A comprehensive gazetteer and bibliography of the medieval castles, fortifications and palaces of England, Wales and the Islands.
The listings
Other Info

English Licences to Crenellate
FURTHER analysis

by Philip Davis

This is a verson of an article published in Volume 22 of the Castle Studies Group Journal, 2009 as 'Licences to Crenellate: Additional data, analysis and comment' - Some slight changes have been made, generally to better suit hyperlinked text. The illustrations used here are completely different from those in the published article.
This was a follow up to an earlier article and those who have not done so should first read the original article.
The data in this article was last updated on 27 July 2009. Some footnotes, not in the original article, have been added from time to time, as noted.

For an amateur historian the responses to my list and analysis of the licences to crenellate of England and Wales (Davis, 2006) was most gratifying and has inspired me to further work in this field. Rising to the challenges put in Colin Platt’s ‘Understanding Licences to Crenellate’ (2007a), I have tried to explored the biographical details of as many of the grantees of LCs as possible.

Firstly, however, please note that my previous article grossly over stated the number of ‘fortified’ manor houses granted licences to crenellate as 39% (2006, p. 229). This is because I record all houses granted a LC as ‘fortified’ but other domestic houses are recorded as ‘fortified’ only if an authority has described them as such. There is no absolute definition of ‘fortified’ or ‘defensive’ and these are subjective labels used by different authors for different purposes that can cause contention. A good number of the surviving moats of licensed houses are of a type only rarely described as ‘fortified’. I have not, comprehensively, collected the data on moated houses. Differentiating between gentry status moated ‘manor’ houses and yeoman status ‘homestead’ moats also requires considerable research and analysis. However, based on examination of some online county historic environment records, I estimate that only between 5-10% of gentry status moated houses were built, or rebuilt, in association with a LC0a. The evidence that all forms of fortified building were mainly constructed without LCs is clear and should stop any remaining suggestion that LCs were a requirement to build any fortified structure, particularly castles.

From the start of scholarly analysis of LCs it has been clear that they were mainly concerned with domestic houses - J H Parker’s 1856 list and analysis of Thomas Duffas Hardy (Turner and Parker, 1859) work on the Rolls was mainly concerned with how the licensed site was described and he showed the commonest description was as ‘manor house’ (mansum) and only very rarely was the term ‘castle’ used. However, the erroneous idea that LCs were a requirement to build castles has taken a strong hold and has caused trouble since. The licence to crenellate ‘Beudesert’ granted to Walter Langton, Bishop of Lichfield in 1306 has been attributed to Beaudesert Castle at Henley in Arden, by D J Cathcart King (Castellarium Anglicanum, Vol. 2 p. 481) and in the Time Team TV programme, although this was never a holding of the bishop, apparently only because a LC ‘had to be for a castle’. The probably actual site was in the bishops chase at Cannock. This may either have been a domestic building on the site of the 15th century, now ruined, Beaudesert Hall or a building within the, nearby, Iron Age hill fort Castle Ring, were medieval foundations can still be seen. The effect this misattribution has had on the interpretation of Beaudesert Castle is unassessed.

John Rickard PhD thesis, published as The Castle Community in 2002, states that the “licence to crenellate is one of the most important sources sources for both castle building and castle ownership”. (p. 26) This assumption that LC’s are to do with castles seems to lead Rickard to state “many did not result in any building work of any nature.”(p. 26) In reality LCs were granted for a diverse range of buildings, from massive castles like Dunstanburgh to modest ‘pele’ towers but most were granted to moated manor houses with thin walls, which were easily demolished and replaced by more fashionable houses over the years. If one accepts the wording of the licences and looks for evidence of a mansum rather than a castle almost all licences do seem to have resulted in some work (except in the few cases of a licence granted for multiple holdings of an individual where work was confined to just one or two sites), although because most sites have not been fully or even partly investigated, apparent archaeological evidence is often slight or absent. Rickard’s comments on ‘used’ and ‘unused’ licences varying across the country, with highest numbers of ‘used’ licences being in the northern border regions and lowest numbers in the south east is explained by the likelihood of surviving remains based on the locally available building materials.1 Northern stone tower houses compared to flint rubble moated houses of the southern chalk belt. Clearly the increased levels of criminal and military activity in the north, as well as the different building materials, affected the choice of architectural style of elite buildings but this has nothing to do with the application for or granting of LCs. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Stafford Castle
Stafford Castle

The 19th Century Whig historical agenda still effects some historians. Carole Rawcliffe’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Ralph Stafford (1301-1372) has the statement that “His forebears had hitherto been prevented by the Crown from building a castle in Stafford, and he had anticipated this singular mark of confidence [a licence to crenellate of 1348 (CPR 1348-50 p. 13)] by entering a contract with a local mason a few weeks earlier.” Recent excavations suggest there was a strong masonry tower on the motte at Stafford before the tower house built by Ralph. (Soden, 2007, pp. 196-98.)

Platt’s Challenge

Platt's historical knowledge and insight maybe useful. Some aspects of the defences of castles, houses, palaces and abbeys were being built, in part, for the reasons he states, although he may be giving too much credence to exaggerated reports of violence (see Coulson, 2003 and King, 2007). However these structure are built with and without licences and Platt does not clearly differentiate between fortified buildings and licences to crenellate. Various troubles could have indeed inspired wealthy people to protect their property and for most this would just be the digging of a moat and construction of a wall. For some the desire to assert status in such times may well have been a motivation to apply for a licence and the increases in insecurity Platt identifies need not be expressed as a desire for increased protection but as a need to assert social status. Indeed there is, in my mind, a distinct overlap here. Insecurity is the prime sub-conscious drive for the need to express social status (consider the cocky adolescent or the mid-life male crisis, expressed in the purchase of a high power motorbike) but what is architecturally expressed is social assertion not fear of attack.

