St. Augustine: Florida’s Medieval City (Part II)

Few people, even Floridians, know about the medieval roots of St. Augustine discussed in my previous blog. In fact, if you’re planning a trip there and you Google “medieval St. Augustine,” you’ll only get results for the city’s Medieval Torture Museum or for the antique Christian philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo.

As readers of this blog know well, though, there is far more to any society, medieval or otherwise, than its methods of policing and punishment. Allow me, then, to take you on a medievalist’s tour of St. Augustine!

Welcome gateway in St. Augustine. Photo by the author.

I recommend beginning at the St. Augustine Visitor Information Center. The parking is plentiful (though not free), the air conditioning glorious, and the informational brochures abundant. The VIC also has terrific museum-quality exhibits, including replicas of Spanish sailing ships and plenty of historical documents, explanatory placards, and artifacts. The plaza also houses a notable fountain, a replica of the Fuentos de los Caños de San Francisco (Fountain of the Spouts, in the Avilés neighborhood of San Francisco). St. Augustine’s sister city, Avilés, Spain, also the birthplace of St. Augustine’s founder Pedro Menéndez, gifted the fountain to St. Augustine in 2005. The original Fuentos de los Caños de San Francisco in Avilés was built in the sixteenth century, in the late medieval/early modern transitional period, and will set the medieval mood quite well for you!

Fuente de los caños en Avilés. Photography by Sitomon, posted to Wikimedia Commons.

The Castillo de San Marcos

From the VIC you can walk east to the Castillo de San Marcos (the Fort of St. Mark, managed by the National Park Service). As you’ll see in your visit, the Castillo blends the functions of medieval stronghold and defensive New World frontier fort. 

From the early days of the settlement, this spot held a defensive fort, though the earliest ones—nine in total—were wooden. [1] We know this from a significant map made by Baptisto Boazio, created to accompany a written account of Sir Francis Drake’s 1585 raiding expedition to attempt an upset of Spanish settlements in their new territories.

Close-up view of the Boazio map of St. Augustine, showing a wooden fort at the right, on the site of the present-day Castillo, and the first Spanish settlement at the left, with crop-growing fields at the top and right, and a watchtower, town house, and church to the right of the houses. Image from the Library of Congress.

In September 1585 Drake set out with 29 vessels. He and his crew raided and captured Santiago (Cape Verde), Santo Domingo (modern-day Dominican Republic), Cartagena (modern-day Columbia), and St. Augustine. The illustrations made by Boazio, who either went on the voyage or used information provided by Sir Francis Drake or other sailors, are the first recorded views of each of these locations, and his drawing of St. Augustine is particularly notable as the first recorded view of a European settlement in North America. 

His maps were printed to accompany the written account two sailors kept of that voyage. Captain Walter Bigges began the account and kept it until he died in Cartagena; Lieutenant Croftes continued it after Bigges’s death. [2]

Croftes described St. Augustine’s fort as still in progress, only three or four months old, “all built of timber, the walles being none other but whole mastes or bodies of trees set uppe right and close together in manner of a pale, without any ditch as yet made.”[3] Drake and his company burned the unfinished fort, and the town, to the ground. 

Though the fled survivors returned and rebuilt, much of the town was destroyed again just a few years later in a hurricane of 1599. Finally in 1672, the settlers began construction of a stone fort. Its first stage was finished in 1695 (the second stage ran from 1738–1756). [4]

Contemporary aerial view of Castillo, aerial view of terreplein and bastions. Image from the National Park Service.

Though the structure of the stone fort, made of native coquina, was post-medieval, it served in many ways as a medieval castle, a defense for the town around it and a place for St. Augustinians to shelter when under assault. In 1702, for example, when the British attacked, “about 1,500 soldiers and civilians were packed into the Castillo for 51 days!” [5] 

The courtyard had three freshwater wells, the dry moat and the glacis offered protection from invasion, and both the inner and outer fortress had cannons and other types of munitions for fending off attackers. 

The southwest corner of the fort, showing the Bastion de San Pedro (each of the four angled corners of the fort contains a bastion, and each is named: NE, San Carlos (also the main watch tower); NW, San Pablo; SW, San Pedro; SE, San Agustín). Photo by the author.

A medieval coat of arms appears above both the ravelin (the v-shaped protective installation at the south end) and the sally port (the entrance into the south wall, reached by the drawbridge and protected by the ravelin). As in the city coat of arms that I discussed in Part One, the lions represent the Kingdom of León and the castles the Kingdom of Castile, the crown atop Spain, and the sheep and enclosing chain the medieval Order of the Golden Fleece.

Image of the (replica) stone crest on the ravelin. Image from the NPS virtual tour of the Castillo.

Want to learn more about the fort from the comfort of your browser? Take the great virtual tour offered by NPS and hosted by the University of South Florida Libraries’ Center for Digital Heritage and Geospatial Information!

The City Gate and Walls

Running out from the western side of the Castillo, and reconstructed and visible today, is one of the city’s defensive walls. Like medieval cities, St. Augustine had not only a fortified stronghold but also a city gate and defensive walls. Most of these walls, or lines as the Spanish termed them, are reconstructions, though you will still feel very much like you’re walking through a medieval city when you see them (imagine, for example, the walls and gates of York, one of the most complete medieval walled cities in England.)

The gate and city walls of St. Augustine were not actually erected at its first settlement but in response to the British invasion of 1702. That experience prompted the city to enclose itself afterwards within medieval-style walls. The builders used native materials and constructed the lines as earthworks strengthened with local crushed coquina, or as walls of palm trunks.

