The Queen’s Council in the Middle Ages

The Queen’s Council in the Middle Ages

By Anne Crawford

The English Historical Review, Vol. 116, No. 469. (2001)

Introduction: In February 1605, James I established the judicial subsection of the council of his queen, Anne of Denmark, as a separate court. In 1641 Sir John Lamb, chancellor of Queen Henrietta Maria, claimed to have evidence for such a court during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Lamb had been searching for precedents which would reinforce the case for parliamentary confirmation of the legality of the queen court and he believed that as far back as the reign of Edward I, the queen consort had held an equity court. Although Lamb was right, he was unable to substantiate his claim. More recently, N. R. R. Fisher has used the Tudor evidence in support of Lamb’s claim, but it is possible to show that from at least as early as the thirteenth century each queen consort had a council to assist her in managing her lands and business affairs and that the work of that council was administrative and advisory as well as judicial.

The records illustrating this work are scattered and survive mainly in references to the council or its members in miscellaneous Chancery records, ministers’ accounts or records of the queens’ households. However, recent reclassification of Tudor and Stuart records of the council itself in the Public Record Office have brought to light a handful of documents from the late fifteenth century. There are also fragmentary acta, indicating that the queen’s council, like that of the Prince of Wales or the Duchy of Lancaster, kept a record of its proceedings. A study of the council in the Middle Ages falls chronologically into two halves. The first, beginning in the thirteenth century and continuing to the end of the fourteenth century, is based on the more scattered evidence of the workings and personnel of the council; the second, dating from the involvement of the Duchy of Lancaster, when the queens from Joan of Navarre onwards were dowered with Duchy lands, reveals the important developments in the workings of the council in the fifteenth century.

The need for a council was primarily a result of the acquisition of lands by the medieval queens of England. The core of these lands comprised the queen’s dower, the value of which was usually agreed as part of her marriage negotiations and which was intended for the support of her household during the king’s lifetime and for her financial independence as a widow. The dower, or much of it, was customarily secured on royal lands and made the queen dowager one of the principal landowners in the realm, since the value of the dower, fixed at £4,000 p.a. in 1262 for Eleanor of Provence and increased in 1275 to £4,500 for Eleanor of Castile, remained customarily fixed at that level until the end of the fourteenth century.

On the queen’s death, the lands naturally reverted to the Crown and were then frequently granted to her successor. In the early years after the Conquest there is some evidence that the Anglo-Norman queens not only held their dower lands during their husband’s lifetime but also acquired and disposed of further lands, for the purposes of patronage. Whatever freedom the early queens had to hold land, however, was gradually eroded and from the mid-twelfth century until the mid-thirteenth century, the dower lands remained in the king’s hands while he supported his wife’s household with the cash equivalent, and possession only passed to the queen at widowhood. This situation changed when Henry III decided to allow his wife, Eleanor of Provence, to hold and administer some lands herself, although these did not include the Crown lands which were her dower. From that date, each queen had in practice the rights of a femme sole, virtually the only married woman in the kingdom to hold such rights. It was not, however, until the fourteenth century that she was once again allowed to hold her dower lands before she was widowed.

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