Chancery (medieval office)

Last updated

A chancery or chancellery (Latin : cancellaria) is a medieval writing office, responsible for the production of official documents. [1] The title of chancellor, for the head of the office, came to be held by important ministers in a number of states, and remains the title of the heads of government in modern Germany and Austria. Chancery hand is a term for various types of handwriting associated with chanceries.



The word chancery is from French, from Latin, and ultimately refers to the lattice-work partition that divided a section of a church or court, from which also derives chancel, cancel "cross out with lines", and, more distantly, incarcerate "put behind bars" – see chancery for details.

In England

In England, this office was one of the two main administrative offices, along with the Exchequer. It began as part of the royal household, but by the 13th-century was separate from the household and was located at Westminster. It produced all the charters and writs, which were all sealed with the Great Seal. [1]

The office was headed by the Chancellor of England, and was staffed by royal clerks. It came into existence shortly before the Norman Conquest of England, and was retained by King William I of England after the Conquest. In 1199, the chancery began to keep the Charter Rolls, a record of all the charters issued by the office. Then in 1201, the Patent Rolls, a similar record of letters patent began, and in 1204 the Close Rolls, or record of letters close began. [2] Although the English Chancery was responsible for most of the charters and writs issued by the government, they were not responsible for all of them, as the Exchequer and the justiciars continued to issue writs during the Angevin period. [3]

Whether there was a formal chancery office in Anglo-Saxon England prior to the Norman Conquest is a matter of some debate amongst historians. Some hold that most royal charters in Anglo-Saxon England were produced by the beneficiaries of the charter. Other historians hold that by the 10th and 11th centuries most royal charters were produced by royal clerks, and thus they probably were produced in some sort of chancery-like office. [4]

In the crusader states

The crusader states in the Levant also had chanceries. In the Principality of Antioch, the office was responsible for producing all documents pertaining to the administration of the principality. One office holder in the Antiochene chancery was Walter the Chancellor, who wrote the only early history of the state. [5]

In the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the chancery produced hundreds of documents. The chancellor of Jerusalem was one of the highest posts in the kingdom. One famous chancellor was the chronicler William of Tyre.

In Normandy

In the Duchy of Normandy, after 1066 a ducal chancery developed, especially under William's sons Robert Curthose and Henry I. [6]

In France

The French royal chancery first appears in a rudimentary form during the Merovingian dynasty. They borrowed from the diplomatic institutions of the late Roman Empire, and had four officials, usually clerics, called "referendaries" who guarded the king's seal. The documents are very formulaic, probably using the formulary of Marculf as a source. They used their own script, which was very messy with many ligatures, and their Latin was of very poor quality. [7]

After the Merovingians were overthrown by the Mayors of the Palace, the chancery began to develop more fully. The Carolingian chancellor was usually the Archbishop of Reims. He was a member of the king's council, while the actual business of the chancery was conducted by lesser officials. Louis the Pious created a new formulary, the Formulae Imperiales, which was the basis of formularies used in later centuries. They also used a different script, the more legible Carolingian minuscule. The Carolingian chancery took requests from those who wished to have a charter drawn up, and the king would send missi to investigate the situation. [8]

In the Capetian period, the chancellor was still the Archbishop of Reims. The chancery itself tended not to write its own charters, but rather confirmed charters that had already been written by the intended recipient. This reflected the relative powerlessness of the Capetian kings, who, unlike their Carolingian predecessors, controlled only the Ile-de-France. It was not until the 12th century that the chancellor truly became the head of the chancery, rather than the guardian of the king's seal. This chancellor was a member of the Great Officers of the Crown of France, which developed in the 11th and 12th centuries. Because the chancellor had power over the granting of charters and other benefits, the kings often saw them as a threat to their own authority, and the office sometimes lay dormant for many years. Philip II abolished the post in 1185, and the chancery remained without an official head for most of the thirteenth and part of the fourteenth century. The head of the chancery in this period took over the guardianship of the seal, and was usually not a cleric. Documents in this period were signed as "cancellaria vacante" ("with the chancellorship vacant"). When the chancellorship was restored in the fourteenth century, it was held by laymen and became the highest ranking of the Great Officers. [9]

In the fourteenth century the rest of the chancery staff consisted of notaries and secretaries. They were appointed by the chancellor and wrote royal letters and other documents that were not already produced by the beneficiaries. The most important official after the chancellor was the audencier, who presided over the ceremony in which the chancellor affixed the royal seal to a document. The chancery charged a tax to recipients of charters; Jews were taxed at a higher rate, but royal grants of alms or other donations were not usually taxed. The Capetian chancery also used a minuscule script, and documents were written in Latin until the thirteenth century, when French also began to be used. [10]

The majority of the documents produced by the chancery were letters patent, which were directed from the king to a single person. They could be letters of thanks, financial transactions, letters of justice and pardon, legitimization of children, recognition of nobility, and many other subjects. Charters authorizing grants of land or settling property disputes are less common. Documents were not registered in an archive until the fourteenth century, and then only rarely, if the document pertained to royal administration. [11]

Normally a document was validated by witnesses, including the author, the chancellor, or other nobles; the early Capetians derived their authority from the number of people they could collect to sign a document. Later in the Middle Ages the kingship had regained enough power that the king's seal was considered authoritative enough on its own. [12]

In Scotland

The chancery office was abolished in 1928.

