Friday, December 15, 2017

King Richard’s Household: The Servants

The more I research, the better I understand that what goes on behind the scenes is just as important as the high-profile episodes defining a king’s reign. So naturally, I was thrilled to discover “The Royal Household and the King’s Affinity: Service, Politics and Finance in England 1360-1413” by Chris Given-Wilson; this book brought me as close to the 14th century court as a layperson could hope to get. I’m highlighting the book’s major components, for there is a lot to learn here and I’d like to emphasize the parts that I found critical to my understanding. The author tells us that the king’s permanent staff numbered between 400-700 members, though when you add in the servants of the senior household officers, the foreign dignitaries with their staff, guests and hangers-on, the number of people at court could easily have surpassed 1000. That’s a lot of mouths to feed! 


Bear in mind that in this period the king did not have a permanent address. King Richard tended to use residences within thirty miles of London, and he would typically stay in one place for maybe two weeks up to two months. Favored palaces were Windsor, Ethan and Sheen. Other royal houses included Havering, King’s Langley, Clarendon, Easthamstead, Woodstock, Henley-on-the-Heath, Kennigton and Berkhamstead. Richard also favored spending a few nights along the way at religious houses—at the monasteries’ expense; perhaps this gave the Exchequer some breathing space! All this moving around meant his household servants considered travel, or “removing”, as a regular part of everyday life. But when you add up all that went with the move—”many hundreds of horses, and a massive store of baggage: crockery and cutlery, hangings, furnishings, clothes and weaponry, wax, wine and storage vessels, parchment and quills, weights, measures, and so on”—the concept is staggering to the modern mind.


As laid out in the reign of King Stephen, the household was divided up into five main departments as depicted below.


There were changes along the way, but I found this chart to be most helpful (before the mid-14th century, the Chancellor had detached itself from the chamber and kept a separate office). In Richard II’s time, the five chief officers of the household were the Steward, the Chamberlain, the Controller, the Keeper of the Wardrobe (or treasurer), and the Cofferer. The Steward was responsible “for the efficient running, discipline, and general organization” of the king’s household. The Chamberlain had overall charge of the chamber; he controlled written and personal access to the king. Both of these officers were the king’s close personal friends, and both were probably of equal status. Naturally they were incredibly powerful, but often contemporaries believed that they abused their position to enrich themselves and gave bad advice to the king; Sir Simon Burley, John Beauchamp of Holt, and William le Scrope paid for their royal influence with their lives. The Controller(s) kept the accounts and was responsible for “supervising purveyance, harbinging, (see below) and eating arrangements in the hall”. The Keeper of the Wardrobe was responsible to the Exchequer for all monies that passed through the household. The Cofferer was the deputy to the Keeper, and held the keys to the money box.


Each great office had its lesser servants: “they were not just ‘valets’ or ‘garcons’ but ‘valets of the buttery’ or ‘garcons of the sumpterhorses’ and so forth.” Each job was departmentalized, apparently with little cross-over. “By far the largest department of the household was the marshalsea, or avenary (to be distinguished from the Marshalsea Court) which throughout this period employed at least 100 valets and grooms, and sometimes nearer 200.”


Most of the household servants traveled with the king, though a large group went ahead to prepare the way. The 30-40 harbingers‘ job was to requisition lodgings for everyone; the nine purveyors commandeered supplies within the verge (12 mile radius from the king’s actual presence). “Then came the king himself, preceded by his thirty sergeants-at-arms and twenty-four foot-archers marching in solemn procession, surrounded by his knights, esquires and clerks as well as any other friends or guests who happened to be staying at court, and followed by all the remaining servants of the household, driving and pulling the horses and carts which carried the massive baggage-store.” With luck, the itinerary was planned several weeks or months in advance or else the king would have to lower his standard of living. 


The purveyors had a particularly difficult job, for their activities were almost always a bone of contention. They rarely paid in cash; instead, they often gave the long-suffering supplier a note to be cashed at the exchequer—when the funds were available, that is. The supplier could wait months to get paid, if he got paid at all. And what are the purveying offices? “The Pantry, or bakehouse, for corn and bread; the Buttery, for wine and beer; the Kitchen, for all food not covered by other offices; the Poultery, for poultry, game-birds, and eggs; the Stables (or avenary, or marshalsea), for hay, oats and litter for the horses; the Saucery, for salt and whatever was needed for sauces; the Hall and Chamber, for coal and wood for heating, and rushes; the Scullery, for crockery, cutlery, storage vessels, and coal and wood for cooking; and the Spicery, for spices, wax, soap, parchment, and quills.”


