Guide to Britain's Feudal Era: when were the Middle Ages and best medieval sites to visit
The Feudal Era was one of the most transformative periods in British history – our guide looks at effect the turbulent age of the Normans had on the medieval countryside and the best historic sites to visit today
The Middle Ages, also known as Medieval times or the Feudal Age had a rural and social landscape very different to the one we know today.
When were the Middle Ages?
William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 signalled the start of the Middle Ages, one of the most transformative periods in our history.
- Population doubled from two million in the late 11th century to four million in the early 14th century.
- 80–90% of the population was rural.
- Killing up to half of the population, the Black Death is the largest disaster in European history.
- The Magna Carta of 1215 presaged the foundation of modern Western democracy.
- The 1381 Peasants’ Revolt called for the abolition of serfdom, and threatened the existing social structure and the country’s ruling elite.
What did Britain's landscape look like?
A landscape of castles:
Conquering an overwhelmingly rural country, William I secured a hold on his newly won territory by rewarding large areas of land to the Norman lords who had fought alongside him, and demanded they build strongholds. Castles sprung up like mushrooms throughout the countryside.
At first, they were simple, and often hastily constructed, motte and bailey structures: a wooden keep on an earthen mound called a motte and a courtyard, or bailey, below, surrounded by a ditch and fence. A well-preserved example is the 12th- or early 13th-century Castle Hill near Burton in Lonsdale.
As technology advanced and attackers grew more sophisticated, elaborate stone citadels emerged. Hever Castle’s colossal defences and three-storey gatehouse dating from c1270 is a magnificent example. The medieval castle provided protection from attackers and a base for its garrison to dominate the surrounding countryside. It was the administrative, economic and legal centre of local control.
A landscape of manors and villages:
The medieval landscape would have looked very different from today. Thick forest containing dangerous wild animals, such as wolves and boars, covered much of the country.
In clearings throughout the forest were the ‘manors’: the centre of medieval rural life. These lands were held by noble lords or even a church official, such as a bishop or abbess, who ruled over their use and the people on them. Manors varied greatly in size. Some comprised several villages, and others were very small. Most had a church. The lord’s large manor house may have been next to the small peasant houses or he may have lived in a castle separate from the village. As they were made from stone, manor houses are often the only surviving medieval building in British villages, such as
the example at Burton Agnes, Yorkshire (see above image).
The classic medieval village layout featured peasant dwellings clumped together along a central street, with a communal system of three fields divided into strips stretching out beyond. England was dependent almost entirely on mixed farming, so fields were farmed in either a two- or three-course rotation, with one year being fallow to allow the land to recover. Still, productivity was poor and crop yields were often low. Famine was a very real danger.
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The ecclesiastical hand of lordship also remains visible in the landscape through the innumerable monasteries, many of which have their origins in this period. Reaching nearly every aspect of life, from baptism to death, the Church was the most powerful medieval institution. Monasteries were also great landowners, endowed with vast estates at their foundation. The lands generated income through arable farming, rent and other services, paid in money and kind. This led to the accumulation of further landholdings, which in turn yielded substantial agricultural estates that flourished over 300 years.
By their numerical peak in the mid 14th-century, monasteries were the wealthiest landowners in England, more so than any medieval king. In the 12th and 13th centuries, outlying monastic lands were also enclosed to create farmsteads — known as granges — which provided food and raw materials for the parent house. Staffed by lay brothers, they offered employment and nourishment for local landowners and richer peasantry. The impressive stone-aisled tithe barn at Coxwell, Oxfordshire, is the sole surviving part of the once-thriving 13th-century monastic grange of Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire.
Feudalism in medieval times:
The Middle Ages witnessed the emergence of a social system called feudalism. In the medieval era, everyone from the king to the poorest peasant had certain rights and responsibilities. This hierarchical system was based on land ownership in return for loyalty or services to the lord or crown. At the bottom of the feudal pyramid were landless serfs (who were ‘unfree’ and tied to the land): peasant communities who shaped the farming landscape. But not all peasants were serfs. Many were freemen — and women — who owned their own land, but owed rent to greater landowners. The noble lords (or tenants-in-chief) at the top owed military service to the king.
