Words To Remember

"The truth is this--genealogy is our living, and we are busy every minute, [and we] could use more hours." --Jane Wethy Foley, 1942

Friday, May 4, 2012

English Licenses to Crenellate: 1199-1567

By Philip Davies

{This article was previously published in The Castle Studies Group Journal, No. 20: 2006-7, pp. 226-245.  The English spelling has been retained.}

The serious study of castles is riddled with past assumptions, prejudices and 'theories' that have gained popular credence and move into the work of established 'fact'. Castles were erected, from the start, to be powerful symbolic buildings and through the past and in to the modern world various contemporary symbolic values has been attached to the 'fortifications' of castles and their like. The study of licences to crenellate is a particularly good example of this.

Victorian concerns with empire and strong centralised government led to Victorian scholars describing licences to crenellate as a requirement imposed by central authority to control over-mighty lords, a view still widely stated. It should be made clear that there is no evidence whatsoever for this view. Much of what has been written about licences to crenellate was based on a few examples, often atypical, and on a misreading and misattribution of other historical documents. Very few scholars have done in depth study of the subject, the most notable is Charles Coulson. [1]

In particular it is important to understand that the so called 'adulterine' castles of the Anarchy of Stephen were not 'unlicenced', as sometimes stated. They were 'tainted' because they had been built and used in a rebellion. A licence to crenellate was supposedly a grant that gave permission for a building to be fortified.

This concept may have originated in the Carolingian Empire as a way to control castle building to prevent local lords from becoming over-mighty or too strong, but in English feudal society the licence was used both by king and baron as a symbol of their status, and with "few exceptions at times of turbulence, the king's right as overlord to license was a right to grant, not to refuse, permission to crenellate" (Coulson, 1982, p 71). "In reality, no feudal or sub-feudal ruler could either in law or in practice deny to his vassal the protection by self-help fortifying which he, as lord, had failed to provide." (Coulson, 1982, p.  97 n. 10).

It was not in reality necessary to obtain a licence to crenellate to erect a fortified building. There was "very slight chance of interference by royal officials even in so intensively governed a realm as England, but a licence was prestigious and could be had for the asking." (Coulson 1982 p 70) [2]  Fortifications were not restricted by law, but the cost of building and, particularly, of providing a garrison, restricted true military castles to a very limited number anyway.

In England licences to crenellate were granted by the Monarch; the Bishop of Durham, in his position as ruler of the Palatinate of Durham; the Earl of Chester, in his position as ruler of the Palatinate of Cheshire and after the formation of the Palatinate of Lancashire in 1351, the Duke of Lancaster.

Few documented records survive from before the thirteenth century. One of the earliest supposed licence to crenellate for which some form of reliable documentation exists is one in 1141 to Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, made by King Stephen. This grant was repeated by Empress Matilda and named as his new castle on the Lea (novum castellum super Lviam), usually considered to be South Mymms. This is a retrospective 'grant' in complex charters obtained by Geoffrey at a time during the Anarchy, when he was able to dictate terms, and when he was imposing his noble status.

Of the later surviving grants it is clear that these were not an attempt to control the major lords but were mainly granted to relatively minor knights for quite small manor houses, many of which could only have had token fortifications. Licences to crenellate were mainly symbolic representations of lordly status "castellation was the architectural expression of noble rank" (Coulson 1982, p. 72) and also "to publicly prominent ecclesiastics and lay magnates in England a licence had the extra cachet of royal recognition, acknowledgement and compliment. Unlike other royal patronage, it conferred no fiscal advantage whatever, but it was as eagerly sought by the socially ambitious as any lucrative privilege." (Coulson 1982, p 83).

The distribution map shows the tendency for municipal licences granted to build town walls mainly to be a feature of coastal towns.  Distribution is fairly random and there is certainly no evidence of a concentration of licenced "fortifications" in the Scottish march or the coast.

The building that often, but not always, resulted from these licences, which had some show of fortification, like battlements, moats and gatehouses, were also mainly symbolic, although they probably represented some defence against thieves. Coulson goes to some length to express the idea that much fortification' in ecclesiastical and lay buildings was symbolic, both for the occupants and the 'mob' they were a defence against. The gatehouse was the most powerful symbol and the strongest part of the defence, yet mobs often attacked the gatehouse, rather than simply push over a surrounding, relatively weak, precinct wall; however, the gatehouse was rarely manned enough to resist an attack anyway.