It’s hard to get our hands around the everyday living arrangements of the king’s servants, but the author likened the king’s residence to the “upstairs and downstairs”. The chamber was the upstairs (quite literally) and the hall was the downstairs (where the servants congregated). The king would descend to the hall and feast communally during banquets and ceremonial occasions, but for the rest of the time he would be secluded in his chamber with his intimates. Edward III had taken to building private apartments for his high-ranking officers and guests. As for the bottom end of the household, “meals were served in the hall in two shifts…it was forbidden to remove food from the hall.” It seems pretty certain that the servants slept anywhere they could: “those who did not sleep in the hall probably distributed themselves around the passageways and vestibules, huddled in winter around the great fireplaces, lying on their straw mats (pallets) which may have been single or double.” Four sergeants-at-arms slept outside the king’s door and a further 26 slept in the hall. “No member of the household staff was to keep a wife or other woman at court”, though prostitutes were regularly ejected.


The king’s affinity embraces his great officers of state, magnates, clerks of the royal chapel, councilors, knights, servants, retainers, and other followers. In the next post I’ll concentrate on the many layers of knights in the king’s affinity and their assorted duties.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Lords Appellant Part 2: Radcot Bridge

Battle of Radcot Bridge (saved from BerkshireHistory.com)
In Part 1, we saw the first year of the Appellants’ attempt to control the kingdom by a ruling council. Richard spent most of that year traveling around the kingdom, trying to secure support (mostly from York, Chester and north Wales). He questioned eminent judges concerning the legality of the last Parliament, trying to reestablish his royal preeminence. Knowing this approach was explosive, Richard swore all parties to secrecy, but in a couple of months the story leaked out, and the Appellants knew that their very existence was threatened unless they struck the first blow. As Anthony Steel tells us in his Richard II, “if the old, lax conception of treason were going to be revived, it was vital for them to make the first use of it.”

By the time Richard returned to London, the three Lords Appellant (Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick) had already made their move and gathered with their forces at Waltham Cross, about twelve miles north of the city. This was on November 14, 1387. A meeting was arranged for three days later, and Richard met the three lords at Westminster hall. There they formally initiated their appeal against five defendants:
Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Richard’s close friend. Robert was a few years older than Richard and had no experience in government but had already been created marquess of Dublin and duke of Ireland for life, a status which exasperated the entitled peers to no end.
Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, impeached from the chancellorship in 1386. He was accused of influencing the king against Gloucester and Warwick.
Robert Tresilian, chief justice of the king’s bench. Historians remember him as the pitiless judge during the aftermath of the Peasant Revolt. He was the main man who influenced the judges who pronounced against the Merciless Parliament.
Sir Nicholas Brembre, former mayor of London, member of the Grocer’s Company. He frequently supported the king in his disputes against London.
Alexander Neville, archbishop of York, irascible and uncompromising, who seemed to have the uncanny ability to offend almost everybody. Except the king.

Apparently, the Appellants intended to pursue their complaint in the Court of Chivalry, over which Gloucester presided. However, Richard had a different answer: he proposed, according to Tuck (Richard II and the English Nobility), “that the matter be referred to a parliament, an intelligent move, for it gave de Vere time to bring his army south and perhaps reverse the whole situation. It also gave the other accused time to escape, and Pole and Neville used the breathing space to flee overseas.” The next Parliament was scheduled for the following February. It must be remembered that Richard had no standing army, nor even armed retainers to oppose the bristling forces standing by at Waltham Cross. Nor did London agree to support him. The king was vulnerable and he knew it. Sending de Vere to Chester, Richard waited while his friend gathered around 3000-4000 men and tried to march them to London.

Alas, although Robert de Vere seemed brave enough, he had no military experience. Arundel soon discovered what he was up to and the knowledge apparently shocked Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas de Mobray into action, bringing the number of Lords Appellant up to five. In fact, it was Henry who succeeded in trapping de Vere at Radcot Bridge (in Oxfordshire), where the royalist forces—those who hadn’t already deserted—were swiftly routed, captured, and disarmed. De Vere made a dash for freedom; unable to find a ford he stripped his armor off, abandoned his horse and swam across the Thames. His possessions were found, along with a letter from the king authorizing de Vere’s actions. For the moment, it was assumed that he drowned in the river, but it was later discovered that de Vere managed to limp his way over to France (never to return alive).

