Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plate 1.70: The Court of Wards and Liveries

Plate: Engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756), dated 1747. The accompanying explanatory account, “A Brief Account of the Court of Wards and Liveries,” is provided in facsimile together with the plate.

Object: Anonymous, undated painting in oil of William Cecil, Lord Burghley presiding over the Court of Wards and Liveries—probably from the early seventeenth century, but possibly a copy of a sixteenth-century original. The painting has been in the collection at Goodwood House, near Chichester, West Sussex, since the early seventeenth century.


A VIEW of the COURT of WARDS and LIVERIES, with the Officers, Servants, and other Persons there assembled.

AS I cannot pretend to fix the precise time, when the picture was made, from which this print has been taken; the explication of the several persons here represented must depend on the circumstances, with which they are attended, as will be shewn in describing them. Those, who sit at the table, are more in number, than the stated officers of the court. But as it was not unusual for the two Chief Justices, and sometimes the Chief Baron, to sit with them as Judges Assistants, this may account for the additional number. The main difficulty therefore will be, to discover who these several persons are; which I shall now proceed to consider.

THE person, who sits at the head of the table with his hat on, appears by his countenance to represent the LORD BURGHLEY, who was Master of the court from the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign to his death in 1598. And the mace at his right hand is the symbol of his office in this court.

THE next persons on each hand are robed like judges, and may be the two Chief Justices, placed there as Assessors.

THE second on the right side of the table may be the Surveyor, who being the next officer to the Master might, like him, wear his hat; while five other inferior officers have their hats lying on the table. THOMAS SECKFORD esquire held this office from 1580 to 1589. He has a gold chain about his neck, which was an ornament worn by other gentlemen at that time.

THE person opposite to him may be the Attorney of the court, as he was next in office, and appears in the garb of a lawyer. This officer from 1572 to 1589 was RICHARD KINGSMILL esquire.

THE third on the right side, as next in order, may be the Receiver General, who is reading a scrole. The person in this office from 1583 to 1593 was GEORGE GORING esquire.

THE opposite person, with a book open before him, may be the Auditor. Two auditors were indeed originally appointed, but WILLIAM TOOKE esquire held that office alone from 1551, till he died in 1588.

THE three persons at the lower end of the table, opposite to the Master, answer to the number of Clerks[.]

AT the right hand side, next the bottom of the table, stands the Usher, with a red rod in his right hand tipped with silver. This person in the year 1578 was MARMADUKE SERVANT.

OPPOSITE to him on the other side stands the Messenger, with the badge of his office, being the royal arms crowned, fixed at his left breast. LEONARD TAYLOR was in that office from 1565 near thirty years.

WITHOUT the court, on the right side, stands the Queen’s Serjeant in a scarlet robe, and a scrole in his left hand. On the opposite side is seen some Counsellor pleading. And beyond these other Lawyers on each side.

AT the bottom, without the bar, stand two Serjeants in their robes and coifs. He on the left hand of the other has a party coloured robe, which is still worn for one year upon taking that degree. And as THOMAS GENT was created Serjeant in 1585, this circumstance, with the aged countenances of most of the officers, may render it probable, that the picture was made about that year. At which time Sir CHRISTOPHER WRAY was L.C.J. [Lord Chief Justice] of the King’s Bench; and EDMOND ANDERSON esquire, of the Common Pleas, who was afterwards knighted.

Inscribed to his Grace CHARLES LEN[N]OX Duke of RICHMOND, LEN[N]OX, and AUBIGNY, Knight of the most noble Order of the Garter &c. from the Original in the Posession of his Grace the Duke of Richmond—by the SOCIETY of ANTIQUARIES, LONDON, 1747.

Original Explanatory Account: Click here to read the original explanatory account for Plate 1.70.

Preparatory Drawings: Click here to see the Preparatory Drawings for Plate 1.70.

Commentary by David Read: The last plate in the first volume of Vetusta Monumenta reproduces a painting of a session of the Court of Wards and Liveries at a point in time during the many years that William Cecil, Lord Burghley, held its mastership. Cecil was famously Elizabeth I’s closest advisor and the Lord High Treasurer of England from 1572 until his death in 1598, but his appointment as Master of the Queen’s Wards had occurred years earlier, in 1561. It was his longest-held official position in Elizabeth’s government, and almost surely the most remunerative.

