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[p. 742]

[p. 743] The Chanceries of the Earls of Gloucester and Other Marcher Lords (XIIIth and XIVth Centuries)

In view of the abundant materials available for the study of the English state and government in the later middle ages, it is disappointing that little has survived to illuminate the history of magnate chanceries. The royal chancery, as perhaps the busiest and most highly organized of all the central departments of state, has received expert critical attention in the past half-century, inspired by the magisterial work of T.F. Tout1; and Professor C.R. Cheney has written the definitive account of the origins and early growth of episcopal chanceries2. Private chanceries, on the other hand, are few in number and poorly documented for the most part. Every lord, of course, had his own seal and the need for some sort of writing-office, for the issuance, the warranting, or the recording of charters, deeds, letters, and other administrative matters; but formal, organized chanceries, so termed, were confined to those few lords who could claim palatine or Marcher powers, and to certain members of the royal family who usually held such palatine lordships and whose household administrations are better described as subordinate or subsidiary royal, rather than as purely private and non-royal, organizations. Such figures include the future King Edward I, prior to his accession in 12723, but more extensive treatment, made possible by greater surviving evidence, has been accorded [p. 744] his own son and heir, Edward of Carnarvon, Prince of Wales4, and also two of the sons of King Edward III, namely Edward the Black Prince (d. 1376), and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (d. 1399)5. These studies reveal some variations in cancellarial practice and organization, but point at least to a degree of specialized and standardized activity that is impossible to obtain or to ascertain for other magnates.

The difficulties are both evidentiary, and terminological. For the earlier period (the twelfth century) the nature and organization of even the royal chancery are matters of some obscurity and controversy, while on the episcopal side to speak of formal chanceries prior to the thirteenth century is, in Cheney’s words, “to dignify the secretariat by a title it did not employ6.” For private magnates such as the earls of Gloucester, the uncertainties and ambiguities are even more acute. The term “chancery” is not found before the middle of the thirteenth century, and even after that date its use is rare, and geographically limited to marcher, as distinct from English, holdings. The Earldom of Gloucester charters prior to 1217 have been superbly edited by Professor R.B. Patterson, who has argued vigorously for sufficient regularity of scribal practices to justify the term scriptorium, or at least the slightly less formal term secretariat, for writing arrangements7; but Dr. M.T. Clanchy has countered this by pointing to the relatively small number of acta, and to the lack of continuity of specialized scribal personnel8. In either case, the term chancery is neither found, nor, strictly speaking, is it permissible. While royal and episcopal cancellarial practices, and chanceries as such, come into sharp focus in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, private ones within England simply do not. Apart from the Clares, who inherited the earldom of Gloucester [p. 745] estates and title in 1217, the household organizations of Isabella de Fortibus, countess of Devon and Aumale (d. 1293), and of Thomas, earl of Lancaster (d. 1322), are among the very few in this period for which sufficient private archives have survived to permit systematic study. The exhaustive analyses of them, by N. Denholm-Young for the former and Dr. J.R. Maddicott for the latter, while revealing elaborate and busy administrations, make no mention of the existence of chanceries9. The conclusion would seem to be that for lay estates within England, private writing-offices exhibit the same characteristics, mutatis mutandis, as those noted for the twelfth century earls of Gloucester; and that when the term chancery does appear by the later thirteenth century, the authority of the monarchy restricted its use – apart from members of the royal family, who constitute a separate and special class – to some, by no means all, of the lords of the Welsh March, where the dignity and nature of marcher, quasi-royal status could only be enhanced by the existence of such an office10.

For the earls of Gloucester, therefore, it is to their marcher lordship of Glamorgan that one must look for any mention of the structure and operation of a chancery. In many ways, however, the privilege seems to have been as much, if not more, a matter of style and of nomenclature as of substance. Explicit references to the chancery or a chancellor are few and widely scattered, and the surviving documentation does not in aggregate prove the existence of secretarial practices or procedures, or specialized personnel, essentially different from the arrangements of magnates within the English kingdom proper. Indeed, for the Clare lords of Glamorgan, for their fourteenth century successors the Despensers and the Staffords, and for the rulers of neighboring lordships such as Pembroke, surviving references indicate that the chancellorship itself is, on balance, a relatively minor office.

