Laws of the Castle

Castles were the main defensive structures for much of medieval Europe, but they were only effective if they were guarded by competent and disciplined soldiers. Rules were needed to be made and enforced.

Kärnan in Helsingborg, Sweden - photo by Andreas Thell / Flickr

We have very sets of laws related to castles dating from the Middle Ages, but some survive from early 15th century Scandinavia. In her book The Royal Castles of Denmark during the 14th century, Vivian Etting notes that royal castles had special laws, known as Gardsretten or Slotsloven, that applied to all personnel and even visitors to castles. Created during the reigns of Queen Margrete (1387-1412) and King Erik (1396–1439), they offer the penalties for various crimes or infractions. Etting provides these examples:

If anyone kills another man and is caught in the act, he shall pay with his life. However, if he hides the crime, a board of twelve honest men should be appointed to pass sentence.

If anyone cuts, beats or sticks a man until the blood flows, he shall lose his hand.

If anyone draws his sword or knife against another in anger, he shall be stabbed through his hand if he caught in the act (even though no harm is done).

No one is allowed to gamble or play board games after the bailiff has said Good Night. If an esquire is found guilty, he will be put in the tower for one month on bread and water. If he is a servant, he will be put in the stocks or locked up in a chest. If he is a boy he will be flogged.

Anyone who rapes a woman and is caught in the act shall lose his head. If cries and shouts are heard and the woman is bloody or her clothes are torn, then he shall lose his life as much as if he was caught in the act - even if he didn’t have his way.

All men shall keep fire and candles well protected indoors. If fire breaks out due to neglect, the guilty shall be taken and thrown into the fire.

If anyone climbs up on the curtain wall from the outside or the inside, he will forfeit his head.

If any esquire or gamekeeper fails to attend his watch or guard at the gate he shall pay the penalty and stay 8 nights in the tower or in the stocks on bread and water. If it is a less important man, he shall jump from the curtain wall into the moat and afterwards stay 8 nights in the stocks on bread and water.

The Royal Castles of Denmark during the 14th century, by Vivian Etting is part of the Publications of the National Museum - Studies in Archaeology and History, Vol.19 and was published in 2010.

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