What Is a Medieval Steward?

During the medieval era, village stewards represented the lord, effectively controlling the town or city. They were answerable to the lord. In castles, stewards managed the castle’s finances, ran general household administration and organized large events. They were also referred to as seneschals.

Although medieval stewards were servants, they wielded a great deal of power. Particularly large estates, such as the king’s, sometimes divided the responsibilities between two stewards, with one overseeing the household and the other assigned to administrative duties. In villages, stewards might be called upon for judicial matters. When lords left, whether for business or pleasure, they left their stewards in charge, which emphasizes their role as trustworthy and loyal servants who acted in the best interests of their masters.

Because of this, in late Middle English literature the steward is often an important minor character, though he rarely takes center stage. They are portrayed as either true and loyal or wicked and traitorous, with the ability to either aid or destroy their lords’ wealth. The absence of a proper seneschal is key to the plot of “Havelok” when two kings die with neither stewards nor heirs to see to their affairs, and the kingdoms fall to the machinations of corrupt nobles.