Dr Stephen Baxter takes a fresh look at the Middle Ages through the eyes of children, and discovers how they played a vital role in creating the medieval world.
Browse content similar to Too Much, Too Young: Children of the Middle Ages. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
England is on the brink of civil war.
And the life of one young woman is about to change forever.
In a world dominated by dynastic politics, wealth and power,
her future has been decided.
She's one of the richest heiresses in England.
And by noon, Margaret Beaufort will have married into one of the most powerful families in the country.
But this is no ordinary marriage.
Her husband-to-be is nearly eight years old, and she is not yet seven.
These were children burdened with adult responsibility.
And that, in the Middle Ages, was far from unusual.
It's often said that life must have been tough for medieval children.
And it's certainly true that it was hard enough just to survive.
Roughly half the population would die before they reached 1 .
Although children grow up fast
what's surprising is that the experience of childhood could be richly rewarding.
Contemporaries divided the medieval world into three orders -
those who prayed, those who fought, and those who worked.
And this was a view of the world in which everyone had a role,
'I'm Dr Stephen Baxter.
'I've been studying the medieval period for almost 20 years,
'mostly looking at the adult world.'
But I've recently learned that if we try to see this period through the eyes of children,
we give ourselves a chance to view the Middle Ages in a completely new light.
The medieval period spans more than 1,000 years,
from the collapse of Roman Britain in the 5th century,
right up to the rise of the Tudor dynasty in the late 15th
During this time, lowland Britain evolved from a world of warring kingdoms
into a nation, England, under one king,
and with a common language - English.
It was an age defined by three great challenges -
the fight for survival, the fight for power and the fight for salvation.
They all demanded lives of hard work and discipline,
from which not even children were exempt.
And each played its role in determining what it was like to be a medieval child.
By the 7th century, Christianity had swept across the country.
The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and peoples had once been pagan
now they were converted to the Christian faith.
The landscape was being transformed by the monuments of a new religion,
one which was dominated by the idea of a single, all-powerful God
who offered the promise of eternal life.
People were urged to engage in a battle against sin
to guarantee their place in heaven and escape the torments of hell
And children were at the heart of this struggle.
There was a real tension in Christian attitudes towards children.
According to some texts, children were inherently evil.
"None is pure from sin,
"not even the infant whose life is but a day upon the earth."
But other biblical texts stressed the value of children,
adopting the view that children were innately pure,
and possessed the capacity for ultimate wisdom.
"Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,
"thou hast perfected praise".
The question of whether children were born with or without sin
was central to Christianity,
as society grappled with how to lead a spiritual life.
And all this was acted out in the defining institutions of early Christian England - the monasteries.
This is Jarrow monastery near Newcastle, founded in the late 7th century.
The monks here devoted their lives to praying for the community at large.
And it wasn't just men's work.
Some monks entered the monastery at the age of seven.
And, for parents, it wasn't like dropping their kids off at school.
"Child Oblates" as they were called, didn't get to go home in the afternoon.
In fact, most spent the rest of their lives in the monastery
And some never got to see their parents again.
This was a world dominated by sin and the search for salvation,
so the sooner a child engaged in the great battle for the soul, the better.
In about 680, a seven-year-old boy called Bede was sent here.
Just imagine what it must have been like for him when he first arrived.
First he'd have had to swap his clothes for standard-issue monastic garb.
Then he'd have to learn the rules. When to eat, when to sleep,
all in step with the tolling of the monastery bells.
Then he'd have to wake up at midnight, and again at 3am,
trooping inside this chapel for services.
And these were the first of several services held throughout the day,
a routine that was strictly enforced, every day of the year
Bede is more commonly known as the Venerable Bede,
and despite the rigours of this regime, his intellectual life blossomed
So much so that he later wrote the very first History of the English.
It's extraordinary to think it's still in print,
and still read, nearly 1,300 years later.
Unlike Bede, the children who didn't conform could be severely disciplined.
"As often as faults are committed by boys or by youths,
"let them be punished with severe fasts, or chastised with sharp blows
"in order that they may be cured "
"Monks who make mistakes in the oratory are to be punished,
"but boys for such faults shall be whipped."