St. Augustinians erected four protective lines: the Cubo Line (1704), the Hornabeque (or Hornwork) Line (1706), the Rosario Line (1718–19), and the Mose Wall (1762). [6] Each line also included redoubts (a term that comes from Classical Latin reducere “to lead back” and medieval Latin reductus “secret place” [7]), somewhat similar in concept to the turrets of the Roman-era Hadrian’s Wall in England.) You can visit a reconstructed redoubt, the Santo Domingo Redoubt, at the corner of Orange and Cordova Streets, near the VIC.

The lines of St. Augustine. Original image from NPS, overlaid by the author with colored lines.

Colonial historian Dr. Susan R. Parker describes the construction of the lines:

“Out from the Castillo’s west side went strong earthworks in the style of medieval European walled cities to protect against siege warfare. This wall surrounded the city’s three landward sides and became the physical limits of the colonial city.

[…] ​​Years later, about 1762, the northernmost wall was added to connect with the village of Fort Mose, the settlement established for enslaved persons who escaped from English colonies to Spanish Florida.

The lines were built of soil with coquina sometimes incorporated for strength. To raise the height of the wall, Spanish bayonets and prickly cactus were planted along its top. The walls required endless repair. The biggest threat to the wall were the hooves of free-ranging cattle that pawed away at the berms.

The reproduction Cubo Line that today crosses the grounds of the Castillo depicts a version of that barrier made of palm logs, built about 1808, a century after the first ‘Line.’ The City Gate was incorporated into this wall. The coquina pillars that stand today were built about the same time as the palm-log wall and replaced earlier entryways made of wood.” [8]

The Cubo line runs out of the west side of the fort, and the nineteenth-century version of palms was reconstructed in 1964 by the National Park Service. You can learn all about the materials and construction of this wall from NPS.

You can see more detail of the architecture of the Cubo line in the drawing below from the National Park Service.

Cubo Line Construction. Drawing by the National Park Service showing the proposed location of the replica town wall.

The city gates are part of the Cubo line and lie a short distance from the western fort wall. The existing gates were reconstructed in 1808. 

The reconstructed City Gates, seen from the north. The Cubo line runs on either side of the gate. St. George Street, the entrance into the walled town, runs through these gates. Photo by the author.
Side view of the city gates, from the east, showing the defensive earthworks, entrance bridge of St. George Street, dry moat, and palms. Photo by the author.

The city lines were, in fact, what inspired me to write these blogs on the medieval roots of St. Augustine. Wandering around the old city on one visit a few years ago, I came across a part of the city wall, running between buildings on the northwestern edge and not particularly marked or noted in any way. I stood there for a bit, playing my fingers gently over the coquina and mortar, and thinking about the medieval city walls of York (themselves much reconstructed, like St. Augustine’s), and medieval flint church walls I’d just spent a year examining in the eastern U.K.

These sudden medieval encounters in the everyday world are striking, connecting us with the past physically, and showing us links with our natural environment and its long history of inspiring the construction of protective barriers, homes, and places of worship. Builders in the U.K. from the Romans to the Elizabethans relied on flint, a stone arising from the Chalk Escarpment of eastern coastal (and some of inland) Britain. The masons who made York’s medieval stone walls quarried their materials from the Magnesian Limestone formation in that area. The masons of St. Augustine drew on the native coquina, a limestone formed naturally of compressed and partially-dissolved shells of the coquina clam donax variabilis. St. Augustine’s limestone was quarried from nearby Anastasia Island

Mortared coquina. The signature features of coquina rock—compressed shells of donax variabilis and their partially dissolved limestone—are visible here. Photo by the author.

The Historic City

While only a few reconstructed sections of the lines exist today, you can still enter the historic district of St. Augustine through its city gates, and from there step into a colonial Spanish town. Most of the city’s historic buildings are restored or reconstructed from its colonial era (First Spanish Period, 1565–1763; British Period, 1763–83; Second Spanish Period, 1783–1821) and early American period (after 1821). This lack of surviving older structures has much to do with St. Augustine’s military past: as a key outpost, the city weathered a number of massive attacks on its fort and settlement, such as Drake’s destruction of it in 1585 or the 1702 British attack that left the city burned to the ground again. Both post-Civil War Reconstruction and Henry Flagler’s investment and overhaul of the city in the late-nineteenth century meant the demolishing of many of the older buildings and construction of new ones. 

The 1971 Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board’s Guidebook notes of the period of demolishment that “The old and storied inevitably gave way to the then new and modern. Many old houses and the remaining sections of the defense lines were uprooted to make way for new buildings. In those days these changes were hailed as a great improvement. Construction wasn’t the only enemy St. Augustine had, however; fire did its share of damage. In 1887 flames swept the Cathedral and much of the north block of the plaza. In 1914 a disastrous fire wiped out many of the buildings in the older section of the city between the city gates and the plaza.” [9] In the 1930s, though, St. Augustine became the focus of historic restoration, with organizing efforts to protect the historic district and return the city to its first Spanish period appearance. This Guidebook contains fascinating information from its time about the history and reconstruction of many of the buildings you can visit today.

Careful attention to the historical restoration process has resulted in a city that still reflects clearly its Spanish heritage. Albert Manucy in his book Sixteenth-Century St. Augustine writes,

“Although none of the first colonial houses of St. Augustine remain, it is clear from the later survivors that they are related to the folk architecture of northern Spain, the home of Pedro Menéndez, the town’s founder. Today in Oviedo and Santander Provinces one can see masonry houses, often with overhead balconies, front the streets. House lots are fenced to serve as corrals and stables. And in the town of Treceño there are houses with roomy ground-floor loggias, open to the yard through an arcade of two or three arches. These same styles can be seen in St. Augustine, and they have been there a long time.” [10]

This “folk architecture” itself was influenced by the medieval era (unfortunately I don’t have space to delve into this topic here.)

