A Dictionary of Historical Terms

By Tim Lambert



In Tudor times an Abraham man was one who begged alms by pretending to be mad. The name comes from Abraham Ward in Bedlam.


This is a political system where the monarch has unlimited power. It was summed up the French king Louis XIV who said ‘I am the state!’.


From the 15th century to the 18th century parliament could pass an act of attainder declaring a person guilty of treason even if they had not had a trial.


The allure was the walkway behind the battlements of a castle.


This was a gold coin worth one-third of a pound. It was made from the late 15th century to the early 17th century. It got its name because it depicted the Archangel Michael.


This was a king of national diary. King Alfred the Great started it in the 9th century but it includes national events from the 5th century to the 12th century.


In the First World War an Anzac was a soldier of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.


He was a man who made armour.


This means of king Arthur and his knights.


A Celtic tribe who lived in Berkshire and north Hampshire.


They were the kings of England from 1154 to 1216. They were called that because they were Lords of Anjou in western France.



In the 19th century mothers of illegitimate babies were often forced to pay a baby farmer to look after the child.


The bailey was the grounds of a castle outside the Keep. 


Many towns have a street name ‘Bar’ as bar is an old word for gate.


In the Middle Ages and 16th century the barber was also the surgeon! He was also the dentist and pulled teeth. Barber-surgeons were craftsmen. Doctors were educated men and were socially superior. Doctors diagnosed illness and prescribed medicines but did not perform operations. 


The fifth rank of the peerage. Originally barons were tenants who held estates directly from the king and provided him with soldiers in time of war. At first all tenants who held land directly from the king were called Barons but in time it came to mean one rank of the peerage.


In 1611 King James I created a new hereditary title called baronet to raise money. (People were forced to pay a large sum of money for the ‘honor’ of being made a baronet). Baronets are not part of the peerage.


Is a corruption of Bethlehem. It was the name of the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem, founded in 1247. By the 14th century it specialized in treating the mentally ill. Soon all asylums became known as bedlams.


Beheading was introduced into England by the Normans. It became the punishment for the upper class. It was last used in England in 1747.


A Celtic tribe who lived in Wiltshire, Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight.


Besom is an old word for broom.


Bigg is an old word for barley. In some towns, there was a bigg market where grain was bought and sold.


An epidemic, believed to be bubonic plague, killed about 75 million people in the Middle Ages. The germs were carried by fleas that lived on rats but which also bit humans. The disease was first reported in Dorset in August 1348 and by the next year had reached all of England. About 1/3 of the population died.


A name for the bombing of British cities in 1940-41.


After 1834 the destitute were forced to enter workhouses. These were managed by Boards of Guardians who were elected by ratepayers.


Bonfire is a corruption of bone fire from the days when animal bones were burned on fires.


The word borough derives from the Saxon word burh meaning a fortified settlement. By the late Middle Ages ‘borough’ came to mean a town that sent MPs to parliament, had its own seal (for impressing into wax that sealed documents), could pass by-laws, and whose corporation could own property.


In the Middle Ages the amount of land one ox could plow in one year. It varied in size but was usually 10 to 15 acres. It was sometimes called an oxgang.


They were forerunners of the modern police. In 1750 a writer named Henry Fielding created a force of paid, professional constables to catch criminals. Fielding was chief magistrate of Bow Street Court in London, hence the name of the constables.


A bowyer was a man who made bows.


This was a nickname for a hangman’s noose. The town of Bridport in Dorset was famous for rope making. Some of its ropes were used to hang people. If you were stabbed with a Bridport dagger you were hanged.


They were a Celtic tribe who lived in northern England.


Brigg is an old English word for bridge.


This was a small spit for roasting small animals or birds.


A buckler was a small shield.


A bulla was a kind of necklace worn by both boys and girls in Roman times. It consisted of a charm inside a pouch and it was worn around the neck. A boy stopped wearing a bulla when he became a man. A girl stopped wearing her bulla when she got married.


Originally, In Saxon times, it was a fortified place where men could gather in the event of an attack by the Danes (or by the English if you were a Danish settler). A burh was usually a town with a mint and a market. In time the word came to be a synonym for a town and is the origin of our word borough.


This has nothing to do with butter. It was the store for ale and wine.


There are many streets in England called the Butts. In the Middle Ages and the 16th century, the law said that every man must practice archery every Sunday after church. The targets for archery were called the butts. In many towns, the place where men practiced archery has given its name to a street.



This was the Roman name for Scotland north of the Firth of Forth and Firth of Clyde.


The first canal in Britain was built in 1761. It was followed by many others especially during the French wars from 1793-1815.


Candlemas or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin was held on 2 February (to celebrate Mary’s purification after the birth of Jesus according to Jewish law). People held a procession in church with candles, which were lit and blessed by the priest.


