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19.03.07 Musson/Ramsay, eds. Courts of Chivalry and Admiralty

19.03.07 Musson/Ramsay, eds. Courts of Chivalry and Admiralty

During the Scottish expedition of 1385, noblemen from all over England came together in one host to fight under the leadership of their king. Some discovered to their dismay that they bore the same coat of arms as another knight. Sir Richard Scrope from Yorkshire thus challenged Sir Robert Grosvenor from Cheshire for the right to bear the arms Azure a bend or. It was not until six years later, and in the presence of the English parliament, that the conflict was satisfactory solved: Robert had to adopt a plain bordure, argent, to distinguish his arms from those of the Scrope family. The institution in which this famous legal conflict, known as the Scrope-Grosvenor Controversy, unfolded is usually referred to as the Court of Chivalry. This was a military court, headed by two senior officials, the constable and marshal, and dealt with disputes arising within English armed forces, from treason to conflicts over captives and coats of arms. It also had a naval equivalent, the Court of Admiralty, which was concerned with maritime law (disputes over prizes, piracy, and naval discipline).

Courts of Chivalry and Admiralty in Late Medieval Europe stimulates further research into these two unique, but largely forgotten, medieval institutions. As far as the Court of Chivalry is concerned, we are still largely dependent on Maurice Keen's key studies on the Laws of War in the Later Middle Ages and on the Constable's Court. Maritime conflicts in the Middle Ages, especially piracy, have benefitted from far more attention in recent years, but they are rarely studied in connection to land-based warfare. The relative scarcity of literature can partially be explained by a lack of sources: only a fraction of the archives produced by the medieval Courts of Chivalry and Admiralty still exist today. Nigel Ramsay is currently preparing an edition of all extant records of the medieval English Court of Chivalry.

The edited volume publishes the results of a symposium organised in Exeter in 2015 in the context of a research project called Law and Arms: The Medieval English Court of Chivalry. It contains eleven contributions and an introduction, the former of which can be classified into three major categories: heraldry, military, and naval history. The first article, "Heralds and the Court of Chivalry: From Collective Memory to Formal Institutions" (15-27), by Richard Barber, traces the professional development of heralds in the late Middle Ages, who evolved from simple performers to recognised experts in heraldic matters. Laurent Hablot's contribution, "French Armorial Disputes and Controls" (29-45), considers the available evidence regarding heraldic disputes in late medieval France, and argues that although many institutions could be involved in such legal conflicts it was ultimately the king who decided their outcome. "Art, Objects and Ideas in the Records of the Medieval Court of Chivalry," written by Julian Luxford (47-74), takes an art historical approach to the subject. He examines the English Court of Chivalry's three surviving disputes over coats of arms, and studies their possible contribution to a better understanding of medieval attitudes and beliefs towards heraldic objects as well as the agency of these objects in a legal context.

After this focus on heraldry and coats of arms, the following articles tend to focus more on military matters. Philip Morgan's "Sir Robert Grosvenor and the Scrope-Grosvenor Controversy" (75-94) analyses the social status of Sir Robert Grosvenor and his family, on the basis of records of the Court of Chivalry and a variety of other sources, such as inventories. Andrew Ayton continues along this path with "From Brittany to the Black Sea: Nicholas Sabraham and English Military Experience in the Fourteenth Century" (95-120). Ayton contextualises the remarkable military career of the esquire Nicholas Sabraham, who fought in Scotland, France, Spain, Prussia, Alexandria, and Hungary, within the larger social and military context of the fourteenth century to reconstruct the opportunities available to "professional soldiers" in this era. Ralph Moffat's "'Armed and redy to come to the felde': Arming for the Judicial Duel in Fifteenth-Century England" (121-133) studies a short treatise that specifies how someone should prepare himself for a trial by combat, with the main emphasis being on descriptions of armour. Bertrand Schnerb, "The Jurisdiction of the Constable and Marshall of France in the Later Middle Ages" (135-147), examines the judicial authority of French constables and marshals, and provides a short overview of military justice in late medieval France.

With Thomas K. Heebøll-Holm's "The Origins and Jurisdiction of the English Court of Admiralty in the Fourteenth Century" we finally arrive at the maritime aspects of the volume (149-170). Heebøll-Holm traces the evolution of the English Court of Admiralty from the first mentions of "admirals" in Norman Sicily to its formal institution in 1361, and emphasizes that royal sovereignty over the sea was a essential prerequisite for the court's existence. Lorenzo Tanzini, "The Consulate of the Sea and its Fortunes in Late Medieval Mediterranean Countries" (171-185), examines the different versions and potential uses of a fourteenth-century Aragonese text, the llibre del Consolat de mar, in a late medieval Italian context. Anne F. Sutton's article, "The Admiralty and Constableship of England in the Later Fifteenth Century: The Operation and Development of these Offices, 1462-85, under Richard, Duke of Gloucester and King of England" (187-214), outlines Richard's actions as Admiral and Constable before he became king, and suggests how his experiences influenced the respective courts' potential functions during his own reign. John Ford challenges some traditional assumptions regarding the legal taking of ships and other booty at sea in his contribution, "Some Dubious Beliefs about Medieval Prize Law" (215-236).

This book can be considered a good example of the advantages and pitfalls of publishing an edited volume. The articles cover a wide variety of subjects, which will not fail to encourage further research on late medieval Courts of Chivalry and Admiralty, the combination of "land" and "maritime" conflicts being especially commendable. The quality of the contributions is also quite good. The impact of the book would have been even greater, however, if the editors had opted to write a more ambitious introduction. Such a preliminary article would have been a unique opportunity to provide a comprehensive overview of the origins of these institutions (see for instance the published plea roll of Edward I's army in Scotland from 1296), [1] and their connection to early modern military and naval courts. [2] Furthermore, even though the title suggests a European perspective, the focus is clearly on late medieval England, and its Court of Chivalry. In recent years considerable research has been done on conflicts involving Hanseatic cities, especially piracy, which is not mentioned at all. [3] While the Hanseatic League did not have an Admiral's Court in the strict sense of the word, the experiences of its merchants are still very relevant, especially since their traders frequently appear in the records of the English Court of Admiralty.

This neglect of the wider historiographical context is particularly difficult to understand given the scarcity of literature on late medieval Courts of Chivalry and Admiralty in the strict sense of the word. A more thorough examination of current debates on chivalry, heraldry, conflict resolution, piracy, and military justice could have turned the preliminary article from a mere introduction into a key reference work for years to come. Such a more ambitious approach would also have also included a more exhaustive analysis of similarities and differences between Courts of Chivalry and Admiralty. As things stand, the volume feels a little incoherent, a collection of individual articles gravitating around a common theme instead of interlocking pieces of a complex but fascinating puzzle.

These remarks are not meant to diminish the very real influence this volume will have on future research, especially in combination with the forthcoming publication of the surviving records of the English Court of Chivalry. We can only hope that other historians will follow its example, and start studying conflict resolution in the late medieval world from a transregional and interdisciplinary perspective.



1. Cynthia J. Neville, "A Plea Roll of Edward's I's Army in Scotland, 1296," Miscellany of the Scottish History Society 11 (1990): 7-133.

2. Davide Maffi (ed.), Tra Marte e Astrea. Giustizia e giurisdizione militare nell’ Europa della prima età moderna, secc. XVI-XVIII (Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2012).

3. Gregor Rohmann, "Jenseits von Piraterie und Kaperfahrt. Für einen Paradigmenwechsel in der Geschichte der Gewalt im maritimen Spätmittelalter," Historische Zeitschrift 304 (2017): 1-49.