A quick history of town criers

The pandemic dictated that this year’s Town Crier Championships had to be held in silence, so this might be a reasonable time to stop and ask about town criers’ history in England.  

 

The Normans. Doesn’t everything trace back to the Normans?

In England, we can trace town criers at least back to 1066, when the Normans invaded the country and put themselves in charge, adding an overlay of the Old French they spoke to the Old English that everyone else did.

While they were at it, they also took over the land, the government, and anything that was left after that was parceled out.

The reason I mention their language, though, is that roughly a thousand years later town criers still start their cries with “Oyez, oyez,” which is French for “Listen up, you peasants.” 

Okay, it’s French for “Hear ye, hear ye,” which is English for “Listen up, you peasants.” And it’s pronounced, “Oh yay,” for whatever that information may be worth. 

Whatever they say after that, they’re supposed to end with “God save the queen.” Or king. Or whatever. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses.

The reason we can trace town criers back to the Norman invasion is that two of them were woven into the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the tale of the invasion in–um, yeah–tapestry. You can pick out the town criers because they’re carrying hand bells, which they rang to gather people around them. Because, loud as they were, a bell was even louder. 

They were sometimes called bellmen. 

Even today, town criers open their cries by ringing a hand bell, although historically some used drums or horns. 

But in spite of their Frenchified call,  it wasn’t the Normans who introduced the town criers–at least not according to the website maintained by the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which says the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxons carrying King Harold’s news about the Norman invasion to the populace.

Harold? He’s the guy who not long after sending out news of an invasion lost the battle, the war, and his life. 

If the loyal company is right and the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxon, then the tradition predated the Normans.

And who am I to question a loyal company? 

Well, I’m the person who stumbled into the Windsor and Maidenhead Town Crier site, which also mentions the tapestry but says its town criers came into the country with the Normans. 

That’s the trouble with drawing your history from visual art. A lot of interpretation is involved.

A third site ducks the issue by saying the town criers’ position was formalized after the Norman invasion. 

So we’re going to be cagey about this. Go eat a cookie or something and I’ll move us along while you’re distracted.

 

The town crier’s role

With the medieval period we can pick up more verifiable information about town criers. At a time when most people were illiterate, word of mouth was the social media of its day. Also the newspaper, the radio station, and the TV set. As Historic UK explains,  “most folk were illiterate and could not read.” 

Well, holy shit. As if being illiterate wasn’t bad enough, they couldn’t read either. Talk about multiple handicaps.

So the town crier would ring their bell or blow their horn or pound their drum, gather people around, and bellow out the news, proclamations, bylaws, thou-shalt-nots, thou-shalts, and whatever else the person pulling their strings felt was important. 

They had strings? Who pulled them? 

I haven’t found a direct answer, so I’m patching this together as best I can. Sprinkle a bit of salt over it, would you? 

The string puller(s) would probably have varied with the period we’re talking about. At at least some times and in some places, town criers were paid by the proclamation. Some sites talk about a city or town having a town crier, which makes it sound less like a casual job, and one site talks about town criers proclaiming ads. You know, “Oyez, oyez. Lidl is selling three lettuces for the price of two, but hurry or they’ll all be gone. God save the salad dressing.” 

But local government would also have come into the picture, wanting its announcements cried out, wanting the reason for a hanging made public, passing on announcements it received from the king or queen, which gives me a nifty excuse to mention that town criers were considered to be speaking in the name of the monarch, so attacking one was an act of treason.

Generally, once the crier had read out a proclamation, they’d nail it to the door post of the town pub. (Come on, where else are you going to gather the citizenry?) That gives us the word post in the sense of news and communication. 

Okay, they also made their proclamations at markets and town squares and anyplace else people could be counted on to gather. But an inn? If people gathered and listened, they might well step inside, buy a beer, and talk over what they’d heard. And a smart landlord might well offer the town crier a free beer after a well-placed announcement, although that’s the purest of speculation.

One site says town criers also patrolled the streets at night, looking for troublemakers (who else would be out after dark?) and making sure fires were damped down after the curfew bell rang. 