They were a Celtic tribe who lived in Kent. Julius Caesar called them ‘the most civilized inhabitants of Britain’.


In the 15th century the cog was replaced by a much more advanced type of ship – the carrack. The carrack was often much larger than the cog and had three or four masts.


This was a method of shipbuilding where laps are laid with their sides edge to edge. Compare Clinker Construction.


This was a Roman legionaries helmet.


The mother church of a diocese (the area ruled by a bishop) is called a cathedral. It gets its name because the bishop usually had a throne in the cathedral. The first style of a cathedral, from the late 11th century to the mid 12th century, was called Norman or Romanesque. It was characterized by thick columns and thick arches often decorated with chevrons (zig-zag lines).

The next style was called Early English. This style was less bulky and massive than Norman. From the late 13th century to the mid-14th-century cathedrals were built in the Decorated Style. They were elaborately decorated and had large windows with tracery (carved framework).

From the mid 14th century there was a return to a simpler style called Perpendicular. (It is sometimes said that this simple style was adopted because so many craftsmen died in the Black Death there were not enough left for an elaborate style). Perpendicular emphasized straight lines, vertical and horizontal with grid-style tracery on windows and fan vaulting on ceilings.


They were a Celtic tribe who lived in the South Midlands.


They were the people who lived in Britain after 700 BC. In 43 they were conquered by the Romans. In 407 the Romans left. From the middle of the 5th century Angles, Saxons and Jutes from Germany and Denmark invaded England and gradually subdued the Celts in England.


These were cheap pamphlets sold by traveling salesmen called chapmen. They were made from the 16th century to the 19th century and were illustrated with woodcuts. Some contained fairy tales, others accounts of crime.


A common street name. Cheap is derived from ceap, an old word meaning to trade. The common place name Chipping is derived from Ceaping meaning market. Cheapside is derived from Ceapside or marketplace.


A chantry was a chapel built by a rich man. Sometimes it stood on its own and sometimes it was part of a larger church. Some rich men left land in their wills and the rent from the land was used to support a priest who would say (or chant) masses for the dead man’s soul in the chantry. When he was not saying mass the chantry priest was often also a schoolteacher. In some towns, the chantry lives on in the street name Chantry Street, Lane, Road, Way or Avenue.


These were founded at the end of the 17th century and during the 18th century for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. They were sometimes called blue coat schools because of their uniforms. 


In the Middle Ages a settlement was given a document called a charter by the king or the Lord of the Manor giving the townspeople certain rights such as the right to hold a weekly market. Charters usually made towns independent and gave them the right to form a council to run their affairs.


This was a piece of armor to protect the front of a horse head.


They first appeared in the 12th century. However, in the Middle Ages, they were rare and expensive. Chimneys became more common in the 16th century and by the late 17th century they were near-universal.


This is a disease that causes vomiting and diarrhea. In about 50% of cases, it caused death. There were outbreaks in England in 1831-32, 1848-49, 1853, and 1866.


25 December was fixed as the birthday of Jesus in the 4th century. When the Saxons were converted to Christianity in the 7th century they began to celebrate Christmas. However, until the 19th century, Christmas was only one of a number of festivals celebrated throughout the year. 


From the 11th century to the early 16th century five (French cinque) ports supplied the king with ships in time of war in return for certain privileges. They were Hastings, Romney, Dover, Hythe, and Sandwich. (Later Rye and Winchelsea were added). By the early 16th century, the custom was dying partly because some of the ports were silting up.


The first civil war between king and parliament was from 1642 to 1646. A second civil war happened in 1648. The Scots invaded England and there were risings in Kent, Essex, and Wales.


He was a free peasant in Saxon times.


This was a method of shipbuilding where planks were laid overlapping each other. Compare Carvel Construction.

COB AND THATCHCob and thatch houses are found in Southwest England. They are made of unbaked clay faced with plaster and with a thatched roof.


In the late 17th and 18th-century centuries coffee houses were popular meeting places for merchants and professional men.


A coffer was a Medieval chest.


In the Middle Ages, this was a small ship with a single mast and a single sail.


These were Roman settlements founded for retired soldiers. The soldiers were given land inside the walls for house building and land outside the walls to farm. In England Colchester, Gloucester, Lincoln, and York were colonia.


A coney was a rabbit.


One of the ancient kingdoms of Ireland, later a province. It was in the north-west.


A political system under which the monarchy has limited powers or, as in modern Britain, is only a figurehead.


A corbel was a stone support. It jutted out of a wall to support a ledge or roof.


In the 19th century, many market towns built a corn exchange where people could buy and sell grain.


He was a shoemaker. A cordwainer worked with new leather. A cobbler worked with old leather, either repairing shoes or making them by ‘recycling’ old shoes.


This was a piece of armor to protect a horse rump.


This was a piece of armour to protect the torso.


This was a piece of armor to protect the upper leg.


