Sunday, April 4, 2010

Office of Wards

The Crown Office, was all powerful as the Inland Revenue and VAT Offices are today, had evolved from the medieval practice of Knight Service in the days before the State kept large, trained armed forces in permanent readiness. All land was technically the property of the Crown and was apportioned by the Crown, to be held and enjoyed by favoured property owners in return for the provision of a mounted knight (sometimes with foot soldiers) when an army was needed to deal with local or national emergencies. When the thrifty King Henry VII came to the throne, he identified wardship as a significant source of revenues, and updated the powers of the old Office of Wards. His son, henry VIII, constantly seeking money to support his extravagant lifestyle, further strengthened the laws concerning wardship.

The iniquitous effect of these changes was that during Henry VIII’s reign (and for some timer afterwards), should a landowner die before his heir reached his twenty-first birthday, all lands and properties were taken over by the Office of Wards, to be administered during the ward’s minority. During the period of wardship, all the income and profits of the estate went to the Crown, although sometimes the property, or part of it, might be rented back to the heirs. More often - a far worse fate - the wardship was auctioned, or sold by the Crown to wealthy neighbouring landowners. Sometimes, the buyers were friends, who kept the estates in good health and looked after the education of the young ward. But often the ward and family of the deceased were left at the mercy of rapacious or manipulative speculators, whose sole interest was to make as much as could be leached from the lucrative property while the warship lasted, and in many cases to arrange the marriage of a defenceless ward to a member of his own family so that the property would eventually come into their own ownership.

Generally, significant landowners were men and holders of wardship were also men. But there were occassionaly women holders of wardships. Bess of Hardwick was one, another was the pious Elizabethan diarist, Lady Margaret Hoby, who actively lobbied to get lucrative wardships. These were much sought after, a being a perfectly legitimate manner of earning extra income.

The law on wardships was greatly improved under Queen Elizabeth I when in 1561 the Court of Wards came under the benign and efficient influence of William Cecil, who was to be its Master for thirty-seven years.

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