You can still see the city’s beginnings, though, in its layout and street plan, which has changed very little from its first formal layout in 1597. When Menendez and his group landed in the area in 1565, they first settled in cacique Seloy’s Timucuan village (the present-day Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park). After 9 months Menéndez and the settlers moved to Anastasia Island, then in 1572 moved back across the bay to the present site of St. Augustine and laid out their town. This town reflects a key feature of Classical and medieval architecture and a hallmark of Spanish urban planning: a plaza (though nascent) on the northern end of the town. To see what that town looked like, let’s step back Boazio’s 1589 map.

Close-up view of the earliest settlement of “wooden houses” with their “most pleasant gardens,” from the Boazio map of St. Augustine. The church is depicted with the letter “O,” at the northeast corner of the town (current-day corner of King and Aviles Streets). “M” is the “town house” and “N” is the watchtower. Image from the Library of Congress.

The legend for the map describes the fourteen-year-old settlement in this way:

“Opidum S. Augustini ligneis aedibus constructum, amoenissimos habuit hortos, utique solo faecundissimo”

(The town of St. Augustine, built of wooden houses, had most pleasant gardens, of course on a most fertile soil”).

Boazio’s engraving, showing Drake’s attack on the town, shows these houses and gardens, laid out to the south of the sixteenth-century fort. 

Croftes describes the scene further, as the troop moved from the coast up the river:

“we might discerne on the other side of the river over against us, a fort [San Juan], which newly had bene built by the Spaniards, and some mile or there about above the fort, was a litle town or village without walls, built of wooden houses, as this Plot [Boazio’s map] here doth plainlie shew.” [11]

Boazio’s map shows a number of buildings, likely with palm- or palmetto-thatched roofs, and well-laid-out gardens. Archeological excavations have also confirmed the presence of a church, Nuestra Senora de Los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies), since 1572 (St. Augustine, in fact, was America’s first Catholic parish). Records have confirmed the presence of a governor’s house near the water. 

The open area surrounded by the church, town hall, and watchtower form a rough sort of early plaza, a plaza that was formalized shortly after by the next governor and that still exists today as the Plaza de la Constitucion, in the middle of the colonial halves of the city. 

In their book, Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza, Logan Wagner, Hal Box, and Susan Kline Morehead discuss the importance of a central gathering place in city planning the world over, from ancient times to present. They note that “Plazas, or communal open spaces of some kind, have been at the core of every town and city in every culture on every continent.” [12] In the Western European world, the Greeks and Romans engaged in urban planning practices that provided for both sacred space (the Parthenon and Acropolis for Greeks, the Forum and Templum for Romans) and commercial and civic space (the market square). 

About the development of urban planning in the Spanish New World, Wagner et al. write,

“The origins of Spanish urban layouts in the New World can perhaps be traced to urban design principles established by the celebrated Roman architect Vitruvius in the first century BCE; or possibly to ideas being discussed by the urban designers of the Italian Renaissance, especially Alberti; or even to the French bastides of the thirteenth century; or to the need to have a town layout that was expedient for military actions. The official policy of the Spanish Crown to design new towns in a grid or ‘checkerboard square’ pattern emanating from a central open space or plaza did not become official until well into the latter quarter of the first century of Spanish colonization, when grid layouts were finally made official in 1573 during the reign of Phillip II. The document in which these instructions were decreed is known as ‘The Laws of the Indies.’”

The authors note that, though the Laws were explicit and highly prescribed, in reality, settlements typically accommodated both existing native settlements and topographic features. [13]

When the Spanish settlers returned after Drake and his company ended their raiding and headed north to Virginia, they had to rebuild, and put up a new wooden fort as well. Carmelite lay brother Andrés de San Miguel described the refounded settlement in 1595 as being a little over a mile long (“one-half league”), with plenty of water to drink and various crops. Of the buildings he writes, “All of the walls of the houses are of wood and the roofs of palm and the more important ones of plank. The fortress [is] made of wood backed by a rampart.” Further, “The Spaniards make the walls of their houses out of this wood of cypress (sauino) because the part of it that is in the ground does not rot.” [14] The town that Fray Andrés saw was that depicted in a map of ca. 1593, the “de Mestas map,” possibly created by Hernando de Mestas, St. Augustine emissary to Spain.

Map of town, fort, and channel of San Augustin, ca. 1593. Image from University of Florida Digital Collections.

When the new governor of La Florida, Gonzalo Méndez de Canzo, arrived to St. Augustine in 1597, he carried out Phillip II’s new Laws of the Indies and overhauled the layout of the city to that effect, including establishing a marketplace in the plaza. He also moved the governor’s house westward, to the back of the plaza, “probably to have the location of the governor’s office comply with Spanish ordinances that major buildings face the main square (plaza).” [15] The Laws of the Indies blended Classical and medieval urban planning traditions with early modern sensibilities and responded to both the practical requirements of Spanish colonial outposts and the desire for a fresh, new, planned aesthetic for a new age and a New World. 

Méndez de Canzo’s layout for St. Augustine was the one that stuck for the city. Though the town was severely damaged in 1599, first by a fire that burned down the Franciscan monastery at the south end of town, and then by a hurricane that swept away most of the houses and killed many inhabitants, and burned down by the British in 1702, St. Augustinians kept rebuilding on the town layout. [16]

A 1711 map shows the new growth of the town, with the settlement and fort still somewhat distant from each other.

