The Duchy of Lancaster

Duchy of Lancaster Coat of Arms.
Duchy of Lancaster Coat of Arms.

Readers who have been following the BBC series of Shakespeare history plays, The Hollow Crown will probably not need reminding that the downfall of King Richard II was brought about with the return of the exiled Bolingbroke, heir to the Dukedom of Lancaster.

Personally, I have found the BBC’s productions to have been both convincing and enjoyable, thanks to brilliant acting and filming, and they gave me the idea of writing this article on the Duchy of Lancaster, which for centuries has had a very close relationship with Harrogate.

Lancaster Castle.

Lancaster Castle.

Although the history of the Duchy’s “core” lands can be traced back well before 1267, it was in that year that King Henry III granted the County, Honour and Castle of Lancaster to his son, Edmund Plantagenet, along with the impressive title of 1st Earl of Lancaster. Edmund’s coat of arms became the arms of the Duchy of Lancaster, and are reproduced opposite. They describe the arms of England, with the three lions, differenced by a label of France charged on each point with three fleurs de lys. The French device was added following Edmund’s marriage with Blanche of Artois, Queen of Navarre, and are the first example of the armorial insignia of England and France appearing together on a shield. The Duchy arms may also be seen in Harrogate on the ceiling of the Royal Hall.

Unfortunately, Edmund’s son, Thomas, the Second Earl of Lancaster, quarrelled with King Edward II, and was beheaded in 1322 at Pontefract Castle, the Earldom of Lancaster reverting to the King. However, when Edward II died in 1327, the beheaded Earl’s brother, Henry, petitioned the new King Edward III, and was successfully re-instated as Earl of Lancaster, receiving back the Lancaster estates. When Henry, Earl of Lancaster, died in 1345, he was succeeded by his son, Henry Grosmont, who was elevated to the status of 1st Duke of Lancaster in 1351.

The Grosmont line seemed secure for the future, but fate had other ideas, and when the 1st Duke of Lancaster died without male heirs, his estates, including the Duchy of Lancaster, reverted to the King, who held on to them until 1362, when he decided to create his second son, John of Ghent [usually known as John of Gaunt], 2nd Duke of Lancaster. This entitled John of Gaunt to the lands and estates of the Duchy of Lancaster, which then included the Honour of Richmond, which John had possessed before his marriage, and which he administered with the Lancaster inheritance. 

At this point, international politics intervened in a way that was to have a profound effect on what is now the Harrogate District. In 1372, the allegiance of John de Montfort, Duke of Brittany, was wavering, which might have weakened England’s power, so King Edward III considered it politic to bribe him to remain loyal by granting him the Honour and Earldom of Richmond, which John of Gaunt surrendered like a loyal son. John’s compliance with his father’s desire did not go unrewarded, and in compensation for the loss of Richmond, John was granted the castles and honours of Tickhill and Knaresborough, Pevensey and High Peak, along with many other manors and hundreds.

The honour of Knaresborough took its name from the great castle, and included the Liberty of Knaresborough to the north of the river Nidd; and, the Forest, to the south of the Nidd, which included Bilton-with-Harrogate, Pannal, Plumpton, and all the other townships, villages and hamlets of the Royal Forest. The castles of Knaresborough and Tickhill were soon to prove very useful to John of Gaunt and his son. After several eventful years, John of Gaunt lived to see his son Henry of Bolingbroke, banished by King Richard II for a term of ten years, which for the 68-year-old Duke of Lancaster must have seemed an eternity, and he died at Leicester on February 3, 1399 without having seen his banished son.

All might have been well for the state, had not King Richard, in a last act of wayward despotism, converted Henry Bolingbroke’s banishment from ten years to life, and confiscated his Lancastrian inheritance. These acts proved the King’s undoing, as the outraged Bolingbroke returned from his continental banishment with a powerful band of supporters, landing on the Yorkshire coast in late June 1399 at Ravenspur, where he was met by Robert Waterton and two hundred foresters, probably from the Royal Forest of Knaresborough. Pickering and then Knaresborough castles fell to Henry Bolingbroke, who finally overcame King Richard  at Westminster on September 30, 1399, when King Richard resigned the crown of England to Henry.

On October 13, the new King was crowned Henry IV, who decreed that forever after, the possessions of the Duchy of Lancaster should be merged with the monarchy. That is why to this day, the Duchy of Lancaster has an important role as an owner of lands and estates in Yorkshire. Yet if the role of the Duchy is clear, there is much confusion about the title of Duke of Lancaster, which well-meaning people sometimes use when toasting the health of the present Queen. Although one writer on the peerage has observed that the “Ducall title of Lancaster was drowned in the title of the Regal dignity”, it was a case of merger, rather than extinction. King Henry IV granted the title of Duke of Lancaster to his son, the later Henry V, but kept the Duchy to himself. Similarly, Queen Elizabeth 1st retained the Duchy, but is reported to have offered the title to James VI of Scotland. Queen Elizabeth 2nd holds the Duchy of Lancaster inheritance, but does not use the title “Duke of Lancaster”.

The ownership of the Duchy came to have great significance to the inhabitants of the Forest of Knaresborough in 1770, when Parliament passed an Act for its enclosure. This meant that the forest would be divided into sale lots, and had it not been for a clause granting two-hundred acres of land in Harrogate being forever open and unenclosed, the public mineral springs that were the life’s blood of the local economy might have been bought by a wealthy landowner, and closed to the public. Such a disaster was however averted by the Duchy sending a team of surveyors to map the forest, and set aside land for common use. So much is well known, but what is sometimes forgotten is that the Acts of Parliament ensured that the  Duchy’s rights to the sub-soil minerals remained preserved. It has been through such joint ownership that, for example, the integrity of the Harrogate Stray has remained inviolate, in that the surface was granted to the public, whereas the sub-soil minerals remained with the Duchy of Lancaster.

This is why Harrogate Council or its agents have never been able to develop the Stray for council houses or a conference centre. But the Duchy’s retention of mineral rights was not restricted to Harrogate Stray, but included most of the lands of the former Forest, which is why so many local property deeds contain the phrase about mineral rights being reserved. Readers of this newspaper may recall that the recent issue for June 28 included a letter from the Duchy’s chief executive officer, Paul Clarke, advising the public that the Duchy was currently registering its historic manorial mineral ownership, following a change in the law governing the registration of land.

The Land Registration Act of 2003 set a deadline of October 2013 for the owners of centuries old mineral rights to register them officially. Harrogate has much for which to thank the Duchy of Lancaster, not least of which was the careful way the Duchy enabled its land holdings to be developed. When Leamington Spa was enjoying a phenomenal growth in the 19thcentury, speculators over-built, and their impressive mansions had to be sublet to multiple tenants, who soon turned once prize estates into slums, which resulted in the collapse of the Leamington Bank. Duchy control in Harrogate meant that a builder would not be granted a new building lease until his last development had been leased to a tenant. In this way, 19th century Harrogate never became over-built. There are many other examples of how Harrogate has benefited from the Duchy influence, but that story will have to wait for the future.