Book Corner: The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings by Sarah Bryson

Four generations of Brandon men lived and served six English kings, the most famous being Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, best friend and brother-in-law to King Henry VIII. Yet his family had a long history tied closely to the kings of the Wars of the Roses back to Henry VI. Charles Brandon’s father, Sir William Brandon, supported Henry Tudor’s claim on the throne and became his standard bearer, dying at the Battle of Bosworth. Charles’s uncle, Sir Thomas Brandon, was Henry VII’s Master of the Horse, one of the three highest positions within the court. Charles’s grandfather had ties with Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. These men held important offices, made great sacrifices, walked the fine line between being loyal courtiers and traitors, and even gave their lives, all in the name of loyalty to the king they served. No more shall the Brandon name be an obscure reference in archives. It is time for them to emerge from the shadows of history.

I have been looking forward to reading The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings by Sarah Bryson ever since I heard that Sarah was working on it. I loved her first book, La Reine Blanche: Mary Tudor, A Life in Letters, and was hoping this one would be as good. I was wrong!

The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings is even better. In telling the story of Henry VIII’s best friend, Charles Brandon, and Charles’ forebears, Sarah Bryson writes with a passion that draws the reader in from the very first pages. Sarah Bryson starts the story at the beginning, with the first known head of the Brandon family, Sir William Brandon, born in around 1425. The Brandons rose to prominence during the unsettled times of the Wars of the Roses, their fortunes turning with the tug-of-war between York and Lancaster. Sir William Brandon’s son – also William – was killed at the Battle of Bosworth while protecting the future king, Henry VII. It was this William whose son, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, took the family to its greatest heights, going so far to marry Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France and King Henry VIII’s beloved baby sister.

While the rest of the family had a no-less dramatic story, it is Charles Brandon’s which catches the attention. Brandon pursued a thriving career at court, as one of Henry VIII’s closest friends and jousting partners, while at the same time he chased after wealth and land through several scandalous marriages and betrothals. His marriage to Mary Tudor, however, was the icing on the cake; it brought him a beautiful bride, a love story that would last the ages, and the title of Duke of Suffolk as the brother-in-law to the king. It also brought him more trouble than even he could have imagined; whilst Brandon did not lose his head, he got heavily in debt trying to placate the king for his presumption in marrying the king’s sister.

Charles Brandon’s life was also tinged with family scandal, with one daughter being publicly shamed for her extramarital affair, and tragedy; two of his sons died during the duke’s lifetime, with two mores, his sons by Katherine Willoughby, dying within half an hour of each other before either reached their majority. It was Charles Brandon’s granddaughter by Mary Tudor, the tragic Lady Jane Grey, who became Queen of England for Nine Days. The Brandon story is one of the highs and lows of ambition and family; the veritable wheel of fortune that was so popular in medieval culture.

Lacking experience in military action, Henry Tudor appointed the veteran Earl of Oxford to command his troops and to lead the vanguard. Sir Gilbert Talbot took the right wing and was ordered to defend the archers and keep an eye on the battle line, while John Savage was to lead the left wing. Henry Tudor was positioned to the rear of the troops with several French mercenaries whom he had brought with him from France. Standing close to Henry was Sir William Brandon II.

Brandon had been appointed Henry’s standard-bearer. It is unclear exactly why Brandon was chosen to carry one of Henry Tudor’s standards; perhaps it was due to his unfaltering loyalty to the man he hoped would become king, or perhaps it was down to his physical toughness. We have no description of what Sir William Brandon II looked like, but his son Charles grew up to be tall, handsome, well built and extremely suited to physical pastimes such as hunting and jousting – all qualities that he may have inherited from his father.

Facing them, on King Richard’s side was John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, with Sir Robert Brackenbury leading the Yorkist vanguard. Next came a force commanded by Richard III and comprised of his bodyguard and others. In the rear was the Earl of Northumberland and his men.

When the battle cry went up, arrows flew and the roar of Richard III’s artillery filled the air. Oxford’s men clashed with the Duke of Norfolk’s, the two being old foes. Both sides paused to reorientate themselves. Oxford formed his men into a wedge and charged forward. At this second charge, Henry’s French troops attacked Norfolk’s vanguard. Soon Norfolk’s men were in trouble. Many were killed, including the duke. Others fled while some defected to fight on Henry Tudor’s side.

Northumberland and his men did not move into the fight, and it is believed that at some point the earl decided to leave the battle without throwing any of his men into the fray. Amid this chaos, some of Richard III’s supporters begged him to flee, but he declared that he would live or die as a king. Oxford’s men had pushed forward, leaving a gap, and Richard III now saw an opportunity to get to Henry Tudor directly. He charged with his men, aiming to strike Henry down.

As he advanced, Richard III’s lance pierced through Henry’s standard-bearer, Sir William Brandon II, and broke in half. History records that William Brandon ‘hevyd on high [the Tudor standard] and vamisyd it, tyll with deathe’s dent he was tryken downe.’ What was racing through Sir William’s mind in those last few moments as Richard III and his men came thundering towards him? He had given up his property, his land, his wealth, everything he had to support Henry Tudor. He had bid his wife and infant son farewell to follow Henry to England in the hopes of a better life, not just for himself or his family but for England. It was his sworn duty to protect Henry Tudor with his life, and as Richard III’s lance pierced his armour and threw him from his horse, he gave up his life to save the man he believed to be the rightful king of England. Sir William Brandon II had been loyal to his last breath.

In The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings, Sarah Bryson puts flesh on the bones of history; she brings the family, their actions, hopes and dreams, back to life. Concentrating on the human side of their story, Sarah Bryson expertly recreates the world in which the Brandon men and their families lived, from the violence, suspicion and betrayal that personified the Wars of the Roses, to the glamour, intrigue and fear of the court of Henry VIII. Neither does she shy away from the more questionable actions of the family, such as Charles Brandon’s dislike of Anne Boleyn and complicity in her downfall. Sarah Bryson examines the evidence and arguments with a neutral, if passionate, eye, giving us a wonderful portrait of Charles Brandon as a fallible human being whose ambition sometimes gets in the way of his own success. However, and above all, Charles Brandon knew where his loyalty – and his prospects – lie; with the king. He did everything to ensure that his relationship with Henry VIII, and therefore his family’s security, remained paramount in his career.

