History books


The Court of Wards

Robert Cecil presiding over the Court of Wards

I can’t remember if I decided one of my Francis Bacon mystery series characters would become an orphan before or after I learned about the Court of Wards. Probably after, because I wouldn’t have recognized the dramatic potential of that condition. Although I vaguely remember thinking Tom would have to lose his money at some point, to juice up his series arc.

But you don’t care about that! You’re here for the history. The Court of Wards was a notorious sink of corruption in its day, loathed by everyone, but everyone still wanted a piece of the action. Get yourself an orphan with a tasty little estate and you could make a fat profit for yourself, managing the said estate until the said orphan reached his or her majority.


I’m basing this post on Joel Hurstfield’s book, The Queen’s Wards. He begins well before the beginning, with a long explanation of feudalism and its effects on land ownership. The upshot is that no one in the Tudor period or earlier simply owned their land, the way we own our lands, if we have any. Like the lot my house sits on; I consider that mine and so does the legal system under which I purchased it. I can’t do anything I like with it, given the many restrictions of a city lot, which I approve of in general — but it’s mine.

In the Tudor era, all the land in the country belonged to the Crown. Everyone else leased it on some terms or other. (I’m not sure about this, but it looks like the feudal obligation component was abolished after the English Civil War, being substituted by taxation. Read more at the Wikipedia page on English land law.)

Re-enactor at Kentwell

Different kinds of tenure entailed different obligations for service. At the bottom, we have cottars, who got a humble dwelling with a tiny plot for vegetables in exchange for working the master’s fields. At the top, we have major landowners who hold their vast estates from the monarch, in exchange for showing up with a troop of well-armed knights upon request.

This is called knight service. Oddly by modern standards, the duty went with the land, not the knight. The Church could owe knight service, which it would render by paying knights to go fight in place of the abbot or whoever. Widows could owe knight service. And here comes the wardship part: orphans could owe knight service, if they inherited a parcel of land to which that duty was attached.

George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, in my all-time favorite knightly outfit

A child, however bold, could not serve the king by donning armor and riding to war. So the lord took back control of the land to manage it so it would pay for a substitute knight. It only made sense for the monarch to take charge of the child as well, to ensure that boys grew up able to perform their duties and girls married the right sorts of men. In which case, the monarch really ought to take charge of arranging those marriages too, to make sure everything turned out best for Crown and country.

Time passed, and monarchs became less keen on having a bunch of amateurs in their armies. Likewise, lords preferred less risk with their honours. Knight service because more transactional than literal. You paid an annual fee to get out of it, to the greater contentment of both parties. Hurstfield puts it thus: “So by a gradual, but by no means unconscious, process the feudal incidents had ceased to be military safeguards and had become articles of trade.”

There’s money in those tender babes!  Nearly everything was an article of trade in the Tudor century. Wardship and marriage of wards (and widows) were commodities that could be bought and sold, like advowsons, the right to appoint the vicar of a church. Wardships were basically sold at auction, with bids going in to the Court of Wards. Nobody could split hairs — or marketable rights — like a Tudor lawyer.

Order in the court

Henry VII

Henry VII started it, possibly whilst surveying the carnage on the Field of Bosworth. He and his successors did their best to eradicate the upper tiers of the nobility, distrusting the feudal system in its literal modes. But they preserved every vestige that might yield a profit. Henry VII appointed Sir John Hussey to take charge of royal wardships in 1503, not out of concern for the proper care of orphans, but to put the nation on notice that he intended to exert his feudal rights and exact his feudal fees.

The system of bartering wardships was already hated by the time Henry VIII succeeded his father. Great Harry promised to amend the practice, but he only pruned a few excesses. The game was just too profitable to give up. Then he Dissolved the monasteries, throwing vast acres owing knight service onto the property market, incidentally creating herds of fresh potential wards.

The Court of Wards was established in 1540 “to exercise a full surveillance over the king’s feudal rights.” Everything other than wardship and marriage rights had pretty much boiled away by this time, but the Crown clung to this source of much-needed revenue.

At the top of the court was the Master. In Elizabeth’s time, this was William Cecil, Lord Burghley. He effectively passed the office on to his son, Robert Cecil, near the end of the sixteenth century. Next in importance was the Attorney of the Court of Wards, a post Sir Nicholas Bacon held from 1546 to his appointment as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. He was considered fair enough, but he did use the position to spy out good bargains in land — the foundation of his wealth.

Wlliam Cecil, Lord Burghley and Lord Treasurer and Master of the Court of Wards

The court had a Receiver-General, or Treasurer, who supervised Auditors. Then there were the usual multitude of junior officials, clerks, underclerks, messengers, and ushers. Each ones of these would expect his portion of the fees, and there were ever so many fees.