Under the papacy

The medieval popes had a Chancery of Apostolic Briefs, which was one of the four great papal offices, the others being the Apostolic Camera, which handled finances, the Penitentiary, which dealt with spiritual matters, and the Sacra Rota, which dealt with judicial matters. [13]

See also


  1. 1 2 Coredon Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases p. 66
  2. Saul "Government" Companion to Medieval England pp. 115–118
  3. Mason "Administration and Government" Companion to the Anglo-Norman World p. 139
  4. Rankin "Chancery, Royal" Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England
  5. Bennett "Normans in the Mediterranean" Companion to the Anglo-Norman World p. 95
  6. Mason "Administration and Government" Companion to the Anglo-Norman World p. 159
  7. Tessier Diplomatique royale française pp. 1–20
  8. Tessier Diplomatique royale française pp. 50–110
  9. Tessier Diplomatique royale française pp. 127–141
  10. Tessier Diplomatique royale française pp. 152–215
  11. Tessier Diplomatique royale française pp. 256–290
  12. Guyotjeannin], Pycke and Tock L'Atelier du Médiéviste 2: Diplomatique Médiévale pp. 86–92
  13. Zacour Introduction to Medieval Institutions p. 194

Related Research Articles

Robert Burnell was an English bishop who served as Lord Chancellor of England from 1274 to 1292. A native of Shropshire, he served as a minor royal official before entering into the service of Prince Edward, the future King Edward I of England. When Edward went on the Eighth Crusade in 1270, Burnell stayed in England to secure the prince's interests. He served as regent after the death of King Henry III of England while Edward was still on crusade. He was twice elected Archbishop of Canterbury, but his personal life—which included a long-term mistress who was rumoured to have borne him four sons—prevented his confirmation by the papacy. In 1275 Burnell was elected Bishop of Bath and Wells, after Edward had appointed him Lord Chancellor in 1274.

Lord Chancellor Highest-ranking regularly-appointed Great Officer of State of the United Kingdom

The lord chancellor, formally the lord high chancellor of Great Britain, is the highest-ranking among the great officers of state in the United Kingdom, nominally outranking the prime minister. The lord chancellor is appointed by the sovereign on the advice of the prime minister. Prior to their Union into the Kingdom of Great Britain, there were separate lord chancellors for the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland; there were lord chancellors of Ireland until 1922.

France in the Middle Ages History of France during the Middle Ages

The Kingdom of France in the Middle Ages was marked by the fragmentation of the Carolingian Empire and West Francia (843–987); the expansion of royal control by the House of Capet (987–1328), including their struggles with the virtually independent principalities that had developed following the Viking invasions and through the piecemeal dismantling of the Carolingian Empire and the creation and extension of administrative/state control in the 13th century; and the rise of the House of Valois (1328–1589), including the protracted dynastic crisis against the House of Plantagenet and their Angevin Empire, dominated by the Kingdom of England, cumulating in the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453), compounded by the catastrophic Black Death epidemic (1348), which laid the seeds for a more centralized and expanded state in the early modern period and the creation of a sense of French identity.

Duchy of Normandy Medieval duchy in northern France

The Duchy of Normandy grew out of the 911 Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte between King Charles III of West Francia and the Viking leader Rollo. The duchy was named for its inhabitants, the Normans.

In an English-speaking country, Standard English (SE) is the variety of English that has undergone substantial regularisation and is associated with formal schooling, language assessment, and official print publications, such as public service announcements and newspapers of record, etc. It is local to nowhere: its grammatical and lexical components are no longer regionally marked, although many of them originated in different, non-adjacent dialects, and it has very little of the variation found in spoken or earlier written varieties of English. According to Trudgill, Standard English is a dialect pre-eminently used in writing that is largely distinguishable from other English dialects by means of its grammar.

Ralph Neville was a medieval clergyman and politician who served as Bishop of Chichester and Lord Chancellor of England. Neville first appears in the historical record in 1207 in the service of King John, and remained in royal service throughout the rest of his life. By 1213 Neville had custody of the Great Seal of England, although he was not named chancellor, the office responsible for the seal, until 1226. He was rewarded with the bishopric of Chichester in 1222. Although he was also briefly Archbishop-elect of Canterbury and Bishop-elect of Winchester, both elections were set aside, or quashed, and he held neither office.

Curia regis is a Latin term meaning "royal council" or "king's court". It was the name given to councils of advisers and administrators in medieval Europe who served kings, including kings of France, Norman kings of England and Sicily and kings of Poland.