The origin of the word curfew lies in the Old French for covering a fire: cuvrir and feu. Fire was a constant threat in medieval towns. Having an old busybody with a bell making sure everyone really did cover theirs would be annoying but also useful. It’s believed (which is to say, it’s not exactly known) that one reason more people didn’t die in the Great Fire of London is that town criers warned people about the fire. It’s also believed that many more people died in the fire than were ever counted, so if you’ve still got some salt left, use a bit more of it here, because a good part of what I’ve found on the topic was written by nonhistorians. And speaking as a nonhistorian myself, we screw up more often than we like to admit.

Towns did organize unpaid overnight patrols (you’ll find a bit about that here), and the watchmen were sometimes called bellmen, but all men were expected to volunteer or to pay someone else to take their shift. They could all have been town criers, in spite of sometimes being called bellmen. I’m going to crawl out on a thin branch and say that some nonhistorian got fooled by the word bellman being used for two different jobs.

So who got to be a town crier? Someone with a loud voice who could sound authoritative. And someone who could read, because proclamations would come in written form and needed to be read out accurately. 

Town criers haven’t, historically, all been men. Some were husband-and-wife teams, and some were women. The Northwich 1790s records mention a woman who’d been carrying out the role “audably and laudably” for more than twenty years.

The collective noun for a group of town criers–of course you need to know this–is a bellow of criers. 

As literacy spread, town criers became less important, and where they continued, more decorative. These days, if you find them at all you’ll find them dressing in three-cornered hats (or other gloriously outdated headgear) and all the clothes that go with them. They’re most likely to show up to open local events or at contests.

 

And that brings us back to the silent championships

And so we return to this year’s silent championships: If the contestants couldn’t make a noise, what were they judged on?

Organizer Carole Williams said it was “a return to the bare bones of crying. . . .It’s a real skill to write a cry that sticks to the theme, that enlightens people, and doesn’t bore the audience. And it all has to be done in 140 words.”

That makes it sound like a shouted tweet, doesn’t it?

Williams, by the way is a crier from Bishops Stortford, which I include that because place names don’t get any more English than that, and a member of the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which I include because it hosts the competition and because organization names don’t get any more English than that. Even if you make them up.

Normally, the contest is judged on sustained volume and clarity, on diction and inflection, and on content, but this year’s entries had to be recorded and since not everyone could be expected to get their hands–or their cries–on good recording equipment, the organization decided to make sure everyone had an even chance.

The contest raised money for a mental health organization called–appropriately enough–Shout. 

*

Thanks to Bear Humphreys at Scribblans for sending me a link to the silent crier championships. 

English history: the yeoman

In the stratified world of medieval England, the yeoman was wedged into a slot between the gentry and the peasants. Then history came along and blurred the categories, leaving confusion in its wake.

History will do that if you let it. 

Irrelevant photo: foxglove leaves after a frost

The hazy definition of a yeoman 

One way to define both the medieval aristocracy (they had titles) and the gentry (the people just under them, who didn’t), is to say that they owned land but didn’t (god forbid!) get their hands dirty by working it. So we can define yeomen as people who owned some land and also worked it.  

There were more yeomen than either gentry or aristocrats, but nowhere near as many of them as of the people below them–the serfs and free but poor laborers. Above all, yeomen were free. In an age where most people who worked the land were serfs, that was hugely important.

If that all sounds clear, stay with me. I can get laundry muddy while it’s still in the machine.

Yes, thank you. It’s a gift.

A yeoman could hold a fairly wide range of land and still be a yeoman. In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (you might want to get your hands on a copy, because you never know when you’ll need it, do you?), Ian Mortimer tells us (or me, since you haven’t gotten your copy yet) that the most prosperous yeomen would have been well fed and comfortable, with servants to help with both the  housework and on the land. Some, in fact, rented whole estates from lords, ran the manor courts, and effectively functioned as lords. After the plague, this became relatively common, although some definitions will tell you that owning land was central to the definition. 

So some yeomen owned land and some rented it. Owning land was central to the definition of the yeoman and also wasn’t necessary.There’s your first bit of clarity breaking down, so let’s confuse the picture more.

