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[p. 681] The Chancery of the Duchy of Brittany from Peter Mauclerc to Duchess Anne, 1213–1514 (Tafel XXII–XXIX)1

The Breton chancery fulfilled the same function as chanceries in other late medieval states by serving primarily as the writing office for letters issued in the name of the ruler. Such letters were normally authorised by the duke and his councillors – either by that small semi-permanent group of advisers who handled the day-to-day affairs of the duchy or by larger bodies called together for a particular purpose like Parlement or the États (which assembled fairly frequently from the late fourteenth century) or by informally summoned groups called to advise on special issues2. By the fifteenth century the letters issued could cover every matter of business from great matters of state down to the most insignificant administrative detail; the duke exercised in this respect [p. 682] full sovereign powers over his subjects within the duchy. He corresponded and entered into treaties with foreign princes as an equal. At the head of his administration – both of the small ducal council and of the chancery itself – was the chancellor. It was under his authority that clerks and secretaries wrote the letters and the appropriate seals were attached. The two administrative organs of council and chancery, for long directly linked in the position of the chancellor, were in the end officially joined in the last ordonnance (1498) concerning the chancery in its late medieval phase and served between them as the chief guardians of the duke’s rights3.

Misunderstandings could arise. When in 1404 secretaries were reminded not to ‘escrire lettres qui puissent grever ou porter dommage au royaume ne duchie de Bretaigne, ne autres lettres de grand pois pour envoier hors desdiz royaume et duchie sans deliberation de conseil’ or when in 1459 it was decided ‘touchant les lettres que le duc en a escript a Paris, il convient que le duc escripve a son procureur et gens de son conseill a Paris que la cause soit porseue o diligence, non obstant quelxconques lettres que le duc par inoportunes requestes inadvertment ou sans deliberacion de son conseil’ had issued, we can see this friction. The chancery, just like the council, might act on its own authority. Individual clerks might be persuaded to issue letters unknown to council; the chancellor himself, as some charges in 1463 allege, might collude with them for private gain4. But in normal circumstances council and chancery cooperated to protect ducal interests and this role was not purely defensive. It involved the active preparation of what would now be called propaganda to promote those interests. Their reciprocal functions, even common personnel (for at any one moment other councillors besides the chancellor also worked in the chancery) can be emphasised at the outset. The chancery gave public expression to decisions taken in council.

What is known about the chancery’s records, organisation and personnel in Brittany during this period? First, its position, like that of the council, becomes progressively clearer as the period unfolds. When Jacques Levron catalogued the letters of Peter Mauclerc, ruler of the duchy between 1213–37, including documents in which Peter’s name occurred, not simply limiting himself to those apparently issued by the chancery during his reign, he listed 283 entries. But of these he cited only 19 as still surviving originals relating to [p. 683] Peter’s rule, whilst the name of the chancellor who seems to have served for most of his reign appears just once in this catalogue5. Léon Maître compiled a similar catalogue for Charles de Blois and his wife, Jeanne de Penthièvre, who ruled for a comparable period (1341–64) just over a century later, listing just 59 documents6. It is true that this was a time of civil war and there may be some truth in the claim that their successor, John IV (1345–99), deliberately attempted to destroy the documentary evidence of his predecessors’ rule7. It is also unfortunately true that Maître’s catalogue is woefully inadequate as a survey of the surviving ducal letters of this period8. Yet the contrast with the next reign is startling. In my recent edition of the letters of John IV for the period 1357–99, I have listed over 1200 entries. Whereas for Blois the names of 23 secretaries or clerks have been brought to light, the identity of his chancellors still remains obscure. But in the case of John IV, over 50 chancery clerks are known by name and a reasonably reliable sequence of chancellors can be constructed9. A keeper of the ducal archives (trésor des chartes) was appointed and in 1395 he compiled the first, still surviving, inventory of the ducal records10.

This advance in available evidence continues with the next reign. There is an ordonnance issued jointly in 1404 by Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, and his ward John V (1399–1442), which throws some light on the organisation of the chancery and payments to its staff11. For a brief moment between [p. 684] 1404–8, fragments from two series of overlapping registers have been conserved in their original form or later transcripts12. These provide for the first time summaries of considerable numbers of letters issued from the chancery, with the result that for a reign of comparable length to that of his father, John V’s collected letters number some 2700 in the remarkable edition of René Blanchard, even though the editor unfortunately omitted the letters issued during the minority (1399–1405). The names of over 160 chancery clerks are known for this period13. The records of the next three short-lived dukes (Francis I, 1442–50; Peter II, 1450–7; Arthur III, 1457–8) have been less well preserved14. But from 1462 there survives a broken series of original registers covering some 20 of the last 52 years of the period in detail, while eighteenth-century transcripts or publications provide some indications of the contents of now lost registers for a further four years15.

From them can be obtained a comprehensive view of ducal government at work as it expressed itself through the formal work of the chancery or, in the case of the register for 1490–1, of an administration in crisis during the last days of the independent duchy. From February 1491, in particular, this register shows increasing disorder in the enrollment of documents. There are many blanks for letters which were to be written up subsequently but never were. Folios have been misplaced or lost and office routine as a whole appears to have collapsed almost entirely between March and July. Only the siege of Nantes in 1487 had provoked similar irregularities on an earlier occasion on such a scale16. Subsequently, when Brittany came into the hands of Charles VIII of