Messengers-art - 10/8/01
"Medieval Messengers" by Byron Whited.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
by Byron Whited
A review and summary of books about medieval messengers.
The Kings Messengers, 1199-1377
A List of all known messengers, mounted and unmounted, who served John,
Henry III, and the first three Edwards
By Mary C. Hill
Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1994
ISBN 0 7509 0764 9
This book is a wonderful source for period, because it lists all the
messengers, for John, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, and Edward III, from
direct sources in the "Wardrobe accounts", Exchequer Accounts, Chancery
Enrolments, and "The Black Prince's Register". Among the details of
medieval government revealed in these documents:
Messengers served as the link between the king and the sheriff in each
Some sheriff's received messages every week, and all received at least one
message each month. The sheriff's were required to respond within 3 weeks
as to the action they took on the received message.
Messages were sent for the following reasons, among others: to prohibit
tournaments when they could promote unrest or draw knights away from active
service; orders for collection of taxes; opening and closing of ports; the
election of knights; summons to parliament; and after each session of
parliament the sending of new statutes to the sheriff's.
Messengers also went to mayors, bailiffs of royal manors, officials of all
ports, and heads of religious houses.
When the king was on the move, messengers were often put in charge of the
Wardrobe equipment to over see the carters, particularly if money was to be
In 1308 two messengers, Willaim Barre and Robert Newington delivered to the
king a gold crown worth 30 pounds, a gold cup worth 40 pounds, and a gold
cruet worth 5 pounds. The weight of these items and their packing required
the hiring of a pack horse.
Messengers maintained contact with the kings representatives in Ireland and
France, eg the Seneschal of Gascony and the Constable of Bordeaux.
There were regular journeys to the Court of Rome and to Spain, Germany, the
Counts of Flanders and Hainault.
Messengers were assigned to escort foreign envoys and messengers in England.
Messengers were given charge of prisoners and on occasion even arrested
Mounted messengers received 3 pence a day, foot messengers 2 pence a day.
Messengers were not expected to travel on Sunday.
Messengers had regular circuits: 1 day, up to 35 miles - Surrey, Kent,
Middlesex; 2 days up to 65 miles - Bucks, Beds, Cambs, Hunts, Herts, Essex,
Northhants, Hants, Oxford, Berks; 3 days, up to 96 miles - Wilts, Warwick,
Leics, Rutland; 4 days, up to 120 miles - Somerset, Dorset, Lincs, Notts,
Derby Norfolk, Suffolk, Glos, Worcs, Bristol; 5 days, up to 160 miles -
Devon, Hereford, Shropshire, Staffs; 6 days, up to 190 miles - Cornwall,
Yorks, Lancs, Cheshire; 8 days Northumperland, Cumberland, Westmorland,
These circuits meant 30 to 35 miles a day, or 12 hours at about 3 miles per
hour on foot. Mounted men normally made the same time as they had to rest
their horse every 10 miles.
Return journeys were paid for by the receiving officer.
For the most part messengers of this period followed the old Roman roads, or
traveled on rivers.
Sometimes a younger messenger was sent out with an older messenger to be
taught the tricks of the trade and to learn the routes.
Attacks on the kings' messengers were rare and newsworthy, and almost always
occurred during wartime. Normally the kings' arms on the message pouch
guaranteed the messengers safety.
The kings messengers, had always served as a messenger for the queen, one of
the princes, the Chancellor, the Treasurer, the Wardrobe, or other
department. They were formally appointed and sworn in.
The messenger were 'made' by the treasurer of the Wardrobe, he took an oath
of loyalty to the king till death when on any business entrusted to him, and
obedience to his superiors.
After 1342, the messenger department was transferred to the Exchecquer. In
the fifteenth century, the heralds took over the messenger service.
Shoes, summer and winter, were provided to all messengers.
Mounted messengers were provided clothing, in 1221 they were provided with
tunics and supertunics of blue, and other clothing, summer or winter, or an
allowance to buy clothing. After the end of the 13th century, the clothing
was half blue, half striped, or half blue half pounacium patterned. The
full outfit was, scalloped hood with a feather and a scalloped cape, and
tunic that buttons down the front, and up the sleeves to the elbow. A belt
and a pouch bearing the royal arms. Or a box or hanaper in which messages
to different counties were kept separate in small leather bags. He wears
spurs on his boots. In winter his horse is shod with nailed shoes.
