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Home arrow History arrow Officers and accountability in medieval England : 1170-1300


This analysis cuts across the applicability of the models proposed by Glenisson and Bisson. There seem no inherent or diplomatic grounds for separating Glenissons ‘administrative’ from ‘reformist’ inquisitions. Inquisitions into shrieval officers more or less focus on both as a function of their commissioners’ interests.[1] With respect to Bisson’s argument the position is interesting. Any analysis of the English sheriff between 1194 and 1274 cannot claim him as a model of the justice of accountability, notwithstanding the sophistication of the administrative system. Politics (in Bisson’s strong sense of principled disputing) and official integrity do not appear to be the consequential effect of accountability—at least not straightforwardly so. Politics was the product of disputing about the content of the sheriff’s office as the reform agendas of ‘1215’ and ‘1258’ show. Nor need accountability be a sign of ‘proper’ office when that office is limited to a narrow fiscality. In the case of sheriffs, there were conceptions of a wider office, but the crown was reluctant to institutionalize them, as Richard of Ely seemed in the Dialogue of the Exchequer. There were no manuals on shrieval office as there were for podesta, baillis, bishop, or even the lesser (English) bailiff or reeve. Even ‘only’ German knightly ministeriales had their custu- mals setting out their liable duties.[2] Philippe de Beaumanoir may not have been representative but his c.1283 coutumier showed how far a French bailli could internalize norms encouraged by the crown.[3] It is a contrast that the Policraticus, one of the most relevant English texts, received scant attention at home. More focused attention seems to have been paid in England to manorial officers than to sheriffs, and ideas about the former may well have been poured onto the latter in 1258 (see pp. 78—80). Given the governmental centrality of sheriff this is striking. Reflective thought about responsible shrieval office did not connect well with sheriffs’ accountability in England between 1194 and 1274 except under the duress of ‘reform’. It had to be cultivated, forced, to sprout.

What this implies for the actual quality or conduct of governmental officials is problematic (see further pp. 246—60). Well-meant does not mean well-governed, as Louis IX’s inquiries showed. Conversely extractive government per se may not necessitate abusive government. Charles I of Anjou saw ‘red tape as the best insurance of governmental effectiveness’ in the Regno and certainly the ‘Vespers’ rebellion of 1282 was provoked by his attempt to tie that tape tight for tax reasons.[4] It is interesting at least that by ‘comparison with the English reform movement of 1258, the San Martino [1283 parliamentary reform] canons expressed little discontent with the operation of the legal system, no outrage at the arbitrariness of government, no build-up of anger among the barons’.[5]

The crown was late to embrace practices of responsible shrieval office in England. Sheriffs were too important fiscally. But because they were important politically as well as fiscally, perceptions of official irresponsibility produced real problems in the crises of ‘1215’ and ‘1258’. An explanation is based partly on the peculiarity of English administrative structures; partly on the English crown’s financial need; and partly on kings’ personalities. The English crown’s predominant interest in shrieval accountability as seen through an Exchequer optic prevented it properly gauging the seriousness of other aspects of sheriffs’ conduct. A basic conflict of interest jammed the two against each another. Before Edward I, one mentality of accountability occluded the fuller development of its counterbalancing pair, except when the crown was under duress from barons and knights. In an important respect this was simply a necessary cost of doing (royal) business. But the basic liability of sheriffs to both county and Exchequer guaranteed that it would be problematic. The ways in which the crown did and did not stress sheriffs’ accountability during the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries contributed in basic ways to the civil wars of the thirteenth. This was not for want of the right intellectual equiment. The acta analysed above of Henry II, Philip II, and Roger II show that c.1140—90 all had the capability to stress the utile and the honestum when it came to their agents’ accountability, as well as, sometimes, the inclination. But English dynastic ambitions and their costs were crucial in restricting how far more generous ideas of shrieval conduct could be taken seriously. And what one king had affirmed another could disavow. If Edward I accommodated himself somewhat to reforming ideals once king, Exchequer practice under his son’s sometime treasurer Walter Stapeldon was so offensively extractive that in October 1326 Stapeldon died beneath a London mob who sawed his head off with a bread- knife. It is disconcerting to recall this as one reads the smooth, obsessive, oppressive detail of the Exchequer rules that Stapeldon was responsible for drafting between 1323 and 1326.[6] Rulers’ characters (and Exchequer officials’) could matter. A fuller assertion of royal officers’ accountability and responsibility was a stronger assertion of the contours of kingship itself. That was no guarantee of regal success, as Charles I discovered in Sicily. As John and Henry III knew equally well, however, narrower conceptions of shrieval accountability were no guarantee of regal success either.

  • [1] Strayer argued one could even see Louis IX’s preferences played out in enqueteurs relative handling of different appeals (good for women, less so for bishops): Joseph R. Strayer, ‘La Consciencedu roi: Les Enquetes de 1258-1262 dans la senechaussee de Carcassonne-Beziers’ in Melanges RogerAubenas, Recueil de memoires et travaux publie par la Societe d’histoire du droit et des institutionsdes anciens pays de droit ecrit 9 (Montpellier, 1974), 725-36. I am grateful to Antonia Fitzpatrick forobtaining a copy of this for me.
  • [2] Arnold, German Knighthood, 76-99.
  • [3] 328 Cf. Joinville, Histoire de Saint Louis, ch. 140, with Coutumes du Beauvaisis, ed. Andre Salmon,2 vols. (Paris, repr. 1970),passim; esp. i. cap. 1 §11-22, 29-30, 40.
  • [4] Dunbabin, Charles I of Anjou, 23 and ch. 8 on the Vespers. See her incisive comments onCharles’s ‘competent if not particularly amiable government’ in Provence (54); that the regnicoli ‘feltthe pinch of [Charles’s] fiscalism more [. . .] because his civil service was more efficient’ (66) andthat ‘Angevin justice was well-meaning, thorough, ferocious (though not more so than that of othereffective monarchies of the period), and usually principled’ (67) while Charles’s bureaucratic passion‘made even the contemporary English kings look negligent in recording’ (70). David Abulafia stressesStaufer administrative continuity: The Western Mediterranean Kingdoms, 1200—1500: The Struggle forDominion (Harlow, 1997), 72—5, 79.
  • [5] 33° Dunbabin, Charles I of Anjou, 111, cf. 113.
  • [6] Red Book of the Exchequer, iii. 848—97. Stapeldons peculiar blend of acquisitiveness, piety,and ‘nineteenth-century’ educational fervour is well captured by John Maddicott in Founders andFellowship: The Early History of Exeter College, Oxford, 131^1592 (Oxford, 2014), ch. 1, esp. 34—6,39, 50—62. Stapeldon’s skill as a canny administrator and founder of Stapeldon Hall/Exeter Collegerecurs in Ch. 5.
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