Medieval housecarls were medieval menservants or household troops that usually served the elites. The tradition emerged from medieval Scandinavia where it was customary to employ housecarls who would generally act as bodyguards to nobles. The term was a loose one and could be used for anyone from personal attendants to regular bodyguards.
The world housecarl is derived from the Old Norse word “huskarl” which loosely meant “manservant”. However, distinction should be made between these servants and the serfs or slaves since the former were free men employed in service and were paid wages for it. In other words, the service of medieval housecarls was voluntary.
The history of medieval housecarls extends to medieval Scandinavia when it was common to employ menservants who would sometimes also act as bodyguards. When the king of Denmark conquered England in the 11th century, the culture was also brought to England. Their role was extended to administrative and military duties in England. Thus medieval housecarls fought under King Harold during the Battle of Hastings.
Specific laws and etiquette related to medieval housecarls existed in Scandinavia as well as medieval England. For instance, medieval housecarls were seated beside the king depending on their skill in war and nobility. The punishment for lesser offences was to demote their status and move them to a lower ranking. The crime of murdering another housecarl could result in outlawry and exile, while treason was punishable by death and confiscation of property.
Contrary to the predicament of slaves and serfs, medieval housecarls were paid proper and regular wages for their services. Their dues were paid on monthly basis and a special tax was levied in order to pay the royal housecarls. Besides, medieval housecarls were not bound to a single place and could change their place of service. However, they could hand in their notice only on New Year’s Eve and not on any other day.
Medieval houecarls enjoyed a considerably important social status and were quite well off. Some of the medieval housecarls even received land grants and estates from kings. However, their number was limited and the famous Doomsday Book records thirty-three landholding housecarls in England. Besides, compared to the estates of the nobles, medieval housecarls had much smaller estate. Nonetheless, their social status was much higher compared to the ordinary servants.
The role of medieval housecarls in battles is controversial and considerable disagreement exists as to the exact nature of it. It is known that medieval housecarls of King Harold fought against the Normans in the Battle of Hastings. However, the idea that medieval housecarls acted as regular troops is generally not accepted.
Medieval housecarls were medieval menservants employed by affluent classes. Other than acting as retainer for the nobility, they sometimes also acted as bodyguards. The culture of medieval housecarls came from Scandinavian countries and was later adopted in medieval England.