Map of St. Augustine, part of a larger map of Florida and the Carolinas, published about 1711 by Edward Crisp. Image from the Library of Congress.

By the time the British took over St. Augustine as part of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, though, the town had expanded northward and reached the area of the castillo. (From 1763-1783 Saint Augustine was a British territory, East Florida, and was its capital. In 1783 Britain gave this territory back to Spain, and in 1819 Spain gave it to the United States. )

Thomas Jefferys’s “Plan of the town and harbour of St. Augustine,” ca. 1762. Image from the Library of Congress.

The church (not the present cathedral) is denoted in the plaza area by a cross. 

John S. Horton, “View of St. Augustine, East Florida,” 1855, showing the plaza as seen from the bay. Image from the Library of Congress.

This 1855 view from the harbor shows how well-developed the plaza had become since Mendez laid it out in 1597.

Plan of the Town of St. Augustine, the Capital of East Florida,” by Thomas Jeffrys, published in William Faden, North American Atlas (1777). The map appeared first under a different title in William Stork, Description of East Florida (1769). Image from Boston Rare Maps Sale Catalogue.

Thomas Jeffrys’s 1769 map (above) shows that by the mid-eighteenth century, St. Augustine had grown to join with the fort, fully achieving de Canzo’s sixteenth-century plan. The Lines encompass the town, with the plaza (here formally noted as “The Parade”) at the center. This plaza was bounded by the Guard House at the harbor to the east, the church at the southwest corner, and the Governor’s House at the west end. The houses still had the “pleasant gardens” and orchards of the settlement’s earlier days. The fort appears at the northeast corner, with the Lines and their redoubts marked. The City Gate appears directly to the west of the fort, with present-day St. George Street running through the gates’ entrance into the walled city. 

In the overlay I’ve done below, you can see how precisely the modern historic district maps onto Jeffrys’s eighteenth-centrury engraving of the town:

The Jeffrys map, with overlay in red by the author.

Remarkably, between this 1769 map and one of today, only a few of the streets have been swallowed up by development. 

Walking through the streets of historic St. Augustine today is a treat for any lover of history. The careful reconstruction, street cobbles, balconies, and low buildings all create an atmosphere that is both medieval, European, and also distinctly Floridian. To see photos of more of the colonial buildings, check out this site

The city claims to have currently “thirty-six buildings of colonial origin and another forty that are reconstructed models of colonial buildings.” Why not take a break from Disney World and visit something of Florida’s medieval history instead? You won’t regret it.

How can you learn more?

Get involved in St. Augustine’s archaeology program as a volunteer!

Read more about the history of St. Augustine from the Florida Museum at the University of Florida

Check out this guide: St. Augustine Under Three Flags: Tourist Guide and History


[1] Albert Manucy, Sixteenth-Century St. Augustine: The People and Their Homes (Gainesville: U P of Florida, 1997), pg. 36.

[2] It was first published in Latin and French in 1588 and then in English in 1589 (in two different editions) as A Summarie and True Discourse of Sir Frances Drakes West Indian Voyage (S.T.C. 3056 and 3057). Side note for lovers of book history: the second English edition of 1589 directs readers where to insert the maps, sold separately, into their copy of the book, and each of the four town maps has additional “textual keys, separately printed on broadside sheets intended to be cut and pasted at the bottoms of the four town maps.”

Mary Frear Keeler notes of the text and maps that “Richard Hakluyt reprinted the Summarie in his Principal Navigations, 3 vols. (London, 1598–1600); 12 vols. (Glasgow, 1903–1905). The engraved maps, printed with texts in three languages to correspond with the editions of the Summarie, are clearly associated with the publication of that narrative, and are referred to on the title page of the Ward edition (1589). A complete set of the Boazio maps is bound with the British Library’s copy of the Summarie (Field edition), numbered G. 6509” (“The Boazio Maps of 1585–86,” Terrae Incognitae 10 (1978): 71–80, at pg. 71).

[3] Croftes, A svmmarie and trve discovrse of Sir Frances Drakes West Indian voyage (London, 1589), p. 32.

[4] “La Ciudad de San Agustín: A European Fighting Presidio in Eighteenth-Century ‘La Florida’,” in Historical Archaeology 38.3, Presidios of the North American Spanish Borderlands (2004): 33-46.

[5] “Courtyard” information card, USF virtual tour of the Castillo.

[6] “La Ciudad de San Agustín,” pp.33-46.

[7] “Redoubt (n.),” Oxford English Dictionary online.

[8] Susan R. Parker, “Wall surrounded St. Augustine in 1700s,” in the St. Augustine Record (Jan 2019).

[9] Pg.4

[10] Pg 5

[11] A Summarie and True Discourse of Sir Frances Drakes West Indian Voyage (London, 1589), pp.30–1.

[12] Logan Wagner et al., Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza: From Primordial Sea to Public Place (Austin: U of Texas P, 2013), pg.41.

[13] Wagner et al, pg.46.

[14] Fray Andrés de San Miguel, An Early Florida Adventure Story, trans. John H. Hann (Gainesville: U P of Florida, 2000), pp.76-7.

[15] Susan Richbourg Parker, “St. Augustine in the Seventeenth-Century: Capital of La Florida,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 92.3 (2014): 554–76, pg.556.

[16] Parker, “St. Augustine in the Seventeenth-Century,” pg.557.

St. Augustine: Florida’s Medieval City (Part I)

Along oyster beds, sand dunes, and marshy coastal lowlands rise the church spires and walls of a medieval coastal city. This isn’t Northumbria’s Holy Island or Normandy’s Mont-St-Michel, though. This is the City of St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city continuously occupied by Europeans and African-Americans in North America. This settlement on Florida’s First Coast predates the arrival of the Mayflower pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620 and even the 1607 founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement.

