The Agencies and Agents of Lordship

‘There is a fine and great lordship there, which if it were well managed would be worth not less than two thousand marks a year.’ Such was the excited report that a royal commissioner submitted to Edward I in 1302, commenting on the potential of the Bohun lordship of Brecon in the March of Wales. It was a report to make the mouth of the cash-strapped king water, particularly as he had Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford and lord of Brecon, in a tight corner at the time.1 But it was a report with a sting in its tail: the potential of the lordship was dependent on sound management. This was, of course, a basic truism for all lordship, from the level of the household and the manor upwards. But it had a particular relevance to the great aristocratic lordships which are the subject of this book.

This was in good part because of the size and the distribution of such lordships. A distinctive feature of aristocratic power in England before, and even more so after, the Norman Conquest was the way it was widely fragmented geographically. Such fragmentation was frequently compounded in each generation as estates were divided, temporarily or permanently, in family settlements or as the windfalls of marriage and inheritance added new estates which needed to be absorbed into the family’s power orbit. Similar fragmentation was certainly not unknown in other parts of the British Isles, not least because the norms of English common law and inheritance practices had come to dominate the aristocratic world in much of lowland Scotland, Marcher Wales, and English Ireland. Nevertheless in broad terms it may be suggested that in these areas aristocratic power was more consolidated in territorial blocs—be it in the provincial earldoms and regional lordships (as they have been termed) of Scotland, the great Marcher lordship of Wales (several of which such as Glamorgan or Brecon were close to the size of a small English county), or the extensive liberties of English Ireland.2

It was otherwise in England, as extensive aristocratic estates sprawled over vast swathes of the country. A couple of examples may serve to make the point briefly. By far the largest aristocratic lordship in the mid and late fourteenth century was the duchy of Lancaster.3 It had been assembled largely by royal munificence and well-calculated marriages, from the late thirteenth century

1 CIM, I, no. 1870. For the context of the report, McFarlane, Nobility, 261.

2 See below, pp. 189 — 90.

3 The most helpful map of the Lancaster estates remains that in Armitage-Smith, John of Gaunt.

onwards, to cadet members of the English royal family and their descendants. By the time of John of Gaunt (d. 1399), its estates extended into almost all the counties of England and into south Wales. Not all these estates were, of course, equal in value and importance. Rather were they composed of groups of estates—often still termed ‘honors’—where the duke’s power was dominant, pervasive, and extensive; these were, in the contemporary phrase, the lord’s ‘country’ where his castles and parks dominated the countryside and where he expected his authority—alongside that of the king—to be openly acknowledged and taken for granted. John of Gaunt had several such ‘countries’: in Lancashire (centred on Lancaster, where palatinate rights had further reinforced the duke’s standing from 1351 and again from 1377), Yorkshire (centred on the honour of Pontefract), in a batch of major honors—including Bolingbroke, Tutbury, and Leicester—across the north Midlands, and to a rather lesser degree in Norfolk, Suffolk, and south Wales. Over and above these major concentrations, there was a substantial scattering of castles, lordships, and manors across the face of England from Dunstanburgh in Northumberland to Aldbourne in Wiltshire and Pevensey in Sussex.4 Individually these outliers were not in the front rank of Lancaster property; but in their localities they were nodal points of the duke’s authority and influence. The Lancastrian inheritance as a whole gave Gaunt an immense income and was clearly one of the foundations—though not necessarily the most important one—of his power as a national and indeed international figure. It also posed hugely challenging problems for him.

So likewise did the complex of lands which Gaunt’s much younger contemporary, Roger Mortimer, earl of March (d. 1398), had come to control. The yield of his estates in the year he died was probably around £4,000, that is, about a third of that of John of Gaunt’s vast inheritance. Even so, such an income certainly placed Earl Roger in the ranks of the top four richest earls of his day. But what is of interest to us in the present context is that though the Mortimer lands were not, within England, by any means so geographically widespread as the duchy of Lancaster, they were still geographically extensive and, thereby, managerially daunting.5 Initially they had been concentrated not far from the Mortimer caput at Wigmore and, later, Ludlow—in the western counties of England and across into a large clutch of upland lordships in the Welsh March. This western bias was further emphasized by the acquisition of two other great Marcher lordships (worth close on £1,000 each in annual income) of Denbigh and Usk/Caerleon in 1354 and 1368 respectively. But the Mortimers also had valuable individual manors and boroughs (such as Bridgewater and Cranbourne in Dorset) in southern England and, after 1368, a major foothold—and a

4 See Walker, Lancastrian Affinity, ch. 5 for an outstanding analysis of Gaunt’s power in Sussex.

5 The growth of the Mortimer estates across the fourteenth century is briefly but conveniently sketched in Holmes, Estates, 10—19. For maps of the Mortimer estates in Wales see Davies, Age of Conquest, 396,406—7; and for the manors of the bailiwick of Clare, Holmes, Estates, 87. Details on the valuation of the Mortimer estates in Davies, Lordship and Society, 188 — 9.

favourite residence—in a group of manors centred around Clare in East Anglia. Nor did that exhaust the span of their lands: through two marriages they had also secured the title to major lordships in Ireland (Trim, Meath, Connacht, and the earldom of Ulster) and were to spend much of their time and energy in the reigns of Edward II and Richard II discharging their responsibilities and enforcing their lordship there.

