This isn’t really a “home life” related article, however, it’s a topic of interest (to me) and was a lot of fun to write. If you’re interested in a bit of information on medieval diplomatic practice, read on!
As territorial Baronesses in the Society for Creative Anachronism, Clare Elena and I are responsible for swearing fealty at each coronation for the lands we hold from the Crown. Because of the distance between where we live and where coronations usually happen, we don’t often get to travel down specifically to make our oath in person. Instead, we send our fealty in written form and have it delivered in court. In order to ensure that our agent would be duly admitted into court on our business, I sent our written fealty with a letter of credence.
Letters of Credence
In the medieval period, travel over long distance could be difficult, expensive, and, at times, fraught with ways to die (so that’s changed, obviously). Additionally, as with the modern period, heads of state were not always interested in traveling to meet with their opposite numbers. Therefore, the use of ambassadors, representatives, or other agents became an important part of the great ballet of nations (so poetic). Unfortunately, as communication was very slow, verifying the identity of the agent could be difficult. This is where the letter of credence came in.
Letters of credence appear to have been used throughout the medieval period, however, their first official mention of a littere de credencia appears in an entry in June 1200 on the Charter Roll (Chaplais, pg. 159). In its simplest form, the letter of credence provides verification of the sender’s identity, the identity of the agent, and what task they are sent to perform.
From John of England to all those who read my words, greetings.
By this letter, I credential Louis the Bald as my agent at the council of Trent. He is empowered to make all necessary contributions as if I was there myself. He is not empowered to expend money from my treasury.
(For more on writing medieval letters, see my handout on medieval correspondence.)
By the early thirteenth century, letters of credence were typically sent under seal as a litterae clausae or letter close (where the contents are hidden behind a seal, as opposed to a letter patent where the contents are patently visible). (Chaplais, pg. 15). This meant that the sender’s seal had to be broken in order for the letter to be read, which helped to verify the sender’s identity. The agent might also be sent with some other sign, such as a ring, to provide further verification.
Putting Learning into Practice
For the letter of credence sent with our agent to Twelfth Night Coronation, I looked to the Golden Bull of 1356. The Golden Bull was issued by the Imperial Diet of 1356/7 led by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. It “promulgated, decreed and recommended for ratification the subjoined laws for the purpose of cherishing unity among the electors, and of bringing about a unanimous election, and of closing all approach to the aforesaid detestable discord and to the various dangers which arise from it” (From the Avalon Project’s translation).
Chapter 19 of the Golden Bull is a formula of representation sent by a Prince Elector who decides to send his envoys to carry on an election, rather than attend in person. According to the translation by Thatcher and McNeal, this chapter reads as follows:
We (name), by the grace of God (title), (office) of the holy empire. Be it known to all by these presents… that we have constituted our faithful subjects (names) our true, legal, and special representatives and agents, to treat with our fellow-princes and electors, ecclesiastical and secular, and to agree and decide with them concerning a suitable person to be elected king of the Romans; to be present, deliberate, name, consent to, and elect the king of the Romans and future emperor in our name and for us; and to take the necessary, due, and accustomed oaths upon our soul, in regard to the aforesaid things; to appoint substitutes to do any and all things which may be necessary, useful, or convenient to the aforesaid consideration, nomination, deliberation, and election, and to do anything which we would be able to do if we were present in person at the election, even if these things be special and peculiar things not mentioned specifically in the above. We will accept and ratify everything done by the aforesaid representatives or their substitutes.