The Age of Reconnaissance

St. Augustine was founded by the Spanish in 1565 as part of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European push to discover, explore, and settle new lands beyond Europe. This “Age of Reconnaissance” is one of the hallmarks for historians of the transition from the late Middle Ages into the Early Modern period in Europe.

Historian J. H. Parry describes the medieval beginnings of this push, especially in Spain:

“The initial steps in expansion were modest indeed: the rash seizure by a Portuguese force of a fortress in Morocco; the tentative extension of fishing and, a little later, trading, along the Atlantic coast of North Africa; the prosaic settlement by vine and sugar cultivators, by log-cutters and sheep-farmers, of certain islands in the eastern Atlantic. There was little, in these early- and mid-fifteenth-century ventures, to suggest world-wide expansion.”

In the later fifteenth-century, though, this expansion indeed exploded globally. [1] The desire to expand wealth through acquisition of new lands, slave labor, and precious metals and stones, as well as the desire to convert any newly-discovered peoples to Catholicism, were powerful enticements for Spain to explore. Developments in nautical navigation, map-making, and ship technology made exploration possible. 

Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio” (“A new and most exact plan of America, or the fourth part of the world”), created by Diego Gutiérrez and Hieronymus Cock in 1562. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. 20540-4650 USA dcu.

Spain’s first encounter with the Florida coast came during the explorations of a medieval Spaniard, Juan Ponce de Léon (b. ca. 1460 in Léon, Spain). In early April 1513, with a license from Spain’s King Ferdinand II (1452–1516), Ponce de Léon sailed from Puerto Rico looking for Bimini (the Bahamas) and, legend has it, the Fountain of Youth. He found Florida instead, landing somewhere between St. Augustine and Melbourne Beach.

Claiming it for Spain, he gave the supposed island its Spanish name of La Florida, or Pascua Florida, depending on which source you look at; both names suggest Ponce de Léon was struck by the abundance of flowers he must have seen. (“Pascua Florida Day” is a state holiday and is celebrated on or around April 2nd each year.) He then sailed southward around the peninsula to explore further. [2] Ponce de Léon returned to Spain and procured Spain’s consent to colonize the New World; thus Spanish settlement began. [3] 

La Florida,” printed in Geronimo Chaves, Theatrum orbis terrarum (Antwerp: Abraham Ortelius, 1584). Special Collections Department, University of South Florida.

The Settlement of St. Augustine

Fifty-two years later, with a new French settlement threatening Spain’s claim to this territory, King Philip II commissioned Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to colonize the area and remove the French. On August 28, 1565, the feast of St. Augustine, Menéndez, his crew, soldiers, and settler families, over 2,000 souls traveling in 11 ships, sighted this land from sea and named it after the saint.

Menéndez and the settlers built defenses (pictured below, top center, which St. Augustinians replaced a little over a hundred years later with a stone fort, the Castillo de San Marcos) and laid out homes and plots for cultivation (pictured below, top left). St. Augustine was thus established and remained a hub of Spanish Florida, both for military defense and as a home base for Catholic missionaries.

Map of St. Augustine, created in 1589 by Baptista Boazio. Oriented with north to the right. The Castillo de San Marcos is pictured at top center. Held in the Hans and Hanni Kraus Sir Francis Drake Collection (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division).

Sadly, the next 50 years saw the Spanish settlers nearly annihilate the native Timucuan peoples of the area through disease and war. [4] The Spanish did aid escaped slaves, though, albeit conditionally. As early as 1687, Blacks escaping slavery in the nearby British colonies of Georgia and the Carolinas sought asylum in St. Augustine, the second-largest town in the southern colonies. [5] They received freedom in exchange for converting to Catholicism and, for men, joining the Spanish military. (In 1738 this settlement became a fortified town, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the first free Black community in the colonies, at the north end of St. Augustine. The settlement is now commemorated as Fort Mose Historic State Park.) [6]

Plano de la ciudad y puerto de San Agustin de la Florida” (Map of the City and Port of St. Augustine, Florida”), created in 1783 by Tomás López de Vargas Machuca. Held in Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. 20540-4650 USA dcu. The Castillo de San Marcos and town plan to the west are pictured top, slightly right of center. Fort Mose is north of the Castillo de San Marco and labeled as “Fuerte Negro” (Black Fort).

St. Augustine’s Coat of Arms

The later settlers of St. Augustine remained close to their medieval and colonial Spanish roots. In 1715, in fact, the city residents petitioned King Philip V of Spain for a coat of arms of their own, to reflect that heritage (they had previously used a version of the coat of arms of Castile and León, which appears on a lintel in the Castillo de San Marcos). They wrote to the king “to grant to them for arms, a ‘flor de lis, lion, castle and strong arm with cross in the middle’ and the title ‘Most Loyal and Valorous’ for their faithful and courageous service to Spain.” [7]

Philip did indeed grant the request, but neither the news nor the design of the coat of arms reached the city. In 1911 the City renewed its request with Juan Carlos I, King of Spain. Vicente de Cardenas y Vicent, Herald, King of Arms, Dean of the Corps of Heralds for Spain, informed St. Augustinians that indeed, the Coat of Arms had been granted on November 26, 1715, along with the title of “Most Loyal and Valorous” city. [8]

Photo by the author, Dr. Megan Hall (2022).