The court session can be dated more precisely from the engraving's explanatory text, which lists most of the men surrounding Cecil at the table. Among these are George Goring (d. 1594), appointed as Receiver General of the Court of Wards in 1584, and Thomas Seckford (1515/16-1587), Surveyor of the Court since 1579. The text gives an incorrect year for Seckford's death; according to the DNB, it was actually December 1587. The three years between the dates of Goring's appointment and Seckford's death thus narrow the period in which the court session depicted in the painting could have taken place to the mid-1580s. This dating agrees with the text's last paragraph, which posits 1585 as the year based on the detail of the “party colored robe” of one of the two sergeants-at-law in the foreground. The painter seems to have intended to portray a typical court session in this particular stretch of Cecil's long mastership—without, however, attaching names to faces; the painting lacks any sort of key with which to identify the individuals portrayed. George Vertue was somehow able to fill in the missing details, though the source of his information remains unknown. (In his preliminary watercolor drawing for the engraving, he inscribed the banners on the periphery of the "painting" with the names and offices of the participants, whereas in the engraving itself he left the banners blank. Perhaps with the latter Vertue was simply sparing himself some time and effort, since the identifying information could be provided more fully in the explanatory text.)

The engraving bears an inscription to Charles Lennox, “Duke of Richmond, Len[n]ox, and Aubigny” and identifies the painting as being in the duke’s collection. In 1747 this would have been the second duke, following Charles II’s reestablishment of the title in 1675 for the purpose of ennobling his illegitimate son, also named Charles Lennox (1672-1723). The first Charles purchased Goodwood around 1720, so the house had been under Lennox ownership for only a short time when the second Charles (1701-50) inherited the title from his father. The second duke had joined the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) in 1736, and indeed became the Society’s president in the year that he died. Vertue’s notes and drawings exist for a visit to Goodwood in early June of 1747, though these make no reference to the Court of Wards painting (“Vertue's Note-Book” 1937-38, 142-50). However, the essay accompanying the engraving observes that Vertue executed it “at the desire of his Grace the DUKE OF RICHMOND AND LENOX, a Noble Member of this Society, and the present possessor of the picture.”

Goodwood House remains in the Lennox family to this day; the current Duke of Richmond is eleventh in the line. Like many homes of the British aristocracy in the twenty-first century, it continues as both a family residence and a commercial venture. Perhaps as a result of the stability of the estate over three centuries, the Court of Wards painting survives in good condition as part of the household’s large art collection, which includes works by the major artists active in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth, Godfrey Kneller, Thomas Lawrence, Peter Lely, Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, George Stubbs, Anthony van Dyck—as well as pieces by Canaletti, Guercino, Rembrandt, Salvator Rosa, Peter Paul Rubens, Tintoretto and other European masters.1 In cataloging the collection on behalf of the fifth duke in 1839, the house librarian William Hayley Mason provided a cursory entry for the painting without any further commentary: “An old painting representing the interior of the antient Court of Wards; numerous figures” (Mason 1839, 109). He did note the dimensions—two feet four inches by two feet four inches—but was apparently unaware of or indifferent to the presence of Lord Burghley as the central figure in the scene.

Other than its location, the painting’s provenance is obscure, not to say confusing. It is identified only as “English school, 17th Century” and believed to be a copy of a sixteenth-century original. Evidence for the location of this original, or even of its existence, is elusive. There is at least one other version of the painting from an unidentified private collection, viewable on the commercial Bridgeman Images website. The site categorizes it as “English school, (16th Century),” though the draftsmanship appears to be decidedly inferior to the Goodwood example, suggesting that it may be a quickly (or ineptly) made copy and produced later, perhaps much later, than the date of 1598 assigned to it. The possibility that this version was actually based on the engraving rather than on an original picture cannot be dismissed out of hand. There is probably no good way of sorting out the tangle of relationships here; the one definite fact is that George Vertue made an engraving of a painting in the Duke of Richmond’s possession and published it in 1747.

Another question has to do with why the Goodwood painting does not reside instead at Burghley House or Hatfield House, the seats of the two surviving lines of the Cecil family. The connection between the Elizabethan Lord Burghley and the post-Restoration Lennox family seems tenuous, unless it relates somehow to Burghley’s son Robert (ennobled in 1605 as the Earl of Salisbury), who until his death in 1612 served as James I’s primary advisor, first as Secretary of State and later, like his father, as Lord High Treasurer. He also succeeded his father as Master of the Court of Wards and Liveries, though evidently with many doubts about the court’s value; he attempted unsuccessfully to have it dissolved in favor of the “Great Contract,” a guaranteed annual parliamentary grant to James to cover the king’s heavy expenses (Hurstfield 1973, 314-25). The Lennoxes are of course in the Stuart lineage, which would allow for the hint of an association with the Cecils through James—though only a hint. Paintings come into collections for many reasons, not all of them readily explained, and the Goodwood collection contains or has contained all manner of items: landscapes, Biblical scenes, animal portraits, seascapes, battle scenes, tapestries of famous episodes in Don Quixote, “an Egyptian mummy of a female, in an excellent state of preservation,” and at least one engraving by George Vertue himself (Mason 1839, 139-40, 144, 147).

