An ancient inheritance

The ancient Lancaster inheritance we know as the Duchy of Lancaster began in 1265, when Henry III gifted the baronial lands of Simon de Montfort to his son, Edmund. A year later, Henry added the estate of Robert Ferrers, Earl of Derby and then the ‘honour, county, town and castle of Lancaster’, giving Edmund a new title, Earl of Lancaster.

Two years later in 1267, Edmund also received from his father the manor of Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, together with lands and estates in both Yorkshire and Lancashire. This substantial inheritance was further added to by Edmund’s mother, Eleanor of Provence, who in 1284 bestowed on him the manor of the Savoy in London.

Edmund’s inheritance passed to his eldest son Thomas, who was beheaded in 1322. Thereafter, it was conferred on his second son Henry (3rd Earl of Lancaster).

In 1351, Edward III conferred the title of Duke of Lancaster on the celebrated diplomat and soldier, Henry Grosmont, son of Henry 3rd Earl of Lancaster, ‘in recognition of (his) astonishing deeds of prowess and feats of arms‘. Edward III also raised Lancaster to a County Palatine for the duration of Henry Grosmont’s life, giving the Duke devolved royal powers. These included control of the law courts and the right to appoint the sheriff, judges, justices of the peace and other senior officials serving the County Palatine.

When Henry Grosmont died in 1361, the inheritance became part of his daughter Blanche’s dowry. Two years earlier in 1359, Blanche had married one of Edward III’s sons, John of Gaunt. As only a male heir could inherit the Dukedom, John became the second Duke of Lancaster in 1362. He then persuaded his father Edward III to grant the Palatinate powers to him and his heirs permanently.

When John died in 1399, his nephew King Richard II confiscated the Lancaster inheritance and banished John’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, from England for life. Within the year, Henry Bolingbroke returned from exile, raised an army and forced Richard to abdicate. He ascended to the throne as Henry IV in October 1399.

One of Henry’s first acts as King was to stipulate the conditions in which the Lancaster inheritance should be held, specifying that it should be held separately from all other Crown possessions, and should descend through the Monarchy as a private estate.

Some 300 years later, under the Crown Lands Act 1702, it was decreed that the Sovereign should only receive income and not capital from the Duchy.

And so it remains to this day.

The Duchy Council

The affairs of the Duchy of Lancaster have been managed with the assistance and advice of the Duchy Council from its earliest days. In the Middle Ages, great landowners generally had a Council to handle their affairs. With the creation of the County Palatine in 1351, early Dukes appointed a Duchy Council for the 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 became even more important. The various officers remained separate from central government and were expected to deliver strong revenues for the Monarch.

Duchy officers were, and still are, accountable directly to the Duchy Chancellor and the Sovereign as Duke of Lancaster.

Roles of Duchy Council Members

During 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. The Chancellor kept the Duke of Lancaster’s privy seal and supervised the preparation and issuing 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 therefore important figures. Well-known holders of the post have 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. Today, these roles have evolved into the Duchy’s Head of Rural and Head of Urban Surveys.

The Receiver General presided over financial affairs, overseeing the receipt and management of revenues from Duchy lands. The post still exists on the Duchy Council today; the holder is the Keeper of the Privy Purse, the Sovereign’s senior financial adviser.

The role of the Attorney General was to give legal advice and to be party to any court proceedings brought by or against he Duke of Lancaster, and later the Sovereign as Duke. The post remains in today’s Duchy and the Attorney General is a 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. He also acts as the Surveyor General and Keeper of the Records, while being a member of Council.