Originally posted 4th May 2023

Coronation day on 6th May consisted of a huge number of events and moments, many of which date back centuries, well into the middle ages. The consistent centrepiece is the moment when the king is anointed with holy oil. This was the key moment possibly dating back to the first recorded coronation in what would become the UK: that of Aedan mac Gabrain as king of Dal Riata (in modern Scotland) in 574 and the oldest surviving written ritual for the coronation of a king dates to the 700s specifically includes anointing with oil.

Even in the high middle ages, in the 1100s, the succession wasn’t necessarily a matter of the crown passing from (usually) father to (usually) son: “the king is dead, long live the king”. This meant that if a potential heir could be crowned and anointed he was the divinely-ordained king regardless of whether he was the son or even the chosen heir of the previous king: Henry I bypassed the claim of his brother Robert and Stephen bypassed the claim of his cousin Matilda. What was more, regardless of the king’s personal qualities or competence, until the deposition of Edward II he was considered irrevocably the king once he had been anointed.

The oil is contained in a gold jar known as the Ampulla, shaped as an eagle with outspread wings. The one that is used today dates from 1661, but is based on an earlier, smaller version that was in turn based on a legend first recorded in 1318 which claimed that the Virgin Mary had appeared to Archbishop - and later saint - Thomas Becket and given him a container of holy oil to be used for the anointing of a future king. The silver-gilt spoon that goes with it is the only piece of the royal regalia to survive from the 1100s; it may have been made for Henry II or Richard I.

Originally posted 11th May 2023

When discussing social status in the middle ages, it’s common to simply divide society into the three estates: lords and knights, clergy, and peasants. However, not only were some of the divisions between those classes fuzzy, but within those groups there were a significant number of divisions which don’t necessarily map neatly onto current social expectations. For example, the difference between a free and unfree (also known as a serf or villein) peasant does not map to our current expectations of the difference between a free person and an enslaved person; it was a complex combination of personal status and land tenure and serfs could be relatively influential and wealthy.

There was a clear theoretical difference between land held by villein tenure and land held by free tenure, based around the obligations due from the tenant and how free he (usually, though land could also be held by women, for example widows) was to deal with the land. Free land could be inherited and purchased, but villein land theoretically could not be given, sold, or inherited but remained the lord’s property and held at his will; he could theoretically reclaim it and the stock on it at any time and throw the tenants off. In practice, many villein tenancies were phrased as being for the immediate tenant “and his heirs” and customary law played a major role in determining how the relationship between a serf and his lord worked. The main distinctive characteristics - recognised both today and at the time - are whether the tenant had to perform weekly labour duties and whether he had to pay a fee known as merchet when his daughter got married.

Personal status and the difference between a freeman and a serf was a slightly separate category from land tenure; a free man could hold land with villein tenure without his status changing, though serfs were not supposed to be able to hold ‘free’ land. Theoretically, children inherited the status of their fathers. Mixed marriages were common and a serf woman who married a free man was counted as free for the duration of the marriage, returning to her previous status if she was widowed. Illegitimate children (even where the father’s identity was known) inherited their mother’s status until the 1300s, after which they were always free. This gave rise to the increased collection of a fine called “childwite” from serf women who had children out of wedlock, since the lord lost their services as serfs.

Although serfs were subject to a wide variety of controls and obligations and were tied to the land, they were not the lord’s personal property. Furthermore, serfs could be wealthy and influential members of the community; when the Bishop of Ely carried out a survey of his manors in the mid 1200s, the majority of the jurors who gave evidence about landholding and obligations in the villages are listed as holding land with villein tenure and in several cases the obligations on their land mention attending events such as harvest with multiple men, suggesting that they either had tenants of their own or they could afford to hire farmhands. Villein landholders were also often liable to perform the trusted office of reeve for a year at a time.

Villeinage and serfdom faded out of existence in the 1300s and 1400s due to economic and societal changes such as difficulty in finding farm tenants after the Black Death and difficulty in collecting labour dues. While there were still a few serfs in the 1500s, by 1500 most serf families had achieved at least de facto freedom.

