Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Inheritance in Medieval England

Source: Wikipedia: Genealogical roll of the kings of England. 1300-1308. Royal 14 B VI Membrane 7 From Henry III to Edward III
Cut-and-dried? Not on your life. Primogeniture, or the “law” governing inheritance, even in its basic form could prove elusive to the most determined lawyer. “Primogeniture among males, equal shares between females, a son always preferred to a daughter, a daughter to a brother or other collateral. For the fief to retain its coherence, it was thus essential that its proprietor, if not childless, should have at least one son or, failing sons, not more than one daughter.” (see K.B. McFarlane’s “The Nobility of Later Medieval England”). Easier said than done! Sorting out the details got messy very quickly.

According to McFarlane, approximately 25% of all noble families failed in the direct male line in every generation. So according to the laws of inheritance, any daughters would be next in line, even if there was a male nephew, for instance, or a surviving brother, known as collateral heirs. When the inheritance went to an heiress, the line would be passed to her husband—an unfortunate outcome, needless to say. A famous example of this was the Beauchamp inheritance. When in 1446 the Earl of Warwick died with no male heir, his lands and title passed on to his daughter who died in infancy; after that the earldom passed on to his full sister, married to Richard Neville who was already Earl of Salisbury—and later known as the Kingmaker. If there were multiple daughters, they would split the inheritance. In the case of Richard Neville, he had no sons—only two daughters, the elder married to George Duke of Clarence and the younger to Richard Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III. George became next Earl of Warwick through Isabella, then was executed, passing the title to his son Edward Plantagenet. Imprisoned in the Tower of London at age 10, Edward spent the rest of his life there and was executed in 1499, at which point the line became extinct.

If the father had a big family, naturally he would want to take care of younger sons and daughters, notwithstanding the legends of the younger son driven from home to seek his fortune. In the case of royalty, the younger sons often were often made earls, or dukes—and married to an heiress, if possible. And of course there was sometimes a situation where a younger son was preferred over the direct heir. What was a man to do? What’s important to the study of primogeniture is to know that property could not be devised by a will, as we know it today. According to McFarlane, “If a landowner died, his heir inherited; if he wanted to benefit his younger children he had to do it in his own lifetime.” Most people did not want to divest themselves of their lands à la King Lear, so this was not a common option.

Clever aristocrats soon found a way around this restriction: the estate tail. What happened here is that the grantor would surrender his fief as a “conditional gift” to his king, his immediate lord, or a group of friends. Then he would receive it back “on terms different from those governing ordinary inheritance”. He no longer owned the fief in “fee simple” (by definition unconditional); he held it in “fee tail”. This way he could cut out the direct heir, or possibly his daughter in favor of collateral heirs (or any other situation—even bastardy). If women were excluded altogether, or at least until all male descendants were extinct, this estate was called “tail male” or “entail”. The entail was irrevocable and perpetual, even if the principal changed his mind before he died. No one could alter it. However, in the legal interest of the direct heir, entails usually reverted back to the head of the family if there was a total failure of male heirs in the cadet branches after three generations.

Slightly more adaptable was another legal device known as the use. A man would grant his lands, “or any part of them, to a number of his friends, usually called his feoffees, to hold to his use as long as he lived and to dispose of when he was dead in accordance with his last will.” (McFarlane) For all intents-and-purposes the grantor was now a tenant for life rather than owner of the estate. The use had the added advantage that an underaged lord who inherited was not subject to a wardship in his minority—hence, it was a bit of a tax dodge, since wardships had a monetary value. A disadvantage was that the feofees had to be trusted implicitly; if they acted fraudulently or in disobedience, there was little established recourse for the wronged party.

By the end of the fourteenth century, “tail male” became ingrained and extended to earldoms as well. An added bonus, by the way, is that an estate held in “fee tail” could not be forfeited for treason. Ultimately this new freedom to bequeath land had its own consequences: too many unsustainable cadet branches weakened the line. Primogeniture reasserted itself around 1500, though many permutations continued to exist.

