The escheator: a short introduction


The escheator was the local official responsible for 'escheats', that is broadly speaking for upholding the king's rights as feudal lord, and for holding the majority of IPMs (a few were held by specially appointed commissioners). In the thirteenth century there had only been two escheators, with responsibility north and south of the river Trent, who supervised under-escheators working at the county level; by the second half of the fourteenth century, the escheator's bailiwick was established as the county or, in cases like Oxfordshire/Berkshire and Norfolk/Suffolk, pair of counties.

Despite relatively full documentation, including extensive series of escheators' accounts, the office of escheator has been neglected by historians: it has never been the subject of a full-length study, and existing accounts deal largely with the period before about 1350. [1. S. L. Waugh, The Lordship of England: Royal Wardships and Marriages in English Society and Politics, 1217-1327 (Princeton, 1988), esp. ch. 3; Stevenson, Escheator.] County-based studies of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century gentry give relatively little attention to the office, the escheator being considered a ‘relatively minor figure compared with the sheriff', ‘unlikely to be held by a man of real local stature', and furthermore an officer of declining importance over the fifteenth century. [2. C. Carpenter, Locality and Polity: A Study of Warwickshire Landed Society 1401-1499 (Cambridge, 1992), 265; Carpenter, ‘General Introduction', 8 (with full references). ] This neglect was surely encouraged by the omission of escheators' names in the IPM calendars, at least before the volumes for 1422 onwards. That implied, intentionally or otherwise, that the escheators were figures of little interest and with no bearing on the findings of the inquisitions themselves. At the time of writing the escheator even lacks an entry in Wikipedia.

Differences in social standing between the escheator and the sheriff, the most important of the crown's local officials, should not be exaggerated. Indeed the landed qualification for holding the office of escheator - £20 p.a. – was established in parliament in 1368, and only in 1371 did the Commons attempt to extend this to sheriffs. [3. PROME, Parl. May 1368, item 14 (Rot. Parl. ii. 296a); N. Saul, Knights and Esquires: The Gloucestershire Gentry in the Fourteenth Century (Oxford, 1981), 136-7.] While it is generally true that escheators tended to be somewhat less wealthy and important than sheriffs, their ranks included some knights and a good number of future and indeed former sheriffs. The knights included Sir John Lestrange, who officiated at Thomas Robell's IPM, explored in a previous feature. He was a prominent member of Norfolk society, active as commissioner and justice of the peace, and also a prominent member of the royal household, where he was controller 1405-13. He was appointed escheator on 12 November 1403; as usual, the appointment was at the king's pleasure and lasted until an escheator was notified of his successor. Less usually, Strange held office for over two years before he was replaced, on 1 December 1405, by Edmund Oldhall: he is an example of an escheator who also served as sheriff (1401-2 and 1413-14), in this case both before and after his term as escheator. [4. CFR 1399-1405, 234; 1405-13, 19; List of Escheators, 86; HPT, s.n  (] Strange served again in 1407-9, when he was named by Henry IV as the replacement for the king's original choice, John Reymes, who did not wish to accept the office. [5. Calendar of Signet Letters of Henry IV and Henry V, ed. J. L. Kirby (1978), no. 708. For Reymes see HPT, s.n. (] (Formally escheators were apointed by the chancellor, treasurer, and chief barons of the Exchequer, in accordance with a statute of 1340, but informally many people might try to influence their decision.) [6. SR i.283; SC 1/56/116 (request by Queen Anne to the chancellor and treasurer for the appointment of Roger Toup as escheator in Lincoln, 1383); Paston L & P,  ii. no. 164; Plumpton L&P, no. 6.]

Although it might be burdensome, the office was potentially lucrative. As we have seen, the standard fee for carrying out an IPM seems to have been 40s. by the fifteenth century, not an insignificant sum; escheators might also receive payments or other douceurs for carrying out an inquisition promptly. If an estate were in dispute, it was useful and sometimes essential for claimants to acquire the escheator's support, providing further opportunities for gifts and payments. Furthermore the escheator was, by virtue of his office, likely to be possessed of valuable information about lands falling into the king's hands whose custody could be sought; he was also in a position to curry favour by bringing infringements of royal rights to the king's notice.

The escheator's responsibilities were various and were summarized in the oath he swore when taking office as faithfully keeping the king's rights and ‘all manner of things belonging to the crown'.  [7. Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 1146, f. 9v (French); Ashmole MS 1147, p. 75 (English).] His activities may broadly be divided into those carried out ex officio and those carried out in response to a royal writ. Ex officio inquisitions typically concerned such matters as alienations of land and acquisitions in mortmain that had been carried out without royal licence. These were among the subjects which the thirteenth-century Articles of the Escheators had made the responsibility of the escheator and which were outlined in other treatises on the office. [8. SR i.238-41; BL, Add. MS 32087, fos. 259v-261r; S. L. Waugh, ‘The origins and early development of the articles of the escheator', Thirteenth-Century England v (1995).]  In addition many ex officio inquisitions, in the later years of Richard II and the early years of Henry IV, concerned estates forfeited for treason and a good number dealt with the goods and chattels forfeited to the crown by felons and outlaws.