St. Augustine’s coat of arms contains the requested elements displayed on a shield, all topped by a crown. The seal and its elements draw on the medieval tradition of heraldry, which developed in Europe in the eleventh century as a way to visually distinguish and identify armor-covered knights on a battlefield. [9] In the next century heraldry grew to encompass family identity and then shortly after corporate identity, such as for monasteries, universities, and towns. [10]

Welcome Gateway in St. Augustine, Florida. Photo by the author, Dr. Megan Hall (2022).

St. Augustine’s seal visually marks the city’s medieval history and Spanish heritage as well as its city-hood (signified by the crown above the shield). In particular, the shape of the coat of arms’s shield is medieval and its golden cross signals the city’s Christian origins; the golden castle of Castile and the purple lion of León call back to the city’s Spanish heritage. St. Augustine proudly employs this coat of arms and crown on their city seal today, at a gateway that greets visitors to the city. 

Join me later this summer for the second part of this series, when we’ll take a deeper dive into the medieval heritage of the city that you can still enjoy today!

About the Author

Dr. Hall earned her Ph.D. in Medieval English Literature from the University of Notre Dame and her M.A. and B.A. in English Literature from the University of Georgia. She has authored a number of publications including essays in Journal of the Early Book Society, Early Middle English, and History of Education Quarterly. She is also a native Floridian who enjoys defending her claim that Florida has a medieval past. She’s written about her home state’s early history since her first historical fiction novella, Gold Coast (1997), about the Spanish exploration of Florida.

Twitter @meganjhallphd

Further Reading

Spanish Armorials” by the Heraldry Society

The Arms of the Spanish Kings, 1580–1666,” Notre Dame Rare Books & Special Collections

Genealogía y Heráldica,” from the Biblioteca Nacional de España (the National Library of Spain

Design your own heraldry or coat of arms!

Works Cited

[1]  J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement, 1450–1650, pg. 15.

[2]  “Native History: Ponce de Leon Arrives in Florida; Beginning of the End,” Indian Country Today (online), 2 Apr 2017; updated 13 Sep 2018.

[3] “Juan Ponce de León: Spanish explorer,” from Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

[4]  “Timucua,” in “Cultural Histories,” Peach State Archeological Society.

[5] Jane Landers, “Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose: A Free Black Town in Spanish Colonial Florida,” The American Historical Review 95.1 (Feb 1990): 9–30.

[6] “The Fort Mose Story,” Fort Mose Historical Society.

[7] Mayor’s Proclamation, City of St. Augustine

[8] Mayor’s Proclamation, City of St. Augustine

[9] For a discussion of the development of heraldry in Spain, see the 2007 doctoral thesis by Luis Valero de Bernabé y Martín de Eugenio, “Análisis de las características generales de la Heráldica Gentilicia Española y de las singularidades heráldicas existentes entre los diversos territorios históricos hispanos.”

[10] Learn more about heraldry in Europe and around the world in “The Scope of Heraldry,” Encyclopædia Brittanica, and more about heraldry in Spain.

Could Medieval Women Read?

As a specialist in the study of women’s education and literacy in England in the Middle Ages, I’m asked this question a lot. I’ll cut to the chase: YES. 

How do we know this? 

Medieval England (on which I’ll focus this blog) was a multilingual nation.1 English had been its primary vernacular from the time of the Anglo-Saxons (about 450) until the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French became the language of the nobility, government, and diplomacy.2 By the mid-fifteenth century, though, English had reasserted dominance as the primary vernacular language, while the Church, clerics, and higher education continued to use Latin.3 Because medieval English people would have heard and used all three languages in daily life, children were taught to read and speak all of them.4 Whether children’s reading knowledge became advanced depended on the importance of reading in their lives and what socioeconomic station they attained. In fact, most of the evidence for literacy survives from the upper classes; uncovering the history of less privileged groups remains difficult. 

In infantia

Medieval scholars commonly thought of childhood in three divisions: infantia (birth to about 7 years), pueritia (about 7 to 14 years), and adolescentia (about 14 to 21 years).5 The teaching of reading began in infantia with parents and nurses, if the family could afford such help. 

Girls and boys began by learning the letters of the Latin alphabet and the sounds they made. In this way they acquired the basic skills of early reading, called contemporaneously sillibicare (sounding out syllables) and legere (sounding out words), even if they didn’t understand what those sounds or words meant.6 Singing might have been used as well to teach pronunciation, as sung Latin was used in church services. Because reading was important to promote spiritual instruction, and had indeed been cited at least as far back as Jerome in the fourth century as a reason girls should be taught to read, some of the earliest texts learned were the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Creed. Alphabets and these simple prayers could be written out on a variety of surfaces: boards, painted walls, wooden trays covered in ash or sand, ceramic or metal vessels, or hand-held tablets made of materials such as slate, horn, or board covered in parchment (more on this below).

Beginning around 1300 in England, medieval parents had a model of teaching in St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Depictions of her teaching Mary to read appeared in stained-glass windows, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and other artistic representations.7 One such survives today in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England.

Image of stained glass window of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read
“Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to Read,” about 1330­–50, the Church of St. Nicholas, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England; south aisle, east window, farthest left panel. Image from Painton Cowen’s The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive

In this window, Mary is shown sitting in Anne’s lap and holding a bound book with letters written on its pages. She holds the book open so the text is visible to the reader. Her mother Anne points upward, in a gesture both teacherly and pointing heavenward, perhaps emphasizing the importance of reading for spiritual development.8

This beautifully-painted miniature from a Book of Hours shows Anne and a young Mary holding a book together. With her right hand, Anne isolates text for Mary to examine.  

Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read, a miniature painted by Master of Sir John Fastolf (French, active before about 1420–about 1450), in a Book of Hours created in France or England about 1430–1440. Tempera colors and gold ink on parchment. Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 5 (84.ML.732), fol. 45v

Other surviving representations show Anne using a hornbook (mentioned above) to teach Mary to read. This illustration comes from a Book of Hours that originated in England around 1325­–1300. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 231, fol. 3 

This detail shows the hornbook more closely. 

Though the hornbook was at least a medieval invention (discussed recently by Erik Kwakkel and Trinity College, Cambridge, librarians), it survives only from early modern centuries, as in this example, created in London around 1625. The text is printed on sheepskin parchment and fixed to an oak paddle with a brass frame and iron nails; the handle is used for holding the hornbook. The parchment is laminated over with a processed animal horn (hence the name) to protect the text. 

“Aabc (English hornbook),” Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625).

A text from the 1230s, written by a layman, Walter of Bibbesworth, also reveals much about how boys and girls learned, especially languages, in a gentry household. Bibbesworth was a wealthy English landowner and a knight who wrote this book for his neighbor and fellow member of the gentry, Dionisie de Munchensi. Dionisie had three young children to educate, and as part of the expectations of their class, they would have needed to learn a French more advanced than what they would have picked up through everyday living. The image below shows the opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz

The opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. The manuscript dates from 1325. London, British Library, Additional MS 46919, fol. 2r. 

Walter addresses Dionisie in column 1, lines 10-20, identifying the purpose of his text: “Chere soer, pur ceo ke vous me / pryastes ke jeo meyse en ecsryst [sic] / pur vos enfaunz acune apryse / de fraunceys en breve paroles” (Dear sister, because you have asked that I put in writing something for your children to learn French in brief phrases). What follows is a narrative poem, beginning in column 1, line 21, that describes childhood, starting with birth and ending in young adulthood with a large household feast. In each scene, Walter presents French vocabulary for Dionisie’s children to learn.

Many clues in the text demonstrate that the physical book was shown to children so they could learn the reading of words on a page, not just the sounds of them. Walter gives many homophones, for example, that would only make sense in writing, rather than in pronunciation. Some of the vocabulary also has English translations written in between the lines of the main text. You can see this in the image above in the poem, which starts at column 1, line 21, and goes into column two. All the smaller words written between the lines give the English translation of the main text, which is written in French.

In pueritia and adolescentia

Once they moved into pueritia (about 7-14 years of age), girls of the upper classes would often transition into the care of a mistress (called at that time magistramagistrix, or maitresse). The mistress provided education in such things as deportment, embroidery, dancing, music, and reading.9 For any skills the mistress did not herself have, she could bring in other household members, such as the minstrel for musical training, the chaplain for more advanced reading and spiritual instruction, and the huntsman for hunting. Specialized academic tutors could teach girls more advanced academic subjects. Sometimes these well-to-do girls were sent to other households to be fostered, serving as ladies-in-waiting to upper-class women. Girls, especially those of the upper classes, could be sent to nunneries as well (sometimes beginning in infantia) for education. Not all girls sent to nunneries were meant for the vocation of nun.10

As their reading abilities progressed, girls and boys moved on to reading comprehension (intelligere) and began to read more sophisticated spiritual texts, such as prayer-books, books of hours, psalters, antiphonals, and saints’ lives. They also would continue on, as personal libraries grew in the thirteenth century, in reading romances, histories, poetry, classical authors, theology, philosophy, and more. It is most likely, given that women were not admitted to the university (unlike boys, who could progress from this stage to Latin grammar school and then on at a university level to the study of business, liberal arts, medicine, canon or civil law, or theology), that the reading of these last few would have been limited to girls whose families could afford private tutors.

Miscellany of religious, medical, and secular verse and prose in French, Latin and English. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Digby 86, fol. 68r. Produced in Worcestershire, England, c.1271–83, this “common-place book” contains French, Latin and eighteen English texts of various genres including fabliau, romances, devotional and didactic texts, prognostications, charms and prayers, among others written between 1271 and 1283. The manuscript was written by its owner and has amateurish scribal drawings and decoration. This image shows three sections of French text: the end of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) (top 11 lines); a list of the unlucky days in the year (middle section of the text); and at the bottom a list of Arabic numerals 1 through 46. Three shields decorate the bottom. 

In adulthood

By the time they reached adulthood, women who were privileged enough to have obtained a sophisticated education and their own libraries could be avid readers. 

Gospel lectionary written in Latin, made in England c.1025–50, later owned by St. Margaret of Scotland. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 5, fols. 21v–22r. This opening shows St. Luke with the start of his gospel reading. The Bodleian Libraries digital Treasures exhibition notes: “A compact selection of passages from the Gospels, this finely illustrated book was Margaret’s favourite, and one she read and studied closely, even when she travelled. A poem added at the front describes how this very book was dropped into a river but remained almost unharmed: this miracle contributed to her growing reputation for holiness.”

The historical and literary records provide examples of such sophisticated learning, primarily among the nobility. For example, the Norman monk and chronicler Robert of Torigni (c.1110–1186), praised the education of St. Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093) and her daughter Matilda (1080–1118), wife of Henry I, writing, “Quantae autem sanctitatis et scientiae tam saecularis quam spiritualis utraque regina, Margareta scilicet et Mathildis, fuerint” (Of how great holiness and learning, as well secular as spiritual, were these two queens, Margaret and Matilda).11

In a different Latin life, commissioned by Matilda about her mother Margaret, the biographer describes how Margaret from her childhood would “in Divinarum lectionum studio sese occupare, et in his animum delectabiliter exercere” (occupy herself with the study of the Holy Scriptures, and delightfully exercise her mind) and notes that her husband, King Malcom III, cherished the “libros, in quibus ipsa vel orare consueverat, vel legere” (books, which she herself used either for prayer or reading), even though Malcom himself could not read Latin.12

London, British Library, Harley MS 2952, fol. 19v. Book of Hours, made in France c.1400–1425. 