The fragmented and geographically dispersed nature of great aristocratic inheritances, such as those ofLancaster and Mortimer, posed daunting managerial problems for their lords. ‘Management’ is not a word which we readily associate with great aristocratic lords. Terms such as honour, largesse, prowess, display, and magnificence seem more appropriate. Yet these qualities were hardly unmatched by a shrewd and often ruthless business sense. It is written large in the valuations on the folios of Domesday Book or in the famous entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on William I’s auction of assets to the highest bidder. Where kings led, the great magnates would assuredly follow. Their lordship, especially in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, became a ruthlessly exploitative lordship—ad maximum detrimentum possidentium (to the maximum disadvantage of tenants), as the earl of Gloucester put it in a devastating aside.6 In the process they put in place the mechanisms for transforming lordship into a routinized, micro-managing mechanism and recruited the personnel to staff it. It is an achievement which has been consistently underrated; it is ultimately an important chapter in the history of lordship and governance in medieval England. It is well worth asking briefly why it has not warranted more attention.

The governance of medieval England—and to a lesser but still considerable extent of Scotland and English Ireland—has been constructed and described in primarily royalist, king-centred, terms. This is inevitable given the ubiquitousness of royal power, law, and jurisdiction; a fairly uniform and streamlined pattern of offices and officers, appointable by and answerable to a central authority; and the institutions of common taxation, coinage, and assembly. None of that is, of course, to be gainsaid especially in England, even if we need to add that most of the work of royal and communal government in the localities was discharged by magnates and county gentry and that much of the hundredal organization, though formally in ‘public’ control, was in ‘private’ hands. But what qualifies the picture particularly for us is that alongside this complex framework of royal- communal governance was, often, a puzzlingly complex network of non-royal governance. The sheriff of Yorkshire operated cheek by jowl with the steward of Pontefract, the receiver of the manor of Leicester with the escheator of the county. Such non-royal governance ranged from the modest powers of the local manorial lord (sometimes fortified by specific franchises such as the assize of ale) to the extensive powers of great ecclesiastical corporations and monasteries. The power network operated and controlled by the great lay lords of the British Isles

6 Hilton, Medieval Society, 132.

was an essential part of the portfolio of governance and lordship in medieval society. It alone eventually enabled the duke of Lancaster and the earl of March to ‘manage’ their widely scattered inheritances efficiently and to exercise their lordship to best effect.

It is not difficult to explain why the importance and achievement of this pattern of seigniorial governance has been frequently overlooked, or at least underestimated, by historians. It is, as usual, partly a matter of documentation. Royal financial records survive regularly from the 1150s; royal secretarial records from c.1200. It is not until c.1250—though earlier on ecclesiastical estates—that the financial and court records of the lay nobility begin to survive and even then very patchily, and hardly at all in an unbroken series. Then again such records as survive are the archives of individual families, each with their own format (especially at the central level) and often pattern of officers. They do not form the basis of easy generalizations about the nature of seigniorial governance. Furthermore, the very widespread nature of so many large aristocratic estates meant that the administrative arrangements which were put in place to govern and exploit them partook of the nature of a spider’s web rather than the solid blocs of governance familiar in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland—or for that matter much of France. Seigniorial stewards and receivers often held authority over widely dispersed manors and lordships, their sphere of activity criss-crossing in a confusing plethora of patterns with those of other lords’ offices (lay and ecclesiastical) and those of the king. That is why it has proved impossible to represent such patterns cartographically.7

But this should not be allowed to conceal the fact that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in particular the pattern of seigniorial governance changed so profoundly that it affected the nature of lordship itself and brought the power of such lordship to bear more intensively and regularly on those who lived under its authority. This change needs to be placed in the context of a broad cultural transformation. Lordship continued to base its authority on custom and was not afraid of wielding its coercive power; but economic exploitation, profitability, and the opportunities of the market now became some of the watchwords of seigniorial policy. They were inculcated in treatises on estate management. They were accompanied by, and expressed in, a growing emphasis on regular record-keeping and accountability. This was part of the triumph of what has been called ‘pragmatic literacy’. On seigniorial estates in England—and soon by imitation in English-controlled or -influenced parts of the British Isles—the key ‘take-off period’ seems to be the late thirteenth century. Manorial and household accounts, court rolls, and enrolled series of ministers’ accounts begin to survive and by the mid fourteenth century had acquired a largely standardized form which they were to retain for generations. Such a transformation could only be

7 For a recent excellent introduction to the documentation see R. H. Britnell, Britain and lreland, 1050—1530:Economy and Society (Oxford, 2004), chs. 13 and 23.

effectively serviced by the training and recruitment of a cadre of officials who could employ their skills in the world of the triumph of the written word and the audited account. The impact on the effectiveness and reach of lordship was enormous: central control, close local supervision, regular reporting and auditing, and a nexus of close relationships between the scattered parts of a large seigniorial inheritance were now possible, indeed normal. It was these long-term cultural changes which made late medieval lordship truly ‘manageable’ and it is to the nature of that ‘management’ that we now turn.