Foot messengers carries the same pouch or box, a long staff, a knife and
sword. His trousers reach to the knee and he wears close hose.
Between message runs the messenger remained at court and ate in the hall.
Horses were kept near the hall at the ready. No special lodging was
provided for messengers. They either slept in the hall or with their
The mounted messenger provided his own horse. If the horse died in service,
many times the king would provide a replacement.
Senior messengers had their own grooms.
Messengers could expect to receive gifts for bringing good news, and at New
If a messenger fell sick on a journey, his expenses during illness were
Retirement and pensions were provided for messengers.
If a messenger died in service, his funeral was paid for by the Wardrobe.
Some names of the mounted messengers (Nuncii Regis)
Richard of Alemaine
William of Alkham
William Le Clerk
Walter Jolif (nickname Joly Wat)
Laurence the Messenger
John Le Irish
John of Paris
Thomas of Oxford
Geoffrey of Say
Roger of Winchester
Some names of foot messengers (Cokini et Cursores)
Before 1253 foot messengers appear to have been called Cokini or "kitchen
knaves", after that time there were called Cursores or "runners".
Roger of Bannebury
William of Burg
Robert of Chester
William of Coventry
James the Fly
Adam of Lanark
And many more...
A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century
By Margaret Wade Labarage
Eyre & Spossiswoode, London 1965
Messengers were carried letters to persons in England and in Europe.
Messengers were very much in evidence in the accounts of a barony, in 1265.
The messenger's expenses were paid when they were dispatched, and were among
the most useful members of the household. This books reports that
messengers did travel at night and could cover 45 to 60 miles a day. In the
household hierarchy the messengers were above the grooms, but below the
squires and serjeants.
The messenger was paid 2s6d a day, the amount paid the lesser serjeants,
plus clothing. The messengers rode palfreys, which had an average cost of
English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages (XIVth Century)
Translated from the French by Lucy Toulmin Smith
T. Fisher Unwin, London 1909
He says, "...in those old simple days, messengers were the only equivalent
for mail and for parcels post. There were found in the service of abbots,
bishops, nobles, sheriffs, and of the king. This coldly forerunner of the
post was not, of course, accessible to everybody; people did as they best
could. The poor man waited till some friend was going on a journey; the
rich only had express messengers, charged with doing their commissions at a
distance, and with carrying their letters, letters which were generally
written at dictation by a scribe on a sheet of parchment, and then sealed in
wax with the master's signet."
"Many strange parcels besides letters had couriers and messengers to carry
from one place in the country to another: presents to fair ladies,
commodities of all sorts for their own masters. Thus, in the year 1396, we
find a servant of the Duc de berri sent as a messenger to Scotland, and
traveling all the way thither from France across England to fetchy certain
greyhounds of whom his master appears to have been fond. He as accompanied
by three men on horseback, who will have to help in taking care of the
hounds, and he carries a safe-conduct from Richard II, to travel without
hindrance through the English dominions with his followers and all that
belongs to them."
Haste, Post, Haste!
Postmen and Post-roads through the Ages
By George Walker
Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1941
P. 27 "The Teutonic knights were protectors of the League (the Hanseatic
Leage), and as early as the year 1274 the Grand Master built the castle of
Marienburg, near Danzig, as an outpost against the heathen Prussians and
Lithuanians, and one of the important duties of the Marshal of the Horse,
who was in charge of the post, was to supervise and protect the regular
service of messengers running between the principal towns of the League and
the fortified castles which protected the merchants in their commerce. The
post-horses were used exclusively for the letter service; at each castle the
horse and post-boy were charged, and the time of the receipt and dispatch of
the post-bag was written upon the face of each letter."
P. 28 "...and so the universities were among the earliest organizers of a
postal service - a service which survived in some instances until the late
Brian Tuke was the first "Master of the Kings Post", he was appointed by
Henry III in 1517.
One of the most important post roads was the Dover road. And yet, it was
lonely and dangerous in spots.