They weren’t all in the same economic situation. Well below the most prosperous yeomen were others with some thirty acres of land, a third of which (like all land in this period) needed to lie fallow each year, leaving them with twenty acres that produced crops each year. In a good year, they’d be okay. In a bad year–in a series of bad years–they wouldn’t be. 

And below them? A yeoman might have no more than eight acres, and a bad year might force him to sell it, leaving him and his family to find whatever way they could to support themselves.

In his sixteenth century Chronicles, Raphael Holinshed (don’t feel bad; I never heard of him before either) described yeomen as having free land worth £6 per year and as not being entitled to bear arms. 

Other sources will also tell you that yeomen kept arms and fought for whoever their lord was, with yeomen becoming a category of soldier. The contradiction might be explained by the passage of time: What century was it when you opened the shutters and looked out at this green and pleasant land? 

It’s also possible that it can’t be explained that way. A yeoman’s son left an account of his father fighting for the king against the Cornish rebels in 1497–before Holinshed– and being not just armed but on horseback.

Aren’t the gaps and contradictions in the historical record fun?

In English Society in the Later Middle Ages, Maurice Keen talks about the terms yeoman, husbandman, ploughman, and hind coming into use in the fifteenth century, replacing the earlier division of the rural population into villein, bondman, and cottar, whose point of reference is the manor. Do what you like with that.

 

Were yeomen a class?

That will depend, at least partly, on how you define class. In an age when land ownership was the measure of your social standing, a yeoman who rented his land from a lord might have gone against expectations by being materially better off than a yeoman who owned only a small piece. Their role in village life would have been very different and their economic interests might have been different. What united them as a category was that in a time when most people who worked the land were serfs, they were free. And, of course, that they weren’t gentry, even if at the top end they brushed up against the gentry.

So were they a class? 

Forget it. I’m staying out of this.

A village’s more prosperous yeoman families (yeo-families?) were likely to fill the local roles, becoming the ale tasters, the jurors, the haywards, the constables, the tithing men, the churchwardens. They might also have become the lords’ retainers and so part of the lords’ households, and at some point, the word came to mean retainer, attendant, guard, subordinate official. 

But you noticed the word man tucked inside yeoman, right? Landowners were entirely or overwhelmingly male, and power (and with it, the slant of thought and language) was overwhelmingly male, but this was an age when adults married and if they could, had kids. So what were the wives and daughters of yeomen called? Ask Lord Google about yeowomen and he’ll lead you to only the most marginal of dictionaries. The respectable ones blink their eyes hazily and say, “Yeo-what?” 

The absence of yeo-words for the yeoman’s family members weighs (as far as I can tell, and keep in mind that I have no expertise in this field whatsoever) on the side of them not being a class or definable group that’s expected to behave as a group and restock itself.  

On the side of seeing yeomen as a cohesive group, though, if not necessarily a self-perpetuating one, were the Sumptuary Laws of 1363, which forbid yeomen or their families from wearing silver, gold, jewels, enamelware, silk, embroidery, or any of the more expensive furs. Their clothing had to be made from fabric that cost no more than £2 for the whole cloth.

What does the whole cloth mean? My best wild guess is a full bolt, because £2 was a shitload of money at that point. 

Ditto an act of 1445 that prohibited anyone of yeoman status or below from sitting in Parliament.

On the side of not seeing them as a cohesive group, some of the more prosperous yeomen intermarried with the gentry. Some might apprentice their children to tradesmen–the more prosperous ones to the more lucrative trades and the less to the less. On either level, though, they moved into a different category within the medieval social structure.

The children of some yeomen might become servants in other households, and here we need to stop and look at the role of servants.

In How to Be a Tudor, Ruth Goodman says that servants were often in their teens and likely to work only a few years before marrying and setting up their own households. The divide between servant and master or mistress wasn’t huge, and it wasn’t just the rich who had servants. The servants of the non-rich, though, weren’t there to provide personal services. A small-scale husbandman–a category of farmers below the yeomen–might take on a servant to help with the housework or the land, and there was always plenty of that.