The Black Death:
In the mid-1300s everything changed. The devastating bubonic plague known as the Black Death hit Europe. Once-thriving villages declined in size or were abandoned entirely. The atmospheric remains of the isolated village on the edges of Dartmoor known as Hound Tor is one example. The settlement’s regular layout is still discernible: at least four 13th-century longhouses and a barn are visible as earthworks on a grassy hollow.
By the 1350s, the Black Death had loosened its grip. But with almost half the population wiped out, the huge death toll dramatically impacted the social and economic position of rural communities. With fewer people now available to work the land, peasants demanded higher wages, while tenant farmers commanded lower rents. Many advanced to higher social positions.
The Peasant's Revolt, an end of an era:
In 1381, things came to a head. Centuries of feudal serfdom and a newly altered social system led to widespread resentment from downtrodden peasants. The first large-scale uprising in English history, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381,
was prompted by a poll tax levied to fund war against France. Although the rebellion was defeated by Richard II’s forces, it was another instigator of change in medieval England. The feudal system broke down, its outdated attitudes slowly eradicated. By around 1500, there were no more serfs: all labourers were free. Rural life would never be the same again.
Best Medieval places to visit:
1. Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire
The wealthiest monastery in England until its dissolution, Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132 by 13 monks from St Mary’s Abbey, York. Its sprawling ruins lie within the beautiful 18th-century landscape of Studley Royal Park.
£16.50. Open daily. Ripon, HG4 3DY. 01765 608888
2. Tower of London
Overlooking the Thames, this imposing stronghold is Europe’s oldest palace, fortress and prison. Founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, at its heart is the distinctive White Tower keep, so named after the whitewashing it received in the 13th century.
£22.70. Open daily. London, EC3N 4AB
3. Battle Abbey, East Sussex
Dedicated to St Martin, the abbey stands where Harold of Wessex died at the Battle of Hastings. Founded by William the Conqueror as penance for the bloodshed and memorial to his victory, it symbolises the Norman invasion that changed England forever.
£11.80. Open daily. Battle, TN33 0AD. 01424 775705
4. Llanthony Prior, Monmouthshire
Set in the dramatic Ewyas Valley, Llanthony was founded in 1100 by Augustinian monks but rebuilt in the 13th century, the priory flourished to become one of the greatest medieval buildings in Wales.
Free. Open daily. Abergavenny, NP7 7NN. 0300 025 6000
5. Canterbury Cathedral, Kent
Described as ‘England in stone’, the cathedral is a stunning mix of Romanesque and Perpendicular Gothic. The seat of the spiritual head of the Church of England for 500 years, it is also the site of Archbishop Thomas Becket’s brutal murder in 1170.
£12.50. Open daily. Canterbury, CT1 2EH. 01227 762862
6. St Andrews Castle, Fife
Battered by war and tides over its 450-year history, the ruins have been a bishop’s palace, fortress and prison. Visitors included James I and James III, while key moments leading to the Scottish Reformation played out in its tunnels and ‘bottle dungeon’.
£6. Open daily. St Andrews, KY16 9AR. 01334 477196
7. Beaumaris Castle, Anglesey
A technical masterpiece of medieval military architecture, Edward I ordered the largest and final link in his ‘iron ring’ of defensive constructions across North Wales to be built in 1295. With the coffers empty after three years, the castle was never completed.
£6. Open daily. Beaumaris, LL58 8AP. 01248 810361
8. Dover Castle, Kent
The military ‘Key to England’, Dover sits atop the White Cliffs, guarding the gateway to the realm. This iconic English fortress was built by Henry II in the 1180s, both to defend the coast and preserve the King’s reputation following Archbishop Becket’s assassination.
£20. Open daily. Dover, CT16 1HU. 01304 211067
9. Warwick Castle, Warwickshire
On the banks of the River Avon, this towering stronghold was founded by William I in 1068. From the Hundred Years’ War to the War of the Roses, it played a pivotal role in some of Britain’s most turbulent periods, witnessing sieges and battles.
£27. Open daily. Warwick, CV34 6AH. 08712 652000
10. Hound Tor, Devon
Eerily atmospheric remains of an abandoned medieval village on the eastern edge of Dartmoor. The village seems to have been deserted in the late 14th century, due to a combination of worsening weather conditions and the effects of the Black Death.
Free. Open daily. Dartmoor, TQ13 9XG