Platt’s challenges to Coulson’s arguments that LCs were fundamentally about prestige rather than about fear of physical violence were;

  1. a distribution map should show a more even distribution of licences
  2. the granting of LCs over time should show fewer peaks and troughs
  3. ‘unassailable evidence that the majority of applicants were status-hungry gentry, and not either noblemen or ecclesiastics of high rank’ (Platt, 2007a, p. 204)

I do not follow the reasoning behind his first two challenges. In both cases the uneven nature shows the distribution is fairly random (although the trend over time to rise until 1348 and then the dramatic fall, slight rise and eventual decline after this date are clear). Even distribution of either or both of these factors could only be explained by a centralised controlling plan, something Coulson clearly argues against. Random distributions are not smooth but distinctly lumpy so in a true random distribution one would expect some areas of 'emptiness' and some clumping, which is what we get.2 However, it is true that the distribution map is not truly random. There are underlying geographical and economic factors that effect the distribution. Areas that are poorer and sparsely populated should have less great houses and, clearly, the Pennines and the Devon moors are free from licensed houses. I remain of the opinion that, given some weighting for population density, the distribution of licensed houses is basically random. I do not recognise the patterns of distribution that Platt describes (2007a, p. 204-5). I remain of the opinion that my distribution map and bar chart provide evidence that is consistent with Coulson’s hypothesis.

However, a more detailed analysis of spatial distribution, by a statistician, could be useful. I suspect that this may show that a number of the licensed houses owned by active courtiers and civil servants were within a day’s ride of the court at Westminster. A fine, if unusual example of this, would be Rye House, Stanstead Abbots, Hertfordshire, where a LC is granted to 6 courtiers, led by Andrew Ogard, the chamberlain to then regent, John, Duke of Bedford (CPR 1429-36 p. 288), in 1443 (CChR Vol. 6 p. 38) for what was a newly purchased house (VCH Hertford Vol. 3 pp. 336). The guts of this licence was the permission to empark and this has the feel of a gentleman’s country club, within easy reach of the court2a.

The one exception to this basically random distribution are coastal towns, which are clearly more likely to have licensed walls than inland towns. These walls may be due to fears of raids from the sea, as suggested by Platt (2007a p. 204), but may also be due to an increased need to control trade, collect taxes and prevent smuggling in these towns. Because chasing down a sailing ship is considerably more difficult than chasing down a caravan of pack animals walls in ports are a more necessary, and cost effective, investment in controlling smuggling and collect duties. The licences, as opposed to the walls, may have functioned as additional authority for the duties collected in these ports. Issues of civic pride are clearly the reason for the more elaborate excesses of many town gateways and probably played a significant part in the building of walls per se. (Coulson, 1995)

The third of Platt’s points is important and should be addressed, although a call for ‘unassailable’ evidence is somewhat extreme. I believe the evidence does show the majority of grantees of LCs were gentry, a few were individuals who had newly achieved gentry status and some were gentry who had newly-achieved baronial or noble status. Relatively few LCs are granted to nobles and, of these few, some are granted to nobles acting on behalf of gentry. The situation with churchmen is less clear and here a significant proportion of grantees are bishops. Here the explanation may have something to do with the use of LCs as a reward for service and the use of bishoprics as a way of paying major government ministers. In effect many bishops were major ministers of state, some being from noble families but others of relatively humble origins, holding the position out of merit and having a particular need to establish their lordly status.

The many functions of licences to crenellate

I began this project with the intent of simply providing some statistical data about the grantees of LC; their age, the number that were MP’s etc. (see Appendix below) However, as I read the biographies of those granted LCs it became clear that each LC has a story of its own and that LCs were used in diverse and different ways, although, almost always, these are fundamentally to do with prestige. I would now mirror the call made by many, especially Sarah Speight (2004), to look at castles as different and diverse and extend this to LCs. I expect the ‘real’ story is one of complexity and diversity in the granting and use of LCs and particularly so in the reasons for applying for LCs. Because the LC did not involve any financial reward and little financial cost and because it had little or no control on an individuals or institutions behaviour or liberty, including control of what they built, it was a tool that was particularly flexible and open to diverse use. The LC, despite its generally stock terminology, was a tabula rasa on which both king and grantee could build new meaning. The stories of each LC can be complex and there were often several functions served by an individual licence, beyond the fact that many LCs were also granted in association with licences to empark and/or other privileges.

Display of status

Charles Coulson has given considerable evidence of LCs as a display of lordly status as briefly outlined in my previous essay on this subject. I feel that he has proved his case beyond reasonable question. My own exploration of the biographies of those granted LCs supports his view. Display of lordly status was the prime function of LCs. However, in making such a solid statement of lordly display as the prime reason, in response to earlier unsubstantiated views of LCs as tools of royal control, I do feel he has sometimes not always clearly expressed the complexity of reasons for applying for and granting these licences or the variety of ways in which LCs were used both by the Crown and by applicants.

Tomb of John and Matilda Marmion. Their social status confirmed by licences to crenellate issued in 1314 and 1348.
Tomb of and Matilda Marmion

A very few LCs can clearly be attributed to being motivated by defence. One, often overlooked, is the 1402 ‘Licence for the good men of the town of Leomynstre, which is situated on the frontiers of the marches of Wales, to fortify the town with walls, pales and ditches, for defence against the Welsh rebels, and to compel all the men of the town to contribute to the expense according to their means’ (CPR 1401-05 p. 139). The Owain Glyndwr revolt is clearly the sole reason for this licence. How well-acquainted the good men of Leominster were with Westminister-centred medieval law may be at question since a grant of murage was the more usual way to raise money for such defences. No work seems to have been done.

A handful of LCs are for coastal artillery defences. Here the LC is used as a Public-Private Initiative giving royal support, moral and sometimes financial, for private initiatives to build coastal defences. Richard Guldeford’s licence of 1487 (CPR 1485-94 p. 151) for ‘le Camber’, the precursor of Camber Castle, is, fundamentally, a grant of manors to fund the building and operation of an artillery tower. John Corp, a leading Dartmouth merchant and sea captain, is granted, in 1402, a LC for ‘Dertemuth’ (CPR 1401-05 p. 219) most probably the artillery and harbour chain tower at Gommerock. However, his compatriot and possible friend John Hawley was not granted a LC for his larger fort on the other side of the harbour mouth built at the same time and on the bases of the concerns raised by the same Royal Commission. (Devon Perspectives, online) Clearly Corp’s LC was not a requirement for a fortification and it served some other function. Hawley seems to have the more successful of the two man so, perhaps, Corp felt more need for the kudos of an LC or required more incentive to fund the building.

