardian to his son John de la Pole at the age of six but was rebetrothed on the orders of Henry VI to his half-brother Edmund Tudor  three years later.  Seven was regarded as the age of reason and after that time is was harder to break a betrothal. A full coming of age was twelve for girls and fourteen for boys though even at the time Edmund Tudor’s treatment of  his child bride raised eyebrows.

There were other considerations to take account of if you were of peasant stock and wished to marry. Family politics and relative wealth acquisition played their parts from the mightiest to the least in the land. However the peasantry or those descend from villeins had to find the money to pay marriage fines and there were plenty of them.  Leyser (120) describes Merchet – a fine paid for a licence to marry; legerwite which literally translates as a laying down fine was the fine levied on a woman who had had pre-marital sex (there was no corresponding male fine) and there was also chidewite which was the fee for having an illegitimate child.  You might also find yourself having to marry someone your lord had decreed was a suitable match for you – though of course this something that every strata of society had to deal with.

Innocent III also forbade secret marriages and decreed the necessity of the calling of banns. There were also times of the year when the Church decreed that marriages couldn’t occur.  Advent and Lent were marriage free times of the year.  Banns were called three times and the calling had to be at least a day apart to allow an opportunity for anyone objecting to the union to come forward.

During medieval times weddings did not take place inside the Church.  Weddings occurred at the church door – which given the climate in England probably accounts for the number of porches within medieval church architecture.   The marriage at the church door was a curious amalgam of vows and financial arrangements.  The ring that the bride wears today is all that is left of the symbolism of the groom’s symbolic gift of gold or silver given to represent the bride’s dower.  It was apparently quite normal for the groom to arrive with a shield or book stacked with gold or silver.  The couple exchanged vows in English. And did I mention that a priest wasn’t needed even if the couple did get married at the church door!  Of course having a priest made it easier to prove you were married.

And that leads to an explanation of the word wedding. Dixon Smith explains that consent to a marriage or a pledge to marry was shown by giving and receiving an item referred to English as a ‘wed’. A ‘wed’ could be any gift understood by those involved to mean consent to marry but was often a ring.  A ‘wedding’ where a man gave a woman a ring and she accepted it created the marriage.  This complicates things still further because if the giving of a gift is enough to have created a marriage there’s an awful lot of room for accusations and counter accusations of being married based on very little evidence other than a he says/ she says sort of exchange in a court.

Once the couple had exchanged their vows they entered the Church and celebrated Mass.  Once that was done the couple knelt to receive a further blessing.This was all followed by a wedding feast and there could be no skimping on the food or festivities.  Leyser reveals that Robert Juwel was fined for failing to provide a feast at his marriage (109).  Obviously this depended on the relative status and wealth of the groom and his family.

And finally the priest would bless the happy couple’s bedchamber and the bed.  There then followed an often rowdy and sometimes public bedding of the bride and groom.

images-17elizabeth woodville

 

All very straight forward except it wasn’t! Leyser goes on to reveal that during the Middle Ages couples  got married all over the place – from trees to inns.  This of course was because there were two kinds of marriage as anyone familiar with the convoluted story of Edward IV’s love life must be aware. If Edward IV, who married Elizabeth Woodville in secret, had previously been betrothed to Eleanor Butler then he was as good as married which made his union with Elizabeth bigamous.  The promise of marriage followed by intercourse was marriage and recognized as such by the Church. So despite the fact that secret marriages were prohibited, the Church recognised that people could and did get married without the consent of either the Church, their parents or their overlords. Law required the irregular or clandestine marriage to be regularised before any children could inherit but the marriage was legally binding even if there were no witnesses, no banns and none of the above negotiations. No priest was required for an irregular marriage either.  This makes either proving or disproving such a union rather difficult.

Unsurprisingly there are plenty of accounts in the ecclesiastical courts of couples who’d married clandestinely and which were followed up by objections. And so far as consanguinity was concerned anyone with an interest in English History knows where that got Henry VIII but realistically it was possible to extract yourself from an unsatisfactory marriage if some previously unknown impediment should be discovered and that’s before we even get on to the topic of people being pre-contracted in marriage and then going off and marrying someone else.

All of this seems to be rather complicated and in an age where the wealthy often married without love it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that a marriage could be dissolved if it was proved to have occurred under duress.  Marriage by abduction did occur.  The reason why there may have been very few annulments for this reason was that once the marriage was consummated or the couple had lived together the grounds for duress was deemed to have fallen by the wayside.  Nor was cruelty a grounds for divorce though occasionally the courts threatened errant husbands with a whipping if they didn’t step up to the mark.

Of course sometimes people did marry for love – Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville spring to mind as do Margery Paston and the family bailiff Richard Calle. Katherine of Valois married Owen Tudor in secret rather than face life without a spouse and unable to marry to her own status in society until her son came of age.  More surprisingly Edward I’s daughter Joan of Acre married Ralph de Monthermer a squire from her household in secret.  Her father was not amused when he found out.

The image at the start of the post is to be found in Reading Museum.  It is an interpretation by Horace Wright completed in 1914 of the marriage between John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster which took place in Reading Abbey on 13 May 1359.  The happy couple were third cousins so a papal dispensation was required. Their shared heritage was their descent from King Henry III.

Dixon-Smith, Sally.  Love and Marriage in Medieval England in History Extra 11 February 2016   http://www.historyextra.com/article/feature/love-and-marriage-medieval-england-customs-vows-ceremony

Leyser, Henrietta. (1997) Social History of Women in England 450-1500  London: PheonIx

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Development of English, Historical Artists, medieval

Ribald of Middleham

388a8dd5ca26ea292479e9883b0a69caThe land around Middleham was given to Alan The Red. Alan built a wooden motte-and-bailey castle, 500 yards to the south-west of where the present castle stands, on a site known as William’s Hill. It can be seen from the current keep. It was built to guard Coverdale and to protect the road from Richmond to Skipton.