The Usher was responsible for the maintenance and equipment of the room in which the court met, in Westminster Palace. The Messenger, or Pursuivant, was responsible for interdepartmental correspondence, the carrying of writs, and the like.

Each county had a feodary, a fine obsolete word that in Elizabeth’s day denoted both a feudal tenant and an officer of the Court of Wards. The feodary was basically the court’s agent in the counties. His job was to keep a sharp eye out for “concealed wards”: orphans whose mothers, uncles, or other adult relations were trying to prevent the authorities from finding out about the father’s death or at least from looking too closely at the properties he left. (In those days, orphans were minors without fathers. Mothers didn’t count, legally. They had to bid for their children’s wardships like everyone else and rarely won.)

Feodaries were in charge of court activities in their respective counties. They ordered and evaluated surveys of lands of incoming wards. They supervised the taking of depositions on all sorts of matters related to determining exactly who had owned what and when, which could be fuzzy in those days, when people still relied on “living memory” for the definition of boundaries and a record of possession.

A plausible house for a feodary, now a coffee shop in Stratford-upon-Avon

Feodaries also collected depositions relating to the date of birth of the ward — another data point we take for granted. Feodaries had spies out listening for gossip about recent deaths of property-holders. They must have been dreadfully unpopular. They tended to be men of modest social status, not justice of the peace material — not leading gentlemen. But a hard-working, orderly-minded man could prosper in the position. Think of a lesser gentlemen, one who spent a few years at an Inn of Chancery, a place where men too poor or too low to get into an Inn of Court could learn the common law. He and his family would live in a nice house on a good street in the county seat, not in an ancient manor set on acres of rolling countryside.

For example, Michael Hickes, one of Lord Burghley’s secretaries, was the feodary of Essex for three years. The post alone brought a salary of £9/year, plus 41 shillings a year as a “carriage allowance.” That’s less than a skilled carpenter would make in a year. No idea what that carriage allowance is. Travel expenses, maybe, though he would ride his horse to and from, not travel in a bumpy, over-priced carriage. He also got £1 for every £100 he brought to London in fees from wards in his counties.

All of these offices were lucrative, mainly through the abundance of fees that widows, orphans, and their guardians had to pay at every turn, about which more in a later post. The fees were considered excessive, even back then. We’re accustomed to lots of little fees, especially if we’ve ever bought a house, but it will surprise you to learn about one little perquisite enjoyed by the Receiver. He got to keep all the court funds in his own possession until called upon to make payments. In the meantime, he could lend it out at interest. They were deeply ambivalent about usury in the sixteenth century, but they did it, all the same.

The Master of the Court

Most lucrative of all was the seat at the top: the Master of the Court of Wards. This was Lord Burghley during most of Elizabeth’s reign. History regards him as a major architect of the social and political transformations of that period, many of which are highly positive: the long peace, the rising prosperity, the balancing of hostile religious factions. He did all that and more, with the guidance of Queen Elizabeth, who demanded exactly those results from her ministers. But he was widely regarded as utterly corrupt during his lifetime and not without grounds. He took a bite from every coin that passed through the offices he controlled, especially the Court of Wards.

Theobalds Palace in 1836

The first cut he took was in the choice of wards to keep for himself. Let’s say you’ve “discovered a ward” — learned of the death of a landowner with a minor heir. You rush to send in a bid for the wardship, writing the oiliest letter you can compose and sending it with your swiftest messenger.

News of this sort of thing traveled fast, though. Soon you’d be bidding against the likes of the Earl of Cumberland and Sir Walter Raleigh, or lesser personages with more cash. Such things were never decided on their merits in those days. Sir Walter did not fill out a three-page application listing his qualifications as guardian, like I had to do when I adopted my best friend from the Heart of Texas Labrador Rescue.

Of course not. He sent a bribe and an offer to purchase the wardship for an amount based on the estimated annual rents of the estate on the chopping block. Burghley pocketed the bribes, of course. How do you think he built his palaces? The one on the Strand — Burghley House — was necessary, I would say, being a major administrative center of the nation. The one at Theobalds was pure ostentation, though the queen did drop by from time to time with her entire court.

Come to think of it, we do something roughly similar when buying a house in a hot market. We pay earnest money, which Investopedia says is “a deposit made to a seller showing the buyer’s good faith in a transaction.” Our real estate transactions carry a lot of ancient baggage. Funny.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, and his cat

Which wards did Burghley reserve for himself? Only the uppermost of the upper crust, whom he took into his own house and reared according to his principals. These lucky lads included the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Surrey, and Lord Zouche, a name you could not make up. Burghley got to design their educations and even better, he got to manage their vast estates, taking his annual percentage, naturally.