There is no single formula which will describe adequately the mechanisms and arrangements which came to constitute the pattern of seigniorial governance in medieval Britain. Variety was the keynote, as was to be expected in a world of plurality of lordships and challenges. In the late thirteenth-early fourteenth centuries in particular, there is as yet little indication of the establishment of a unified, streamlined administrative framework which would weld the lord’s inheritance into an effective unit. The inheritance appears to be, administratively, little more than the sum of its component estates.8 The extensive lands of Edmund, earl of Cornwall (d. 1300), were simply composed of nine local receipts each under its local steward; likewise, there were three-four receiverships, rather than a single financial office, for the far-flung estates of Gilbert earl of Gloucester (d. 1298) and Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk (d. 1306). Even such annual accounts as survive—such as the rich Bigod local accounts for the late thirteenth century or the large composite counter-rolls for the Lacy and Lancaster estates 1295-6, 1304-5, and 1313-14—still reveal officials and scribes fumbling rather uncertainly towards a coherent pattern of accounts and answerability. Uniformity never became the hallmark of seigniorial governance and its records; but by the mid to late fourteenth century (partly no doubt due to the spread of good practice, especially in the ranks of the professional managerial class) a broad pattern of the character and operational practices of seigniorial governance had clearly emerged. It is that broad pattern—not its particularities or individual specificities—which we will now try to capture as part of our understanding of the nature of lordship. Evidence will be drawn from a variety of sources, but two in particular have been privileged—the archives of the duchy of Lancaster in the later years of John of Gaunt because they are, far and away, the richest and most integrated set of seigniorial records; and, secondly, the muniments of the Mortimer family, earls of March, the distinction of which lies not in their quality and quantity but in the fact that they include a good deal of draft memoranda and expense accounts which take us behind the bland formulae of the final accounts.

8 I readily acknowledge my debt on this topic to K. B. McFarlane’s unpublished 1954 course of lectures, English Seigniorial Administration and its Records 1290-1536 (Magdalen College, Oxford, GPD/26/II/36).

Ultimately the character of seigniorial governance depended on the person of the lord; so it was with lordship as it was with kingship. It was he who set the tone. When a report sought to explain the discrepancy between the potential of a lordship and what was actually collected, its comment was brutally frank: ‘the earl was lax’.9 There is abundant evidence—some of which has been quoted above10—of the close attention that great aristocrats could pay to the minutiae of estate affairs and of the way that petitions and requests were regularly deferred for their personal attention. One has only to turn the pages of the Register of Edward the Black Prince to hear the strident tones of his officials and tenants: that was ‘hands-on’, hard-nosed lordship. And it worked at a distance: a steady flow of messengers and letters (such as those between Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (d. 1439), from France and his council in England) kept lords regularly briefed on their officers. Even when the bureaucratic and administrative machine of a great inheritance had become complex and routinized, the lord’s personal wishes were often still the final word. So it is, to take a late example, that we catch a glimpse of Duke Edward of Buckingham (d. 1521), ‘syttynge in his councell’, putting to his councillors his reasons for going to Wales.11

Since the lord was the central figure, it was natural that his household should form the basis of such centralized control and accountability as began to develop. That, after all, had been likewise the case with royal governance: it grew out of the personal, household offices of the king, the curia regis, until it reached the point of sophistication and complexity when the officers and the offices began (in the phrase of historians) ‘to go out of court’. So it was with seigniorial administration. After all, the prime purpose of the lord’s estates was to provide the financial wherewithal to meet the needs of his household. So it was that in early days the steward of the household often doubled up as steward of the estates. Above all, it was to the household’s financial officers—the chamberlain and the wardrober—that estate revenues were transferred. This remained the practice on the estates of Elizabeth de Burgh (d. 1360), lady of Clare, which have a strong case to be regarded as the most professionally run (and well-documented) noble inheritance of the mid fourteenth century, or of the Bohun estates of the earls of Hereford. In neither was there as yet a separate financial office or officer; moneys were paid directly by local accountants into the household coffers of the lord.

But it was inevitable that such a skeletal, informal household framework should gradually be supplemented by a dedicated set of central estate offices, institutions and officers. To that degree household and estate administration—though, of course, still interdependent in many respects—became separate. It was an inevitable development on all major aristocratic estates. The need for continuity and supervision during periods of minority and custody was one imperative;

9 CIM, I, no. 1870.

10 See above, pp. 161 — 9.

11 Rawcliffe, The Staffords, 15.

others were the growing professionalization of the lord’s administrative cadre, the regular production of sets of annual, interrelated accounts, and the need to coordinate policies and decisions.

The head of the lord’s central staff was often known as the chief steward or occasionally as the surveyor of the lord’s lands. These descriptions indicated that he had a supervisory authority over subsidiary local stewards and was in overall charge of policy decisions on the lord’s estates. He no doubt presided over the lord’s council in his absence; dealt with many of the petitions that were forwarded to him by the lord; went on inspection tours of the lord’s estates either under his own authority (as on the tour of the Stafford estates in 1386) or as head of a conciliar delegation. So vast was the range of lands under the rule of the Lancaster duchy that the responsibilities of the chief steward were divided into two and occasionally three areas of jurisdiction—north and south of the Trent and a more restricted southern circuit. These men worked, and rode, hard: the chief steward of the duchy of Lancaster in the north parts went on tour through Nottingham, Leicester, and Pontefract in February—March 1397, spent nineteen days supervising the lord’s household at Hereford, followed by a further thirty-two days in London with other members of the duke’s council. It was by such dedication and itineration that the lordship of the duke of Lancaster was kept in good heart.12

The men who held such a responsible position were almost invariably persons of some standing in their own localities as well as in the estimation of their lords. Such, for example, was Sir Peter de la Mare, the first known Speaker of the House of Commons (1376), M.P. for Herefordshire and steward of Edmund Mortimer earl of March; or Sir Thomas Mortimer, a junior member of the Mortimer dynasty who in effect headed the council which ran the Mortimer estates 1381—93; or Sir Thomas Hungerford, Gaunt’s chief steward in the south parts of the duchy of Lancaster (1375—93), MP and Speaker (1377) and a man so highly regarded that he was retained in the services of at least five other lords; or John Throckmorton, a Worcestershire esquire, the key person in the council of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, and his trusted confidant.13 These men could not be expected to give full-time service to their lords or to eat at his table day-in, day-out. They had their own estates and careers to attend to and they played a leading role in county and, occasionally, in national society. But they were men of standing and weight; most of them, no doubt, had a good smattering of legal knowledge and were conversant with the problems and challenges which all landowners faced. They were precisely the sort of men who could bring the lord’s authority to bear on local society but who could also be relied upon to address the broad issues involved in governing a large aristocratic inheritance.