A couple of often quoted LCs, notably that of 1385 to Edward Dallingridge for Bodiam castle (CPR 1385-89 pp. 42, 123), do express defence as a reason for their being granted but such expression has been shown to be an overstated and minor part of the complex of reasons for the grant (Coulson, 1979, pp. 73-90 and numerous subsequent publications by Coulson and others. See Platt, 2007b, for an outline and rebuttal of this ‘Battle of Bodiam’ discussion)2b. Often suggested as a ‘defensive’ licence is that obtained by wealthy merchant Robert de Reymes for Aydon Hall and Shortflatt Tower in 1305 (CPR 1301-7 p. 328). Aydon, close to the Scottish border, was sacked in a Scottish raid in 1315. The house was purchased in a time of peace and Scottish raids did not recommence until 1311 (Emery, 1996, p. 40). Were it not for the fact that Aydon was sacked this would be an archetypal example of a merchant using an LC as part of acquiring new, gentry, social status. It is only hindsight that makes this licence look defensive. The licenced houses of Northumberland, including Aydon, have recently been explored by Andy King (2007) who concludes these are ‘monuments to the military careers’ of Northumbland’s gentry. I had come to the same conclusion about Aydon before seeing his paper.

Owning a defensible house, licensed or unlicensed, did not guarantee safety and I stand by my earlier statements (Davis, 2006, p. 228) about the symbolic nature of the defences of the moated manor houses that were built, with and without licences, during the period. Clearly the moat and walls had a roll in stopping thieves but crenellations, even if with a wall walk, are only defensive if there are armed men behind them and I expect most of these houses had only a few men servants, with limited military experience, to defend them. In reality these houses could only exceptionally be defended against a band of thieves or raiders, generally a serious attack would result in the family and servants running away and hiding elsewhere. King gives several examples “of Northumbrian castles and towers failing to provide any protection for their inhabitants, even from small raiding parties.” (2007, p. 378). The historic records are full of the legal wrangles about property ownership and the, not infrequent, resorts to (shows of) force to resolve these disputes. With regard to defence, crenellations, without a garrison, were, I repeat, like modern burglar alarms, a mainly symbolic representation of an intent to prosecute. The deterrent effect was not from the phantom garrison, behind the decorative battlements, but from royal forces backing up the sheriffs and justices. Westenhanger Castle, ‘no doubt erected with costal defence in mind’ (Pettifer, 1995, p. 1323), licensed 1343 (CPR 1343-45 p. 106), was not able to resist a band of raiders, lead by Sir John Cornwall, in 1381, who entered at night using ladders. The mistress of the house having to hide herself for protection (Coulson, 1992, pp. 100-1). We know of this assault because of the subsequent legal actions. Sir John Kiriel (Criol), a rare knight banneret not of baronial status, may well have been a man able to mobilise and lead a local defence force but his duties would have kept him away from Westenhanger for much of the time and his house clearly did not have a permanent garrison.

A castle, or any other building, without a garrison is not a fortress regardless of the architectural forms. Andy King estimates the cost of a small garrison of 12 men at over £200 a year ‘at a time when very few English knights beneath the level of the peerage had an income exceeding £200 per annum.’ (2007, p. 381). The numbers of baronial and noble retainers given by Platt (2007b) are useful but when you look at the biographies of these retainers you see how busy many of these men were (They were on commissions, serving as MPs and running their own, not inconsiderable, estates). They could all be summoned together for a great social event, or a military expedition but they were not routinely available to garrison castles. No mention is made of castle guard in the indenture made between Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and Robery Cuny, esquire in 1467 (Gibbons, 2007, p. 63). The £5 a year paid to Cuny would have made him, and a few local men he could muster available to Warwick for garrison duty only in the most exceptional of circumstances. The real garrisons of even noble castles would be common men and, at even at the very low rate of 4d a day (about £5 a year and at this rate old men fit for very little), there in very limited numbers.

Care must be taken to separate the motivations for obtaining a licence from the motivations for building a house as these are not the same thing. Virtually all the structures licensed would have been built with some defence against thieves in mind, but this was not the motivation for these licences. In my view 20 licences can reasonable be attributed to real concerns about defence, including defence from thieves, although only 5 are for purely defensive structures.

Expression of royal favour

There is a more subtle way in which LCs were a response to a need for defence. The most common response to this insecurity was to ally oneself to a powerful lord and, generally, the most powerful lord in medieval England was the king. Showing that one had royal favour, through obtaining an LC, gained prestige and some sense of security.

All licences had a degree of royal favour about them but some licences were more clearly expressions for especial favourites, particularly those otherwise unpopular, such as a group of Poitevin knights and nobles (Ridgeway, 1989) who came to England following the marriage of Henry III to Eleanor of Provence, in 1236, their leaders were William de Valence and Aymer, Guy and Geoffrey de Lusignan4. Most of the minor knights never obtained property but Elias de Rabayn married an English heiress and gained lands. He obtained a LC for Waylim (A manor, probably in or near Lymm Regis, Dorset) in February 1264 (CPR 1258-66 p. 382) after some years of service as Sheriff of Somerset and Dorset.

Of course, at times, a king needed support from his more powerful subjects and would grant favours to these subject of many sorts and these may well include LCs. Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York, certainly had many enemies but by late 1383, when a LC was given for Rest Park near York. (CPR 1381-85 p. 333) Richard II was becoming increasingly isolated. Alexander joined Richard’s intimate court circle in 1385, both men gaining mutual support from this alliance. The use of LCs to bolster royal support might explain some of the features mentioned by Platt, particularly with regard to the Baron’s Wars of Henry III (2007a, p. 205).

