11 November, 2016

Tenants in Chief, Wardships and Inheritance in the Fourteenth Century

A blog post explaining the concept of tenants in chief in the fourteenth century, inheritance, Inquisitions Post Mortem and so on. It's more interesting than it sounds, honestly. :-) Necessarily simplified as this is a blog post aimed at a general audience, not an academic one.

Under the feudal system, tenants in chief were the people who held land directly from the king. Most of them were men, some were women, though the latter only controlled lands in their own right when they were widows. Otherwise, even when it was their own inheritance from their parents or other relatives, it was their husbands who swore homage/fealty to the king and controlled the lands on their behalf. Tenants in chief were always members of the nobility or high-ranking churchmen, i.e. bishops and abbots, and there were several hundred of them in England at any time. The origins of the system lay in the king granting lands in exchange for military service; women and churchmen obviously were exempt from performing military service in person but were still obliged to send men to fight the king's wars.

Special rules applied to tenants in chief. They weren't allowed to marry without the king's permission, although fairly often they did, and the chancery rolls of the fourteenth century are full of entries relating to the king temporarily confiscating lands and handing out huge fines usually running to a few hundred pounds, i.e. hundreds of thousands in modern terms - but hey, these people were really wealthy, they could afford it - to his tenants in chief who had married without royal consent. Women who were tenants of chief in their own right or the widows of such also required the king's permission to marry again. You sometimes see entries on the Patent Roll like "Permission to Eleanor late the wife of Sir John Darcy, tenant in chief, to marry whomsoever she will of the king's allegiance."

Tenants in chief had to swear fealty to the king whenever there was a change of personnel, as it were: whenever there was a new king of England, all tenants in chief had to swear an oath to him, and when one of them died, his heir had to swear after he came into his lands. When a tenant in chief died, his lands were temporarily taken into the king's hands by the escheator - there were two in England, one on either side of the River Trent - and an Inquisition Post Mortem was held in every county where he (or she) had held lands to establish which lands there were, how they were held, i.e. some from the king directly ('held of the king in chief') and some from other tenants in chief, and the terms of holding the lands. IPMs also established the heir or heirs to the lands, and their age. Often this is very specific with the exact date given, usually when the heir was under age, but generally the age varies according to how old the jurors of various counties thought the person(s) in question might be, sometimes only by a year or two but occasionally by as much as thirteen years. The 1307 IPM of the countess of Pembroke, for example, gives the age of her son and heir Aymer de Valence as anywhere between 24 and 37, so Aymer might have been born any time between 1270 and 1283. Thanks, that's very helpful. On the other hand, the IPM of Patrick Chaworth taken after his death in early July 1283 gives the exact date of birth of his daughter and heir Maud (older half-sister of Hugh Despenser the Younger): she was 'aged one at the feast of the Purification last,' i.e. Maud was born on or perhaps shortly before 2 February 1282. Two IPMs also give the exact age of Maud Chaworth's stepfather Hugh Despenser the Elder: he was born on 1 March 1261.

Here's one brief example of an entry in an IPM: it's that of Edward II's nephew Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, killed at Bannockburn on 24 June 1314. (The full IPM goes on for just under thirty pages.)
"Inq. Tuesday after the Assumption 8 Edw. II.
Great Berdefeld. The manor (extent given), including stallage and toll of the market, and the farm of the market of Donemowe, held of the king in chief by service of 1 knight's fee...
If the countess is not pregnant, his next heirs are his sisters Eleanor the wife of Hugh le Despenser the younger, aged 22 and more, Margaret late the wife of Piers Gaveston, aged 20, and Elizabeth, late the wife of John de Burgh, aged 19." In the various county inquisitions, Eleanor Despenser's age is given as anywhere between 20 and 25 (she was born in October or November 1292, so was actually 21 at the time of her brother's death and when the inquisitions were taken in the following weeks). The age of the third sister Elizabeth was stated to be anywhere between 16 and 20 (she was born in September 1295 so was 18 going on 19 when her brother died).

The heir(s) of a tenant in chief, if of age - at least twenty-one for men, and fourteen or fifteen for women depending on whether they were already married or not - had to pay a sum of money called a 'relief', basically inheritance tax, swear homage to the king as his/her liege lord, and was allowed to enter his lands. If the heir was still under age, the king became his or her guardian, even if the heir's mother was alive, and the child or adolescent was known as the king's 'ward'. Edward II, for example, became the guardian of Piers Gaveston's five-month-old daughter Joan on Piers' death in June 1312, even though Joan's mother, Edward's niece Margaret de Clare, was alive. It was Edward who later arranged Joan's future marriage to the earl of Ulster's grandson John Multon, having made an unsuccessful attempt to marry her to Thomas Wake, another royal ward. This was entirely normal and expected, not Edward being cruel to his niece; a lot of people in modern times misunderstand this concept. The king could choose to keep the heir as his own ward, or give or sell the wardship (usually including the rights to the heir's marriage) to another person; this was one of the main ways a king could distribute patronage. It could be most lucrative for the recipient. Say a tenant in chief with lands worth five hundred pounds a year died when his son was only four. This meant that the heir's guardian would receive the tenant in chief's income for seventeen years until the son came of age. The guardian simply had to maintain the heir in suitable style, and hand over the lands at the end of the period in the same condition in which he or she found them.