In effect many 'defences' were like modern burglar alarms and CCTV; some are sham and even when they are not they represent more an expression of legal ownership and intent to prosecute rather than a real preventative measure. (Strong doors, good locks and fear of being caught stops thieves, alarms may help somewhat with this last psychological barrier but, of themselves, alarms do not stop thieves).

No fee was normally charged for a licence; the handful of fees recorded are small (half a mark or a mark) [3] and are clearly to cover the bureaucratic cost of searching the records or writing the licence and not to raise money. It has been said an annual fee was required; this is due to a misinterpretation of a single reference. Most licences were issued as patent letters granted under the privy seal.


Author's Notes:

[1] Charles Coulson’s wealth of supporting evidence and profound understanding make him the most credible author on the subject.

[2] Coulson writes, "The 'control over fortification' exercised by William Marshall and then by Hubert de Burgh during Henry III's minority, was aimed at preserving the peace (won after the battle of Lincoln in 1217), repressing war-like occupation of sensitive places and provocative fortifying by small men beyond their proper station. Illicit wartime seizures and fortifying (namely castra adulterina) had to be reversed or regulated to reassert the rule of law. There was no prejudice against seigneurial castles as such.  Royal orders on the Rolls prohibiting fortifying or crenellation are very scarce after c. 1232. Interference was more likely to be due to local officiousness or resentment, but still highly rare." (1982, p. 06, n. 9)


Additonal Note:

[3] The mark was equal to 2/3 of a pound or 160 pence. English kings based their coinage system on that of Charlemagne: the pound, the shilling and the penny. A silver pound was divided into 240 pence. For hundreds of years, the silver penny was the only coin the English minted and the earliest coins contained one pennyweight of silver. Pure silver is too soft to make coins that withstand heavy use. From 1158, England adopted silver coins that were 92.5 percent silver, with the remainder consisting of base metal. The sterling standard remained in effect until 1920.


Coulson, Charles, "Structural Symbolism in Medieval Castle Architecture" in Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Vol. 132, 1979,  pp. 73-90.

Coulson, "Hierarchism in Conventual Crenellation" in Medieval Archaeology, Vol. 26,  1982, pp. 69-100.

History of English Coins, accessed 4 May 20102 at http://www.ehow.com/about_5444297_history-english-coins.html#ixzz1twvcL36m.


In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Portage des Sioux, St. Charles Co., MO

This township, including the islands, contains about eighty square miles, and embraces the point of land lying between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. It is about twenty-two miles in length, and a little more than six miles in width at its widest part. The township, however, between the two rivers, at Portage des Sioux, is not more than two miles across.

Portage des Sioux with Mississippi River at flood; the statue is Our Lady of the Rivers

The surface of the land is almost entirely level, it being what is called "bottom" land, and is remarkably productive. The staple products are wheat and corn. The corn grown here is of a superior quality, and is known as the "St. Charles White," being excellent for grits and meal. It commands, in the St. Louis market, from one to one and a half cents more on the bushel than any other corn shipped to that city. The farmers are in good circumstances, many of them cultivating large tracts of land, from which they have annually gathered abundant crops which have made them wealthy. A portion of the township is subject to overflow in extreme high water.

The forest which originally covered these bottoms were dense and luxuriant; much of it has been cleared away for farms and firewood; much of it has been cut into cordwood, sold to steamboats and shipped to St. Louis, and still the timber is not only inexhaustible, but of an excellent quality. The township has no running streams, but contains a few small lakes, the largest of which is Marais Temps Clair.


Of the early settlements in the county, perhaps Portage des Sioux retains the traces of its peculiar more closely than any other. It is only of late years that the French population, which at one time composed the entire settlement, has been broken in upon by the representatives of other blood. In the latter part of the summer of 1799, Francis Leseuer, then a resident of St. Charles, in a hunting excursion to the lakes in the prairie bottoms, visited an Indian village a short distance from the Mississippi, and in company with some of the Indians came as far as the river, where there was another Indian settlement. The neighborhood pleased him so much as a site for a village, that on his return to St. Charles a colony was organized to settle the locality. Lieut.-Gov. Delassus, then at St. Louis, made a grant of land the same fall, and a number of families, principally from St. Charles and St. Louis, erected their tents on the site of Portage des Sioux. Francis Saucier was appointed commandant, a position which he continued to hold until the change of government.