A somewhat different form of Royal favour were LCs given during and after disputes which confirmed concession given, under force, by the king. An example of this is the LC granted to John de Eyvil on 20 August 1264 (CPR 1258-66 p. 382) just 8 days after Henry III had been forced to sign the peace of Canterbury after his defeat at the Battle of Lewes. Unlike later kings the clerks of Henry’s Rolls did not usually bother to record by what royal authority a grant was made but this grant is recorded as by ‘King, the justiciary, Giles de Arg[entein] and H. de Borham’. John de Eyvill was leader of the 'disinherited', part of Simon de Montfort forces.

Some people and groups, who were particularly out of royal favour, could also have been using the application for a LCs as part of a campaign to regain favour. The master and brethren of the Knights Templars were granted a LC for a great gate at their manor of la Bruere (Temple Bruer) in 1306 (CPR 1301-7 p. 462). There were tensions between the Knights and the king; Edward I had siezed the Knight's treasury in London in 1302; Templar knights had fought with the Scots at Roslin in 1303. The Templars more international problems ultimately came to a head when they were dissolved by the Pope in 1312. (Addison, 1842)

About 150 properties had LCs where royal favour can be seen as a particularly factor.

Royal control and expression of disfavour

Coulson has done considerable work to show that LCs were not, systematically, used as instruments of royal control, as the late 19th century Whig historians had proposed. However, there are a tiny handful of LCs which suggest some element of royal sensibility was a part of the occasional LC. Two licences granted by Henry III in the tense years before the baron’s war are for palings; Robert de St John 1261 LC for his house at Basing (CPR 1258-66 p. 172), where the Norman ringwork was an existing strong defence, and Roger de St John5 1262 licence for Lagham manor (CPR 1258-66 p. 199), which also had a specific requirement to be faithful to the king. The other half dozen LCs granted, to royalists, at this time have the standard format of walls of stone and lime etc. Both men had served for Henry against Llewelyn in Wales in 1260 and may have requested the LCs as rewards for this service. Henry’s restrictions were, presumably because the men’s sympathies were with the baronial reformers. How could Henry III refuse a request for a licence to crenellate from as ambitious and well connected a knight as Roger (He was married to Hugh Despenser’s sister)? As a new baron Roger may have felt a particular need to build a suitable crenellated house and to confirm his holding of the manor and the exceptional restriction of a paling, rather than a wall, for fortification must have been insulting. It would take a king as arrogant as Henry to put in the proviso about being faithful but another man in Henry’s situation would know he needed as many friends as he could get and would be doing their utmost to not offend an effective soldier like Roger. Roger was to become a leading figure in the baronial cause and a member of the, Simon de Montfort set up, royal Council of Nine. He was killed at the battle of Evesham.

Expression of lordly favour

The 1427 LC for Wycroft (CChR Vol. 6 p. 1) is granted to a group of men, headed by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The house was owned by Thomas Brook, who comes low down on the list. Earlier in that year William Bonville of Shute had broken into the house at Weycroft, assaulting the servants. Clearly the support of a Duke, two earls and several knights secured Brook from assault in a way a wall of ‘stones and mortar’ could not. The ‘cost’ may well have been the provision of a hunting lodge for these men to enjoy the park that went along with the LC. John Cobham of Devonshire is granted a LC, at the supplication of Peter de Courteney, his liege lord, for Hever in 1383 (CPR 1381-85 p. 326). This John Cobham was a kinsman of Lord John Cobham of Cobham, of Cooling Castle. Here the reasons for the LC may well be complex and include a response to the Cooling Castle licence of 1381 (CPR 1377-81 p. 596), internal family pressures (Lord Cobham was married to Courteney’s sister) and some political interplay between two powerful politicians, but the wording of the licence shows some relationship between king, lord and retainer. John de Handlo is granted an LC in 1312, on the information of Hugh le Despencer, his liege lord (CPR 1307-13 p. 493). Several other licences have similar such wording.

There were times when royal government was effectively usurped by powerful lords who could then use LCs to recognise their followers. This seems particularly true for Thomas Plantagenet, 2nd Earl of Lancaster (1278-1322). The bureaucratic format of the LC does not show this relationship and sometimes only detailed examination of the biography of licence holders, in combination with good knowledge of the politics of the period, will show such relationships. Since the periods when the kings power was so usurped tend to be seen as periods of unrest the slight increase in the granting of LC to lordly retainers might be seen as responses to that unrest, but the link is distinctly indirect.

At least 24 LCs can be seen as expressions of lordly favour.

Reward for, and inducement to, royal service

Virtually all those who obtained LCs did some royal service, such as being commissioners, but this would be true of almost all men of the gentry and baronial classes. A number of them did more full time royal services, such as constable of royal castles, but these positions were, anyway, well sought after, as they came with an income that was a considerable reward in itself. Here understanding can be murky since it is not clear if the royal service produced the income to fund the building of a new house and pretensions of status that led to applying for a licence or the licence was an additional reward for the service. I suspect that some element of both applied but that income was usually the more important. Some individuals made a career of royal service, often holding many posts and other individuals had particular prolonged, direct close contact with the monarch. These individuals are disproportionately represented amongst those granted licences.

The most common reason given by the biographers of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for the issue of a LC is as a reward for service. The authors of the Parliamentary Histories also tend to see LCs as, generally, a reward for service. There are numerous examples of LC granted to individuals with long Royal service. A particularly clear example is the LC granted to William de Excestre, clerk, in 1350 (the first of only seven private LCs granted in the decade after the Black Death). William Exeter did perform some diplomatic missions but his position seems chiefly that of physician to Queen Phillippa and the royal children (Catto, 2004, online). Edward and Phillppa did lose two children in 1348, William, only 6 months and beloved, 14 year old daughter, Joan, who died of the Plague in France on the way to her wedding, but the other seven children and the Queen survived.6 Exeter is the only physician ever granted a LC.

