Lord High Steward of Ireland

For other uses of "High Steward", see High Steward (disambiguation).

The Lord High Steward of Ireland is a hereditary Great Officer of State in the United Kingdom, sometimes known as the Hereditary Great Seneschal.[1] The Earls of Shrewsbury (Earls of Waterford in the Peerage of Ireland) have held the office since the 15th century. Although the Irish Free State, later the state of Ireland, became independent in 1922, the title remained the same, rather than reflecting the region of Northern Ireland, which remains within the United Kingdom.

The 1st Earl of Shrewsbury was created Earl of Waterford and Lord High Steward of Ireland on 17 July 1446 by letters patent of King Henry VI.[2] The current Lord High Steward is his heir, the 22nd Earl of Shrewsbury.

It was the Lord High Steward of Ireland, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who performed the responsibility of the curtana, and carrying the Sword of State at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953.[3] Four Swords of State are used, and the Lord High Steward of Ireland carries one of these, the Sword of Mercy, which has a blunt tip, and is called thus the Curtana. The others are the Swords respectively of Spiritual Justice, and of Temporal Justice, and the Great Sword of State, or the Sword of Offering. The Curtana is also known as the Sword of King Edward the Confessor.

Contrast with Offices in England of Scotland

The Lord High Steward of England ceased to be hereditary; for example it was conferred on the Duke of Northumberland for the Coronation in 1911. It is considered the first of the Great Officers of State, and a supreme judge in parliament. The Lord High Steward walks in front of the new Sovereign, carrying the Crown of St. Edward, on a velvet cushion. He wears robes of white satin and gold under-garment, with a long red mantle and ermine tippet.

The Lord High Steward of Scotland is the Prince of Scotland, as Duke of Rothesay, who is also currently the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cornwall. Given this Prince's other responsibilities, at the last two Coronations the Earl of Crawford was appointed as deputy to officiate in his stead.

The Lord High Steward of Ireland is a hereditary position, vested historically in the Earl of Shrewsbury, but in other respects largely analogous to that of England, as determined by the Attorney-General in 1862. The historical background to that was the office of the Lord High Steward or Great Seneschal of Ireland granted to Sir Bertram de Verdun by King Henry II. Lynch [4] devotes a detailed section of his book on feudal dignities to this office and hereditary title, and to its descent.

The hereditary nature of the office

Blackstone [5] observes that there are offices, consisting of a right to exercise a public or private employment, along with the fees and emoluments thereunto belonging, that are also incorporeal hereditaments, i.e., heritable. Examples include certain royal offices, such as the Lord High Steward of Ireland. The holder may have an estate in them, unto him and his heirs. Other offices may be for life or for a term of years. In his work, Lynch devotes a chapter to such incorporeal hereditaments as “Honorary Hereditary Officers”. He describes the dignity of Lord Constable conferred on Hugh de Lacy by original grant in 1185 of Meath. The Lord Constable of Ireland, originally vested with lands to which it was incident or annexed, and which descended through Walter’s son Gilbert de Lacy to John de Verdun (ex jure uxoris Margaret) by virtue of his moiety of Meath (the other moiety descending to Geoffrey de Genneville, ex jure uxoris Matilda). By 1460, the lands to which it had been incident vested in Lord Theobald de Verdun’s co-heirs in 1460, and, according to Lynch, the exercise of the office fell into desuetude.

However, it can be seen elsewhere that the Lord High Stewardship continued to be inherited by the Earls of Shrewsbury. In Letters of Appointment dated 27 August in the 28th year of King Henry VI, the first Earl of Shrewsbury who was also the Lord High Steward or Great Seneschal of Ireland, appointed John Penyngton to be Steward of the Liberty of Waterford, and in such appointment, the Earl is described as “Senescallus ac Constabularius Hiberniae”.[6] Further examples continue such as the case of the 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, confirmed in an inquisition later in 1624, and recalled in a Case before the House of Lords in 1862, dealing with the Lord High Stewardship of Ireland. Such appointments by the Lords Shrewsbury of Stewards of Counties in Ireland were upheld by the House of Lords as proof of the exercise of the prerogatives of the Lord High Steward of Ireland.[7] Furthermore, it was in his inherited capacity as Lord High Steward of Ireland that the 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, George Talbot, assisted at the coronation of King Henry VII in 1485. The 12th Earl, in the same capacity as Lord High Steward of Ireland, assisted at the coronation of King James II in 1685. In both of these cases, the Lord High Steward carried the Curtana.

