Admiralty Courts

Most English admirals were high-ranking men of the landed elite as their admirals, although the crown occasionally appointed wealthy shipowner-merchants when the office first appeared. During the Middle Ages, the main responsibility of the admirals was to impress ships and men from private shipping to serve in royal naval campaigns of limited duration. They were administrators more than actual naval commanders at sea, although some did command land forces in the field. First used in 1295, the title was bestowed on a territorial basis to the admiral of the North (which includes the east coast) and South (and West). Into the early fourteenth century, admirals for the Irish Sea or the Cinque Ports could also be appointed. By the early fifteenth century, however, the title was increasingly bestowed for life on men of the titled nobility whose authority was national rather than territorial.1 

15th-century sub-Admiralty seal. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. collections/objects/rmgc-object-64357

The Admiralty courts emerged from the admirals’ jurisdiction over naval troops, shipping, and prize but developed into a more formal court with its own laws and prerogatives in the mid fourteenth century. Merchants as well as shipowners, mariners, and fishers also used the Admiralty courts, which early on met at a variety of venues in different ports. Although the authority of the court was sometimes challenged by local and common law courts and even limited by statute in the late fourteenth century, crown intervention usually supported the Admiralty court, whose widening jurisdiction made it the chief maritime court of the realm by the sixteenth century. The growing power of the Admiralty court also parallelled the mounting assertions of English sovereignty over the sea.  

Unlike the common law courts and customary law courts of English villages and towns, the Admiralty court followed civil or Roman law (ius commune). It did apply maritime law as outlined in the Laws of Oléron, but it also acquired new powers over time, as evident in the Inquisition of Queenborough in 1375 and the promulgation in the mid fifteenth century of articles of inquiry. Some port towns claimed or were able to acquire exemption from Admiralty jurisdiction.2 

  1. For a list of English admirals, see N.A.M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain 660-1649 (1997), 504-7. For a list of appointments as captains, commanders, and admirals of the king’s fleet, as well as the text of commissions to these offices, see Nicholas Harris Nicolas, A History of the Royal Navy, 2 vols. (1847), I, 435-56 (Richard I to Edward II) and II, 517-34 (Edward III to Henry V).  ↩︎
  2. For a list of these towns, see Anne Sutton, “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,” in The Court of Chivalry and Admiralty in Late Medieval Europe, ed. A. Musson and N. Ramsay (Woodbridge, 2018), 195-6. ↩︎

Monumenta Juridica, The Black Book of the Admiralty, ed. Travers Twiss, Rolls Series 55, 4 vols. (London, 1871-76). The Black Book was compiled from laws and inquisitions dealing with the responsibilities and privileges of the English admirals; it was used as the basis of Admiralty court jurisdiction well into the eighteenth century. The first complete copy (TNA HCA 12/1) is dated c. 1450, but many parts of the text survive in earlier or (especially) later manuscripts that were used by Twiss (see I, lxxvii-lxxxii for a list) since he did not locate the original copy until after he had produced vols. 1-2. He thus drew primarily on an eighteenth-century copy of the Black Book (the Whitehall Ms.) but noted variations with earlier texts (such as BL Cotton Vespasian, B. xxii) for the first five parts of his edition of the Black Book (in vol. I). Rather than making his own translations of the Black Book, he reproduced the translations of Thomas Bedford, the Registrar of the Admiralty court under James II, which accounts for the archaic English. His edition is difficult to use since he did not go back to correct vols. 1-2, rather haphazardly organized his material (which included texts that were not part of the original Black Book), and misidentified versions of the Laws of Oléron (see the entry on the Black Book under Laws of Oléron). He did, however, compare the newly found Black Book with his earlier edition (I, pp. 2-342) in noting variant readings (in IV, 133-44). Despite these problems, this edition remains the chief source for understanding the development and purview of the Admiralty courts.

