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Hemyock Castle
Ancient Heart of the Blackdowns

Feudal, Medieval and Castle Terms

Definitions of feudal, medieval and castle terms to aid understanding of documents and novels such as those by Ellis Peters.


Until the Normans established full control over England there were two main systems of land holding, administration and law: Anglo-Saxon Law and Dane Law. This glossary contains terms from both systems. Devonshire and Hemyock Castle would have been subject to the Anglo-Saxon system. For more details see: Comparison of Anglo-Saxon and Dane Law.



Monastic community of either monks or nuns. Ruled by an (m.) Abbot or (f.) Abbess Usually founded by a particular monastic order and bound by their rules. Abbeys often owe some form of feudal obligation to a lord/lady or higher organization. Basically they are self-contained with all basic functions performed by the residents and obtaining their needs from the local area.

Apart from their religious role, some medieval abbeys became centres of learning and industry. Partly out of the need for extra funds to support their religious duties, some orders, especially the Cistercians, used their overseas connections to import novel industrial processes and to develop overseas markets.

Recent research in Yorkshire suggests that one Cistercian community was close to developing a blast furnace for smelting iron, hundreds of years before this technology powered the Industrial Revolution.


The renunciation, under oath, of heresy to the Christian faith, made by a Christian wishing to be reconciled with the church.

Acre (area):

(Anglo-Saxon field.) The land area that can be ploughed by one ox team in a day – actually in a morning because the Oxen would need resting in the afternoon: They would trudge 11 miles while ploughing an acre. Traditionally in the strip field farming system, an area 40 rods long by 4 rods wide (ie. 220 yards by 22 yards). Sometimes used as a measure of width: One acre = 4 Rods wide. One tenth of a square furlong. Similar to the French Journal, and German Morgan or Tagwerk. The modern acre is 4840 square yards.

Adulterine Castle:

Castle built without the liege lord's approval.


Right to present a clergyman to a vacant benefice. In 1275, the lord of the manor of Hemyock, Sir John de Hydone, had the advowson of St Mary's Church Hemyock.


Poetic name for Britain or England.


Charitable gift of money or goods to the poor and needy.


Accommodation for the aged or needy supported by charity. Also known as the Poorhouse. In Britain, many almshouses still exist, although most are now ordinary homes. In my village, one is labelled "Cleaner and Sower" above the front door. The other is labelled "Widows' Homes." Some charitable almshouses still exist.


Financial penalty inflicted at the MERCY of the King or his justices for various minor offences. The offender is said to be "IN MERCY" and the monies paid to the crown to settle the matter was called amercement (See also Fines).


A condemnation of heretics, similar in effect to major excommunication. It inflicted the penalty of complete exclusion from Christian society.


The term used to describe one who left religious orders after making solemn profession. It was considered a serious crime in the eyes of the church, being not only a breach of faith with God but also with the founders and benefactors of their religious house.

Apotropaic or Witch mark:

Symbol or pattern scratched into the fabric of a building, particularly doorways, stonework or wooden beams, to ward off evil & keep witches out. Note: Not to be confused with a witch's mark; a mark made by a witch.


A right belonging to a property.

Ard-righ (Irish):

High King in Gaelic. RIGH meaning King.


Measure of land roughly equal to a modern acre.

Arrow Loop:

Narrow vertical slit cut into a wall through which arrows could be fired from inside, shielding the archer. Later, some arrow-loops were modified to suit small cannon, usually by being widened at the bottom. This resulted in a key-hole shape. See also slit.


To turn woodlands into pasture or crop land. To assart lands within a forest without licence was a grave offence.


Meeting of feudal vassals with the King. It also referred to decrees issued by the King after such a meetings.


(Right of). Temporary protection of fugitives from pursuit, pending investigation or exile. This right was widely abused by fugitives and their pursuers. It was later repealed. See also Sanctuary.

The right of an Abbot or Bishop to protect a fugitive from justice or to intercede on their behalf. Once asylum was granted the fugitive could not be removed, until after 40 days. After that, fugitives had to submit to justice. Alternatively, they could pledge an oath of adjuration never to return to the realm, after which they were free to find passage to the borders of the realm by the fastest way. If found within the borders after the set time they could be hunted down as before with no right of asylum to be granted ever again.

Augustinian Canons:

Religious/Monastic rules based on Love of God and Neighbour, respect for authority, care of the sick, and self-discipline.