Prairie wildlife at Marais Temps Clair Lake, Portage des Sioux

The colony remained during the winter of 1799-1800, hewed timber, and in the spring built some houses. From a petition drawn in October, 1803, for a grant of "Commons," we gather the following names as the original settlers of Portage des Sioux: Francis Saucier, Francis Leseuer, Simon Lepage, Charles Hibert, Julian Roi, Augusta Clairmont, Etienne Pepin, Abraham Dumont, Louis Grand, Jaques Godefroi, Bapiste Lacroix, Brazil Picard, Patrice Roi, Joseph Guinard, Antoine Lepage, Pierre Clermont, David Eshbough, Charles Roi, Thomas Whitley, Matthew Saucier and Solomon Petit. The first white child born in the settlement was Bridget Saucier, a daughter of the commandant. She was born in March, 1800, and afterwards married Stephen De Lile [sic: Etienne Bienvenue dit De Lisle] and was living in the town in 1875.

Portage des Sioux was formerly a celebrated stopping place for the Indians on their voyages up and down the river. Frequently the Mississippi, in front of the town, would be covered with fleets of canoes, while the village would swarm with swarthy voyageurs. During the Indian troubles the inhabitants were not molested. About 1808, however, one of the residents was killed by a drunken Indian. The assassin was at once surrendered to the whites and was taken to St. Louis, where, however, he either escaped or was set at liberty.

The place was of some importance during the War of 1812. A force was stationed here to intercept the enemy on their way to St. Louis. Along the river below the town stood a fort, the site of which disappeared in one of the inundations of the Mississippi. There was also a block-house at the head of the island below the town.

An Indian village, belonging to the tribe of Kickapoos, stood about two and a half miles south-west of the town; and another called Lassowris, from the name of an Indian chief, was below on the Mississippi. The treaty of peace between the United States government and the confederate tribes, who had engaged in the war under Tecumseh, the Missouri and Illinois were present in large numbers. General Clark acted in behalf of the United States government. The flat below the town was the place for holding the council.

The name of Portage des Sioux had been given to the place by the Indians, and was adopted by the French settlers. Here the distance between the Missouri and Mississippi is scarcely two miles. Bands of Indians on their journeys were accustomed to disembark, carry their canoes across the narrow neck from one river to the other, and thus save the long journey of twenty-five miles around the point of land, which runs up from the confluence of the two rivers. For many years after the settlement of the country the old trail could be distinctly traced. Perhaps an incident, which tradition still preserves, was of service in establishing the name, particularly in reference to the tribe of Sioux.

"The Osage Indians occupied a village on the Missouri, at or near the mouth of the Kansas. The Sioux lived on the Mississippi, above the mouth of the Des Moines. A hunting party of the Osage wandered over towards the country of the Sioux, and fell in with some hunters of that tribe, and killed one or more of their number. This greatly incensed the Sioux, and they resolved on Indian revenge. They formed a war party, fitted out a fleet of bark canoes, descended the Mississippi to the mouth of the Missouri, and ascended the latter river to the neighborhood of the Osages. Here they secreted their canoes and made a night attack upon their unsuspecting enemies, of whom they massacred a large number. Their revenge was signal, terrific and complete.

a, scalping-knife; b, ditto, in sheath; c, d, war-clubs; e, e, tomahawks; g, whip.

"The Sioux then returned to their canoes and fled, but in less time the Roderick Dhu could marshal his ready clansmen, a strong war party of Osages was formed, who, panting and thirsting for vengeance, launched their canoes upon the dark waters of the Missouri, and gave chase to their retreating foes. Both tribes were distinguished for their skill in water craft. The race was a contest for life and death. On they sped, the pursued and the pursuers. Each party employed all its skill and strength and cunning -- the fugitives prompted by the love of life and hope for escape -- the pursuers urged on by the desire for revenge and thirst for blood. The Sioux made great speed down the muddy river, but the Osages gained on them.