Of individuals who were not knights or nobles many did direct royal service. A number of long serving exchequer clerks and similar civil servants are granted LCs. A significant number of the major ministers of state were granted licences (see appendix). There is some need to show care in assigning reward as the reason for the LC. Robert Wyvill had done royal service as Queen Isabella's secretary and was Lord Privy Seal in 1327 but, in spite of the remarkable reconciliation of Edward III, does not continue in royal service after 1330 although he did become bishop of Salisbury. His licence for nine properties in 1337 would, after such a gap, have to do with his personal prestige and the prestige of the see, possibly showing further reconciliation by Edward III to this former servant of the despised regent Roger Mortimer.

It may be possibly that the social unrest of the 14th century identified by Platt (2007a, p. 206) made some knights (and even serjeants) somewhat more reluctant to go away and serve in the Edward III’s Scottish and French wars. Some LCs may well have been used as inducements, as well as rewards, for military service. Possibly Edward made use of the prestige of the LC to get some soldiers to actually reduce their families security, when they went overseas.

At least 130 properties have LCs which, in part, can be attributed to a reward for political service. At least 85 properties have LCs which, in part, can be attributed to a reward for military service.

Royal clerks occasionally obtained licences to crenellate
A medieval clerk
Confirmation of ownership

A number of LCs are granted to houses over which there was dispute over ownership or inheritance, or which had been obtained by some method other than family inheritance. Here an LC was a clear royal acknowledgment of ownership and a useful adjunct to other confirmations of ownership. Since disputed ownership of property was a reason for resorting to force I expect many of these houses may well have been defensible, although the LC was of more use in the court room rather than at a siege.

Examples include the licence granted to John de Heslarton for Wilton near Pickering, Yorkshire. The ownership of the manor was disputed in 1293 (VCH of York, North Riding Vol. 2 pp. 438-9) and it was conveyed to Heslarton, via John Lovel, from Roger Bigod after this date. It was then, in 1309, siezed by Gerard Salvayn, serving as escheator north of the Trent, and only returned after parliamentary demands. The affair caused considerable trouble between Thomas of Lancaster (the tenant in chief of Wilton) and Edward II and the bad blood caused does not seem to have ended until the end of Edward II reign (King, 2000, pp. 37-9). This licence is obtained, after the initial troubles of Edward III reign, in 1335 and may represent a ‘putting to bed’ of any remaining doubt about Heslarton’s holding of the manor. The second oldest person granted an LC was Sir William Plompton, who was aged 70 years when granted a licence for his manor house at Plumpton in 1474 (CPR 1467-77 p. 421). He had done many years of service firstly as a soldier and then as an administrator for the Earl of Northumberland, The Duke of Bedford and Henry VI, so a licence as a reward for service and expression of royal favour would seem likely. However, difficulties over the inheritance of the Plumpton's estates, of which much documentation survives as the Plumpton Correspondence (Stapleton (ed), 1839) p. lxxxvi ff), may have also been a factor in getting this LC. His chosen heir, his son from his secret second marriage, did not get firm possession of Plumpton until 1515.

At least 77 properties have LCs which, in part, can be attributed to a concern about the holding or inheritance of the property.


Family may be a factor in some applications for LCs. Three Bek brothers obtained licences from Edward I. John Bek obtained a LC for the family seat of Eresby, Lincolnshire in 1276 (CPR 1272-81 p. 158). His younger brothers, both bishops, also obtained LCs. Anthony, Bishop of Durham, for Somerton Castle, Lincolnshire in 1281 (ibid p. 440) and Thomas, Bishop of St David’s, for Pleasley, Derbyshire in 1285 (CPR 1281-92 p. 150). The turning of peripheral manors of the sees into residential houses, within a day ride of the Bek family seat, may suggest a close knit family all of whom did long royal service and were well aware of LCs and the application process. Even a quick and superficial examination of the biographies of grantees, particularly of their in-laws, shows several occasions where close relatives obtain LCs shortly after one another. Sometimes this may be part of establishing the social status of a new husband of a, wealthy, wife, although the new family may have also been able to help with the application process.

There is some evidence of relationships between grantees and relatives who were royal ministers. For example Thomas Latimer, a minor baron, obtained an LC for Braybooke Castle in 1304 (CPR 1301-07 p. 209) at a time when his uncle, William Latimer, was a, relatively minor, minister of Edward I. However, the upper ranks of English society was a small group with much inter marriage and definitive evidence that family relationships were a factor in obtaining licences is lacking, although I believe it was a factor in some licences. Further biographical research, particularly with regard to female relatives (although the bias in historical documents may make this research difficult), may well provide further evidence of family influence on royal ministers.

The role and status of women in medieval England is one of notably difficulty because of the, above mentioned, bias in the historical record. Some LCs granted to men may actually be about the status of their wives. Baldwin Wake (c. 1237 - 1282) is granted a LC in 1281 for ‘Styventon’ (Stevington Castle, Bedfordshire CPR 1272-81 p. 453). The Wake’s had numerous estates of which the principle seems to be Bilsworth, Northamptonshire. In '1264, ... Stevington Manor passed to Hadwisa wife of Baldwin Wake, one of the daughters and co-heirs of Robert de Quincy (VCH Bedford Vol. 3 pp. 100-104). Baldwin Wake died in 1281–27, leaving a son John, and in 1284 Hadwisa Wake rendered feudal service for Stevington. Hawisa de Quincy (c. 1250-c. 1295) was the daughter of Robert de Quincy, Lord of Ware (younger son of the 1st Earl of Winchester) and Helen ap Llywelyn (daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of North Wales). Here a dower house seems to have been dressed up with the features of noble status fit for a granddaughter of an earl and a prince.

There are a few incidents of LCs being granted to sons of great or notable men (some with long royal service) shortly after their death’s. Here it seems likely that the father’s reputation had some part to play in easing the acquisition of the licence, although direct evidence for this does not exist.