Comes from the French words couvre feu, cover fire. In the Middle Ages fire was a constant danger in towns so at a certain time in the evening a bell was rung to warn people to cover their fires (to extinguish them). In time it came to mean an order to be indoors by a certain time.



This was Dane gold, a tax levied between 991 and 1012 by Ethelred the Unready (978-1016) to pay the Danes not to attack England.


The Danes began to raid England in 793. Then in the mid 9th century, they turned to conquest. At that time England was divided into 3 kingdoms Northumbria (the north), Mercia (the Midlands), and Wessex (the South) soon only Wessex remained. Alfred, king of Wessex managed to defeat the Danes and they divided England between them. (The old Roman road, Watling Street was the border). Alfred’s successors gradually conquered the Danish area but Danish place names are common in Eastern England.


In 878 Alfred the Great defeated the Danes and they divided England between them. The Danes took the area east of Watling Street. Alfred’s successors took over this area but Danish laws and customs still held sway there hence its name.


In the Middle Ages the king and his nobles gave much of their land to tenants or sub-tenants. Land they kept for themselves was called Demesne.

DOBUNIThey were a Celtic tribe who lived in Gloucestershire and Somerset.


This was a nickname for the German V-1 flying bomb. They were fired at London from 13 June 1944 but many failed to reach their target. From 8 September 1944, they were replaced by the more dangerous V-2 missiles.


This was a small building that housed doves or pigeons.


This is the highest-ranking peer. The first duke was Prince Edward who was made Duke of Cornwall in 1337.


They were a Celtic tribe who lived in Essex and the southern part of Suffolk


They were a Celtic tribe who lived in Somerset and Wiltshire.



In the 10th century the king appointed an official called an Earldorman to run each shire (from which we get our word alderman). In the eastern Danish part of the country, they were replaced by earls. In the early 11th century King Canute replaced all the Earldorman with earls. The earls became more powerful and came to govern several shires not just one. The position became hereditary. Below them, sheriffs took over the running of individual shires.


That was a kingdom founded by the Angles in the 6th century. (There was another kingdom further west called Middle Anglia). From the 7th century, East Anglia was dominated by Mercia. East Anglia was overrun by the Danes in the 9th century. In the 10th century, it became part of the kingdom of England but it remained an Earldom. (See Earl)


When Queen Eleanor died in 1290 her body was taken from Nottinghamshire to Westminster Abbey. King Edward I erected a cross at each of the places where the body of his wife rested on its journey, Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, West Cheap and Charing Cross.


Joseph Swan invented the electric light bulb in 1878. Edison invented another version in 1879. The first electric street lights were used in parts of London and Brighton in 1881. In the 1890s many towns and cities in Britain converted their street lighting from gas to electricity. 


Is the name given to the period 1629-1640 when Charles I ruled without parliament.


This was an old measurement for cloth. In England, an ell was 45 inches. A Scottish ell was 37 inches.


This was the kingdom of the East Saxons.


In July 1939 the government drew up plans to evacuate schoolchildren from cities (fearing they would be killed by German bombing). When the war started they were evacuated and sent to live with strangers in rural areas. Most soon returned home. The children were called evacuees.



This was formed in 1884. It hoped to achieve socialism gradually and democratically.


In the Middle Ages and for long afterward many towns held annual fairs. The fair usually lasted for a few days each year or even a couple of weeks. People would come long distances to buy and sell at a fair. There were entertainers at a fair as well as stalls selling things. In many fairs, the number of stalls gradually fell and the entertainers became more and more common until the fair was just for entertainment. In the 19th century, some fairs were closed as the authorities felt they encouraged rowdiness.


A farthing was a coin worth one-quarter of a penny. It was introduced in the 13th century. The last farthings were minted in 1961. 


In the 16th century, this was a whalebone frame worn under the dress. 


This was an iron plate placed against the back of a fireplace. Otherwise heating the stones behind the fire made them flake.


Fleet Street, in London, was named after a river that used to flow into the Thames. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was the center of the British newspaper industry. However, in the 1980s newspapers moved out of the area. 


In the 18th and 19th centuries rich landowners sometimes built purely decorative buildings in their grounds such as mock castles or mock classical temples.


He or she was an abandoned baby or infant. Unfortunately in previous centuries, they were by no means unusual.


In the Middle Ages forest meant an area for hunting. It wasn’t necessarily a vast stretch of trees.


In Tudor times people wore these on their belts to attract fleas from their bodies and clothes. In the evening you could shake the tail over the fire.


In England this was a name for Syphilis.


A friar was like a monk but instead of withdrawing from the world he went out to help the sick and poor and to preach. They often lived in communities in medieval towns. Friars had different colored costumes. So there were Blackfriars (Dominicans), Grey friars (Franciscans), and Whitefriars (Carmelites). They lived in a building called a friary. 


