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Conscience and the King's Household Clergy in the Early Tudor Court of Requests

  • Laura Flannigan (a1)


The early Tudor Court of Requests was closely attached to the king's person and his duty to provide ‘indifferent’ justice. In practice, however, it was staffed by members of the attendant royal household and council. Utilizing the little-studied but extensive records of the court, this article traces the rising dominance of the dean of the Chapel Royal and the royal almoner as administrators and judges there from the 1490s to the 1520s. It examines the relationship between supposedly ‘secular’ and ‘spiritual’ activities within the central administration and between the formal and informal structures and ideologies of the church, the law and the royal household. It explores the politics of proximity and the ad hoc nature of early Tudor governance which made the conscience-based jurisdiction in Requests especially convenient to the king and desperate litigants alike. Overall the article argues that although the influence of clergymen in the court waned towards the end of the sixteenth century in favour of common-law judges, its enduring association with ‘poor men's causes’ and ‘conscience’ grew directly from these early clerical underpinnings.

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*Newnham College, Cambridge, CB3 9DF; E-mail:


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1 As in the ‘Description of the Cortes of Justice in England’, written by the MP Alexander Fisher of Gray's Inn in 1576: Kew, TNA, SP12/110, fol. 44r.

2 Dudley, Edmund, Tree of Commonwealth, ed. Brodie, D. M. (Cambridge, 1948), 34.

3 Baron, Stephen, De regimine principum (1509), transl. Mroczkowski, P. J. (New York, 1990), 79.

4 Dudley, Tree of Commonwealth, 34; Baron, De regimine principum, 79.

5 TNA, Pleadings series, REQ2, bundles 1–13; Order Books series, REQ1/1–5, 104–5, plus fragments in REQ 3/22, 29, 30.

6 Including Guy, John A., ‘Wolsey, the Council, and the Council Courts’, EHR 91 (1976), 481505; Haskett, Timothy S., ‘Conscience, Justice and Authority in the Late Medieval English Court of Chancery’, in Musson, Anthony, ed., Expectations of the Law in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2001), 151–64.

7 Gwilym Dodd, ‘Reason, Conscience and Equity: Bishops as the King's Judges in Later Medieval England’, History 99 (2014), 213–40, at 215.

8 Guy, John A., The Court of Star Chamber and its Records to the Reign of Elizabeth I (London, 1985), 6; S. J. Gunn, Early Tudor Government 1485–1558 (Basingstoke, 1995), 77.

9 Most famously in G. R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII (Cambridge, 1953); John Guy restored the balance in Wolsey's favour: ‘The Privy Council: Revolution or Evolution?’, in Christopher Coleman and David Starkey, eds, Revolution Reassessed: Revisions in the History of Tudor Government and Administration (Oxford, 1986), 59–86.

10 G. R. Elton, ‘Why the History of the early Tudor Council remains unwritten’, in idem, ed., Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government: Papers and Reviews 1946–1972 (Cambridge, 1974), 308–38, at 328; John Baker, OHLE, 6: 1483–1558 (Oxford, 2003), 203–4.

11 I. S. Leadam, ed., Select Cases in the Court of Requests, A.D. 1496–1569, SelS 12 (London, 1898).

12 D. A. Knox, ‘The Court of Requests in the Reign of Edward VI 1547–1553’ (PhD thesis, Cambridge University, 1974); Tim Stretton, Women waging Law in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, 1998).

13 Kleineke, Hannes, ‘Richard III and the Origins of the Court of Requests’, The Ricardian 11 (2007), 2232.

14 TNA, REQ2/13/100.

15 TNA, REQ2/4/366.

16 TNA, REQ2/12/198.

17 TNA, REQ2/1/1 and countless other examples throughout REQ2 and REQ3.

18 Thurley, Simon, Houses of Power: The Palaces that shaped the Tudor World (London, 2017), 105, 310–11.

19 TNA, REQ1/1, fols 3r, 21r, 23r, 23v, 30v, 156v, 160v, 165r, 165v, 166r, 166v, 167r, 168v, 171v, 178r. The figures, in order of frequency of appearance, are Thomas Savage, Thomas Jan, Dr Robert Middleton, John Viscount Welles, Sir John Digby, William Greville, Dr Edmund Martyn, Charles Somerset, Richard Fitzjames, Robert Rydon, Robert Sherborne, the earl of Derby, the prior of St Johns, Richard Mayhew and Dr Richard Hatton; for their biographies, see Leadam, ed., Select Cases, cx–cxiv.

20 Savage was first recorded as bishop of London in the court records in April 1497, following his appointment to that office late in 1496: TNA, REQ1/1, fol. 23r. In 1501 he was appointed archbishop of York. At that point his engagement in Requests appears to have ceased, his last attendance being recorded in March 1501: REQ1/2, fol. 128v.

21 A title ascribed to him in the Requests books in December 1497: TNA, REQ1/1, fol. 45v; S. B. Chrimes, Henry VII (London, 1972), 103.

22 Ibid. 98–103.

23 Emden, A. B., ed., A Biographical Register of the University of Cambridge to 1500 (Cambridge, 1963), 293, 1277; Leadam, ed., Select Cases, cx, cxiii.