Oblates were often the children of aristocrats.
So how could their parents abandon them to this life?
We might interpret this as callous behaviour by uncaring parents,
but I think to do so would be to misunderstand the medieval thought world.
Precisely because parents loved and cared for their children,
giving them away to a monastery
was just about the greatest sacrifice one could make for the love of God.
So what better than to place a child in the monastery who could pray hard for their salvations
It was almost like buying an insurance policy,
for their the sake of their own souls, but also, the souls of their children,
and of their families and of their ancestors.
It would never have occurred to their parents to postpone this out of respect for childhood.
Medieval life wasn't just about the fight against sin -
it was also about the fight for survival.
Staying alive was a full-time job.
In the Middle Ages, England was very rural.
About 90% of its people lived in the countryside.
They were constantly at the mercy of weather ruining their harvests
and many of them had to pay cripplingly high rents to their landlords.
Like here in Barrington,
a Gloucestershire village clustered around this large green.
We know from Domesday Book that one of the people who held land here in 1086 was Aelfsige of Farringdon.
We know that he looked after several of the King's manors in this part of the world
after the Norman conquest.
He was an Englishman who made good after the conquest. Why? Because he was good at picking up rents
So one can imagine him being a rather loathed figure among the peasant families of this village,
and probably a rather feared figure among the children.
Domesday Book also reveals it was a complex and hierarchical society.
There were about 65 peasant families living here towards the end of the 11th century.
There are 31 villani - that's a medium class peasant,
eight bordari - a much poorer peasant, and 25 slaves.
There's also a priest. But, of course, they were all adult males.
Where are the children?
This place must have been teeming with children,
and yet there's simply no mention of them in Domesday Book.
And that's not unusual.
They're invisible in most medieval documents,
because society then was dominated by men.
But there's one place where remarkable evidence can tell us how hard children fought to survive.
A village called Wharram Percy used to stand on this Yorkshire hillside.
Now, down in the valley, this is all that's left.
This is a beautifully atmospheric place.
A ruined church, surrounded by humps and bumps in the ground
where medieval houses once stood.
But it's also rather a melancholy place - to think that this is all that remains
of a once thriving village.
Graveyards are normally out of bounds to archaeologists
But here, they were allowed to excavate the cemetery.
And they uncovered the largest burial ground of medieval village children ever found in England
Their remains reveal the harsh realities of medieval life in extraordinary detail.
At the English Heritage laboratory in Portsmouth,
Dr Simon Mays has spent 20 years analysing their bones.
When we looked at the child skeletons, one of the first things that struck us
was how small they were, compared with modern children.
I've laid out here the skeleton of a ten-year-old from Wharram Percy
and the one we've got to compare it with is the same size
as a modern ten-year-old is.
So you can see the size difference between the two.
So in theory, a child of ten ought to be that big.
That's right. So what accounts for the difference between the two
I think primarily it's nutrition. It's the quality of their diet
These people are not eating a very nutritious diet.
So diet helps explain the difference between these two bones.
This being the ten-year-old from Wharram Percy.
This being what they should have been at about that age.
And that translates to about a nine-inch difference in standing height -
at that age, that's quite considerable.
Was this child unfortunate to die so young? Was that common at Wharram Percy?
Well, quite a lot of them did die during childhood.
About half of the skeletons we have from the church yard
are of people who've died before they were in their late teens.
Half? Half, that's right. That's terrifying mortality rate.
50-50 chance of actually making it to adulthood.
Roughly speaking, that's right. Gosh.
With stunted growth caused by poor nutrition and half the children dead by their late teens,
these bones can tell a story that Domesday Book doesn't reveal -
just how often children lost the fight for survival.
As an historian, I usually work on documents, artefacts,
buildings, things left behind by adult males.
And it's frustratingly rare to hear the voices of children
in evidence that they themselves left behind.
So it's been very moving to come here
and see the physical remains of children at Wharram Percy.
Despite the high infant mortality rate, this was a very young society.