Some of the extensive earthworks of Braybrooke Castle, which including fishponds and water management systems.
Braybrooke Castle

The medieval period was an age when local lords were military men and did resort to violence at times to assert rights and claims7a. The LC had the prime function of asserting lordly status but, at times, neighbours (most usually civic communities) tried to keep such lords in check. This, very occasionally, effected the wording or granting of LC. The LC, and the revoking of a grant of a LC, then has a function ‘to mollify friction’(Coulson, 1994, p. 125 n119) between neighbours. An example is the 1293 LC granted to Hugo de Frene for Moccas Castle (CPR 1292-1301 p. 23) where the wall is limited to 10 feet height. Given the sort of building normal constructed (mansum not castellum) this restriction is pretty meaningless other than as a symbolic restraint. Hugh seems to have, anyway, ignored the limitation “The Sheriff of Hereford was ordered to seize it [Moccas Castle] on behalf of the king, but the dispute was most probably settled with a fine as the de Frenes continued possession for many years.” (Hereford SMR online)

The LC granted to Fulk Fitz Warine, in 1221, for Whittington Castle has been used as an example of royal control of a ‘suspect’ baron (King, 1983, Vol.2 p. 439n97) but the Close Roll entries (n.b. not Patent Rolls) can also be interpreted as attempts to mollify the concerns of Prince Llewellyn. I suspect the actual reason for Fulk’s application was more to do with confirming his ownership of Whittington after a bitter ownership dispute.

At least 19 properties have LCs which, in part, can be attributed to a need to mollify the concerns of neighbours.

A ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ element can be detected in many LCs. This, social prestige, aspect of LCs has been explored in depth by Coulson8 and recently by Andy King for Northumberland (King, 2007). Often the men receiving licences were in competition with each other for profitable royal positions, such as sheriff. The relationship between the courtiers, John Norris and John Pury may have been more friendly. They were both members of a guild formed in 1451 (CPR 1446-52 p. 576) Pury obtained an LC for Chamberhouse in November 1446 (CChR Vol. 6 p. 72) Norris’s LC for Yattendon (ibid p. 100) is obtained 14 months later.


A couple of LCs are almost expressly granted as memorials to dead individuals, such as the 1374 licence for Joan, late the wife of William de Sancto Quintmo, to crenellate a belfry at Harpham (CPR 1370-74 p. 407). The St Quintin manor house now exists only as vague earthworks in a field next to the church but the west tower of the church does have some very modest decorative crenellations. Crenellations, demonstrating God’s dominion, through the church, were normal on such church towers. (These crenellations, demonstrating lordship, are wholly accepted as decorative if on church buildings, yet, for some, have to be functional if on secular buildings). A relatively large side chapel has some good memorial brasses and fine armorial stained glass. William, who probably fought at Crécy, had died in 1349 and the delay of 25 years is possibly best explained by the economic and demoralising effects of the Black Death. Joan, herself, was of the local knightly de Thweng family.

A few miles away and a few years later the prior and convent of Bridlington obtained a LC in 1388ob reverentiam Johannis de Thweng nuper Prior’ (CPR 1385-89 p. 439). John de Thweng9 had died in 1379 and in 1386 a commission was set up to recognise the miracles associated with him and he was canonized in 1401 (VCH of York Vol. 3 pp. 199-205). New building, of the highest status, was clearly intended to commemorate a beloved figure but also these buildings and the LC itself (one of the very few to survive remains on display there) can be seen as part of a concerted campaign to produce a, high status, pilgrimage centre. John was the last canonised English man before the reformation and was a popular saint of English nobility in the fifteenth century. Henry V is said to have considered that St John of Bridlington and St John of Beverley had interceded on his behalf with regards to Agincourt. The Priory had quite strong precinct defences from the 12th century. The Bayle, the sizeable gatehouse, dates originally from the 12th century, although the large chamber over the gatehouse was added circa the date of the licence most probably as a court room. (Keeton, 2002, pp. 14-15) The gatehouse was also much used by the Almoner, who’s duties were related to pilgrims. Any evidence for actual crenellations on this building or the priory church have been lost to later alterations.

The licence for St Benet Holme Abbey, at the request of Burga, the widow of Sir William de Vaux might also be a memorial if, as I suspect, the abbey was the burial place of Sir William.

Harpham Church
Harpham Church
Justification for taxation or enforcement of services

Several municipal LCs are combined with murage grants or other taxation powers as with the Leominster licence above. Murage had been granted for Coventry in 1329 but work did not start until 1364 (VCH Warwick Vol. 8 pp. 1-23 for the complex history of the walls) after the granting of an LC in 1363 (CPR 1361-64 p. 417) and a subsequent commission (CPR 1364-67 p. 2210) had stimulated work. The technique was repeated with a new licence in 1385 (CPR 1381-85 p. 557) but this failed to have the same effect and the walls were not completed until 1540. Rye, another town granted murage years before a licence11, had, in its licence of 1369 (CPR 1367-70 p. 244) granted ‘whereas for lack of enclosure their town was lately burned in time of war by the king's enemies from foreign parts’, details the taxes to be collected and empowers the mayor and bailiffs to distrain non-payers. As with any tax there is no guarantee that a collected tax is actually used for the stated purpose although the statement of purpose does show contemporary concerns. Such perceived concerns may not, however, reflect the reality of a problem. Clearly in Rye 20 years of murage, before the Black Death, had not been spent on a wall and ‘frequent’ french raids had not either inspired such work or stopped trade. Ralph Ergham, bishop of Salisbury and chancellor to John of Gaunt had a licence for numerous properties granted in 1377 (CPR 1377-81 p. 9)12 and a commission (ibid p. 10) set up the same day cited this licence and empowered the bishop "to take as many workmen and labourers within six leagues of the city [of Salisbury] as he shall for the strengthening of the same, excepting the fee of the church, and put them upon the works at reasonable wages; with power to arrest and imprison the disobedient."

About 12 LCs seem to be used in this way.