Lapses in hereditary exercise of the office due to the Penal Laws

From the time of King Henry VI, no English Monarch (except King James II and King William III during the civil war of 1690-2) was in Ireland until the visit of King George IV in 1821. There was therefore during that period few if any occasion where the Earls of Shrewsbury could have exercised the duties of their office as Lords High Stewards of Ireland, about the person of the Sovereign.

As the Earls of Shrewsbury were at one time Roman Catholics, prior to Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, in 1829, they were prevented from effectively performing the judicial role of Lord High Steward. Hence, for example, in 1739, Lord Wyndham was eight times one of the Lord Justices of Ireland, and officiated as Lord High Steward of Ireland in the trial of Lord Santry for murder and treason, being the first trial of a Lord by his Peers in the Kingdom of Ireland.[8] Baron Wyndham of Finglass surrendered the offices of Lord Justice at his own request in 1739 on account of his ill-health.

The next trial of a peer was that of Nicholas, 5th Viscount Netterville, for murder in 1743, when Robert Jocelyn, 1st Viscount Jocelyn, (Lord Chancellor of Ireland) presided as the acting Lord High Steward. The same ceremonials as for the trial of Lord Santry were used, but the case collapsed when the two principal witnesses died. When the assembled peers judged Lord Netterville therefore not guilty, the Lord High Steward broke the white wand and adjourned the House.

The third case of a trial of a peer in Ireland by his peers was the trial of Robert, 2nd Earl of Kingston, in May 1798, for the murder of a Henry Gerald Fitzgerald, the illegitimate son of his brother-in-law. In the absence of witnesses for the prosecution, he was found not guilty, and the Lord High Steward thereupon broke his wand of office. On that occasion, the duties of the Lord High Steward were discharged by John FitzGibbon, the 1st Earl of Clare, who was also the Lord Chancellor of Ireland.[9]

Resumption upon Catholic Emancipation

It was only after the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 that John, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury could take his seat in Parliament. Recognising the Earl’s claim to the Lord High Stewardship, King William IV was pleased to respond to his petition and grant to the Earl the privileges inherent in the Lord High Stewardship, namely wearing the court uniform, and having access to the King’s levées by means of the private entrée, and of using the same upon other customary occasions.

The same continuity of lineal succession and right was also upheld in the case of the Chief Serjeantcy of Ireland, when it was found that neither a period of adverse possession, nor "nonusor nor mysusor" was held valid against the legitimate and upheld claim of the lineal heir, Walter Cruise, of the first grantee, centuries later, as decreed and adjudged on the 13 November in the fifth year of the reign of King Edward VI, and as recorded in Lynch’s “Feudal Dignities”.

Hence, the Earl of Shrewsbury subsequently took his place, as Lord High Steward of Ireland, amongst the High Officers of State at the funeral of King William IV, when Queen Victoria also appointed him to carry the Banner of Ireland. Subsequently his precedence over the Dukes of England as Hereditary Lord High Steward of Ireland, was established in the Table of Precedency prepared in the Herald’s Office and approved by Earl de Grey in his capacity as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1843; and similarly by the Earl of Eglinton as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1858.

On 1 August 1862, the House of Lords made an Order.[10] to confirm the right of the then Earl of Shrewsbury and Waterford, and Earl Talbot, Henry John, to the Office of Lord High Steward of Ireland.

White Wand of Office

Sir John Talbot (born 1803) took part in the installation of the Prince of Wales as a Knight of Saint Patrick at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin on 18 April 1868. On 15 September 1871, Queen Victoria granted to Charles John Chetwynd-Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, etc. “that he and the heirs male of his body, being Lords High Steward of Ireland, may carry a white wand when appearing officially in Ireland and when attending State ceremonials, and be placed at such ceremonies according to the Office of the Lord High Steward of Ireland ”.

Accordingly, and subsequently, a white wand was used at the Coronations of subsequent Kings Edward VII in 1902 and King George V in 1911, and a later Earl, John George Charles Henry Alton Alexander Chetwynd-Talbot carried a white wand at the Coronation of King George VI in 1937.

The significance of the white wand can be found in its representation of the supreme judicial functions of the Lord High Steward, having been used by Baron Wyndham of Finglass in his interim capacity as acting Lord High Steward for the trial of Henry Barry, 4th Baron Barry of Santry. On that occasion the customary Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod bore a white one, instead of black, for the Lord High Steward. Lord Santry was pardoned, and fled to England where he died.