The Avalon translation is significantly longer and reads as follows:
We . . . such a one by the grace of God, etc., of the holy empire, etc., do make known to all men by the tenor of these presents, that since, from rational causes, an election of a king of the Romans is about to be made, we, desiring to watch with due care over the honour and condition of the holy empire, lest it be dangerously subjected to so grave harm, inasmuch as we have the great confidence, as it were of an undoubted presumption, in the faith and circumspect zeal of our beloved . . . and . . ., faithful subjects of ours: do make, constitute and ordain them and each one of them, completely, in every right, manner and form in which we can or may do it most efficaciously and effectually, our true and lawful procurators and special envoys-so fully that the condition of him who is acting at the time shall not be better than that of the other, but that what has been begun by one may be finished and lawfully terminated by the other. And we empower them to treat wherever they please with the others, our co-princes and co-electors, ecclesiastical as well as secular, and to agree, decide and settle upon some person fit and suitable to be elected king of the Romans, and to be present, treat and deliberate in the transactions to be carried on concerning the election of such a person, for us and in our place and name; also, in our stead and name, to nominate such a person, and to consent to him, and also to raise him to be king of the Romans, to elect him to the holy empire, and to take, upon our soul, with regard to the foregoing or any one of the foregoing, whatever oath shall be necessary, requisite or customary. And we empower them to substitute altogether, as well as to recall, one or more other procurators who shall perform each and every act, included in and concerning the foregoing matters, that may be needful, useful, or even in any way convenient, even to the consummation of such negotiations, nomination, deliberation and impending election. Even if the said matters, or any one of them, shall require a special mandate; even if they shall turn out to be greater or more especial than the above mentioned; provided that we could have performed them ourselves had we been present personally at the carrying on of such negotiations, deliberation, nomination and eventual election. And we consider, and wish to consider, and firmly promise that we always will consider satisfactory and valid any thing done, transacted or accomplished, or in any way ordained, in the aforesaid matters or in any one of them, by our aforesaid procurators or envoys, or their substitutes, or by those whom the latter shall substitute.
The difference between the two translations may be the result of a number of factors, including the fact that the Golden Bull exists in multiple, not quite identical copies.
For my text, I worked from the Thatcher and McNeal translation (because I was going to have to write everything out). In order to more accurately fit the situation, I removed references to the election and made a few other tweaks to 1) make the text reflect the duty of our agent, and 2) set some reasonable boundaries on her authority. My text read as follows:
From Cynehild and Clare Elena, by Their Majesties’ especial grace, sister baronesses of Eskalya, to all those who read our words, greetings. Be it known that we have constituted the Meysterinne Else Hünrvogt as our true, legal, and special representative and agent at Twelfth Night Coronation. To treat with our liege lord and lady, the King and Queen of the West, and with the various Princes, Princesses, Barons, Baronesses, Peers, Burghers, et cetera, of Their realm on our behalf; to represent us for the necessary, useful [s/b due], and due [s/b accustomed] oath of fealty we owe for our fief and present the document provided; to appoint substitutes to do any and all things which may be necessary, useful, or convenient to the aforesaid duty; and to do anything which we would be able to do if we were able to attend the coronation in person, even if these things be special and peculiar things not enumerated above, with the exception of declarations of war, the commitment of our forces or material to foreign causes, and expenditures from our treasury. We will accept and ratify everything done within the constraints of this credence by the aforesaid representative or her substitutes.
By our hands this seventh day of january in the fifty-first year of the Kingdom of the West.
As it was actually written down, it has the standard collection of misspellings and errors found in anything I write without a spell check. I used a secretarial style hand and was mostly pleased with the result. Sadly, I couldn’t find my “C” seal, so this was sent as a litterae patentes rather than the more correct litterae clausae, but that can wait for the next one.
As an additional bit of fun, here’s a picture of the fealty scroll this accompanied.
Chaplais, Pierre. 2003. English diplomatic practice in the Middle Ages. London: Hambledon and London.
Thatcher, Oliver J., and Edgar Holmes McNeal. A Source book for mediæval history: selected documents illustrating the history of Europe in the Middle Age. New York, NY: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1905.
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/golden.asp – The Golden Bull of 1356 (in Translation)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Bull_of_1356 – A short Wikipedia intro to the Golden Bull of 1356
https://www2.landesarchiv-bw.de/ofs21/olf/struktur.php?bestand=5146&sprungId=3601505&letztesLimit=suchen – Digitalized copy of the Trier copy of the Golden Bull of 1356