12 English royal licences are granted as a pardon. This has been used to suggest LCs were a requirement. For example of the licence granted, in 1383, to Thomas Hungerford, John of Gaunt’s chief steward and speaker of the House of Commons, David King writes "The fine imposed was only 1 mark; the authorities can hardly have been much incensed at this technical offence." (King, 1983, p. 447n10) This was a fine not an amercement so expressly a fee for the pardon and a fee that would have barely covered the costs of administration. Hungerford’s powerful position, as Gaunt's steward rather than speaker, may have provoked some concern either locally or nationally so that the pardon became needed to alleviate anxiety about his building work. The pardons granted William Paulett, for his government financed artillery tower at Netley (CPR 1547-48 pp. 66-8), and William Petre, for Ingatestone Hall (CPR 1550-53 p. 110), by Edward VI are clearly honourific and represent the child status of the King. The actual grants were given by a regency council of which Paulett was a member and Petre a close advisor. If there was any real negative association with a ‘pardon’ then clearly Paulett would simply have omitted any such reference.

The Decline of the Licence to Crenellate

The fundamental reason for obtaining a LC seems clearly to have been prestige. However, the prestige that a licence held was limited, partly because grants may have been fairly readily available. Before 1348 Edward III was granting LCs in increasing number. In 1335 Robert de Eslington received a LC for Eslington Tower (CPR 1334-38 p. 78). Nothing remains of this tower, although it was recorded as capable of housing a garrison of 20 men in 1509 (Holdis and Towneshyppes), joint smallest garrison in the list; Bibblestone Hall, Northumberland, also recorded in the list as capable of garrisoning 20 men, gives an idea of the relatively humble building that Eslington Tower probably was. I’m not able to identify Robert Eslington but the Eslington’s held the manor by ‘certain local services of the species of serjeantry’ (Mackenzie, 1825 p. 27). Clearly when LCs are granted to such lowly members of the gentry some of the kudos is lost.

Arguably the most prestigious award of later medieval England was to become a Knight of the Garter. The order was created in, that notable date, 1348 after an earlier idea for a larger order of the ‘Round Table’ had collapsed. 390 men became KCs in the years 1348 to 1600 but only 20 of these obtained licences to crenellate.14 About 150 men obtain licences in the generations around and after the foundation of the order. This would suggest that the licence was much less sought after than membership of the Order of the Garter but still had some prestige for all ranks of the ruling classes from royal Dukes, old noble families like the Staffords and Nevilles and new members of the elite like ‘son of a catchpole’ William Paget. However, virtually all of these LCs were granted in association with some other privilege, usually emparking. The dramatic falling off of the number of licences granted after 1348 was, clearly, the result of the Black Death15 but the failure of the numbers granted to recover to pre 1348 levels may be explained by an erosion of the prestige of the licence as it was effectively supplanted by chivalric institutions.

On top of this decline in the prestige of LCs, a displacement of the kudos of being part of the military elite entitled to use symbols of military might, by its replacement with a display of military status through chivalric orders is a more general decline, initially slight and never complete, of the military role of the gentry. Increasing numbers of the gentry payed scutage and more none military people, like lawyers and merchants, became members of the gentry16. The prestige of a LC remained with some gentry but the increase in licences to empark suggests that status became more to be displayed by the privileges of lordship rather then the martial duties. The architectural symbols of lordship increasing became symbolic of classical education rather than military prowess; the Ionic portico rather than the crenellated gatehouse. When the last known LC is granted in 1589 (CPR 31 Elizabeth I - List and Index Society Vol. 300 p. 55 no. 297), tagged onto a licence to enlarge his park, it is to Sir Moyle Finche a steward for the duchy of Lancaster and Kent MP. Although he had a role, as deputy treasurer, in the defence forces organised for the 1588 Armada emergency he was hardly a soldier, although his ‘military’ role, and the slight revival in militarism the emergency provoked, may well have inspired this grant. The 4 centred brick arched, castellated, gateway of the house survives at Eastwell Manor, Kent.17


I believe Platt’s challenges to Coulson’s explanations of licences to to crenellate is readily responded to. LCs were generally inspired by reasons of social prestige and only rarely by direct concerns about defence. The weight of evidence, based on historical exploration of many individual licences and licence holders, presented by Coulson and others, has persuaded many individuals about the validity of Coulson's basic arguments about LCs in particular and late medieval ‘fortified’ houses (i.e. castles) in general. A better understanding of LCs comes from exploration of the stories of the individuals and institutions granted licences and not from sweeping assumptions based on broad historical themes, some of which, particularly accounts of violence, were and are exaggerated for psychological, social and political reasons. However, this is not to say that Coulson's account of LCs is not without weaknesses which should be more fully explored. In particular, given Coulson’s statement that ‘a licence was prestigious and could be had for the asking’ (Coulson, 1982, p. 70) and was, even when a charge was made, cheap (the equivalent of a few hundred pounds in todays money), what was the reason for so few licences being issued. He informs me that applicants were not vetted and seldom checked (Coulson pers corr), although I expect that, amongst the relatively small group that made up the English gentry some degree of informal vetting would readily occur, even if not always totally effectively. Comparison could be made with grants for markets which, over the same period, are about 5 times greater than LCs. The very comprehensive gazetteer of markets and fairs compiled by Dr Samatha Letters for the Centre for Metropolitan History18 certainly makes such a comparison a feasible task for someone. Whatever the method used to explore the issue of the relatively rarity of LCs the answer will not lie in a general history of the great and and good of England but in detailed study of the gentry.


I would like to thank the Castle Studies Group for a grant to fund the research on which this paper is based. I would also like to thank Dr Charles Coulson for some helpful comments and Dr Andy King for providing me a copy of his 2007 article and helpful comments. Finally thanks to Craig for reading drafts of this paper and providing much constructive stylistic comment. Any remaining errors of fact and interpretation are my own.


