Medieval English government
At the head of English government stood the
king. The machinery of government existed in order to put his
decisions and policies into practice.
The king's ministers were just
that - servants who ministered to his will.
|The King's Chamber
originally referred to the king's private rooms. Its chief
official, the Chamberlain, soon came to control more than domestic
and private affairs. The Chamberlain's importance varied in different
reigns, but the office was especially used by Hugh Despenser the younger to control government under Edward II.
Whereas the Exchequer controlled the collection of revenue, the
Chamber (like the Wardrobe) controlled its expenditure.
|When the king wished to
issue legally binding orders, it was the clerks of Chancery
who wrote them. Charters, letters, and the writs required to
initiate court actions were written, sealed with the Great Seal
of England, and copied on to rolls of sheepskin. (The Keeper of
the Rolls would in the later Middle Ages emerge as an important
official in his own right)
The head of Chancery was the
Chancellor. Almost all Chancellors during the Middle Ages
During the 14th Century, the Court of Chancery began to hear
cases, The Chancellor (as royal deputy) decided pleas for
redress that common law could not provide. This equitable
jurisdiction became increasingly important in the following
was the department of government basically
responsible for royal finance. Its chief officer was the
Treasurer; under him was the
Chancellor of the Exchequer (in the eighteenth century the office of
Treasurer evolved into that of Prime Minister, leaving the Chancellor of
the Excehquer in charge of finances). Sheriffs and other local officials delivered
revenue from their counties to the Lower Exchequer and
received a tally (a notched piece of wood marked with the amount
paid.) The officer who marked the tallies was the Chamberlain
of the Exchequer. The tallies were taken to the Upper
Exchequer, where the clerks checked that the return was
correct and recorded it on a Pipe Roll.
The Court of Exchequer was the court of law that tried
all cases related to royal revenue. By the late 13th Century,
the Court effectively acted independently; its judges (Called
Barons of the Exchequer) were increasingly recruited from
professional lawyers. The Treasurer was generally a cleric until
the late 14th Century - in 1372, Parliament demanded that laymen
should be appointed chancellor, treasurer, privy seal and
chamberlain of the Exchequer.
|The Great Seal of England
was kept in Chancery, but as the king traveled about the
country, he used a privy seal to authenticate personal letters
and orders. The privy seal itself soon became an official tool,
and the Keeper of the Privy Seal, who controlled its use,
became an important officer of state.
The signet then replaced the privy seal as the monarch's personal
seal; the officer in control of the signet was the king's Secretary.
|The Lord High Steward of England became an
important office from the late 12th Century. It was held
initially by the Earls of Leicester (including Simon de Montfort)
and then by the Earls and Dukes of Lancaster. It was a
traditional office, allowing its holder rights to supervise the
royal household, the administration of justice and the
appointment of royal councilors.
(like the Chamber) traveled with the king and administered royal
expenditures. It became particularly important during the reign
of Edward I because it controlled military finance. Its chief
official was the Keeper of the Wardrobe, who had two
deputies - the Controller and the Cofferer.
The Wardrobe was more closely under the personal control of the
monarch and his advisors than was the Exchequer. When the
magnates grew discontented with the rule of Edward II and his
favorite, Piers Gaveston, they attempted to prevent taxation
receipts being sent directly to Wardrobe rather than via the
|Admiral was the
name given in the 12th Century to the English Officer who
commanded the ships of the Cinque Ports (Hastings, Romney, Hythe,
Dover and Sandwich) which were obliged to provide them to defend
the English Channel. The High Court of Admiralty
developed from the powers given to the Admiral to control
discipline in the navy, to punish pirates, and to determine who
owned seized enemy ships and their cargoes.
The first English admirals were William Leyburn (Leyburne) and
John de Botetourt (Bottetourt), appointed by Edward I, and their
duties extended well beyond the command of ships to supplying
and repairing the fleet, levying sailors and organizing
|From the time of Magna Carta, the
Court of Common Pleas sat at Westminster
and heard private pleas between subjects - that is civil cases.
In contrast, criminal cases (where the Crown prosecuted) were
heard in the Court of King's Bench. (This followed the
King until the reign of Edward III, when it too settled in
London.) Initially, judges sat on occasion in both courts, but
increasingly the judges became specialized. From the reign of
Edward I, a Chief Justice of Common Pleas headed the
panel of judges.
Common Pleas was known contemporarily as "the Bench" (banc),
while King's Bench was called "Coram rege" (in the presence of
the King - although the King was not actually present.)
|The feudal system was based on grants of land
in exchange for military service, however
the duty to send knights was soon commutated to a money payment -
King John used this money to hire mercenary soldiers. Edward I
tried to introduce more substantial reforms. He continued to
require all the feudal tenants-in-chief to provide military service or
to employ the Assize of Arms to raise local militias. But Edward
I went further by obliging all substantial landowners to be
knighted and serve as or provide men-at-arms. He also employed
Commissions of Array to levy more humble subjects for
service as infantry.
Originally the Marshal and the Constable
controlled the royal horses and stables, but these officers came
also to control military operations - the Marshal specifically being
in charge of the cavalry. By the reign of Edward I, these
offices were virtually hereditary in the noble families of Bigod
(Earl Marshal) and Bohun (High Constable). Their assertion of
their hereditary rights undermined royal power until the
extinction of the Bigod line in 1306 and the capture by the Scots of Humphrey
de Bohun at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314).
|The sheriff had
many different duties. It was his responsibility to execute
writs (legal orders) issued from Westminster. The sheriff also
held his own tourn or court to discover criminals and deliver them
to the royal courts. The sheriff supervised the Crown lands in his shire
and delivered their revenues to the Exchequer. Sheriffs had rights of purveyance, that is
compulsorily requisitioning food and supplies from the counties
to supply the monarch. From the mid-13th Century sheriffs presided over
the election of knights of the shire to Parliament. The sheriff had the
authority to summon the posse
comitatus - i.e. the able-bodied men of the county - to
help him maintain public order.