The earliest references tend merely to establish the existence of chanceries in certain lordships, and shed little light on the actual composition or inner workings of the institution, but for Glamorgan at least do suggest conclusions of wider descriptive and interpretive value. The first mention of a chancellor [p. 746] for Pembroke is found in a charter ca. 1240 of Lady Isabel Marshal, which includes a certain Philip the Clerk (Phillipus Clericus), cancellarius, among the witnesses. While the lordship had a regular chancery continuously after this date, if not before, almost nothing survives to indicate its personnel and organization under its subsequent Valence lords, and it is possible that not until the mid-fourteenth century was there even a regular series of chancellors with custody of the seal11. For Haverford, the chancery is attested in a letter from its lord in 1256, which indicates that the office was functioning before that date but which establishes nothing further about the role of the chancellor or the scribal personnel, and indeed is addressed not to a chancellor at all, but to the constable of Haverford concerning the issuance of chancery writs12. The first known Clare chancellor comes from 1247, when a certain Master Robert de Ebrioic’ (?Evreux or York), as witness to a deed of Earl Richard, was styled “tunc cancellari(us),” but this only compounds the uncertainties: there is no indication that he drafted, or supervised the drafting of, the document, which in any event, a further puzzle, did not relate to the earl’s lordship of Glamorgan13. Fortunately, two further Clare chancellors are mentioned by name, Master Henry de Llancarfan and Master Richard de Clare, both in the early fourteenth century; and here we can enter upon more solid, if still largely speculative, grounds. Master Henry’s Glamorgan credentials are impressive and abundantly documented. Only once, however, is he styled chancellor, being found most frequently as treasurer of the lordship and as a member of the earl’s council when it was resident in Glamorgan. Master Richard also figured prominently in comital service, but is associated particularly with the English estates rather than the March14. Further, Master Henry seems to have served as both treasurer and chancellor simultaneously, at least in 1307 if not in other years as well. In 1347, under the Despenser lords of Glamorgan, John de Coventry likewise held both offices; and John de Coventry also represents the only instance of a chancellor, eo nomine, in witness lists [p. 747] in surviving later thirteenth and fourteenth century charters and deeds15. In general, therefore, it would seem that the role of chancellor was distinctly secondary in the overall administrative service of the lordship. Never does he assume the prominence and importance of the sheriff, most of whom are known by name, and who in earlier centuries had himself kept the seal and who continued to maintain direct responsibility for judicial and administrative records16. If Master Robert was indeed chancellor of Glamorgan in 1247, the only reference establishes him with the earl’s household in England, rather than resident in Glamorgan dealing with that lordship’s business; Master Richard’s career suggests that cancellarial service in Glamorgan was a minor and temporary, one might almost say casual, aspect of his duties; and for Master Henry, and presumably for John de Coventry as well, the office and duties of treasurer clearly predominated over those of the chancellorship. The existence of the chancery cannot be doubted; but the references provide no clue or insight into its structure. The chancellor as such almost never appears in the documents, and seems to have been able easily to combine his duties with other, apparently more continuous or demanding financial and administrative matters. Is this pattern irregular, the product of peculiar circumstance and/or chance survival of records? Or are its features found commonly elsewhere as well? The answer seems to be the latter.

The evidence surveyed thus far establishes the existence of chanceries by the mid-thirteenth century in such major marcher lordships as Glamorgan, Pembroke, and Haverford. Other lordships that can with certainty be added to this list after this date include Gower, Abergavenny, Holt, and Chepstow or Strigoil17. When Glamorgan was partitioned among the Clare heirs in 1317, the hitherto subordinate lordship of Newport now instituted its own chancery under the Staffords as well18. There is nothing, however, to indicate any significant departure from the patterns already noted. Secretarial and other, primarily fiscal, functions seem to have overlapped or often been combined; there are many lordships whose secretariats are not formally styled as [p. 748] chanceries, and, conversely, lordships with chanceries but without any known or named chancellors. It is entirely possible that not only was the chancellorship as such a relatively minor office, but perhaps even as a title not everywhere employed. Given the apparently close and common connection between financial and secretarial function, the most reasonable assumption to make is that the treasurer or the receiver – universally major figures in marcher lordship administrations – might often have taken on the added responsibility of heading up the writing-office, with or without the designation of chancellor; and that, in the absence of a designated or specialized chancellor, the seneschal or sheriff, or perhaps the constable (as for Haverford in 1256) maintained custody of the seal19.