Post Number granted LCs of Total % Notes
Lord High Steward 2 about 15 13% noble and often hereditary
Earl Marshall 5 33 15% noble and generally hereditary
Lord High Constable 2 16 (1176-1521) 12.5% Hereditary (Bohun; Stafford)
Chief Justice 2 41 (1268-1607) 5% 2nd highest judge after Lord Chancellor. Brothers Henry and Geoffrey le Scope
Chancellor 14 87 (1199-1617) 16% Often clerics, often ‘payed’ by being made a bishop.
Treasurer 12* 99 (1196-1608) 12% Generally a cleric until the late C14. A position of merit rather than status
Keeper of the Privy Seal 6 71 (1307-1608) 8.5%  
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 3 36 (1361-1601) 8.5%  
Admiral of England 1 23 (1413-1619) 4.5% Usually held by a noble
Warden of the Cinque Ports 6 77 (1204-1597) 8% Generally a life appointment from the mid C13.
Master/Keeper of the Rolls 0 47 (1286-1603) 0 Legal position

Reasonable complete lists of office holders (between the given dates) exist for the above positions. In 1372, Parliament demanded that laymen should be appointed chancellor, treasurer, privy seal and chamberlain of the Exchequer. Many individuals held more than one of these posts, sometimes at the same time.
By using an end date of 1600 for these positions I have effectively minimised the percentages of office holder who were granted licences to crenellate.

*Includes Edington Priory, which although the licence was to the Rector and brothers, was intended as a residence for William Edington and who is named on the licence.


The sources used to establish biographical details used in this analysis are numerous and can be found in the licence pages



0a[This footnote not in original article - added 25 Jan 2016]. Natashy Coveney, in her PhD thesis Moated Sites in Medieval England: A Reassesment (2014 University of Leicester) (online via gives a current count of medieval moated sites as 6350 certain plus a further 2102 possible sites (p. 1), although this does include 'homestead' moats held by people outside even a wide definition of 'gentry'.

1 Nothing remains of four houses licensed to John Pylkington as late as 1477 and fairly intense research was required to even identify the sites of the houses but when identified at least one house had historical evidence of a gatehouse and another slight archaeological evidence of being moated (Davis, 2008, p. 4).

2The visible stars of the night sky are randomly distributed. They form clumps and it is the nature of human visual psychology to see these clumps as patterns (constellations). The misapprehension that random distributions are ‘even’ is well known to statisticians.

2a[This footnote not in original article - added 25 Jan 2016]. Joan Dean did this analysis which was published 2010 as 'Statistical Analysis of Licences to Crenellate' Castle Studies Group Journal Vol. 24 pp. 299-309 which shows the expected London cluster and two, smaller less significant clusters, around Hull and Salisbury. John Dean does some further statistical analysis of the data which is of interest although I'm not entirely convinced by his conclusions.

2b[This footnote not in original article]. The Bodiam licence was issued during an invasion crisis of the 1380's. Other licences of this period do not mention enemies. Was Bodiam built in response to an invasion threat or was Dallingridge using this scare to gain a prestigious licence?

3in fact the house, without a garrison, could not have been part of a meaningful local defensive scheme.

4Aymer received an LC for Portland in 1257 (CPR 1247-58 p. 607)

5The relationship between the two St John’s is unclear. I suspect Roger was the younger brother of Robert. Robert’s father William had been a rebel during the time of Henry II but was also Sheriff of Southampton and Governor of Jersey and Guernsey.

6Ian Mortimer, 2006 for biography. Mortimer includes an appendix (pp. 430-32) detailing the king’s doctors, but does not include Exeter (the queen’s doctor). The other, more famous, physician to the royal children, John Gaddesden (author of the Rosa Anglica Medicina) was rewarded with a canonry in St Paul’s London but died in 1348 or 1349, presumably of the plague.

7The suggestion here may be that Baldwin was aware he was dying and was making some final arrangements for his wife.

7a[This footnote not in original article]. Although I've mention the resort to legal processes medieval courts could be corrupt and not everyone had confidence in them. This does not mean violence was always a first resort. What it does mean is that each licence should be be examined, as much as possible, on a case by case basis.

8Charles Coulson was kind enough to acknowledge my previous article as a ‘reasonably complete summary’ of his published views. His extensive bibliography on the subject can, mostly, be found there.

9I have been unable to establish the actual relationship between John and Joan. She died in 1380 so not herself involved in the Bridlington licence, but other members of the de Thwengs may have been.

10‘Commission to the mayor and bailiffs of Coventre and Thomas de Westminster. Nassyngtpn, William Wolf and William de Corby to assess and apportion on the merchants and inhabitants of the town (civitatem) and others commorant there a subsidy for the work of crenellating the town pursuant to a licence granted by the king.’

11Murage first granted in 1329 and then in 1333, 1336, 1343, 1348.

12The same properties had all been licenced to Bishop Wyvill in 1337 (CRP 1334-38 p.498)

14Ralph, Baron Stafford, founder, invested 1348; John Grey of Retherfield, founder, 1348; Reginald, Lord Cobham, 1352; Thomas Ughtred, 1358; John, Lord Neville, 1369; John Devereux, 1388; Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, 1399; Ralph Neville, 1402; John Stanley, 1404; John, Lord Lovell, 1405; Richard, Duke of York, 1433; Ralph Boteler, 1439; William, Lord Hastings, 1462; Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, 1495; Richard Guldeford, 1500; William Fitzwilliam, 1526; Anthony Browne, 1540; William Paulet, 1543; Thomas Wriothesley, 1545; William Paget, 1547.

15It has been suggested that the requirement for an LC was removed, in the Northern Marches, after the battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 to encourage the building of fortifications. This suggestion is dismissed by King (2007, p. 374)

16Strictly speaking all members of the gentry were ‘military’, although relatively few were full-time soldiers. For some military service was clearly a secondary duty.

17This licence was missed from Coulson’s, 2007, review of Kent licences ‘On Crenellating, in Kent and Beyond - A Retrospection’ Castle Studies Group Journal Vol. 21 pp. 189-202, although he had only recently become aware of it and, probably, not had time to do the sort of thorough background research that is the mark of his publications.

18Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516' The work was published in 2003 (List and Index Society Publications Special Series, Vols. 32 and 33) but was online before this date and, importantly, has been updated online since then.

19The data in this section applies only to individuals granted licences for private houses. It excludes other licences, such as those to abbeys, towns etc and those few licences granted to groups of named individuals.

20A few licences do not fully specify the properties and some properties are licenced more than once.


Home | Books | Links | Fortifications and Castles | Other information | Help | Downloads | Author Information | Contact