New widows howl: wardship in the Elizabethan era

Last time we got a look at the origin and structure of the Court of Wards. This time we’ll enjoy some of the many anecdotes in Joel Hurstfield’s The Queen Wards, looking at things from the point of the view of the wards, the widows, and their would-be guardians.

Let the bidding begin



Portrait of Louise Juliana of Orange-Nassau aged c. 6, with a doll, c. 1582, by Daniël van den Queborn

Many concealed wards were discovered by informers. A concealed ward is a child whose father left him or her property owing knight service, a fact which the mother and other relatives made every effort to conceal from the county feodary. The feodary is the local representative of the Court of Wards, eager to get the queen her penny, the Master of the Court his two pennies, along with a neat little farthing for himself. Those pennies add up!

Informers could be anyone looking to make a little money by ratting out their neighbors. The Tudor government had next to no ability to enforce its laws, so it relied on informers to catch violations. We pay police and truant officers regular salaries to do their regular jobs; the Tudors tipped informers. Spying out wards could be lucrative. You kept your ears open for gossip and might even spend time in local archives, like church and manor court records, to find out which lands owed ancient feudal duties.

Here’s an anecdote from Hurstfield’s book (p, 37). I added the paragraph breaks.

“‘This night being at Mr. High Sheriffs, at Babram, with many of the gentlemen of this shire,’ wrote Lord North to Lord Burghley in October 1582, ‘news was brought me that Sir Thomas Rivet died this morning.’


Lord North’s father, the first Lord North

This simple fact seemed open to question. ‘I am persuaded that he has been dead this two days, which my Lady hath kept close, meaning to make friends to you for her daughter, whom she and her friends give out to be in her fourteenth year.’ A girl aged fourteen at her father’s death was out of wardship [too old to become a ward], so clearly Lady Rivet had a good deal at stake. ‘But I am credibly informed that she entered into her thirteenth year at Whitsunday last.’

Her age was apparently not the only thing to bear in mind. ‘She shall have a notable living. The maiden is will to be liked.’ But, Lord North urged Lord Burghley, promptitude was essential. ‘Forgo not this occasion. I have known but few such fall in my time. Get her into you possession, dispute her age after: and in the meanwhile persuade the maid. I am ready to do you any service.'”

Persuade the maid — perhaps by offering her a better choice of husband than her mother could arrange? Or maybe Burghley could just intimidate the youngster.

What’s a ward worth?

The sums tossed around in the wardship games are staggering. Ordinary folks could live on less than £10 a year. The Life in Elizabethan England site gives an assortment of salaries, including that of a shoemaker, keeping it together at £4 per annum. Christopher Brooks notes a few salaries in his book about lawyers. He says the average yeoman farmer earned around L50/year, while a well-to-do lawyer could take in £300. Bear that in mind while you consider the lament of Sir Julius Caesar, a Master of the Court of Requests during the Elizabethan period.


Sir Julius Caesar

You’d think Sir Julius would have the inside track, but he was subjected to the same extortionate fees as any other would-be guardian. He wanted to be the legal guardian of his two step-daughters, who must be the children of his second wife, Alice Dent, a merchant’s widow. Sir Julius paid £1000 apiece “as purchase price”, which I think must be the bribe paid to Lord Burghley. But that was hardly the end of it. He paid £20 to the Attorney of the Court of Wards and another £20 to another official. He spent nearly £12 for a dinner for the commissioners holding the inquisition in Southwark, presumably after discussing his case or valuing the girls’ inheritance. A fun fact about this period: you didn’t just pay fees in offices for things like copies of your deed, which we pay as well (the list of settlement charges for a house includes such minutiae.) You had to pay for the commissioners to have a nice dinner and travel expenses for anyone who came in from the country. 

Sir Julius had to pay the sheriff’s bailiff’s servant 6 shillings for summoning the jury. He had to 6s.8d. for a schedule of the lands, £1 10s. 0d. for privy seals, £1 10s.0d. for a statement of the value of the inheritance, and £16. 13s. 4d. as part of the Court of Wards fee. As Hurstfield puts it, “… so it went on: attorney, receiver, messenger, private lawyer, agents feodaries, more dinners for the commissioners and jurymen. At the end Caesar calculated that he had spent £1,739. 6s. 10d…. It was borrowed money and, by the middle of 1605, when the girls were almost out of wardship, he had been charged nearly £650 in interest alone.”

Here’s a schedule of expenses made by some anonymous, yet clearly exasperated, guardian, in two parts because it spanned two pages in the book.

wards_fees1 wards_fees2

Coming into your own

Getting control of your estates once you attained your majority was no walk in the park either. Many hurdles had to be leapt, the first of which was proving your age. In an ordinary lawsuit, you could just present yourself before the judge, who would guess your age by looking at you. If they couldn’t decide, they’d summon a jury of your relatives to hash it out (perhaps by taking depositions in your county of origin.)

cartBut if you had fallen into the clutches of the Court of Wards, things would not be that easy. You’d have to get a writ de etate probanda — the proof of age — issued by the escheator of your home county. For that, a jury would have to be assembled, in the county, to review the testimony of your witnesses, also known as your “proofs.” Naturally, you’d have to pay for all these people to have dinner at the best nearby inn, on top of the other fees.

These proofs could be laughable and were laughed at — and disbelieved — by officials upstream of the county. You’ll laugh too, when you hear that in many cases, all the ward’s proofs remembered the date of his birth because that was the day their favorite sister broke her arm — a sudden plague of arm-breakings! Or they all fell off carts, or they all were attacked by robbers, or their houses burned down on the same day. Still, as Hurstfield puts it, “Custom stood firm against common sense.” If your parish church had lost the record of your birth (fire, flood, mice), what else was there?


The Scribe, by Arthur Szyk, 1927

Having proven your date of birth, more or less, you must present a “tender for your livery,” on or shortly before that important date. Then you must supply a copy of your inquisition post mortem, which was held upon your father’s death, along with a copy of the survey of land values, obtained (at a fee) from your county feodary.

That survey had better be right, down to the last square foot, or the whole thing is declared invalid and you have to start over, commissioning another one. This can be a monumental task for estates consisting of manors scattered across the country, which was common for the nobility and upper gentry. Oh, and by the way, clerks charged by the foot for the rolls of parchment they produced.

Once you’ve got those docs in a row, you go to the Clerk of the Liveries and then back again to the Auditor, who settled how much should be paid as ‘mean rates’ — the profit of the lands between your coming of age and your tender for livery. This is why you don’t want to dally with that duty. Then around and around you go, between Liveries and Wards and the Clerk of the Pettibag (an office of the common-law jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery), jogging up and down Westminster, handing out pounds, shillings, and pence at every turn.

This is the procedure for suing a general livery, a process involving at least twenty stages, which could all be wasted if an error isfound at any stage. Far better to sue for a special livery, in which you simply had to find the money to pay the crown’s exorbitant fee: about half the annual value of your lands. You’d borrow it, like Sir Julius, and pay it off from your rents for years to come. But you’d get to skip over all those dubious surveys and risible proofs of age and be your own man, master of your own estate, at last. Worth it — worth anything — to liberate yourself from the infamous Court of Wards.


Brooks, Christopher W. 1998. Lawyers, litigation, and English society since 1450. London: The Hambledon Press.

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


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