Friday, October 26, 2018

In the Days After Hastings

The Body of Harold brought before William the Conqueror by Ford Madox Brown, Manchester Art Gallery
It was said that after the great Battle, William the Conqueror retired to Hastings and awaited the submission of the English people. None was forthcoming. Was he surprised, I wonder? After all, England had been subjected to Danish invasions the last couple of centuries, winning and losing battle after battle. Of course, they had not lost their king during one of those battles, but electing another king was only a matter of time. Apparently—at least initially—no one had any intention of recognizing the usurper. Of course, this was destined to change.

But not yet. With a few days after Harold's death (I can't find an exact date), a hastily-assembled Witan elected Eadgar Aetheling as king; he was the last surviving heir of the Royal house of Cedric of Wessex though still in his early teens. Eadgar was not crowned, presumably because this event always coincided with a high religious holiday and the next appropriate date would not occur until Christmas. Historian Edward A. Freeman suggested that Edwin and Morcar put themselves forward as likely candidates but received no support. They duly consented to Eadgar's election, then went back home with their levies, "and left Eadgar and England to their fate". Freeman's judgment was harsh: "The patriotic zeal of the men of London was thwarted by the base secession of the Northern traitors. By their act all was lost." Divided, England could not stand up to the might of the Norman invader.

William waited at Hastings for five days then resolved to secure the southeast portion of England before advancing on London. He marched along the coast, plundering his way to strike terror in his conquered people. He took especial revenge on Romney who had the audacity to attack some of his men before the great Battle. William then advanced to Dover which surrendered without a blow. Had the garrison already been killed at Hastings? It is said that William intended to spare the city because of its submission but that some of his unruly soldiers plundered anyway, setting fire to many houses. William brought his men under control and even compensated the homeowners for their losses. He spent eight days at Dover and left his wounded there to recover.

The Conqueror's violence to the resistors and leniency to towns surrendering along the way served its purpose in Kent; even the city of Canterbury met the Duke on the road with hostages and tribute. This was on October 29. Interestingly, two days later, he pitched camp nearby in a neighborhood called the Broken Tower and stayed there for a month, for he was stricken down with a serious illness. This didn't stop him from sending messengers to Winchester where Queen Editha had taken refuge, offering to leave them alone as long as they submitted to his rule (along with tribute, of course). Editha consulted with the city fathers and together they agreed to William's terms. For all intents and purposes, the south was in William's hands.

He now turned his attention to London; the last vestiges of resistance were strong there. Initially he sent forward a small contingent of 500 knights, who were met south of the Thames by a stout company of Londoners. A skirmish took place that sent the citizens retreating back inside the walls of the city; at this, the soldiers set fire to Southwark. But William was not minded to attack London yet; rather, he struck west along the southern bank of the Thames, harrying Surrey, Hampshire, and Berkshire until he reached Wallingford, which offered a bridge and a ford across the river. Unchallenged, William crossed and continued north, intent on creating a circle of desolation around London. Although this was not a formal siege, it was beginning to have the trappings of one. By the time William reached Berkhampstead, apparently the English were demoralized. An embassy led by none other than Eadgar Aetheling himself, accompanied by Archbishops Ealdred and probably Stigand (as well as many of the chiefest men from London and southern England) came and did homage to William. Prepared to be merciful, the Conqueror received them graciously and gave Eadgar the kiss of peace. As Freeman reminds us: "It was the chance shot of an arrow which had overcome the English King, but it was William's own policy which had overcome the English people." And so it began.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

King Richard’s Household: the Retinue

British Library: MS Harley 4205 f.6V
My interest in “The Royal Household and the King’s Affinity: Service, Politics and Finance in England 1360-1413” by Chris Given-Wilson goes way beyond what I can discuss in a book review. In Part One I talked about the king’s servants, from the lowest page to the great officers. When we move on to the chapters about the king’s affinity—or his retinue, for lack of a better word—we learn about the different layers of intimates: courtiers, knights, retainers, and so on. Some of them received annuities (the chamber knights) and some of them were only called upon in case of specific need and were paid accordingly.