By 1747 the Court of Wards and Liveries had been legally defunct for almost ninety years; the author of the three-page explanatory account that accompanies the plate (one of only two letterpress essays in the first volume, and the first in English, predating by eighteen years the regular inclusion of such essays with the engravings) notes that he has “ventured to give a short account of” the court since it “is no longer any part of our law, but purely a matter of history” (3). It had nominally been a feudal institution, yet its official lifespan was relatively short, and when it died nobody in England mourned its passing. Henry VIII established it by statute in 1540 in order to systematize the collection of the customary dues owed by wards of the crown—that is, by minor heirs who held land-tenancy and whose fathers had died. In medieval England, to hold tenure on land ranging from a small acreage to a large estate meant also owing some form of service to a lord, in a continuous chain ascending finally to the monarch.

By the fifteenth century the primary type of service was military; tenants owed a certain number of days of so-called knight service to the lord. However, if the tenant died and left the tenure to an underage son or daughter who then became the lord’s ward, the obligation to the lord continued to exist even if actual knight service was out of the question. In practice the lord took possession of the revenues of the ward’s estate until he or she reached, and could verify, his or her majority (twenty-one years for males, fourteen years for females, as noted in the plate’s companion essay). The monarchs of England had granted land in exchange for knight service to many men over the centuries, and those monarchs were answerable to no other lord except God in heaven. Much of the English aristocracy was therefore subject to the royal claim to guardianship of orphaned heirs.

It was under the Tudor regime that guardianship became one of the major mechanisms for funding the monarchy. Henry VII appointed a master of wards in 1503 and began to develop the bureaucracy that eventually became the Court of Wards with a full panoply of officers and functionaries. After Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and the attendant distribution of lands among the nobility, the court’s importance grew quickly. Its purpose was twofold: to search out and claim wards, whom their birth families frequently tried to conceal; and to manage the guardianships of those wards until they came of age. Guardianship entailed complete oversight of the ward’s welfare; this included everything from care, feeding, and education to arranging suitable marriages. The wards themselves generally had little influence on the decisions being made on their behalf.

The system was certainly profitable, at multiple levels. Apart from the revenues extracted under the basic conditions of wardship, the guardianship of individual wards was transformed into a commodity available for sale, “sometimes,” as Joel Hurstfield points out, to the ward’s “mother, more often to a complete stranger” (Hurstfield 1973, 18). The guardian could in turn resell the wardship, or some of the rights connected with it, to a third party during the term of the ward’s minority. The process of livery, by which the heirs reclaimed their property at majority, was long and intricate, involving both numerous officials and a wide range of fees and fines, as well as charges of dubious legitimacy; in describing the process, H. E. Bell concludes succinctly that “the path was hard by which a man entered on property lawfully descended to him” (Bell 1953, 79).

To those enmeshed in the machinery of a court that rivaled Chancery in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-53) for labyrinthine complexity, petty maneuvering, and frustrating delay, it was easy enough to seek what would now be called workarounds, usually involving some kind of payment, often described as a gift, to one or another agent in the lengthy parade of officials and intermediaries associated with wardship.2 The combination of poor record-keeping and large amounts of specie coming into the court led to chronic embezzlement of funds intended for the royal treasury. Accusations of corruption, manipulation, and self-dealing dogged the court throughout its existence, making it one of the most despised institutions in the kingdom. Did Lord Burghley himself participate in the corruption? Hurstfield offers a mixed verdict: while Burghley was an exceptionally talented administrator, alert to abuses of the system and fair-minded in his treatment of the wards themselves, he also clearly had no problem with receiving gifts from suitors to the court. Given the notoriously low pay of Elizabethan officials and the absence of effective fiscal controls, graft was pervasive and reached from the lowest to the highest levels of government (Hurstfield 1973, 260-82). The Court of Wards and Liveries was in effect a thriving black market in the bodies and lands of wards, with many beneficiaries other than the monarch.