In some parts of Scotland a butcher was called a flesher.


A fuller was a man who cleaned and thickened wool by pounding it in a mixture of water and clay called fullers earth. At first, they used their feet. Later the wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by a watermill, called a fulling mill.


This was the name of the Saxon militia.



Gabions were baskets filled with earth. They were used to protect cannons.


This was a ship that mainly or only relied on oars for propulsion.


This was a cross between a Galley and a sailing ship. It had both oars and sails.


In the early 20th century a garden city was a planned town. The name was invented in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard. Garden cities were to be set in the country with a limited population but plenty of facilities like parks, churches, and schools. Letchworth (1903) and Welwyn Garden City (1920) are examples.


In the Middle Ages, this was a toilet. Usually, it was a hole in a stone or wooden seat overhanging a pit or (in a castle) a shaft. 


This was the head of an animal, man, or devil carved in stone and used as a waterspout on a cathedral. It is derived from the Latin word gurgulio, which means gullet.


Gas light was invented by William Murdoch in 1792. It was first used to light a street in 1807 when Pall Mall in London was lit. By the 1820s many towns in Britain had gas street light. By the 1840s it was common for wealthy people’s houses to have gas light. By 1880 it was usual in working-class homes in British towns.


The street name gate did not always mean a gate in a wall! It may be derived from the Danish word gata meaning street or road.


This was a knight’s iron ‘glove’.


Refers to the period when kings called George ruled from 1714 to 1811.


A class of landowners below the nobility but above the yeomen. They usually had a coat of arms and did no manual work. Members of the gentry were also called squires.


A gladius was a Roman legionaries sword.


This was land belonging to the village priest.


This is an old word for a minstrel.


This was a piece of armour to protect the throat.


In the mid and late 19th century many buildings (especially churches) imitated the Medieval style of building. This was called the Gothic revival.


This is the name given by W G Hoskins to the movement between 1560 and 1640. Brick and stone replaced wood and many more people had chimneys. In the Middle Ages, most people had a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. Having a chimney allowed you to build an extra floor between the ground and the roof.


This was a piece of armour to protect the lower leg.


In many cathedrals and churches you can see a mans face with leaves sprouting from it carved in stone or wood. That is the green man. Sometimes there is a mans body carved with leaves and flowers covering it.


The calendar devised by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century. It was adopted in England in 1752.


A groat was a coin worth 4 pence. It was minted from the 14th century to the 17th century.


In the Middle Ages, merchants and skilled workers organized themselves into guilds. Each town had its own guilds. In the large towns, each trade had a guild e.g. the smiths guild. The guild fixed prices, hours of work, and wages paid to apprentices. It also inspected member’s work and they could be fined for shoddy work. Guilds also looked after members in times of misfortune such as sickness. The merchants guild usually met in a guildhall, which later often became the place where council meetings were held.



This was a long pole with a spear point on its end and an ax below it.


These began in 1300 when Edward I decreed that silver artifacts should be taken to the Goldsmiths Hall in London and tested for purity. If they passed the test they were given a Hallmark. Gold was also hallmarked.


This is a corruption of All Hallows evening. Hallow is an old word for saint. All Hallows evening was the eve of All Saints Day 1 November.


Hanging was used from Saxon times to the 20th century. Until 1783 the prisoner usually died from asphyxiation. In effect, he was strangled with a rope as he dangled in the air. Then a system was devised in which the prisoner fell through a trap door and as the rope snapped taught his neck broke. Until 1868 executions were carried out in public and they attracted large crowds. ‘Hanging fairs’ were a popular form of entertainment. The last people to be hanged suffered that fate in 1964. 


In 1241 two German towns, Hamburg and Lubeck formed an alliance called a hanse to protect their trading interests. Other German and Baltic ports formed hanses and they formed the Hanseatic League. Together they dominated trade in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. The Hanseatic League traded with England.


This was a coat of chain mail.


A Hayward was a man who repaired and maintained hedges and fences.


A tax was levied on every hearth or fireplace from 1662 to 1689 (although the poorest people were exempt). It was replaced by a window tax.


From the period of Henry VIII 1509-1547.


They were the 7 kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England from the 6th century to the 9th century. They were Wessex, Sussex, Essex, Kent, East Anglia, and Mercia. In the 9th century, the Danes destroyed the rivals of Wessex, which grew to become the kingdom of England.


Began because knights in battle could not recognize each other when they were wearing helmets. From the 12th century, they had symbols painted on their shields. Later the coats of arms were painted on banners and flags (useful in a society where most people could not read and write). Heraldry became formalized and it became important to have the right symbols on your coat of arms to show your rank.


In Saxon times a hide was the amount of land needed to support one family.


A holy water sprinkler was kind of mace. It consisted of spikes or flanges on the end of a handle. It got its name because it resembled a device used to sprinkle holy water in churches.


