Continuing our blog series on coronations, Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project, reflects on the Coronation of the young King Richard II and the issue that hereditary roles had on the preparations for this Coronation.
On 9 July 1377, a week before the day scheduled for the coronation of the ten-year-old Richard II, his uncle, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, discharged a task that had not been undertaken for a little over 50 years. In his capacity as hereditary of steward of England, he convened a hearing in the White Hall of Westminster Palace to assign to the great men of the realm, or at least mostly to those who met that description, the ceremonial functions they were to perform at the coronation ceremony. In doing so, he had no free hand, for these functions were hereditary. His role was the more limited one of ruling on the validity of claims brought before him. But that task was not quite as simple as it sounds. The hereditary system largely removed the contention and jealousies that might have arisen had the steward had the freedom to choose whom he would, but it threw up problems of a different sort. Gaunt’s position itself illustrated one of them: the accidents of inheritance could bring one man more than one function. As steward, an office appurtenant to the earldom of Leicester, part of the great inheritance of his late wife, Blanche of Lancaster, it was his task, the most honourable of all, to carry ‘Curtana’ the principal royal sword, at the coronation, but his great accumulation of estates included the earldom of Lincoln, also his late wife’s inheritance, to which pertained the right of carving the meat before the King at the coronation feast. Perhaps sensitive to taking too prominent a part in the proceedings, he assigned the task of carving to Hugh, earl of Stafford, whose late elder brother, Ralph (d.1362), had been his brother-in-law.
Another difficulty arose when a task was inherited by one who might be deemed incapable of its discharge. Here Gaunt called upon to make a judgement. Although only 15 years old, Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, claimed, as his hereditary right, the tasks of acting as chamberlain and of serving the King with water during the coronation banquet. Gaunt conceded the claims, perhaps because the King himself was only a boy and there was a curious appropriateness to him being served by another. Another boy, however, was too young for any such concession. John Hastings, earl of Pembroke, as lord of the castle and town of Pembroke, had a strong claim to carry the second sword and the great gilt spurs at the coronation, but, as he was only four years old, Gaunt wisely ruled that, to avoid any unfortunate accident, the task should be entrusted to an earl of more mature years, Edmund Mortimer, earl of March. A further difficulty arose when the hereditary task fell to an heiress, prohibited by her sex from undertaking it in person. The office of naperer, responsible for the table linen at the coronation feast, for example, had, since the coronation of Henry I in 1100, been attached to the Norfolk manor of Ashill, and, in 1377, this was part of the dower of the earl of Pembroke’s mother, Anne. Gaunt allowed her to appoint a knight as her deputy.
Gaunt deemed others disqualified from acting in person not by minority or sex but by rank. Some appear to have been considered not grand enough to discharge personally the function that fell to them. John Wiltshire, a London grocer, claimed, by virtue of his tenure of the manor of Heydon in Essex, the right of holding a towel for the King to dry his hands before the coronation feast. Although the claim was admitted, it was Gaunt’s brother, Edmund, earl of Cambridge, who, ostensibly as the grocer’s deputy, performed the task. In respect of a man of greater rank than Wiltshire, Gaunt made another judgment that emphasised the importance of rank. William, Lord Furnival, petitioned that, by virtue of his manor of Farnham Royal in Buckinghamshire, he had the important, if rather esoteric, function at the coronation ceremony of providing a glove for the King’s right hand and then supporting that gloved hand and arm for as long as the King should hold the royal sceptre. His claim was conceded but only on condition that he took up the rank of knighthood. Although he was over 50 years old and of some military experience, he had so far failed to do what was almost de rigeur for men of his standing, but, with his coronation claim, he could resist no more, and, on 14 July, two days before the coronation, he was duly knighted.
Not all the hereditary rôles were obviously prestigious, but they were claimed nevertheless. The most curious was that which pertained to the manor of Addington in Surrey, once held by William the Conqueror’s cook, Tezelin. In 1377 this manor was held by William, Lord Bardolf, and he duly asserted his right to the function that went with it, namely providing a cook for the royal kitchen to provide a pottage (composed of almond milk, chopped chicken, sugar and spices) for the coronation banquet. Clearly any part in the coronation, however seemingly minor, was worth having, and Gaunt had a problem not in any failure to claim but in competition between claimants. Of all the coronation functions the most dramatic was that of King’s champion, deputed to ride on one of the King’s warhorses and challenge to mortal combat anyone who should dare deny the King’s right to the Crown. This was disputed between two knights, Sir John Dymmok and Sir Baldwin Freville. Gaunt ruled in the former’s favour, deeming the right as appurtenant to the Lincolnshire manor of Scrivelsby, the property of Dymmock’s wife, but reserved to Freville the right to make a new claim at the next coronation.
Of more interest, or at least more diverting, is a dispute over a role claimed not by an individual but by a corporation. According to the formal record of the hearings before Gaunt, the city of London successfully claimed that its mayor should serve the King with a gold cup and ewer at dinner in the hall after the coronation and then when he took spices in his private chamber; and that the city’s nominees should serve the lords as assistants to the chief butler at both dinner and afterwards. The contention, as far as the official record goes, was a minor one: whether the gold cup and ewer should go, as a fee, to the chief butler, Richard, earl of Arundel, or to the Londoners. Gaunt referred the matter, or so the record goes, to the adjudication of the young King, who ruled that the latter should have the cup and ewer. The St. Albans chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, however, tells a much more interesting story. He claims that it was the judges who ruled on the city’s ‘butler’ claim. When the citizens put that claim before the chief justice of the common pleas, Sir Robert Belknap, they received an answer they did not like. With a lawyer’s precision, the chief justice condescendingly told them that, given the range of functions taken by butlers from pouring wine to washing up dishes, ‘there is no point in you asking to be assigned the office of butler, unless you specify which duty it is you want’. Not surprisingly the citizens did not take kindly to this, remarking that ‘it was not their duty to wash the dishes’ and adding, irrelevantly and gratuitously, ‘that they had better dishes … than he did, which they wanted to test out on his head’. Later, according to Walsingham, they adapted their threat, making an effigy of Belknap’s head and placing it above the aqueduct in Cheapside, ‘so that it would be pouring out wine from its mouth on the arrival of the King and the people’.
This controversy aside, and even it may owe more to a chronicler’s affection for a good story than to reality, Gaunt’s efforts ensured that, in Walsingham’s words, the day of the coronation a week later was one ‘of light-hearted gladness’.
Read more blogs from our coronation series here.
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