Therein lies the significance of the white wand: it is a rod of office and the commission appointing a temporary Lord High Steward is dissolved according to custom by breaking the rod. This is also the customary practice for the Lord High Steward when operative in England (not being hereditary) . However, the Earl of Shrewsbury, holding the Lord High Stewardship on a hereditary basis, can retain the rod, and hence Queen Victoria’s authorisation that it be used at State ceremonials.

The white wand (or slat bhan) is also significant in the Gaelic/Brehon tradition of the inauguration of ancient Irish Kings. This is keenly observed in the inauguration of the O’Donnell, Prince of Tyrconnell. The significance of the white wand was described by Geoffrey Keating:[11] It was the chronicler’s function to place a wand in the hand of each lord [or king] on his inauguration; and on presenting the wand he made it known to the populace that the lord or king need not take up arms thenceforth to keep his country in subjection, but that they should obey his wand as a scholar obeys his master. For, as the wise scholar obeys and is grateful to his master, in the same way subjects are bound to their kings, for it is with the wand of equity and justice he directs his subjects, and not with the edge of the weapon of injustice.

Equally, for the Barons in Scotland, the wand of officers of a Barony is also a white wand, associated with Chiefship, and originally with the scepter of the Scottish King (or Ard-Righ), indicating also that the Scottish feudal baron is also a chef de famille, who reigns within his circle.[12]

A glimpse of the historic roles of Lords Stewards or Seneschals can be obtained from the case of the inauguration of the O'Neill as Prince at Tullahoge. The O'Cahan would cast a gold sandal over the head of the O'Neill Prince elect, while the O'Hagan, Baron of Tullahoge, who was O'Neill’s steward and justiciary for Tyrone, would present a straight wand, and then fasten the sandal to the Prince’s foot .

The Lord High Steward has also been known as the Great Seneschal of Ireland, as mentioned earlier. It should be noted also that Seneschal was also the term used in Ireland to denote the Steward of a Prescriptive Barony,[13] or Manor (as the official would be called in England), before whom the Court Leet or view of frankpledge was held. More recently, the term Seneschal was also, apparently used to describe Donal Buckley, as the Governor-General of the Irish Free State in 1932.

The Court of the Lord High Steward

The Court of the Lord High Steward in England was first formally instituted in 1499 for the trial of Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick and confirmed by act of Parliament.[14] A precedent for the appointment of a deputy to execute in his place the duties of an Honorary Hereditary Officer of the Crown in Ireland is found in the license [15] from King John in 1220 for John Marshal, to appoint a deputy to him as Lord Marshal,[16] as well as in England/Scotland where the Earl of Crawford has deputised for the Lord High Steward of Scotland, who as Duke of Rothesay and Prince of Wales and Scotland had another role to attend to, namely as Heir Apparent.

The precedent for the appointment by the Lord High Steward of Ireland of a deputy as steward of a county is found in the case of the appointment by letters patent on 27 August in the 28th year of the reign of the Plantagenet King Henry VI of England (circa 1450) by John, the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, of John Penyngton, Esq., as Steward of the Liberty of Wexford. This was acknowledged in evidence in the case lodged pursuant to the order of the House of Lords of 1 August 1862. The precedent for such a deputy within the Court of the Lord High Steward to be also appointed on a hereditary basis is found in the cases of the Grand Almoner of England, who is the Marquess of Exeter, the Grand Carver of England who is the Earl of Denbigh and Desmond and the Grand Falconer, who is the Duke of St. Albans.[17] By precedent and analogy therefore, the Lord High Steward of Ireland has been able to appoint deputies, designated stewards or seneschals for counties, and on a hereditary basis.

Although this prerogative has not been exercised during the period of the Penal Laws, nor later in the absence of visits of the Sovereign to Ireland, the Lord High Steward’s prerogative remains intact, and has been invoked in some appointments in the 20th century.[18] Such appointments of deputies by Lords High Stewards (for example of Scotland or England) have been accepted in the past by the Court of Claims constituted at Coronations, most recently in 1953.

The function of deputy to the Lord High Steward or Great Seneschal of Ireland is discharged under a related appointment of office, the Lord Steward for Tyrconnell, by letters patent of the Lord High Steward or Great Seneschal explicitly by virtue of the royal authority vested in him, to the grantee, and specifically to hold to him and his primogeniture heirs for ever.

Lord High Stewards of Ireland, 1446-present

Deputised Lord High Stewards of Ireland

The following were appointed to preside in the trials by the Irish House of Lords of Peers indicted for various crimes, and their ceremonial roles were limited to those appertaining to their temporary judicial role.

