The Lord Steward, like the Lord High Steward, evolved in the early thirteenth century from the medieval steward, or seneschal. His duties were originally domestic, and he was known as the 'chief steward of the household'. In the Ordinances of Eltham of 1526 he was called the Lord Great Master, and by an act of 1554 his title was changed to its present form of 'Lord Steward of the Queen's most honourable Household'. Under the Tudors and Stuarts his office was of considerable political importance. It carried cabinet rank until 1782 and was a political appointment, bestowed on a member of the government, until 1924, since when it has been filled at the discretion of the Sovereign.
Formerly the Lord Steward had direction of the royal household below the stairs: principally the provision and preparation of food, drink, fuel and other essential domestic services, as well as those pertaining to the chapels royal, outdoor services, and grounds and gardens. He also appointed those tradesmen who supplied the palace as distinct from the Sovereign. In theory he is still responsible for the day-to-day management and financial affairs of the household, but since it was reorganised by the Prince Consort in the 1840s these duties have been undertaken by the Master of the Household, a permanent official with his own department who has his office at the palace. A further change took place in 1920 when the executive and some of the ceremonial duties of the Lord Steward were transferred to the Lord Chamberlain. In consequence, his functions are now purely ceremonial and confined to state occasions. He is however still the first dignitary of the court and is always a peer and a privy councillor.
In the past the Lord Steward also exercised legal and judicial authority. He presided over the Board of Green Cloth, the legal functions of which were closely related to those of certain courts with which he was also connected. From the thirteenth century he presided over the Lord Steward's Court, which had jurisdiction over offences and felonies committed by the king's servants, extended in 1541 to cover treasons, murders and manslaughters or offences where blood was shed. He was also a presiding judge of the Marshalsea Court which came to be linked with the Palace Court established in 1630 for the trial of personal pleas and actions. The jurisdiction of these bodies was derived from the justice originally dispensed by the Sovereign and later by the Steward and the Marshal of the Household to those about the royal person. It was confirmed by successive statutes, and in the reign of Richard II was limited to a space of twelve miles from the king's lodging (the 'verge').
The Department was divided into offices (or sub-departments), as early as the fifteenth century, and these varied at any given time. For example, the kitchen, spicery, avery (stables), acatry (purchasing or contracting department for comestibles), poultry, bakehouse, woodyard, scullery, pastry, and salsery (where sauces were made). The kitchen was always the main office, and was itself divided (eg the buttery, cellar).
Before 1782 the principal accounting officer of the Lord Steward's Department was the Cofferer, whose accounts were delivered into the Exchequer and are preserved among the declared accounts of the Pipe Office. The accounts preserved in the records of the department up to 1782 are therefore all subsidiary to the Cofferer's main account.
In 1761 a considerable reorganisation in the system of keeping these subsidiary accounts was made, each sub-department of the household having thenceforward its ledger, which included both salaries and ordinary and extraordinary expenses. By an act of 1782 the offices of the Cofferer, the six clerks of the Board of Green Cloth and certain others of the household were abolished, and provision was made for more economical methods of keeping the accounts of civil list expenditure under the direction of the Treasury. From this time the estimates became the main account of the Lord Steward's Department.
The Board of Green Cloth, over which the Lord Steward formerly presided, was the 'Counting House of the King's Household'. Its name, acquired in Tudor times, derived from the green-covered table at which its transactions were originally conducted. The Treasurer, the Comptroller, the Master and the Cofferer were among the officers of the household who attended its meetings. Its business was to take the accounts of the daily expenditure, to make the necessary provisions for the household and payment of the same, and to see to the good government of the Sovereign's household servants.
The Board met frequently, twice a week during periods of exemplary organisation, (this varied); and always where the monarch was in residence. The main office was at Whitehall up to 1715, and at St James' after this date. Offices were maintained in other palaces.
The board also dealt with cases of small debts and other minor disputes between members of the household, and also of infractions of peace within the verge. The functions of the board are now largely nominal. It meets annually to license, on behalf of the Sovereign, public houses within the verge, ie within a twelve-mile radius of the old Palace of Whitehall.