Life in a castle
Once upon a time castles were full of life, bustle and noise and crowded with lords, knights, servants, soldiers and entertainers. In times of war and siege they were exciting and dangerous places, but they were homes as well as fortresses.
Discover more about the people who lived and worked in castles, from the Lord and Lady to the unfortunate servant who had to clean out the cesspit.
THE LORD AND LADY OF THE CASTLE
The most important person in a castle was the owner —the king, lord, knight or lady. But they didn't live there all the time. Kings of England owned dozens of castles, and could never have visited them all.
Countess Joan de Valence, a widow, often travelled between her four castles and many manor houses, but Goodrich Castle seems to have been a favourite. There was great excitement (and a rapid clean-up) in 1296 when she arrived there with a long procession of carts and waggons, over 50 horses and 194 followers.
Castle owners always had private 'apartments', or at least a bedroom with an en-suite loo and a chamber where they welcomed visitors. There was often a private chapel too. These were usually in the safest part of the castle, and only trusted servants or honoured guests were allowed in.
Some castles had their lordly living rooms in a completely separate building; a castle within a castle, which could be defended even if the rest of the fortress fell. The Earls of Northumberland's Great Tower within Warkworth Castle had its own wine-cellars, kitchens, hall, chapel and bedrooms.
For the best experience of lordly life in a castle, go to Henry II's royal palace in the keep of Dover Castle, colourfully recreated as it looked in about 1185.Read more about the people of Goodrich Castle
Castles were no use without soldiers to defend them. In peacetime, a small castle might have a garrison of only a dozen soldiers or even fewer. This was just enough to open the gate, operate the portcullis and drawbridge and patrol the walls against stray robbers who tried to break in. They'd be commanded by the constable or castellan, who stood in for the owner and lived in his own rooms (there's a Constable's Gate at Dover Castle). The soldiers slept in a dormitory.
But when attack threatened, you'd pack as many soldiers as you could into the castle. At the great siege of Dover Castle in 1216, 140 knights and perhaps a thousand sergeants (the medieval name for any fully-equipped soldier) defended the fortress against the French.
For hand-to-hand fighting (there was plenty of that at Dover) they'd use swords, spears and axes, with longbows and arrows to keep the enemy at a distance. Many castles had tall cross-shaped loops in their walls for longbow men to shoot from, with smaller loops for deadly crossbows.
During long sieges (as at Kenilworth Castle in 1266) starvation was the enemy's best weapon. The defenders ate horses, dogs, cats, rats and even their leather belts before finally surrendering. Slaughtering surrendered soldiers was considered unsporting-but it did happen.
Because all housework was done by hand, castles were full of servants —especially when the owner was at home. Countess Joan de Valence had nearly 100 servants at Goodrich Castle, and it's hard to imagine how they all crowded into this quite small castle.
The poshest servants were pages and damsels, or children of wealthy families learning good manners by working in a lordly household. It was like being sent away to boarding school. Medieval books told them how to behave; don't blow your nose on the tablecloth, don't spit on the floor when anyone's looking, and 'always beware thy hinder parts of gun's blasting'. They slept in feather beds, even though they did have to share them.
Ordinary servants ranged from the important steward, butler (in charge of drink) and head groom down to the hot and greasy boy who turned the spit for roasting meat over the fire, and of course the 'gong-farmer.'
Lowlier servants slept anywhere within the castle they could find, and in summer started work at 5.30am, continuing until about 7pm. They had few days off and little pay, but were given uniforms (called liveries) in their lord's colours and regular meals all year round. Even the lord's leftovers were much tastier than peasant food. So being a castle servant was a sought-after job.
Cooks were among the busiest castle servants. At Goodrich Castle, Countess Joan's cook 'Isaac of the Kitchen' had to feed up to 200 people two meals a day. He cooked many meats we don't eat today including swans, peacocks, larks and herons, as well as beef, pork, mutton, rabbits and deer caught by Countess Joan's hounds.
On Fridays and many other days throughout the year, people ate fish instead; and Goodrich Castle cooks got through 24,000 herrings in three months as well as oysters and salmon. In winter, with no refrigeration, there was little fresh food. Isaac's assistant Richard the Saucerer livened up meals of salted meat or fish with strong-tasting sauces, using expensive foreign spices which showed off to visitors how rich Countess Joan was. John the Baker was busy every day baking bread, from fine white wheat rolls for the lady's table to rough loaves made from barley, oats or even peas and beans for servants (and horses).
Medieval kitchens (like the one you can still explore at Gainsborough Old Hall) were hot, noisy places, with massive fireplaces for spit-roasting meat and many ovens, and cauldrons for boiling. Fats from cooking were used again and again, or made into candles; the kitchen was locked at night to stop servants stealing fat for a tasty treat.
In castles all entertainment was live and at great feasts, lordly hosts were expected to lay on minstrels, jugglers and acrobats. There were hundreds of them at the young Edward II's knighting celebrations in 1306, including the acrobat-dancer Matilda Makejoy and 'Reginald the Liar'. And on long dark evenings, a wandering harper or even a good storyteller (the original meaning of 'jester') would always find a meal and a welcome in a castle.
Jesters, or fools, were something special, employed full-time by a king or lord. (Henry II had one called 'Roland the Musical Farter', who 'performed' every Christmas in return for a grant of land). Sometimes they had real mental health problems or bodily troubles, which medieval people thought funny (we certainly don't).
They usually wore a brightly-coloured fool's outfit, for instance, a hood with donkey's ears. But in reality, they had to be wise and quick-witted, and they were often so favoured by their masters that they could get away with mocking barons or even monarchs, telling the truth in jokey form. However, Triboulet, the King of France's Fool, went too far; he was sentenced to execution but allowed to choose how he would die. 'Of old age', he replied, and was pardoned.
There were no flushing loos in medieval times. Instead, you sat on a stone or wooden board with a hole in it, and the poo (or gong as it was called) dropped through. In castles, loos (also called gongs) were often made to overhang an outside wall, and the poo fell either into the moat (if there was one), into a pit outside the wall or just onto the ground.
As at Peveril Castle, you'll often find loos set high up on the wall; well above the smell, and safe from attackers who might use the hole to get into the castle. Lords' rooms usually had their own private loos, and in Goodrich Castle and Middleham Castle, there were also multi-seater public gongs, where you could chat as you used them.
Though medieval people didn't know about germs, they believed bad smells caused illness. Pongs were strongest in early castles like Rochester, where the poo fell into a cesspit under the keep, and the stink rose up through the rooms. So pits sometimes had to be cleaned out by an unfortunate servant called the 'gong-farmer' and everyone who could moved out while this was happening!
The 'gong-farmer' would shovel the poo into baskets and wheelbarrows, and take it off to bury, or spread on fields as fertiliser. Gong-farming could be dangerous as well as smelly; in 1325 Richard the Raker fell into a cesspit and drowned. So gong-farmers were quite well paid, but people didn't get too close to them.Discover our top 10 toilets through time