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Messengers-art - 10/8/01


"Medieval Messengers" by Byron Whited.


NOTE: See also the files: p-heralds-msg, voice-herldry-msg, cryptography-msg, travel-msg, carts-msg, med-ships-art, ships-msg, horses-msg, bags-baskets-msg.





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                                    Mark S. Harris

                                    AKA:  Stefan li Rous

                                         stefan at florilegium.org



Medieval Messengers

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

wanted persons.


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

Robin Blund

Arnold Bon

William Le Clerk

Jack Faukes

Walter Jolif (nickname Joly Wat)

Laurence the Messenger

John Le Irish

John of Paris

Thomas of  Oxford

Geoffrey of Say

John Troll

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".


Martin Ape

Roger of Bannebury

William of Burg

Robert of Chester

William of Coventry

Robert Crouland

Richard Tokesford

James the Fly

Richard Frere

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

10 marks.




English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages (XIVth Century)

J.J. Jusserand

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

eighteenth century."


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





Royal Mail

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

ISBN 0-7734-7977-5


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

(Her) Majesty.

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

(pre-period) is:


The Messenger in the Ancient Semitic World

By Samuel A. Meier

Scholars Press, Atlanta, Georgia 1988

ISBN 1-555-40289-5


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.


Byron Whited



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.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org