They were a Saxon kings bodyguards.


From Saxon times to the 19th-century shires were subdivided into units called hundreds. Why they were called hundreds is not known but they may originally have been groups of 100 hides.


The ancient Greeks believed that everything is made of four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. The human body, they thought, is made up of four humors corresponding to the four elements, black bile (earth), blood (air), yellow bile (fire), and phlegm (water). If the humors were out of balance you would fall ill. Furthermore, your temperament was supposed to depend on which humor was predominant in your body. Black bile caused the melancholic temperament. Phlegm caused the phlegmatic temperament, blood the sanguine, and yellow bile the choleric.


Husbandmen were tenant farmers.



A Celtic tribe who lived in East Anglia


The Romans ate a breakfast of bread and fruit called the ientaculum.


In the 18th century many towns set up a body of men with powers to widen streets, pave, clean and light them. Some also employed night watchmen to patrol the streets.


This is an old word for contract.


The period from the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the coronation of Charles II in 1660 when England was without a king. It is sometimes called the Commonwealth.



This means from the reign of James I 1603-1625. (Jacobus is the Latin for James).


They were supporters of James II, who was deposed in 1688 and his successors. (Jacobus is the Latin for James). The Jacobite cause collapsed with the battle of Culloden in 1746.


He was a travelling peddler or hawker.


In Tudor times the jakes was the name for a toilet. 


In China from the 4th century BC and in Japan from the 3rd century AD lacquer was used to decorate furniture and other household goods. It was copied in Europe in the 17th century.


In China from the 4th century BC and in Japan from the 3rd century AD lacquer was used to decorate furniture and other household goods. It was copied in Europe in the 17th century. 

In the 18th century slang for a toilet. People used to say ‘I’m going to visit Jericho’.

JETTIESThe jetties were the overhanging upper floors of half timbered buildings.


This was an old Scottish punishment. A metal collar, which was secured to a wall with a chain, was fastened around the criminals neck.


The calendar devised by Julius Caesar. It was used in England until 1752.


The Jutes were a Germanic people. From the end of the 5th century they settled in Kent, the Isle of Wight and parts of Hampshire.



The keep was the inner tower of a castle and its living quarters. The keep could often hold out even if the rest of the castle was captured.


In the late 5th century Kent was settled by the Jutes. It was an independent kingdom until 825 when it became part of Wessex.


This was originally a cooking pot used to boil food.


This was scrofula, an inflammation of the lymph glands. From the 11th century to the 18th century it was believed that the monarch’s touch could heal the condition, hence the name. (See King’s Touch)


In the Middle Ages the king gave land to tenants in chief. They in turn gave land to knights who would, in return, fight in wars when called upon.



The Lancastrians were descendants of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Their emblem was a red rose. They fought the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses in the 15th Century.


It was one of the ancient kingdoms of Ireland, later a province. It was located in the east and south-east.


Lent was the 40 days before Easter when people were supposed to fast certain foods. It is probably a corruption of Lenten which meant lengthen because the days were lengthening with spring.


Some churchyards have a covered gateway called a lychgate at their entrance. Lych was the Saxon word for corpse. The lych gate was a resting place for a body before a funeral.


In Tudor times panels of wood on walls or furniture were sometimes carved to look like sheets of folded linen.


A linstock was used in late Medieval and Tudor times to light cannons. It was a wooden stick with a slit at one end. A string soaked in saltpeter was wrapped around the stick, the end held by the slit. The smoldering string was held to a touch hole.


This is an old name for a burial ground


In the Middle Ages many bankers came from Lombardy or other parts of northern Italy. Some settled in London where they gave Lombard Street its name. 


In Tudor times this was an upstairs room that ran the length of the house.


A lorimer was a man who made horse furniture or lorimery.


They were spectacles on a long handle. Women held them to their eyes by the handle.



Some castle walls had overhangs. They had holes in the bottom through which the defenders could drop stones and other missiles and pour boiling liquids.


This was a song sung by several people without musical instruments. Madrigals were first sung in Italy in the 14th century. They were popular in England between the 16th and 18th centuries.


This was a giant catapult. It was fired by twisting ropes. When the ropes were released they rapidly unwound and they hurled a wooden beam from a horizontal position to a vertical. A stone in a cup at the end of the beam was thrown through the air.


In the Middle Ages England was divided into manors. Each manor was usually a royal or noble residence and the estate that went with it.


This was a wooden shield (sometimes on wheels) used to protect archers or gunners from missiles fired from a wall.


From the reign of Mary I 15553-1558


This is the second rank of the peerage. The first marquess was Robert de Vere who was given the title in 1385.


They were towers built in 1805-1812 to protect the coast from French attack. They take their name from a fortification called the Torre di Mortella in Corsica. A total of 103 were built in Suffolk, Essex, Kent, and Sussex.