The sheriff presided over the
shire court (or moot), which had existed since the
Anglo-Saxon period. It tried offences against the crown, and
lesser offences that involved two or more lords and so could not
be tried in the local manor court. Shire court juries also
supplied authoritative information on local customs and rights,
and it was often at these courts that knights of the shire and
coroners were chosen.
The sheriff was generally a large landowner in the county
where he served. In fact, before Magna Carta, the sheriff's
office sometimes tended to be hereditary in one family - especially in
Stephen's reign. An unscrupulous
sheriff could manipulate his office to his own advantage - John
of Oxford who was Sheriff of Nottingham during the 1330s, was
guilty of so much fraud and extortion that he was probably the
model for the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood
tales. But sheriffs could also suffer losses to central
government. Walter Langton (d.1321), treasurer of Edward I,
personally seized the land of a number of sheriffs for supposed
irregularities in their Exchequer accounts.
|Justices of the Peace
were typically members of the local gentry (large landowners who
did not have noble titles) given a commission by the
monarch to administer justice in their county. JPs could personally punish minor
offences and commit criminals for trial at the Assize Courts.
Justices of the Peace were appointed from the 14th Century
onward but it was only during the 16th that they became the
primary administrators of local government. replacing the sheriff.
|The office of Coroner
dated back to the reign of Alfred the Great. During the Middle
Ages the Coroner was responsible for maintaining legal records
such that - when the Royal Justices visited on their circuit -
all criminal offences would be prosecuted. The coroner also
acted as a royal tax collector (especially during the reign of
After the Norman Conquest, a special fine was
levied on the local community if a Norman was killed there. This
murdrum could be avoided if the community could prove to
the Coroner's inquest that the corpse was not Norman. Long after
distinctions between Norman and English had largely disappeared,
the murdrum was still levied - effectively a fine/tax on
unidentified cadavers. The murdrum was not formally
abolished until 1340. The Coroner's duty to investigate sudden,
suspicious or violent deaths has survived to the present day.
|From the mid 12th Century,
the crown sent royal judges to try legal cases throughout the
country. The circuits of these Justices in Eyre (and later of the
Justices of Assize) covered
the whole realm and they heard both civil and criminal cases.
They often also performed administrative duties, enquiring for
example into the conduct of local royal officials. Serious
criminal trials were "held over" to these Assize
The Justices in Eyre (and later of Assize) held a number of different
commissions. They were to investigate disputes over the proper
ownership of land in the locality. The duty of gaol delivery - that is trying
everyone held in local jails - was added in Edward I's reign.
The commission of oyer and terminer (to hear and decide)
allowed the justices to decide criminal matters, and that of
nisi prius (unless first/ before) to determine civil cases
unless they had already been referred to the central courts.
|The Palatinate of Durham was almost a
realm within a realm. The Prince-Bishop of Durham held courts,
appointed sheriffs and ran a chancery just as the king did in
the realm of England. He even had his own army. The Palatinate
was given such extensive powers because of its role in
protecting England from the dangerous raiders of the Scottish
borders. This borderland between England and Scotland remained
dangerously anarchic long after the rest of the country became
Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham under Edward I, for
example, conducted military campaigns against the Scots despite being a
cleric. He seized the Balliol lands in the Borders when the opportunity
presented itself, but was deprived by Edward I in 1302 when he became too
greedy of power. (Control of the Palatinate was then temporarily taken
over by royal officials.)
The special powers of the Bishop of Durham were not abolished
||The Welsh marches
lay in the borderland between England and Wales. The earldoms
of Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford were given special rights by
Norman kings to help them defend England from Welsh raids and
incursions. These Marcher Lords were free to raise forces and
wage war, and their subjects could not appeal to royal courts
for redress. The County of Chester held the status of a
palatinate: it had its own exchequer and held its own parliaments.
The powers of the Marcher lords were subject to abuse: in 1290, for example, Edward I had to
intervene personally to prevent the Earls of Gloucester and
Hereford from waging a private war. The conflict grew more acute
after the conquest of Wales, for it both removed the Marchers'
function and increased their power. In 1321, the Marcher Lords
almost provoked civil war in retaliation for Hugh Despenser's
attempts to control the area.
The last vestiges of the Marches' special status did not
disappear until 1536-43, when Wales was finally integrated into the
English legal and administrative system.
In addition to the formal organs of government,
the monarch controlled his kingdom in many ways. One of the most
important was personal visits. During the Middle Ages and beyond, the
king toured the country - inspecting, investigating and encouraging
Patronage was also important. The king
controlled many resources and was able to make gifts of lands, of
wealthy heiresses for marriage, of orphaned heirs for exploitation,
and of profitable positions in the hierarchy of government.
To reward his followers and extend his own
power the king also needed money. Various sources of taxation were
tried. Danegeld (later called heregeld, geld, and finally carucage) was collected
until the early 13th Century. Scutage (on knights' service) and
tallages (on urban property) were collected almost annually from the
13th Century, and customs duties were levied by Richard I, King John,
and from Edward I's reign onwards.