That was the end of Richard’s resistance. The Lords Appellant marched their army back to London where they encamped at Clerkenwell and paid a visit to the king who had taken refuge in the Tower. In the last week of December, the five lords entered the Tower with 500 heavily-armed followers and shut the gates behind them. Richard took them into the privacy of his chapel and nobody really knows what went on behind that closed door. There’s a story that Bolingbroke drew Richard to the window and showed him the mob outside waiting to depose him. Undoubtedly the lords berated him for his duplicity and insisted that he arrest the five “traitors”. It seems there is a consensus among historians that Richard ceased to rule the last three days of 1387; a strong probability exists that he was actually deposed for two or three days—at least Gloucester admitted such in his last confession ten years later. It is thought that Gloucester wanted the crown for himself, but Henry of Bolingbroke wouldn’t go along; his father’s claim—and therefore his own—was stronger. So in the end, they decided to put Richard back on the throne. The immediate crisis was over, but Richard would neither forgive nor forget his humiliation and degradation. Sadly for him, the worst was yet to come.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Lords Appellant Part 1: A Great and Continual council

Arundel, Gloucester, Nottingham, Derby, and Warwick,
Before the King Source: Wikimedia
Although the word appellant in modern terms refers to a petitioner appealing to a higher court, when we look at the fourteenth century the whole concept takes a left turn. First of all, you always see the words Lords Appellant capitalized, and it only seems to refer to those involved in the first legal crisis of Richard II’s reign. The Lords Appellant “appealed” (in essence, accused) Richard’s supporters of treason. Not only were their motives questionable, but the whole process had no legal basis from which to act, and the Appellants were forced to make up the rules as they went along, twisting the system to accommodate their self-serving objectives.

Initially there were three Appellants: Richard FitzAlan, 11th Earl of Arundel (who served in the wars with Edward III, mostly as admiral), Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester (the youngest son of Edward III), and Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick (also served with Edward III in the French war). Later on they were joined by Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby (son of John of Gaunt and future Henry IV) and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, 1st Duke of Norfolk (great-great grandson of Edward I). All these Lords had impressive pedigrees, but the first three had age and experience on their side and considered the young king more of an upstart than a man to be respected. After all, when the Merciless Parliament was called in 1388, Richard may have been 21 years of age but he still hadn’t officially reached his majority.

I’ll refer to events leading up to this pivotal moment in future posts. For now, suffice it to say that the barons wanted to control the young king who was attempting to rule in a way that was detrimental to their interests. Richard’s advisors, supporters, and friends were accused of giving him bad advice; since the nobles didn’t have enough ammunition to go against the king himself, they would have to be satisfied with eliminating his close supporters. The lords were determined to clean house, so to speak, and appoint a council of their choosing to take over the ruling of the country.

This happened in several steps. The king wasn’t to know it until later, but when John of Gaunt left the country in 1386 to pursue his Castilian interests, Richard lost the only impediment to the barons’ collaboration. Their first target was Michael de la Pole, Chancellor and newly created Earl of Suffolk. Alas, his long service to Edward III accounted for nothing once the Appellants had their hackles up and they “called for his dismissal—adding that they had ‘business to do with him which they could not transact so long as he remained in office’ “(Nigel Saul’s Richard II  p.157). What business was this? Why, nothing less than the first impeachment of any official in English history! Richard was furious and stood his ground: he would not dismiss so much as a kitchen scullion at their request. And at that, he withdrew from the Wonderful Parliament, as it was called, and went to Eltham. Ultimately, Gloucester and Arundel followed him there, and with a combination of bullying, falsehoods and cajoling, they persuaded him to return to Parliament—primarily because of their veiled reference to Edward II’s fate. Cowed, Richard dismissed Michael and the commons launched immediately into impeachment proceedings against him, alleging embezzlement and dereliction of duty in office. He was found guilty and briefly imprisoned, but Richard procured his release and kept his company for much of the next year. Arundel’s brother Thomas became chancellor in Michael’s place.

Satisfied with the first part of their strategy, the nobles and commons insisted on a “great and continual council” to implement financial reforms, clear up the backlog of debt, and curb the king’s expenditures. Their commission was to last one year and their powers were wide. After some tiresome attempts to interfere with their efforts, Richard took off on a long tour of the north, only returning nine days before the expiration date. Although contemporaries thought he was wandering around aimlessly, in reality it seems he was trying to consolidate his power base and start the recruitment of an army loyal to himself. In the process, he also called two meetings with eminent judges in which he questioned them as to the legality of the previous Parliament; did the House infringe upon the royal prerogatives? Did they have the authority to impeach a Crown officer without the consent of the king? Whether the judges acted under pressure or not is unknown, but their response was that Parliament overstepped its bounds and the offenders should be punished ‘as traitors’.