I was surprised to see that the Brandon story overlaps a little with my own research on the Warennes. Two hundred years after the demise of John de Warenne, the 7th and last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, it seems that some of the Warenne lands, notably Bromfield and Yale in Wales, found themselves in the hands of Charles Brandon – a little serendipity there.

The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings is a beautifully written non-fiction biography of a family that most people have heard of, but of which few know the particulars. Meticulously researched, with substantial notes and an excellent bibliography, it tells the story of the Brandon family and their rise to heights that none of them could have predicted in their wildest dreams. It is a story of war and conflict, love and feuds, with family ambition tempered by family tragedy. It is, above all, a story of service to the crown.

Sarah Bryson is a wonderful writer of non-fiction, whose love of the Brandons’ story comes through on every page, drawing the reader in; engaging, entertaining and enlightening you on every page. It is, in short, a thoroughly enjoyable investigation into the rise of one of the greatest families of the Tudor court, from the origins in later medieval England and the discord of the Wars of the Roses; from humble Suffolk landowners, to the great Duke of Suffolk who owned most of Lincolnshire. The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings is definitely worth reading!

To buy the book:

The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings is available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon

About the author:

Sarah Bryson is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Honours. She currently works with children with disabilities. She is passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in Mary Tudor, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and the reign of Henry VIII and the people of his court. She has run a website dedicated to Tudor history for many years and has written for various websites including ‘On the Tudor Trail’ and “QueenAnneBoleyn’. She has been studying primary sources to tell the story of Mary Tudor for a decade. She is the author of books on Mary Boleyn, Charles Brandon and La Reine Blanche. She lives in Australia. –This text refers to the hardcover edition.

My books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.


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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Tudor Society in Lincolnshire

Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s 6thh queen

In 1485 England was a small kingdom, the whole country consisted of a population of less than 3 million people, with 60,000 living in the capital, London.1 The Wars of the Roses was very much a recent trauma in the national memory. The country was a predominantly rural society, with local loyalties to local landowners – such as the Percies in Northumberland – taking precedence over national considerations. Noticeable regional differences varied in speech, diet, cloth, farming methods, the shape of church towers, and even the veneration of the saints. In Tudor Lincolnshire the Fens were yet to be drained, few roads were well-maintained and even they could be treacherous in heavy rains. Lincoln itself had been effected by the decline in the wool trade, and with a shrinking population, its size and prosperity were also decreasing.

A distinction was also rising among the aristocracy of the county and that of the royal court. In the regions, the minor nobility served the king as sheriffs, escheators and justices of the peace, or representing their county in parliament. The greater aristocracy, however, were looking for positions and influence at court; for themselves and their families. The Tudor court was a micro-world in itself. It set the standards in manners for the whole country. Service to the monarch was the primary concern. Most courtiers were related to each other, marriages were negotiated between the prominent families and service to the queen was the highest position a lady could aspire to.

At first glance you would think there was very little interaction between the nobility of Lincolnshire and the Tudor court. However, as we delve deeper we can see that, not only was there movement between the court and the county, it was not only one-sided, but fluid and travelling in both directions. When looking at this over the Tudor period – of over a hundred years of history – we notice the subtle changes in the interactions between the county and royal court, not only based on the progress of the time, but also the personalities involved and their personal experiences.

For some ladies, marrying into a member of the Lincoln aristocracy was a way of getting away from the glare of the court. For Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount, lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon, a former mistress of Henry VIII and the mother of his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, Earl of Richmond, it was the chance at a normal life. Born in 1500, Bessie Blount married Gilbert Tailboys in 1519, following her affair with Henry VIII and just months after the birth of the king’s son. The marriage was probably arranged by Henry as a ‘reward’ for Bessie. The couple settled on Gilbert’s family estates at Kyme in Lincolnshire. And despite being far from court, Bessie was not forgotten by the king. She continued to receive Henry’s favour, with various grants between 1522 and 1539 and New Years’ gifts throughout her life; in 1532 Henry sent her a gilt goblet with a cover weighing over 35 ounces.2

Effigy of Elizabeth Blount

Bessie and Gilbert had three children together, Elizabeth, George and Robert, before his death in 1530. Gilbert Tailboys had settled part of his Lincolnshire estates on Elizabeth, giving her an annual income of £200 a year for life. Following his death, Bessie appears to have been happy to stay in Lincolnshire instead of returning to her Shropshire roots, or an unwelcoming royal court. In 1535 she married again, to the soldier Edward Fiennes de Clinton, 9th Baron Clinton and Saye, who was 12 years her junior. Although de Clinton had his family seat in Kent, they settled on Bessie’s Lincolnshire estates. They had three daughters together, Bridget, Katherine and Margaret, before Bessie died sometime before June 1541 (when Clinton remarried). While Elizabeth appears to have stayed away from court, Clinton’s marriage to the king’s former mistress brought him royal favour; he attended on the king at Calais and Boulogne in 1532 and acted as cup-bearer at the coronation of Anne Boleyn in 1533. Following the Lincolnshire Uprising of 1536, one of several rebellions which formed the Pilgrimage of Grace, Clinton was rewarded for staying loyal to the king – most Lincolnshire gentlemen had joined the rebellion – with the dissolved monastery of Sempringham.

Lincolnshire aristocratic families were often very closely related. Elizabeth and Edward’s daughter, Bridget, married Sir Robert Dymoke II, son of Sir Edward Dymoke and his wife Anne, who was the daughter of George Tailboys and the sister of Elizabeth’s first husband, Gilbert. The Dymoke family held Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, through which tenure they were king’s champions; Sir Edward was champion at the coronations of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Sir Edward’s sister, Margaret, was born in Scrivelsby around 1500 and served several of Henry’s queens. After first marrying Richard Vernon of Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, she then married Sir William Coffin, Anne Boleyn’s Master of Horse. Margaret had been one of Queen Katherine of Aragon’s gentlewomen at the Field of Cloth of Gold and would also serve Henry VIII’s two subsequent queens.