12 TNA DL 28/3/5 f.8.

13 For their biographies see Roskell et al. (eds.), House of Commons 1386—1421.

The steward or chief steward provided authority and policy direction, especially when the lord was a minor, on campaign, or otherwise preoccupied. But in terms of the routine supervision and integration of the administration it might well be that two other sets of officials were more central—the chief financial officer and the auditor. We cannot expect consistency and uniformity here any more than in any other sphere of seigniorial administration; but on an increasing number of estates a single financial official—often bearing the title receiver- general—becomes the chief accounting and supervising officer for the estate revenue (but often not for other sources of income) of the lord, thereby separating clearly household and estate responsibilities. It would appear that it was from about the mid fourteenth century that the practice becomes common. The Black Prince had a receiver-general by 1346 (and it is noteworthy that the king’s son should follow the practice and terminology of the seigniorial world rather than that of the royal exchequer); the dukes of Lancaster certainly had such a post by 1362 (even though the earliest account to survive is for 1376—7) and probably considerably earlier; there was certainly such an officer in charge of Beauchamp finances by the late fourteenth century.

The men who held the post were different, professionally and vocationally, from the stewards. They were what we would call professional accountants, well-versed in the accounting treatises of the period. They were normally clerics and would expect their reward in a benefice or even a canonry. The demands on their services were much more full-time than those of the steward. When they were not in attendance at the lord’s court and council, they were regularly on tour inspecting the finances and affairs of the lord’s local estates. Walter Brugge, the receiver-general of the Mortimer estates in the 1380s and 1390s, travelled ceaselessly (as we know from his crabbed expenses accounts) from one end of England to the other, throughout Wales, and regularly to Ireland.14 He earned his rewards—including the archdeaconry of Meath and a canonry of York—but he had little time to enjoy them or to discharge the duties attached to them. What is not in doubt is that his hard work was critical to ensuring the profitability and good running of the Mortimer inheritance during a long and difficult minority. Walter’s career could be paralleled by that of many of his fellow senior seigniorial accountants—such as John Leventhorp, the financial confidant of Henry Bolingbroke, who was promoted to be receiver-general of the duchy of Lancaster when his master seized the throne in 1399.15

The receiver-general was frequently accompanied on his tours by the auditor. Audit was the central ritual of efficient lordship and it was conducted with astonishing thoroughness. Local officials were ruthlessly cross-examined; their indentures and tallies were rigorously scrutinized; pleas for allowances were monitored and often reduced or disallowed; arrears were listed and instalment

14 Davies, Owain Glyn Dwr, 42—3.

15 For Leventhorp (and his journeys), Somerville, Duchy of Lancaster, I, 132, 156—8.

arrangements for their payment put in place; rentals were reviewed and composed; and major decisions on local policy—for example, on repairing mills or continuing demesne farming—were taken. Written and no doubt oral reports were compiled and submitted to the lord’s senior officers and council, with requests for a final decision.16 We can guess the rigour of the exercise if we recall that the half-yearly audit (visus compote) of three Mortimer estates (Clare, Bardfield, and Sudbury) lasted for eighteen days in 1389.17 The men who undertook such exercises were professionals to their fingertips. The auditor in 1389 was Thomas Hildeburgh: he had moved up from local service (he was clerk of accounts for the bailiwick of Clare in 1366—7) into central duties and from the service of Lionel, duke of Clarence (d. 1368), to that of Clarence’s son-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, earl of March (d. 1381). There were many like him: Philip Melreth was receiver-general of Humphrey Bohun, earl of Hereford (d. 1373), but with the death of his master without male heirs of his body he looked for new openings and became one of John of Gaunt’s auditors.18

It was this handful of top officials—often supplemented by others, such as the chancellor who headed the secretariat of John of Gaunt or the secretariat who looked after the officers of Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester (d. 1397)—who formed the kernel of the lord’s professional advisers (much as the chancellor, treasurer and keeper ofthe privy seal performed a like function for the king). They would no doubt keep in close touch with the lord’s household officers—including the chamberlain, keeper of the great wardrobe, treasurer of war—and would draw on the service of a body of clerks. It was this group which gave coherence and direction to the policies which integrated the inheritance of the lord into an effective administrative unit. They would be members of his council.19

In all that we know about aristocratic—as indeed of royal—councils, we would do well to steer clear of over-definition and institutional clarity. The lord (when he was of age) took counsel from whomsoever it pleased him and on an ad hoc basis; so were many of his momentous decisions shaped. Yet it was inevitable that as central aristocratic governance habits became more sophisticated and regular, the role and power of the lord’s habitual advisers—whether formally called a council or not—should come into sharper focus (especially in the archives of the Black Prince, John of Gaunt, the Mortimers, the Beauchamps,

16 Holmes, Estates, 126 — 8 publishes the reports of the duchy of Lancaster auditors for some of the southern estates in 1388. Equally revealing, with marginal notes, are the memoranda submitted to the keepers of the estates of the earl of March, e.g. BL Egerton Rolls 8718, 8757.