Pipe rolls Medieval and post-medieval English financial documents

The Pipe rolls, sometimes called the Great rolls, or the Great Rolls of the Pipe are a collection of financial records maintained by the English Exchequer, or Treasury, and its successors. The earliest date from the 12th century, and the series extends, mostly complete, from then until 1833. They form the oldest continuous series of records concerning English governance kept by the English, British and United Kingdom governments, covering a span of about 700 years. The early medieval ones are especially useful for historical study, as they are some of the earliest financial records available from the Middle Ages. A similar set of records was developed for Normandy, which was ruled by the English kings from 1066 to 1205, but the Norman Pipe rolls have not survived in a continuous series like the English.

The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio is a 20th century name for the Carmen Widonis, the earliest history of the Norman invasion of England from September to December 1066, in Latin. It is attributed to Bishop Guy of Amiens, a noble of Ponthieu and monastically-trained bishop and administrator close to the French court, who eventually served as a chaplain for Matilda of Flanders, William the Conqueror's queen. Guy was an uncle to Count Guy of Ponthieu, who figures rather prominently in the Bayeux Tapestry as the vassal of Duke William of Normandy who captured Harold Godwinson in 1064.

Formularies are medieval collections of models for the execution of documents (acta), public or private; a space being left for the insertion of names, dates, and circumstances peculiar to each case. Their modern equivalent are forms.

Chancery hand Any of several styles of historic handwriting

The term "chancery hand" can refer to either of two distinct styles of historical handwriting.

The patent rolls are a series of administrative records compiled in the English, British and United Kingdom Chancery, running from 1201 to the present day.

Anglo-Norman, also known as Anglo-Norman French, was a dialect of Old Norman French that was used in England and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in Great Britain and Ireland during the Anglo-Norman period.

Papal diplomatics is the scholarly and critical study (diplomatics) of the authentic documents of the Papacy, largely to distinguish them from spurious documents. The study emerges in the Middle Ages and has been further refined in the centuries since.

<i>Liber Eliensis</i> 12th century English chronicle

The Liber Eliensis is a 12th-century English chronicle and history, written in Latin. Composed in three books, it was written at Ely Abbey on the island of Ely in the fenlands of eastern Cambridgeshire. Ely Abbey became the cathedral of a newly formed bishopric in 1109. Traditionally the author of the anonymous work has been given as Richard or Thomas, two monks at Ely, one of whom, Richard, has been identified with an official of the monastery, but some historians hold that neither Richard nor Thomas was the author.

Regenbald was a priest and royal official in Anglo-Saxon England under King Edward the Confessor. His name suggests that he was not a native Englishman, and perhaps was German or Norman. He first appears in history as a witness to a royal document in 1050, and remained a royal chaplain and clerk throughout the rest of King Edward's reign. Many royal documents give Regenbald the title of "chancellor" but whether this means that he acted in a manner similar to the later Lord Chancellor is unclear, as some of the documents may be forgeries or have been tampered with. Whatever Regenbald's actual title, King Edward rewarded him with lands and also granted him the status, but not the actual office, of bishop. Regenbald continued to serve the English kings after the Norman Conquest of England, although whether he served King Harold II of England is unclear. His date of death is unknown, but it was probably during the reign of either King William I or William II. After his death, some of his lands became part of the endowment of Cirencester Abbey in 1133.

Pancartes were medieval historical documents, drawn up by a monastery, that recorded a sequence of gifts to the monastery. They were created in order that the whole group of grants or gifts could be confirmed by the ruler. They are known from Normandy and other northern French regions. Sometimes they were created over a number of years as successive gifts were added to the original document. Generally the various grants were tied together with a narrative, usually quite short, that linked the various gifts to a short history of the religious house. These documents were a frequent product of monastic houses in Normandy during the early 11th century and afterwards. Normally, they were not a product of the lay administration's chanceries, but came from ecclesiastical sources.

The office of Director of Chancery, the keeper of the Quarter Seal of Scotland, was formerly a senior position within the legal system of Scotland. The medieval post, latterly an office at General Register House, Edinburgh, was abolished by the Reorganisation of Offices (Scotland) Act 1928 and provision made for the functions to be transferred to the Keeper of the Registers and Records of Scotland, the Principal Extractor of the Court of Session, the Sheriff Clerk of Chancery and the sheriff clerks of counties.

The Great Seal of Ireland was the seal used until 1922 by the Dublin Castle administration to authenticate important state documents in Ireland, in the same manner as the Great Seal of the Realm in England. The Great Seal of Ireland was used from at least the 1220s in the Lordship of Ireland and the ensuing Kingdom of Ireland, and remained in use when the island became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801–1922), just as the Great Seal of Scotland remained in use after the Act of Union 1707. After 1922, the single Great Seal of Ireland was superseded by the separate Great Seal of the Irish Free State and Great Seal of Northern Ireland for the respective jurisdictions created by the partition of Ireland.

<i>Signum manus</i>

Signum manus refers to the medieval practice, current from the Merovingian period until the 14th century in the Frankish Empire and its successors, of signing a document or charter with a special type of monogram or royal cypher.