  • Regulations for the office of the Admiralty are summarized in a Table of Subjects (I, lxxxvii-lxxxviii). These represent the first three texts in the Black Book, numbered A-C by Twiss, who dates A and B to c. 1337-50 and C to 1360-90. “A. Old Rules for the Lord Admiral” (I, 1-23) contains 20 regulations focusing on the administration of the royal fleet, distribution of prize money, and captures by ships in the fleet. “B: What the Admiral is To Do in Tyme of Warr at Sea or Land” (I, 24-39) contains 20 articles of war that govern naval discipline, prize money, and collisions between ships, among other matters. “C: Rules or Orders about Matters which Belong to the Admiralty” (I, 40-87) contains 39 articles. The articles outline the duties, jurisdiction, rights to prize and other profits of the admiral and his officials; wages and discipline of mariners; supervision of men and ships arrested for naval service; and other related matters, including penalties for various misdeeds. Also includes royal ordinances about the ships and men in naval service.All three texts are in Anglo-French with facing page English translation of the eighteenth century, with notes comparing variant readings in the manuscripts used by Twiss. Corrections to these texts made once Twiss found the original Black Book are in IV, 133-44. 
  • D: “Inquisition taken at Queenborow” with “An Addition to the Said Inquisition,” (I, 132-47, 148-73). Inquisitions taken at Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent in three sessions, 1375-1403, concerning the customs of the admiralty. The cases covered many different issues, such as the division of prize taken at sea and the timing and content of remuneration to mariners on different routes, yielding 18 ordinances. The ‘Addition,” includes another 63 clauses, framed as orders for inquiries to be made regarding naval matters and the admiral’s jurisdiction. Most appear to date to the later Middle Ages. Both are in Anglo-French with a facing-page English translation and notes comparing variations in the different manuscripts used by Twiss. 
  • De officio admiralitatis” (I, 221-45). Includes 51 articles of inquiry employed before jurors of merchants, mariners, and others in the Admiralty Court. Dates from the reign of Henry VI. In Latin, but likely translated from an earlier Anglo-Norman version. Ends with notes on process in the Admiralty court.  
  • Documents Connected with the Admiralty of John Holland, Duke of Exeter, 1443-46,” (I, 246-80). Orders and inquisitions made by the Admiral in response to such problems as the arrest, capture, and ransom of ships, cargoes, and seamen. Also includes letters testimonial attesting to the acquittal of individuals in the Admiralty Court, supersedeas orders to bring a case to Admiralty Court, the appointment of the commissary of the Admiral and jurors in particular cases before the Court, pardons, release of defendants, verdicts of jurors, arbitration, sentences, and safe-conducts. In Latin.  
  • The Admiralty of Sir Thomas Beaufort” (I, 347-94). Beaufort was first appointed an admiral in c. 1408 and served in that and other military offices until he died in c. 1426-27. These documents (from BL Cotton Vespasian B. xxii, ff. 64- 90) were probably compiled for him. Contains orders addressed to the marshal and sub-marshal of the Admiralty Courts, mayors of port towns, the searcher of the Thames, and others to hold courts or detain or examine defendants and witnesses, with their responses. Also includes mandates to arrest ships and mariners for naval service; proxy appointments by merchants involved in litigation; issuance of safe-conducts and letters of marque, and other business. In Latin. 
  • The Fees, Commodities, and Profits Appertaining to the Admiral by Virtue of His Office: (I, 396-401). Sets out the fees and other profits (including deodands, forfeited vessels, prize) owed to the admiral, scribe, clerk, and marshal of the Admiralty Court. From BL Cotton Vespasian B. xxii, ff. 96-98v. In Anglo-French with facing-page English translation. 
  • The Articles and Appointments which the Lieutenant-General of the High Admiral in his Absence Ought to Do and Execute [in Virtue] of his Office” (I, 409-11). From BL Cotton Vespasian B. xxii, ff. 99-99v. In Anglo-French with facing-page English translation. 
  • Contra officium admiralitatis” (I, 412-19). From BL Cotton Vespasian B. xxii, ff. 100-102. Laws from the Statutes of the Realm dealing with the admiral’s jurisdiction from Richard II to Henry V, including the Statute of Truces, which required the approval of the king to conduct maritime warfare and requiring all prize captured to be brought to port for adjudication. In Anglo-French. 

