Tag Archives: Normans

Law and Order in the Middle Ages

If a person committed a crime, they were punished at the Manor Court by their lord or at the Shire Moot by the Sheriff. The Chief Forester could also punish them at a Forest Court such as Edwinstowe or a Forest Eyre such as Nottingham.

Many of those lacking the money and influence to ensure a fair trial hearing in the courts failed to appear before the judges, and became outlaws like Robin Hood.

There were still some Saxon customs in use after the Norman Conquest. If someone was accused of a crime, they might suffer Ordeal by Combat, Ordeal by Fire or Ordeal by Water.

Ordeal by Combat meant that a noble had to fight the person that accused them. Both were given special axes and shields and would fight until one of them shouted “Craven“. The one who lost was put to death.
Ordeal by Fire involved carrying a piece of red-hot iron for three paces. the person’s hand was then bound up and if when this was undone three days later there were no blisters, they were innocent. If they had blisters they were punished or killed.

Ordeal by Water meant that they were tied up and thrown in the river. If they stayed under the water for several minutes, they were innocent. If they floated, they were guilty of the crime.

When Henry II came to power, he made new laws and stopped these cruel ways of trial. He ordered Trial by Jury. This meant that twelve good people could swear that they knew about the person who was accused of a crime. People sometimes bribed others to say things that were not true.

Law in the Town

The Mayor and the Alderman kept Law and order in the towns. They paid 1/4d. a day to the Common Sergeant and the Watchman to do the work for them.

When the Normans conquered England they introduced ‘curfew’ (cover fire) to make the Saxon locals go to bed early. During curfew, no one was allowed out on to the streets, or the watchman would arrest them. Curfew was at eight o’clock in the winter and nine o’clock in the summer.

Forest Law

Hunting Venison.

Hunting Venison.

The Chief Forester enforced all of the Forest Laws and was responsible for each of the royal forests, including Sherwood Forest. He was represented by Foresters , who looked after the forest and Verderers (wardens) who made sure that Forest Law was not broken.

The Forest Laws were designed to protect both hunting animals and woodland from all but the king and his followers. Offences against ‘vert’ included cutting down saplings, branches and especially, of course, full-grown trees. Offences against “venison” included the hunting of red, fallow and roe deer, but also of wild boar. It was forbidden for anyone to carry bows and arrows in the royal forests and if a forest beast were found dead, an inquest was held.


There were many strange punishments at this time. If someone stole they would be put in the pillory (by standing on the platform with their head and hands through the holes) or in the stocks (with their feet locked through the holes).

A woman who nagged her husband was called a ‘scold’. She was tied to a chair and dipped in the pond. This chair was called the “ducking stool”. She might also have to wear a scold’s bridle, which had a piece of iron to go in the mouth to keep her tongue down. In Nottingham these punishments took place in the Market Square, where many people could laugh at those in the pillory and stocks. The dunking stool was kept in Cook Stool Row, which is now called Pillory.

A baker who made poor bread would be dragged on a sledge, with a loaf tied to his neck. If a fishmonger sold bad fish, he would be taken around the town with stinking fish hanging from his neck. A bad priest would have to ride through the streets sitting facing his horse’s tail and wearing a paper crown.

The courts also imposed some savage punishments meaning that the threat of prosecution acted as a powerful deterrent. People who cut firewood from the royal forests would be whipped or fined. Those who murdered or killed a royal deer may have their ears or hands cut off, or worse still, hanged in public for everyone to see. Nobles could choose to be beheaded instead of being hung.

Artwork in the Middle Ages

It was not only churches that were built in the Middle Ages, but castles as well and the barons and feudal lords to whom the castles belonged occasionally employed artists. It is easy to forget such works as castles were often destroyed when churches were spared. Nottingham Castle for example, was burnt to the ground in 1831 and many of the contents of the were either destroyed or looted. Religious art was treated with greater respect and looked after more carefully than those used to decorate residences such as the Royal Castle of Nottingham.

One of the greatest examples of eleventh century art that still exists (because it was preserved in a church) is the Bayeux Tapestry. It depicts the campaign and victory of the Norman Conquest. In the section of the Tapestry below, the inscription clearly tells of how Harold swears his oath to William and how he returns to England. William is on his thrown watching Harold laying his hand on the sacred to swear allegiance. It was this oath which served William as pretext for his claims on England.