He also got to arrange their marriages, another lucrative right. Now you get bribes from the anxious parents of prospective brides, as well as a percentage of their marriage contracts. And you get to influence the development of that essential web of kinship that formed the power structure of English society. You could sell an earl’s marriage for £1000. Even better, you could present an unacceptable, yet plausible, bride and force the heir to pay a fine for refusing her. The Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, was rumored to have paid £5000 to reject the girl, who happened to be Burghley’s granddaughter.

Here’s the paragraph I’m looking for, on page 263: “Thomas Wilson, nephew of Elizabeth’s Secretary of State [Sir Francis Walsingham], estimated that wardship brought in yearly between £20,000 and £30,000 to the queen, about twice as much to Burghley and even more subsequently to Sir Robert Cecil.

That’s a third of the queen’s annual revenue, from orphans. Talk about a racket!


Hurstfield, Joel. 1958. The Queen’s Wards: Wardship and Marriage under Elizabeth I. London: Longman’s.

Not quite a countess: Lady Elizabeth Russell

This is a short biography of one my favorite Elizabethans, Elizabeth Cooke Hoby Russell. Shelady elizabeth russell was the youngest sister of Francis Bacon’s mother. This post is derived chiefly from Chris Laoutaris’s excellent book, Shakespeare and the Countess.

The book is so full of goodness and Elizabeth is such an interesting person, I’ll have to do two posts about her. This one will give the basic biography; the next one will talk about her intense engagement in religious politics and in defending and elevating the status of herself and her daughters.


Elizabeth was born in 1540, the youngest of the famous Cooke sisters. I wrote more about these exceptional women in my post about Anne, Francis Bacon’s mother.

Her father, humanist scholar Sir Anthony Cooke, descended from lesser gentry on his mother’s side and wealthy drapers on his father’s. He rose to find his place in history through education.

The Cooke sisters were educated in the same intellectual circle as Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey, whose tutors were chosen by Queen Catherine Parr, “patroness to the most renowned humanist scholars in Europe.”

The girls devoured the Latin classics. Elizabeth particularly enjoyed Horace, a lyric poet with a sly wit. All the girls played the lute, which is hard to imagine of the older women about whom we know the most.

First marriage: Thomas Hoby

Elizabeth married Thomas Hoby on the 27 June, 1558, at Bisham Abbey, in Berkshire. On the same day, her elder sister Margaret married Thomas Rowlett, Knight. Thomas was born in 1530 to a gentle, but apparently undistinguished, family in Herefordshire.

Thomas traveled extensively in France and Italy, becoming fluent in those languages. Wikipedia says he wrote about it in an autobiography, which would be astonishing for the time. I can’t findbook-of-courtier such a thing, nor even a diary. Lady Margaret Hoby, the future wife of his future son, kept a diary, like the good Puritan woman she was.

Thomas’s greatest claim to fame is his translation of The Book of the Courtier, perhaps the most essential book in the sixteenth century, written by Baldasare Castiglione. This etiquette book “placed the humanist ethos at the very heart of the courtier’s civic responsibilities and, more radically, it did not exclude women.” (Laoutaris, p.24) It’s very readable and still popular. Get yours for $0.99 in ebook form at Amazon.

Hoby inherited his half-brother’s major estates: Bisham Abbey, Evesham, another in Worcestershire, and the property in the Blackfriars, a liberty inside the walls of London. Blackfriars will get its own post later.

After much urging, the queen finally persuaded Hoby to serve as her ambassador to France. She knighted him to sweeten the deal on 9 March, 1566. His wife Elizabeth was four months pregnant when they began their journey. Alas, Thomas fell ill not long after they arrived and died on the 13th of July. 26-year-old Elizabeth, now very pregnant, organized the return trip for the large household, which included 20 horses that had be transported across the Channel.

Elizabeth wrote a poem expressing her grief, for private circulation only.

“O beloved consort, O husband most sweet,
If it had been permitted, since my thought was fixed,
Wretched me, to follow after you in your entombment,
On that journey which everyone fears,
Dismal, loathed by others, welcome to me, 
I would have already followed you down that path,
Either as a fellow traveller in death, or as surety in exchange for your return….”
(Laoutaris, p. 70.)