The feast of St Martin 11 November


This was a form of entertainment in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It was popular with the nobility and with royalty. Masques involved spoken lines but also music, song, and dance. The participants wore elaborate costumes. Sets were also very elaborate.


This was the day when money was given to the poor. Maundy is probably a corruption of the old French mande, meaning command because Jesus said: ‘I give you a new command that you love each other.’


This was a grand and impressive tomb. The word comes from the tomb of Mausolus who lived in Turkey in the 4th century BC.


This was a drink made from fermented honey and water. Popular in the Middle Ages.


This was one of the ancient kingdoms of Ireland, later a province. It was in the east.


In the 19th century, the mechanic’s institute was an organization that provided cheap lectures for skilled workers (mechanics). The first one was formed in London in 1824. Many more were formed in other industrial cities.


He was a trader in fine cloth.


Was a kingdom founded by the Angles who settled in the Trent Valley from the late 5th century. Mercia is derived from the word merce, which meant border people, as they lived between the Celts to the west and the Saxons and Angles to the east. Mercia was destroyed by the Danish invasions of the 9th century.


This refers to the period from the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the end of the 15th century.


A Minster church was one with a monastery attached. Minster may be a corruption of the Latin word for a monastery, monasterium.


They were wooden seats in churches with hinges. When turned upright they gave you some support when you were standing up. Misericords were often carved on the underside.


They were Medieval plays intended to teach morality. They often involved a character called Everyman, the Devil, and abstract characters like pride or greed.


This was a mace, usually a spiked ball on the end of a chain, attached to a handle. It was so-called because its spikes made it resemble Venus the morning star.


One of the ancient kingdoms of Ireland, later a province. It was located in the south-west.


In the Middle Ages, some towns were allowed to charge a duty on some goods entering the town. The money raised was used to repair the town walls. It comes from the Latin word murus meaning wall.


Some gatehouses had holes in the ceiling behind the Portcullis through which the defenders could drop stones and pour boiling liquids.


In the Middle Ages this was a play based on a biblical story.



The old name for science.


Following an act of 1946 the government could choose an area for a new town and appoint a development corporation. Often an existing town was chosen (e.g. Basingstoke, Andover) and people moved to the new town from London or some other big city. 


In England in Saxon times and the early Middle Ages New Years Day was on 25 December. In the 14th century, it was changed to Lady Day, 25 March. In 1752 it was changed to 1 January.


Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England. Also called dissenters.


In the 6th century, a people called Angles lived north of the Humber. They called their kingdom Northumbria. In the late 9th century it was conquered by the Danes.


This was the Roman name for Chichester.



Was a form of Irish writing used between the 4th century and the 8th century. It was carved into stone. Ogham was also used in Cornwall, Wales and western Scotland.


This theater was opened in 1818. In 1880 it was renamed the Royal Victoria Hall and nicknamed the Old Vic.


This means rule by a few. In Britain the great age of oligarchy was from the late 17th century until the early 19th century. After the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688 Britain was ruled by an elite of wealthy landowners. Then, in 1832, the urban middle class was given the vote bringing the age of oligarchy to an end.


They were a Celtic tribe who lived in North Wales.


Sometimes in the bottom of a dungeon there was a pit into which prisoners were lowered. It was called an oubliette. The name comes from the French word oublier meaning to forget because the unfortunate prisoner was forgotten.



In Tudor times houses were sometimes decorated with molded plaster. Pargetting was especially common in East Anglia.


The church divided England up into parishes in the 7th century. In the 16th century the parish became an administrative area.


They were a Celtic tribe who lived in eastern Yorkshire.


This was a piece of armour to protect the shoulder.


In the Middle Ages the nobility were divided into different ranks. They were entitled to be tried by their peers hence the name. The ranks are duke, marquess, earl, viscounts and barons.


This was a form of bomb used to destroy wooden gates in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was placed against the gate and its fuse was lit.


This was a piece of armor to protect a horse breast.


The Romans called the original inhabitants of Scotland Picti or painted men. By the late 6th century the Picts were united into one kingdom but they were united with the Scots in the 9th century.


Franz Joseph Gall 1758-1828 claimed he could tell a person’s character by feeling bumps on their head. In 1796 he made a ‘map’ of the human head. This strange belief was popular in the 19th century, especially in the USA. It died out in the early 20th century with the rise of modern psychology.


A pike was a spear with a point on its rear. The rear was struck into the ground and the pike was held to resist a cavalry charge.


This was a Roman legionaries javelin.


These first appeared in Europe in the 14th century. They were first mentioned in England in 1459. Playing cards became very popular in England in the late 15th century.


This was the first Monday after 12th night (6 January). Young men went around the parish with a plow. If anyone refused to give them money they plowed up the ground in front of his door.


This means rule by the rich.

POKEThis was a pouch, bag or sack.


This was a piece of armor to protect the knee.


