Bastard Feudalism, English Society and the Law

Dr McKelvie discusses the significance of records of the court of King’s Bench to his work and his new book, which examines the political events and legal processes surrounding illegal livery.

Bastard feudalism is one of those convenient short-hands historians develop to explain past institutions and practices, in this case the ability of kings, nobles and others to create networks of followers tied to them. Although it was the mechanism through which English government and society operated in the later middle ages, some aspects were deemed problematic and therefore legislated against. These acts of parliament restricted the categories of servants to whom lords could grant their livery, and later retaining fees. It is these acts, and their corresponding cases, that my book examines.

When researching this book, I benefitted from being able to examine the largely unpublished records from the king’s bench held at The National Archives which allowed the enforcement of such parliament acts to be examined over a long chronology period. I think my book may be the first one to trace both the development and enforcement of a law in this way for the medieval period. Like everyone who has conducted extensive archival research on medieval England, I vividly remember my first visit to The National Archives with my PhD supervisor a decade ago. It was a daunting experience, particularly as I went through an entire controlment roll with him showing that I was able to ‘spot the offence’ in each case, all the time hoping that I hadn’t completely forgotten all of my palaeography lessons. Luckily, my Latin and palaeography seemed to hold up and I went through the King’s Bench records between 1390 and 1520, finding 336 cases.

Identifying all of these cases meant I had some concrete numbers and data that could address a wide range of topics. Although there were many days at The National Archives when I found no cases over several years, I realised that this was in fact symptomatic of the operation of medieval law because newly passed acts of parliament tended to be enforced sporadically. Having all of these cases allowed me to show that the statutes were enforced briefly during Henry V’s reign and at times during the early part of Henry VI’s reign, but it was really the troubles of the 1450s and the Wars of the Roses that saw cases increase.

The interlinked nature of different types of record meant that the outcomes of cases, where these could be identified, could also be quantified along with useful biographical information on those indicted. One of the key findings is that Henry VII had no desire to use these laws to systematically attack the private power base of the older nobility, since relatively few nobles were actually indicted in this reign. There were plenty of cases, but these were mainly against members of the gentry. The other interesting points were the cases involving women, clergy and townsmen who tend to be forgotten in debates about bastard feudalism: the contemporary sources show they were not forgotten at the time. Finally, my set of cases allowed me to explore aspects of local lawlessness and private wars in England during this period by examining certain case studies in their immediate context. In all, I hope my book shows that laws needed to conform to wider social and cultural practices and that the findings of this book may be of use to historians of late medieval England and beyond.

This guest post was written by Dr Gordon McKelvie, lecturer in history at the University of Winchester.

Bastard Feudalism, English Society and the Law
Gordon McKelvie
9781783274772, Hardback, £39 or $64.35

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