This image above shows the unidentified female patron of this Book of Hours kneeling on a prie-dieu, her prayer book open to the text “Maria mater gratiae” (Mary, mother of grace). This open book with its discernable text has several functions: it leads the reader into the  prayer; it demonstrates the piety of the patron, kneeling in prayer before both her spiritual book and the Blessed Virgin and Christ (illustrated on the facing leaf); and it shows one of the primary purposes of teaching children to read: being able to use spiritual texts in personal devotion. 

Even women who were not noble and who were not able to read much Latin possessed and used books such as the one pictured above. In the mid-fifteenth century Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote through her scribe of a memorable time in her church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn when a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling down onto her as she was praying with her prayer book in hand.

The image below comes from her Book of Margery Kempe as preserved in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823. Lines 24-28 narrate, “Sche knelyd upon hir / kneys heldyng down hir hed. and hir boke in hir hand. / prayng owyr lord crist ihesu for grace and for mercy. Sodeynly fel / down fro þe heyest party of þe cherche vowte fro undyr / þe fote of þe sparre on hir hed and on hir bakke a ston / whech weyd .iii. pownd” (She knelt on her knees, bowing down her head and holding her book in her hand, praying to our Lord Christ Jesus for grace and mercy. Suddenly fell down from the highest party of the church out from under the foot of the rafter onto her head and her book a stone which weighed three pounds). She survived, for which she credited the mercy of Christ.

The Book of Margery Kempe, online facsimile and documentary edition hosted by Southeastern Louisiana University, project director Joel Fredell. London, British Library, Additional MS 61823, fol. 11r.

Finally, a note on those of the working classes. I have not discussed them in detail as it is unfortunately difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to say much about the reading skills of those who left few or no records behind: the great majority of women (and men) of the medieval population were laborers who left little trace in the written record. Yet as we see from the image here below, even for working women, especially in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, possession and use of books was within the norm, provided those books could be afforded. 

A woman attendant reading a book, from La Bible historiale of Guyart des Moulins, c. 1470s. London, British Library, Royal MS 15 D I, fol. 18.


My focus here has been tightly on the teaching of reading to medieval English girls. Girls and boys alike were taught to read, and began their reading education in the same ways. Boys alone could attend the medieval university and reach the highest (and best educated) ranks of clerics, but if girls had access to the right resources, they too could be highly educated. The evidence demonstrates that the teaching of reading was not linked specifically to gender; rather, it was a function of both socioeconomic station and the usefulness of such skills for one’s life.

If you’re interested in this topic, I cover the subject in much greater detail, with many other examples and suggested readings, in my article, “Women’s Education and Literacy in England, 1066–1540,” in the “Medieval and Early Modern Education” special issue of History of Education Quarterly, and the accompanying HEQ&A podcast.

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Twitter @meganjhallphd

[1] On languages in medieval England, see Amanda Hopkins, Judith Anne Jefferson, and Ad Putter, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066–1520): Sources and Analysis (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012).

[2] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 2003), 750–87, at 755; and William Rothwell, “Language and Government in Medieval England,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 93, no. 3 (1983), 258–70.

[3] David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 57.

[4] On the complexities of a trilingual England, with a number of helpful citations therein for further reading, see Christopher Cannon, “Vernacular Latin,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 641–53. 

[5] A variety of frameworks were imposed upon the ages of humankind, though these major divisions for the stages of childhood were fairly commonly accepted. For a discussion, see Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 5–7; and Daniel T. Kline, “Female Childhoods,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13–20, at 13.

[6] Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Invisible Archives?’ Later Medieval French in England,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 653–73. For more on levels of reading Latin, see Bell, What Nuns Read, 59–60; and Malcolm B. Parkes, “The Literacy of the Laity,” in Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts1976 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), 275–97, at 275.

[7] On the cult of St. Anne and the teaching of reading, see Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 244–45; and Clanchy, “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?,” in Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400–1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser, ed. Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 129–53. For further examples and a detailed analysis of the Education of the Virgin motif, see Wendy Scase, “St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Nicholas Rogers (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1993), 81–98.

[8] For a discussion of this window, see Orme, Medieval Children, 244–45.

[9] Boys (especially royal princes) typically followed the same path of moving from the nursery into the care of an educator-caretaker: pedagogus (a term used into the eleventh century) or magister or me[i]stre (terms in use from the twelfth century forward) (Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 19).

[10] Excellent reading on the education of girls in nunneries is found in Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Alexandra Barratt, “Small Latin? The Post-Conquest Learning of English Religious Women,” in Anglo-Latin and Its Heritage, Essays in Honour of A. G. Rigg on His 64th Birthday, ed. Siân Echard and Gernot R. Wieland (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001), 51–65; and J. G. Clark, “Monastic Education in Late Medieval England,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson; Proceedings of the 1999 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2002), 25–40; and Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women’s Education Through Twelve Centuries (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1929).

[11] Robert of Torigni [Robertus de Monte], Historia nortmannorum liber octavus de Henrico I rege anglorum et duce northmannorum, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina 149 (Paris, 1853), col. 886; translated in “History of King Henry the First, by Robert de Monte,” ed. Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England vol. 2, part 1 (London, 1858), 10.

[12] Transcribed in Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea, ed. J. Hodgson Hinde, vol. 1 (London, 1868), at 238, 241, from the version preserved in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius D iii, fols. 179v–186r (late twelfth century).