The Court of Wards & Liveries

Henry VIII, Elizabeth I's father, c1537. From a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Henry VIII, Elizabeth I’s father, c 1537.  From a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger.

This Court, established in 1540 by Henry VIII, had its roots in medieval times when tenants held land from their lords in return for knight (military) service.

When the tenant died, a male heir of full age (21) could inherit the land after paying his lord a fee for it.  The term for this was “to sue out his livery.”

If the heir was a minor, the lord took over the land and any rents and revenue from it.  The lord could also bring up the heir in his own household until he was of full age.

Where the young heir was female the lord had the right to arrange her marriage.  That made sense: the lord would have wanted her husband to be someone he could rely on for loyal service.  This practice spread to male wards’ marriages, possibly as a way of building strategic alliances.

By Tudor times the system had evolved into a means of raising revenue for the Crown. Young heirs became royal wards whose wardships were then sold on behalf of the Crown by the Court of Wards & Liveries.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, presiding over the Court of Wards & Liveries.
William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was Master of the Court from 1561 until 1598.

The Court’s purpose was primarily financial, but it did provide a measure of legal protection for heirs.  However, the system was open to abuse.

Mothers or other close relatives were not necessarily favoured as guardians.  Wardships tended to go to the highest bidder, or were sometimes gifted in return for service to the Crown.

Guardians were in a position to squeeze the maximum amount of personal profit from their wards’ estates, and to marry their wards to members of their own family.

Critics of the system claimed that wards’ education was often neglected, and that youngsters were pushed into marriages advantageous only to the guardian.  A ward who refused a marriage was obliged to pay their guardian a heavy fine.

How were such fines calculated?

Joel Hurstfield quotes the Statute of Merton (1236): If an heir, of what age soever he be, will not marry at the request of his lord he shall not be compelled thereunto; but when he cometh to full age he shall give to his lord, and pay him as much as any would have given for the marriage.[1]   

H.E. Bell gives an alternative method of calculation, dating from Edward I’s reign (i.e. 1272-1307):  a male heir’s fine could be as high as two years of his land’s annual value, and a female’s as high as three, depending on how the heir’s land was held – in possession or in reversion.[2]

Understandably, few heirs refused their marriages.

However, the Court grew increasingly unpopular among families whose heirs were at risk of becoming royal wards, even though that did not stop such families from doing their best to acquire wardships for themselves.  The Court was finally abolished in 1666.

The Earl of Southampton’s Wardship.

The young Earl was almost eight when his father died in 1581.  The old Earl’s many and various properties were valued for the Court as being worth just over £1097 per annum.  The widowed Countess was entitled to a third of them, worth almost £363 per annum, for the rest of her life.  Then they would revert to her son.  (An example of property held in reversion.)

Another set of properties, valued at nearly £371 per annum, became the Queen’s until the young Earl was of age.  Their administration and revenue would go to whoever purchased his wardship.

The final “third”, valued at over £363 per annum, was to be used for paying legacies left by the old Earl and/or administered by his executors on behalf of his son.[3]

The young Earl’s “wardship and marriage” was sold to Charles, Lord Howard of Effingham, for £1000.[4]  (The same Lord Howard who had overall command of the navy in 1588 when England was threatened by the Armada.)

There’s no record of how William Cecil, Lord Burghley became the young Earl’s guardian, but he did.  A private arrangement with Lord Howard?  Or the result of a word from the Queen?

And how far did the arrangement extend from oversight (by Lord and Lady Burghley) of the young Earl’s upbringing and education  to the real financial benefits associated with his wardship and marriage?

Likewise, there’s no formal record of the young Earl having to pay Lord Burghley a fine because he refused to marry Burghley’s granddaughter, Elizabeth de Vere.

Henry Garnet.
Fr. Henry Garnet SJ. This portrait was probably painted sometime after his execution in 1606.

The person who said he did is Father Henry Garnet (1555-1606), who was under cover in England as leader of the Jesuit mission: The young Erle of Southampton, refusing the Lady Veere, payeth 5000 [pounds] of present payment.

This payment is disputed by Joel Hurstfield, who regards Garnet as an unreliable informant.[5]  However, G.P.V Akrigg defends Garnet, referring to a comment made by Garnet’s biographer about the “sense of accuracy” in his letters.[6]  

There’s no doubt that wards who refused marriages did have to pay substantial fines to their guardians, but it’s possible that Father Garnet was accurately quoting a rumour he’d heard.

The young Earl’s income at age 21, as estimated by Akrigg, was likely to have been around £3000 a year.  A fine calculated at up to two years of his lands’ annual value would make £5000 a credible amount.  Whether or not the Earl paid this amount to Lord Burghley is unknown.


 [1] Joel Hurstfield The Queen’s Wards: Wardship and Marriage under Elizabeth I (1958) p142.

[2] H.E. Bell An Introduction to the History and Records of the Court of Wards & Liveries (1953) p126.

[3] G.P.V. Akrigg Shakespeare & the Earl of Southampton (1968) pp19-21.

[4] Akrigg pp21-22.

[5] Hurstfield p251.

[6] Akrigg pp38-39.