glossary of words

History has its own vocabulary, terms and definitions.


abbey – A building occupied by a monastic order – abbeys were headed by abbots or abbesses and were the largest monastic house in terms of size and status. They were independent and the abbot or abbess was responsible for the running of the house in terms of spiritual well-being and administration.

Advowson– The right to appoint a member of the clergy as the incumbent of a church.

aestel -A pointer used to read manuscripts. The Alfred Jewel is the most famous example of an amstel. The idea was that the pointer – the jewel is the bit that the reader would would- could be placed under words so that the reader did not damage the valuable text with their grubby fingers. The Warminster jewel is another example as is the Minster Lovell jewel.

Affinity – A following which looked to a lord for his influence, aid and support and which repaid the interest shown in his or her affairs with service.  A net of political and social connections was created to benefit both the lord and those who served him.

The Alfred Jewel

Anglo-Saxon – The Germanic peoples who settled in Britain after the Romans.

Annals – a historical account that is presented in chronological order.

Argent – heraldic colour silver.

Azure– heraldic colour blue.


Bailey – The area around a castle keep enclosed by a ditch and palisade, later by a moat and wall.  

Barony –  Under the feudal system the king gave land in return for a pledge of  loyalty and service. The king’s tenant-in-chiefs were known as barons. The land holding was called a barony.  The baron, would in his own turn, grant land from within his barony to his own men in return for loyalty and service.

Bercary – A building for sheep.

Bovate – A town dweller with the rights of citizenship.


Canting arms – heraldic devices which are a pun on their owners’ names.

Carl or ceorl – In Anglo-Saxon England these were freemen of the lowest class, ranked directly below a thane.

Carucate – The amount of land tillable by a team of oxen in one season.

Chronological –  sequence of events presented in date order.

Collegiate church –  A community of priests, not monks, who lived under canons (rules) and were celibate. They worshipped together in a collegiate church.  Collegiate churches were built most often to sing masses for the souls of a particular family or for the education of boys in preparation for the priesthood. St Mary and St Alkelda Church, Middleham was licensed as a collegiate church by King Edward IV at the behest of Richard Duke of Gloucester but the project fell through after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

Consanguinity – The blood relationship of two people descended from a common ancestor.

Corrody – a form of pension or insurance.


Dower – The life interest of a widow in the estates owned by her husband during their marriage. Dower rights typically included one-third of property.

Dowry – Money, goods and estates paid by the bride’s family to the groom. Dowries could be reclaimed in the event of a marriage being annulled.


Earl – Highest rank in Anglo-Saxon society of the Pre-Conquest world -coming from the Danish word jarl. Effectively a chief who ruled an area on behalf of the king.

Enfeoffment – Originally the deed which gave land in exchange for the pledge of service. By the fifteenth century it was a system that meant the landowner gave land to one person or group of people for use by a third party. If an heir was a legal minor enfeoffment was a way of avoiding some of the financial penalties associated with wardship.

Escheat – Reversion of property to a feudal overlord.


Femme sole – A woman without a husband declared to be legally independent.


Garderobe – A castle toilet.

Gules – heraldic colour red.


Hanoverian  The Hanoverians became monarchs of the three kingdoms as a result of the Act of Settlement which saw the Crown settled upon the nearest Protestant claimant. To describe something as Hanoverian links it either to the ruling house (1714-1901), to their supporters or to their reigns.

Hundred– A Saxon administrative subdivision of a county, corresponding to the Danelaw wapentake.


In tail male – A freehold estate entailed so that inheritance was limited by descent to the legitimate male heirs of the estate owner e.g. sons and grandsons.


Jointure –  Estate settled, at time of marriage, on a widow for the length of her life.

Jure uxoris – By right of a wife.

Justiciar –  From the Latin justiciarius meaning judge.  Appointed by the king to dispense justice in his absence a justiciar was the monarch’s principal minister of state, second only to the king himself and the guardian of the kingdom in the king’s absence.


Knight’s fee – The amount of land necessary to support a knight, his family and servants as well as providing an income large enough to equip him and his retinue with horses, armour and weapons. In return a knight would be required to serve his feudal overlord.  The more knights’ fees in a lord’s possession the more knights he was required to put in the field at time of war.



Manor – An agricultural estate. The medieval manor system was an essential part of feudalism controlling, tenure, labour and law at a local level. 

March – Counties which lay along the border between England and Wales and also England and Scotland.

Marcher – Lords appointed to govern the borders or marches. Marcher lordships are most often associated with the borders between England and Wales. These feudal lords had complete jurisdiction over their tenants without recourse to the monarch.  The king had jurisdiction only in cases of treason. 

Mark – money worth two thirds of a pound or 13 s, 4d.



Oblate – a child offered as a gift to the Church and dedicated to religious life. This practice came to be frowned on by the Church and has evolved a different meaning over time.

Or – heraldic colour gold.


Purpure – heraldic colour purple




Sable– heraldic colour black

Scutage – Also known as shield tax.  This was the money paid by a vassal to his lord in lieu of military service.  It is reflective of the monetisation of society as well as the move away from feudalism towards the so-called bastard feudalism of the later medieval period.

Seisin – possession of land.

Serf – A peasant tied to the land, required to work three days a week on his lord’s land (Another term is villein.)

Shilling 20s = 1 pound.


Tincture – heraldic colours of which there are five colours (red, blue, black, green and purple) and two metals (gold and silver)



Vert – heraldic colour green.