What was ‘Livery and Maintenance’?

What was ‘Livery and Maintenance’?

By Tim Lambon

Published Online (2011)

As our re-enactment company is investing in new livery cotes, I thought it apposite to write a little something about what “Livery and Maintenance” in the late 15th century meant and how the practice came about.

Broadly speaking we throw the terms “livery”, “maintenance”, “feed men”, “retainers” and “affinities” around within re-enactment with a far from perfect understanding of what this system of customary practices involved during the late 15th century. I was as bad as anyone in just believing what I heard, until I started to research documents I wanted to copy in my role as a medieval secretary.

It would seem that some of the lore is inaccurate, but regularly repeated nonetheless. So with apologies to any who might feel unduly criticised, I offer this little exposition so we can all learn and thereby improve what we impart to the public.

To start with, we have look at what made up a lords “affinity” – that social and political network based on ties to the land, oaths, agreements and contracts known as the lord’s ‘worship’ in contemporary documents. Within the affinity we need to differentiate between those “of the household” and those who were retained by indenture or other agreement within a lord’s affinity, who lived “apart from the household” and were “non-resident” retainers.

Of the Household

Obviously there were many constituent roles within “the household”, be it the household of the king, a lord or a gentleman. Anyone who was part “of the household” was either family, a ward or a servant. It goes without saying that family were clothed and fed within the household, so too were wards – children from other well-to-do families who’s care and education was given to a greater household, often for a fee either way.

Servants however, were not necessarily paid cash wages, but were certainly provided with subsistence and grants of clothing (usually twice a year) and cash rewards or gifts on special occasions and feast days.

Servants or “retainers” in the sense of “of the household,” were ‘upstairs’ persons. By definition, of lower rank than the lord, though of course this was a question of degree – in the king’s household many were nobles themselves. In a magnate’s household (dukes, earls and barons) these might include persons of some rank such as knights.

Such high status retainers would probably have had land or “estates” of their own from which they derived cash and kind income. Grants of clothing in these situations would then become provision of robes for occasion, given to enhance the prestige of the lord’s household, as well as livery to denote their fealty.

Obviously the poorer servants received garments just to keep them clothed, as well as to denote their affiliation. They would also be fed at the lord’s expense, but as we shall see later, this did not make them “feed men”. Men “of the household” were not contracted by indenture as such, but had family and oath allegiances which bound them in service to their lord.

Apart from the Household

So who participated in the system of “retaining” which gave rise to the custom of “livery” giving and the practice of “maintenance” if retainers “of the household” were not “feed men” although they wore the lord’s livery and ate at his expense?

Well, they were those at the levels of society marked by either “blood and quality” or wealth and sometimes both. As such, these retainers were “apart from the household” or non-resident, although they could be called upon to attend upon their lord and therefore could spend much time at his table. Such was the case at court where nobility with their own incomes and estates, were required to attend the king for much of the year.

These retainers were also given grants of cloth or clothing and by the fifteenth century were being paid fees (more of this below), as attested to by the payments and grants listed under “Feoda & Robe” in “the account book” of Sir John Fogge, Keeper of the Great Wardrobe in 1464. “Feoda” being fees, and “robe” being livery as given to the chamberlains of England and the Kings household, the steward of the household and other household officers. (1)

Maintenance and Livery

So, what was “maintenance” then? It was not, as I’ve heard tell at re-enactment events, the provision of livelihood (clothing, shelter and board) by a lord to his man.

It was in fact “recourse to some powerful neighbour who would “maintain” his cause, (rather) than to seek… (redress on his own through) the expensive, uncertain, and cumbrous remedies of the law courts. In return for (such) help…. which was more commonly a gross perversion of the course of justice, the person assisted became the dependent or client (retainer) of the lord who supported him.” (2)

The affinities of magnates were based on “maintaining” the grievances or suits of their members, making the honour of one, the honour of all so that causes were “maintained” often to the point where the “maintenance” thereof became an interference with the process of justice.