Margaret, however, was not a favourite of Henry’s second queen, Anne Boleyn. She was one of the women who attended the disgraced queen in the Tower of London. Anne was recorded as complaining to her jailer, Sir William Kingston, “I think much unkindness in the king to put such about me as I never loved.”3 Margaret Dymoke, Lady Coffin slept on a pallet bed in the Queen’s bedchamber during her time in the Tower. In her desperation the queen confided in Margaret, unaware that she was acting as a spy for the state. Master Kingston reported to Thomas Cromwell that “I have everything told me by Mistress Coffin that she thinks meet for me to know.” 4 There is also a possibility that Margaret was not only a spy for Kingston, but also for the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, who wrote “The lady who had charge of her [Anne] has sent to tell me in great secrecy that the concubine, before and after receiving the sacrament, affirmed to her, on the damnations of her soul, that she had never been unfaithful to the king.”5

Anne Boleyn in the Tower by Edouard Cibot

Following Anne’s execution, Margaret joined the household of Queen Jane Seymour. Lady Coffin was in high favour in Jane Seymour’s establishment and acted as intermediary for several families who had hopes of placing a daughter in the royal household. Margaret remained with the queen until the end, and was among the mourners who attended the late queen’s body as it lay in state, keeping vigil and attending masses for her soul. Margaret was in the funeral procession that accompanied Jane’s body to her final resting place in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. She rode in the third carriage and bore Princess Mary’s train at the requiem mass; Mary was chief mourner and rode on a horse trapped with black velvet.6

There were several ladies associated with the Tudor court, who married into Lincolnshire society. The most famous must surely be one of Henry VIII’s own queens. Henry’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr was the daughter of Sir Thomas Parr and his wife, Maud Green Parr, a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon. When Sir Thomas died while Katherine was still a child, Maud took it on herself to arrange her daughter’s future. After a failed proposal to marry Katherine to the son of Lord Dacre, In 1529 Maud turned to another of her late husband’s relatives and arranged for Katherine to marry Edward Burgh the eldest son of Sir Thomas Burgh, Baron Burgh of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. Sir Thomas’s father, Sir Edward, had been declared a lunatic and Sir Thomas, himself, was renowned for his violent outbursts and wild rages (possibly due to an inherited mental instability in the family) and had a tyrannical control over his family. The first two years of the marriage, spent at Sir Thomas’s new Hall at Gainsborough (now known as the Old Hall), was an unhappy time for Katherine. She wrote, regularly, to her mother of her unhappiness and it seems the situation was only resolved following a visit by Maud Parr, who persuaded Sir Thomas to allow Edward and Katherine to move to their own, smaller, house at Kirton-in-Lindsey, a few miles outside of Gainsborough.

We do not know whether Edward was a sickly individual, or whether or not he succumbed to a sudden illness, but their happiness was short-lived, as he died in the spring of 1533, after only 4 years of marriage. Having no children, Katherine was left with little from the marriage, and, with her mother having died the previous year, she was virtually alone in the world; possibly as a remedy to her isolation, Katherine married her second husband, Lord Latimer, in the same year as she lost her first. There is no record that Katherine served any of henry VIII’s queens. Her first appearance at court seems to be in 1542, when she became a lady-in-waiting in Mary Tudor’s household, before she caught the King’s eye. She does not seem to have forgotten her time with the Burgh family, however, and when she became queen Katherine paid a pension from her own purse to her former sister-in-law, Elizabeth Owen, widow of her husband’s younger brother, Thomas. Poor Elizabeth had been accused of adultery by her domineering father-in-law, Sir Thomas, and her children were declared illegitimate by Act of Parliament in 1542.

Lord Burgh’s third surviving son, William, born in the early 1520s, would eventually succeed his father to the barony. He married Katherine Fiennes de Clinton, daughter of Edward Fiennes de Clinton – the future Earl of Lincoln – and Bessie Blount, demonstrating the interlinking relationships between the various great Lincolnshire families.

Where Katherine Parr was linked to Lincolnshire before joining the royal court, others saw Lincolnshire as a place of retirement. Maria de Salinas was a lady-in-waiting and close friend to Katherine of Aragon; indeed, it seems that she came to England with the Spanish princess in 1501 for the marriage to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. Katherine and Maria were very close and by 1514 Caroz de Villagarut, ambassador of Katherine’s father, Ferdinand of Aragon, was complaining of Maria’s influence over the queen after she tried to persuade Katherine not to cooperate with the ambassador and encouraged the Queen to favour her English subjects.7 In June 1516 Maria married the largest landowner in Lincolnshire, William Willoughby, 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby. The King and Queen paid for the wedding, which took place at Greenwich, and gave them a wedding gift of Grimsthorpe Castle, in Lincolnshire. The Queen even provided Maria with a dowry of 1100 marks.

Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire

Maria remained at court for some years after her wedding, and attended Katherine at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. Henry VIII was godfather to Maria and William’s oldest son, Henry, who died in infancy. Another son, Francis, also died young and their daughter Katherine, born in 1519, would be the only surviving child of the marriage. Lord Willoughby died in 1526, and for several years afterwards Maria was embroiled in a legal dispute with her brother-in-law, Sir Christopher Willoughby, over the inheritance of the Willoughby lands. It seems William had settled some lands on Maria which were entailed to Sir Christopher. The dispute went to the Star Chamber and caused Sir Thomas More, the king’s chancellor and a prominent lawyer, to make an initial redistribution of some of the disputed lands.

This must have been a hard fight for a newly-widowed Maria, and the dispute threatened the stability of Lincolnshire itself, given the extensive lands involved. However, Maria attracted a powerful ally in Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and brother-in-law of the King, who called on the assistance of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s first minister at the time, in the hope of resolving the situation. Suffolk had managed to obtain the wardship of Katherine Willoughby in 1529, intending her to marry his eldest son and heir Henry, Earl of Lincoln, and so had a vested interest in a favourable settlement for Maria. This interest became even greater following the death of Mary Tudor, Suffolk’s wife and Henry VIII’s sister, in September 1533, when only three months later the fifty-year-old Duke of Suffolk married fourteen-year-old Katherine, himself. Although Suffolk pursued the legal case with more vigour after the wedding, a final settlement was not reached until the reign of Elizabeth I. Suffolk eventually became the greatest landowner in Lincolnshire and, despite the age difference, the marriage does appear to have been successful. Katherine served at court, in the household of Henry VIII’s 6th and last queen, Katherine Parr. She was widowed in 1545 and lost her two sons – and heirs – by the Duke, Henry and Charles, to the sweating sickness, within hours of each other in 1551.