The first modern police force in Britain was formed in 1829. Following an act of 1835 most boroughs formed one. After 1856 each county formed a police force but many boroughs had their own police force alongside the county one for long afterwards.


A gate of wood, reinforced with iron, with spikes along the bottom. It was raised and lowered vertically.


Along with bread was part of the staple diet of ordinary people in the Middle Ages and Tudor times. It was a kind of porridge made of grain and water with vegetables added. If you could afford it you added meat.


In 1688 James II was deposed. His son, also called James (1688-1766), wanted to take his place as king. So he was the ‘pretender’ to the throne.


A small abbey with a Prior at its head instead of an Abbot.


Owners of private warships who were permitted to attack enemy ships in time of war and seize their cargoes.


After the reformation some people wanted to see the Church of England ‘purified’ of its Catholic elements. They were called Puritans.


QUACKHe was a charlatan who claimed to be able to heal diseases. Originally he was a quacksalver, a man who ‘quacked’ or made a loud noise about his salves and potions.



The first railway was built in 1825. More followed in the 1830s and in the 1840s there was a ‘railway mania’ when many new lines were laid. They spelled doom for the stagecoaches as they were much faster. Many branch lines were closed in 1963.


Began when Churchmen in the Middle Ages wrote important saints days in red in calendars.


The dining room in a monastery.


Refers to the early 19th century from 1811 to 1830.


A Celtic tribe who lived in Sussex and parts of Hampshire.


This term means two things. Firstly it refers to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 after the interregnum. In art and literature, it refers to the whole period from 1660 to the end of the 17th century.


A riding was one third of a county. From the Scandinavian word thriding or third.


Roman Britain lasted from 43 AD to about 410 AD.


In the Middle Ages boroughs sent MPs to parliament. However some boroughs declined and even dwindled to nothing but they still sent MPs! Some of them were called ‘pocket boroughs’ because they were in the pocket of the local landowner. He could simply nominate an MP. Rotten boroughs were abolished by the great reform act of 1832. 


From the Middle Ages to the 18th century people believed that the king could cure scrofula (inflammation of the lymph nodes) by touching the infected person.


They were a form of writing used by the Vikings and the Saxons before they were converted to Christianity. Runes were supposed to have magic powers and so they were carved to make spells.


These were a cheap substitute for candles. A rush was dipped in animal fat and lit at one end. It was held by a special iron holder.


In the late Middle Ages and the 16th century a rutter was a book of sailing directions containing information about tides, shoals and headlands. It is a corruption of the French word routier.



These were ‘shoes’ made of metal for a knight.


This was a bracket fixed to a wall for holding a candle.


This was a room in a monastery where documents were written and books were copied by hand.


He was a person who wrote contracts and other documents.


This means shield money (from the Latin for shield scutum). Under the feudal system knights had to serve the king for so many days a year in return for land. Henry II allowed them to pay shield money instead.


This was a Roman legionaries shield.


This act, of 1716, fixed the maximum lifetime of a parliament to 7 years. In 1911 it was reduced to 5 years.


In the Middle Ages serfs were unfree peasants.


This was a metal cage that fitted over the head. It contained a metal gag. A woman convicted of being ‘scolding ‘ could be forced to wear it. (Scolding meant more than just nagging. It meant harassing your neighbours by slandering them or using abusive language).


The Scots originally came from Ireland. In the 5th century they settled in western Scotland and eventually they conquered the native Picts.


This was invented in 1742 when Thomas Bolsover of Sheffield discovered that copper could be coated with silver. It was a cheap substitute for solid silver.


He was originally the shire reeve. He was an official appointed by the king and was his representative. The sheriff collected taxes and looked after royal estates.


This was an Irish club made of wood.


A shilling was 12 pence. Twenty shillings made one pound.


Shrove is probably a corruption of shrive, Old English for confess. People went to confession before Lent. The custom of eating pancakes probably derives from people trying to use up all the food they were not allowed to eat during Lent.


They were a Celtic tribe who lived in South Wales.


In a castle most of the people lived and slept in the hall. The noble and his family had a private living room/bedroom called the solar.


This was a primitive tap. A shive was a wooden tube at the bottom of a barrel. The spile was a wooden bung that blocked it. The spile was removed to let liquid flow out and was replaced to block it.


From the middle of the 17th century it was possible to travel from town to town in Britain by stagecoach. They became faster with turnpike roads in the 18th century and they reached their peak in the early 19th century. However after 1830 railways spelt their doom.


The Saxon name for the Roman road from London to Chichester.


This was a dagger. You held a sword in one hand and the stiletto in the other. You used the stiletto to parry your enemies sword.


This was an Old English word for a meeting place.


He was a man who made strings for bows.


Was the kingdom of the South Saxons. It was founded by Aelle who landed near Pevensey in 477 AD. In the early 9th century it was absorbed into Wessex.