17 TNASC 6/1112/2.

18 Hildeburgh: TNA SC 6/1111/11; SC 6/986, 27; Melreth: Somerville, Duchy of Lancaster, I, 369.

19 For seigniorial councils see C. Rawcliffe, ‘Baronial Councils in the Later Middle Ages’, in Patronage, Pedigree and Power in Later Medieval England, ed. C. D. Ross (Gloucester, 1979), 87—108; for the council on the Lancaster estates, Somerville, Duchy of Lancaster, I, 80—84, 121-30.

and the Mowbrays). As with the king’s privy council, so it was with the aristocracy: a small group of his professional servants (whose duties we have outlined above) would meet on a regular basis to deal with the plethora of administrative and financial problems and petitions which had to be attended to on a weekly basis. We catch a glimpse, for example, of three men—Sir George Felbrigg (a Mortimer retainer and county knight), William Forde (a trusted clerk), and Walter Brugge (the receiver-general)—at the earl of March’s council in 1393.20 Such a small, workaday council would be reinforced for the discussion of more weighty and legal matters by a group of local retainers and gentlemen and by hired legal advisers. Such meetings might be held over a number of days, as happened during the long-drawn-out and bitter negotiations in the 1390s between the duke of Gloucester and the earl of Hereford over the partition of the Bohun inheritance.21 These reinforced meetings were often referred to—certainly in the documents of the Black Prince, John of Gaunt, Roger Mortimer, the Beauchamps, and the Mowbrays—as ‘the great council of the lord’ or ‘the entire and continuous council’.22 The business which the council could and did attend to was almost limitless: it regularly received petitions and acted as an appellate body: tricky local issues and policy decisions were referred to it; local officers and tenants were summoned to testify before it. It often met at the lord’s headquarters (frequently his London residence); but equally it could travel around his estates, dealing with issues locally.

What we have found in this outline description of the central agencies of aristocratic lordship is that in general terms the agents and agencies which coordinated the activities of aristocratic governance corresponded, on a smaller scale, to those we find in the king’s administration of his realm. So did the procedures that were followed, the regular and integrated sets of household, central, and local documents that were produced, the reliance on written commands, vouchers, and evidence, the processes of audit and the personnel (increasingly professionally trained clerical bureaucrats complemented by literate and capable retainers and laymen of standing). To that extent there was a continuum of experience and habits across the field of governance, royal, aristocratic, and ecclesiastic. Given that this was so, there could be a transfer of personnel, and a sharing of responsibilities, between one sphere and another. William de Manton served as wardrober and later clerk of the chamber for that outstanding businesswoman, Elizabeth de Burgh (d. 1360); migrated on her

20 BL Egerton Roll 8739.

21 The expenses incurred are listed in TNA DL 28/3/3 no. 5 and TNA DL 29/3/4 no. 12, no. 39v. During another legal dispute, Derby’s council met at the wardrobe of John of Gaunt in London to discuss the issue.

22 BL Egerton Roll 8715 (1395-7); SC 6/1112/3 (1391) (Mortimer); CPR 1396-9, 422 (Mowbray); BL Egerton Roll 8769 (Beauchamp, 1397); Somerville, Duchy of Lancaster, I, 129 (Lancaster); M. Sharp, ‘The Household of the Black Prince’, in T. F. Tout, Chapters in Medieval Administrative History, 6 vols. (Manchester, 1920-33), V, 382.

death to the service of the king’s son, Lionel of Clarence, and then rose to be Edward III’s keeper of the wardrobe 1361—6. There were, one suspects, very few tricks of the administrator’s trade that William needed to learn in royal service; indeed, given the remarkable precociousness of the de Burgh administration, the transfer of skills may well have been the other way. There must have been many like him, especially as aristocratic estates—and thereby the personnel of their administration—passed, temporarily or otherwise, under royal control. And inevitably in a small and intimate world posts were shared: the description of Roger Cheney as ‘steward of the earl of Arundel and at that time (1316) sheriff of Shropshire’ is merely a single example.23

The significance of this is at least twofold. First, it reminds us that the quality, effectiveness, and importance of aristocratic governance has been regularly underestimated in historical writing—partly because of the plurality of lords (as opposed to the singularity of royal administration) and the quality of the surviving evidence, partly because of an unfounded assumption that seigniorial governance was necessarily inferior or derivative. Second in a balanced and rounded view of the governance of medieval society, the agencies and agents of aristocratic lordship should figure alongside those of kings, bishops, ecclesiastical corporations, and others. These were the men who governed—and never doubted their right to govern—society; the distinction in status and in the niceties of their relationships was less important than the common factor that they exercised lordship.

