Anthony Musson and Nigel Ramsay (eds), Courts of Chivalry and Admiralty in Late Medieval Europe (Brian Ditcham)

Anthony Musson and Nigel Ramsay (eds.)

Courts of Chivalry and Admiralty in Late Medieval Europe

(The Boydell Press, 2018) 250 pp. $99.00/£60.00

In recent decades the activities of Courts of Admiralty and, perhaps even more, Courts of Chivalry in the late medieval period have moved from being subjects of interest primarily to antiquarians and students of heraldry to being objects of concern to social and cultural historians- especially those studying military society. The present collection of studies, delivered at a conference focused on English and French experiences, gives a sense of where the weight of research in this field currently lies.

Richard Barber starts with a stimulating squib on the rather slow social ascent of heralds. Initially little more than cheerleaders-cum-ringside announcers whose main qualification was a loud voice, and long at best precariously linked to the courtly world through responsibilities for managing minstrels and other socially marginal figures, they eventually became established royal officers. This evolution was only complete, however, by the early fifteenth century when the kings of France and England began to assert central control over the grant of arms and assign the policing of this process to heralds whom they also appointed. As late as 1400, however, a herald was explicitly described as “not a gentleman” in a Court of Chivalry case. Laurence Hablot’s consideration of armorial disputes in France confirms this narrative; Roman Law provisions allowing free assumption of arms were slow to fade and litigation on the subject was handled in a very decentralised and ad hoc way. As the fifteenth century wore on, however, there was increasing royal control over the granting of arms.

The next three contributions focus on the set piece arms-related cases heard before the English Court of Chivalry in the last quarter of the fourteenth century which have bulked large in recent scholarship (especially Scrope v Grosvenor, where the witnesses included one Geoffrey Chaucer). Julian Luxford considers the ways in which objects and art works were cited in evidence. This is a particularly rich paper, opening up a world of stained glass, church vestments carrying heraldic motifs, long-destroyed tombs and altarpieces and other visual markers of status. It is a reminder of the sheer omnipresence of heraldry in fourteenth century England (and elsewhere in Europe?), even in places where such display should in theory have been prohibited. It also throws interesting light on fourteenth century views of the past (often distinctly inaccurate) and concepts of evidential proof. Philip Morgan looks at the losing Grosvenor side of Scrope v Grosvenor. This has suffered from the condescension of posterity, partly because the documents on that side have survived less well but also perhaps from a sense of snobbery- the Scropes rounded up a much more socially elite set of witnesses (including Chaucer). As Morgan points out, however, in social terms there was less of a gap between the contestants than this suggests -and the Grosvenors certainly did not take their courtroom defeat lying down. Andrew Ayton seeks to reconstruct the career of the Northumberland esquire Nicholas Sabraham on the basis of his testimony to the court and the very sparse references to him in other sources. He was a remarkably widely travelled individual, seeing service as far away as the Black Sea coast as well as in Italy- and also represented Newcastle-upon-Tyne in Parliament. Sabraham is an interesting example of upward social mobility through military activity (by no means all of it in English royal service). It is also sobering to realise that he would have gone almost unnoticed had he not been called on to give evidence in Scrope v Grosvenor.

Ralph Moffat provides an edition and interpretation of a short treatise on how a man facing trial by combat should be kitted out. This was produced by one John Hill in the reign of Henry VI; Hill can be traced as a “linen armourer” (i.e. supplier of the lining to suits of armour) in the 1410s and 20’s. Clearly he know his business, though Moffat does not indicate how many trials by combat Hill might have been involved in. Bertrand Schnerb considers the development of the Constable’s and Marshal’s courts in France over the fourteenth century. These eventually became part of a hierarchy of courts all under the Parlement of Paris with a competence limited to military matters in time of warfare- though the cases they handled are only known from those which ended up going to the Parlement on appeal.

Turning to nautical matters, Thomas Heebøll-Holm examines the origins of the English Court of Admiralty and dates this as late as 1361, a side effect of the Peace of Brétigny and its establishment (at least in theory) of English control over most of the Atlantic coast of France. He also suggests that – to the extent that the court was effective at all- it depended heavily on the fact that the same man served as Admiral and as Warden-Constable of the Cinque Ports. In more southerly waters (and a bit of an outlier in this collection) Lorenzo Tanzini considers the publication history of the originally Catalan Llibre del Consolat de Mar in Italy, marked by attempts to project its origins far back into historical time and a very selective employment of its content even though it evolved in a very different legal and social context as a way of asserting the identity of mercantile elites in Catalan port cities.

Anne Sutton reviews the activities of the Admiralty and Constableship of England (and their courts) during the years of Yorkist rule when both offices were held by Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III). The Admiralty side of things was a great deal more active, and had to work alongside borough jurisdictions which had been granted local Admiralty rights. The Court of the Constable by contrast appears to have been in decline (even though it seems to have had more officials- often themselves double-hatting with Admiralty positions- than its visible business would require). Suits over coats of arms had gone to the heralds (given corporate identity by Richard III), treason cases were handled by ad hoc commissions and, except for occasions when a royal army was mustered for foreign service, it appears to have had little role left. Finally John Ford chastises earlier scholars for misrepresenting aspects of medieval English prize law at sea by implying that some form of royal licence was required before a mariner could attack “enemy” ships- under Roman law, he argues, this was not the case provided a state of war existed. One suspects however that violent thugs like William Smale of Dartmouth, who figures in Heebøll-Holm’s contribution, were not greatly concerned about the finer points of the learned law when they set sail.

Overall, one feels that the Admiralty side of the equation is a bit under-represented (especially given the prominence of “keeping the sea” in fourteenth and fifteenth century English political discourse). Despite “Europe” in the title, the focus is also somewhat Anglocentric; the two French contributions have a slightly token air about them and Tanzini’s piece is rather isolated. Nevertheless there are also some outstanding contributions which demonstrate the riches to be found in the archives of the courts of chivalry and admiralty.

Brian Ditcham

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