The servant’s work depended on the household they served, and being a servant was less a question of class than of age. The child of a prosperous yeoman might serve in a richer household, and a Tudor-era description of dinner at a viscount’s house (dinner being at 10 a.m.) involved the gentleman usher, the yeoman usher, the yeoman of the ewery (in charge of hand washing and towels), the gentlemen waiters, the yeoman of the cellar, and I have no idea how many other people running around and bowing (even to an empty room). 

For our purposes, what matters in all this silliness is yeoman seems to be a title here, not a distinct class of person. He’s not the top servant in the dining room, but he’s there and he has a job title, matching one of the definitions in the Collins Dictionary: a lesser official in a royal or noble household. They also toss in a subordinate to an official (a sheriff, for example) or to a craftsman or trader.

 

Yeomen and the military

Henry VII created the Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard, known to their friends and family as the Yeomen of the Guard. They’re the oldest military corps in Britain, having guarded not just the kings and queens but Charles II during the Commonwealth, when II was in exile in France and the king of nothing at all. 

Their job traditionally involved guarding the inside of the monarch’s palaces and tasting his (or occasionally her) meals in case someone was trying to poison him. Or her. One of them got the monarch’s bed ready and one slept outside the bedroom. In a very un-British defiance of tradition, that bit of rigamarole’s been abandoned, but the job titles–sorry, ranks–still exist: Yeoman Bed-Goer and Yeoman Bed-Hanger. 

If there was a title for the food taster, I haven’t found it. I suggest Yeoman I’m Not Sure That Tastes Right, Maybe I Should Have a Second Bite. Or Yeoman You Got Any Dessert to Go with That? 

Don’t confuse the Yeomen of the Guard with the Yeoman Warders. The Warders still guard the Tower of London and the two uniforms are similar but the Warders wear a red cross belt that runs diagonally across the front of their tunics.

A what? 

Damned if I know. Can we talk about something else?

Thanks. Let’s backtrack: 

In 1794, Britain eyeballed the threat from revolutionary France and then eyeballed its military, which was a combination of draftees (you only had to serve if you couldn’t afford to pay for a substitute) and volunteers, and it decided the structure was too shaky for the weight a war was likely to put on it.

Its solution was to form volunteer units that would be subject to military discipline. More radically, when they were called out, they’d be paid. The cavalry units were to be recruited–at least theoretically–from yeoman farmers. They owned horses, after all, so there were halfway there. You didn’t expect the government to provide them, did you? Recruits also provided their own uniforms, but the government supplied their arms and ammunition.

Their officers were from the aristocracy or the gentry, because that was the natural order of things.

Those units became the yeomanry, or yeomanry cavalry, and they continued as a volunteer military force that could be called out in case of an invasion or to put down revolts. Because they were less than fully trained, they played a disastrous role in the Peterloo Massacre

In 1907, they were merged into the Territorial Army. The Royal Yeomanry continues as a light cavalry force within the British Army Reserve.

The Royal Navy and Marines have the ranks yeoman of signals and chief yeoman of signals. They’re petty officers. None of that has much, if anything, to do with original meaning of the word except that they keep the sense of someone who’s not high up the ladder but who’s recognizably not on the bottom. 

And finally, let’s come back to yeo-women. Women are now members of the Yeoman Warders, and they’re called yeomen. Ditto–and more interestingly–in the U.S. women became yeomen during World War I. The military had no entry points for women except an accidental one. The Naval Act of 1916 said the reserve force would include “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful service for coastal defense.” 

Who’d have thought, when it was written, the a person might be a woman? So they left a loophole and women got through it. The military needed bodies,  and the secretary of the Navy and the Bureau of Navigation (which translates into the personnel department) decided that nothing in the language kept women from enlisting in the reserves. In 1917 they started actively recruiting. Women became radio operators, stenographers, nurses, messengers, and chauffeurs, truck drivers, cryptographers, and mechanics. 

Most of them were yeomen (F), meaning female yeomen.

Nobody had figured out what they were supposed to do for uniforms, though. Wearing anything other than a skirt or dress still lay outside the wildest official (and for the most part, unofficial) imagination, so they were given some money and some guidelines and told to find themselves something vaguely uniformish. 