“Maintenance” thus became the root cause of injustice in the land. It was exacerbated by the giving of “livery” or identifying clothing or badges. By the fact that it identified groups of men as belonging to a particular faction, livery excited rivalry and led to increased antagonism between parties much like that demonstrated between today’s rival football supporters. Together, the traditions of livery and maintenance within the system of “retaining,” by the fifteenth century was causing “chronic organised anarchy, striking at all law and government whatsoever.” (Ibid)

The System of “Retaining” and “Feed Men”

So, understanding what “maintenance and livery” really means, what then were “feed men” if they weren’t people wearing a lords colours and eating at his table? To explain this we have to delve into where the system of “retaining” came from. It developed out of feudalism which was the hierarchical arrangement of society based on the exchange of service for protection within the context of land ownership.

FW Maitland in “The Constitutional History of England” (3) describes Feudalism  before 1300 as: “a state of society in which the main bond is the relationship between lord and man, a relationship implying on the lord’s part protection and defence; on the man’s part protection, service and reverence, the service including service in arms. This personal relationship is inseparably involved in a proprietary relationship, (who held) the tenure of the land…”

And by “tenure of the land…” we mean who, by owning it, had the right to the service of those who lived on it, almost as a payment of “rent”.

Certainly after 1066, a lord owned the land and anyone living off it or on it, paid him rent in terms of service and often kind. This anchored people to place and lord, and engendered all sorts of nastiness if you wanted to move away or change your allegiance.

But gradually service and kind was replaced by cash rents. This allowed greater mobility and an increasing number of villeins (persons tied to land and lord) being freed from their feudal “enfiefment” as such ties were called. Free men prospered and as the Paston letters show, a former villein who owned a plough and two oxen could afford to educate his son so that two generations later, his great grandson was a courtier in the king’s service. (4)

Until then lords had held “fiefs” from the king and in turn gave “fief” or land rights to those under them; but the idea of the Latin word for fief, “feodum” being translated as “fee” started gaining acceptance as far back as the early 1100s when Henries I & II paid “fief rente” in cash money to lords for their military service (5).

The civil unrest of Edward II’s reign and the foreign wars of Edward III’s, meant military service was needed for both peace and war. The money supply had vastly increased at the time, and it became easier for lords to pay “fees” rather than endowing military men of rank with land.

How much easier is it to stop paying someone, than to have to recover land from them through the tortuous court system? Thus the lords built up increasingly larger networks of “fee’d retainers.” These being those “apart from the household,” who were paid a “fee” for fealty and service rather than those “of the household” who were given food and clothing, as illustrated by ME Hicks when discussing the death of the Earl of Northumberland killed by an angry mob at Cocklodge in 1489:

‘What emerges clearly in Northumberland’s case is the degree to which his actions depended on the conduct of his feed men, the ‘officers’ of his retinue of war. As a ‘good lord’, it was his duty to advance their interests (get the Tudor monarch to reduce the burden of taxation) and remove conflicts with his own policies (enforcing the king’s orders) to their satisfaction….(6)’

Which in this case he failed to do and paid the price with his life.

The academic literature repeatedly refers to “feed men” as those “apart from the household” who are paid an annuity.

With money being paid as far back as the Edwards we can trace the start of the ”indenture system”, although by  the start of the struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster the exchange was becoming ever more refined.

WH Dunham quotes an “agreement in 1297 between Sir Aylmer de Valence, the lord, and Thomas, lord of Berkeley, the man, substituting cash – a £50 annuity – for land as the substantive bond between them…” (7)

But by the time William, Lord Hastings is signing his 90 indentures in the 1460s and 1470s, of the 67 extant documents, only two involve a fee. The rest of his “affinity” received but his promise to be their “good and favourable lord” in return for their service both military and civil. (Ibid)

The Rise of “Affinities”

So we see that by the mid-fifteenth century even the “fief-rente” or “fee” had become more subtle; monetary payments were replaced by “good Lordship” – aid, favour, support and preferment – and magnates developed “affinities” of those who had sworn to serve them, usually for life. The size and strength of such affinities relied on perceptions of the lord’s demonstrable power which was directly proportional to his access at court to the King.