This was an interesting development, because the Statute of Treason from 1052 “had limited the definition of treason to such acts as aiding the king’s enemies and levying war against the king in his realm” (Nigel Saul p.166). This is why the judges did not call the Appellants traitors per se, for the definition wouldn’t fit. But Richard’s questions did give him some ammunition to use against his enemies, though in the end his strategy backfired. Click here for Part 2.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

What was Livery and Maintenance (or Retaining)?

Medieval court scene from BL MS Harley 4375 f.141.
Source: Wikipedia
Livery and Maintenance went hand-in-hand with chivalry, and created problems throughout the high middle ages. Once I realized that “retaining” was the verb for “retainer” I started to get the idea. The noble or king had his retainers, who were either in his household (given food and clothing) or part of his social and political network (fee’d retainers, paid an annuity for fealty and service). The retainer looked to the lord for “livery”—or clothing (hoods or “chaperons”, cloth, and more specifically, badges; think of Richard III’s white boar)—and “maintenance”—or maintaining the cause, or dispute, of the client. The lord was their protector; if they misbehaved, the retainers were pretty sure they could get off scot free, so to speak, usually by interfering with justice. Not only were judges and juries intimidated and bribed, but, according to Anthony Tuck (Richard II and the English Nobility) “there was a great trade in pardons in the fourteenth century to produce revenue”. This was applicable only when the accused showed up for trial, which rarely happened, anyway; there was no way to force the offender to cooperate.

As might be expected, wearing a lord’s livery fostered a lively atmosphere of competition, faction-fighting, and strife. The armed livery retainers were starting to look and act like thugs. I keep thinking about the incredible sword-fight in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, where Tybalt and Mercutio led their howling followers in a violent brawl up and down the streets. Innocent bystanders had to fend for themselves. When convenient, anyone could be threatened or abused depending on the inclination of the liveried bully. Law and order was a farce.

All the way back to Edward I’s days, attempts were made to control this disregard for the law. By Richard II’s reign, Parliament tried to order the nobles to cease the practice of liveries, but the Lords insisted they could control their own offenders. Of course, they couldn’t and this caused a constant conflict between the Lords and the Commons which Richard took advantage of, even offering to abolish his own livery if the nobles would do the same. This offer was scorned by the Lords, but it served to create a badly-needed rapprochement between King and the Commons.

In Richard’s reign, retaining took on a special urgency. In return for his loyalty, a retainer expected patronage, advancement, or even acquisition of lands. If the lord couldn’t extend his patronage (for instance, if the king denied him access or offered a better deal), he might very well lose the allegiance of his retainers. This was one of the major grievances of the Lords Appellant, for as young Richard II distributed lands and honors to just about anybody who asked for them, the great magnates saw their influence waning. This was especially true in the late 1380s, after the Merciless Parliament when Richard needed to rebuild his support base. As Anthony Goodman tells us (The Loyal Conspiracy): “As he (Richard) progressed, he retained… The nervousness it aroused was reflected, too, in the arrest near Cambridge of a servant of the king who had been distributing liveries to the gentry of East Anglia and Essex, on receiving which they swore to do military service when summoned by the king, no matter which lords had retained them.” By the end of Richards’s reign, he had retained so many followers that he beat his enemies at their own game; he alarmed London by filling it with an army of Cheshiremen, and in his last two years, his tyrannical behavior was ungovernable. Alas, for Richard, the more easily acquired, the easier they were lost, and when the final showdown occurred, his standing army evaporated and he faced the usurper alone.

It wasn’t until the Tudors that an end was put to maintenance, and enforceable laws were introduced. By then, chivalry had run its course and the Wars of the Roses had wiped out the overweening might of the aristocracy, leaving a more pliant nobility.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Poll Tax, Part 2: The Peasants’ Revolt is Sparked

The Death of Wat Tyler: Library Royal MS 18.E.i-ii f. 175
By the Parliament of 1380, the Commons were up against the wall. The government under the new Chancellor Sudbury was desperate for money. In France, the earl of Buckingham had squandered the money raised from the last Poll Tax; the army was a half year in arrears; Gaunt needed money in Scotland; the coast needed to be protected against invasion; and the wool subsidy was not producing any funds because of a riot in Flanders. They needed £160,000 to make ends meet, including—unknown to the Commons—about £60,000 for Gaunt’s proposed Castile campaign. Impossible! After much discussion, the commons agreed to grant £100,000 if the rest was raised by the clergy, and it was decided a third poll tax would be put in place.