As duchess of Suffolk, Katherine was a stalwart of the Protestant learning and used her position to introduce Protestant clergy to Lincolnshire, even inviting Hugh Latimer to preach at Grimsthorpe Castle. It was she and Sir William Cecil who persuaded Katherine Parr to publish her book, The Lamentacion of a Sinner in 1547, demonstrating her continuing links with the court despite her first husband’s death.

Following the death of her sons by Suffolk, Katherine no longer had a financial interest in the Suffolk estates, which went to the heirs of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister. However, Katherine still had her own Willoughby estates to look after and it was in order to safeguard these that Katherine married her gentleman usher, Richard Bertie. The couple had a difficult time navigating the religious tensions of the age and even went into exile on the Continent during the reign of the Catholic Queen, Mary I. Following their return to England, on Elizabeth’s accession, Katherine resumed her position in Tudor society; her relations with the court, however, were strained by her tendency towards Puritan learning. She used her position in Lincolnshire and extensive patronage to help disseminate the Puritan teachings. The records of Katherine’s Lincolnshire household show that she employed Miles Coverdale – a prominent critic of the Elizabethan church – as tutor to her two children by Bertie; Susan and Peregrine.8 Unfortunately, Katherine died after a long illness, on 19th September 1580 and was buried in her native Lincolnshire, in Spilsby Church.

Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk by Hans Holbein the Younger

Katherine’s mother, Maria de Salinas, Lady Willoughby, had died in 1539 and had stayed loyal to her mistress, Katherine of Aragon, throughout her married life and widowhood. Indeed, when Katherine was reported to be dying at Kimbolton Castle, Maria applied for a license to visit her ailing mistress, but was refused by Sir Thomas Cromwell, the King’s chief minister at the time. Despite this setback, Maria set out from London to visit Katherine at the beginning of January 1536 and contrived to get herself admitted by Sir Edmund Bedingfield by claiming a fall from her horse meant she could travel no further. According to Sarah Morris and Nathalie Grueninger, Katherine and Maria spent hours talking in their native Castilian; the former queen died in Maria’s arms on 7th January 1536. Katherine of Aragon was buried in Peterborough Cathedral on 29th January, with Maria and her daughter, Katherine, attending the funeral.9

The composition of the Tudor court changed under Elizabeth I. The new queen valued loyalty and most positions went to members of her extended family; the Howards and Careys among them. Throughout the forty-five years of Elizabeth’s reign, only twenty-eight women were appointed to salaried positions in the privy Chamber. Positions in the Bedchamber, Privy Chamber and Presence Chamber were highly sought after and mainly given to ladies from the same families, who were assigned positions based on their social status. The senior positions were those of the Chief and Second Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, these were followed by the Ladies of the Bedchamber, the Ladies of the Privy Chamber and the Ladies of the Presence Chamber, in descending order. Unmarried young ladies were given positions as maids of honour and were supervised by the Mother of the Maids.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a great granddaughter of Elizabeth Woodville, had entered Princess Elizabeth’s household in 1539, possibly as a maid of honour but ostensibly to be raised alongside her cousin. She was only nine or ten years old at the time. Elizabeth Fitzgerald had been born in Ireland in about 1528 and was the second daughter of Gerald Fitzgerald, 9th Earl of Kildare. Her mother was Lady Elizabeth Grey, daughter of Sir Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset and only surviving son of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen. Elizabeth Fitzgerald must have been quite a beauty as Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, wrote a sonnet, From Tuscan cam my ladies worthi race in praise of her as his Fair Geraldine; Bewty of kind, her vertues from above; Happy ys he that may obtaine her love.10

In 1542 Elizabeth married her first husband, Sir Anthony Browne, but he died in 1548 and their two sons died in infancy. In 1552 she married again, this time to Edward Fiennes de Clinton, 9th Baron Clinton and Saye; the same Baron Clinton who had married Bessie Blount in 1535. Clinton had remarried in 1541, after Bessie’s death, to Ursula, daughter of William, 7th Baron Stourton; Ursula was a niece of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland during the reign of Edward VI. She died in 1551 and Edward married Elizabeth the following year. Sir Edward Fiennes de Clinton had led a very successful military career and in May 1550 he had been appointed a privy councillor and lord high admiral of England. He was made a knight of the garter in April 1551 and, later in the same year, was given the former Howard property of Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, which he made his principal residence. Clinton was an adept political survivor; after being involved in the plot to put Jane Grey on the throne he was imprisoned for a short while, but managed to win Queen Mary’s trust and was active in her military campaigns. With the accession of Elizabeth I, Clinton was appointed a privy councillor and his wife, Elizabeth Fiennes de Clinton, was appointed Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber ‘without wages’ (this indicated her high-born status, as salaried members were drawn from the lower ranks of the nobility).

Elizabeth Fitzgerald, painted by Steven van der Meulen

In 1572 Baron Clinton was rewarded for his service with the earldom of Lincoln. Elizabeth had practically been raised with the new queen since she was ten years old and was able to use her influence at court to benefit her family, affecting the restoration of the Fitzgeralds to their blood and lineage, which they had lost when Elizabeth was a child. Suits made to Elizabeth as Countess of Lincoln demonstrate that she was believed to have influence with the queen, who she served until 1585. Edward trusted his wife considerably, and made her executor of his will, bequeathing Semprigham to Elizabeth, and Tattershall to his eldest son, Henry (his son by Ursula). Edward, Earl of Lincoln, died in 1585 and just before his father’s death, his son Henry had written to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in an attempt to overturn his father’s will, accusing Elizabeth of attempting to deprive him of his inheritance, and of maligning him to the queen. However, Henry’s tactic failed and the will was confirmed in 1587. Elizabeth herself appears to have withdrawn from court following her husband’s death and when she died in March 1589 was laid to rest beside her husband in the Lincoln Chapel of St George’s Chapel Windsor.