It was at the central level that seigniorial governance was probably most innovative and challenging in its practices. But the lord’s inheritance was composed of scores and indeed often hundreds of lordships and manors often scattered across large swathes of Britain. Here the lord’s authority was enmeshed in local traditions and power structures and relied overwhelmingly on the services of local men. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that there is little that is uniform and streamlined about seigniorial governance in the localities. If we are to witness the scale and ambitiousness of aristocratic power in the locality we will find it not in England (with the exception of the palatinates) but in the great liberties of Ireland, the Marcher lordships of Wales, and the provincial earldoms of Scotland. What we see here—especially in the first two, for the evidence for Scotland appears scanty—is how lords could in effect produce little kingdoms in miniature on their estates. The great advantage of the Irish liberties and Welsh lordships was that they were large, consolidated estates where the lord’s power—financially, jurisdictionally, and otherwise—was close to exclusive. A range of offices and officers were put in place to run them, normally from a central castle, as self- contained units: a shire, liberty, or great court, a chancery, an exchequer, a

23 Ward, English Noblewomen, 57; R. W. Eyton, The Antiquities of Shropshire, 12 vols. in 6 (London, 1854—60), X, 159.

lordship-specific seal, a register of writs among them. Officers might include a steward, sheriff, constable, chancellor, receiver, and escheator.24

Elsewhere the pattern of local seigniorial governance was much more ad hoc; and it is not easy to detect a general pattern. On some inheritances—those of Bohun, Mowbray, Mortimer, and Beauchamp among them—the individual manors and units were directly answerable to central officers and accountants, presumably because the estates were too geographically compact to warrant the establishment of an intermediate tier of administration. But on other inheritances—the vast duchy of Lancaster is the prime example—local units were gathered into regional receiverships/stewardships. The headquarters of each receivership was normally a local castle: there courts were held, the officers had their chambers, and moneys were collected. Each unit was headed by a steward, a receiver, and sometimes a constable. The steward was normally a man of gentry status from the locality or from the cadre of the lord’s retainers. On some of the great estates he increasingly discharged his duties by deputy and his post became —especially in the duchy of Lancaster—part of the lord’s patronage portfolio. Thus Sir Richard Burley was appointed steward of Monmouth by Gaunt in 1379, but he can have spent little time on his official duties there, since he was one of the lord’s confidants and retainers and died on campaign with Gaunt in Spain in 1386. Much more crucial in the day-to-day local governance of the lordship was the receiver (often doubling up as deputy-steward). He was often a local cleric or burgess and needed to have a basic mastery of accounting and audit procedures. It was he who kept the local machinery of lordship in working order and was the recipient of an avalanche of correspondence and visits from the lord’s central officers. Answerable to the receiver were a whole host of local officials—bailiff, reeves, parkers, beadles, foresters, and others. They were—and had to be—local men, often the leaders of their own local communities. It was on their conduct and honesty that the reputation of lordship at the local level often depended. That is why the correspondence of the lord’s officials is brimful of threats and periodic purges; that is also why the terms of reference of officials were sometimes closely specified and why they were bound over in large recognizances to discharge the duties of their offices properly. But this was not, of course, a problem unique to aristocratic service. Medieval governance was based on the one hand on a small cadre of professional officials and on the other on a very large pool of amateur leaders of local society who alone had the knowledge, ties, and status to command the obedience of that society. If in the process they lined their own pockets and boosted their own prestige, that was an inevitable price that had to be paid. And it was a price paid by all lords—king, magnates, and bishops—alike. When the commissioners tried to explain why the yield of Brecon in 1302 did not match its target,

24 For Marcher lordships, Davies, Lordship and Society, 200—1; for Irish liberties, A. J. Otway- Ruthven, A History of Medieval Ireland, 183—8; Frame, English Lordship, 24—7.

his explanation was simple: ‘there have been bad and disloyal stewards and bailiffs.’

Integrating the activities of widely dispersed inheritances and coordinating the policies and supervision of an assemblage of officials posed daunting administrative problems. Communications were poor and sanctions often ineffective as they came up against the inertia and vested interests of local power structures. But if lordship was to be ‘fair’ and effective it was imperative that central control and supervision of local governance be regular and directive. It could operate broadly along two channels—those of the written command and of the personal visit.

The effectiveness and reach of lordship, so we have insisted, were transformed by the triumph of the written word in governance.25 The aristocratic world of late medieval England was bound together by a network of correspondence and oral messages entrusted to confidential messengers to a degree which can hardly be guessed at from the tiny proportion that survives.26 Gossip and greetings were exchanged between lords and ladies, laymen and ecclesiastics; ears were kept close to the ground for political rumour; favours were requested and petitions forwarded; good lordship was sought and mutual promises made. Such correspondence kept lords in touch with each other as they retired to their estates. Much of it was composed for them, but some of it was penned in the lord’s own hand, such as the letter Richard, earl of Arundel (d. 1397) wrote ‘de ma mayn’.27 This was private correspondence; but letters were equally crucial if the lord was to keep in touch with his retainers and followers and to weld them into an effective corps of supporters. The accounts of Earl Thomas of Lancaster (d. 1322) are particularly eloquent in this respect. On 17 April 1319 alone, seventy-two letters were despatched to members of his affinity, including twenty-three knights, and on 9 May a further seventy-six letters were addressed to named abbots and priors. These were, it is true, totally exceptional figures in exceptional circumstances; four-to-six letters per day would probably be more normal. Even in more placid times the travel network of the earl’s couriers and messengers was impressive, as they fanned out from Pontefract to Spalding, Thoresby, Halton, Lancaster, or Denbigh and as one of them set out on an eighteen-day journey to Lord Courtenay in Devon.28

Correspondence kept lords and their followers in regular touch with each other; but, from the point of view of the current discussion, it is the role of the written word in integrating the lord’s inheritance into an effective administrative and governmental unit which is crucial. Just as the chancery and exchequer of

25 See above, pp. 182 — 3.

26 I have drawn in particular on the splendid, and underused, collection in Legge (ed.), Anglo-Norman Letters and Petitions, and on references in account rolls.