Unlike the second Poll Tax, which didn’t raise enough money, this one would demand three groats per person (the first poll tax was one groat), again on a sliding scale, though this time no specifics were outlined: “the sufficient shall (according to their means) aid the lesser…” (RB Dobson). This may have worked in the towns where a great landowner happened to reside (as long as the landowner helped out), but in the areas where there were no wealthy residents, the poorest households faced the most onerous burden. No one was happy. Since the tax was collected based on the population of a town or shire, here is where the infamous evasion was practiced all over the country: the population numbers between 1377 and 1381 suddenly dropped—on paper. For instance, Kent went from 56,557 to 43,838; Somerset fell from 54,604 to 30,384. Try Cumberland, that went from 11,841 to 4,748 and Devon, that fell from 45,635 to 20,656. Taken as a whole, “the adult population of the realm has ostensibly fallen from 1,355,201 to 896,481 persons” (Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381). It seems that many quit counting unmarried daughters, widowed mothers, etc. Or who knows? It soon became obvious that all was not as it should be!

So the government appointed new commissioners in March, 1381 to investigate the widespread tax evasion. Commissioners were hard to find, for this was a task bound for trouble. But they were reportedly allowed to keep the profits raised above and beyond their quota, so ambitious men came forward, each accompanied by two sergeants-at-arms to provide additional persuasion. Not only were they bitterly resented, for the people declared they had already paid their taxes, but ugly rumors abounded about their methods. It was even said that one commissioner lifted girls’ skirts to test whether they were virgins or not! Huh? Maybe he was looking for pubic hair? By the end of May, resentment had reached the boiling point.

It wasn’t an accident that when Sir John de Bampton came to Brentwood to start his commission in Essex, there was a crowd of about 100 waiting for him from the surrounding towns. They were angry, rudely armed, and ready for resistance. Bampton ordered his sergeants to make some arrests, the mob promptly attacked, stoning and beating the offenders until they headed back to London, their proverbial tail between their legs. And so started the Great Revolt.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Poll Tax, Part One: The Cupboard is Bare

National Archives (catalogue reference: E 179/155/94)
Although the poll tax was said to have been used all the back to ancient times, it’s most widely remembered in relation to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. According to Wikipedia: “The word ‘poll’ is an archaic term for ‘head’ or ‘top of the head’. The sense of ‘counting heads’ is found in phrases like polling place and opinion poll.” Well, that answers my question as to whether our current use of the word relates to its original use. Apparently so. But how did it set off the greatest rebellion of the middle ages and nearly bring down the monarchy?

From what I can gather, it was widely believed that the infamous Poll Tax was the first of its kind in Medieval England. In reality, there were three Poll Taxes between 1377-1381—each with its own experimental application, and each imposed to cover a shortfall caused by continual losses in the French wars. It could also be said the need for more taxes should be laid at the feet of inept and possibly corrupt royal ministers. Money was wasted shamefully in the early years of Richard II’s reign.

Ever since 1334, taxes were raised by the standard subsidy called “tenths and fifteenths”, which meant one tenth of the value of personal properties—called movables—for lay persons in cities, boroughs and royal demesne lands, and one fifteenth for rural counties. It was easier to tax the local community as a whole and leave it to the inhabitants to sort out the distribution. But by 1377, the government’s financial crisis was such that a new system of taxation had to be devised by Parliament, and they finally settled on the first Poll Tax, which would require a groat—or four pence—from each and every lay person over the age of 14, with the exception of public beggars. (The churchmen were taxed too, on a slightly different scale.) A simple laborer might earn three pence in a day and a skilled workman could earn five pence, so the tax was not too onerous except for the fact the poor man’s burden was much higher proportionally than a wealthy man. Nonetheless, the first Poll Tax was considered a success—raising £22,580 from the laity alone—and it temporarily eased the pressure. But not for long.