Its survival from the Tudor through the early Stuart regime comes down to the fact that the crown craved the money that the court provided. The court rose to its highest importance during the Elizabethan years and Burghley’s long mastership, but steadily declined in the seventeenth century due to two major problems that it presented as a source of revenue. First, as indicated above, a substantial amount was being drained off due to peculation; second, the revenue was unpredictable and inconsistent both in amount and duration, since wardships inevitably came to an end. What the forever cash-strapped rulers of England needed was an income based on a fixed, statutory tax. This had to wait until 1660 with the Tenures Abolition Act, which officially eliminated the obligation of knight service for land tenure. Not coincidentally, it also eliminated the Court of Wards and Liveries. This was a formality, though; the court had ceased operating fourteen years earlier during the Long Parliament’s general assault on feudal duties to the monarch. The 1660 act declared that “the courts of wards and liveries and tenures by knights-service, either of the King or others . . . have been much more burthensome, grievous and prejudicial to the kingdom than they have been beneficial to the King” (quoted in Richardson 1952, 361).

There is little in the engraving to suggest the fraught history of this particular enterprise, that somewhere beyond the frame would be a young person desperate to retrieve his or her patrimony from the tight grasp of an obdurate bureaucracy. Burghley looks out placidly at the head of the table, and the other officials around it have the look of men sitting through a long meeting. The one sign of excitement comes from the figure in the gallery in the upper right foreground, who gestures with his right hand while holding a rolled-up document in his left—perhaps responding to the official on the table’s left side who is reading from a lengthy scroll. In all respects the scene appears to represent an ordinary session of an ordinary court, “convened on some affair, which is bearing before them,” as the companion essay describes the scene (3). Perhaps the absence of distinctive features accounts for the extraordinary amount of additional text included with the plate; some explanation was needed.

The author of the letterpress companion essay on the Court of Wards was named Ward himself, oddly enough. John Nichols’s profile of Dr. John Ward (1679-1758) lists the essay as one of the two that Ward produced for Vetusta Monumenta (Nichols 1812, 525). Ward was one of the remarkable, largely self-made characters that London often seemed to produce in the eighteenth century. As a Dissenter, Ward would have been foreclosed from attending Oxford or Cambridge due to the strictures of the Test Act. In young adulthood he clerked in the Navy Office while gradually transforming himself into an expert classicist, to the point where he “became so eminent for his knowledge of polite literature, as well as antiquity” that at the age of 41 he was appointed Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College (519). A fellow and officer of the Royal Society and a founding trustee of the British Museum, he was elected to the SAL in 1735/6 and at the time of the publication of the first volume of Vetusta Monumenta in 1747 was serving as the Society’s director. Nichols offers this admiring account of Ward’s scholarship: “His knowledge of Antiquity was extensive and accurate; and he was remarkably well skilled in the Roman law, which was of no small advantage to him in his researches into the constitution, customs, and history of the Roman empire. His modesty was equal to his learning, and his readiness to contribute to any work of literature was as distinguished as his abilities to do it” (526).

Since the plates in Vetusta Monumenta are arranged in the order in which they were produced, the placement of Plate 1.70 at the end of the first volume probably has as much to do with the circumstances of Vertue’s 1747 reconnaissance of Goodwood House as with anything else. Yet the plate does provide a certain kind of closure to the volume, since the Court of Wards and Liveries was one of last institutional relics of the feudal order and thus can take its place among the “Rerum Brittanicarum” that still remained at the end of one political era and the beginning of another.


[1]: For the catalog of the collection as it existed when he curated it, see Mason (1839). I am grateful to James Peill, the current curator of the Goodwood collection, for sending me a photograph of the Court of Wards painting, which is mounted in a private part of the house and thus not easily accessible.

[2]: The connection to Chancery was close in a practical respect; as the last paragraph of the explanatory account indicates, the court was “situated chiefly behind . . . the court of Chancery in Westminster Hall, from whence there was a passage into the court of Wards” (3).

Works Cited:

Bell, H. E. 1953. An Introduction to the History and Records of the Court of Wards and Liveries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hurstfield, Joel. 1973. The Queen’s Wards: Wardship and Marriage under Elizabeth I. 2nd ed. London: Frank Cass.

Mason, William Hayley. 1839. Goodwood Its Park and Grounds with a Catalog Raisonné of the Pictures in the Gallery of His Grace the Duke of Richmond, K. G. London: Smith, Elder, and Co.

Nichols, John. 1812. Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century. Vol. 5. London: Nichols, Son, and Bentley.

Richardson, W. C. 1952. Tudor Chamber Administration 1485-1547. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

“Vertue’s Note Book D. 1 (part) [British Museum, Add. MS. 23,089. (ff. 1-32.)] (British Museum Add. MS. 23,070).” 1937-38. The Volume of the Walpole Society 26: 141-156.

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