In the time of Henry III, foreign merchants established the "Strangers'
Post" that used messengers to deliver commercial letters to Europe. At
about the same time English merchants established the "Merchant Adventurers"
post. But by 1568 many people considered the post under the control of
"aliens" to be a "danger to the State". So, the Crown began the process of
taking over the posts.
In 1569, "This practice of intercepting the post was one which was a
commonplace of politics. When Mason was ambassador to the Elector he used
his position to make himself acquainted with the contents of the post-bag,
and sent news to the Privy Council which he had obtained from letters
"freshly come from Almain," and the Secretaries of State, Paget and Petre,
treated the matter as quite a commonplace, though the posts who had been
stopped were men belonging to the Palgrave. Such interception of letters
was regarded as part of the recognized trade of diplomacy."
In regards to the roads, in the 1500's, the condition was as a whole very
bad. There were few if any signs on the roads, and very often post riders
were used a guides. To help travelers at night some towns had the church
bells rung at various times during the night and in some areas there were
beacons, or poles, with fire baskets on top to serve as a guide.
Old Post Bags
The Story of the Sending of a letter in Ancient and Modern Times
By Alvin F. Harlow
D. Appleton & Company, New York 1923
With the founding of the great monastic orders 1000's and 1100's the various
monastic orders developed systems of messengers between their monasteries.
The messages were carried by monks on foot or horse back.
In the 1200's with the formation of the great universities, Paris, Bologna,
Salerno, Lisbon, Oxford, Cambridge, etc, the universities found it necessary
to start messenger services. There were "grand messengers" (Magni Nuncii)
and "petty messengers" (Parvi Nuncii). The petty messengers carried the
messages, "Magni Nuncii" was an honorary title. The university messenger
services were developed so the students could stay in contact with their
families. In fact, one of the only remaining illustrations of a university
messenger, shows the messenger delivering to a student a bag of money from
home. I guess the student message home, then as now, was "send money". For
the first several centuries the messengers were on foot, then began to go
A description of a messenger in Europe: clad in leather or fustian cloth of
the period, and on his breast, shoulder or arm he bears the coat of arms of
his city, university, or noble master. During the early period he carried
the letters in his hand or on the end of a cleft stick. Later, he carried
the message pouch, or sometimes a metal case. In his hand a long wooden
staff with an iron tip (the illustrations show what looks like a spear).
This staff was not only for defense against dogs, wolves, and robbers, but
also as a vaulting pole for crossing streams, and a balance pole when
walking across logs laid across streams. In many illustrations the
messenger also carried a short sword. These messengers were as a rule for
official use only.
Private citizens had to entrust their messages to merchants, Jewish
peddlers, itinerant journeymen of various trades, pilgrims or friars, and
butchers who traveled far and wide buying cattle.
In 1346, during a war with France, the House of Commons recommended that
"it be prohibited everywhere, that any alien send letters beyond the sea, or
receive letters which come from thence; unless he shew them to the
chancellor or to some other lord of the Privy Council, or at least to the
chief wardens of the ports or their lieutenants, who shall further shew them
to the Council."
As to the condition of the roads: "...for, as Mrs. Green relates in Town
Life in the 15th Century, a miller of Aylesbury in 1499 dug a clay pit in a
highway, ten feet long, eight feet broad and eight deep, in which a
traveling glove merchant was drowned. A local jury acquitted the miller of
any wrong, on the argument that he had nowhere else to get the particular
clay he needed."
In France in 1464, Louis XI created the first royal, regular messenger
service of the Middle Ages. This was the first with regular routes, with
horses, etc. The postmaster was prohibited for letting anyone, regardless
of rank, to use the post horses without special permission of the King. All
letters, not from the king were examined.
The envelope was not invented until the 19th century.
The Butcher Post of Germany: In Germany, because butchers traveled from
place to place buying cattle, and because they were responsible men, were
often given letters or oral messages to deliver. Over time the Butchers'
Guild, formed a regular postal organization. The butchers carried letter
bags, and a horn or bugle which became a kind of post horn. Into the 19th
century many Butcher Guilds in Germany had a bugle as part of their coat of
The Story of the Posts in England from the time of Edward IV to the present
By F. George Kay
Rockliff Publishing Co. 1951
In the days of Elizabeth I, the Secretary of State "watched the mails" for
all plots against the state. Suspect letters were opened read, and if in
code deciphered, then sent on their way. Many ruthless methods for
intercepting messages were used, including hiring robbers to halt foreign
messengers and take their letters. This was the only way to get around
"diplomatic immunity" and still get the needed intelligence.