The chamber knights were intimates of the king and were often sent away on special missions (as ambassadors, for instance, or in Burley’s case to negotiate his marriage). At the start of Richard’s reign there were about ten chamber knights, mostly left over from the Black Prince’s household; the most famous of them were also victims of the Appellants in 1388: Simon Burley and John Beauchamp of Holt. Two others were beheaded and three more were ordered to leave court. In the ’90s a new generation of intimates formed around the king—closer to his age—and by the end of Richard’s reign he had about 18 chamber knights in service. According to the author, “they actually had regular duties at court, either in the chamber or in the hall, and that they were obliged to remain at court for certain periods of each year (perhaps this was organized on a rotational basis, perhaps it was as other duties allowed, but certainly some of them would have been with the king all the time).” Chamber knights were rewarded with “temporary grants such as wardships, the custody of royal lands or castles (with attached fees), life annuities, and salaried posts in the king’s gift.” This was not a path to great landed wealth, though Richard did reward them whenever he could.

The author thinks about the royal affinity in terms of concentric circles around the king. The inner circle, most of the time, controlled access to the king—much to the annoyance of those who thought they deserved better. The king’s intimates—aside from chamber knights—were great officers of state, royal councilors, great magnates (in his favor), esquires of the chamber, and clerks of the royal chapel. Included among his inner circle were the bachelerii—or bachelors—”a distinct group of retainers in whom their lord reposed a special trust”. Some (perhaps all) were indeed chamber knights, but not all of them are recorded as receiving fees and robes. Perhaps they were just close personal friends; it’s difficult to say for certain. The second circle “may be defined as those who were bound to the king by ties of service, and by the fact that he paid them a regular wage…and expected them to serve him on a regular basis.” These included department officials, sergeants-at-arms, and lesser clerks; the majority of the household of 400-700 total belonged to this circle. The third (and outer) circle included those called upon for specific needs as mentioned above: the king’s knights, the king’s esquires, archers, and yeomen. They mostly did not live at the court and were called up as required, but here too there were layers of service. You had the bannerets (a superior rank of knight with a personal retinue of up to 20 men; he received 4s a day wages on campaign), simple knights (who received 2s a day on campaign), and esquires.

The king’s knights were the military men who mostly received annuities, “who were not of the royal household but who were attached to the person of the king”. After the episode with the Appellants, Richard started retaining knights for life; he realized that “he wanted to be sure of a loyal core of followers in a crisis” which was sorely lacking in 1387. In the last couple of years of his reign during his “second tyranny” he surrounded himself with the turbulent Cheshire archers, thus contributing greatly to the costs of the exchequer and wreaking havoc with the locals. In the same time frame he started retaining squires for life as well, in somewhat greater numbers; they were about half as expensive to maintain as knights.

So the king’s knights were among his lay courtiers. But not to be overlooked were his clerical courtiers, those of the king’s chapel, numbering up to 50 at any one time. The clerics were the ones who did the departmental work, i.e. clerks of the chancery, clerks of the exchequer, the privy seal office, the marshalsea, the chapel, etc. The clerical position was often a stepping-stone to higher religious posts, and they usually held prebends or canonries outside of the court from which they received the bulk of their livings. Many went on to be bishops; in fact, “by the end of the reign Richard had secured bishoprics for so many of his household clerks that the episcopacy must almost have come to resemble an extension of the household.” It is interesting that in his last few years, “the number of clerks among the king’s closest companions and advisors was considerably greater than the number of chamber knights”. They were to become a thorn in the side for Henry IV, many going so far as to assist the rebels in 1400.

It was contemporary opinion that Richard was much too impressionable and influenced by his “evil councilors”. It was the purpose of the Lords Appellant to remove his inner circle so they themselves could exert some influence over the king. They certainly succeeded in eliminating (one way or the other) more than 40 people from his household, but they fell short of their ultimate goal once he reached his majority and took control of the government in 1389.

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.