A medieval nobleperson needed employees to run their manor. Who were these people and what jobs did they do? A look at the household of Lady Alice de Bryene helps reveal some of these roles.
Alice de Bryene (c.1360-1435) was an English noblewoman and the daughter of a knight. Through inheritance, marriage and good management, she would be able to build landholdings that exceeded 6,000 acres in size. While most were in East Anglia, they also included several farms in western England plus properties in the City of London. It would bring an income of hundreds of pounds each year, making her very wealthy but not one of the highest classes in medieval English society.
After her husband died in 1386, Alice lived mostly at a manor in Acton, a village in Suffolk. From here, she would manage her properties and household for the next 49 years. Several documents about this management have survived, including a Household Book that details many expenses from September 28th, 1412 to the same day next year. They offer a lot of insights into the people who worked at the medieval manor.
The most important employee on the medieval manor was the Steward. Their job was to oversee other workers and, more importantly, account for all the expenses. He was the person who kept the Household Book and made daily recordings in it.
Alice would see many visitors coming to Acton, including those on business or other nobles coming for social reasons. They had to be fed and in some cases would stay the night. In addition, there were all the servants and other workers who needed to be fed. This resulted in 16,500 meals that were served at the manor in 1412-13, averaging 45 a day. These numbers varied considerably – sometimes there might just be a couple of guests at the manor, but on New Year’s Day a feast was held for more than 300 people.
Here was the entry for a typical day at Acton:
Wednesday, November 2, 1412
Guests: a certain squire with one of his household, John Teyler with one of his household, John Frend with one of his household, Thomas Barbour, John Chaundeler, Richard Bonys with a fellow, the bailiff of the manor with the harvest-reeve and 9 of the household of the manor, one meal each. From the pantry 46 white loaves and 6 black loaves were baked; wine and ale was served from existing stocks. From the kitchen – half a salt fish, one stockfish. Purchases were eggs for 12d. Provender – hay from stock for 7 horses, fodder for the same and one bushel of oats.
It was the Steward’s job to make sure all the food was bought and prepared, as well as oversee the other day-to-day expenses for the upkeep of the manor. The historian ffiona von Westhoven Perigrinor, who has done a detailed study of Alice de Bryene’s household, notes that whoever held the position of Steward needed to have great organization skills and the ability to read and write. This meant that most of the people who held the job came from a religious background.
Alice and other nobles would have their own personal chaplain, who would give masses at the manor and manage the chapel that would be on site. Beyond being a spiritual advisor, they could also have roles in the management of the estate. In one case Alice employed Sir John Chetylbere as her Steward from 1425 to 1428, and afterwards, he served as one of her chaplains.
According to Westhoven Perigrinor, “the household chamberlain was occupied with the more personal side of domestic management and the safekeeping of capital assets.” This could range from taking care of the beds, their linens and pillows, to being responsible for the chest that held all of their lord’s important documents.
Squires, valets and boys
Alice’s household also employed several men and the differences between them were usually by rank. Westhoven Perigrinor explains that squires:
were most likely men from the ranks of the gentry or lesser nobility, sons, relatives or friends of Alice’s social peers, who formed part of her inner circle of companions or upstairs staff. They may have been long-term retainers or have come for a period of time to learn the manners and etiquette of the household. They would also have accompanied her when she went travelling or visiting and assisted her, together with the chaplain, in entertaining the guests.
The valets, also called grooms, came from men of lower social standing and would work multiple jobs within the manor, including being a butler, cook, travelling around to buy food and other goods, rabbit hunters, or taking care of some of the animals. Finally, there were the boys, which implied younger men who did more menial tasks like taking care of the horses and even helping out with the farming.
During the 1420s, Alice’s household consisted of 23 men and two women. This was not unusual – other accounts of English medieval manors show that far more men were employed than women on a regular basis. It is likely that two women each had a specific role – one would be Alice’s personal attendant, while the other was the laundress.
Paying the staff
One note in the Steward’s account reveals that the Chamberlain, Chaplain and other servants were paid a total of £44 for the year 1412-13. We do not have the specifics of who got paid how much, as this information was kept in another set of records held by Alice herself. However, we do know that these people were also fed as part of their service, and also received some of their clothing.
Westhoven Perigrinor writes:
Alice’s chamberlain and her nine valets were dressed in green coloured cloth; since it appears that each was awarded nearly 8 yards, at just under a shilling a yard, their apparel may have included capes and hoods as well as tunics and surcoats. The six boys, being smaller perhaps, and certainly less important, were clothed more cheaply: their liveries at 5s each consisted of only 6 yards of material, valued at 10d a yard. The two maids, squires and chaplains were granted a sum of 8s each rather than specific cloth, so there may have been a variety of colours amid the green if this implies they were given freedom of choice.
Our look at jobs on the medieval manor does not include people who might be hired for a few days, such as carpenters who needed to make repairs on the home, or those who would be employed at the surrounding farms, a number that could grow to hundreds of men during the harvest. To learn more, please see ffiona von Westhoven Perigrinor’s book Life in a Medieval Gentry Household: Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk, c.1360- 1435.
You can also read The Household Book for Dame Alice de Bryene, which M.K. Dale translated.
Top Image: A manor in Suffok, from a map made in the 16th century – British Library MS Add. 56070