On one further note: "There is one feature of the Elizabethan Posts which
bears pointing out, and that is the remarkable standard of literacy of the
ordinary people. It is evident from the way in which involved instructions
were written on the covers of the letters, and the instructions which meant
that at each stage some form of clerical work such as entering the time of
dispatch had to be undertaken, that almost everyone was expected to be able
to read and write. Nowhere are there any provisions in the regulations for
permission for the rank and file of the postal services to approach a local
functionary in order to obtain help in reading instructions..Merchants and
farmers, constables and innkeepers, soldiers and sailors were using the
Posts, almost in spite of the declared restrictive policy of the Government
as regards to their public use, and the fact that they were available as a
means of intercourse between the principle towns still further encouraged
the flowering of education among the ordinary folk of the realm."
The English Royal Messengers Service, 1685-1750
An Institutional Study
Pricilla Scott Cady
Studies in British History, Volume 56
The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999
While this book is "out of period" it is still informative, I believe,
because the nature of the Royal Messengers Service (RMS) did not change all
that much from the 1500's to the 1600's. Except for one change introduced
in 1660 when the silver greyhound was introduced as the insignia of the RMS.
"Today, for general use, Queen Elizabeth's Corps of Messengers wear an
exclusive tie bearing the woven image of a greyhound; for formal occasions,
in lieu of a tie, they wear a silver greyhound suspended on a ribbon."
The oath of office of the messenger: "...swear on the Holy Evangelist and by
the Contents of This Book and by the Faith you bear unto Almighty God to be
a true Servant unto our Sovereign xxxxx by the Grace of God King (or Queen)
of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith &c.
You shall know Nothing that shall be any ways hurtful or prejudicial to the
King's (Queen's) Majesty's Royal Person, State, Crown or Dignity, but you
shall hinder it what in you lies, or else reveal the same with all
Convenient Speed to the King's Majesty or some of the Most Honorable Privy
You shall serve the King truly and faithfully in the Place whereunto you are
called as one of the Messengers of the Great Chamber in Ordinary to His
You shall be obedient to the Lords of His Majesty's most Honourable Privy
Council, His Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State, the Lord Chamberlain,
The Vice Chamberlain, and Gentlemen Ushers in His Majesty's Service. So
Help you God."
The messengers were provided with 7 Pounds for "livery"; that is clothing.
The messengers were provided with badges of office with their names engraved
on the back. The badges were designed so they could be openly displayed, or
When a messenger was called to duty, it was called his "waits". That is he
was to wait until he was given a message to deliver. A true example of the
old saying, "hurry up, and wait". There were few, if any, messengers
discharged for failing to show up for their "waits" or for inflating their
The two basic duties of the messenger was courier and law enforcement. The
courier function also included the explicit duty of intelligence gathering.
The messengers were to "observe road conditions and the activities of
highwaymen, to take note of any sign of potential unrest, and to listen to
the talk going around the inns and coffee-houses on their journeys. Those
going abroad, particularly to The Hague, known by many as the "Whispering
gallery of Europe," collected information from fellow couriers and reported
it to the secretaries and under-secretaries."
Messengers doing police work were expected to; serve warrants, summon
people, search for and seize people suspected of treason, keep prisoners in
custody, protect and escort and/or interrogate witnesses, and escort the
condemned to their punishment. In addition these duties messengers took
part in ceremonial events.
Some families passed the messenger service from father to son, and even to
grandson. One family, the Sharpe's, had a family member in the service for
over 50 years. It is noted that this was "often arduous work, not an
occupation for the weak, the indolent, or the timid. First of all, the
roads they traveled, even the best of them, were rough and in some areas
impassable because of winter snow or spring floods. They frequently spent
long hours in the saddle at great cost to themselves and their beasts. One
Messenger dispatched to Glouchester reportedly killed his horse in the
process and requested 'further considerable satisfaction' because of the
loss. Riding a horse to death was more the exception that the rule. Thomas
Bineham, another Messenger, reported making the thirteen-hundred mile trip
from Madrid to London one winter in ten and a half days, eight of them spent
in the saddle. Yet despite this remarkably swift journey he made no
reference to spent mounts or other damage."
