October 2011 – The Scottish King’s Household

‘The Scottish King’s Household’ and English Ideas of Constitutional Reform

Professor David Carpenter, Co-Investigator

Historians of medieval Scotland have long appreciated the importance of a treatise which its first editor, Mary Bateson, entitled ‘The Scottish King’s Household’.[1] Written in French, and covering around seven pages of modern print, it describes in detail the functions of the king’s chancellor, chamberlain, steward, constable, marshal, almoner, and various other household clerks and officials. G.W.S. Barrow thought there were grounds for assigning the work to c.1292 ‘and for supposing that it was written for the benefit of the new king John Balliol’. ‘At all events’, he commented, ‘the treatise appears to be well informed and authoritative’.[2] A.A.M. Duncan, likewise regarded the work as being drawn up about 1292 ‘for the guidance of King John’, perhaps ‘by some well meaning Scottish court correspondent’. While in places it was misleading, ‘much of what [the author] wrote was in accordance with thirteenth-century practice.’ ‘This treatise, then’, Duncan concluded, ‘can be our guide to Alexander III’s government’.[3]

The purpose of this ‘Feature of the Month’ is to build on Duncan’s appreciation that ‘The Scottish King’s Household’ can be at variance with known facts.[4] What will be suggested is that the variations are partly because the treatise was concerned to advance radical ideas of constitutional reform. These ideas corresponded closely to opposition programmes being developed in England. In other ways too, as indeed Mary Bateson noticed, the treatise recommended administrative practices with a very English feel. Up to a point, such parallelism may simply be the result of similar administrative structures creating similar problems and calling for similar solutions. Yet the Treatise, we will suggest, goes well beyond that and propounds reforms seemingly of English provenance, which have very little relevance to the actual situation in Scotland. The extent to which it can be used as ‘guide’ to Scottish government in the thirteenth century at the very least  needs re-appraisal.

The first point to make is that the Treatise is couched not as a statement of past practice but as a series of recommendations for the future. Thus most of the clauses take the form of what ‘should be’ – ‘Further there should be [‘doit estre ordeine’] a clerk of the rolls’.[5] By far the most striking recommendations concern how the king’s ministers were to be chosen. In respect of the chancellor, chamberlain and justiciars, this was to be by ‘the counsel and consent’ of the magnates of the realm gathered together in a ‘common assembly’, an assembly described elsewhere in the treatise as ‘parliament’.[6] Duncan mildly observed that the treatise thus ‘assigned’ ‘to the prelates and magnates… a voice in the choice of officials such as they had never enjoyed’, a remark which rather missed the revolutionary nature of the demand.[7] Such a voice, of course, had been a central plank in the programmes of reform urged on King Henry III in England. Again and again the parliaments of the 1240s and 1250s had claimed the right to choose the king’s chancellor, justiciar and treasurer.[8] Under the Provisions of Oxford, forced on the king by the revolution of 1258, the demand had been effectively realised. It had, of course, died a death when Henry finally recovered power after the battle of Evesham in 1265. When revived in 1301, Edward I had been contemptuous in its dismissal. According to Langtoft, in an account which has some support from another source, he berated the assembled magnates with the following speech.

‘I see that through pride you intend to insult me,

When you think to drive me to so low condition;

There is not one of you who has not quite the power,

Without the assent of another to arrange his household,

To appoint bailiffs and stewards under him,

Whom at his pleasure he will be able to judge.

Nor ought anyone to push a lord lower than himself.

Nor will I suffer it as long as I am to reign.’[9]

It is, therefore, remarkable to find a demand of this poisonous nature, as far as any king was concerned, in a treatise drawn up around this very time for the government of Scotland. Indeed the demand in the treatise was more radical than that put publicly to Henry III or Edward I. Under them it focused on the appointment by common consent of the chancellor, justiciar and the treasurer of the exchequer, what might be called the great officers of state. In Scotland, it focused likewise on the chancellor and the justiciars, but after that its target was not any treasurer of the exchequer (for there was none) but the chamberlain. The chamberlain in Scotland was certainly the equivalent of the English treasurer in that he received the revenues of the kingdom. As the treatise said he was to ‘deal with [‘mellera’]…all manner of the realm’s issues’. Yet he was also very different from the English treasurer. The latter remained in a fixed a place and had nothing to do with running the royal household. The Scottish chamberlain, by contrast, travelled with the king, was head of the household, and regulated the supply of everything on which it depended for its daily living.[10] In effect, he was both an officer of state and an officer of the household, the equivalent on both the English treasurer of the exchequer and treasurer of the wardrobe.[11] In stipulating that the chamberlain should be appointed by common consent, the treatise thus sought to give parliament oversight of the whole running of the king’s domestic economy.[12] There were certainly ideas along these lines in England. Given that the costs of the royal household ate up a major part of the revenues of the kingdom, that was hardly surprising.[13] In practice, if silently, the reformers of 1258 did control appointment to household officials.[14] Their successors of 1311 came into the open and the Ordinances of that year forced Edward II to choose not merely the great officers of state but also the steward of his household and the keeper of his wardrobe ‘with the counsel and assent of his baronage and that in parliament’.[15]

