In the twelfth century the machinery of government was inextricably intertwined with the Kings Household. The big offices of state were still in embryo form and had yet to develop their own administration and separate identity.
The most developed was the Exchequer, which had been the only department to settle in Westminster in the time of King Henry I.
A large part of the rest of government administration was done through the various members of the Royal Household. The chief of these were as follows:
In early times, Kings had called upon their Chaplin (usually the only person able to read or write) to write their letters and messages. By Henry I’s time the Chancery was an efficient writing office through which the Kings instructions were sent out to all the land. The role of the Chancellor continued to develop through the reign of Henry II and beyond.
But he still had the domestic duty of organising services in the royal chapel.
These were responsible for attending the King in his ‘privy chamber’ but also had the responsibility of managing the households finances and looking after valuable items such as documents and jewels.
Their financial work also extended beyond the Kings Household and they would deal with obtaining money, for example from the treasury (the chief of which was at Winchester, or by collecting it from the sheriffs or the Kings debtors. Then they would supervise its spending.
The other four household departments
As well as the Chancery and the Chamber there were four other important departments of the household:
The Steward – who was responsible for the providing the food for the household and guests, and looking after the kitchens. The food at the court of King Henry II was notoriously bad as the King was uninterested in good cuisine (unlike his wife Eleanor who had more refined tastes).
The Butler – who was responsible for the supply of wine and ale (also known to be of poor quality, largely due the Kings lack of interest).
The Marshall – who arranged for the pay and allowances of the household servants and supervised their work. He was also responsible for arranging for lodgings for members of the Kings Court as it moved from place to place.
This was made very difficult due to Henry II’s notorious unpredictability. Courtiers complained that they never knew when the King would move and that they were often left without proper lodgings for the night – or indeed any lodgings at all!
The Constable – who organised the bodyguard and escorts, arranged for the supply of castles and the muster of royal forces.
Although all of these were ostensibly just household officials, because they were close to the King and in his confidence, they also had influence with the King and played a role in the affairs of state
Carrying out the Kings will
For example twice a year there was a meeting of senior officials from the treasury, the chancery, the chamber and the constables department and several privy councillors, all under the chairmanship of the Justiciar, to consider whether the Kings will was being carried out properly and deal with any problems.
The meeting was generally held at the same time as the twice yearly review of the Sheriffs accounts. This was convenient, as the Sheriffs were responsible for carrying out much of the Kings business in the counties, which they did on receipt of writs prepared in the chancery.
The writs were were then ‘returned’ to the Exchequer when the instructions had been performed, so the sheriffs could receive any expenses they were entitled to.
The chamberlain and the constable were closely involved with this. As they were close to the King, they were able to advise the Sheriffs in any difficulties they might experience in carrying out their duties.
Long term development of the offices of state
It was all a lot more informal at this time as this was the way Henry preferred to operate. The influence of any one official depended less on his precise position, and more on who he was and whether he had the confidence of the King.
It is only later, under subsequent monarchs, that the various offices and departments of state developed their separate identities and functions. However in a sense the process was hastened during Henry’s reign.
Henry spent such a lot of time out of the country (as so much of his territory was on the European mainland) that it was necessary for a system of government to be developed that could function without his being there. Partly for this reason, his reign was an important time in the development of the judicial and governmental systems.
Another reason is the specific innovations developed and set up by Henry himself. We will be looking at these later.