In the 15th century the universities of Oxford and Cambridge both appointed a High Steward to assist the University Chancellor in his official duties, in particular in the adjudication of disputes between members. As time went on, the office evolved into a position which the universities tended to use to reward their patrons and to formalise their relationship with prominent external figures who might promote their interests at Court and in Parliament. Although some of the original duties remained, such as arbitration in disputes and deputising for the Chancellor during a vacancy, the position of High Steward within the universities had become principally an honorary one.
Paralleling this development, the Dean and Canons of Windsor created the new college office of High Steward in the late 15th or early 16th century in order to secure influential patronage at the Royal Court. The first known holder of this office at the College of St George was Sir Thomas Lovell KG, who was replaced by Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter KG, in 1526. Although the original Chapter Act Book which recorded this appointment does not survive, the entry was copied into a memoranda book by Canon Evans [SGC IV.B.17 p.27]. Evans in fact misrecorded the information, claiming that Lovell replaced the “late Marquess” as High Steward. However, since Lovell had died in 1524 and the Marquess of Exeter continued to live until his execution in 1539 Evans must have noted the office holders’ names in reverse. Subsequent High Stewards of the College included Lord Burghley KG, Lord High Treasurer of England, and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex KG, who was appointed in 1598 for an annual fee of £13 6s 8d, a considerable sum in the 16th century [SGC VI.B.2: entry for 14 October 1598].
The name of the earliest High Steward at Windsor is not recorded, however, it is possible that it was the Chapel’s chief private benefactor, Sir Reginald (or Reynold) Bray KG. Sometime between 1491 and 1503, Bray signed an acquittance, acknowledging the receipt of 10 marks for half-a-year’s fee [SGC XV.60.137]. The purpose of the fee is not specified but the total annuity of 20 marks equates to £13 6s 8d – the sum granted to the Earl of Essex in 1598 for his annual fee as High Steward. Moreover, we know that Bray also held the position of High Steward of Oxford University, to which he was appointed in 1494, and of Chief Steward of Eton College. His political influence at Henry VII’s court and his personal interest in St Georges Chapel, Windsor, where he chose to be buried, would have made him a wise choice as High Steward to the College of St George.
Clare Rider, Archivist and Chapter Librarian