Roughly half the population was under 18.
So there weren't enough adults to work the land and to feed and clothe everybody.
Children had to be enlisted into the great challenge to survive.
They helped with everything, from looking after the animals to separating the wheat from the chaff.
So it's not quite child's play but it is something that a child could do.
Chris Russell has been using traditional medieval farming methods for over 20 years.
You started at seven in the morning, and you went on. Yeah.
The children would have gone through this, it's a really boring job
And just made sure that everything was taken out.
Despite being undernourished and often sick,
children were doing what we would now consider to be adult work.
And relatively young boys were expected to do hard manual labour.
So how old would you need to be before you'd be allowed to do this sort of work?
You'd have been nine, ten years old as an ox boy.
Because the ox man, as it were the chap, he may have been on the plough behind.
So the boy would have been doing all the running and stumbling over the plough.
You've got to be quite energetic to keep them all in a straight line as well
In the constant struggle to make ends meet, children worked hard and died young.
Does this suggest that medieval life was so tough
that parents didn't care about their children as we do today?
The answer lies at the National Archives at Kew in west London
These are some of England's earliest coroner's rolls.
They were first put together in the 1270s,
so they're nearly 750 years old and you can really tell that
working on them, the ink is beginning to fade.
And to be honest, the script's pretty tough to read, too.
And reading it isn't exactly a joy, either, because it tells a lot of tragic stories.
You always know that every time you see a child's name in them
you know that they're going to come to a sad end.
Here, it's a little girl, and her name was Amice, and she was the daughter of Sybille.
And she was just helping her mum at home, and her mum had a lead vat
full of boiling water, and poor little Amice fell into it.
And her grief-stricken mother rushed across the room
and tried to pull her out of the vat, but it was already too late -
Amice had been killed and was scalded to death.
Here, a certain five-year-old boy called Richard
was helping his father by going to the well to draw water
But he fell in, and clearly couldn't get out, couldn't swim, and drowned,
it says, by misadventure.
And his sister was the first to find him.
And here we read of Robert, son of Walter.
Robert was killed by lightning and his father ran distraught across
the field to try to save him, but it was too late, he was...he was dead.
What these records prove is just how much parents were affected by their children's deaths.
They loved them.
Their compassion shows that this was a caring society
Today, we see childhood as a distinct and precious phase of life.
We try hard to give children a chance to be experimental and free from the stresses of adulthood
But was medieval childhood all work and no play?
Is it not tempting to assume that childhood didn't exist at all?
Well, that's precisely what some historians have argued.
The pioneering book on the history of childhood, written in the 19 0s,
argued that there was no such thing as childhood in the Middle Ages - children were just mini adults
And lots of people believed it after all, it sounds plausible enough.
Well, actually, no - that myth has been completely debunked.
Historians have since discovered evidence
that childhood as a distinct stage of life really did exist
For instance, we catch the occasional glimpse of children at play in medieval manuscripts
And Dr Carenza Lewis is developing a theory that
evidence of children's play could also be uncovered by archaeologists.
She's been studying Brueghel's painting Children's Games.
Wow, this is amazing - what's going on here? Well, I just love this It is children playing.
It's 500 years old but it's really showing children doing all the sorts of things we think of children doing.
It's such a happy picture.
Look, you've got girls turning round swirling their skirts out
You've got children playing king of the castle on a mound there
We've got knuckle bones down here, where you throw something
out in the air and pick stuff up before it hits the ground.
There's a little play - is that a marriage, someone going into a nunnery, a coronation, I'm not sure?
Yes, she's got a crown on. A procession there, they've all put little hoods on.
A little girl playing... I'm not sure if that's a mud pie or a dog poo,
The sort of thing that children do.
This painting is a riotous fantasy of children's games.
Yet Carenza Lewis believes we could find real archaeological evidence for them.
If you imagine all the children in this scene were suddenly called off to bed and they
all rushed of and left, dropped everything they were playing with -
what archaeological site would that leave us?
So we look at this pile of bricks here, the possibility
that children had arranged them like that would be ignored
This pile of standing stones here - there's one game
which actually describes stones put up on end in a circle.