The Hoby children

Edward Hoby was born at Bisham Abbey in 1560, making him one year older than Francis Bacon (the star around which all my histories turn.) He had little to do with Blackfriars and the theater conflicts, so Laoutaris rarely mentions him. I’m getting these bits from Wikipedia.

edward_hoby_1583Edward went to both Eton and Oxford. The Dictionary of National Biography (the source for all such Wikipedia articles) says Edward was favored by his uncle, the Lord Treasurer, and “frequently employed on confidential missions.” Hm. He married the daughter of the first Marquess of Winchester, who must have died soon after, because he married an even better-connected daughter in 1582: Margaret, daughter of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, cousin of Queen Elizabeth. Edward was knighted soon after the wedding.

I have long suspected that had Francis Bacon been a more conventional man — able to travel and willing to marry — that he would have received greater favor from Elizabeth. She liked knightly men, manly men. So it wasn’t only Lord Burghley’s fear that Francis would outshine his own son, Robert Cecil, that held Francis back. He must have known all this.

Edward did all the usual things a gentleman of his lineage did. He served as a Member of Parliament and gave well-received speeches. He served his county as a justice of the peace. He oversaw his share of the preparations to defend England against the Spanish Armada. He served in a variety of posts under both Elizabeth and James I, dying in Queenborough Castle, Kent, in 1617, nine years before his brilliant cousin, Francis. He had no legitimate issue, but adopted a by-blow named Peregrine Hoby, making him his heir.

Thomas Posthumous Hoby was born in 1566, shortly after that grief-stricken journey home from France. Thomas was small and slight, like his cousin Robert Cecil, but not crook-shouldered. He also attended Eton and Oxford, not taking a degree like a lowly cleric, but acquiring that fluent Latin facility that every gentleman needed.

Malvolio from Twelfth Night

Thomas has no portrait and few memorable deeds. Laoutaris mainly presents him as a pawn in his mother’s power struggles, in which she pressed him to marry a woman who would advance the family in religious politics. Thomas was willing; he was the very pattern of a Puritan gentleman. In fact, scholars believe he was the model for Shakespeare’s Malvolio in Twelfth Night, not a flattering portrait. (You know you can get all the Shakespeare plays on DVD from Netflix, right? Wonderful performances, never dated, from the 80s, mostly.)

This is the story I want to tell about Thomas Posthumous (from Wikipedia): “in 1600 Hoby brought a legal action against William Eure (1579–1646) and several of his other neighbours, alleging that they had entered his house, taken drink, played cards, ridiculed Puritanism, and threatened to ravish his wife.” Hoby must have been spectacularly irritating. His wife was more puritanical than he was; I’m sure no real ravishment would ever have been effected. And what an insight into life in Elizabethan neighborhoods! Nobody ever barges into my house to play cards and ridicule Francis Bacon.

Elizabeth and Thomas also had two daughters, named Elizabeth (b. 1562) and Anne (b. 1564.) These girls died in 1571, presumably of some infectious disease. Their grieving mother buried them in the Holy Chapel of All Saints Church in Bisham, where the worn floor slab still remains. Their mother designed a simple monument — an urn topped by a capital — and wrote an elegy in Latin.

“My Elizabeth, you lie dead (alas! my own flesh) fated,
Scarcely ripened, to be cast down a tender virgin.
Dear to me when you lived, your mother’s daughter,
Dear to God hereafter, live on, your father’s daughter…” (Laoutaris, p. 91)


Second marriage: John Russell

John was many rungs up the social ladder from Thomas Hoby, being the eldest son of Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford. John was Baron Russell; when Elizabeth married him in 1574, she became a baroness. He was 21 and she was 34, but both were members of prominent, active Puritan families. That would have mattered as much to Elizabeth as his prospects and his estates. Besides, she was a beautiful, brilliant redhead. The portrait shown at the top was painted around 1595, long after John’s death. She was a striking woman.

Their first child was a daughter, born in 1575 and named Elizabeth, but called Bess to avoid confusion. Daughter Anne, known as Nan, was born in 1577.They had one son, Francis, born in 1579, died in 1580. Then John died in 1584, apparently of unknown causes. A lot of death. We must always remember that in spite of their cultural and political sophistication, these people were helpless in the face of disease.

Charles de Maigny

Bess and Nan were made wards of the Crown when their father died, relieving Elizabeth Sr. of the chore of managing the Russell estates — very much against her wishes. Another barrier was erected when the old earl and his second son, Francis, died within hours of each other, leaving Francis’s minor child Edward to inherit the coronet. He also became a ward of the Crown and thus “an instant bone of contention,” tugged between two powerful and determined aunts-in-law: Elizabeth Russell and Anne Dudley, wife of the 3rd Earl of Warwick.