Other qualifications for messengers (in addition to being fit, having a
excellent knowledge of geography, and a cool head):
Literacy: this book claims it is a skill that was taken for granted, and
from the period of this book, there are written reports from messengers.
While, these reports are not written in the "King's English" they do prove
the messengers were literate enough to keep notes and records.
Knowledge of Arithmetic: there are surviving expense bills for road tolls,
mileage, and all the other expenses they and their mounts incurred on the
Knowledge of foreign languages: most must have had some knowledge of French,
as it was the language of diplomacy. Those traveling to Germany and Spain
would have to have had, at least a working knowledge of those languages.
One messenger owned a coffee-house near Charing Cross where "men who live by
intelligence" would meet. This allowed him to make a little extra money
while fulfilling his duty to gather information for the Crown.
Messengers traveled as far as Constantinople and St. Petersburg.
The average messenger made 45 pounds a year, which placed them in the top
half of the population of the time.
The one threat to their pay was loosing a prisoner in custody. If the
prisoner was lost, the messengers salary was suspended until the messenger
recaptured the prisoner. The messenger was responsible for all costs of
retaking the prisoner.
This book gives many examples of messenger performing the above duties, and
is very informative reading.
One further book that deals with messengers in the ancient world
The Messenger in the Ancient Semitic World
By Samuel A. Meier
Scholars Press, Atlanta, Georgia 1988
This book is a very detailed account of messengers in the ancient near east.
It is very detailed. It is I think a good reference to the types of
problems that faced communication in period, because the conditions,
dangers, and methods for delivering messages in the ancient world, did not
change much until the establishment of the government postal services
1600's. For example in the ancient world, as in the medieval world, the
selection of the messenger was very important. Many times the ancient kings
requested a specific messenger be sent, for example from the Bible, 2 Sam
11:6-7 "Then David sent word to Joab, "Send me Uriah the Hittite."
One thing this book reveals, is that in the ancient world there are existing
records of women being used as messengers. I could not find any reference
to women being used as messengers in period, in Europe, although it may have
been the case that in period in the middle east, women were used as
messengers in period, just as they were used in the ancient world. A few
quotes on the subject:
"There were no limitations with respect to candidates who could serve as
messenger. The pool of candidates who could bear the title mar sipri or
mal'ak seems boundless: male or female, rich or poor, stranger or relative,
king or slave. Males clearly dominated in the role of messenger. Females
could bear the title marat sipri, a designation which unambiguously marks
the gender of the envoy and which is attested in both the second and first
millennium B.C. Ana-makanisu in the sixth century B.C. is identified by
this title as a female messenger. The choice of female in this case was
dictated by the sex of the sender, for a woman sends a woman to represent
her and speak her words of approval for an economic transaction between men,
of whom one party was her son."
There is one example in the bible where a woman is explicitly used as a
messenger, 2 Sam 17:17: "Now Jonathan and Ahimaaz stayed by Enrogel; for
they might not be seen to come into the city: and a wench went and told
them; and they went and told king David."
One difference between ancient messengers in the middle east, and those in
period Europe, is that in Europe messengers rarely traveled at night, while
in the middle east there are many records of messengers traveling day and
night. I think the main reason for this difference is that in Europe, the
thick forests and dark cloudy nights made it very easy to get lost, and the
dangers from robbers was greatly exaggerated. While in the middle east,
with the mainly clear nights, and few dense forests, where the stars could
be seen, the messengers did explicitly navigate by the stars at night and
the sun by day.
In the ancient world, most messengers were runners, although there are many
references to them traveling in caravans, on camel, horseback, donkey,
chariot, and where possible by boat.
This book contains a wealth of information about just how communication was
carried out in the ancient world, and many of these features remained
constant until the 1600's.
I hope you find these reviews interesting.
Copyright 2001 by Byron Whited, 14810 Endicott, Austin TX 78728. <Byron05 at ev1.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.