They had to find their own places to live as well.

A quick history of English castles

The world–which doesn’t include you and me, of course, since we’re way too smart for this–thinks it knows about English castles. They have big walls, lots of stones, men in tight pants, women in pointy hats, and Walt Disney off to one side saying, “Make the tower higher. And narrower. No narrower. And the moat–make that wider.”

Then you go stomping around England, you get your shoes muddy, and you follow some little sign that points toward a castle and find not a building with a high tower and a moat clean enough for ducks (and possibly a wandering hero) to paddle in, but a big mound of earth encircled by a dry ditch, and maybe a bit of wall but maybe not. You slog back to the sign and read it again just to be sure.

Yup, it said castle.

Welcome to castles before the Norman invasion.

Relevant photo: A bit of ruin from Corfe Castle, complete with tourists.

For centuries, whoever the British were at the moment (layers of invasion and migration meant the British weren’t always the same people and didn’t always call themselves British, but let’s keep things simple and pretend they did) had been using fortified hills to defend themselves against the enemy of the moment. They’re sometimes called hill forts and sometimes called castles.

Take Maiden Castle (from the Celtic Mai Dun, Great Hill), in Dorset, by way of example. It dates from 3000 BCE–the late Stone Age–and was extended and enlarged during the Iron Age.

An article on the BBC’s history website says that Bronze Age and early Iron Age hill forts don’t show much sign of having been permanent settlements. It speculates that they might have been used for gatherings, for trade, or for (the archeologist’s fallback explanation for anything that doesn’t make some other kind of sense) religious rituals.

By 450 BCE, many hill forts were going out of use but the ones that weren’t got rebuilt with multiple banks and ditches and complex entrances to make them harder to attack. And–big change here–the  settlements inside them became permanent. Around 100 BCE, in parts southern England, more hill forts were abandoned. The reasons aren’t clear but one possibility is that the tribal states has become more stable.

And then the Romans came and all the cards were shuffled and dealt out again, only this time the Romans got to make up the rules. I haven’t been able to find any information on whether the hill forts were any of any military use in fighting the Romans. One source tells a tale of Roman troops fighting a bloody battle against the Britons at Maiden Castle, but another source says it’s complete bullshit, although it’s maybe a little more diplomatic than that. What seems clear is that the Romans destroyed some hill forts (presumably because they still had a military value) and recycled others. At Maiden Castle, they built a temple. To the goddess of outdated military strategies.

In more or less 60 CE, when Boudicca led a rebellion, she took the battle to the Romans instead of plonking herself down on a hill fort and yelling. “I double dare you to come get me.” Not Boudicca. She burned London, Colchester, and Verulamium before they defeated her. She went down in history as a hero to Britons, to women who like a kick-ass heroine, and to people who admire names with multiple spellings. A short chat with Lord Google yielded not just Boudicca but also Boudica, Boudicea, and Boadicea. You almost can’t spell it wrong.

A few hundred years later, the Romans toddled off back to Rome and someone struck a gong to mark the beginning of the medieval era. Lord Google tells me that by 410 the last Romans had left England. He also says the medieval period started in the fifth century, neatly coinciding with the last Roman splashing his or her sandals through the surf to board the last ship, and ended in the fifteenth.

Thank you, Lord Google. I have left the usual offering of data at your door.

Would anyone living through the shift have known that the era had changed? Of course they would. Not only was there that gong, Walt was off to the side calling for costume changes. Shuck off those togas and the feathery helmets. I know, they do suit you, but they’ve got to go. Put on some chain mail and–oh, hell, it’s still early in the medieval period so throw in a bearskin or two. With the Romans gone, these people are half barbarians anyway.

The women? Oh, if tf they’re young, give them something floaty and long with about a six-inch waist. If they’re old, it doesn’t matter. Got any bearskins left?

So yes, the costumes changed and so did the military situation. The Celts, Angles, and Saxons looked at those hill forts and thought, Hmm, we could do something with those. For the Celts, they became a place to defend themselves against Anglo-Saxon invaders, For the Anglo-Saxons, they became a place to defend themselves against Viking invaders. For the Vikings, they became a damn nuisance.

