What’s in a Title? Uniquely Named Legal Positions

It has recently been announced that Sir Terence Etherton will become Master of the Rolls this month, and that got me thinking: how have we acquired these uniquely titled legal positions? Of course, answering this question took a little delving back into history, but the results highlighted long-held traditions and even ancient practices. 

Master of the Rolls

The person who holds this title is no less than the second most senior judge in England and Wales, after only the Lord Chief Justice. He or she who holds the title today serves as both the presiding officer of the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal and Head of Civil Justice. But how did the name come about?

The position dates back to at least 1286, although some historians believe the office probably existed in some capacity even before the 13th century. Originally, the gentleman who held the office was responsible for keeping the "rolls", also known as the records of the Court of Chancery. While they were originally titled the Keeper of the Rolls of Chancery, the position evolved over time. 

Historically, one of the most well-known people to hold this position was a certain Thomas Cromwell, who acted as Master of the Rolls during the reign of King Henry VIII. 

Lord Chancellor

The senior, most important functionary in government, the Lord Chancellor is officially appointed by the Sovereign, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, on the advice of the Prime Minister. The second highest ranking of all the Great Officers of State, the Lord Chancellor comes only after the Lord High Steward (and it’s worth noting that position has been vacant since 1421!). 

Prior to the union, there were separate Lord Chancellors for England, Wales and Scotland, but today just one person holds the role throughout the United Kingdom. 

The Lord Chancellor officially acts as the Great Seal of the Realm, and the position dates back to at least 605. The title indicates that one is the head of the writing office, or "chancery". Some historians believe that Edward the Confessor was the true first Lord Chancellor in the form we know the position as today, adopting the practice of having official documents sealed instead of signed.

Chief Whip

A political office in some legislatures, the Chief Whip is tasked with administering the whipping system, which ensures members of the political party attend Parliament and vote as leadership desires. 

The whipping system is known as the enforcement of a political party, and traditionally can offer inducements or even threats to ensure members are participating according to the party’s official policy. 

Upon knowing the nature of the position, you might think of the Chief Whip as figuratively “cracking the whip” to keep politicians in line. In fact, the title is derived from the hunting term “whipping in”, which was a practice that prevented hounds from wandering away from the pack. 

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 

This grand title denotes a ministerial office in modern times, one whose duties include the administration of estates and rents of the Duchy of Lancaster. The person who holds the position is appointed by the Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister, and answers to Parliament for governance of the Duchy. 

This position was formed in 1361 to look after the daily management of the Duchy of Lancaster and the County Palatine Lancaster, until they were merged with the Crown in 1399. 

So just what is the Duchy of Lancaster, and why does it need special attention? The Duchy of Lancaster is a unique private portfolio of land, property and assets held in trust for the Sovereign, in His or Her role as Duke of Lancaster. Not many people realise that Queen Elizabeth is also a Duke! 

There are many more interesting titles with historic significance, but I found these four to be some of the most intriguing. What legal positions have you come across that you’ve been curious about the origins of?