Writs were sent to the escheator by both Exchequer and Chancery. The former typically followed from earlier inquisitions and asked for fuller information concerning, for example, the value of an estate. Chancery writs often concerned some aspect of the IPM process but could deal with a wide range other matters in addition. As well as in the IPM archive, these inquisitions chiefly survive in Chancery miscellaneous inquisitions (calendared in full to 1485) [9. CIM.] and the escheators' files (E 149, E 150, E 152 and E 153 in the National Archives) as well as the inquisitions ad quod damnum (C 143). It is tempting to assume that ex officio inquisitions reflect the escheator's own initiative in contrast to writs which conveyed royal instructions: this must sometimes have been the case, and there are some inquisitions which state that the escheator has made enquiry about royal rights and found ‘all well'. However, there are examples of several inquisitions ex officio for the same person which seem more likely to reflect less formal instructions to the escheator, perhaps by writ of privy seal (the archive of the privy seal office is now largely lost).  [10. For example, CIM viii.115, regarding concealments and collusive enfeoffments by Thomas Seyntclere.]  By Henry VII's reign records of the king's chamber make it clear that a good number of inquisitions ex officio were prompted by royal commands. [11. D. Luckett, ‘Henry VII and the south-western escheators', in B. Thompson, ed. The Reign of Henry VII: Proceedings of the 1993 Harlaxton Symposium (Stamford, 1995), 54-64. See also the privy seal writs relating to John Paston's outlawry, including instructions to the escheator, in Paston L & P ii. no. 304(iii).]

The IPM process, as we have seen, began with the issue of the relevant writ and proceeded with the summoning of a jury, in theory - but not always certainly in practice – summoned by the sheriff. What actually occurred at the inquisition is obscure in almost all cases. A few descriptions, most relating to disputed inheritances, suggest that any interested parties were expected to present relevant evidence at the inquisition. For this reason IPMs were, by statute, to be held ‘in good towns openly, and not privily'. [12. SR ii.368, 375 (34 Edw. III c. 13; 36 Edw. III st. 1 c. 13).] Some evidence also suggests that escheators might be expected to press any claim the king might have over the lands; also that the escheator might have to call on the deceased tenant's kin for relevant information. In cases where there was no dispute, and where the inheritance was uncomplicated, the inquisition may have done little more than ‘rubber stamp' information provided by the heir. [13. M. L. Holford, ‘The valuations and extents', in Companion, 121; Holford, ‘Jurors', in Companion, 202-6; M. Hemmant, Select Cases in the Exchequer Chamber, Selden Society 51, 2 vols. (1933-48), ii.127ff.] Once the inquisition was taken it was returned to Chancery and the process of livery, explored in a previous feature, could begin.

The inquisition process was obviously vulnerable to fraud and manipulation and several cases are known where escheators seem to have returned inaccurate IPMs at the suit of one party in a dispute. They were also suspected, sometimes no doubt with justice, of defrauding the crown by returning inaccurate valuations or claiming that no lands were held in chief when some in fact were. [14. M. L. Holford, ‘The valuations', in Companion, 122. The role of false or favourable inquisitions in land disputes has been explored in several articles by S. J. Payling, e.g. ‘Legal right and dispute resolution in late medieval England: the sale of the lordship of Dunster', EHR cxxvi (2011), 17-43 (at 26-7, 29-30, esp. 30 n. 54).] The prevalence of such malpractice is not easy to assess.  The escheator's two appearances annually at the Exchequer, to make his ‘proffers', provided some opportunity for the crown to monitor his activities, and further checks were provided by the auditing of the escheator's account, a process that will be described in more detail in a future feature.

Although we have spoken of the escheator's activities, in practice he was typically assisted by one or more clerks, deputies and bailiffs whose role and even identity is often elusive (but who will be the subject of future posts). John Ermynglond, who rendered account at the exchequer as John Straunge's attorney in 1404-5 and 1405-6, may well have held such an office. [15. E 368/177, m. 7d; E 368/178 m. 8. James Andrew, Straunge's attorney at his exchequer proffers, represented several other parties at the exchequer and is unlikely to have had a particular connection with the escheator's secretariat. (See] The escheator's oath stipulated that he was to take extents ‘in his proper person', but it is not easy to say if this was regularly the case, or to guess at how many IPMs were actually carried out by escheators to whom they are attributed. (As we shall see in a future post, the statement that an inquisition was taken by a named escheator does not mean that his under-escheator was not involved.)

The medieval escheator is badly in need of a modern historian. We need to know more about the men who held the office, their connections in local society, and the influences that were brought to bear on the inquisitions they took. We need also to know more about the changing nature of their responsibilities in the late medieval period, the effectiveness with which they enforced the crown's rights, and their relationships with similar officials - notably the commissioners appointed from time to time to enquire into evasions of royal rights and, by Henry VII's reign, the officials responsible for the royal prerogative. We must hope that the greater prominence given to the escheators in the calendars for 1422-47, and soon from 1399-1422, will lead to more detailed assessments of their importance in local society in this and other periods.