Medieval English government


bullet At the head of English government stood the king. The machinery of government existed in order to put his decisions and policies into practice.

bullet The king's ministers were just that - servants who ministered to his will.


Central government


Law Courts:





Keeper of the Privy Seal

Lord High Steward





Common Pleas


King's Bench






Local government


Justices of the Peace

Shire Courts


Assize Courts



Particular Jurisdictions

Palatinate of Durham

Welsh Marches

County of Chester


Central government

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 were bishops.

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 centuries.


The Exchequer 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.

The Wardrobe (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 Exchequer.

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 supplies.

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 - scutage. 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 scutage, and 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).

Local government

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 Richard I).

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 Courts.

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.


Particular jurisdictions

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 basically peaceful.

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 until 1536.


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.

Practical control

bullet 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 his officers.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.


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