How to look for records of... Land inheritance in the Court of Wards and Liveries 1540-1645

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide if you are interested in:

  • land ownership and inheritance in Tudor and Stuart societies
  • certain prominent people from the Tudor and Stuart periods
  • the legal processes of equity courts

2. Essential information

The Court of Wards and Liveries dealt with matters of inheritance where:

  • the deceased person was a Tenant in chief of the Crown
  • the heir to the estate was under age (21 for a boy, 14 for a girl)

3. What was the Court of Wards and Liveries?

In 1540 the office of Master of the King’s Wards was replaced by the Court of Wards, which assumed complete control of wards and the administration of their lands.

The office of Surveyor of the King’s Liveries (1514 to 1542) was joined to the Court of Wards in 1542, becoming the King’s Court of Wards and Liveries.

The Court of Wards and Liveries was a financial institution responsible for:

  • collecting feudal dues
  • practical and legal matters relating to the Crown’s right of wardship and livery

The right of wardship and livery meant that the crown took on responsibility for young orphaned heirs where their father had been a Tenant in chief of the Crown. This included having rights over the deceased’s estate.

The Crown had the right to the income generated by the majority of the estate until the heir reached adulthood. However, any surviving widow retained the right to some of the land – usually a third.

The court administered the estate and made arrangements for the care and marriage of the young heirs.

Wardships were usually sold by the crown to the next of kin or the highest bidder, or given to individuals as a reward for services.

4. Using our catalogue to find records

You can use Discovery, our catalogue, to search for records relating to the Court of Wards and Liveries. However, you cannot search by the names of the people involved.

Instead, you will need to browse the appropriate record series in the catalogue by date (note that dates appear as regnal years) or by catalogue reference. For advice on browsing see our help pages.

Tracing a case from beginning to end is difficult because not all documents have survived. An understanding of the court process and the records that were created will help you to identify the appropriate record series to search at a particular stage. Section 11 lays out the legal process.

The most useful record series is WARD 9: miscellaneous books, which contains many different types of document.

Documents are written primarily in English or Latin, but in some series such as WARD 2: Deeds and Evidences, they may even be in French or German.

Unfortunately, many useful documents are in a poor condition. Some may not be consulted at all while others you can only view under supervision at specific times.

The affected documents are in:

  • WARD 1: decrees, orders, affidavits
  • WARD 3: depositions
  • WARD 4: extents
  • WARD 10: miscellaneous
  • WARD 11: miscellaneous
  • WARD 12: particulars for, and drafts of leases
  • WARD 15: supplementary pleadings

These records have not been digitised and to see them you will need to visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for research and have copies made. If you think you will want to see records that can only be viewed under supervision, make sure you contact us first to arrange this.

There were a number of steps involved in the legal process following the death of a tenant in chief who had no adult heir:

  • tenant in chief dies
  • writ of clausit extremum issued
  • inquisition post-mortem carried out by escheator with feodary attending
  • wardship could be sold
  • ward comes of age and sues out his livery

These are explained in more detail below.

6. Death of a tenant in chief

6.1 What was the process?

A writ of ‘diem clausit extremum or mandamus’ (‘he has closed his last day’) was issued by Chancery to the escheators of the counties where the tenant in chief had held land.

6.2 How to find the records

Consult WARD 9, which contains docket books of some of these writs, in our catalogue and ‘browse by reference’ or by date.

7. Inquisition post-mortem

7.1 What was the legal process?

On the death of every tenant-in-chief, the escheator of the relevant county made an inquisition post mortem report to chancery which identified:

  • the size and location of the holdings
  • the rents and services due
  • the name and age of the deceased
  • the name and age of his heir

This information was needed to assess what benefits, such as rents or wardships, might be due to the Crown.

A copy was sent to the Exchequer, and after 1540 to the Court of Wards and Liveries as well.

7.2 How to find the records

Use the advanced search option in our catalogue to search, by name of deceased, for copies of the reports in WARD 7.

There might also be a copy in Chancery and Exchequer. The research guide on Inquisitions post-mortem has more information on these records.

8. Feoderies’ surveys

8.1 What was the legal process?

The court’s local representative, the feodary, had to attend every inquisition to prevent fraud. In time he conducted his own survey of the lands, which usually gave a higher value than the jury gave.

Feodaries’ surveys provide a useful means of reference if no inquisition post mortem survives.