The court and society were both in a state of change during Elizabeth’s reign. Local Lincolnshire lords, such as the Burghs of Gainsborough, were increasingly absentee landlords, preferring to stay in their southern properties closer to the royal court and leaving their estates to run themselves. The Burghs increasingly resided mainly at their residence in Surrey, Sterborough Castle. Lord Thomas de Burgh fell heavily into debt in service of the Queen and was in failing health when his wife, Lady Frances begged Queen Elizabeth that he be relieved of his position as Governor of the Brill in the Netherlands. Sir Robert Sydney is quoted as saying in November 1595 “God send lady… better success than my lady Borow [Burgh], whose desire was absolutely denied and the Queen took it very ill that in such time he could desire to be from this government.”11 When Lord Burgh died in 1597 he asked the Queen, in his will, to protect his wife and family, who were now living in poverty due to his having spent his patrimony in Elizabeth’s service. The Queen, however, devised a a way of avoiding the duty imposed upon her, by requesting that whoever was appointed to Lord Burgh’s now vacant post, as Governor of Brill, should give £500 a year to his widow for her maintenance.

Religious divisions were becoming more pronounced as Queen Elizabeth’s reign advanced, not only between Catholicism and Protestantism, but within Protestantism itself. With the encouragement of Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, ministers with Puritan leanings had been appointed to various churches throughout Lincolnshire. Several of the Pilgrim Fathers, who sailed to America on the Mayflower, would come from the region, including William Brewster and William Bradford. Families with strong ties to service at the Tudor court, such as the Burghs of Gainsborough, were moving south, closer to London and the person of the Queen, while other families were moving north. The Old Hall at Gainsborough was sold to William Hickman, a wealthy merchant who was the grandson of Sir William Locke, Henry VIII’s Royal Mercer, and the son of Lady Rose Hickman.

According to Lady Rose her father, Sir William Locke, a merchant with strong links to Antwerp, had smuggled ‘herectic’ Protestant writings from abroad for Queen Anne Boleyn herself. Lady Rose had long been familiar with the new learning and wrote in 1610: “My mother in the dayes of King Henry the 8th came to some light of the gospel by means of some English books sent privately to her by my father’s factor from beyond the sea: where upon she used to call me with my 2 sisters into her chamber to read to us out of these same good books very privately for feare of troble because these good books were then accepted hereticall…”12

Gainsborough Old Hall, home to the Burghs and then the Hickmans

The Hickman family had become known for their Puritan leanings; Puritans were those who wanted the ‘purer’ church as envisaged in the reign of Edward VI, rather than the compromise established by Elizabeth I. In 1593, in order to curb the activities of such religious dissidents, Elizabeth I’s government had approved the ‘Act Against Puritans’, whereby it became illegal to become a Puritan or encourage others to that tendency.  As a result, official appointments at court, for those known to have Puritan connections, suddenly dried up. Lady Rose’s son Walter, deeply entrenched in court circles and an old hand at brokering appointments for friends and family (usually with a financial incentive) discovered the implications of the new stance in 1594. The Cecil Papers show that Walter was refused when he applied for the position of Receiver of the Court of Wards for his brother William, despite offering an inducement of £1,000.13 The increasing hostility towards Puritans, and the possibility of escalating religious persecution, may well have persuaded William to move his family north; away from the prying eyes of the authorities and into Lincolnshire, a county with strong Puritan leanings thanks to the efforts of Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk.

In the early years of the Tudor dynasty, the counties of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire were still greatly associated with the old Yorkist dynasty. Henry VII made a progress through the counties only a year after his accession, keeping Easter 1486 at Lincoln and making a great show of regal pomp. His son, Henry VIII, also saw the need to show himself to his northern subjects. Following the defeat of the Pilgrimage of Grace and its forebear, the Lincolnshire Rising, Henry made a great progress through Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. He spent several days at Gainsborough Old Hall in August 1541, holding meetings of the Privy Council there on the 14th, 15th and 16th of August.  At Lincoln Henry and his young queen, Katherine Howard, made a great show of royal majesty; “The King and Queen came riding into their tent, which was pitched at the furthest end of the liberty of Lincoln, and there shifted their apparel, from green and crimson velvet respectively, to cloth of gold and silver…”14

Henry VIII’s children, however, did not venture north. Although Elizabeth I had intended to visit York at various points in her reign, she stayed within the Home Counties, venturing no further north than East Anglia. This may well have contributed to the changing nature of Tudor Society in Lincolnshire, where the influence from court circles appears to have waned as the years progressed.  Lincolnshire towns, such as Gainsborough and Boston, provided such families with the opportunities of, to some extent, religious freedom while also allowing them to continue with their merchant activities, due to navigable rivers that would take goods to the East coast ports and on to the Continent. Whereas those who saw the government as a hindrance to their personal liberties ventured away further from the centre of power; those who saw their futures in the person of the monarch, and whose duties at the Tudor Court were taking up more and more of their time, saw the need to move closer to London and the centre of power,



1 Neville Williams, The Life and Times of Henry VII; 2 Beverley A Murphy, Bastard Prince: Henry VIII’s Lost Son; 3 Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of Henry VIII, Volume 10, note 797; 4 Ibid; 5 Ibid; 6 Letters and Papers Volume 12, Part 2, note 1600; 7 Retha M. Warnicke,; 8 Susan Wabuda,; 9 Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger, In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII; 10 H. Howard [earl of Surrey], Poems, ed. E. Jones (1964); 11 Quoted by Sue Allan in A Guide to Gainsborough Old Hall; 12 Religion and politics in mid-Tudor England through the eyes of an English Protestant Woman: the Recollections of Rose Hickman; 13 Quoted by Sue Allan in A Guide to Gainsborough Old Hall; 14 Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of Henry VIII, 1541


Courtesy of Wikipedia except Grimsthorpe Castle and Gainsborough Old Hall, which are ©Sharon Bennett Connolly


John Leland Leland’s Itinerary in England and Wales 1535-43 edited by L Toulmin Smith (1906-10); Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII 1509-47 edited by JS Brewer, James Gairdner and RH Brodie, HMSO London 1862-1932; Privy Purse Expenses of King Henry VIII from November MDXIX to December MDXXXII edited by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas 1827; Religion and politics in mid-Tudor England through the eyes of an English Protestant Woman: the Recollections of Rose Hickman edited by Maria Dowling and Joy Shakespeare; Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 1980 & 1982;; A Guide to Gainsborough Old Hall by Sue Allan; The Life and Times of Henry VII by Neville Williams; Bastard Prince: Henry VIII’s Lost Son by Beverley A Murphy; In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII by Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger; H. Howard [earl of Surrey], Poems, ed. E. Jones (1964); The Earlier Tudors by J.D. Mackie; Religion and politics in mid-Tudor England through the eyes of an English Protestant Woman: the Recollections of Rose Hickman;; Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman; England Under the Tudors by Arthur D Innes; Henry VIII: King and Court by Alison Weir; In Bed with the Tudors by Amy Licence; Ladies-in-Waiting: Women who Served at the Tudor Court by Victoria Sylvia Evans; The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII: The Women’s Stories by Amy Licence.


