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.

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