What was the Verge in 14th Century England?

A king and his knight before a pavilion
     Bodleian ms 264 106r

In a broad sense, from the time of Henry II (and before, probably) until the 15th century, the royal court was itinerant. There was no home base as we think of it; the king often spent a few days or a couple of weeks in one place. He rarely lingered more than a couple of months. Travel, or “removing” was a part of life. But because the king took most of his household with him, it was quite a venture: “the household included many hundreds of horses, and a massive store of baggage: crockery and cutlery, hangings, furnishings, clothes and weaponry, wax, wine and storage vessels, parchment and quills, weights, measures, and so on.” (See The Royal Household and the King’s Affinity by Chris Given-Wilson.) What this entailed was sending ahead a whole crew of harbingers to find lodging and purveyors to purchase food and drink, oats and fodder for the horses, etc. This put a huge strain on local neighborhoods through which the court passed, for the appetite of the household was often much greater than the local towns could accommodate. Because the locals were obliged to cooperate—even though the purveyors usually didn’t carry any money with them and wrote medieval IOUs to be cashed at the exchequer—there had to be a parameter within which the mandatory purveyance operated. And this was the verge, defined as a 12-mile radius from the presence of the king; when he king moved, the verge moved along with him.

Whenever possible, the purveyors would buy in bulk at ports and markets throughout the country. If the items were perishable, they naturally had to work the local markets. Purveyors were universally hated, partly because of delayed payments, and partly because the merchants were paid less than market value for their goods. According to Given-Wilson, “There were nine purveying offices in the household: the pantry, or bakehouse, for corn and bread; the buttery, for wine and beer; the kitchen, for all food not covered by other offices; the poultery, for poultry, game-birds, and eggs; the stables (or avenary, or marshalsea) for hay, oats and litter for the horses; the saucery, for salt and whatever was needed for sauces; the hall and chamber, for coal and wood for heating and rushes; the scullery, for crockery, cutlery, storage vessels, and coal and wood for cooking; and the spicery, for spices, wax, soap, parchment, and quills.” Before 1362—when the “great statute of purveyors” was enacted to regulate the problems—one purveyor after another would come knocking on an unfortunate’s door. Oh, and local carts and beasts were requisitioned to transport the goods, usually without payment.

  Source: Wikimedia

You can imagine what kind of unrest this caused! Furthermore, if anyone refused to cooperate with the king’s servants, they could be brought up before the court of the verge (also known as the Marshalsea court) which was the legal arm of the household. Sometimes the Marshalsea dealt with offenses within the household such as pleas of debt or disagreements between members; often it reviewed offenses between a member of the household and someone outside of it. Sometimes it dealt with trespassers within the verge (with force and arms) or levied fines against those who used false measures. Assaults, thefts, and transgressions, if committed within the verge, were tried, sometimes with juries. Apparently murders were outside of its jurisdiction.

As the fourteenth century drew on, the king tended to stay closer and closer to London, which made the city almost perpetually within the verge. Apparently the Marshalsea claimed precedence over London’s common law (reminds me of the Church), and criminals often crossed the Thames to Southwark to evade punishment. In 1373 Edward III ordered a prison to be built in Southwark for his own convenience, known as the Marshalsea prison.  It was one of the first London buildings to suffer the wrath of the Peasant’s Revolt. The infamous Marshalsea of Charles Dickens’ time was a different prison altogether, and much more notorious than its namesake.

3 thoughts on “What was the Verge in 14th Century England?

  • Very interesting post, thank you.
    It comes to mind that a roving royal household eating up the fat of the land might also have the effect of forestalling rebellion by repeatedly sending the local nobles back to square one in stored resources. On the other hand, can’t think of a better excuse to organize a rebellion!
    Do you think there might be an etymological connection to verger, as in a church?

    • You might be on to something. The etymological dictionary ties them together. The verger is one who carries a verge, which they define as: “Old French verge “twig, branch; measuring rod; rod or wand of office” (12c.), hence, from the last sense, “scope, territory dominated” (as in estre suz la verge de “be under the authority of”), from Latin virga “shoot, rod, stick, slender green branch,” of unknown origin.” Thanks for pointing that out!

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