My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US, and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon, and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, and Book Depository.


You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

© 2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part Two

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire

I think after the wonderful insights of last week’s Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One, we have all been eagerly awaiting Part Two of James Wright‘s brilliant article – I know I have!

So, without further ado. Here it is:

Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part Two

James Wright, Buildings Archaeologist, Triskele Heritage

In my last guest blog for History the Interesting Bits, we discussed five common myths about mediaeval buildings. These tall tales included stories of secret passages, yarns about the twist of spiral staircases relating to right-handed defenders and anecdotes that lepers were provided special windows in churches to watch the mass through.

As a buildings archaeologist I often meet folk who are eager to tell me all about their properties and their enthusiasm is genuinely infectious. I’m a great lover of historic architecture and believe that we can learn so much of value about a society by what it builds. However, romanticised and elaborated stories often grow up around certain mysterious features in mediaeval buildings – and it is surprising how often these get repeated all across the country in so many different structures.

In the second part of this series, I will discuss five more common misconceptions, attempt to explain how they come about and what the underlying truth behind each myth is. Hopefully this will help to give a broader and deeper understanding of historic buildings that will bring us that little bit closer to their former occupants.

  • Ship Timbers
Ship timbers, Tattershall

Perhaps the most tenacious and persistent mediaeval building myth is that lots of timber-framed buildings were constructed from salvaged ship timbers. There is even a house in Hertfordshire that is actually called Ships Timbers! Given that traditional British boozers have a reputation as hotbeds of rumour and intrigue, it will come as no shock that many pubs have the reused ship timbers story associated with them – often linked to a famous battle such as Trafalgar. Is there any truth in these tales?

On extremely rare occasions, it can be demonstrated that specific pieces of timber may have genuinely originated from a ship. I cannot stress just how rare this is and that documentary evidence is often lacking. My former colleague, Damian Goodburn, Historic Timber Specialist at MOLA, has pointed out that ship timbers rarely lend themselves to reuse in terrestrial buildings due to extreme weathering, their shaping designed for aquatic settings and the overall unworkability of seasoned oak. Instead, timbers from ship-breaking yards tend to be reused in marine or inter-tidal architecture, such as the Bermondsey foreshore of the River Thames in London. Alternatively, ship timbers may occasionally be found in the foundations of structures located very close to waterways, such as the three pieces recorded in the foundations of the Rose Playhouse, Bankside, London.

The vast majority of timber-framed buildings were constructed from newly felled trees and/or reused terrestrial structures such as barns, granaries and houses. The reuse of buildings is widely documented – for example the building accounts for Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire, refer to the removal of timber from nearby Revesby Abbey in 1434-5. Reused timber will often be placed in a different part of the new building to the original structure leaving rectangular holes, known as mortises, visible and it is probably this which gives us the origin of the romantic story of timbers salvaged from wrecked ships.

  • Arrow-sharpening Grooves
Arrow grooves, Lambley

Worn into the hard stonework of the interior of many a church porch can be found clusters of strange vertical grooves which visitors are commonly told were created by archers sharpening their arrows, such as those at Holy Trinity, Lambley, Nottinghamshire. Given Edward III’s law of 1363, that all able-bodied men aged between 16 and 60 must practice their archery on Sundays and holy days, plus the location of many archery butts close to the parish church, the arrow-sharpening story has become received wisdom wherever the grooves are found.

There is neither any documentary evidence to suggest that archers sharpened their arrows on the stones of church porches, neither would this be a practical solution to the problem of dulled arrowheads. As churchyards were consecrated ground, archery butts were located elsewhere in the manor, creating a laborious trek to the porch. Instead, the sixteenth century archery expert, Roger Ascham tells us that bowmen would sharpen their arrows using hand-held files and whetstones. Equally, the majority of the grooves are orientated vertically and are located relatively low-down in the porches which render them as impractical for drawing a metre long arrow shaft across. Finally, these grooves are often found on soft limestones entirely useless for honing an edge.

The swashbuckling tales of English victories at Crécy and Azincourt have led to nationalistic myths of an epic proportion. Not only have accounts of the battles become rather knotted, but the desire to connect local history to the heroic archers has led to a misreading of the evidence. Folk traditions from pre-modern Germany and France, collected in the nineteenth century by Charles Rau, refer to parishioners scraping powder from church stonework to use in rituals. The stone was seen as a powerful holy material which was ingested as cures for fever or impotence. It is likely that similar ritualistic practises associated with holy buildings were also once common in Britain and the grooves in church porches relates to this folk ritual.

  • Murder Holes
Murder holes, Berry Pomeroy, Devon

Look up whilst you are visiting castles and you will often see voids in the overhead masonry associated with the defence of the building. These can take the form of slots overhanging the walls, known as machicolations (for example at Berry Pomeroy, Devon), or holes in the gate passage, known as murder holes (such as those at Caernarfon, Gwynedd). The popular story is that they were built so that the defenders could pour boiling oil down upon attackers.

Although it is not a myth that these holes were created to potentially hurl items into the spaces below them, including projectiles, stones and caustic lime, their uses were even more complicated. They could act as safe observation points from which the wall foot or passageway could be seen. If fires were started, either accidentally or deliberately, during a siege the slots could also be used to douse the flames with cold water.

Boiling oil was rarely used – it was prohibitively expensive, not often available in large enough quantities to be effective, would have been difficult to heat (it has a boiling point at 2040C), problematic to transport around the parapets and could have been a fire risk in itself. There are a very small number of scattered references to the use of hot oil, including at the siege of Orléans in 1428. For the most part, castles were rarely laid siege to and murder holes were mostly left untested. In fact many of them were intended to be nothing more than symbols of architectural prestige: the machicolations at Tattershall would have directly overlooked the roofs of the castle’s Inner Ward – not the best place to drop offensive weapons or scalding materials!

