The Eltham Ordinances and its impact on the King’s court

The Eltham Ordinances are a set of rules drawn up to regulate the functioning of the King’s privy chamber. It was implemented in January 1526, but plans for it had been in the offing for quite a few years.

Articles devised by the King’s highness, with the advice of his council, for the establishment of good order and reformation of sundry errors and misuses in his most honorable household and chamber.

Behind these innocuous words, was a clash between two different factions at court, namely Cardinal Wolsey and the gentlemen of the privy chamber. The ostensible reason for the drawing up of the Eltham Ordinances was to streamline the expenses of the King’s household and to avoid “the great confusion, annoyance, infection, trouble, and dishonor,” arising from sickly and unmeet persons, and also rascals and vagabonds, being about the court.” However, Wolsey’s growing disenchantment with the ever-increasing influence of the King’s friends, points towards a deeper manipulation of the privy chamber, and even of the King himself.

For example, in 1519, the Privy Purse, which earlier to this period was almost entirely the stronghold of Sir William Compton, was regulated and much of the power taken away from him. It was a different matter that Compton was stealing from the King. But this had not been made public at this time, and the King himself seems to have been either unaware of this during Compton’s lifetime or looked upon this with indulgence. But we digress.

Grooms like Compton, Carew, and Brereton grew to be very rich, and their wealth matched that of the Cardinal. At the same time, their power grew because of constant intimacy with the King. The Eltham Ordinances dismissed some of the King’s closest friends from the Privy Chamber. Sir William Compton, Sir Francis Bryan, Sir Nicholas Carew and George Boleyn were among those dismissed and the composition of the grooms of the privy chamber was downsized from twelve to six.

Like every other task undertaken by Wolsey, these articles were detailed and would have helped a lot in organising the King’s household better. The Eltham Ordinances dealt with the details regarding things such as which members would have the bouche of the court, how many servants each courtier would have, purchase of meat and fish, inspection of and payment for the same, purchase of wine and other foodstuff, stealing and violence within the Royal Verge (Wikipedia defines it as “a distance in mediaeval and early modern jurisdictions by which a certain person could be required to be remote from the monarch: this was policed by the Lord Steward of the King’s Household and the Coroner of the King’s House”), mealtimes, care of the King’s various belongings (these included his dogs, horses, chambers, possessions in use or on display), royal guards, etc. They also included a detailed guideline for every servant in the King’s chambers when and how to do their work, and effectively allocated tasks to the various members.

An interesting clause in the articles says:

As hitherto, when the King has gone walking, hunting, or sporting, most of the nobles and gentlemen have gone with him, leaving the court deserted, and hindering the King in his sports, it is ordered that no one go with him at such times except those appointed by himself and warned by the gentlemen ushers.

Did this mean that prior to 1526, anyone and everyone was welcome to join the royal hunting party without actually being welcomed? That must have been a sight indeed. A deserted palace and the woods full of men and horses, and the King making faces behind their backs desiring only to be left alone!

These ordinances were to be bound as a book and signed by the King and kept in the counting house for everyone to consult and follow. I can only picture Sir Henry Norris diligently poring over the book, making notes. The threat of Cardinal Wolsey making a quarterly review must not have been a pleasant thought to most of the King’s intimates.

Whatever the King himself thought of these changes that surely must have resulted in a changing lifestyle is not known. But the fact that some of the dismissed courtiers were reinstated into the privy chamber within a matter of months gives us a clue of his feelings in the matter. It is possible that while Henry was not loath to (and indeed, must have been glad of) the reforms and streamlining of his household in general, he could not stomach the clauses pertaining to the dismissal of his old friends for long. Indeed, what savings could he have made when a player of the chamber was paid 1l. 13s. 4d. quarterly and the King spent 3243l. 5s. 10d. in gambling over merely a span of three years?!

However, the changes to the King’s Council would have been more welcome. By this time, Wolsey had the entire Council concentrated around him, and reporting to him. Henry’s protest over this was finally addressed in the Eltham Ordinances and the original committee of twenty members were downsized to ten members with a sub-committee of five members assigned to the King. Out of these five latter, any two of the Council must always be at the King’s disposal to advise which direction well observed, the King’s highnesse shall alwayes be well furnished of an honourable presence of councellors about his Grace, as to his high honour doth apperteyne”

The Eltham Ordinances were Cardinal Wolsey’s last ditch attempt to hold on to absolute power in the face of a maturing King increasingly interested in being involved in State matters. Things turned within a matter of a couple of years for the Cardinal leading to his downfall, but the Eltham Ordinances leave us with a clear picture of how things worked in King Henry’s household and Council.


–          David Starkey: The Reign of Henry VIII Personality and Politics

–          G. W. Bernard: The Rise of Sir William Compton, early Tudor Courtier (English Historical Review, 1981)

–          Letters & Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 4 – 1524-1530

–          Christopher Gidlow: Life in a Tudor Palace

–          J. A. Guy: Wolsey, the Council and the Council Courts (English Historical Review, Volume 91)

–          Nicholas Harris Nicolas: Privy Purse Expences of King Henry the Eighth, from November MDXXIX to December MDXXXII


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