The demands of the Scottish Treatise also paralleled those in England when it came to local government and in particular the sheriffs. The latter were to be chosen ‘by the election and advice of the good people of the county and such as know how to maintain the law for poor and rich’.[16] South of the border, individual counties had been allowed (for a price) to choose their own sheriffs since the reign of King John.[17] Under the reforms of 1259, the shires were to elect four candidates for the office from whom the exchequer was to choose one.[18] Finally, in the ‘Articuli super Cartas’ of 1300, Edward ‘granted to his people that they may if they wish have the choosing of their sheriffs in each county…such as will not burden them’.[19] The Scottish Treatise likewise echoed English concerns when it stipulated that the sheriff should have property from which he could be punished for his trespasses and for failing to answer for the issues of his bailiwick. This clearly stemmed from the kind of complaints voiced in an English schedule of grievances from 1264, which said that, under Henry III, the sheriffs ‘on laying down their offices had not the wherewithal to satisfy the lord king for the farm nor his subjects for their offences’. In another field, that of the jurisdiction of the court of the verge, the Treatise again paralleled English solutions. Its stipulation that such offences were to be ‘promptly tried in the king’s household [‘demoure’] and not elsewhere’ was essentially the equivalent of the requirement in the 1311 Ordinances that the court was to hear ‘pleas quickly day by day, so they are heard and determined before the king goes beyond the bounds of the verge where the offence was committed’.[20]

Although not part of any English reform agenda, there was a further area when the Treatise recommended English practice, namely through the introduction of an exchequer. There was no exchequer in Scotland in the thirteenth century in any English sense. As far as I can see, the first time the word occurs in a Scottish context is in the Treatise on the household, where indeed it appears five times.[21] There certainly were accounts in Scotland of an increasingly standard form, but they were heard on an ad hoc basis at different times and places on the royal itinerary.[22] This was quite different from the English exchequer which met at a fixed location (Westminster) at fixed times through the year. It was this which the Treatise sought to introduce in Scotland. ‘The exchequer’, ran the Treatise, ‘shall be ordered in a certain place for the people’s convenience once a year, on a summons of forty days, made by the king’s writ to all those who owe an account, to render account of all the issues before auditors of the account’.[23] The Scottish exchequer here was to operate on a smaller scale than its equivalent in England, [24] which was open for much of the year, but it was to follow the same basic practice in hearing accounts at a fixed place and at a time stated and announced.

There was nothing to stop this change being introduced into Scotland, and perhaps much to recommend it.[25] This was much less the case with another suggested reform which was drawn from English practice without having any past or indeed future in Scotland. The Treatise raised the possibility of the chancery, instead of following the king, staying, at his command, ‘in a suitable place for the convenience of the people’.[3]%0ocx#_ftn26″>[26] In England such a separation between king and chancery was gradually coming about. The main reason was ‘the convenience of the people’, who were coming to the chancery in huge numbers to purchase the writs which initiated and furthered the common law legal procedures. They naturally welcomed a fixed destination (usually Westminster) as opposed to having to seek the chancery out as it followed the king round the country.[27] Yet there is no sign that such a separation was coming about in Scotland. Indeed if the extent of the Scottish common law was as small as has recently been argued, one may question whether it was called for.[28] The Treatise, having suggested that the chancery should remain in a fixed place, went on to stipulate that it should issue no writs save those ‘of course’ ‘without the special command of the king’s privy seal’. This again seems predicated more on English than Scottish conditions. In England the separation between king and chancery was producing a flow of privy seal letters authorising the chancery to issue writs under the great seal.[29] In Scotland where there was no such separation, there is little evidence of the use of a privy seal at all. As Duncan remarked, commenting on this passage, ‘it is difficult to believe that pressure of business made a privy seal necessary’.[30]