  • Templar Graffiti
Templar graffiti, Worksop

Type “Templar graffiti” into a search engine and you will find a mind-boggling number of links to hundreds of castles and churches, from the dungeons of Warwick Castle to the porch of Worksop Priory, Nottinghamshire. The websites invariably refer to cross-shaped graffiti left behind by the enigmatic Order of the Knights Templar (founded 1199 and dissolved 1312) and their crusading brethren. The legend that he Templars harboured the Holy Grail is all-consuming and many believe that the location of the cup of Christ can be found by decoding intriguing symbols and carvings at sites such as Royston Cave, Hertfordshire.

One of the principle problems with these romanticised notions is that they have more akin to conspiracy theories and Dan Brown novels than to historical research. In particular, it can be demonstrated that the “dungeon” at Warwick Castle was actually the storage basement of Caesar’s Tower, built over 30 years after the Templars were dissolved. Similarly, the carvings at Royston Cave, have been identified, by archaeologist Matthew Champion, as dating to the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Again, this falls outside of the Templar period and the religious character of the carvings is entirely consistent with those in a wide variety of other sites of the period.

Ultimately, crosses are a very common discovery in mediaeval graffiti surveys. They may be related to devotional activities such as prayer, but, as large numbers – around 80% – are found in church porches (as at Worksop) it is also likely that they relate to more secular behaviour. In particular, there is good evidence for mediaeval porches being used as sheltered meeting rooms, places where manorial courts were held, locations for reading wills and a site for parish notices to be read or fixed. As such the graffiti crosses may have been left as contractual memorials akin to swearing on the Bible or signing a document.

  • Devil’s Door
Devil’s door, Warkworth

Many churches, such as St Lawrence, Warkworth, Northumberland, have their north aisle doors blocked up – a phenomena which has been increasingly referred to as the Devil’s Door. Tradition states that this door, nearest to the font, was left open during baptisms so that demons could escape from the new-born child upon command of the priest. The north side of the church was thought of as being connected with the devil and after the Reformation these doors were blocked up as they were considered to relate to superstitions incompatible with the Protestant faith.

Francis Young has written eloquently on the subject of baptismal folklore and suggests that the sacrament was never considered to be a true exorcism, thus we might not be expecting demons to come flying out of the north door. Furthermore, Nicholas Groves has pointed out that the part of the baptism when the devil was commanded to leave the body of the infant, actually took place outside of the south porch in the churchyard. Equally, the belief that the north side of the church was particularly feared also does not stand up. Many churches have their principle entrance to the north, including Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, they face the principle access route from the settlement. It is also the case that large numbers of churches retained both their north and south porches, as at Kelham, Nottinghamshire.

Although it is acknowledged that north aisle doors may have been left open during baptisms, this was never part of the established liturgy. However, a number of formal church processions, including that on Palm Sunday, required the north porch as an exit point prior to walking, clockwise, around the east end of the church and back in through the south porch. Following the Reformation, these processions no longer took place making the door and porch essentially redundant. Churchwardens eventually decommissioned many of them as an expensive maintenance liability.


I hope that you enjoyed this blog and that it will prove useful in trying to fully understand mediaeval buildings on your own visits. Should you wish for more information on this subject, please feel free to tweet me on @jpwarchaeology or email on

All images courtesy of James Wright.


I would like to say a HUGE THANK YOU to James Wright for taking the time to write two incredibly fascinating post. I owe you one, James.


My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.


You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly and James Wright

Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by buildings archaeologist James Wright, of Triskele Heritage, on Medieval Graffitti. It was a fascinating lecture and thoroughly enjoyable – if you ever get the chance to go and hear James talk, I highly recommend you do. Anyway, chatting to James afterwards we got on to the topic of the many myths surrounding medieval buildings and James very kindly agreed to write a blog post for me. It is, in fact, a rather large topic – especially after James’ Twitter followers got involved – and so has turned into 2 posts. Part Two will be along next week, but here’s Part One for your delectation.

Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One

James Wright, Buildings Archaeologist, Triskele Heritage

As a buildings archaeologist, I am very fortunate to have access to all manner of mediaeval structures, many of which are not open to the public. I feel a great affinity with these buildings, be they timber-framed houses, stunning parish churches or the castles of great lords, and sense a responsibility to let folk know about new discoveries using a wide range of media. There is simply no point doing archaeology unless you tell others what you have done!

Recently I met my friend, the author Sharon Bennett Connolly, after giving a talk on the mediaeval period. Whilst we were having a catch-up, the subject of popular myths about mediaeval buildings cropped up and Sharon asked if I would be interested in submitting a guest blog for this website.

During my visits to mediaeval buildings, the information relayed on websites, leaflets and guidebooks or by property owners, custodians and stewards is not always wholly precise. I want to use this blog to gently bust a few of the more common myths. There is rarely any malicious intent in such stories – they are usually the result of the misidentification of a structure by an early antiquarian, amateur or even professional historian. If something has been repeated enough times or put into print it becomes “real”. Once it becomes “received wisdom” the myth is widely taken as factual and repeated often.

So here are the first five of ten myths, associated with mediaeval buildings, and the (often more interesting) realities hiding behind them…

  • Secret Passages
Secret Passages, Ashby

Tales of underground secret passages are so common that almost every village and town have their own version. Usually the tunnel connects two rather contrasting, and faintly scandalous, locations such as the manor house and the nunnery or the priest’s house and the local pub! In my own home town of Stone, Staffordshire, there is a persistent rumour that a passageway linked the site of the twelfth century priory to Aston Hall.

The fact that the two buildings are over one and half miles apart, and that the intervening land is on the flood plain of the River Trent, never seemed to raise any scepticism when the locals of various pubs were discussing this! How would the presence of the passage be kept secret? Who paid for it? Why was it constructed? Where was the spoil put? How was it kept drained? The practicalities all seem rather insurmountable.

Although some sites do feature genuine tunnels, such as Strelley Hall in Nottinghamshire or Ashby Castle in Leicestershire, they tend to be both post-mediaeval in date and are relatively short in length. In both cases they offer access for goods and connect different buildings within a single complex. The vast majority of tunnel myths turn out to be simple drains when investigated. The origin of the story at Stone is probably related to the survival of a small section of a storage undercroft, from the priory, which is now the cellars of a much later house.