Originally posted 18th May 2023

For most of our period, the most prominent female figure in Europe was the Virgin Mary. As early as the 200s, she was viewed as being able to intercede with God in favour of humanity, with an increasing insistence on her virginity after she had given birth to Jesus (before which the Bible is explicit that she was a virgin). By the 400s, stories of her death involving her body and soul being taken to heaven were circulating, some claiming that she ascended while still alive and others that she died and went to heaven and then her body was also taken away to heaven. The latter was adopted into Anglo-Saxon belief, along with the general view that Mary was especially holy and someone who should be especially imitated. By the time of the Norman Conquest Mary had six feasts in the church calendar: more than any other saint.

The first images of Mary as a queen entered Western iconography in the 1100s, having been present in Eastern Christianity for several centuries. However, she had been cited as a role model for queens even in the 1000s. As queen of Heaven, she was identified with queens on earth, interceding with God as a queen interceded with a king. Some queens explicitly identified themselves with Mary. For example, at the beginning of the 1000s Queen Emma commissioned The Encomium of Queen Emma: an account of her role in the reign of her husband Cnut. In it, she was shown enthroned in a similar way to images of Mary as queen. Another queen whose image may have been affected by the idea of Mary as a queen is the chess queen; some poems compared the battle between God and the Devil to a game of chess with Mary as the white queen.

The cult of Mary may also have affected views of women lower down the social ladder; the secular equivalent was the cult of the lady, which was a major aspect of chivalry, and far more nunneries than monasteries had their cloisters built on the north side of their churches because traditionally Mary stood on Jesus’ right as he was crucified: the north side of a cross-shaped church with the head to the east.

Originally posted 25th May 2023

During the early Anglo-Saxon period the Bourn Valley was on the border between the kingdom of Mercia in the centre of modern England and the kingdom of East Anglia, possibly as part of a semi-independent buffer area between them. What is now Cambridgeshire was absorbed into Mercia in the late 600s and the Bourn Valley appears to have become a single estate mostly used for pasture. Large estates like this were often owned by the local king and portions were granted out to monasteries and the local aristocracy. This administrative change - and the need for farmland to serve a single central authority - led to changes in the way land was farmed across most of central and southern England, moving from small farmsteads and hamlets with collections of fields around them to larger villages with (usually) two or three large, communal fields.

The Bourn Valley is unusual because by the time of the Domesday book it appeared to retain elements of Anglo-Saxon landholding and social status that had vanished in other parts of the country. This does not seem to be due to any ethnic difference between the Bourn Valley and other parts of Mercia or East Anglia, since they appear to all share a common culture and the local people named themselves after features in the land - for example, Grantasaete after the river Granta (now called the Cam). However, the Bourn Valley had a more concentrated population than almost anywhere else in the country of a rank of peasant known as “sokemen” who were not subject to the court of any higher manorial lord. Their high number suggests that the landscape was also unusual, consisting of many small farms sharing communal resources such as grazing.

The Domesday Book records specific services rendered by men in the Bourn Valley to the king, most notably escort duties and carrying goods. While not unique to the Bourn Valley, a greater proportion of the land in the Bourn Valley was associated with these duties than almost anywhere in Cambridgeshire; the only place with more is Wetherley Hundred, which overlaps with it. This suggests that the Bourn Valley may have had a greater proportion of land held with a special tenure known as warland; such land was associated with the community rather than an individual and the peasants of that community had more autonomy than peasants living under systems, especially since warland had a strong connection to the king. The people of the Bourn Valley may have retained their unusual administrative structure for longer to hold onto their shared rights in non-arable land and association with the ancient royal estate that may once have occupied the valley.

In fact, land tenure and layout in the Bourn Valley was so conservative that Broadway, the road leading to Alms Hill and Manor Farm, still follows the line of an ancient field alignment that may date back to the Iron Age and the route would have been recogniseable to the sokemen of the 1000s.