Select Pleas in the Court of Admiralty. Vol. I: The Court of the Admiralty of the West (A.D. 1390-1404) and The High Court of Admiralty (A.D. 1527-1545), ed. Reginal G. Marsden, Selden Society 6 (London, 1894). Part I consists of two cases that came before John, Earl of Huntingdon, Admiral of the South and West, over 120 years before the first extant records of the High Court of Admiralty, selections from which form the bulk of this volume. Pleadings in Part I are in Law French, those in Part II are first in Latin and then in Middle English. Modern English translations are provided for the French and Latin. See also the extensive introduction, which discusses the early history of the office of Admiralty and its jurisdiction.  

Select Pleas in the Court of Admiralty. Vol. II: The High Court of Admiralty (A.D. 1547-1602), ed. R. G. Marsden, Selden Society 11 (London, 1897). In addition to discussing the later history of the court, the introduction also examines the development of the admiral’s privileges; the exemptions claimed by many medieval ports, such as Bristol and the Cinque Ports, from Admiralty jurisdiction; the early law of wreck; early references to the Admiralty court not included in vol. 1; and a table of cases in the court 1528-1602 not mentioned in the 2 volumes.  

Charles Johnson, “An Early Admiralty Case (A.D. 1361),” Camden Miscellany XV, 3rd series, vol. 41 (1929): 1-5. Anglo-French text of an early case in the Admiralty court held at the Wool Wharf in London before the admiral (TNA C47/6/9/1).

E. Chisholm-Batten, “The Admiralty Court of Minehead,” Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society 3 (1889): 46-52. Middle English text of a dispute heard in the Admiralty court at Minehead in c. 1498 regarding the share of profits due from the loan of a fishing boat to fish off the coast of Ireland (TNA REQ 2/4/399)

“Transcription and Translation of the Inquisition of Queenborough” (206-18) in Robin Ward, The World of the Medieval Shipmaster: Law, Business and the Sea, c. 1350-1450 (Woodbridge, 2009), 206-18. Reproduces articles relevant to his focus on activities at sea. Offers the original text and a translation, accompanied by extensive notes that correct errors and some readings made by Twiss in his edition of the Black Book of the Admiralty (see above). 

Of the Office and Duties of Admirals, the Management of Fleets, Marine Law, and the Process in the Admiral’s Court etc, in the Fourteenth Century,” in Nicholas Harris Nicolas, A History of the Royal Navy, vol. II (1847), 484-501 (with discussion on pp. 193-202). Describes the duties, jurisdiction, and privileges of the admiral and vice-admiral and behavior and protocols of ships and mariners while on naval service. Nicolas provides an English translation of the original Anglo-French text which he found in a copy of the Black Book of the Admiralty. He tentatively dates the document to c. 1351. Another translation of the “Articles regulating the office of the Admiralty” is in Twiss, ed., Monumenta Juridica, (above) but without the numbering of articles.  

Documents Relating to the Law and Custom of the Sea, vol. I, A.D. 1205-1648, ed. R. G. Marsden, Navy Records Society 49 (1915). Includes a wide variety of documents, most taken from the records of the central government, such as the Patent, Close, Gascon, and Treaty rolls, and the Chancery and Exchequer miscellanea and plea rolls. Provides the original text (usually in Latin) and English translation. Documents related to the Admiralty courts include orders to the admiral and his officials regarding safe-conducts, letters of marque, and disputes about prize.  

Select Cases concerning the Law Merchant A.D. 1239-1633. Vol. III: Central Courts, ed. Hubert Hall, Selden Society 46 (London, 1930). Cases no. 10, 31, 38, and 41, as well as unrelated documents in the Introduction (Appendix III, VI, VII, ) and related documents at the end of the volume (Appendix V) all treat issues in medieval maritime law that came before the court of King’s Bench. Text includes facing page translation of the original Latin or Anglo-French.