The Duchy of Lancaster has a remarkable history.
The inheritance had its beginnings in a grant of land made by King Henry III in 1265 to his son Edmund. Nearly a century later, in 1351, Edmund’s grandson, Henry of Grosmont, received the title Duke of Lancaster, and the estate became known as the Duchy of Lancaster.
The Duchy soon became one of the wealthiest bodies in the kingdom. Its status was confirmed in 1399 with the accession to the throne of Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster. From that time onwards, the inheritance has been enjoyed by all reigning sovereigns, while being separately administered from other royal possessions.
During the course of its existence, the Duchy has been central to events in the history of the monarchy and the nation. It was a springboard to the throne for the house of Lancaster, a power base in the Wars of the Roses, and a vital resource for kings and queens in later periods.
The affairs of the Duchy of Lancaster have been managed with the assistance and advice of the Duchy Council from the earliest days.
In the Middle Ages, great land owners generally had a council to handle their affairs. With the creation of the County Palatine in 1351, early Dukes appointed a Duchy Council for administration of the estates and to advise on financial, legal and political issues.
After the Duchy of Lancaster became linked to the Crown in 1399, the Duchy Council was even more important. It was expected to deliver strong revenues for the Monarch. The various offices remained separate from central government; the Duchy officers were, and still are, accountable directly to the Chancellor and the Sovereign.
In the first three centuries of the Duchy’s existence, the Duchy Council included a Chancellor, Chamberlain, two Chief Stewards, a Receiver General, an Attorney General, two Auditors and a Clerk of the Council.
The office of Chancellor was one of the most important roles in the Duchy. It related in particular to the County Palatine. The Chancellor’s role was to keep the Duke of Lancaster’s privy seal. He supervised the preparation and issue of letters under the seal. In the fifteenth century, the Chancellor developed into an administrator and judge, and was called the head officer and governor of the Duchy.
Chancellors of the Duchy of Lancaster were important figures. Well-known holders of the post included Sir Thomas More, Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Robert Cecil, one of Elizabeth I’s premier ministers. Another sixteenth century Chancellor was Sir Edward Waldegrave; his descendant, William Waldegrave, also served as Chancellor from 1992 to 1994.
Originally head of a nobleman’s household, the Chamberlain was the most important figure in the medieval Duchy Council. The role disappeared in the early sixteenth century with the increased importance of the Chancellor.
The two Chief Stewards were high officers in the Duchy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Their role was to manage the local stewards who held courts and supervised regional officers. The Chief Stewards were replaced by Surveyors of Lands in the sixteenth century.
The Receiver General presided over financial affairs, overseeing the receipt and management of revenues from Duchy lands. The post still exists today; the holder is the Keeper of the Privy Purse, the Sovereign’s senior financial adviser.
The role of Attorney General acted legally on behalf of the Duke of Lancaster, and later the Sovereign. The post remains in today’s Duchy and is currently a member of the Council; the holder is a senior Queen’s Counsel at the Chancery Bar.
The Clerk of the Council is now the Chief Executive Officer at the Duchy. They also act as the Surveyor General and Keeper of the Records, while being a member of the Council.
The Council is given a revokable delegation of authority by each Chancellor upon taking his appointment. This enables Council to undertake the financial management of the Duchy in much the same manner as the board of a company.
Discover the Duchy’s story in this section.