What then are we to make of this extraordinary document? If it was indeed drawn up ‘for the benefit of King John’, it was the kind of ‘benefit’ a delinquent might receive from a corrective custodial sentence. Balliol may have been inexperienced and unfitted for kingship, as Amanda Beam has recently argued, but it is doubtful if he would have regarded the proposals as being for his benefit, or have thought of their author as being ‘well meaning’; mendacious more like.[31] If John was to start his reign with parliament choosing his chief officials and the people his sheriffs, he might well have said with Edward I, ‘I will not suffer it as long as I am to reign’. Nor did he have to suffer it. His parliaments did not in any formal way appoint his chancellor, chamberlain and justiciars. Nor were his sheriffs elected.[32] This is not to say that the proposals for parliamentary control are inexplicable.[33] They could reflect the deep distrust of King John and the way parliament had gained authority in the interregnum since the death of Alexander III. The demands would have gained still more point as Balliol’s position began to disintegrate.[34] It is perfectly possible, then, that, in these circumstances, the author of the Treatise turned to English ideas to solve the Scottish problem. If he was also drawing on ideas already present north of the border, that would have disturbing consequences for the usual view of the realm’s happiness under King Alexander III.

Is it, however, quite certain that the document was the work of a Scottish ‘court correspondent’, well meaning or otherwise? Indeed, is it of Scottish provenance, or at any rate, of exclusively Scottish provenance, at all? Of course, the author clearly had some grasp of Scottish conditions and knew they could be different from those in England. So much is clear, as we have seen, from his recommendations regarding the chamberlain and the exchequer. He was also informed about the Scottish clerk of the rolls,[35] justiciars[36] and escheators. In respect of the latter, he argued that the job should be done by the sheriffs, just as laid down in Edward I’s ordinance for the government of Scotland in 1305. This was different from the treatment in England where reformers accepted the office, but sought its regulation.[37] Nonetheless, the extent to which, in the Treatise, both constitutional ideas and detailed regulations, come from England is remarkable. Some of the detailed regulations, moreover, as argued above, seem unrelated to Scottish conditions. Indeed, that was surely the case with the demand for the sheriffs to be elected, given its absence from any Scottish political agenda. Is it possible, then, that the document was the work of an English, or Anglo-Scottish clerk, in some way involved in Scottish government under Balliol? Perhaps simply as an intellectual exercise, he drew up the treatise, imposing on Scotland his very English ideas of governmental practice and constitutional reform. Whether Balliol ever saw the document, one may doubt.[38] This suggestion of English provenance is at least compatible with the location of the document itself. The only known copy is in a book compiled in the first half of the fourteenth century and now preserved in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College Cambridge.[39] Mary Bateson, gave a very full description of the contents, and concluded, quite reasonably, that the compiler ‘would seem to have been an exchequer official working in London’.[40] If then the Treatise ever did go to Scotland, it, or a copy, subsequently returned to the south.

I have, in this ‘Feature of the Month’, but scratched the surface of this fascinating document. Its contents deserve closer analysis. The circumstances of its production need more thought. To say that it must be used with caution a guide to actual conditions in thirteenth-century would be to close on too negative a note. ‘The Scottish King’s Household’ has many secrets still to yield.

[1] ‘The Scottish King’s Household’, ed. M. Bateson in Miscellany of The Scottish History Society (Edinburgh, 1904), with introduction, pp.3-30, including chapter by chapter commentary; French text, pp.31-7; and English translation pp.37-43. The MS in which it is preserved is discussed below. I am most grateful to Dauvit Broun and Alice Taylor for commenting on a draft of this paper.

[2] G.W.S. Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots (London, 1973), p.93 and p.93 note 32 for the date. Bateson thought the document might date to 1305, but added there was no evidence that Edward I proposed to keep a separate royal household for Scotland and so wondered about origins under John Balliol or Alexander III : ‘Scottish King’s Household’, pp.4-5. In fact the recommendations in the Treatise are frequently at odds with the 1305 Ordinance for the Government of Scotland: Anglo-Scottish Relations 1174-1328, ed. E.L.G. Stones (Oxford, 1965), pp.240-59. Around 1292 does seem the most likely date.

[3] A.A.M. Duncan, Scotland; The Making of the Kingdom (Edinburgh, 1975), p.595. Bateson herself thought the author might have been a member of the Scottish king’s household: ‘Scottish King’s Household’, p.5.

[4] See Duncan, Making of the Kingdom, pp.596, 600-1, 605-6, 609-10.

[5] ‘Scottish King’s Household’, pp.32, 39, cap.v. (The chapter numbers are Bateson’s).

[6] ‘Scottish King’s Household’, pp.31-2, 37-8, 36, 42, caps.i,ii, xv. For references to parliament, pp. 34, 40, 37, 43, caps.vii, xvii.

[7] Duncan, Making of the Kingdom, p.595.

[8] J.R. Maddicott, The Origins of the English Parliament 924-1327 (Oxford, 2010), pp.178-80.

[9] The Chronicle of Pierre de Langtoft, ed. T. Wright, 2 vols. (Rolls ser., 1866, 1868), ii, 330-1. See M. Prestwich, Edward I (London, 1988), p.526. For discussion of the arguments in Edward’s speech, which echo those put forward by Henry III, see J.R. Maddicott, ‘”1258” and “1297”: some comparisons and contrasts’, Thirteenth Century England IX. Proceedings of the Durham Conference 2001, ed. M. Prestwich, R. Britnell and R. Frame (Woodbridge, 2003), p.12.

[10] ‘Scottish King’s Household’, pp.32, 38, cap.iii. Although the treatise recommended the appointment of a treasurer of the wardrobe, who was to have keeping, amongst other things, of the king’s treasure, he was not to be the head of the financial side of the household as he was in England. Everything in his custody he was to receive from the chamberlain: Scottish King’s Household, pp.35, 41, cap.xii. Edward I’s inventory of 1291 mentions a schedule touching the wardrobe of the king and also the rolls of the wardrobe of the queen: Acts of the Parliament of Scotland, i, 112.

[11] In England both treasurers received revenue direct from those providing money to the crown. The treasurer of the exchequer also sent a large proportion of his revenues to the treasurer of the wardrobe, who was responsible, under the king, for spending them. For the complex relationship between exchequer and wardrobe in the later part of the reign of Edward I, see M. Prestwich, ‘Exchequer and Wardrobe in the later years of Edward I’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, xlvi (1973) and D.A. Carpenter, ‘The English royal chancery in the thirteenth century’, English Government in the Thirteenth Century, ed. A Jobson (Woodbridge, 2004), pp.58-62.

[12] For Bateson’s comment on this, see ‘Scottish King’s Household’, p.7.

[13] D.A. Carpenter, ‘The household rolls of King Henry III of England’, Historical Research, 80 (2007), p.35.

[14] Thus Peter des Rivallis was removed as keeper of the wardrobe and Giles de Argentan was put in as one of the stewards of the household.

[15] ‘The New Ordinances, 1311’, English Historical Documents III: 1189-1327, ed. H. Rothwell (London, 1975), p.530, cap.14.

[16] ‘The Scottish King’s Household’, pp.37, 42, cap.xvi.

[17] J.C. Holt, Magna Carta, 2nd. ed. (Cambridge, 1992), pp.62-3; J.R. Maddicott, ‘Magna Carta and the local community, 1215-1259’, Past & Present, 102 (1984), pp.40-1, 45-6. Bateson traces the history of the demand in England: ‘The Scottish King’s Household’, pp.19-20.

[18] Documents of the Baronial Movement of Reform and Rebellion 1258-1267, ed. R.F. Treharne and I.J. Sanders (Oxford, 1973), pp.154-5, cap.22.

[19] ‘Articles upon the Charters 1300’, English Historical Documents 1189-1327, pp.499-500, caps.8, 13. Edward soon reneged on his promises and English sheriffs did not become elected officials.

[20] ‘Scottish King’s Household’, pp.33, 39, cap.vii; ‘Articles upon the Charters 1300’, English Historical Documents 1189-1327, p.498, cap.3. Bateson points out this parallel in the course of a detailed commentary on the chapter: ‘Scottish King’s Household’, pp.13-16 at p.13.

[21] ‘Scottish King’s Household’, pp.32,35-6, 38,41-2, caps.iv,v, xi-xiii. There are no references to the word ‘exchequer’ in the Paradox of Medieval Scotland database under ‘People and Institutions’: http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/search?query=&years=1000-1300&basic_search_type=people&page=1

[22] The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland I: 1264-1359, ed. J. Stuart and G. Burnett (Edinburgh, 1878), pp.1, 9, 10, 18, 22, 24, 30, 34 show accounts at various times in the 1260s being heard at Scone, Arbroath, Edinburgh, Newbattle and Linlithgow; see Duncan, Making of the Kingdom, pp.606-7. See also see A.L. Murray, ‘The Scottish chancery in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’, in Écrit et Pouvoir dans Les Chancelleries Médiévales: Espace Français, Espace Anglais. Actes du Colloque de Montréal 1995, ed. K. Fianu and J. Guth, (Louvain-la-Neuve, 1997), pp.137-8.