The Anglo-Saxons also built walls around their towns, but they still weren’t anything Walt would recognize as a castle.

In the eleventh century, before the Norman invasion and when the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor was still on the throne, a French-style castle, or possibly two, was built. A chronicler wrote in 1051, “The foreigners had built a castle in Herefordshire, and had inflicted every possible injury and insult upon the king’s men in those parts.”

What the insulting foreigners built was new enough that the Anglo-Saxon chronicler had to borrow a French word for it.

You wouldn’t think an eleventh-century chronicler, writing with a quill, would have a website, would you? Follow the link above, though, and you’ll see how wrong you were.

Then the Normans invaded and built castles all over England. Or if you want to think of it this way, they introduced a new, French technology: the castle as those of us who saw too many Disney movies know it.

Sort of. Because these places weren’t the elegant palaces of Disney dreams. They were heavy on military might and short on romance, especially at first. William granted land and lordships to his followers and the new lords built castles to solidify their hold on their land and to keep their subjects subjected.

Their subjects? They were at the very least grumbly about the change and in places were armed and dangerous.

A lot of the earliest castles were no more than wooden stockades on earthen mounds, and the mounds were sometimes borrowed from an existing hill fort. The Normans were a few thousand fighters in a country of 2 million conquered people and they faced multiple rebellions. They didn’t have time to build anything elaborate. 

Within a couple of generations, the Normans had built between five hundred and a thousand of castles. And within roughly the same amount of time, the rebellions were over.

When time allowed, the wooden castles were rebuilt in stone.

Much later, when England conquered Wales, it followed the same pattern: Conquer, plant a castle, water it with fighting men, and when the inevitable rebellions grow, cut them down.

But let’s go back to the ways the new castles on English soil were different from what came before. HIll forts covered a large piece of land and were meant to defend a whole community. The French castle was smaller and taller and was meant to filled with fighters. Not only didn’t they defend the community, initially at least they defended against the community.

They were often built on important roads and rivers, where they could protect trade as well and, just incidentally, allow the lord to control and profit from it.

They were also symbolic, saying, I can build big and I can tower over everything and who do you think you are, you ant? That symbolism was meant to be taken in not only by the Britons but also by other Norman lords–the castle builder’s rivals for power–and by the king. A lord wouldn’t convince anyone he was powerful unless he had a powerful castle, and to prove that his was bigger than everyone else’s he had people pile rock on top of rock to create a cold, giant shell where he could dispense what passed for justice to the lower orders and entertain (which is to say, impress) his near-equals.

That is as depressing as it is predictable. It reminds me of high school. If you didn’t have the right clothes, you were no one. Fortunately, no one in my school had a castle. Or a sword. Those of us who were of the female pursuasion did have tights, using either the British or the American definition. 

What’s the difference? What the British call tights, Americans call pantyhose. They’re sheer things that you wear over your feet and legs and they get runs (which the British call ladders) when you most want them not to. And they go up to the waist. Also (at least as I remember from a hundred or so years ago, when I last wore them) they’re a perfect match for the world’s least comfortable clothes.

What Americans call tights the British also call tights. They’re the same thing but not sheer, and they’re heavier an usually black. They don’t run. Because they’re more practical, they’re less acceptable in formal situations, because formality demands misery. If you don’t want to wear them but sill need to impress someone, just build a very high stone wall around a patch of land the king’s given you.

Nobody who lived in a castle ever wore tights because the fabrics that makes them possible and technology to do something with it hadn’t been invented.

If you’re interested in castles April Munday, of A Writer’s Perspective, has a series of posts on the various elements of the castle–the gate, the hall, the tower, and so forth–covering not only what they looked like but what role they played. They’re well worth your time. The link is to one of them. From there, you’ll have to wander around and find the others. I don’t think she has a separate post on tights, but she did once tell me, in answer to a comment I left, that men of the period wore tight–I think they called them hose. Tight trousery things over their legs, which Americans would call pants-y things. And yes, movies aside, they would’ve bagged at the knee.