27 Legge (ed.), Anglo-Norman Letters and Petitions, no. 30.

28 TNA DL 28/1/13.

the king of England sent a regular stream of directives to the sheriffs and officers of the localities, so did the great aristocratic lords to their stewards, receivers, and local ministers. Very little such correspondence survives; if it does at all, it would be as files of warrants and vouchers which an accounting officer would produce to justify his allowances and expenditure when he appeared before the lord’s auditors. One such file in the Mortimer archives (admittedly mainly receipts rather than letters) for one year runs to almost a hundred items.29 It was, as far as we know, only from the mid fourteenth century that copies of such seigniorial administrative correspondence were made and kept in registers. Such registers survive from the estates of the Black Prince and of John of Gaunt (certainly on Gaunt’s estates by 1367, though the earliest surviving register only begins a decade later). They cover a vast range of business: many of them are directives from the lord, his council, or his major officers; others are responses to local petitions and pleas; many are acts of pardon and largesse; quite a few are reactions to visits and recommendations made by the lord’s central officers (especially his auditors) on their visits to the localities. In the case of John of Gaunt we know that c.300—400 such letters were sent annually and copied into the registers.

It may well be that the sheer size of the estates of the Black Prince and John of Gaunt meant that the degree of seigniorial supervision and direction of local affairs was more intense and sophisticated than a smaller inheritance; but all that we know of other aristocratic estates—such as those of Fitzalan, Mortimer, and Stafford—suggests otherwise. Written directions were underpinned by frequent personal visits from the lord’s central officials—coming on a regular basis (as did the auditors normally twice yearly) or on individual visits, be it singly or in small groups or, occasionally, as the lord’s council. Whatever the format of the visit, it brought the full authority of central investigation and direction to bear on local affairs.

The sequence of visits paid by the officials of Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel (d. 1397), in 1386—7 to his border lordship of Clun and his contiguous estates in western Shropshire may serve as an illustration.30 Some of the visits were for a specific purpose: a group of officials spent three days sorting and weighing the wool from the large Fitzalan flocks in the lordship (a task which was clearly too important to be left to local officials); the auditor took eight days and in May a further four days to audit the accounts there (again suggesting a degree of thoroughness). Even more impressive are the references to the extended visits of the lord’s council to this rather remote, upland lordship. Members of the council (so-called) were there in December, staying at the abbey of Haughmond and

29 TNA SC 6/1293/4.

30 Shropshire Record Office. Shrewsbury 552/1A/8.

visiting the Arundel castle at Shrawardine (both in Shropshire) en route; another batch of councillors paid a visit in August and dined together at Shrewsbury. But the most impressive visit was one which lasted in total for nine days. It was headed by Sir David Hanmer, chief justice of the King’s Bench and a man retained for his legal expertise by Arundel,31 Sir Stephen Dauntsey, and others. They were met by an assemblage of local officers who were no doubt closely cross-examined. The scribe’s description of the terms of reference of this extended visit indicates how comprehensive and thorough it was: ‘to supervise and determine divers items of the lord’s affairs and the business of the lord’s lordships of Clemsland and Shropshire and to make arrangements for the healthy governance (salubre gubernatione) and fortune of those lordships’. After this extended visit, the local regime in Clun could not have been under any illusion that its every move and action was subject to close central scrutiny.

These regular local official visits were supplemented occasionally by overview visitations of all, or a goodly portion, of the lord’s inheritance. Such visitations were often headed by the chief steward, the receiver-general, and other key officers and might be called a tourn. Few records of such tourns have survived; but one undertaken on the estates of the earl of Stafford in 1386—quite possibly to inaugurate the rule of a new earl—shows how comprehensive they could be.32 It began in the lordship of Newport in south-east Wales on 11 May and proceeded, on a full weekly timetable, via Caw (Shropshire), Stafford, Thornbury (Gloucestershire) and so across the Stafford manors of England to Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, and East Anglia. At each venue officers and tenants submitted petitions, decisions were endorsed on bills, pleas for the remission of arrears were considered, and the state of buildings was reviewed. It was investigative, administrative lordship in itinerant action.

The regular high point of this interaction between central direction and local accountability was the twice-yearly audit (corresponding closely to the timetable followed by the royal exchequer). Sometimes (as on the Lancaster estates) such audits were conducted regionally; elsewhere (as on the Lacy inheritance) the auditors themselves went on circuit. Thoroughness was the keynote: officers (including the lord’s central officers) were required to submit their accounts well in advance; court rolls were also submitted; and local accounts were then sealed prior to further inspection by the chief steward.33 The basic purpose of the audit was to check on the honesty and competence of the accountant, not to calculate the yield or profitability of the unit he controlled. That is why historians have so frequently misread the nature of these accounts. But this did not mean that

31 For Hanmer’s career see Davies, Owain Glyn Dwr (he was Owain’s father-in-law), passim.

32 * Staffordshire Record Office, Stafford, D 641/1/2/3.

33 For example Reg. JG, I, no. 1629.

auditors confined themselves to this basic task. On the contrary, the audit could be a platform from which the lord could be provided with a range of shrewd financial advice on the running of his estates.