The internal arrangements and procedures of the marcher chanceries are obscure, and also give rise to doubts about them as highly differentiated organizations. To be sure, chanceries are common institutions on the March by the mid- or later thirteenth century, but it does not automatically follow that they were staffed by large, specialized, and permanent secretariats, much less that the chief supervisory official was always and everywhere termed a cancellarius. Scribal staffs may well have been very small indeed, and their business infrequent, modest, or routine enough to permit clerical personnel – not to mention the (putative) chancellor himself – to devote themselves to other duties, and to permit the filling of cancellarial positions in essentially ad hoc ways. An early fourteenth century charter from Gower lordship includes among its witnesses, besides the seneschal, a certain Martinus Clericus, identified as “castle scribe” (scriptor castri), prompting the speculation not only that he drafted this particular charter, but also that he perhaps represented the entire cancellarial staff. In Newport lordship by the fifteenth century a singular official termed “clerk of the court” seems to have been primarily, if not exclusively, responsible for secretarial activities, in all likelihood including the drafting and issuance of writs from the chancery to the sheriff for the (infrequent) holding of the Great Sessions20. Surviving thirteenth and fourteenth century Glamorgan charters strengthen the impression of demands, and therefore of scribal arrangements, moderate or modest in scale. The charters reveal [p. 749] complete continuities with the basic formulae standardized as early as the twelfth century with respect to opening phraseology (e.g., the form “sciant omnes [tam] presentes [quam] futuri”), sealing and dating clauses (or the lack of dating clauses), and the like. Only in one respect, indicative of more refined or specialized procedure, is a novelty introduced, when in the fourteenth century the lords of Glamorgan devised a special chancery seal and included the phrase sigillum cancellarie nostre in sealing clauses. The total number of such charters, however, even when allowing generously for destruction or loss, is quite small; and procedural routine, rather than innovation – much less overwork – remains the dominant characteristic of the charter evidence as a whole21. Dr. Clanchy’s caveat is wise and worth recalling, at least insofar as the matter of drafting and issuing charters is concerned: secretarial responsibilities, while undoubtedly important in the qualitative sense, were not likely to have been exercised, quantitatively speaking, except on an intermittent basis, and do not by any means require us to conjure an image of demanding workloads or of numerous and highly specialized personnel22.

Problems of staff size apart, charter evidence is not the major criterion by which to gauge the significance and essential work of marcher chanceries. The place of the chancery, both in principle and in practice, in the overall structure of marcher governance is large, and this because of its role in judicial administration. The chancery replaced and replicated the royal chancery for the issuance of writs in the lord’s name and under his personal, or more frequently under his lordship or his special chancery, seal. While the king’s own writ did not run in the March, the Clares and the other marcher lords had, from the beginning of the thirteenth century or slightly before, adopted royal writs and procedure under and for their own authority. The most impressive array or set of references to chanceries are all explicitly and wholly concerned with judicial business initiated and/or authenticated under seal. In 1256 the lord of Haverford commanded his constable not to issue further writs from chancery concerning matters that apparently properly belonged to [p. 750] Pembroke courts. In 1305 the lord of Gower promised he would not delay or obstruct tenants seeking writs from his chancery. In 1325 the then royal keeper of Haverford complained that the lapse of the chancery seal meant that the flow of chancery business, and hence of jurisdiction in general, were in abeyance. The sheriff of Glamorgan in 1358 had the chancery seal used to authenticate the records of judicial business he had just conducted. The Great Sessions, a new and important feature of marcher jurisdiction in the fifteenth century, were initiated under chancery writ, to judge from the example of Newport in 143223. Hence if heavy workloads and elaborate arrangements are to be found anywhere, they are to be found in the context of this sort of wide-ranging legal administration, although unfortunately the details of personnel and procedure remain hidden. At least it can be said with full certainty that this function and this characteristic impart to the marcher chancery its standing and its essential raison d’être. The authority to issue writs under seal distinguished a marcher secretariat from its counterpart within England, even if nothing else did, and was undoubtedly the basic reason that both prompted and permitted its lord to designate it – clearly without royal objection – as a cancellaria. To a marcher lord, as Dr. Davies has expressed it, “his lordship was, administratively speaking, a kingdom in miniature,” and as such his chancery was a prominent and, nominally at least, quite formal and differentiated institution24.