Sounds like Stonehenge - your average archaeologist wouldn't think about children.
Once we've got an idea of the sort of things that children might have
been doing, then we can look at our archaeological sites and look for evidence of those features
I mean, this, someone's using an upturned pot here as a base
You can see he's running towards it, he's just touching it to prove he's touched it.
And that pot is a classic medieval type,
but people very rarely suggest they're being used for play.
And Carenza Lewis's theory is being supported by finds of children's toys.
They're copies of ordinary household objects.
And they're little play items. Like you'd have doll's house furniture,
collections of objects for children to play with.
So we have got a culture of childhood in the medieval period.
Children are playing, they are playing in specific ways to children.
It wasn't all blood, sweat and tears.
"I am youth - wild, fearless, and never constant -
"and I spend all my time playing,
"running, leaping, singing, dancing, wrestling, stone-casting
" and climbing trees to steal fruit."
This reveals that even amongst the privations of the Middle Ages, there was time for children to play.
And that childhood was a distinct period, which was understood,
respected, and sometimes even celebrated in art.
Around the 10th century, the transition from
childhood to adulthood became sharply defined in law.
In the early medieval period, Britain was a mosaic of small
kingdoms frequently at war with each other.
Within each kingdom, there were bloody rivalries, where
vengeance was a personal issue pitting one family against another.
Imagine it's the 7th century and I've killed someone.
The victim's family would come after me for revenge
And if they succeeded in maiming or killing me,
my family would be honour-bound to extract revenge from them,
so we'd be locked in a vicious cycle of revenge and retribution,
spiralling out of control - a blood feud.
In the late 9th and 10th centuries, all that began to change.
England was united as one country for the first time.
And during the reigns of Athelstan, Edgar and Cnut, English law was transformed.
This book is a collection of early English legislation.
It shows that a defining moment of transition
from child to adult became recognised in law.
It says in old English,
"We willeth that al ja freoman beon hundred et un teothinga yer bracht."
This means that once boys reached the age of 12,
they became adults in the eye of the law.
They had to join a "teothinga" a tithing group,
which was a legal gang of ten village men - a medieval answer to crime and punishment.
The essence of the situation was this - if any one
of this member of ten people were accused of committing a crime,
it was the responsibility of the other nine to bring them to justice,
or else they faced the consequences of that crime themselves.
They were, in a sense, guilty of it.
Out went blood feuds, in came a form of community policing.
Every male aged 12 and over was responsible for everyone else.
And there was no opting out.
In this world, the consequences of not being in a gang
were really very serious indeed
Because if you weren't in a tithing, you were outlawed,
and that meant that anyone could kill you with impunity.
This was a sophisticated piece of law.
It created a new mark of manhood.
To prove your commitment to society, you had to swear an oath.
"By the Lords, before whom this relic is holy,
"I will be faithful and true to the King Cnut,
"and love all that he loves, and shun all that he shuns,
"according to God's law.
"And never by will or by force, by word nor by work,
"do ought of what is loathful to him."
So you can imagine that for a 12-year-old,
this would be an extraordinary moment of transition from childhood
into adulthood, performed in public
with everyone else in their village around them.
All this gave you an entry into the adult world, with a status
in society, responsibilities but also protection.
This oath was to become one of the foundations of our common law,
and helped save England from lawlessness.
Between about 900 and 1300, England's economy was booming.
The population was growing, the land was being more intensively
exploited, and there were growing opportunities to profit from trade.
Sheep farming and selling wool to continental merchants
helped make the heart of England and East Anglia very rich.
And this increasing prosperity began to transform society,
with the emergence of a new social class.
They were known as the gentry not quite upper nobility, but definitely posh.
They built themselves luxurious and impressive manor houses.
This gorgeous place
is probably the best surviving manor house anywhere in England -
and the best thing is, I've got the key.
Large houses like this needed servants.
Many would have been adolescent boys
from the surrounding hamlets and villages, lads from the better-off
peasant families, who'd be living away from home for the first time.
