Castle Learning Center Life in a castle
Castles of Britain

Life in a castle

© 1995-2016 by Lise Hull
Most of us fantasize about living in a castle. We dream about the ultimate lives of luxury, never having to fend for ourselves, having our every whim taken care of, swimming in jewels or swathed in silk. But, despite all the glamor we see in movies and conjure up in our imaginations, medieval castle life was not necessarily easy.

Hardships were plenty, and even the wealthiest individuals often found themselves living in less than adequate quarters. There was no central heating, except for the central hearth or fireplace, which had to be tended to be efficient. Of course, that heat was usually saved for the lord and his family. Servants, soldiers, and others made due with tiny lamps and shivered a lot in the cold medieval nights.

The lord, his family and guests had the added comfort of heavy blankets, feather mattresses, fur covers, and tapestries hanging on the walls to block the damp and breezes, while residents of lesser status usually slept in the towers and made due with lighter bedclothes and the human body for warmth. The lord and lady's personal attendants were fortunate to stay with their master or mistress in their separate sleeping quarters. However, they slept on the floor wrapped in a blanket, but, at least on the floor, they could absorb some of the warmth of the fireplace.

Even during the warmest months of the year, the castle retained a cool dampness and all residents spent as much time as possible enjoying the outdoors. Oftentimes, members wrapped blankets around themselves to keep warm while at work (from which we derive the term bedclothes). Baths were taken in transportable wooden tubs, so that the summer sun could warm the water and the bather, but the tub could be moved inside when the weather worsened.

Privacy was ensured with a tent or canopy. And for more delicate endeavors, imagine needing to use the guardrobe (latrine) and having a brisk wind gusting through the privy. With stone or hard wood seats, using the latrine would certainly have been an invigorating experience. No wonder the chamber pot remained close to the bedside!

Life during the Middle Ages began at sunrise, when one of the guards trumpeted the day's start. Servants had already begun to stir, ensuring the fires were lit in the kitchen and great hall and getting the morning meal underway. Since dinner was not served until between 10AM and noon, they had at least a few hours to fulfill their other chores while the stews or soups bubbled in the iron pots. All floors had to be swept, cleared of any debris, and basins washed out.

Once the lord and his lady had arisen, chambermaids ventured into their apartments, swept and emptied chamber pots and wash basins, and the laundress also began the day's wash. For their part, the lord and lady of the castle made sure they were tidy before they greeted their household or any guests, washing off with water from their basins while partially clothed to keep warm.

A small breakfast of bread and drink was taken by all, and then the lord and his family entered the chapel for morning mass. Once mass was complete, the lord tackled the day's business. While relying on certain members of his household staff to manage the castle in his absence or when he had other duties to handle, the lord was the castle's chief administrator when he was in residence. Indeed, in many ways, the lord was king of his own domain, which included his castle, the estates, and his subjects, both inside the castle and in the surrounding peasant villages.

Often, the lord was granted possession of more than one lordship or earldom so had to divide his time among all of his properties. His powers were political, judicial, fiscal, and also included the policing of his territory. Like his king, he could mete out punishment, collect rent from his subjects, and even mint his own coins.

When the lord had obligations that took him away from the castle, as was frequently the case, his main representative was the steward, also called the seneschal. The steward actually had substantial power of his own, because he had to know virtually everything that went on at the castle and in the surrounding estates. So, he had to be skilled at accounting and legal matters, as well as personnel management.

Other key members of the household staff included the chamberlain (in charge of the great chamber/hall), the chaplain, the keeper of the wardrobe, the butler (also known as the bottler, he ensured there was enough drink stored in the buttery), the cook, the chandler (who made candles), and the marshal (who was in charge of the stables). Each of these individuals had their own staff to manage.

The lady of the castle was served by ladies-in-waiting and chambermaids. She spent much of the day overseeing their work, as well as supervising the activities in the kitchen staff. The lady also kept an eye on her large group of spinners, weavers, and embroiderers who had the enormous responsibility of keeping everyone clothed, and offering the lady companionship. In addition, the ladies were responsible for educating the young pages who, at the age of 7, came to the castle to learn religion, music, dance, hunting, reading, and writing before moving into knight's service as squires.

At 14, young boys became squires, and the lord placed them under the guidance of a knowledgeable knight who would teach them about chivalry as well as how to wield a sword or ride a horse into battle. A youth's ultimate goal was knighthood, which could be attained at the age of 21 when the boys officially became men. Many knights became highly skilled warriors and spent peacetime traveling to tournaments to pitch themselves into individual combat with other aspiring knights. The tournaments were good training grounds for real warfare.

When a group of soldiers was stationed at a castle, they comprised its garrison. Individual members included the knights, squires, a porter (to tend the main door), guards, watchmen, and men-at-arms. All were prepared to defend their lord and his household in an instant. Each soldier had his own place in an attack and his own skill to rely upon. Some were crossbowmen, archers, lancers, or wielded swords. Medieval warfare was definitely a highly complex process, despite the simplicity of the weapons.

Castles must have been noisy - and smelly - places. Livestock roamed inside the stables, blacksmiths clanged out ironwork in the forges, the soldiers practiced their skills, and children played when lessons were completed. Various craftsmen worked diligently in the inner ward, including cobblers (making shoes), armorers, coopers (who made casks), hoopers (who helped the coopers build the barrels), billers (making axes), and spencers (who dispensed).

The interior walls were used to support timber structures, like the workshops and the stables, and, sometimes, stone buildings also leaned against the walls. Fires burned. The well and cisterns offered water. Servants were constantly bustling, taking care of the personal needs of the household, but also finding time for gossip and flirtation.

At mid-morning, dinner was served. This was the main meal of the day, and often featured three or four courses, as well as entertainment. After dinner, the day's activities would resume, or the lord might lead his guests on a hunt through the grounds of his nearby deer park. Recreation was never ignored!

The evening meal, supper, was generally eaten late in the day, sometimes just before bedtime. While not as formidable as dinner, this meal ensured residents would never be hungry when they settled down to sleep off the day's labors.

We can only imagine that, though the people worked hard during the Middle Ages, they also compensated by playing hard. Holidays were times for letting loose of inhibitions and forgetting the stresses of life. The peasants as well as the castle's household found time for pleasure, and made up for their struggles as best they could. In this modern age of technological convenience, we must admire their perseverance.