By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Middleham had been granted to Alan the Red’s brother Ribald. Two generations later Alan’s grandson, Robert FitzRibald built a new castle which featured a massive stone keep . The keep, one of the largest in England, had twelve-foot thick walls and three floors; for its time, this would have provided palatial accommodation. It contained a great chamber, large kitchen, chapel, dovecot, cellars and the living rooms of the lord of Middleham.  No wonder it was so popular with one of its later inhabitants – The Duke of Gloucester a.k.a. Richard III.  The castle came to be known as The Windsor of the North.

But what of Ribald?  He appears to have been born circa 1050 and died in 1121 in St Mary’s Abbey York where he had withdrawn after the death of his wife, Beatrix de Tallebois in 1110.  He lived the final years of his life as a monk in Benedictine habits – hence the illustration. His lands, and he benefitted from being Alan’s brother – click on the image to see a list of lands he owned at the time of the Domesday Book- were passed to his son Ralph FitzRibald.  Four generations later the family line ended but not before the daughters of the family had married into the Percy and Bigod families.

Incidentally, the word ‘ribald’ referring to a coarse or vulgar person doesn’t make an appearance in the language until the thirteenth century and it came from the French word ‘riber’ meaning to live licentiously; it seems to have almost referred to a certain kind of henchman when it was first used.

 Ribald was almost a class name in the feudal system . .
      . He was his patron's parasite, bulldog, and tool . . .
      It is not to be wondered at that the word rapidly
      became a synonym for everything ruffianly and brutal.
                                               --Earle.
http://www.hyperdictionary.com/dictionary/ribald

Sadly, my Oxford Dictionary of Baby names doesn't offer any 
clue as to the origins or meaning of the name Ribald.

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Filed under Development of English, Eleventh Century

When history becomes mystery – or perhaps its the other way round. A brief look at Robin Hood.

P2101335So much for a catchy title!  Before we begin I need to admit that Robin Hood is my all time hero.  My father used to read me the tale of Robin Hood, at my request, again and again.  I visited Nottingham when I was seven and was disappointed with the castle in the way that only a seven-year-old can be.  I was expecting Hollywood turrets, battlements and assorted drawbridges.  Even worse, so far as fair Nottingham was concerned, what the bombing raids of Luftwaffe didn’t destroy, the city planners had mangled.  I can still remember my Dad going round the one way system getting progressively more irritated.  Things only really got better when we arrived in Sherwood Forest and we went in search of the Major Oak.  But enough of my personal history – just be aware that I have a not altogether unbiased viewpoint as to whether Robin existed or not.

Legend, film versions at any rate, places  Robin Hood and his merry band firmly in the reign of Good King Richard and Bad King John.  Other versions place him in the reign of Henry III, possibly dying with Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham.

In some respects it doesn’t really matter.  The fact is that The Lyttell Geste of Robin Hood was set in print by William Caxton.  This is a version of an oral tradition that must have been handed down over the generations. And here its worth a moment’s digression. If we look at the ballads of the border reivers such as the tale of Kinmont Willie it is possible to see where history has become embroidered by the needs of a good story and the formula of the  ballad.  There’s also a little bit of a hint that Sir Walter Scott may have tidied the whole thing up somewhat.  It is possible to see a sixteenth century historical event turning into a story.  The same, perhaps, can be said for Robin Hood excepting the fact that there isn’t anywhere near as much paper based evidence for Robin Hood as there is for William Armstrong of Kinmont who took for himself rather than anyone else irrelevant of the wealth of his victims but still seems to have managed to stay one step ahead of the law.  And yes, Sir Walter Scott did embroider the Robin Hood story – who could forget Ivanhoe?

There is, however, a faint trace of a historical paper trail for the man in green.  The Court Rolls of the Manor of Wakefield; the Contrarient Rolls of King Edward II and the Household Expenses Account of Edward II reveal an archer by the name of Robin Hood. The key thing is though, not whether he existed or was fabricated by disgruntled over-taxed peasants, but that he became a national hero – and was sung about in English.  Robin reflects the fact that during the Plantagenet period the English were beginning to get a sense of themselves as a nation.  In part, this was because King John lost his continental empire and was forced to concentrate on England – not that the barons were terribly grateful for the favour. The accession of Henry III, the first child monarch in English history, saw a time of some weakness for the monarchy and the reissue of Magna Carta; the concept of shared power (well shared if you were a baron); a rising group of free men and a somewhat fairer legal system.  It is perhaps not surprising then that Robin’s story should be associated with a period in history when the English were beginning to evolve as a nation.

Of course, the Black Death killing one-third of the British population between 1349-50 helped matters along rather nicely as the English-speaking hoi-poloi suddenly found that they had more economic clout than previously but the fact that  English was reinstated in schools that same year, although the universities of Oxford and Cambridge continued to use Latin, reflects the growing importance of the English language and the changing perspectives of the ruling classes.  They were beginning to see themselves as English rather than Norman.  In 1362 English replaced French as the language of law by the Statutes of Pleading but records continued to be kept in Latin and English was used in Parliament for the first time.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m off to re-watch Errol Flynn being heroic in the green wood. If you want to find out more about the history of Edwinstowe where Robin Hood is supposed to have married Maid Marian, click on the image at the beginning.  It will take you to an article I wrote and had published a couple of years ago.  You might be surprised to discover that even Henry II gets in on the act as well.

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Filed under Development of English, Kings of England, Legends, The Plantagenets