8.2 How to find the records

Click on the record series link below and ‘browse by reference’ in our catalogue:

  • WARD 4: extents
  • WARD 5: feodaries surveys
  • WARD 8: receiver generals’, feodaries’ and ministers’ accounts
  • WARD 9: miscellaneous books

9. Sales of wardships and marriages

9.1 What was the legal process?

People wishing to buy a wardship or to lease some of the lands, put in a petition to the Master of the Wards.

If a petition was granted, an indenture was drawn up, between the court and the petitioner, and a fine (sum of money) for the wardship was agreed. The grantee’s name, the fine, and the terms of its payment were entered on a schedule.

9.2 How to find the records

Browse the following records series for relevant documents:

  • WARD 9 – petitions from people wishing to buy a wardship or lease some of the land and indentures resulting from these petitions
  • WARD 1 – more petitions for sale of wardship or lease of land
  • WARD 6 – counterparts of indentures of wardship and lease
  • C 66 – grants of wardship and marriage

10. When an heir came of age

10.1 What was the legal process?

When an heir came of age (at 21 for a boy and 14 for a girl), they were released from wardship. Like all heirs – whether or not they had been wards – they could not receive their inheritance until they had ‘sued out their livery’.

Prominent men of the local area were asked to certify that an heir had reached the appropriate age. The heir then had to pay a sum of money to the crown in exchange for the powers attached to his title and freedom from dependence as a ward.

Eventually a warrant was issued for the livery to pass under the Great Seal. Some warrants survive in C 82, but there is no index to them.

10.2 How to find the records

Use our catalogue to browse WARD 9 which contains information regarding livery in the entry books of livery and in letters patent.

C 66 contains grants of livery entered on the patent rolls. There are some contemporary finding aids, indexed by name, available at The National Archives in Kew.

The king would then issue a writ to the custodian of the land requiring it to be released to the heir.

The writs are scattered in wider, un-indexed collections. There might be some in escheators accounts in WARD 7. Draft writs are sometimes found in C 81 and C 82.

11. Revenues and expenditure from lands in ward

The revenue raised through wardship and the leasing of lands had to be accounted for. Accounts submitted to the court are of the medieval and early modern ‘charge and discharge’ type where revenue receipts are followed by payments made out of those receipts.

Try browsing the file descriptions in the following record series:

  • WARD 8: receiver generals’, feodaries’ and ministers’ accounts
  • WARD 9: miscellaneous books
  • WARD 10: miscellaneous documents
  • WARD 11: miscellaneous records in bundles

12. Litigation

The Court of Wards and Liveries had its own jurisdiction, based on an English bill procedure like that of Chancery and a ward could only sue or be sued in this court. To understand more about the Chancery courts, see the guidance on Chancery equity suits before 1558 and after 1558.

Wardship often led to litigation, usually because the ward’s lands were retained, sold, leased or ‘wasted’ illegally. The table in 11.2 shows the key steps in litigation and the record series to search for relevant files.

12.1 The legal procedure

Click on the following series references to search for records within each respective series using keywords and dates. Try

  • entering keywords such as ‘deposition’
  • specifying dates where appropriate, but note that a date search will not pick up records that are listed by regnal year

Alternatively, browse the files within a record series looking for relevant dates or descriptions.

Step in the legal process Explanation Record series
Bill or information The plaintiff submitted a bill or information. If approved, a date was fixed for a hearing and the bill annotated to show this. WARD 9
Writ of sub pena This was sent to the defendant and copied into the docket books of privy seals and commissions. The writs can show when the defendant made or submitted his response. WARD 9
Pleadings From the end of Elizabeth’s reign pleadings were generally arranged by the initial letter of the name of the plaintiff. WARD 13, WARD 14, WARD 15
Depositions Once the pleadings were completed, the court considered the depositions of witnesses which had been taken in response to a list of interrogatories. These were generally conducted by specially-appointed commissions. WARD 9, WARD 3, WARD 9/296 calendar of commissions, depositions and examinations in cases before the court
Evidence Evidence could be a deed, charter, indenture or will among other things. WARD 2 (try searching by name as catalogue descriptions are being enhanced)
Decisions Whenever the court made an interim or final decision, it was recorded formally in a decree or order. WARD 9, WARD 1
Interrupted proceedings If a particular case was halted at any stage, it is possible to search through entry books of the staying of process and entry books of injunctions which show when this happened. WARD 9

13. Further reading