Mythical island paradise in the western seas where the body of King Arthur was taken. Claimed by some to be the area around Glastonbury in Somerset. (Until recent times, much of this region was regularly flooded.) Traditionally, Celtic peoples believed that a person's soul travelled to the west after death.



Enclosed defensive castle courtyard or Ward.


Lord's overseer or steward.


Bailiff's area of authority.


King's power to command and prohibit under pain of punishment or death, mainly used because of a break in the King's Peace. Also a royal proclamation, either of a call to arms, or a decree of outlawry. In clerical terms, an excommunication on condemnation by the church.


Fees which a feudal lord imposes on his serfs for the use of his mill, oven, wine press, or similar facilities. It some times includes part of a fish catch or the proceeds from a rabbit warren.


Monastic who shaved faces/heads and performed light surgery.


Towers or outworks defending a gateway.


Minstrel or poet who glorified the virtues of the people and chieftains.


Vassal who held land directly from the crown and served as a member of the King's great council. It was not, of itself, a title, but rather a description of the Tenants in Chief class of nobility.


(Pre-historic). Earthen burial mound. Several different shapes and designs were used.


Defensive projection from the main wall or fortress, either a platform or a small tower. The Guard Houses at Hemyock Castle are believed to have been bastions which protected the outer end of the drawbridge.


Sloping exterior surface at the base of all walls and towers. Built to protect the base of the wall against attack and increase its stability.


Narrow wall, consisting of Merlons alternating with Embrasures, built along the outer edge of the wall walk to protect the defenders against attack. See also Crenellate.


Type of siege engine. Tall, often armoured, wooden tower which could be moved up against the wall of a castle or town to shield attackers.

Beltane Eve:

Night of April 30, one of the two times of the year when mortal rules were believed to be suspended and supernatural occurrences were most common. Sometimes called May Day Eve. See Samhain Eve.

Benedictine Order:

Monastic order founded by St. Benedictine. Monks take vows of personal poverty, chastity and obedience to their abbot and the Benedictine Rule. See also Black Monk and White Monk.

Benefice (Latin: beneficium):

Grant of land given to a member of the aristocracy, a Bishop, or a monastery, for limited or hereditary use in exchange for services. In ecclesiastic terms, a benefice was a church office that returned revenue (ie a living for a Rector or Vicar). Also known as a fee, feud, or fief coming from the Germanic feofum which comes from the Frankish "fehu" and "od" meaning livestock and movable possessions or property "chattel."

Benefit of Clergy:

Privilege enjoyed by members of the clergy, including tonsured clerks, placing them beyond the jurisdiction of secular courts. However, the penalties imposed by church courts were often harsh.


Flat space between the base of the curtain wall and the inner edge of the moat.

Black Canon:

Common name for Augustinian Canons, derived from the colour of their robes.

Black Friar:

Common name for member of the Dominican Order, derived from the colour of their habit.

Black Monk:

Common name for member of the Benedictine Order, derived from the colour of their habit.


Middle ranking peasant, farming more land than a cottager but less than a villein. A typical small holder would have 10-20 acres of land, often as separate strips in different fields. He was also required to work on his lord's land or to provide a service to his lord. Also known as a Small Holder.

Borders (The):

Name given to the border lands between Scotland and England. See also the Marches. Also the border lands between the mythical Avalonian Empire and elsewhere.


Heavy pole with iron head used by besiegers to attack the base of a wall.

Borough (also burg, burgh and burh):

Town with the right of self government granted by royal charter.


Term which designates the custom of ultimogeniture (All lands inherited by the youngest son).


A measure of land: The area that could be cultivated by a plough drawn by one ox in one year, or rather during the annual ploughing season. Varied in different regions and different soil types. Approx. 15 acres. Similar to the Dane law term: Oxgang.


Low defensive wall or earthwork, especially to protect gunners or artillery. These structures were often improvised both by besieging or attacking forces, and by defenders.

Brehon Laws (also called Feinechus):

An ancient Gaelic legal system.


The holder of land or house within a borough.


Volume. A dry measure of 8 gallons, or 4 pecks.


Projection from a wall to give additional support.

Other Hemyock Glossaries:

(Based on sources including a Glossary by Michael Adams aka Morgoth. © Nov. 1988.)

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Hemyock Castle, Hemyock, CULLOMPTON, Devon, EX15 3RJ, UK.
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