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The title of ‘Lord’ was more of an umbrella term for a number of different classes of nobleman during the Middle Ages. Top of the roster was the king. Then you had dukes, counts, barons, and lastly, knights.
To gain an insight into the role and lives of the lords of the Middles Ages we’ll first take a brief look at the reign of King Richard II, otherwise known as Richard the Tyrant. From there we’ll turn our focus to the world of barons, the individuals who held almost unlimited power over the land granted to them by the king.
King Richard II
A megalomaniac. The first monarch to commission a portrait of himself. A man who regarded himself as a saint. A tyrant who ruled in his own interest. An all-round nutter. But is that true?
Richard II was crowned in 1367 at the age of just 10 and reigned until 1400. Four years into his rule he had to deal with a peasant revolt, which I discussed a few weeks ago. In classic tyrannical fashion, he pardoned all of the peasants involved because of his ‘abhorrence for the shedding of civil blood.’
After this, he took a rather unconscionable step in seeking to end the expensive war with France which was crippling England’s taxpayers, i.e. the poor. And this was the thing that pissed off his subjects the most. Well, the subjects which held power: the barons. They hated everything about him, from his wife to his policy of peace with France.
See, war was the main way the barons made money. As we’ll learn in more detail below, the barons had total control over the levels of taxation they could set for those residing on their land. And war meant higher taxes, an excuse to plunder the limited wealth of the peasants they were charged to look after.
In response, a handful of barons overthrew Richard, but it lasted mere days until he regained power. Instead of executing his rebellious barons, he exiled them, one of whom was Henry IV. Years later Henry returned from exile, threw Richard into gaol, and seized the throne for himself.
Henry ordered the chroniclers—the monks and writers who recorded the histories of the time—to alter their texts to defame Richard. It sounds like something from Orwell’s 1984.
So the fact that Richard was a tyrant was a stupendous lie and shows the power and influence the barons had over the king that gave them their wealth.
So who were these powerful, rebellious barons?
The king owned all the land in the country. He did not sell it off, rather leased it. And the individuals who he leased it to were his barons. Most barons started off in a lowly role, such as knights, political advisers, or even ordinary individuals.
These were the people the King felt he could trust to maintain his land, look after those living on it, supply fighting men in times of war, and pay taxes and dues to the exchequer (the royal bank). These parcels of land were known as fiefs, and the barons held complete dominion and jurisdiction over them.
Barons lived in manors—grandiose abodes at the heart of their estate. Living on the land with them were peasants and knights who the barons gave up some of their land to. Barons made their coin from the produce of the land, court fines, but mainly from taxes.
Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire, one of the best preserved medieval manor houses in England
The baron acted as arbiter in disputes between peasants and others residing on their land, though as we saw in my article on peasants, it was they who tended to carry out most of these administrative affairs which the barons deemed boring.
It was the role of the baron to monitor harvests and supplies, manage finances such as taxes, rents, and dues. If he was pretty shite at doing any of this, there was a chance the king could confiscate his land. But as we saw above with Richard II, it wasn’t so easy for the king to exert his influence over these barons who enjoyed almost unlimited power over their fiefs.
With coin flowing and coffers swelling, barons began to spend more on artistic pursuits, such as music, paintings, and literature. They sought more types of entertainment too, hiring jesters, minstrels, acrobats, actors, and dancers.
With such wealth, food was of no issue to the baron. A baron was always served before everyone else. Their diets were rich in meat with all the hunting and slaying they were doing. They ate vegetables too, mostly peas, beans, and onions, and enjoyed top-quality bread. They drank ale made of hops and mead made from fermented honey and enjoyed wines imported from southern Europe where grapes grew.
The way a baron ate varied depending on their wealth. Rich barons ate off plates and bowls of pewter, whereas poorer barons used wooden plates and bowls, or even day-old bread. Forks did not exist during the Middle Ages, though knives and spoons did. Most people ate with their fingers and washed their hands in something known as a finger bowl.
What did barons wear? The best money could buy, obviously. Velvets, furs, and silks of scarlet and purple, with gold embroidery. The law even reserved certain fabrics and colours for the nobility, which came about after peasants began to dress in more colourful and fashionable ways. This occurred after the Black Death when demand for workers soared, empowering the peasants to negotiate better rates of pay with barons who were desperate for people to work the land.
As with lords and ladies in the UK today, the title of baron was a hereditary one. The children of barons were educated by tutors in various languages, literature, history, law, and outdoor pursuits like horse riding, hunting, and hawking.
So this was the life of a baron in a nutshell. They enjoyed unlimited power over their fiefs and those that resided within it, and their influence even extended over their king.
I hope this has given you something of a basic insight into their role during the Middle Ages and perhaps sparked a few ideas you can use in your own fantastical tales!
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