They were a source of cheap labour,
but they also had a lot to gain
This was an opportunity to better themselves.
Professor Nicholas Orme is a leading authority on medieval childhood
This is a self-supporting household - it gets its crops,
its meat, in from its own lands
It's got its own kitchens, brewery, bakery, stables.
And in these departments, you have three or four people working,
of whom at least one will be a lad who's being trained up.
This is the main room of the castle,
where a lot of the servants will be, especially if they're not
actually doing anything, this is their kind of base.
This would be home to perhaps a dozen young lads, but not all of them from peasant stock
The top servants are themselves aristocratic.
You see, they are these teenage gentry boys, who are learning
how to receive guests, how to be polite, make conversation,
how to serve meals.
They actually serve the lord and lady themselves.
You've got a very interesting social mix - children of gentry mixing with
children of much lesser families,
perhaps freemen and people from lower down the social spectrum
That's right. They're actually spatially living much closer together than
in Victorian households, where you have this upstairs-downstairs division.
You haven't got that.
They're much more mingled together.
It's a different sort of society.
If we were to imagine a 14-year old boy coming here for the first time,
perhaps the son of a freeman, would he have been surprised by the opulence of a place like this?
It would have been a moment of passage in life, wouldn't it?
To go from a peasant house, which was very much smaller, to this sort of place.
It would certainly be good in terms of food.
There will always be adequate supplies of bread, meat and beer.
In an age of subsistence farming, where a lot of people don't get enough to eat at particular times
of the year, that is a really good position to have - you've got your feet under the table there.
The migration of young people to manor houses like Stokesay
made social mobility possible, creating opportunities for children to move up in the world.
Boys from relatively humble backgrounds
had a chance to break free from the constraints of village life
and to have their rough edges knocked off.
There's a bit of a myth that medieval lords were rather an uncouth lot.
You have the image of a lord gnawing away at a roasted chicken
and throwing it over his shoulder when he's done,
that life in the evening was all about boozing and puking and wenching.
In fact, the medieval world was obsessed about courtesy,
"Thou shalt not spit over the table,
"nor scrape nor scratch thine own flesh with thine fingers.
"At table, beware of cleaning thy teeth with thy knife."
Courtesy books were popular.
Evidence that children were expected to acquire good manners very young
if they were to get on in life
"Look they nails be clean," it says, "in truth," which is ironic because
my nails aren't very clean at the moment,
I wouldn't make a very good medieval servant.
"Retch not nor spit too far, nor laugh or speak too loud."
"Do not pick your nose or let it drop clear pearls,
"or sniff or blow too hard lest your lord hears."
These instruction manuals were intended to teach children model behaviour.
But they hid some of the realities of life in a manor household.
This was essentially an all-male world,
and young boys especially would have encountered bullying and brutality.
You were likely to be a victim of a kind of casual violence that characterised the medieval world.
According to one source, "A lord's huntsman should choose a boy servant
"as young seven or eight who was physically active and keen of sight."
That boy would have to sleep with the hounds to make sure they didn't
fight and bark at night, and during the day he'd walk, feed and comb them.
But if he made any mistakes, the huntsman should beat him
as hard as possible until he had a proper dread
of failing to carry out his master's orders.
Knowing how to be forceful, even brutal, was an important skill.
The great royal and noble dynasties of Britain and Europe were rich and powerful.
And they aimed to stay that way
The inevitable conflicts between them were often settled by violent confrontations.
Medieval society was organised for war.
It had to be. Rebellion, civil war,
running battles between the English, Scots, Irish and Welsh were common.
And there were long campaigns overseas, in France and on crusade in the Holy Land
All this created another clear opportunity for boys.
Lords needed to protect themselves,
and they were also expected to supply warriors for the king's army.
So it was a nobleman's responsibility to train up the next generation of fighting men
Learning combat skills started young,
but it was possible to become one of the superstars of medieval Britain -
This is William Marshall.
He ended up becoming the most celebrated knight
in Europe in the late 12th century - an extraordinary warrior.
But before that, he had a pretty eventful childhood.