  • Spiral Staircases
Spiral Stair, Newark

Go and visit any castle in the land and you will inevitably find a guidebook, audio-tour, interpretation panel or tour guide stating that all spiral staircases twist clockwise to provide a swordsman’s advantage for the right-handed defenders, who were able to easily wield their weapons, whilst attackers would be at a disadvantage. I’ve spotted this being presented to visitors recently at both Arundel, Sussex and Colchester, Essex.

A brilliant survey of castle staircases, by Neil Guy of the Castle Studies Group, has demonstrated that, contrary to the myth, anti-clockwise spiral staircases were incredibly common. We can find them in the eleventh century at the Tower of London; twelfth century at Newark, Nottinghamshire; thirteenth century at Conwy, Gwynedd; fourteenth century at Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight and fifteenth century at Kirby Muxloe, Leicestershire. Many of these castles were built during periods of military activity such as the Norman Conquest or Edwardian invasion of Wales – yet they still feature anti-clockwise stairs.

Some castle gatehouses (for example, Tonbridge, Kent) feature two staircase turrets, one clockwise and one anti-clockwise. They seem to relate to a similar pattern of access in monastery and cathedral towers (such as St Alphage Tower, London) which may be “up” and “down” routes to avoid collisions and jams. Many castles, such as Richmond, North Yorkshire, even feature straight stair passages. Finally, sieges rarely ended with fighting in the interiors of castles, let alone on the staircases – if the enemy was on your stair the battle was probably already lost!

  • Burn Marks
Burn marks, Gainsborough Old Hall

Huge numbers of timber-framed buildings are littered with curious tear-shaped burn marks which are often over-looked by custodians and visitors alike. However, when attention is drawn to them, as in the kitchens at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire or on an upper floor at Tudor House, Southampton, Hampshire, they are usually interpreted as being scorch marks left by unattended candles, rushlights, tapers or lamps. Many buildings, such as Gainsborough Old Hall, Lincolnshire, are so riddled with burn marks that their occupants must have been so careless that it is astonishing they are still standing!

Instead, a great piece of experimental archaeology, undertaken by John Dean and Nick Hill and published by the Vernacular Architecture Group, showed that these marks were deliberately created. A tear-shaped burn mark is almost impossible to replicate by leaving a light unattended. They found that the only way to leave such a mark was to hold a taper at a 45 degree angle, a few millimetres away from the timber, for between 5 and 15 minutes. Many marks are also found in locations unsuitable for supporting lights – the backs of doors and window shutters – and few had associated evidence of how lights would have been supported.

Once it was realised that the marks were created deliberately, archaeologists mapped their locations and found that the vast majority were on timbers near doors, windows and chimneys. In the mediaeval period, these areas were widely believed to be vulnerable to malicious fires and invasion by evil spirits. Therefore many of the marks were possibly created as part of a tradition of magical house protection. By burning the timber a little bit it would drive away the threat of more significant damage. Equally, there may be other ritual purposes associated with burn marks that may be connected to prayer, devotion, healing or purification.

  • Leper Squints
Leper squints, Lewes

Many parish churches feature curious holes penetrating their walls which are sometimes identified as windows through which sufferers of leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease) could observe services. Considered to be contagious and deformed, lepers were literally suffering purgatory on earth, and were therefore discouraged from mixing with the congregation.

Although lepers were considered to be outcasts, they were regularly provided for in charitable hospitals (such as St Nicholas, Harbledown, Kent) which were located on the edge of towns or at crossroads.  Ultimately, they were not encouraged to enter regular communities and the provision of squints at parish churches is unlikely.

Location and form is key here. A number features identified as leper squints (for example at St Cuthbert’s, Aldingham, Cumbria) are very small square holes, on the exterior of the church, capped by a thin lintel stone. These are relict putlog holes – left behind by builders whose mediaeval timber scaffolding was physically bonded into the masonry of the wall during construction. At the end of the work, carpenters would saw off the timber flush with the wall and over time the wood would rot away to leave a hole. Alternatively, small, low down windows like the one at St Leonard’s, Wollaton, Nottinghamshire (which usually have evidence for shutters) were probably built to allow ventilation rather than cater to lepers.

Holes found internally, such as that at St Thomas Becket, Lewes, East Sussex, are usually at an oblique angle through the wall separating the aisle from the chancel. These are formally designed, sometimes elaborately decorated, hagioscopes. This feature enabled priests officiating at side aisle altars to be able to simultaneously engage with the main celebrant, at the high altar in the chancel, during the Elevation of the Host – indicating that the ritual bread was now the body of Christ.

  • Mason’s Marks
Masons marks, Warkworth Castle

Stone buildings were constructed by masons – often considered to be a secretive bunch given to various arcane practises. One tradition states that masons had their own individual symbol (such as the illustrated example from Warkworth Castle, Northumberland) which they would chisel onto a piece of stone, once it was finished, so that they could be paid for it. By finding these marks we may be able to trace the career of a mason as he travelled from site to site.

Although there are definitely marks on the walls of mediaeval buildings which can be attributed to stonemasons, the reasons for their presence has become a little scrambled. Firstly, masons were very rarely paid per stone (i.e. piecework). Mediaeval building accounts (such as those for Caister Castle, Norfolk) indicate that masons were paid weekly wages. Secondly, the simplicity of masons marks means that they get widely repeated. Identical examples to those recorded in the early sixteenth century Hospital of the Savoy, London, were also found in fourteenth century Strasbourg Cathedral, France; seventeenth century Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire and nineteenth century Canton Viaduct, America.

The marks left behind by masons were not necessarily specific to an individual. There was no register of such things and it is likely that they were assigned to either individuals or entire work-gangs just for the lifespan of the building project. When they moved on to a new site, new marks were distributed. On a particular project the marks would be used by foremen to account for productivity, ensuring that the required number of stones were cut during set time periods.


I hope that you enjoyed this blog and that it will prove useful in trying to fully understand mediaeval buildings on your own visits. Part two of this series will discuss subjects including crusader graffiti and ship’s timbers in mediaeval buildings.

Should you wish for more information on this subject, please feel free to tweet me on @jpwarchaeology or email on

I have to extend a huge ‘thank you‘ to James for such a fabulous article. Can’t wait for Part Two!


My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.


You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly