Those pesky deliveries: delivering the King’s writs across 15th century England

In recent months, easily talking to friends and colleagues on the other side of the country, or even world, has become essential. But we shouldn’t take our Zoom, Teams, Hangout, Skype (etc.) calls for granted . In the 15th c. delivering a message from the King across England was quite a difficult endeavour, as Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, explores…

One of the principal challenges faced by the royal administration through the ages was the need to communicate with officials in the further-flung parts of the English Crown’s dominions. In the medieval centuries, this meant above all the county sheriffs, who were the officials to whom the bulk of the Crown’s administrative instructions were directed. To the modern mind, it might be thought that a country as ‘much-governed’ as England would have established reliable routes by which the King’s writs might travel between Westminster and the shires, but this was not so. If we can believe the statements returned to Westminster by a number of sheriffs to explain their failure to carry out the King’s instructions, the system for the delivery of writs was haphazard at best. Notionally, writs should have been sent out into the shires by a permanent staff of royal messengers maintained at Westminster, or handed to the receivers of writs that many sheriffs retained in the royal law courts, but when a sheriff or undersheriff was himself present at the centre of government, he might receive a writ directly, at times to his evident bemusement.

In 1456, the sheriff of Wiltshire, Henry Long, explained that he had been handed a writ in Westminster Hall by a random stranger (per quendam extraneum incognitum); while the sheriff of Devon, Edward Langford, had received a writ at Stockland while on his way to London to return other writs, and had not been back in his county in time to execute it. More credibly, the sheriff of Cumberland, Sir Thomas Curwen, claimed that he had received a writ in the presence of such reliable witnesses as Thomas, Lord Dacre, and Sir Thomas Neville, the lieutenant of the West March, and his excuse for not acting upon the King’s instructions was thus (unlike those of the other two sheriffs) accepted by the Crown.

Gough Map of the British Isles, c. 1400, ink on vellum. © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford via the British Library

An area particularly affected by these problems were parliamentary elections. As the fourteenth century tract known as the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum argued, a minimum of 40 days needed to be allowed between the issue of the writs for Parliament, and the opening of the assembly. This interval was necessitated by the cycle of shire courts (in which the elections of the knights of the shire for Parliament were held). In a majority of counties, these courts met every four weeks, but in a small group of northern counties (inconveniently those from which MPs had the furthest to travel to Parliament, as well as those most remote from Westminster for the purposes of the delivery of the writs) the courts only gathered every six weeks, thus allowing the sheriffs only the smallest of windows to hold their elections in time.

In 1425, Sir Richard Vernon, the sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, stated that the writ for Parliament, issued on 24 February, had only been delivered to him on 12 April, three days after the last meeting of the Nottinghamshire county court before the date scheduled for the Parliament’s opening (30 April). To hold an election at all, he thus had to break formal electoral law and convene a special electoral assembly on 25 April. It stands to reason that it took longer for the writs to be delivered to the further-flung parts of the realm, and the sheriffs of the northern counties thus routinely took recourse to special electoral assemblies. Yet, the north apart, even in the centuries before the construction of the A30 it was the road into the south-west that evidently presented particular problems: the writs for the Parliaments of 1431 and 1453 respectively reached the sheriffs of Cornwall 17 and 32 days after their issue, while the writs for Devon for those of 1431, November 1449 and 1453 took 18, 24 and 29 days to come to their recipients’ hands. In some cases, indeed, a delay could be caused deliberately by the sheriff or other interested parties. By the second half of the sixteenth century the claim that a writ had arrived too late for an election to be held had become a device routinely employed by sheriffs seeking to subvert the normal electoral process, and the same may already have been the case in the fifteenth century, for it is otherwise hard to explain why in 1453 the electoral writ for Suffolk was supposedly delivered to the sheriff, Thomas Sharneburne, in London some 19 days after its issue by no less a person than James Butler, earl of Wiltshire.

Finally, whether as a result of deliberate foul play or simply by virtue of the vicissitudes of the slow movement of writs, there were instances where elections could not be held until after the assembly of Parliament. The short period of notice given to the sheriffs in 1459 (when in addition many of them stood to leave office in the middle of the election period), meant that the sheriffs of Berkshire, the city of York and Shropshire did not hold their elections until after the Parliament had assembled at Coventry, while their counterparts in Sussex and Hertfordshire did not hold elections at all, thus presumably leaving their counties’ respective seats in the Commons vacant.


Further Reading:

M.C. Hill, ‘King’s Messengers and Administrative Developments in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries’, English Historical Review, 61 (1946), 315-328.

V. Wheeler-Holohan, The History of the King’s Messengers (1935).

S.J. Payling, ‘The Coventry Parliament of 1459: a Privy Seal Writ concerning the Election of Knights of the Shire’, Historical Research, 60 (1987), 349-52.

THE HISTORY OF PARLIAMENT: THE HOUSE OF COMMONS 1422-1461, edited by Linda Clark, is out now. For further details about the volumes, including purchasing information,  visit the Cambridge University Press website, here.

Find the latest blogs from our Commons 1461-1504 project via the Commons in the Wars of the Roses section of our blog.

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