In 1379, England was in a panic because of a threatened invasion from France. Once again, the commons in Parliament decided to impose a second Poll Tax—this one to be implemented on a sliding scale, depending on the person’s rank. Here’s a sample from the thirty-three separate categories, drawn from RB Dobson’s The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381:
– The Dukes of Lancaster and Brittany, each: 10 marks (i.e. £6 13s 4d)
– Each earl of England: £4
– Each baron and banneret or knight who is able to spend as much as a baron: 40s
– Each squire not in possession of land, rents or castles, who is in service or in arms: 40d
– Each sergeant and great apprentice of the law: 40s
– Other apprentices who follow the law, each: 20s
– All other apprentices of lesser estate, and attorneys, each: 6s 8d
– Each alderman of London is to pay, like a baron: 40s
– All the municipal officers of large towns and the great merchants of the kingdom are to pay, like a knight: 20s
– Farmers of manors and parsonages, and great merchants dealing in stock and other lesser trade, according to their estate: 6s 8d
– Each married man, for himself and his wife if they do not belong to the estates above and are over the age of 16 years, genuine beggars excepted, is to pay: 4d
– Each foreign merchant of whatever condition is to pay according to his estate like the others above: 20s, or 6s 8d

This seemed more fair than a straight head count, but it ended up a miserable failure (blamed again on corrupt administration). It garnered about £22,000, half of what was expected “at a time when the half-year’s wages of English troops on an ill-fated Breton expedition exceeded £50,000” (Dobson, p.111). The money was gone in a heartbeat, the fleet languished in port before sailing late in the year only to be wrecked by storms, and the Scots were causing trouble on the border. The king’s jewels had already been hocked, the treasury was empty. According to Juliet Barker in 1381, The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt, “Over a quarter of a million pounds had now been spent on the war in the two and a half years since Richard’s accession—yet there was virtually nothing to show for it.” Chancellor Scrope was obliged to resign in disgrace. Even though the ministers promised they wouldn’t call Parliament again for eighteen months, everyone knew they would have to renege.

Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury was created new Chancellor, which proved to be the worst thing that could ever have happened to him. The poor man may have been a brilliant scholar and a devoted churchman, but he was most certainly not cut out to be a good administrator, which would be proven when they introduced the third, and most catastrophic Poll Tax in 1381. (Part Two)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Great Seal, Privy Seal, and Signet: What’s the difference?

Great Seal of Richard II, After F. Sandford, A Genealogical history
of the kings and queens of England … (London, 1707)
We know the Great Seal was an indispensable tool for keeping the government running. Historians pay close attention to the use of the Seal; not only does this help identify the time and reign of a particular warrant, but the use of lesser Seals helps us follow the movements of our itinerant kings.

Edward the Confessor is thought to have been the first English ruler to use the Great Seal, and each successive medieval monarch remade the design in his own image, to be stamped into wax. Charters, letters, and writs required a seal to initiate legally binding orders; the clerks of the Chancery wrote these orders, and the head of the Chancery was the Chancellor, usually a Bishop. So the Chancellor was officially in charge of the Great Seal and guarded it against improper use. In fact, counterfeiting the Great Seal was a serious crime, defined as High Treason in the reign of Edward III.

In official use, there were three Seals (there were many other seals—the Exchequer, Ecclesiastic Seals, Guild Seals; the list goes on and on. I am only referencing the king and his Chancery). The Great Seal was required for any state document, but if the king was traveling around, he could use a Privy Seal—first employed by King John—to move (or authenticate, or instruct) the Great Seal. Under the early Plantagenets, the Privy Seal was under the custody of the Keeper of the Wardrobe; this evolved into the Keeper of the Privy Seal. By 1312, the Barons ensured that the Privy Seal clerk was appointed by the king in Parliament and approved by them. Hence, the Privy Seal office became a sort of second clearing-house for official documents. Eventually, almost all non-judicial documents required a warrant from the Privy Seal before it could pass under the Great Seal.

Edward II, chafing at the strictures of Parliament, started using a secret seal which eventually evolved as the Signet—the king’s personal Seal—and was guarded by the king’s Secretary (precursor to the Secretary of State). In the early years, Richard II would use the Signet to move the Privy Seal, which would move the Great Seal. But in 1383, Richard got the idea that he could bypass the usual procedures, and he started using his Signet ring for everything—circumventing the Privy Seal office altogether to communicate instructions directly to the Chancery. Why did this matter? The Barons interpreted Richard’s “abuse” of the Signet as an attempt to take personal charge of government affairs, trying to shake off control of his actions. He was even recorded ordering money from the treasury for his personal use. In 1386, however, this came to a screeching halt when Parliament ordered the reorganization of his administration and impeached Michael de la Pole, his friend and his Chancellor. Richard was forced to stop issuing Signet letters “to the damage of the Realm”, and his use of the Signet fell off dramatically.