In fact the early part of the Wars of the Roses happens largely because two of the land’s greatest magnates, Richard Duke of York and Richard, Earl of Salisbury, are restricted in their access to the king by the Lancastrian party of Somerset, Northumberland and the Queen. The battles are initially about possession of the person of the king because access to the king was essential for royal patronage, and that amongst other things, maintained one’s affinity.

By the fifteenth century the process, whereby fiefs gave way to fees and fees to favour, had also resulted in a change in the nature of the services rendered in return. Whereas Norman and Angevin feudalism commanded military service, by the fourteenth century the retainer now performed peacetime duties as well, attending his lord at tournaments, parliaments and public assemblies.

A century later the retainer supported his lord in county and national political arenas. He was appointed to county offices, and thereby performed political services which complimented his military functions and established his lord’s ascendancy.

Simply put, one hand washed the other – the lord’s influence greatly enhanced the ability of the retainer to gain the office and the retainer, once in office benefitted both himself through its remuneration, and his good lord through advancing the lord’s schemes and partialities.

Controlling the System of “Retaining”

The first legislation concerning the institution of “retaining” occurs during Richard II’s reign in 1390. It tried to codify the practice of retaining through indenture and the giving of livery. What resulted was the practice of “maintenance,” the evil arising from the custom of giving “livery” which was a stimulus to many of the abuses as a result of the “retaining” itself, which was the institution that the Act sought to preserve because of its usefulness to the political system.

Subsequent legislation was passed which attempted to eliminate the cause of the abuse without destroying the institution. These Acts involved limiting the wearing of badges, tokens and cotes and prohibited the practice of “maintenance” that was illegal and degraded the process of justice (because, confusingly, some maintenance was considered legal!) It was not until Edward’s Act of 1468 that the right to retain by oath, promise or indenture was restricted in any way. And even then, the magnates of the day argued that this did not apply to them as peers, and continued to retain non-resident retainers with elaborate indentures.

Eventually Elizabeth I repealed the previous acts of parliament prohibiting livery and retaining, and instead licensed the peers, courtiers, and even the lord chief justice, to give liveries because “the royal government needed men for both war and peace; and the lords’ retainers provided captains for the contract armies and officials for county governance.” (Ibid)

It was only once the institutions of government in the form of parliament and the courts of law became powerful enough in their own right to raise armies and police civic appointments, that the system of “retaining” with its attendant “livery” and resulting “maintenance” faded from politics. It seems to have been a necessary evil monarchs could not control or do without, throwing the kingdom into anarchy and causing internecine wars because the rarification of the practice had obscured the chivalric basis of the system, creating as HM Cam puts it in “The Decline and Fall of English Feudalism”:

“a parasitic institution…. cut off from its natural roots in the soil, and far removed indeed from the atmosphere of responsibility, loyalty and faith which had characterised the relationship of lord and vassal in the earlier middle ages.” (8)



(1) Public Records Office E101//411/13, fols. 36-38 [as quoted in Dunham (6 below)]

(2) The Dictionary of English History. Sidney J. Low and F. S. Pulling, Eds. Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1897. 701-2. A legal definition of “maintenance” given by Low & Pulling is “the act of assisting the plaintiff in any legal proceeding in which the person giving the assistance has no valuable interest, or in which he acts from an improper motive.”

(3) The Constitutional History of England, FW Maitland, Cambridge University Press, 1908 xxviii, p.143

(4) Paston Letters And Papers Of The Fifteenth Century, Norman Davis (ed.) I, II. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1971-1976)

(5) “The Feudal Antecedent of the Indenture System”, BD Lyon, Speculum, XXIX (1954), p.503-511

(6) ‘Richard III and his rivals: magnates and their motives in the Wars of the Roses’ MA Hicks, 1991

(7) “Lord Hastings’ Indentured Retainers 1461-1483; Lawfulness of livery and retaining under the Yorkists and Tudors”, WH Dunham, Transactions of The Connecticut Academy of Arts & Sciences, Vol. 39, Sept 1955, p.1-175

(8) HM Cam “The Decline and Fall of English Feudalism,” History, XXV (1940), 225.

We thank Tim Lambon for submitting this article.

See also Why Medieval? with Tim Lambon

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