Life in the Keep & the Chatelaine

by Teresa Eckford

Life in a medieval castle was far less romantic than it appears in many movies and books. The rooms were damp and chilly, the flagstone floors covered with rushes which, unless changed frequently, housed lice, fleas and leftover scraps of food. Very few keeps had glass in the windows until the later middle ages and many windows were little more than arrow loops, used by those defending the castles. Bigger windows were covered by oiled cloth and/or shutters. During the winter, the wind would whistle around and throughout the buildings, leaving the occupants huddled around the fire, or in the smaller rooms, around coal braziers.

]]>Support our sponsors That said, the castle was a lively place, its walls enclosing a variety of buildings including the keep and/or the Hall (depending on the design of the castle), the kitchen, the stables, a forge, the mews (which housed the hunting falcons), the dovecote, the kennels, a chapel and often a small brewery along with an orchard, a fish pond, and a well. In fact, the larger castles often enclosed entire villages within their walls.

The day began just past sunrise when everyone rose and attended Mass. After a quick breakfast of bread and cheese and/or meat accompanied by ale or watered wine, the castle’s inhabitants went about their chores. The main meal of the day was served between 10 am and noon, then work resumed, followed by a light supper, some quiet entertainment and bed. If guests were present the main feast might be more lively with visiting jugglers or maybe some actors.

Only the lord and lady of the castle and high born guests slept in relative privacy. The other inhabitants curled up on the rushes, wrapped in their cloaks close to the fire. The castle garrison often maintained a separate sleeping area in the gatehouse while some of the servants might have huts in within the castle walls, but I imagine many preferred the Hall where they could sleep near the fire.

In our own era we are very conscious of what time it is throughout the day. In the middle ages, time wasn’t quite so important – they used candles with marks on them as primitive clocks to keep track, until around 1400 when the first household clocks began to appear.(1) The also used six of the nine canonical offices – Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline – as their guide for time of day, especially since in the towns the bells in the religious houses would ring at those appointed times to call their inhabitants to prayer. (The other three offices – Vigils, Matins and Lauds – took place during the night and were celebrated by monks and nuns.)(2) Years were referred to not only by their number, but by how many years the monarch had been reigning as in the following: “A.D. 1215, which was the seventeenth year of the reign of King John…”(3)

The lady of the castle/manor was often referred to as the “chatelaine”. She was responsible for running the estate, with the help of the steward. From dawn to dusk she made decisions about what food was to be served, what supplies needed to be bought, what crops needed to be planted and/or harvested, how they were to be distributed, what areas of the keep needed to be cleaned, what supplies (ie. soap, candles etc.) needed to be made, and what clothes need to be made and/or mended. If the lord wasn’t in residence she would often have to preside over the manor court and decide on cases brought before it. She also had to ensure there was enough food to feed everyone in the castle and that there were adequate stores in the event of a siege. In the larger households the chatelaine would have more servants to help her, but she was still the one in whose hands the major decisions lay. Ladies of the smaller households often went out the market themselves or bought from the various peddlars.(4)

When she wasn’t moving about the castle or estate she was likely in the solar sewing, embroidering and/or working on a tapestry to hang on the walls. Her hands were rarely idle, though if she was lucky she might have some time in the evening to play chess or another board game, listen to some music or read a book (if she owned a few.)

If she had children, either her own, or those being fostered from another noble family, she would often educate the girls herself and leave to boys to their tutor. Ladies did not always know how to read, write and do arithmetic, in which case they depended on a clerk or the castle chaplain for correspondence and on the steward for keeping the books. As the middle ages progressed, more and more women received at least a basic education so they weren’t always dependent on those who served them.(5)

From time to time women even took military roles to protect their castles, in the absence of their husbands. One such woman was Nicolaa de la Haye, who held Lincoln Castle against the French invaders in 1216.(6)


1. Gies, F. and G.. Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel – Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages. New York. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.. 1994, p. 215

2. Microsoft Encarta 96 Encyclopedia. Article entitled “Canonical Hours” written by Joseph M. Powers.

3. (From Roger Wendover, Flowers of History, J.A. Giles (ed) in Sachse, William L. English History in the Making Volume 1: Reading from the Sources, to 1689) Toronto, Blaisdell Publishing Company, 1967, p. 77)

4. I consulted the following chapters in the books listed below while writing this article:

Burke, John. Life in The Castle in Medieval England. London. B.T. Batsford Ltd. 1978 Chapter II – Family and Retainers, pages 51-53

Gies, J. and F.. Life in a Medieval Castle. New York. Harper & Row, Publishers. 1974 Chapter IV – The Lady, pages 75-94

Labarge, Margaret Wade. A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century. New York. Barnes & Noble, Inc.. 1965 Chapter 2 – The Lady of the House, pages 38-52

Labarge, Margaret Wade. A Small Sound of the Trumpet- Women in Medieval Life. Boston. Beacon Press. 1986 Chapter Four – Women Who Ruled: Noble Ladies, pages 72-97

5. Ibid.

6. Op. cit. Labarge (II), pages 79-80


 Read Teresa’s DIK Review of Elizabeth Chadwick’s Lords of the White Castle Read about Teresa Read Teresa’s Historical Cheat Sheet on Anglo Saxon England: 542 – 1066 Read Teresa’s Historical Cheat Sheet article on Post-Norman Medieval Period Read Teresa’s Historical Cheat Sheet article Medieval Scottish Kings Read Teresa’s Historical Cheat Sheet article on the feudal power structureRead Teresa’s Historical Cheat Sheet article on the Crusades Read Teresa’s Historical Cheat Sheet article on King Stephen and Queen Matilda (companion research page) Read Teresa’s Historical Cheat Sheet article on King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia (companion research page) Did Richard III Really Kill The Princes in the Tower? by Teresa Eckford – this is a “jump” link to an article at Teresa’s site (companion research page) Read Teresa’s Historical Cheat Sheet General Historical Research Bibiliography Return to Medieval Times

Teresa Eckford earned a BA and MA in History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. She lives in Ottawa, Canada with her husband, Sean and divides her time between working as an Admin Assistant and writing historical romance (though she is not as yet published.) During her spare time she reads anything (fiction or non) on the medieval period she can get her hands on. She is a member of RWA, its Ottawa chapter ORWA and P*RWG.

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