Lordship, Identities and Communities: The Duchy of Lancaster’s Medieval Estates

The Great Cowcher Books of the duchy of Lancaster (TNA, DL 42/1-2) are some of the greatest treasures deposited with The National Archives. They are perhaps second only to Domesday Book in their importance as a record of medieval landholding and lordship across many counties of England and Wales. Equally, the books are compiled using the finest, most high-quality materials. Yet, both their beauty as objects and the importance of their content to researchers remain under-appreciated. Thanks to a new project, funded by the Friends of The National Archives, this is all about to change.

Compiled in around 1402, just three years after Henry IV (Henry of Bolingbroke), the heir to the duchy of Lancaster, took the English throne, the Cowcher Books form a deluxe, illuminated register of evidences of title for the duchy of Lancaster and its constituent parts, including the great medieval earldoms of Lancaster, Leicester, Derby and Lincoln. The two volumes contain 2,433 numbered charters written in Latin and French, and a host of other documents, as well as richly illuminated heraldic banners.

Her Majesty the Queen is the present duke of Lancaster, and the duchy’s estates today cover more than 18,228 hectares of rural land in England and Wales, 36,000 hectares of foreshore property, 42 church livings, and thirteen castles and other historic properties. The contents of the Great Cowcher Books provide fascinating insights into the history of the duchy’s medieval lands, the processes by which successive countesses, earls and dukes amassed their rights, the lives of ordinary men and women on the duchy estates, and how disasters such as the European famine and later waves of the Black Death in the fourteenth-century impacted upon large parts of the country.

The Friends of The National Archives awarded funding to Dr Paul Dryburgh (TNA) and Professor Louise Wilkinson (University of Lincoln) for a condition survey of the Great Cowcher Books and for a researcher to calendar in English their contents. Once complete, the calendar will be made accessible to everyone via Discovery, The National Archives’ online. This is a vital first step for researchers at the Universities of Lincoln, Lancaster and Cambridge, and The National Archives, who are now actively developing a major new collaborative project on the making of the duchy of Lancaster and its archives.

An illuminated drawing from the Great Cowcher Books of Henry III granting his son Edmund the earldom of Lancaster is available here.

An example of a heraldic banner from the Great Cowcher Books can be found here.