How to look for records of... Court of Wards and Liveries 1540-1645: land inheritance and disputes

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 finding and understanding records of the Court of Wards and Liveries, which provide insights into:

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

The records are written primarily in English or Latin, but some may be in French or German.

2. 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 was abolished in 1645, but continued to operate through the 1650s until existing wards came of age.

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 (many people gained this status after they bought ex-monastic land from the Crown). This included having rights over the deceased’s estate where the heir to the estate was under age (21 for a boy, 14 for a girl). The court administered the estate and made arrangements for the care and marriage of the young heirs.

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. 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.

3. How to use this guide and find records

A search for documents at The National Archives usually begins in our online catalogue. Our records are grouped by ‘departments’, each with its own unique catalogue reference (a letter code). Each department is made up of multiple record series, all with their own unique references based on the department reference. The department reference for the Court of Wards and Liveries is WARD. The following sections of this guide provide links to the key record series within the WARD department, helping you to target your catalogue searches more precisely. The most useful record series is WARD 9 which contains a wide variety of documents covering all areas of the business of the court.

By clicking on the series links (such as WARD 9) you will arrive on the respective ‘series description’ pages from where you can search the series. However, you cannot search these series using the names of the people involved in a case. Instead, depending on the series, you will need to search using one of the following two methods:

  1. A keyword search of the series. Use the series search box and search using keywords in the legal process or which describe document types. For example, ‘inquisition post mortem’ or ‘feodaries’ surveys’.
  2. Browse the series. From the series description page, click on ‘browse from here by reference’ to look through a list of all the pieces in each respective record series to identify an individual piece by regnal year or regnal year range.

An understanding of the court process and the records that were created for each stage in the process will help you to identify the appropriate record series. Use the following sections of this guide to identify the series associated with each stage. The stages, following the death of a tenant in chief who had no adult heir, were as follows:

  • writ of clausit extremum issued (a record of the death of a tenant in chief – see section 5)
  • inquisition post-mortem carried out by escheator with feodary attending (see sections 6 and 7)
  • wardship could be sold (see section 8)
  • ward/heir comes of age and ‘sues out his livery’ (see section 9)

Wardship often attracted litigation and there are records for this too (see section 10).

Tracing a single ‘case’ dealt with by the court from beginning to end is difficult because the records for a case are split into different series according to each stage of the process, as described, but also because not all documents have survived.

4. How to view records

By following the advice above on how to find a record you will be able to establish specific document references (for example, WARD 9/565). You will need the document reference to see the record itself. The records covered in this guide are not available to view online so to see them you will have to either visit us in Kew or order copies.

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

5. Records of the death of a tenant in chief

5.1 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.

5.2 Series for these records

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

6. Records of inquisitions post-mortem

6.1 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.

6.2 Series for these records

Search in WARD 7 by name of deceased for copies of reports. There might also be a copy in Chancery and Exchequer. See the research guide on Inquisitions post-mortem for more information on these records.

7. Feoderies’ surveys

7.1 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.

7.2 Series for these records

Click on the record series links below and ‘browse by reference’ for:

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

8. Records of sales of wardships and marriages

8.1 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.

8.2 Series for these records

Browse the records series listed below for the following document types:

  • Petitions from people wishing to buy a wardship or lease some of the land and indentures resulting from these petitions in WARD 9 and WARD 1
  • Counterparts of indentures of wardship and lease in WARD 6
  • Grants of wardship and marriage in C 66

9. Records created when an heir came of age

9.1 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.

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

9.2 Series for these records


  • information regarding livery in the entry books of livery and in letters patent browse through WARD 9
  • grants of livery entered on the patent rolls search in C 66 – use contemporary finding aids, indexed by name, available in our reading rooms in Kew
  • writs try the escheators accounts in WARD 7 but these records are scattered in wider, un-indexed collections and are trickier to track down; draft writs are sometimes found in C 81 and C 82
  • warrants look in C 82 but there is no index to them

10. Records of litigation

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

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.

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

  • using legal terms 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 by reference through the record series.

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

11. Accounts of 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.

Find accounts by browsing through the following records:

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

12. Further reading