At one point, when he was just six years old,
he was within seconds of being hurled to his death.
He'd been taken hostage by his father's enemy, King Stephen,
who was now besieging his castle.
The King's plan was to throw the young William into the castle using a siege catapult.
But William managed to charm the King by treating the catapult as a fantastic toy.
"Is it a swing?" He asked as he was being lead to his death.
"Can I swing on it, please?"
The King was so moved by the child's innocent words that he called off
the execution, and played a game of knights with him instead.
William went on to have a remarkable career as a real knight.
He excelled in the art of war and was impossibly glamorous.
He fought alongside Richard the Lionheart,
went on Crusade and survived several sieges.
William was a legend.
Becoming a knight was an expensive business, so it was primarily a role for the sons of noblemen.
Growing up in the Middle Ages could be richly rewarding for the wealthy.
For the knights, the potential gains in land and status were immense
By the late 14th century, this was just one of hundreds of castles in Britain.
And this one's especially magnificent - just what a medieval castle should look like.
This is Bodiam in Sussex, built in the 1380s.
The lord who built Bodiam, Sir Edward Dalyngrigge,
clearly intended the castle to be an emphatic statement of his social status and military might.
It would have been a formidable stronghold
and so the ideal place to train young boys to become soldiers.
It was, in effect, a military academy.
And becoming a knight could start young.
As long as you were of noble birth,
you would be sent away to live in another castle with a lord who was
already a fully-trained knight, and he would teach you how to be a knight.
Now, you'd start your career right at the bottom as a medieval page.
And a page is effectively a servant, an errand boy, the lowest of the low, I'm afraid.
So your jobs would include, sweeping the courtyard, cleaning the stables, cleaning the poo.
Trainees were taught how to be respectful.
There was a strict code of conduct amongst knights.
Now this is called a sallet helmet.
You can only see through the eye holes. Who knows what a salute is?
You know in the army when you salute your commanding officer
Now when you raise the visor to see who's approaching you, or for other
people to see who you are, you lift your visor with your right hand
So that's where the salute comes from.
It comes from the sallet helmet
This culture of chivalry emerged during the Middle Ages and defined
how noblemen should behave in war and peace.
You can imagine lads training here - the atmosphere competitive, testosterone-fuelled.
The marshal would be running his eye over the pages to see who had potential.
He'd be looking for boys who were strong, fit
and had a good eye...
with challenges like this.
climbing up ladders on the inside...
Sorry, that's as far as I get.
And it wasn't just physical training - leadership, tactics and strategy
were also taught to armies of young men.
Success here could catapult you into a meaningful adulthood.
If you showed promise, you might make it to the rank of squire
essentially a young warrior, perhaps in your mid-teens,
in the hope of being dubbed a fully-fledged knight maybe in your early 20s.
And you'd be expected to become a brilliant horseman and master
the art of riding in full armour, so that you could compete in tournaments.
"There see men who can joust and who can ride
"Up spring the spears, 20ft high.
"Out come the swords, bright as silver.
"They hew at the helmets to shatter them.
"Out bursts the blood in stern streams red."
Chaucer - he wasn't just a poet
he was also a man who'd campaigned with the Black Prince in France
So his description comes from experience
and gets right to the heart of what it meant to be a knight.
This was a violent world, and fighting was a serious business -
young boys in castles like this were being trained to kill.
"He is not fit for battle, who has never seen his own blood flow,
"who has not heard his teeth crunch under the blow of an opponent,
"or felt the full height of his adversary upon him."
Despite the risks, becoming a knight was a proven way for
eldest sons to maintain and protect their family's wealth and honour.
And for younger sons, it was their best chance of acquiring status and land.
This imbued aristocratic society with a restless, dynamic energy
So warfare was just as endemic at the end of the medieval period as it was at the beginning.
It the mid-14th century, when many young knights were helping England to win wars in Europe,
the country faced an even deadlier threat at home.
It's known as the Black Death.
It had already ravaged most of Europe, and it struck Britain in the spring of 1348.
Once you caught it, you'd get pustulant lumps under your armpit.