There were of course strict rules relating to the inheritance of lands. Men were favoured, of course, and primogeniture was in operation, meaning that the eldest son inherited everything. In case there was no male heir, as above in the case of the earl of Gloucester, women inherited equally, primogeniture not applying to female heirs (at least in England; it did in France). Therefore the earl of Gloucester's three sisters inherited equally, though understandably it proved impossible to divide his estates and their value into three completely equal shares. William Marshal (d. 1219) and Isabella de Clare, earl and countess of Pembroke, had five sons and five daughters. None of the sons fathered a single child between them; if they had, the child would have received the entire Pembroke inheritance, whether male or female. The five daughters all had children, however, so the inheritance ended up being split between literally dozens of people, the sisters' children and grandchildren. on the death of the fifth Marshal son in 1245.

Widows of tenants in chief were entitled to hold a third of their husband's lands for their lives until they died, even if they married again. On a widow's death, the lands she held as her dower passed to her husband's heir, who would often be her own son or grandson. Maurice, Lord Berkeley, grandson of Roger Mortimer, died on 8 June 1368 when his eldest son Thomas was fifteen. Thomas inherited part of the Berkeley inheritance when he turned twenty-one in January 1374, but two-thirds of it remained in the hands of two Berkeley dowagers: Thomas's mother Elizabeth, daughter of Hugh Despenser the Younger, who lived until 1389, and his step-grandmother Katherine Cliveden, widow of Maurice's father the elder Thomas, who lived until 1385. Thomas thus had to wait until he was thirty-six to gain his full inheritance. Long-lived dowagers could keep a large part of inheritances in their hands for decades. When a woman who had inherited and held lands in her own right died before her husband, a custom called the 'courtesy of England' allowed a widower to keep all of his late wife's lands in his own hands until his own death, as long as they had had at least one child together. For example, Thomas, Lord Berkeley above (b. 1353) married Margaret Lisle, heir of the Lisles, and kept all the Lisle lands after Margaret's death in 1392 until his own death in July 1417. They then passed to his and Margaret's only child Elizabeth, countess of Warwick.

Some more concrete examples:

- Henry III's younger brother Richard of Cornwall died in 1272. His elder son, Henry of Almain, had been murdered (by his de Montfort cousins) in Sicily in 1271. Richard's heir was therefore his younger son Edmund, who succeeded him as earl of Cornwall; Edmund was over twenty-one when his father died, and therefore did not enter royal wardship. When Earl Edmund died in 1300, he left no children, and he had no (legitimate) siblings or nieces and nephews. His heir was his first cousin Edward I, son of Henry III - Edmund of Cornwall's mother and Edward I's mother were also sisters so they were first cousins on both sides - and Edmund's nearest male relative.

- William, Lord Leyburne, died in 1310. His eldest son Sir Thomas Leyburne had died in June 1307, and William's heir was his granddaughter Juliana (b. 1303/04), Thomas's only child, even though William had younger sons still alive. Juliana became the ward of Edward II, though her mother Alice Toeni, countess of Warwick, was alive, and Edward gave or sold her wardship and the rights to her marriage to Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke. Aymer arranged Juliana's marriage to his nephew and co-heir John, Lord Hastings. Juliana was also the heir of her grandmother Juliane de Sandwich, Lady Leyburne, who herself was the heir of her father and uncle. Juliana Leyburne's mother Alice Toeni was also the heir of her brother, though the Toeni inheritance did not pass to Juliana but to her younger half-brother Thomas Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (a male heir, if there was one, taking priority over his sisters even when they were older).

- Theobald, Lord Verdon, died in July 1316. He had three daughters from his first marriage to Maud Mortimer, and left his widow, Edward II's niece Elizabeth de Clare, pregnant. If she had given birth to a boy he would have been heir to the entire Verdon estate, but it was a girl, Isabella. She shared her father's estate equally with her three older half-sisters. Edward II gave the wardship of the eldest Verdon sister, Joan, to his friend Sir William Montacute, who arranged her marriage to his eldest son John (the teenage groom died a few months later).