Elizabeth insisted on the prerogatives of a dowager countess from this time forward, dickering hotly with the College of Arms over every detail of her husband’s funeral rites. Her daughters walked directly behind their father’s hearse, usurping the prize position from the designated male cousin.

Bess and Nan lived and prospered. Bess was made a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber in 1594 (age 19) and Nan became a maid of honor in 1595 (age 18.) Elizabeth thus had two daughters in daily attendance upon the queen. Laoutaris tells us (p. 212) that Bess “had grown into a vivacious, and somewhat reckless, young woman. She relished the extravagance and sexual intrigue of the court.”

Elizabeth wanted her eldest daughter to marry Henry Brooke, son of her Blackfriars neighbor Lord Cobham, whose daughter had married Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s nephew, in 1589. The webs of kinship among the upper classes were densely woven, at least within the frame of religious allegiance. As we shall hear next time, Elizabeth Russell actively pushed the Puritan agenda — complete reformation of the English church — all her life, by every means available to her, including the marriages of her children.

Henry eventually married Frances Howard, falling out of our story.

Elizabeth the Younger

Bess “was caught in the crossfire” of a scandal around Elizabeth Brydges and the Earl of Essex in 1597. This sort of hanky-panky raised the virgin queen’s ire. She expected the earl to pretend to adore only her (and perhaps his wife, a little) and she expected her maids to be chaste. Rumors intimated that Bess Russell had fallen prey to the dashing earl’s charms as well. I hope she did, because she died in 1600, age 25, still unmarried, cause unrecorded.

Her mother designed this monument, my absolute favorite sculpture from this period. It rests eternally in St. Edmund’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. It was the first seated effigy of its type in England and inspired a new fashion, especially for grieving mothers. Elizabeth herself was inspired by the memorial of Charles de Maigny by Pierre Bontemps in Paris, shown above.

Henry Somerset, Marquess of Worcester

Nan Russell married Henry Somerset, 1st Marquess of Worcester, on 16 June, 1600. They were both 23. Henry was the son of the 4th Earl of Worcester. Wikipedia claims Henry converted to Catholicism “as a young man,” which would make him a most unlikely ally for Lady Russell. Then again, his father was an earl, and one who had been far too friendly with the downward-spiraling Earl of Essex. Worcester needed to repair his family name. Forming an alliance with the stalwart clan of Russells and Cecils was a good way to achieve that.

This was the most extravagant and well-attended wedding of the age, at St. Martin’s Church in Ludgate, near her mother’s home in Blackfriars. Laoutaris does justice to this grant event; I can only give you a taste. The queen attended, arriving at Blackfriars Stairs in the royal barge. She was carried thence in a gilded chair of state borne by six knights. She was entertained at the wedding feast by a masque performed by eight ladies, probably written by Elizabeth Russell.

Anne made up for all the losses her mother had suffered, giving birth to nine sons and four daughters. I don’t know how many of them lived, but the title descended through male heirs to Henry Somerset-Scudamore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort, who died without legitimate issue in 1745.

All good things must come to an end

elizabeth_russell_hilliardElizabeth Cooke Hoby Russell died at Bisham Abbey in 1609. She is remembered for her poetry, her sculptural designs, and her unflagging insistence that she and her daughters be treated as the peers of their husbands and neighbors. She had a profound, if largely unacknowledged, impact on the religious politics of her time. In our time, she would have been a prime minister or a supreme court justice. She outlived three sisters, two husbands, four children, and one queen. (Lady Anne Bacon survived one year longer.)

She had this last portrait painted by Nicholas Hilliard sometime during her final years. She’s wearing the widow’s cowl, symbol of her status, and lying in her bed. I finagled this image from ArtNet by means of pdf and photoshop, without permission, fiend that I am. I couldn’t find a better or more legitimate version.

The painting at the bottom depicts the procession carrying Queen Elizabeth I to the church for the wedding of Anna Russell and Henry Somerset, negotiated and organized by the unredoubtable Elizabeth Hoby Russell. I’ve been looking at it for years, studying the costumes and the postures, without realizing what the event was all about. You can see a bigger one at Wikipedia.

The painting is by Robert Peake the Elder. That’s Nan, the bride in white, right behind the queen. The man in front of the queen is the groom’s father, Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester. The groom is the happy fellow in white, at the corner of the chair nearest his bride. Lord Admiral Charles Howard is on the left with the white outfit and the white beard. This is the very height of fashion in 1600, y’all. I’m sorry Lady Russell isn’t in the picture, but she’s the one who made it all happen — and she knew it.

Procession to Blackfriars, by Robert Peake the Elder



Laoutaris, Chris. 2014, Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. Penguin Books.

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