Monday, February 25, 2013

The Court of Wards

By Anne Barnhill
          I’m sure to understand the ward system in Tudor England, it would help to have some legal training.  I don’t have any such expertise, but I’ll do the best I can to explain a complicated and corrupt system that had been in place for a few centuries before Elizabeth I took the throne and made William Cecil Master of the Court of Wards. 
     The ward system sprang from feudalism when a king, such as William the Conqueror, gave lands and tenants to those men who fought for him in battle.  If a knight received such lands from the king, he then owed the king his combat service, should the need arise.  But what happened if the knight did his duty, but died in the process?  What was to become of his children?
   This was the question the ward system was developed to answer: if a man died, leaving children who had not yet reached their ‘age of majority’ (21 for boys, 14 for girls) someone had to be responsible.  Certainly, such important business could not be left in the hands of the children’s mothers.  No, the king could either give or sell a ward to another worthy servant.  Along with the ward, the king could also sell the ‘marriage rights,’ that is, the power to arrange a marriage for the ward in question.

     Such a system probably began as an honorable way to take care of children who were too young to run an estate.  These children needed to be fed and clothed, educated and maintained according to their rank.  In days when warfare, disease and poor medicinal practices were rampant, most children lost at least one parent on their way to adulthood.  Wardships were supposed to protect and care for these defenseless children.  However, it didn’t take long for the buying and selling of wards became a lucrative business for everyone except the ward.  If the king needed money, he could sell a ward.  But why would someone wish to buy a ward?

    Because it was profitable.  Until a child reached his/her majority, the guardian would receive all rents and monies collected from the child’s lands.  A portion might be paid to the king, though often that was avoided.  Upon reaching his majority, the young person was not automatically given his lands.  Oh no, he had to ‘prove his age’ which could be very expensive.  He then had to present what was called ‘tenure for livery,’ another group of documents (all costing something to compose) to prove his inheritance.  This had to be extremely accurate—one mistake discovered years down the road and the lord would lose all his property.  So many people were involved in the entire process, each having to be paid a little something, there are some instances when the wards just gave up ever getting what was theirs by right.

     Often, wards suffered under their guardians, though there are many cases where the wards were treated quite well.  There are also cases where the wards mysteriously died a few days before they were to reach their majority, the lands going immediately to the guardian or the crown.  Sometimes, the guardian would arrange a marriage between one of his children and a wealthy ward.  That way, the guardian could insure the money stayed in the family.  William Cecil arranged for his common-born daughter, Anne, to marry the Earl of Oxford—not bad for old Cecil—his grandchildren would be blue-bloods.

     My ancestor, Sir John Shelton, was always looking for ways to live well, but not have to pay for it.  Even in death, he contrived to trick the king, getting three accomplices into trouble.  Not only did they get caught, they ended up in the Tower. 

          “The charge against them, to which they had confessed, was that they had aided
            and abetted the late Sir John Shelton to convey his land in such a manner as to
            evade the royal rights of wardship and other feudal dues.”

     As you can see, the ward system begat more trouble than it assuaged. 
Some famous wards:
Earl of Oxford
Earl of Essex
William Carey
Mary Shelton (not exactly famous but the heroine in my next book, Against the Queen's Command!)

The Queen’s Wards by Joel Hurstfield, Harvard University Press.
Anne Clinard Barnhill is author of AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN.  Her new novel, AGAINST THE QUEEN'S COMMAND, is slated to be released from St. Martin's Press in January, 2014.


  1. Wonderful post. I had not idea wardships were such a business.

  2. wow. I enjoyed reading that, thanks for the information!


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