Was a disease, which broke out in 1485. There were more epidemics in 1508, 1517, 1528 and 1551. No further outbreaks were recorded. It may have been a form of influenza.



He was a Saxon noble.


The first theatre was built in London in 1576. The first theater were open air but from the early 17th century indoor ones were built. Portable scenery was used from the late 17th century. In the 18th century theaters were built in most towns.


This means rule by religious rulers.


A thrall was a Saxon slave.


Horse drawn trams began running in British towns in the 1860s and 1870s. After 1900 they were replaced by electric ones. They, in turn, were replaced by buses. Many cities stopped using trams in the 1930s although in some places they continued until the 1950s. Recently trams have made a comeback.


The Trans-Siberian Railway was built in 1891-1905. It runs from St Petersburg to Vladivostok.


This was a Roman dining room.


This was a siege engine. It was a kind of see-saw with a very heavy weight at one end and a sling or cup in the other. The sling was loaded with a stone and it was tied down. When it was released the heavy weight at the other end of the ‘see-saw’ fell and the stone in the sling was hurled through the air.


They were a Celtic tribe who lived in Essex and the southern part of Suffolk.


This refers to the period 1485-1603 when Tudor monarchs reigned.


A turner was an artisan who made wooden bowls by turning them on a lathe.


These were privately owned and maintained roads. You had to pay a toll to use them. The toll collector usually lived in a specially built cottage. Across the road was a ‘pike’ of bar which was ‘turned’ when you paid the toll, hence the name. The first turnpike was built in 1663. Many more followed at the end of the 17th and the early 18th centuries. Turnpikes were much better than the previous roads. 


This was the night of the 12th day after Christmas. It was celebrated as the day when the 3 wise men visited the baby Jesus.


Twittens were alleyways in towns.



Ulster was one of the ancient kingdoms of Ireland, later a province. It was located in the north.



This was a piece of armour to protect the lower arm.


In the Middle Ages a villein was an unfree peasant. It is derived from the Latin word villanus meaning villager. Villeins had to spend some of their time working on the lord’s land and were not free to leave the village. However, the Black Death undermined the institution and it was disappearing by the 15th century.


A vintner was a wine merchant.


In the Middle Ages that was about 30 acres of land.

VIRGINALIn the 16th and 17th centuries this was a form of small harpsichord.


The fourth rank of the peerage.

Originally a viscount was a sheriff who governed a shire under an earl or count. He was sometimes called a Vicecomes (Latin for vice count). Viscounts have been part of the peerage since 1440.



The Waldensians were Christians who lived in Southern France and Northern Italy from the 12th century. The movement was founded by Peter Valdes or Waldo about 1170. For centuries the Waldensians were persecuted as heretics. However, they still exist today.


The Saxon name for the Roman road from London to Wroxeter.


In Saxon times if a man was murdered the murderer or his family had to pay ‘compensation’ to the victim’s relatives. It was called Wergild (man price) and it varied according to the status of the victim. The wergild of a thane was much more than the wergild of a churl.


Wessex was the kingdom of the West Saxons who conquered the Thames Basin in the early 6th century. The kingdom expanded and came to dominate Southern England by the early 9th century. The Danish invasions of the late 9th century destroyed the rivals of Wessex, which then expanded to become the kingdom of England.


The White Russians opposed the Communist Revolution of 1971 and fought a civil war with the Red Russians in 1918-1921.


This is another name for tuberculosis.


A whitesmith was a tinsmith.


Whitsun was Whit Sunday, 6 weeks after Easter. The church celebrated the day when the Holy Spirit descended on the 12 apostles.


In Roman times wealthy people had panes of glass in their windows. In Saxon times there were none. Panes of glass appeared in England again in 1180 although they were very expensive. From the late 13th century nobles and rich merchants usually had panes of glass in some of their windows. A cheap substitute was thin sheets of cows horns. (A lantern was originally a lant-horn because it would normally have horn, not glass). Glass became cheaper in the 16th century although it was too expensive for the poor. Glass windows became near-universal in the late 17th century.


From 1696 a tax was levied on windows. It was increased in 1782 and 1792 then reduced in 1823 and finally abolished in 1851.


Witan is short for witan gemot, which meant a meeting of the wise. In Saxon times the Witan was a council made up of the most powerful nobles and senior churchmen. Nobody could become king unless he first gained the approval of the Witan. The king was also expected to consult the Witan on important matters.



In the 16th and 17th centuries, a yeoman was a farmer who owned his own land and was comfortably off (although he might work alongside his men). Above the yeomen were the Gentry. 


The Yorkists were descendants of the Richard 3rd Duke of York and their supporters. Their emblem was the white rose. During the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, they fought the Lancastrians.



This saying is a corruption of ‘God’s wounds!’ (Christ’s wounds).

Categorised as Articles