One critical issue was that of the profitability of the estates in general and of demesne farming in particular. The audited account was not designed to yield such information; but from the late thirteenth century onwards, on some lay (Bigod, Clare) as well as monastic estates calculations of profit were being made.34 How such calculations were made remains far from clear, since the notes of profit are cryptic in the extreme. Nevertheless they represent an important departure in seigniorial policy, indicating as they do a shift from mere accountability to calculations of profit. Furthermore, from the 1330s the most advanced aristocratic administrations—those of Henry, earl of Lancaster (d. 1345), Elizabeth de Burgh (d. 1360), and Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel (d. 1376)35—consolidated the individual valuations of estates into a general valuation of the lord’s inheritance, the valor. By the late fourteenth-early fifteenth century such valors became increasingly common on aristocratic estates, including those of Stafford and Beauchamp. We must, it is true, not overestimate them. They are consolidated statements of estimated yield in a particular year, based on the details of the local accounts; they are not strictly a valuation of the lord’s income, let alone an estimate of his profits. But they do represent a significant attempt—not least as compared with the documents of the royal exchequer—to provide an overview of the lord’s potential assets in any particular year and even (on the Clare estates) a comparison of yield as between accounting years.

Another document which bespeaks growing financial enterprise was the consolidated arrears account. Arrears were a perennial problem for medieval auditors; they represented the gap between potential and actual revenue. By no means all arrears were, to use the medieval term, ‘desperate’, that is, uncollectible; many were due to be paid in future instalments on agreed terms.36 Nevertheless, if the issue of arrears was not to get out of hand, it was crucial that the lord’s auditors keep an overview of them and arrange tight schedules for prompt repayment. The consolidated arrears accounts did precisely that. They are often immensely detailed and on the Lancaster estates (and probably elsewhere) were compiled annually. They are another indication of the thoroughness of seigniorial financial administration.

34 E. Stone, ‘Profit-and-Loss Accountancy at Norwich Cathedral Priory’, TRHS, 5th ser., 12 (1962), 25-48. For full references to the primary and secondary sources on that topic see Davies, ‘Baronial Accounts’, 211-29.

35 The valors in question are TNA DL 40/1/11 fos. 43-55 (Lancaster); TNA SC 11/799, 801 (de Burgh, tabulated in Holmes, Estates, 143-7); Shropshire Record Office 552/1A/1 (Arundel).

36 For arrears accounts and their interpretation see Davies, ‘Baronial Accounts’, 218-29.

The significance of valors, arrears accounts, and the other documents which have been discussed in this chapter extends far beyond a diplomatic study in the financial archives of the medieval baronage. They represent one of the few ways we have of measuring the effectiveness, enterprise, and methods of seigniorial governance. The documentation that survives is but a tithe compared with that of royal financial records and even from that tithe we have made a limited selection, while admitting that variety rather than uniformity is the keynote of baronial archives. But, on balance, there remains little doubt that the quality and effectiveness of seigniorial administration—when due allowance has been made for its scale and problems—bears ready comparison with the best of royal and ecclesiastic administration. There was little that the officials of Edward III could have taught the remarkably enterprising cadre of servants who ran the estates of Elizabeth de Burgh, or those of Richard II, the regiment of officers who administered the vast duchy of Lancaster for John of Gaunt. If we aggregate the great aristocratic estates of the late medieval period, there can be little doubt that they made a very considerable—and regularly underrated —contribution to the governance of the British Isles. Their role needs to be recognized.


For the records of a household office unique to one lordship, The Havener’s Accounts of the Earldom and Duchy of Cornwall, 1287—1356, ed. M. Kowalski. Devon and Cornwall Record Society, new series, vol. 44 (Exeter, 2001). For the employment of the same individuals in seigniorial and royal service, P. Brand, ‘Stewards, Bailiffs and the Emerging Legal Profession in Later Thirteenth- Century England’, in Lordship and Learning: Studies in Memory of Trevor Aston, ed. R. Evans (Woodbridge, 2004), and P. Brand, ‘A Versatile Legal Administrator and More: The Career of John of Fressingfield in England, Ireland and Beyond’, in Ireland and the English World in the Late Middle Ages: Essays in Honour of Robin Frame, ed. B. Smith (Basingstoke, 2009).

For the administration of particular lordships, M. Potterton, Medieval Trim: History and Archaeology (Dublin, 2005), ch. 3; M. Morris, The Bigod Earls of Norfolk in the Thirteenth Century (Woodbridge, 2005); A. McCormack, The Earldom of Desmond, 1463—1583: The Decline and Crisis of a Feudal Lordship (Dublin, 2005), ch. 2; R. Blakely, The Brus Family in England and Scotland, 1100—1295 (Woodbridge, 2005), ch. 7; C. Neville, Native Lordship in Medieval Scotland: The Earldoms of Strathearn and Lennox, c.1140—1365 (Dublin, 2005), ch. 2. For John of Gaunt’s household, E. Will, ‘John of Gaunt’s

Household: Attendance Rolls in the Glynde Archive, MS 3469’, in Fourteenth Century England V, ed. N. Saul (Woodbridge, 2008).

For liberties in the British Isles see the essays in Liberties and Identities in Later Medieval Britain, ed. M. Prestwich (Woodbridge, 2008). For Irish liberties and Welsh Marcher lordships, R. Frame, ‘Lordship and Liberties in Ireland and Wales c.1170—c.1360’, in Power and Authority in the Middle Ages: Essays in Memory of Rees Davies, ed. H. Pryce and J. Watts (Oxford, 2007).

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!