Records of the Court of Wards and Liveries

Details of WARD
Records of the Court of Wards and Liveries

Records of the Court of Wards and Liveries.

They are not arranged systematically by area of business and documents relating to all fields of the administration of wardship and livery during the period of the court's existence and earlier are found in all the WARD series. A rough guide is as follows and strays will be found in most series.

Date: c1200-1826
Held by: The National Archives, Kew
Legal status: Public Record
Language: English and Latin
Creator: Court of Wards, 1540-1541
Court of Wards and Liveries, 1541-1660
Physical description: 16 series
Access conditions: Many records unfit for production
Custodial history: The terrible condition of many of the records of the Court of Wards and Liveries is explained by the fact that after the court's demise they were kept in a fish yard near Westminster Hall. They were removed in the early eighteenth century to rooms next to the House of Lords belonging to Black Rod and from there to the Chapter House in 1732. They came from there to the Public Record Office in 1859-1860.
Publication note: For further detail see H E Bell, An Introduction to the History of the Records of the Court of Wards and Liveries (Cambridge, 1953)
Administrative / biographical background:


The statutes of Court of Wards 1540 and Wards and Liveries 1541 establishing the Court of Wards and Liveries were the culmination of early Tudor attempts to formalise the administration of revenues arising from the crown's feudal rights as supreme landlord.

The crown's claim to feudal incidents developed out of the Norman system of land tenure whereby the tenant held land of the monarch in return for military service. In theory the tenant's interest in his property was little more than a life interest, the land reverting to the crown on death; the monarch assuming a certain interested responsibility for the heir. Gradually the obligation to perform military service for land evolved into an obligation to pay to inherit. By the twelfth century, the tenant's heir could inherit by paying a relief to the crown (livery), while the king's prerogative rights to the custody and marriage of minor heirs, as well as to the profits of their lands, were being sold to interested parties (wardship).

The systematic exploitation of wardship and livery as a regular source of royal income had its origins in the late fifteenth century.

From 1471 commissions were issued to the shires to search out concealed feudal incidents. These commissions were revived on a large scale by Henry VII. The law courts and the Council, especially the Council Learned in the Law, were used to penalise those who avoided their feudal obligations. The sale of wards was managed by the King and a few close councillors.

The year 1503 saw the establishment of a wardship office under a Master of the Wards whose task it was to oversee, manage and sell royal wardships. Initially he was directly answerable to the Council Learned. In the late 1520s, the office was assigned an attorney to assist the Master in handling judicial business previously handled by the Council Learned.

The Statue of Uses 1535 sought to abolish the devices by which a military tenant could evade the feudal incidents of his tenure. Although a subsequent statute (Wills 1540, c1) returned to the tenant the power to devise two thirds of his land, the crown's rights to livery and wardship were secured, as was its right to the profits of one third of all a tenant's lands during a minority.


In 1540 the Court of Wards was erected to cope with the increase of business expected as a result both of the new legislation and of the alienation of all types of crown land for knight service tenures generated in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries. In the event, the introduction of a new form of socage tenure by which a grantee held as of the royal manor of East Greenwich meant that the amount of propety held by knight service did not increase quite as much as otherwise might have been expected. In 1541 the office of Master of the Liveries was united with the court: expectations as to increased business were realised and the court flourished until 1642.

As a result of hostilities between King and Parliament, the court was effectively split into two in the last few years of its life. From 1643-1645 one Court of Wards resided at Oxford with the King and the other remained at Westminster. Neither recognised the validity of the other's jurisdiction and in 1646 they were abolished by an ordinance subsequently confirmed by the first Parliament of the protectorate. By the Statute of Tenures Abolition 1660, feudal incidents were abolished and the crown thus finally abandoned its claim to livery and wardship.


The functions of the Court of Wards and Liveries was to search out military tenures, to collect monies due from liveries, widows' remarriage, sales of wardships of minors, idiots and lunatics and fines for leases of wards' lands, to rule on any queries of disputes arising thereon, to draw up annual accounts and to pay revenue received to the Treasurer of the Chamber.

Military tenures were established by an office or inquisition on the death of a tenant in chief. The office was taken on the authority of a writ of commission issuing out of Chancery on the warrant of one of the four principal officers of the court. Officials were alerted to the need to issue the warrant when an heir of fullage sued for livery, when a feodary lodged information that a tenant was dead, when the escheator provided that same information or when a would-be guardian let it be known that a tenant had died, or was about to die, leaving a minor heir of whose body and marriage he wished custody. A similar inquisitional procedure was followed in cases of idiocy and lunacy where the office inquired into the subjects' goods as well as lands.

Where a wardship was involved, the court had to ascertain the value of all lands of minors whose ancestors held any land by common knight service or knight service in chief and of all the property of idiots and lunatics whose infirmity had been confirmed by examination. The value of the ward's lands found, the court could then agree the rate of sale of body and marriage with the purchaser and fix the sum to be paid by the court for the ward's exhibition or annuity. Grants of wardship had then to pass signet, privy seal and great seal. The lands in possession falling to the crown during the wardship (usually one third of the total) could be leased for an agreed fine either to the guardian of the body or to another suitor.

Where heirs to lands held in chief were of full age, it was the court's duty to rate and collect fines for general livery or, more commonly where the lands were worth £20 a year or more, special livery, in order that they might enter upon their inheritances. Where the widow of a tenant in chief claimed dower of the lands so held, she also fell within the jurisdiction of the court whose function it was to rate and issue a licence for her to remarry or to fine her for marrying without licence.


During the earlier years of the court's existence there were nine statutory officers headed by the Master of the Wards. Apart from a brief interregnum in 1598-1599, the Mastership was held continuously in the Cecil family for over fifty years, William Cecil, Lord Burghley officiating from 1561 to 1598 and his younger son, Robert, from 1599 to 1612. The Master was empowered to sell wardships and make woodsales and leases of wards' lands.

Next in seniority were the Surveyor of the Liveries, with similar powers to those of the Master in the granting of liveries and the Attorney, the principal legal officer. These three officials, with the Receiver General and the Auditor, combined judicial with administrative function.

Next in seniority were the Surveyor of the Liveries, with similar powers to those of the Master in the granting of liveries and the Attorney, the principal legal officer. These three officials, with the Receiver General and the Auditor, combined judicial with administrative function.

The court's principal local officers were the feodaries, appointed in each county by patent on the master's choice. It was the feodary's job to present at the taking of the office, to ensure that reasonable values were found for the King, to account to the court for the revenues of lands in wardship, to disburse cash for all but the largest exhibitions and generally to assist and inform the court on matters concerning wardship administration.

The lowest rung on the administration ladder was occupied by local and particular receivers who were appointed by the master and accounted to the feodary of the county where the lands for which they were responsible lay.

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