24 John Baker, The Men of Court 1440 to 1550: A Prosopography of the Inns of Court and Chancery and the Courts of Law, SelS supplementary series 18 (London, 2012), 783.

25 TNA, REQ2/2/90; REQ2/10/8; REQ2/5/319; Richard Mayhew, the almoner, also signed a petition which might be dated to this period: REQ2/4/345.

26 TNA, REQ2/2/145.

27 TNA, REQ1/4, fol. 3r; REQ1/105, fol. 1v.

28 TNA, REQ1/105, fol. 1v.

29 See Baker's summary of these cases: John Baker, The Reinvention of Magna Carta 1216–1616 (Cambridge, 2017), 459–60.

30 TNA, REQ2/6/207; REQ2/1/1; REQ2/2/74; REQ2/3/126, 183; REQ2/4/160; REQ2/6/182; REQ2/12/77.

31 The business of the main council was distinct from the Requests tribunal in that it handled disputes between peers of the realm and those matters touching the king directly, such as instances of seditious speech: San Marino, CA, HL, MS Ellesmere 2655, fols 1r–18v.

32 TNA, SP1/19, fol. 142r; HL, MS Ellesmere 2655, fols 12r, 16r.

33 TNA, REQ1/1 gives 244 entries for 1496–7, whilst REQ1/104, 105, and the fragments in REQ3/22, 29 and 30 together give 511 entries for 1520–1.

34 Guy, ‘Wolsey’, 495–6.

35 I. S. Leadam, ed., The Domesday of Inclosures 1517–1518, being the extant Returns to Chancery for Berks, Bucks, Cheshire, Essex, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northants, Oxon, Warwickshire by the Commissioners of Inclosures in 1517 and for Bedfordshire in 1518, 2 vols (London, 1897), 1: 81, 83–6.

36 Baldwin, David, The Chapel Royal: Ancient and Modern (London, 1990), 231.

37 C. M. Woolgar, The Great Household in Late Medieval England (New Haven, CT, 1999), 163; James Gairdner, ed., Letters and Papers illustrative of the Reigns of Richard III and Henry VII (London, 1861), 392; Edward Hall, Hall's Chronicle; containing the History of England during the Reign of Henry the Fourth and the succeeding Monarchs, to the End of the Reign of Henry the Eighth (London, 1809), 540, 565, 674, 730.

38 A viewpoint discussed, and dismissed, by Dodd: ‘Reason, Conscience, and Equity’, 222.

39 TNA, REQ2/3/134.

40 Dodd, ‘Reason, Conscience, and Equity’, 226–39.

41 TNA, REQ2/2/81, 192; REQ2/4/337.

42 Dodd, ‘Reason, Conscience, and Equity’, 221–3, 225–6.

43 ‘An Acte to admytt such persons as are poore to sue in forma pauperis’ (1495), 11 Hen. VII c.12; it is probable that several bishops helped formulate this statute: C. G. Bayne and William Huse Dunham, Select Cases in the Council of Henry VII, SelS 75 (London, 1958), 28.

44 R. H. Helmholz, Canon Law and the Law of England (London, 1987), 47; Brundage, James A., ‘Legal Aid for the Poor and the Professionalization of Law in the Middle Ages’, JLH 9 (1988), 169–79, at 171.

45 TNA, REQ2/1/2; REQ2/2/54, 66; REQ2/3/140, 165; REQ2/4/50, 52; REQ2/5/58, 323; REQ2/6/34; REQ2/7/40, 122, 127, 130; REQ2/8/339; REQ2/12/126, 155, 159; REQ3/6 Tolby v Knighte; REQ3/9 Cause v Abbot of Furness; REQ3/10 Pante v Knight, Symmes v Bekford.

46 There are just ‘two dozen’ identified in Chancery for 1515–29: Franz Metzger, ‘The Last Phase of the Medieval Chancery’, in Alan Harding, ed., Law-Making and Law-Makers in British History: Papers presented to the Edinburgh Legal History Conference, 1977 (London, 1980), 79–89, at 82; and only two admissions in Star Chamber for the same period: Guy, Court of Star Chamber, 62; one better known example of such decretals is William Lyndwood, Provinciale seu constitutions Angliae (Oxford, 1679), 68c.

47 L&P 3: 1.

48 TNA, REQ1/5, fol. 43v.

49 Christopher St German, Doctor and Student, ed. T. F. T. Plucknett and J. L. Barton, SelS 91 (London, 1974).

50 Knox, ‘Court of Requests’, 70–3.

51 Lambarde, William, Archeion or, a Discourse upon the High Courts of Justice in England, ed. McIlwain, Charles H. and Ward, Paul L. (Cambridge, 1957), 118; Thomas Blount, Nomo-Lexikon, a Law-Dictionary, interpreting such Difficult and Obscure Words and Terms, as are found either in our Common or Statute, Ancient or Modern Lawes ([London], 1670), s.v. ‘Court of Requests’.

Conscience and the King's Household Clergy in the Early Tudor Court of Requests

  • Laura Flannigan (a1)


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