WARD 16, held by The National Archives in Kew, comprises nine boxes of unsorted and largely unopened letters and packets locked with wax seals and intricate folding methods, dating from the late sixteenth to the early seventeenth century. Based on the few letters that are already open, as well as the addresses on the packages in as far as these are legible, all these manuscripts are legal pleadings. This note places these locked letters in their legal and material contexts. ‘WARD’ refers to the Court of Wards and Liveries, a court of law responsible for the collection of monies due from liveries and widows’ remarriages, the sales of wardships of minors and lunatics, as well as providing legal judgment for any disputes arising from these matters.1 While the reference ‘WARD’ suggests that the series comprises manuscripts related to the Court of Wards and Liveries only, various, if not most of the packets are addressed to the Court of Requests (sometimes referred to as the ‘Court of Whitehall’ on the letter bundles). Records of both courts were at one point stored together, during which period the documents got mixed up. The Court of Requests held jurisdiction over a broad range of cases, including forgery, perjury, marital litigation, and title to property.2 As such, the two courts combined covered a huge jurisdiction and they prospered during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Both the Court of Wards and Liveries and the Court of Requests saw their popularity end during the Civil War. Although the Court of Requests was never formally abolished, its records end in 1642.3 The Court of Wards and Liveries was abolished in 1646. Neither the Court of Requests nor the Court of Wards and Liveries was reinvigorated after the Restoration. While manuscripts relating to the Court of Requests abound, the same does not hold true for the Court of Wards and Liveries. As H. E. Bell has noted, the Court was hugely unpopular during its later days, and therefore its records were not taken much care of after the Court’s abolishment: the ‘records as a whole were allowed to sink into confusion and decay, and only those classes that still possessed business significance were excepted from general decay’.4 After the Court’s dissolution, its records were stored in, what The National Archives describes as, a ‘fish yard near Westminster Hall’.5 This ‘fish yard’ was in fact a cellar in Westminster Hall, formerly used as the storage space of the king’s fishmonger. There can be no mistake that the room was unfit for storing documents, as well as deeply unpleasant: a former clerk of the Court of Wards described the room as a ‘hell-like fish-cellar’.6 As a result of these poor storing facilities and the lack of care the Court’s records received, many documents are ‘unfit for production’ and in ‘terrible condition’.7 At first glance, the manuscripts of WARD 16 can do little to help supplement the extant records of the Court of Wards and Liveries that can be studied. The documents seem to be in a deplorable state, and as such, it is difficult to establish how many packets were addressed to this Court rather than to the Court of Requests: much of the ink on the outside of the letters has been obscured by dirt, damaged by damp, nibbled away by animals, or has simply faded. Moreover, most packets are unopened, and thus hide their contents. Of the total sum of 436 letter bundles, divided over nine boxes, a mere 26 letters have been opened. These opened letters include legal records sent to the Court of Wards and Liveries. Their contents comprise case papers, including depositions, letters from the examiners who had been given the task of tracing the deponents in the provinces in order to take their testimony, bills of complaint and answers to such bills. It is most likely that the closed packets, too, contain legal pleadings—there is no suggestion that they contain anything other than legal records. The topic matter of the law suits to which these case papers relate is diverse, ranging from alleged theft, to disputes over last wills and testaments, to marriage contracts. While the outside of these letter bundles may be affected, however, the inside of the few opened letters shows them to be in a pristine condition. Given the good state these opened up letters are in, it is likely that they have only been opened recently, and perhaps only accidently, for example because the wax seal has broken or withered away. Why these accumulated petitions, depositions, and pleadings have not been opened by their recipients remains a mystery. The courts’ dissolution cannot be the reason: the dates on the letters that are still legible range from the late sixteenth century (so well before the courts’ closure) up to 1643. One possibility may be that the packets related to cases that were already closed, and that their contents were therefore no longer relevant. For this to be an option the case details would have to be written on the outside of the letters; with the state these letters are in, this is difficult to say for certain. Why the letters were kept safe and stored if the contents no longer bore relevance would then also remain a question. Whatever the reason for not opening the letters may have been, WARD 16 may be of particular interest to scholars of material culture. The series offers an excellent opportunity to study the letter as artefact, by paying attention to the way letters were folded, locked, and sealed. Making use of exciting new scanning techniques, such as the one developed by the Apocalypto project at the Dentistry department at Queen Mary University of London, it would be possible for the letter bundles to remain closed while X-ray equipment reveals the locked documents’ secrets.8 If this were to happen, it would be of considerable interest to scholars of the Court of Wards and Liveries specifically, and legal and social historians more broadly. As Bell already noted in 1953, a comprehensive, full-scale study of the Courts of Wards and Liveries is still lacking.9 The manuscripts of WARD 16 may help to rectify this situation. Footnotes 1 For more on the Court of Wards and Liveries, see H. E. Bell, An Introduction to the History and Records of the Court of Wards and Liveries (Cambridge, 1953), as well as TNA’s online research guides. 2 For a comprehensive introduction to the Court of Requests, see, alongside TNA’s own research guides: Tim Stretton, Women Waging Law in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1998), and Tim Stretton (ed.), Marital Litigation in the Court of Requests, 1542–1642 (Cambridge, 2008). 3 National Archives, Online guide ‘Court of Requests 1485–1642’. 4 Bell, Introduction, 175. 5 National Archives, ‘Records of the Court of Wards and Liveries’, under ‘Custodial history’, see: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C258 (accessed 17 August 2017). 6 Bell, Introduction, 179–80. 7 See National Archives, ‘Records of the Court of Wards and Liveries’. 8 See: http://www.dentistry.qmul.ac.uk/research/caries-hard-tissues-materials/apocalypto/index.html (accessed 17 August 2017). Among the projects that have made use of these kinds of X-ray techniques is the exciting Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered project, see: http://brienne.org (accessed 17 August 2017). 9 Bell, Introduction, 186. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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