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Clerks in Royal Service

J.L. Kirby examines how the 15th-century records of Thomas Hoccleve, Robert Fry and Thomas Broket illustrate the workings of modern civil service in its infancy.

The phrase “civil service” and the organization we now know by that name are just one hundred years old; but civil servants existed, and a hierarchy of officials carried out duties similar to those of the modern service, for many centuries before a name was invented for the service as a whole. It was as necessary for Edward the Confessor, nine hundred years ago, as it is for Queen Elizabeth II today, to have someone to write letters and to keep accounts; but, in the eleventh century, the modern distinction between the public business of the kingdom and the private business of the sovereign did not exist. 

In the days of Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror, these duties were household tasks. The Chancellor, so we used to be told, was originally a chaplain who, in the intervals between his spiritual duties, sat behind a screen (cancella in Latin) in the king’s hall, and wrote the king’s letters, while a hoarder or chamberlain took care of the royal treasure, which was kept in a box in the king’s chamber, under his bed. 

Recent historians have suggested that, even before the Conquest, the conduct of the king’s business was not quite so rudimentary as these simple pictures would suggest; and it is certain that, after 1066, the organization soon became much more formal. But it remains true that the administration of the kingdom was first conducted by the king’s household; and it was the breaking away from the household of various departments that eventually gave England a civil service.

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