"The signs of the chase freshened; neither party stopped for rest, nor flagged; on, on they sped for days, the Osages still gaining, until, in one of the long stretches of the river, they came in sight of the Sioux. A loud, wild cry of exultation from the pursuers rang out upon the welkin, and was echoed back by a shout of defiance from the Sioux. The last trial of strength and skill was now made, and every nerve strained to its utmost capacity. On they sped until a certain bend of the river concealed the fugitives from their pursuers.

"Under this cover they soon reached a point on the Missouri, about twelve miles above its mouth and only a mile from the Mississippi, nearly opposite a point on the Mississippi where Portage des Sioux stands, and, taking advantage of this sudden turn of fortune, disembarked, withdrew their canoes from the water, and concealed themselves from their pursuers. Soon, however, the party of Osages came, noiselessly, yet swiftly as an arrow in its flight, gathering new life and fresh courage from the glimpse of a broken paddle, as it glided by them on the turbid waters, or some useless article of which the Sioux had disencumbered themselves in their flight.

"A moment of breathless suspense, into which was crowded an age of hope and fear and anxiety, is now experienced by the fugitives as their pursuers near the place of their concealment -- another moment and their pursuers are passed and lost to view in the next curve of the river. Manitto has smiled on the Sioux--the Osages are foiled.

"Hastily gathering up their canoes they bear them on their shoulders across the narrow portage, relaunch them on the Mississippi and resume their flight up that river, while the Osages continue down the Missouri to its mouth and then up the Mississippi. This successful strategem enabled the Sioux to gain on their pursuers some 20 or 30 miles, and secured their escape. The point where they re-embarked is the sight of Portage des Sioux, the portage of the Sioux, by which name it has ever since been known.

"The seal of the town is a circle with two bands encircling a field, with an extended view representing a portion of that plane of country immediately above the junction of the rivers. The "armorial chievement" is simple, yet highly suggestive, and commemorates the incident above related. It consists of a party of Sioux with canoes on their shoulders, courant, comme le diable, and is surrounded with the words "Seal of the town of Portage des Sioux." [1]

Ebenezer Ayers came from one of the Eastern States and settled on what is known as "the point" in St. Charles county at a very early date. He built the first horse-mill in that region of country. He was also a large fruit grower, and made a great deal of butter and cheese. He lived in a large, red house, in which the first Protestant sermon in "the point" was preached. In 1804 he and James Flaugherty and John Woods were appointed justices of the peace for St. Charles district, being the first under the American government. Mr. Ayers had four children, one son and three daughters. Two of the latter died before they were grown. The son, Ebenezer Davenport Ayers, married Louisiana Overall, and settled where Davenport, Iowa, now stands, the town being named for him. His surviving sister, Hester Ayers, married Anthony C. Palmer, who was a ranger in the company commanded by Capt. James Callaway. Mr. Palmer was afterward elected sheriff of the county, and served one term. He had a good education, was an excellent scribe, and taught school a number of years.

Samuel Griffith, of New York, settled on the point below St. Charles in 1795. He was therefore one of the very first American settlers in the present limits of the State of Missouri. Daniel M. Boone had been here previous to this arrival, and the rest of the Boone family must have come about the same time that Mr. Griffith did. They all came the same year at any rate. Mr. Griffith was married in North Carolina, and had four children: Daniel A., Asa, Mary and Sarah. Daniel A. married Matilda McKnight, and they had five children. Asa married Elizabeth Johnson; they had five children. Mary married Wilson Overall, and Sarah married Foster McKnight.

Alexander Garvin, of Pennsylvania, married Amy Mallerson, and settled in St. Charles county, Mo., in 1819. His cabin was built of poles, and was only 16x18 feet in size, covered with linden bark weighted down with poles. The chimney was composed of sticks and mud. The house was built in one day, and they moved into it the next. Mr. Garvin and his wife had seven children: Amy, Margaret, Permelia, Alexander, Jane R., Julia A. and Fannie D. Amy, Julia and Permilia all died single. Margaret was married first to Thomas Lindsay, and after his death she married Joles Dolby, and is now a widow again. Alexander married Elizabeth Boyd. Jane R. married Robert Bowles. Fannie D. married Robert Roberts.

[1] Atlas Map of St. Charles County.

--from The History of St. Charles County, Missouri, p. 261-281