“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 1b)

This post covers the second half of the introductory section of the book. Having discussed the environment Prestwich moves on to an overview of the legal & political institutions of the country during the period.

The Crown and Kingship

Kings of England during this time weren’t just Kings of some isolated country, they were part of an international world. The King had titles to lands on the other side of the channel (more at some times than others …) and marriages (both their own & their family members) linked them to yet more. So they were part of a network of ruling families in Europe, not just in the contemporary time but in their history as well. They could trace their descent back through the Anglo-Saxon Kings of England (via marriages) as well as more fanciful genealogies (Edward I wanted to link himself to King Arthur, for instance).

Prestwich then divides Kingship into two facets – sacred & secular. Kingship of the time is sacred via the anointing of the King during the coronation ceremony. This endowed the King with spiritual authority, and the King could use this to bolster his authority if necessary. As well as special ceremonies (like Henry III’s transfer of Edward the Confessor’s bones to the new shrine in a rebuilt Westminster Abbey) there was a routine calendar of religious ceremonies in which the King played a significant part. For instance the giving of alms on a regular basis, and touching to cure the king’s evil which was a rite introduced by either Henry III or Edward I.

The King was also the secular & feudal lord of the country, which granted him specific rights over his nobles. For instance military service, or the paying of an aid on the occasion of the marriage of the King’s eldest daughter. This side of Kingship was emphasised particularly when getting support for war – the feudal right to soldiers & money being very important. Another secular aspect of the King’s rule derived from Roman law. Prestwich talks here about the concept of “necessity”, and how the King was entitled to taxes without his nobles having right of refusal if he could show there was a necessity (i.e. for a war he was fighting to defend the realm).

At first there wasn’t a distinction drawn between the King & the crown, but over this period the two concepts began to separate. Most notably in legal or land-ownership contexts – for instance the King might give lands to his heir with the caveat that they were not to be separated from the crown (i.e. he couldn’t give them to someone else, he should still have them on his ‘inevitable’ accession to the throne). It also played a role during & at the end of Edward II’s reign – at the end the person of the King had been deposed but the crown had not.

Queenship was a distinct thing, that had an important part to play in royal politics. The Queen could intercede for people, and then the King could show mercy or generosity without looking weak. There was an expectation that the Queen would act as a peacemaker. Obviously personal relationships play into how that actually played out, and Isabella of France shows that a Queen could influence politics beyond that under some circumstances.

Symbols & ceremonies were important for impressing the country with the power of the monarchy. The physical crown (of which there were several) and other royal regalia weren’t worn daily, but were worn at ceremonial occasions to enhance the grandeur of the monarchy. The throne, likewise, was possibly not used often but was an important symbol. Not many of the King’s subjects would’ve seen him in his regalia & sat on his throne, but most if not all would’ve seen an image of him. The English currency was unique at the time in having an image of the King’s head on all legal currency. Even private mints (of Bishops, say) had to use the same image on their coins. A better image of the King could be found on the royal seals that sealed all royal documents, and the incidental symbolism in these representations was important. For instance Edward III’s use of the French royal arms as well as the English after 1340 when he claimed the French throne. Prestwich discussed religious ceremonies in the section on sacred Kingship, here he turns to the secular ceremonies that promoted the King’s power. For instance feasts & tournaments.

The King’s possessions & clothes were used to enhance his authority – always made from the best & most splendid materials. And buildings were also used to promote the image of the King. Henry III had Westminster Abbey rebuilt in magnificent style, and it became used as the royal mausoleum in a further display of royal splendour. In this Henry & his heirs were trying to equal or better the Capetian Kings of France – Saint Louis IX had built Sainte-Chapelle at the start of this period which gives an example of the sort of magnificence the English Kings were trying to live up to. Very much keeping up with the Joneses on an epic scale. As well as religious buildings, secular buildings were important. There were several royal castles, and although many were poorly maintained others were refurbished & enhanced – like the Tower of London and Windsor Castle as examples of luxurious royal residences & Edward I’s castle at Caernarfon as an example of a fortress.

Prestwich finishes this chapter by talking about the King’s court and the King’s household. The two terms mean different but overlapping things, and weren’t always used consistently by contemporary sources (which Prestwich expresses some scholarly frustration with!). Roughly speaking the “court” was a broader term that could be used about everyone around the King, whereas the household was more concretely defined & was used about people retained in the King’s service.

A large part of the household’s role was domestic – the provision of food for the King & all these people, the stabling & care of the King’s horses, falcons, dogs and those of the rest of the household. Also the means of transporting the household were provided internally – carts & horses or boats, and people to drive them or crew them. The main department of the household that looked after these various sections was the wardrobe, and it also played a key role in government of the country. The keeper of the wardrobe & other clerical officials were some of the King’s most important ministers. Government is the subject of the next chapter, so Prestwich moves on to some examples of details of the court or household’s expenditure on food & clothing or on the sorts of entertainment that the court had.