- The aforementioned Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke, died in June 1324, leaving no children from either of his two marriages. Aymer had had three sisters, two of whom had children: they were John, Lord Hastings, and the sisters Joan and Elizabeth Comyn. These three inherited Aymer's estate equally; because it came through the female line, John Hastings had no priority over his female cousins, though Laurence, his son with Juliana Leyburne, was Aymer's successor as earl of Pembroke.

- Edward II's niece Margaret de Clare had two daughters with her two husbands, Joan Gaveston and Margaret Audley. They were her joint and equal heirs to Margaret's share of the de Clare fortune until Joan's death in January 1325, and thereafter Margaret Audley was the sole heir. If Margaret de Clare had borne a son at any point, he would have been sole heir to his mother; if she had borne more daughters, they would all have been equal heirs with Margaret Audley.

- Richard FitzJohn, lord of Shere in Surrey, died in September 1297. He had four sisters, two of whom were still alive in 1297, and the other two had left children. His five heirs at the time of his death were: Maud Beauchamp née FitzJohn, countess of Warwick, his eldest sister (d. 1301; maternal grandmother of Maud Chaworth and Hugh Despenser the Younger; Maud's share ultimately passed to her son Guy Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, and then to his son Earl Thomas, who also came into the Toeni inheritance, as above); Robert, Lord Clifford, grandson of the second FitzJohn sister the late Isabel Vipont, and Robert's aunt Idonea Cromwell, Isabel Vipont's daughter; Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster, son of the late third FitzJohn sister Aveline; and Joan le Botiler, the fourth FitzJohn sister.

It's interesting to note that quite a few of the English earls of Edward II's reign had no children: Gloucester, Lancaster, Pembroke, Richmond, Surrey. Thomas of Lancaster's heir was his brother Henry, and John de Warenne, earl of Surrey's was his sister Alice's son Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel. The earls of Cornwall (Piers Gaveston) and Lincoln (Henry de Lacy) each had one daughter. Edward II's half-brothers the earls of Norfolk and Kent were both ultimately succeeded by a daughter, Margaret Marshal and Joan of Kent, Richard II's mother.

There's surely a great deal more I could write on this topic, but this post is long enough already, so I'll leave it to another time!

11 comments:

Alison Harrop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alison Harrop said...

Interested that you use the term "Dowager ". I have too in relation to the 13th and 14th centuries but a lady picked me up on this during a discussion this week saying the term was not in use until 1530. The OED seems to agree with her. What do you think? I would really like to continue using it as it makes explanations much simpler!
Alison

Kathryn Warner said...

For sure it's not a fourteenth-century word, but it would be impossible for me to write blog posts using only fourteenth-century words. I used it for clarity because everyone knows what it means and it avoids awkward circumlocutions - I definitely agree with you on that point! I think it's good to be accurate with language but we also need to consider our readers, and IMHO some people get a little carried away pointing out to writers 'but this word wasn't recorded until 1530', which to be honest I sometimes find irritating.

Anerje said...

This post takes me back to my Uni days! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'm retired but one of my secretarial jobs was for a conveyancing (that's real estate for people outside the UK) wills and probate secretary and - albeit there was a Land Registry reform Act passed a few years ago - terms such as "tenants-in-common" and "joint beneficial tenants" still exist in the owning of property even when it is freehold not leasehold. The above post is an interesting read but I'll have to come back to it and read through it again to take it all in I feel.

Alison Harrop said...

Thanks Kathryn!
Alison

Sonetka said...

Just out of curiosity, what happened to a tenant in chief who was forcibly married? (I'm thinking of the de Clare sister who was abducted). I suppose if her estate now belonged to her husband, she'd end up having to pay the fine either directly or indirectly, but it still seems a bit rough under the circumstances.

Kathryn Warner said...

I don't think the fine was ever paid as Verdon died less than six months after abducting and marrying Elizabeth, but absolutely, ordering her to pay a fine under such circumstances would be harsh!

sami parkkonen said...

Excellent information once again, swell stuff!

Unknown said...


If a tenant-in-chief died, leaving a wife and minor child, was the guardian responsible for the child's upbringing, or was the mother? Could the mother apply to be the guardian?

And did similar rules apply further down the hierarchy (ie if a sub-tenant of a tenant-in-chief died, leaving a minor, did the tenant-in-chief become the child's guardian?)

Sean Fear

Kathryn Warner said...

Officially the guardian was in charge of the ward, though I imagine in some cases s/he was left in her mother's care, especially if very young. There was no overriding rule, though. On the death of Piers Gaveston, Edward II sent his daughter Joan to be raised at Amesbury Priory. A few royal women were nuns at Amesbury, including Edward's sister Mary and niece Joan Monthermer, so Edward probably thought it was a suitable place for his great-niece to grow up.

As for the second question, I confess I'm really not sure!