And then your hands and feet would go black, and within four days you'd probably be dead.
Whilst a battle might kill thousands, the Black Death took the lives of millions.
In London, people were dying so fast that in Charterhouse Square,
next to Spitalfields, they had to dig mass graves.
The largest one lies right here, beneath my feet.
According to one contemporary, people were being buried here at a rate of 200 per week.
But for children, worse was to come.
A second onslaught swept across England in 1361.
This time it was particularly hard on the very young,
who had no immunity because they hadn't lived through the earlier epidemic.
Medieval writers called it the Pestilence of Children.
These murderous pandemics caused loss of life on a terrifying scale.
According to one estimate, the population of England plummeted
from around 5 million to 2.5 million.
It's almost unimaginable to think that the population halved
in just one generation and because children were hit the hardest,
England shifted from being a young society to an ageing one.
Suddenly, the Middle Ages had become middle-aged.
This was one of the biggest social and economic crises England had ever faced.
Labour was suddenly scarce.
But this meant that young people who survived the Black Death were in great demand.
For the peasantry, it was the beginning of a golden age.
And children now had many more opportunities to learn a skill
that would set them up for their adult lives, especially if they were prepared to travel.
Take the legendary Dick Whittington,
who supposedly came to London penniless
and acquired a cat that caught the rat, that lived in his master's house,
winning his daughter's hand in marriage.
It turns out it's actually not that far from the truth.
The real Richard Whittington did come to London,
where he became an apprentice to a mercer - a trader in fine cloth.
He turned out to be a natural wheeler dealer. By the 1390s, he was selling
goods worth ?3,500 to the king That's millions in today's money.
And he really did become the Lord Mayor of London.
And at his death, he left a vast fortune in charity.
He was a successful and popular man, a classic example of a young lad
who made good through trade and apprenticeship.
Apprenticeship was an urban phenomenon.
Towns had been a crucial part of the English economy
from as early as the 7th century, and by the 14th, they were booming.
Cities like London, Bristol and York were offering new prosperity
and even freedom for some adolescents.
York was one of the biggest, richest cities in the land.
Getting an apprenticeship here would have been a real step up in the world.
This was THE place to live in medieval York.
Stonegate had some of the richest real estate,
so a lot of the well-to-do cloth traders lived here,
had their workshops here and trained their apprentices here.
Young apprentices hoped to enter a very powerful and lucrative system.
They aspired to becoming masters and merchants who were rich and influential
freemen of the city, without the ties that bound the peasants to their lords out in the villages
This is the Merchant Adventurers' Hall.
An astonishing space, almost untouched since it was built about 650 years ago.
Its lavish design shows how rich the merchants of York had become.
They formed a guild, effectively a trade association
and they built this hall as a place to meet and do business.
Masters often took on apprentices who were as young as 12 years old.
The relationship between them was often very precisely defined.
The contracts that bound them together are kept by archivist Jill Redford.
We've got a typical example here,
which has the...
And it's so-called because of these dents, teeth marks, in the document.
Yes. It would be written out twice on one sheet of parchment and then cut
in this wavy line, so that the two halves matched each other and only matched each other.
So you'd place them next to each other, so it's proof that these are exact originals. Yes
So that's a wonderful one from the 17th century. I'll put that back.
And then we have one here which is described as an indenture,
although the cuts have gone, it's been trimmed.
It has, yes. From 1364.
Right, so, very early.
And here are the contracting parties,
Wilelmus Filius Magote De Lincolne.
So, William, son of Magote, probably a woman...
Yes. ..of Lincoln, is contracting with John Pate of York.
It's for a period of 12 years. Gosh, that's a long time.
You often get terms of seven years, 12 is unusually long.
I suspect maybe he was quite young. If he was being apprenticed for 12 years,
it may have been a way of providing him with a home.
Perhaps his mother was a widow
OK. Here are some things which the young apprentice is being banned from doing.
"Ad talis non ludet." He's not allowed to go and play dice.
Or go to "tabernas", go to the tavern.
So he's not allowed to gamble or go to the pub, that's a bit of a pity.
