Alexander Brondarbit is an Academic Planning Analyst at UC Santa Cruz and Instructor for the E-Campus at Oregon State University. His research focuses on the high and local politics of late medieval England with particular emphasis on the Wars of the Roses. His teaching interests include the history of high and late medieval Europe, the Church in the Middle Ages, and medieval sex, gender, and culture. You can read his article in the
Royal Studies Journal, Issue 6 here.
Kristen and Cathleen: What is a signet warrant? How does it differ from other types of documents?
The signet warrant was a means of connecting the king with the ordinary operations of his government. It was produced by the third type of writing office which arose after the other two writing offices (e.g., the chancery and privy seal office) had left the royal household to be housed permanently in Westminster. This change had occurred by reason of the high workload of those offices and the sheer volume of letters that were being produced. Obviously, the king was not always in Westminster and still needed a means of transmitting his will on official business regardless of his location. The signet office was thus formed in the early fourteenth century to meet this demand.
It differed from the Westminster offices in several ways. It was much smaller, less bureaucratic, and less solemn than the chancery. The signet was kept by the king’s secretary who was often a clerk based about the king’s person rather than say a bishop with public duties like the chancellor. A particularly interesting difference is the suspicion that often arose over the use of the signet. Initially used sparingly, the signet was seen as a method by which Richard II abused his royal prerogative as he bypassed the privy seal office in warranting the issue of letters under the great seal. The signet seal disappeared for a time when the Lords Appellant were victorious in 1388, yet it eventually reemerged in a more muted fashion afterwards as it definitely had its uses despite the concern it engendered.
Kristen and Cathleen: Had scholars largely ignored this document before, aside from including it in histories of Eton?
I’d say many scholars do seem to have been unaware of it. The Duke of York’s signet letter was first examined by the English historian and archivist, Sir Henry Maxwell-Lyte in his A History of Eton College produced in 1875. Aside from some minor errors in his transcription, Maxwell-Lyte also did not fully appreciate the significance of the document as he focused entirely with the Yorkist regime’s treatment of Eton. This emphasis has been replicated by later historians of the college as one might expect as they were not as interested in what the document told us about this critical, and somewhat opaque, stage of the Wars of the Roses. Cora Scofield did quote a snippet of the signet warrant in her biography of Edward IV, but she relied on Maxwell-Lyte’s book and it is doubtful she ever consulted the record in person. The same goes for Charles Ross’s biography which quotes an even briefer portion of the document without any citation suggesting again that he may have been repeating the quote from Scofield’s work. I believe what we have here is a case of a great document that was known in the late nineteenth century, but sadly was forgotten except by historians of Eton College.
Kristen and Cathleen: Briefly, what happened to Eton under the Yorkist kings?
Edward ultimately proved vindictive toward Lancastrian institutions in the early years of his reign. It was hardly impolitic to do so given that he still did not have full control of his own realm and a constant reminder of his more scholarly predecessor whom many still believed to be the rightful king could not have been a welcome proposition. This is all the more likely given the high survival rate of propaganda that attests to Edward’s right to rule. After he became king, Edward commanded King’s College Cambridge to pay its revenues to the exchequer and many of its estates were resumed in 1461. Eton received an even harsher sentence as Edward considered suppressing the college and annexing it into St George’s Chapel at Windsor. That Edward was committed to this course of action is without doubt as he secured a bull from Pope Pius II authorizing the abolition of the college in 1463 and we see this order taking effect two years later when its moveable goods (furniture, jewels, bells, clothing etc.) were removed to Windsor. Many of Eton’s original endowments were lost to resumption as the king dispersed the lands to his supporters. The impact of this initial royal policy is quite evident in the sharp decline of revenue as the annual income fell to a mere £321 at its lowest point in 1466-7. This is quite a fall as Eton received an average annual income of £1,200 under Henry VI. The diminished income prevented operations from continuing at Eton although the provost remained living on site.
For reasons unknown, Edward softened his stance toward Eton after 1467. At the king’s request, Pope Paul II revoked the bull annexing the college to Windsor. The tale that the school was saved by the charms of Edward’s mistress, Jane Shore, is an amusing one that even the college enjoys telling today, but there is no evidence to support this. I find the timing quite surprising given that the Lancastrian threat was far from over at this stage of the reign.
Unfortunately, Richard III’s attitude toward Eton is difficult to determine. The lone account roll for his reign does show that the college’s revenue had improved to an annual income of £565 in 1483-4, but this was largely by the minor grants Edward allowed the college in the latter half of his reign. If Richard harbored plans for Eton (which I doubt he did) they were never realized by the time he was killed at Bosworth Field.
Kristen and Cathleen: Was Edward taking advantage of Provost Westbury or was it just good politics?
Largely strapped for cash, Edward was certainly pressing his advantage here as he was raising funds to pay the troops needed for his campaign against the Lancastrian army in the north. This exchange with Eton was simply one avenue at his disposal to get the resources he needed, but it was merely a drop in the bucket. The bulk of money the Yorkists acquired came from London; within a few days of his reign Edward and his allies had received some £8,700 from the city dating back to the prior year. It is also worth noting that the quid pro quo arrangement between Edward and Provost Westbury was far from unique, particularly in the opening days of his fledgling regime. In 1461, Winchester College presented gifts to earn an exemption to the act of resumption in the king’s first parliament. In that same year, Canterbury paid nearly £300 to the king for a charter granting perpetual county status to the city and confirming its pre-existing civic liberties. Had Eton not been so closely associated with the House of Lancaster it is much more likely Edward would have kept his promises to protect the institution.
Kristen and Cathleen: Is this part of a larger project? What are you up to next?
At present, I am currently reshaping my thesis into what I hope will be my first monograph. My book will examine the Yorkist political power-brokers in operation in the reigns of Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III. Power is its major theme as I utilized records held throughout several local archives in addition to the national archive in order to develop a picture of how the politically active men and women mediated and expressed royal power. So often historians make the determination of influence by listing the patronage one acquired from the Crown. I sought to bring in other avenues by which to see their influence at work both at court and in the shires.