There’s not much evidence for particular manners for court, no guides to etiquette or whatever, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t niceties to be observed. Certainly the King seems to’ve lead a pampered existence with bevies of servants to do everything for him – like one to supervise the meat he was given, one to carve it and a third to actually serve it to him. The court’s influence on the culture of the rest of the country is debatable – there is some hint of an influence in architecture & in patronage of painters. But definitely not literature.


This chapter demonstrates that running the country via a large bureaucracy with lots of red tape is not a modern invention. Prestwich says scholarly opinion is divided between the idea that England of this period “enjoyed a remarkably sophisticated bureaucratic system” or was suffering from “a surfeit of government, with quite unnecessarily complex administrative procedures that achieved little”. At the end of this chapter he concludes that it’s a bit of both – it could’ve done to be more streamlined, but it actually worked most of the time.

Much of what we know about the bureaucracy of the time comes from the complication – multiple copies of records were kept, and writs could be issued in as many as three documents (under the king’s secret seal to be sent to the privy seal office, which would instruct the chancery, which would issue the final writ). So this could cause delays, although when the matter was urgent the machinery seems to’ve moved swiftly. The language of government documents was Latin, so the majority of the population wouldn’t understand it. A lot of the surviving rolls are in very good condition, testament to how few people had need to read them.

The structure of the government was already established by the early 13th Century. Top was the King & his council. Council was defined in various ways – it could be a great council with lots of the magnate present, or a more ordinary one with a smaller handful of magnates & some judges & clerical officials etc. Sometimes this council was imposed on the King by his nobles, some were chosen by the King. But generally it was a working body with a bias towards officials, that provided expert advice & assistance to the King. In some periods the chief financial body of the government was the wardrobe, the financial arm of the King’s household. The household also provided the privy seal, which was used to issue orders to the chancery & the exchequer and came into being as a separate government body (rather than part of the wardrobe) over this period. The chancery & the exchequer were the two main state departments, which gradually became more independent over this period. The exchequer looked after the financial side of government and in some periods had control over wardrobe expenditure & sometimes not. The chancery did the issuing of writs, and was the centre of the governmental machinery. Law courts were another important part of the government. The two central ones were the King’s Bench (which heard cases appealed from lower courts, and increasingly concerned itself with criminal cases) and the court of Common Pleas (which mostly heard property cases).

If that summary sounds a little confused, that’s because I’m not sure I completely followed that section – it had the feeling of a high level & technical summary of a complicated subject. And I just got the flavour from it.

Prestwich next moves to the sort of people that were senior officials in the government. Generally these were churchmen, although sometimes laymen held offices. But it was harder to reward laymen as you couldn’t just give them a juicy bishopric, so they had to be paid more by the King. Many notable figures rose to prominence due to their administrative skills & are given their bishoprics afterwards for service rather than for piety. But there are records of bishops who became high officials with no prior government experience (and subsequently did good jobs even, the Bishop of Exeter, Walter Stapledon, was one such man in the 1320s when he was made Treasurer). Most officials were trained in their posts, but they also endowed university colleges to train clerics – Merton College & Oriel College (both Oxford) are the examples that Prestwich gives. (Exeter College (founded by the Bishop of Exeter I mention above) was founded pre-government job so it doesn’t quite fit the theme).

Moving on to local government Prestwich notes that there isn’t a clear distinction between central & local government, drawing one is a convenience for the historian not a contemporary idea. The main unit of local government was the county, with a sheriff in charge with assorted officials under him. At the beginning of this period the sheriffs were appointed (by the King or other nobles), later they were elected although sometimes this was a technicality. The sheriffs had jurisdiction over some financial matters, and presided over the county court to settle legal matters. He also visited the hundred courts (hundreds are the sub-divisions of counties) in rotation. Not all of the country was actually under the central government – the state was still more feudal than not. For instance Durham was practically independent although the perspective of the crown was that as the Bishop held the liberty in the King’s name he was acting on behalf of the King when ruling it. And the Welsh marches were even more close to independence. There were also more minor liberties where the local ruler was more firmly subordinate to the King’s central government whilst still being technically separate.

And that was another section where it feels like there’s a whole book of complexity beneath the summary in this book and I don’t quite grasp it well enough to summarise well in my turn!

Prestwich next discusses the Church which was technically run by a separate & parallel system of government to the state. Many offices & functions are duplicated in this different sphere, with a broad emphasis on spiritual matters (like organisation & governance of monasteries). And of course the Church also had a need to collect money & manage its finances. As a lot of government high officials were given bishoprics there was a high degree of cross-fertilisation despite the separation. And there were areas of co-operation as well as competition between the two systems.

And the chapter finishes with a discussion of corruption in government. Prestwich stresses that the government was fundamentally sound – he says that it was less corrupt than the time of Henry I or than it would be in 16th & 17th Century England. However there was a level of corruption present. Officials were caught taking bribes, and some lords paid judges retainers so that court cases would be resolved in their favour. This was frowned upon, however, and punished when caught.

So now Prestwich has set us up for the meat of the book – next chapter starts the chronological examination of the politics of the period.