High steward (civic)

High steward is an honorary title bestowed by the councils or charter trustees of certain towns and cities in England. Originally a judicial office with considerable local powers, by the 17th century it had declined to a largely ceremonial role.[1] The title is usually awarded for life, and in some cases has become associated with a particular peerage title. As of 2007 twenty-four communities have the right to confer the status of high steward, although the office is in abeyance in a number of these.[2]


Originating in the Middle Ages, the office holder originally oversaw the administration of borough courts on behalf of the lord of the manor. As towns emerged from manorial control to become chartered boroughs governed by corporations, the new governing bodies were given the right to appoint the steward in lieu of the lord.[3][4] These stewardships were often instruments of patronage, with prominent courtiers obtaining charters for boroughs which in turn named them as steward. Boroughs also returned members to the House of Commons, and in many the steward was able to use his influence to effectively obtain the election of his own nominee.[4][5]

Over time the legal aspects of the office passed to a deputy: a qualified lawyer eventually given the distinct title of recorder. By 1689, the High Steward (in some boroughs known as Chief Steward, Capital Seneschal or Lord High Steward) had a purely honorary role. Sidney and Beatrice Webb summarised this as follows:

His appointment might rest with the Crown, or with the Governing Council or Close Body of the Corporation, sometimes subject to the approval of the Crown. ...an officer of great dignity and some influence, but with practically no duties or emoluments; usually a gentleman of high position, perhaps the owner or the patron of the Borough[3]

Municipal and local government reform

In January 1836 the close corporations of boroughs were replaced by elected town councils under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. The act provided that the provisions of existing charters, where they were not inconsistent with the legislation, were to remain in force. Many of the new councils had Whig and Radical majorities in place of the former Tory corporations. The appointments of stewards by the close corporations had sometimes proved controversial. For example, in 1833, the corporation of Kingston upon Hull nominated the Duke of Wellington, former Tory prime minister, to the office of High Steward. Following uproar among the townspeople, the Duke declined the office, which remained vacant. In 1836 the reformed town council instead appointed the Earl of Durham, a prominent Whig politician to the post.[6]

With the reform of local government in the second half of the twentieth century, municipal boroughs and their councils were abolished. This has meant that high stewards are now appointed by various successor bodies: London Boroughs, district councils, town councils or charter trustees.[2][7][8][9]

List of high stewards since 1974

The following is a list of those persons who have held office as high stewards of towns or cities since the local government reforms of 1965 and 1974:

This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.

High Steward of Abingdon: since 1963, the 9th Earl of Abingdon.

Former stewardships

In addition a number of boroughs formerly appointed stewards. The following stewardships which are no longer filled, were listed in directories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries:[32][33][34]Abingdon (held by the Earls of Abingdon), Barnstaple, Bewdley, Buckingham, Cambridge,[35] Derby (held by the Dukes of Devonshire), Gravesend (hereditary office held by the Earls of Darnley), Huntingdon, Kidderminster, Leominster, Louth, Newbury,[1] Oxford, Reading, South Molton and Stafford.


  1. 1 2 "This office is now become a mere honorary distinction, but there can be no doubt that at one time the High Steward was considered as a necessary check on any abuse of the royal prerogative, and as a means of communication between the Corporate authorities and the Ministers of the Crown."Money, Walter (1887). The History of the Ancient Town and Borough of Newbury in the County of Berks. Oxford: Parker & Co. p. 551.
  2. 1 2 3 Debbie Sigery (25 October 2007). "Harwich: Ceremony To Appoint New High Steward". Eastern Daily Gazette.
  3. 1 2 Webb, Sidney; Webb, Beatrice (1906). English local government, from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations Act. 3: The Manor and the Borough part 2. London: Longmans Green. pp. 321–322. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
  4. 1 2 Tittler, Robert (1998). The Reformation and the towns in England: politics and political culture, c. 1540-1640. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 231–235. ISBN 0-19-820718-2. Retrieved 11 July 2010. ..they seem to occur with some regularity in the more developed towns only around the 1520s and 1530s when we find high stewards for, for example Cambridge and Bristol, Exeter, Dorchester, Plymouth and Oxford
  5. Patterson, Catherine F (1999). Urban patronage in early modern England: corporate boroughs, the landed elite, and the crown, 1580-1640. Stanford University Press. pp. 171–172. ISBN 978-0-8047-3587-2.
  6. A History of Kingston on Hull. 1892. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
  7. 1 2 "Governance". Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames.
  8. 1 2 "Chief Stewards". Hereford City Council.
  9. 1 2 "Former headteacher is new Lord High Steward". Retford Guardian. 14 June 2007.
  10. "Lord Saye and Sele". The Times. 22 October 1968. p. 10.
  11. "Banbury, an Historic Town". Banbury Town Council Official Guide. Banbury Town Council. Retrieved 27 August 2010.
  12. "Sir Tony Baldry becomes High Steward of Banbury". Banbury Town Council. Radio Horton. Retrieved 10 March 2016.
  13. "Court Circular". The Times. 9 August 1977. p. 12.
  14. 1 2 3 "The Duke Of Beaufort Founder of Badminton Horse Trials". The Times. 6 May 1984. p. 16.
  15. "Council Decision details.". Colchester Borough Council. 3 November 2015. Retrieved 9 March 2016.
  16. "Deaths". The Times. 1 May 1980. p. 18.
  17. "Mr E. C. Spencer". The Times. 29 August 1981. p. 10.
  18. "Freedom of the Borough for High Steward". Great Yarmouth Borough Council. 1 July 2007.
  19. 1 2 3 "Minutes of civic honours council meeting 20 March 2008" Check |url= value (help). North East Lincolnshire Council. 20 March 2008.
  20. "Annual Meeting". Guildford Borough Council. 5 May 2010.
  21. "The Coat of Arms". Hertford Town Council. 10 August 2003. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
  22. "Salisbury, Marquess of (GB, 1789)". Cracroft's Peerage. 10 August 2003. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
  23. "Since 1557, the Borough of Ipswich has granted the Office of High Steward to twenty-four distinguished men... The power to appoint a High Steward was not granted by Royal charter, and it was not until 1665 that the person holding the office of High Steward was first referred to in a Royal charter, by King Charles II." "High Stewards of Ipswich". Ipswich Borough Council. 11 May 2009. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
  24. "Court Circular". The Times. 12 March 1983. p. 10.
  25. "Lord Mandelson picked for High Steward of Hull post". BBC News. 7 February 2013.
  26. "Ex-trawler chief gets top Grimsby office". Fish Update. 13 September 2007.
  27. "Court Circular". The Times. 19 March 1960. p. 8.
  28. Hugh Fort (15 November 2006). "They shall grow not old: War victims remembered". Wokingham Times.
  29. "Romsey Town Council Official Guide". Romsey Town Council.
  30. "Winchester City Council". Winchester City Council. 16 May 2012.
  31. "Royal High Steward". The Times. 8 January 1975. p. 3.
  32. Whitaker, Joseph A (1896). Almanack for the Year of Our Lord 1897. London: Joseph A Whitaker. pp. 741–757.
  33. Kelly's Handbook to the Titled, Landed and Official Classes 1899
  34. Kelly's Handbook to the Titled, Landed and Official Classes 1903
  35. Keanes, F A (1947). By-ways of Cambridge History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 21–56.
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