And this rather striking word, "fornicacionis."
So, he's not allowed to commit fornication,
not allowed to fornicate with.. the wife? Gosh.
So he's not being told not to fornicate with the master's wife,
with his daughter or with... I think this word is "ancilla"
so that's a female servant.
Yes. He's living in the house, he's growing up as a young man
The opportunities might be there.
On pain of duplicating the number of years of the contract
That's extraordinary. Yes.
So if he did it, he'd have to spend 24 years there, not 12.
I can't really believe it!
It's going to be pretty unpleasant, the relations between them.
You can't imagine them spending 24 years together. I think he'd be out on the street.
The young apprentices were a very valuable source of cheap labour in the city's economy.
And they must have had a real presence in the hustle and bustle of medieval York.
Their indentures said they shouldn't drink, gamble or fornicate.
But that's actually a pretty good indication there was plenty of that going on.
Experienced apprentices would have earned a small wage
The idea was that they would save that money so that they could set
themselves up in business once their apprenticeship was complete.
But these were young adolescents with money in their pocket
and many of them would have been much more interested in going out and having a good time.
Potentially, this was the time of their lives.
But for those able to resist that temptation, the rewards were potentially enormous.
Entry into a guild opened up new possibilities -
the chance to set up your own business.
This class of young, skilled craftsmen and traders made a major
contribution to the flourishing and increasingly urban economy
In the Middle Ages, children clearly had to
shoulder adult responsibilities at a much younger age.
But their contribution to the religious, economic and strategic well-being of the kingdom was vital.
By joining the three orders - working, praying and fighting they gained more than survival
They had status, and for some, even independence
But not everyone enjoyed such freedom.
Surprisingly, aristocratic children, the children of the rich, could be the most unfree of all
Throughout the medieval period the ultimate source of wealth and power was land.
And kings and barons, the richest people in the country, fought desperately to control it.
And children were often amongst the casualties.
If their parents died, and they stood to inherit, there was a danger they would become political pawns.
In 1444, Margaret Beaufort became one of the richest heiresses in the country.
When her father died, a legal guardian seized control of her whole life.
And although she was only six years old,
he swiftly married her off to his own son.
By the time she was 12, Margaret was living here, a royal stronghold
on the south-western corner of Wales - Pembroke Castle.
Even the King hadn't been able to ignore her vast wealth
He dissolved her first marriage and then married off to his half-brother.
Margaret had been manipulated into the heart of political intrigue
And now for the shocking bit -
in order to secure her wealth, her husband had to make her pregnant.
She was a slight 12-year-old girl, still basically a child.
He was a strapping 26-year-old knight.
Yet within weeks, it was clear the marriage had been consummated,
because Margaret was pregnant with her first child.
Although her adult life had barely begun, young Margaret had done her duty.
Within months, her husband was dead, a victim of civil war.
So, just 13, twice married and now a widow, she gave birth to a son.
And this little boy would change the course of history.
He would become King of England and would unite the kingdom after the Wars of the Roses.
His name was Henry VII, founder of the whole Tudor dynasty.
The Tudors had a profound effect on the course of English history.
And by giving birth to their first king,
Margaret Beaufort played a decisive role in their rise to power.
She was exceptional, but in a sense, her experience wasn't.
Margaret was just one of millions of medieval children
who made a vital contribution to England's transformation.
Like virtually everything we know about medieval children,
Margaret's story was written and preserved by adults,
usually adult men.
That makes it hard to get at the lives of medieval children
It's as if history has muted them,
failing to transmit their voices directly to us.
But if we listen hard, we can still hear their distant echo.
And to my mind, it's vital we try to do so.
Because if not, we risk losing so much - in fact, about half
of what it meant to be alive in the medieval world.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Medievalist Dr Stephen Baxter takes a fresh look at the Middle Ages through the eyes of children. At a time when half the population was under eighteen he argues that, although they had to grow up quickly and take on adult responsibility early, the experience of childhood could also be richly rewarding. Focusing on the three pillars of medieval society - religion, war and work - Baxter reveals how children played a vital role in creating the medieval world.