Institutional change and property rights prior to the Industrial Revolution: The case of wardship in Britain, 1485-1660

November 4, 2020 | Blog
Home > Institutional change and property rights prior to the Industrial Revolution: The case of wardship in Britain, 1485-1660

by Sean Bottomley (Northumbria University)

This blog is based on research funded by a bursary from the Economic History Society.

Henry VII on his death bed. Available at <>


Under the influence of institutional economics, a consensus has emerged on the importance of the balanced state: one that is strong enough to fund and provide a legal framework enabling market exchange and security from internal and external predation, but which is constrained from undermining the security of private property rights. The formative example is England, where it is claimed that a balanced state emerged after the Glorious Revolution, leading in turn to the Industrial Revolution (North and Weingast 1989, Acemoglu and Robinson 2012).

This account, though, is controversial. It is widely accepted that property rights (certainly in land) have been secure since at least 1540 (Clark 1996). It is in this context that my project examines royal wardship in Britain from 1485 to 1660, a topic that has been largely neglected by historians since the 1950s (Bell 1953, Hurstfield 1958), and has never been the subject of an economic history. Beginning with Henry VII, the English Crown strained to re-establish its archaic, prerogative rights to ‘wardship’. These included the right to take temporary proprietorship of freehold lands held of it by certain feudal-military tenures which had descended to an underage heritor (the ward) upon the death of their ancestor. It also included the right to take physical custody of the ward until they reached the age of majority and, when they were unwed, to decide who they would marry.

Three main points have emerged from the project so far. Firstly, the Crown’s re-imposition of wardship served to undermine property rights. Most commonly, the Crown sold wards and their lands on to third parties, acting as guardians. Guardians seldom had any incentive to take care of the estate, rather woods were chopped down, lands were over-cropped, and buildings torn down for materials. It is partly in this context that Blackstone’s assessment of the Tenures Abolition Act (1660), which abolished wardship and the feudal-military tenures which underpinned it, as the ‘great[est] acquisition to the civil property of this kingdom than even Magna Carta’ can be understood. Secondly, the incidence of wardship was such that it had tangible economic consequences. For instance, land held by feudal-military tenures sold at a 10 percent discount relative to those tenures that did not entail wardship (socage) – significant in what was still a predominantly agrarian economy and where land was the pre-eminent asset and store of value. Thirdly, wardship is indicative of wider systemic failings of the early modern English state. It might have been an immensely productive source of revenue, but due to maladministration and the malfeasance of its officers, only a very small proportion of potential revenues actually accrued to the Crown.

Tentatively, wardship and its eventual abolition supports the argument that constitutional changes during the seventeenth century did augur a demonstrable improvement in state capacity and the security of property rights. However, critical components of the project remain unfinished. In particular, contemporaries often claimed that the Crown was purposely distorting the content and institutions of the land law in order to increase its income from wardships. Investigation of contemporary legal sources will allow me to determine the accuracy of this claim.  These sources may also be useful for examining related issues, especially whether the complexities of tenure impeded land conveyancing (significant given the demonstrable importance of transaction costs for productivity and land usage) and large-scale land improvements (particularly in land drainage).

Another unfinished component of my project is archival research on  wardship in Ireland and Scotland.  This is not conceived as merely an adjunct to the project for England:  the inability of the Crown to raise funds from wardship was systemic in each of the three Stuart kingdoms, and  a comparative approach should yield more meaningful explanations why this state of affairs existed.   Work at the National Archives of Scotland will also serve a secondary purpose. Unlike in England or Ireland, the tenurial framework underpinning wardship was abolished at a significantly later date (1747) and there was a continuously updated register of land conveyances, the Register of Sasins. The intention is to explore whether the Register can be used to measure any changes in land values and/or usage coincident with the abolition of feudal-military tenures in Scotland.


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Acemoğlu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. Why Nations Fail: The origins of power, prosperity and poverty. London: Profile Books, 2012.

Bell, H. E., An Introduction to the History and Records of the Court of Wards and Liveries. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1953.

Clark, Gregory. “The political foundations of Modern Economic Growth, 1540-1800,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 26, no. 4 (1996): 563-588.

Hurstfield, Joel, The Queen’s Wards: Wardship and Marriage under Elizabeth I. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958.

North, Douglass and Barry Weingast. “Constitutions and commitment: the evolution of

institutions governing public choice in seventeenth century England.” Journal of Economic History 49, no. 2 (1989): 803-832