One must avoid, nonetheless, the temptation to exaggeration. The precise scale of activity, the exact numbers of writs actually prepared and issued, are impossible to ascertain. Only a minority of lordships had institutions officially designated as chanceries, and it remains a puzzle, and worth further investigation, why this was so. The aggregate evidence strongly suggests that chancery staffs were indeed modest in size, perhaps not continuously employed in the (largely routine) business of issuing writs, and certainly rarely engaged in the drafting of charters. If all this is in fact the case, this would help explain the frequent or common practice of assimilating or conjoining secretarial and fiscal duties, and the meagre significance of chancellors, named and identified by that title, in the surviving records. Like their staffs, most if not all of the few known chancellors seem to have devoted themselves to the more continuous or onerous financial and other administrative-supervisory aspects of marcher governance, as distinct from explicit chancery business per se. Such multifunctional officials, however, are not truly analogous to the king’s own [p. 751] chancellor, for everywhere on the March the private chancellor, however styled, is clearly subordinate to the chief executive officer of the lordship, the sheriff or the seneschal. On balance, therefore, the very paucity of the evidence is indication of cancellarial arrangements and personnel that are at once more flexible, far more modest, and even perhaps more discontinuous than the monarchical institution upon which they were modelled and named.

Professor Van Caenegem has succinctly defined a chancery as “a writing office where by a regular and specialised staff the acts of government sensu lato of a person with public authority are put down in formal, authenticated documents which are to serve as notification and/or testimony25.” Do the Glamorgan chancery under the earls of Gloucester and the other marcher chanceries meet these criteria? The answer is, not entirely, but essentially. Regular and specialized staffs may have existed, but the evidence does not permit such a conclusion and would in fact seem to argue against it, and the term cancellarius to denote or define the head of the writing-office is found in only a few lordships and only occasionally even there. But there are cancellariae, with that appellation, in Glamorgan and in other lordships; they did have continuous existence; they did issue writs and charters under seal and authenticate judicial business; and they did both implement the commands, and exemplify the public, quasi-regal authority, of the lords of the March. When Haverford lordship temporarily escheated to the king in 1325, the keeper reported that “the men of the district complain strongly” about the lapse of the chancery seal “for the making of writs both for demanding land as also for trespass and many other things which pertain to the little lordship.” Clearly, in even the smallest of lordships, not only the lord, but his subjects as well, both desired and valued his chancery26. However modest in fact such chanceries may have been when compared to the size, complexity, work, and formality of the royal chancery, their significance is not diminished thereby, either as an institution of marcher governance or, in particular, as a symbol of the specially enhanced, quasi-royal status of their holders.

1 T.F. Tout, Chapters in the Administrative History of Medieval England (6 vols., Manchester, 1920–1933; new ed. 1937). The royal chancery under King Edward II is a major subject of T.F. Tout, The Place of the Reign of Edward II in English History (Manchester, 1914; 2nd ed. 1936), and J. Conway Davies, The Baronial Opposition to Edward II (Cambridge, 1918). For the reign of Edward III, the definitive work is that of B. Wilkinson, The Chancery under Edward III (Manchester, 1929). A convenient general survey is provided by S.B. Chrimes, Introduction to the Administrative History of Medieval England (Oxford, 1952; 3rd ed. 1966).

2 C.R. Cheney, English Bishops’ Chanceries, 1100–1250 (Manchester, 1950), with supplementary detail in C.R. Cheney, Notaries Public in England (Oxford, 1972).

3 Tout, Chapters, i. 256, 322; F.M. Powicke, King Henry III and the Lord Edward (2 vols., Oxford, 1947), i. 233.

4 Tout, Chapters, ii. 178–180; Hilda Johnstone, Edward of Carnarvon (Manchester, 1946), 84.

5 Margaret Sharp, “The Administrative Chancery of the Black Prince Before 1362,” Essays in Medieval History Presented to Thomas Frederick Tout, edd. A.G. Little and F.M. Powicke (Manchester, 1925), 321–333, and for Lancaster see the introductions to John of Gaunt’s Register, edd. Sydney Armitage-Smith, Eleanor C. Lodge, and Robert Somerville (4 vols., Camden Society, Third Series, vols. XX–XXI, LVI–LVII, London, 1911–1937) and Robert Somerville, History of the Duchy of Lancaster, I (London, 1953).

6 T.A.M. Bishop, Scriptores Regis (Oxford, 1961); R.C. van Caenegem, Royal Writs in England from the Conquest to Glanvill (Selden Society, vol. LXXVII, London, 1959), 135–139; Cheney, English Bishops’ Chanceries, 99.