The Bayeux Tapestry c.1080

The Bayeux Tapestry, c.1080

Practice at the archery butts was an important activity in England during the Middle Ages. The scene below is from the Luttrell Psalter of about 1340. Practice or competition at the butts was an occasion, as with Robin Hood, for showing off, and the figure proudly demonstrating the garland is hooded. Were it from the eleventh or twelfth century, one might be tempted to identify the hooded figure who has just planted the arrow in the very centre of the bull, as Robin Hood himself.

Practice at the Butts c.1340

Practice at the Butts, c.1340

Parish Churches in the Middle Ages

The parish churches of England and Wales are an important contribution to the great Western heritage of Romanesque and Gothic art. The Norman Conquest brought order into the science of building, imposing a methodical style, which the building enthusiasm of the twelfth century was to engineer solidly and impressively throughout the country.

St Mary's Church, Edwinstowe.

St Mary’s Church, Edwinstowe. Courtesy: Jonathan Bishop Limited.

In 1175 Henry II as one of his many acts of penance for the murder of Thomas a Becket ordered the building of Edwinstowe Parish Church. Edwinstowe was made with many of the chief characteristics of a Norman church, the walls being 1m thick, thick oak beams (probably from Sherwood Forest) and flat buttresses, which served no more than an ornamental purpose.

Parish churches like the one at Edwinstowe played an important role in the local defence and social development of a medieval village. The parish itself may be defined as the community of the area, organised for Church purposes and recognised as its communal and spiritual centre. Its elements are the building, the people and the priest’s office. The parish’s financial basis was a system of “tithes”, which was a tax of one tenth of the parish’s produce, whether in earnings or from the congregations.

In return for a gift of land Newstead Abbey provided two chantry priests to look after the church. Their duties were to celebrate divine office daily, to help the parish priest and probably to teach reading and writing to the village boys.

Leprosy in the Middle Ages

In Anglo-Norman England there were people known as lepers who had a terrible disease called leprosy. Leprosy is caused by a microbe called Mycobacterium Leprae, which was brought back from the Crusades.

Leprosy damages the nerves under the skin and can lead to loss of feeling in hands, feet and eyes. People who have leprosy often cannot feel pain and so injuries can happen which go untreated, which then leads to disability.

Lepers were not allowed to live in the towns. Food was left for them outside the town walls and kind people gave money to build special houses for them to live in. Lepers carried a bell to warn passers-by and cried out “Unclean, Unclean“.

Today there are about one million cases of active leprosy but up to four million people who are suffering physical or social problems due to the disease and there are still one new case of leprosy every minute.

Organisations like the Leprosy Mission bring healing and restoration to some 200,000 people affected by leprosy in over thirty countries. The Mission works both directly, through its own hospitals and in partnership with churches, voluntary agencies, patient organisations, governments and international organisations to meet the total needs of people affected by leprosy.

Trade in the Middle Ages

Before there were shops, people depended on the markets for their day-to-day supplies. In Nottingham, these were held in the Old Market Square on Mondays and Thursdays, the important markets were held on Saturdays. This place was probably chosen as a market because of its location between the Saxon settlement around St. Mary’s Church and the Norman borough around the castle.


Women producing garments

Women producing garments

There were shops in Nottingham in the Middle Ages however, but they were not large buildings with glass windows. When a person had things to sell (such as butter, eggs, apples, bundles of herbs or whatever happened to be in season), they would put them on a stall in the front of his downstairs room and went on working their trade.

Shopkeepers nearly always sold the goods that they made themselves, and the person who made one kind of thing lived in the same street. In Nottingham there are streets called Swine (Pig) Grene, Fisher Gate, Pilcher (makers of garments) Gate and Bridlesmith Gate. They hung their trade outside their shop (a pig, a fish or a horseshoe for example). Names were not written over the shops as few people could read.


Nottingham also had a number of great fairs, the most famous being the Goose Fair, which dates from 1284 and is still being held today. Traders from across the country and overseas came to bring goods not made or grown locally, such as livestock, cheeses, spices and cloth. Such a fair would last for sixteen days with an element of merrymaking in the form of plays and games.