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Enigmatic England.

The Duchy of Lancaster

from The Barwicker No.66

There is no escape from history. Our political institutions are largely products of forgotten conflicts, ancient laws, precedent and practice. The fact that the appointment of a new rector in the parish is the right and responsibility of the Duchy of Lancaster, makes us think afresh about what lies behind the symbolism of the scarlet-cloaked Barwick church choir singing beneath the red coloured clock face of the House of Lancaster.

Today, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is a government minister appointed by the Prime Minister, but responsible to the Sovereign directly rather than to Parliament, for the administration of the Duchy. How did this situation arise? The greedy tortuous power politics of the Middle Ages were concerned with the acquisition of land, wealth, power, privilege and ruthless exploitation of the law and marriage for personal gain. It was disastrous for a great landowner to be on the losing side in a dispute with the King; apart from losing his head the vanquished would usually forfeit all family lands, wealth and privileges.

The Lancaster Inheritance goes back to 1265 when Henry III granted his youngest son, Edmund Plantagenet, many of the lands and possessions stripped from the defeated Barons in the civil war. In 1267 Edmund was granted the County, Honor and Castle of Lancaster by his father and created the first Earl of Lancaster. He was also given Newcastle-under Lyme and Pickering. In 1284 Edmund was also granted the manor of The Savoy in London, by his mother Queen Eleanor. Her uncle, Count Peter of Savoy, had previously owned this estate; the Duchy has its office here to this day. Edmund's son, Thomas, married Alice Lacy, daughter of the Earl of Lincoln, who brought into the inheritance the Honors of Pontefract, Halton, Clitheroe and Bolingbroke. But Thomas, who possessed five earldoms, opposed Edward II's policies, being condemned as a traitor and beheaded outside his own Pontefract Castle in 1322, forfeiting all his lands and liberties to the Crown. Thomas's brother, Henry worked to regain the family fortunes by petitioning the King and following Edward II's death, persuaded Edward III to re-instate the inheritance.

Henry was succeeded by his son Henry Grosmont, (Henry the Wryneck), the 4th Earl who was created 1st Duke of Lancaster as a reward for his success in war. Lancaster was also raised to a County Palatine (the original county of Lancaster, including the original sites of the cities of Liverpool and Manchester.)

When the Duke died without a male heir in 1361, his title became extinct and palatinate powers reverted to the king, with the inheritance passing to his daughters Blanche and Maude. In 1359 John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, married Blanche and acquired the title; when Maude died in 1362, without issue, her portion of the estate passed to her sister, thus reuniting the estate and massively enhancing her husband's power and authority. In 1362 Edward III made his son, John of Gaunt, the 2nd Duke of Lancaster. Exchanges of land between father and son led to Edward re-creating the Palatinate for John and his heirs forever. Edward III was succeeded by his grandson Richard II.

John died in 1399 and his son Henry Bolingbroke, who had offended his cousin, King Richard, had been banished from the kingdom. The king attempted to confiscate the Duchy inheritance causing Henry Bolingbroke to return to England in 1399. His small fleet sailed up the Humber and as the son and heir of John of Gaunt, he claimed and won the Lancastrian Inheritance and the Crown of England.

At his coronation, Henry IV declared that the Lancaster inheritance should be held separately from all other Crown possessions and should descend to his heirs and successors. It has remained so to the present day.

The seeds of the conflict between the great families of England were thus sown at this time, leading to the so-called Wars of the Roses between the Houses of Lancaster and York. The vast wealth of the Duchy was seen in its establishment of Eton College and King's College, Cambridge. After the defeat of the Lancastrian Henry VI, the new Yorkist king and victor of Towton, Edward IV, also declared that all future monarchs would hold the Duchy separate from all other royal possessions.

The Duchy reached the height of its influence in the 16th century and in 1556 an Act of Parliament described it as, 'one of the most famous, princeliest and stateliest pieces of the Queen's ancient inheritance.' The wealth of the Duchy declined in the 17th and 18th centuries, but began to revive in Victorian times with agriculture's new prosperity benefiting the great landowners.

Today, the Duchy estates comprise some 50,000 acres all over the country, which includes over 17,000 acres in Yorkshire. Last year the Sovereign's private income from the Duchy of Lancaster, received through the Privy Purse, amounted to over 7 millions before tax. Much of this private income is used by the Queen to meet official expenses incurred by other members of the Royal Family.

The Queen is patron of 42 Church Livings in Right of Her Duchy, mainly in central and eastern England and the Chancellor is responsible for appointing 4,200 magistrates serving in the Duchy area. The Duchy's patronage in making state appointments is considerable. Curiously when the three High Sheriffs for Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside are appointed, the Queen continues the Elizabethan practice of `pricking' the names of the chosen with a bodkin to record the appointments and to distinguish them from other similar posts in the country. Such is the face of enigmatic England!


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