See also Vice Great Seneschal of Ireland


The Earl of Shrewsbury Papers (1856–1888) is a collection from the estate of Henry John Chetwynd-Talbot (1803–1868), 18th Earl of Shrewsbury and Waterford, and 3rd Earl Talbot of Hensol, given by Frederick B. Scheetz and Nicholas B. Scheetz, to Georgetown University Libraries in Washington D.C., USA, in 1987, and accessible on-line

  1. In an inscription on a leaden coffin for the remains of Gilbert, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury (died May 1616), in the Mausoleum of the Earls of Shrewsbury in the Chancel of St. Peter’s Church at Sheffield, the said Gilbert is further described as High Seneschal of Ireland
  2. Patent Roll, T.K., 24 Henry 6
  3. Preparing the Coronation, chapter by Sir Gerald W. Wollaston, K.C.B., K.C.V.O., Norroy and Ulster King of Arms, in Elizabeth Crowned Queen - The Pictorial record of the Coronation, published by Odhams Press Limited, Long Acre, London, 1953
  4. A View of the Legal Institutions, Honorary Hereditary Offices, and Feudal Baronies, established in Ireland following the reign of Henry the Second, deduced from court rolls, inquisitions, and other original records by William Lynch, Esq., Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, published by Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green, Paternoster Row, London, 1830. (See pages 75-79)
  5. Commentaries on the Laws of England, by Sir William Blackstone, (first published in 4 volumes over 1765-1769), London. (See section V. Offices, of Chapter 3 - Incorporeal Hereditaments, of Book 2)
  6. House of Lords, Printed Evidence, 7 August 1855, no. 6, page 11
  7. House of Lords, Case (see below), sections on Proofs, page 12-13
  8. The Complete Peerage by G.E.C., by G.H. White and R.S. Lea, Volume XII, Part II, 880, under Wyndham.
  9. In an earlier era, no less than seven Priors of Kilmainham, i.e., Knights Hospitaller, served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Another four Priors served as Lord Deputy or Lord Lieutenant - see The Knights of Malta, by H.J.A. Sire, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1994 (page 181)
  10. See Case on Behalf of Henry John Earl of Shrewsbury and Waterford and Earl Talbot on his claim to the office of the Lord Steward of Ireland, lodged pursuant to the order of this Right Honourable House on the 1st Day of August, 1862, and based on favourable report to Queen Victoria by William Atherton, Attorney-General, on 11 March 1862 (see especially pages 8 and 9)
  11. Foras Feasa ar Eirinn (The History of Ireland) le Seathrun Ceitinn, D.D. (by Geoffrey Keating, D.D.), edited with translation and notes by the Rev. Patrick S. Dineen, M.A., and published by the Irish Texts Society in 1906, and again in London in 1908, and re-printed in 1987 (ISBN 1 870 16609 4); See Part III, containing the Second Book of the History, pages 10, 12 (as Gaeilge) or 11, 13 (in English). Keating (c.1570-1650), is believed to have completed this work in about 1634
  12. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, volume 79: The Robes of the Feudal Baronage of Scotland, by Thomas Innes of Learney and Kinnaikdy, F.S.A Scot., Lord Lyon King of Arms, 1945
  13. For example, as recorded in a deed made 1422 (9 Henry 5), lodged in Lib.GGG.24. at Lambeth, wherein the Earl of Ormond constituted James FitzGerald, Earl of Desmond, as his Seneschal of the Baronies of Imokilly and Inchicoin (Inchiquin), and the Town of Youghal
  14. Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 edition, see article on Lord High Steward.
  15. Close Roll, Tower of London 16 John; and Patent Roll, TL, 17 John, as per Lynch, op.cit.
  16. Lynch, op. cit., page 72
  17. Whitaker's Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage, and Companionage, London, 1924
  18. This has been confirmed in an advisory opinion of Learned Counsel issued by Edward F. Cousins, at Lincoln's Inn on 11 February 1992. Cousins is Chief Commons Commissioner and later also appointed by the Lord Chancellor as Adjudicator to HM Land Registry, since 13 October 2003. He was called to the Bar in 1971 (Gray’s Inn) and is also a member of Lincoln’s Inn. He was appointed part-time Immigration Adjudicator and designated as a part-time Special Adjudicator in July 1999 and appointed as a Deputy Chancery Master in 2000. He continues to sit as a Deputy Chancery Master and also serves as a part-time Chief Commons Commissioner, to which he was appointed in 2002
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