7 R.B. Patterson, Earldom of Gloucester Charters (Oxford, 1973), 25–30.

8 M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1979), 40–41.

9 M. Altschul, A Baronial Family in Medieval England: the Clares, 1217–1314 (Baltimore, 1965); N. Denholm-Young, Seignorial Administration in England (Oxford, 1937); J.R. Maddicott, Thomas of Lancaster 1307–1322 (Oxford, 1970).

10 Sidney Painter, Studies in the History of the English Feudal Barony (Baltimore, 1943), 113; A.J. Otway-Ruthven, “The Constitutional Position of the Great Lordships of South Wales,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th Series, vol. VIII (1958), 1–20; R.R. Davies, Lordship and Society in the March of Wales 1282–1400 (Oxford, 1978), 149–228 passim.

11 Baronia de Kemeys, ed. T.D. Lloyd (Cambrian Archaeological Association, London, 1861), 26; J.R.S. Phillips, Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke 1307–1324 (Oxford, 1972), 247–252, and cf. list of officials, ibid., 291–294, which includes no mention of anyone entitled “chancellor;” Otway-Ruthven, “The Great Lordships,” 8. Under the Hastings family the lordship did have a chancellor by that title by 1341: Calendar of Ancient Correspondence Concerning Wales, ed. J. Goronwy Edwards (Board of Celtic Studies, University of Wales, History and Law Series, no. 2, Cardiff, 1935), 222.

12 Cal. Ancient Correspondence Wales, 211.

13 Cartulary of the Priory of St. Gregory, Canterbury, ed. Audrey M. Woodcock (Camden Society, Third Series, vol. LXXXVIII, London, 1956), 81.

14 Altschul, The Clares, 236, 239–240, 266–267.

15 Ibid., 266, 268; Cartae et Alia Munimenta quae ad Dominium de Glamorgancia Pertinent, ed. G.T. Clark (6 vols., 2nd ed., Cardiff, 1910), iv. 1266.

16 Cartae … de Glamorgan, vi. 2277–2278; Altschul, The Clares, 261–264; T.B. Pugh, ed., Glamorgan County History, vol. III, The Middle Ages (Cardiff, 1971), 63–65 and list of sheriffs ibid., 689–691.

17 Davies, Lordship and Society, 200; Otway-Ruthven, “The Great Lordships,” 7–8; Denholm-Young, Seignorial Administration, 20.

18 Altschul, The Clares, 268; A. Compton Reeves, Newport Lordship 1317–1536 (Ann Arbor, 1979).

19 Davies, Lordship and Society, 151–152, 200–201; Otway-Ruthven, “The Great Lordships,” 7–9; Phillips, Aymer de Valence, 247; Cal. Ancient Correspondence Wales, 160, 211. The Stafford chancellors ca. 1500 served essentially in England as keepers of the privy purse and ducal agents, with little or no connection to Newport or other marcher holdings of the family: Carole Rawcliffe, The Staffords, Earls of Stafford and Dukes of Buckingham 1394–1521 (Cambridge, 1978), 90.

20 Cartae … de Glamorgan, iii. 1081; Reeves, Newport Lordship, 77–78, 81.

21 Cartae … de Glamorgan, iii.–iv. passim, and for the specific use of the chancery seal, ibid., iii. 1058, iv. 1217, 1224, 1226, 1244, 1261, 1266, 1292 (in French), 1298, 1300, 1334, 1410–1411, 1415–1416, 1426. Special chancery seals existed also for Pembroke, Haverford, and Newport, inter alia: Cal. Ancient Correspondence Wales, 160, 222; The Marcher Lordships of South Wales 1415–1536: Select Documents, ed. T.B. Pugh (Board of Celtic Studies, University of Wales, History and Law Series, no. 20, Cardiff, 1963), 214.

22 Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, 41. While Dr. Clancy has the situation ca. 1200 in mind, there is no reason to dismiss the applicability or force of his remarks for this later period.

23 Cal. Ancient Correspondence Wales, 160, 211; Cartae … de Glamorgan, iii. 994, iv. 1297; Marcher Lordships; Select Documents, ed. Pugh. 78–79.

24 Davies, Lordship and Society, 200.

25 Van Caenegem, Royal Writs from the Conquest to Glanvill, 136.

26 Cal. Ancient Correspondence Wales, 160.