[23] ‘Scottish King’s Household’, pp.32,38 cap.iv.

[24] Bateson commented that ‘the summoning of the exchequer meeting once a year at six weeks’ notice is unlike the English practice’: Scottish King’s Household, p.8.

[25] As Bateson remarked, however, the call went ‘unheeded’: ‘Scottish King’s Household’, p.8.

[26] ‘Scottish King’s Household’, pp.31, 38, cap.ii.

[27] Carpenter, ‘The English royal chancery’, p.58.

[28] D.A. Carpenter, ‘Scottish royal government in the thirteenth century from an English perspective’, forthcoming.

[29] Carpenter, ‘The English royal chancery’, pp.62-3.

[30] Duncan, Making of the Kingdom, p.605. Bateson commented that ‘The whole of the passage on the Chancellor’s office, and notably the allusion to the office of the Privy Seal, has a very English sound’: ‘Scottish King’s Household’, p.7.

[31] A. Beam, The Balliol Dynasty 1210-1364 (Edinburgh, 2008), p. 119.

[32] For Balliol’s government, see Beam, The Balliol Dynasty, pp.119-42 with pp.122-5 on appointments. The Comyns evidently had great influence but Beam observes that ‘the presence of Balliol partisans in the three highest governmental offices shows a greater amount of Balliol control than previously realised’ (p.125). I am grateful to Amanda Beam for discussing Balliol’s appointments with me.

[33] For parliament in this period, see A.A.B. McQueen, ‘The Origins and Development of the Scottish Parliament, 1249-1329’ (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of St Andrews, 2002) and the same author’s ‘Parliament, the Guardians and John Balliol’, in The History of the Scottish Parliament: Parliament and Politics in Scotland 1235-1560, ed. K.M. Brown and R.J. Tanner (Edinburgh, 2004), pp.29-49. She comments: “Whether it was due to John having been selected, or to the political community becoming used to a much higher level of involvement in government under the guardians, government after 1292 was more consensual than under previous kings, involving frequently held parliaments in which a wuide range of issues were discussed. The most important questions were either delayed until they could be discussed at parliament, or held over between parliamentary meetings, as they were expected to be discussed together by the king and the political community” (‘Parliament, the Guardians and John Balliol’, p.45).

[34] Beam, The Balliol Dynasty, pp.148-54.

[35] ‘Scottish King’s Household’, pp.32, 39, cap.v. For references to such an official in 1288 and 1291, see Murray, ‘The Scottish chancery’, p.136. The Treatise recognised a major difference with England in that the clerk was to keep the rolls of both the chancery and the exchequer.

[36] I argue, however, in ‘Scottish royal government in the thirteenth century from an English perspective’, forthcoming, that The Treatise’s recommendation that the justiciars perambulate the kingdom twice a year was at variance with earlier practice.

[37] ‘Scottish King’s Household’, pp.37, 42, cap.xvi; Anglo-Scottish Relations 1174-1328, p.245; ‘Articles upon the Charters’, English Historical Documents 1189-1327, pp.500-1, caps.18, 19. For the escheator in England, see S.L. Waugh, ‘The origins and early development of the articles of the escheator’, Thirteenth Cenntury England V: Proceedings of the Newcastle upon Tyne Conference 1993, ed. P.R. Coss and S.D. Lloyd (Woodbridge, 1995), pp.89-113. Knowledge of Scottish conditions in the Treatise is also implied in the statement that there should be a treasurer of the household, an official who was called ‘in ancient times the clerk of the wardrobe’: Scottish King’s Household, pp.35, 41, cap.xii.

[38] Barrow points out that John Balliol is known to have had a treasurer as opposed to a clerk of the wardrobe in line with the recommendations of the Treatise, but John could have adopted the title independently: Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots, p.93 note 32; and see Beam, The Balliol Dynasty, p.124.

[39] Corpus Christi College MS, 37. I owe the following links to the kindness of Suzanne Paul of the Parker Library: Description of MS 37:


Image view:


Basic or print view of MS 37, f. 88v:


[40] ‘Scottish King’s Household’, p.30, with the analysis between pp.20-30. Bateson derived this opinion from the amount of material in the volume (at present temporally unbound at Corpus) about the English exchequer and the London eyre. There is also something on the Irish exchequer. The other material related to Scotland is the oft cited list of sheriffdoms and their values: pp.24-5. The Treatise on the household is copied in very much the same hand and ink as the detailed list of English castles and religious houses arranged under counties (p.21).



This entry was posted in Feature of the Month. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • © 2011 The Breaking of Britain
  • Design by DDH
Facebook logo