I. The Period 1386-1421

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer

The period in these volumes of the History, ending within a year of the death of Henry V in 1422, begins in 1386. An alternative point of departure might well, on general grounds, have been 1376.1 This was the year of the Good Parliament (‘quod bonum a pluribus vocabatur’, according to Thomas Walsingham, the contemporary chronicler).2 On that occasion the Commons first acted as prosecutors in the procedure of impeachment of royal officials, so making further progress towards involvement in high politics. In order to achieve their purpose, and again for the first time, they employed a spokesman in the Upper House whom they had elected from amongst the shire knights, and who continued to serve for the duration of the Parliament. He was the prototype of the Speaker whose personal identity and function were to be recorded in the roll of the next Parliament, and whose election was soon to be officially demanded of the Commons, and then become customary.3 However, the choice of 1386 as a starting point has good, sound reasons behind it. The Wonderful Parliament of 1386 (‘Mirabile Parliamentum’, so-called by another writer of the period, Thomas Favent)4 witnessed the most important political crisis in the reign of Richard II thus far, which, in constitutional as well as political significance, even surpassed that of 1376. For, during the session, not only was the King insolently threatened with deposition if he persisted in absenting himself from Parliament, but also the chancellor (Michael de la Pole, earl of Suffolk) was forcibly removed from office, impeached by the Commons and condemned by the Lords.5 Moreover, a parliamentary commission was also established, which, as formally authorized by statute, assumed responsibility for the royal administration, and for the period of its appointment (finally limited to twelve months), effectively governed the kingdom. William Stubbs was right in saying that with this Parliament ‘the clearer and more dramatic action of the reign begins’.6 Indeed, its momentous constitutional as well as political consequences were soon revealed: witness Richard II’s hostile reactions in 1387 to what had been done in defiance of his royal prerogative, and the savage counter-reaction of his opponents among the Lords and Commons in 1388, who inflicted dire punishments upon his most prominent supporters at Court, following the appeals of high treason and impeachments of the Merciless Parliament (called the ‘Parliamentum sine misericordia’, by Henry Knighton).7 And these consequences were to prove more far-reaching still, as the grim events of 1388 predetermined Richard’s ill-advised and intemperate policy of revenge against his chief opponents of 1386-8 and the annulment of the acts of the Merciless Parliament. These developments took effect in the last proper Parliament of the reign (1397-8), and contributed to his deposition in 1399, when the throne was usurped by his cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, one of the Lords Appellant of 1388, whom Richard had recently exiled and, more recently still, deprived of his Lancastrian inheritance.

The violent nature of this double event, coupled with the suspiciously obscure circumstances of Richard’s death in captivity at Pontefract (so obscure that it encouraged persistent rumours of his survival and plots to restore him), never ceased to darken the reign of Henry IV. This was, indeed, a time of trouble, disillusion and growing pessimism, especially because of internal commotion and insurrection. A protracted revolt in Wales led by Owen Glendower was so successfully exploited by discontented members of the English aristocracy (notably by the Percys and their allies in 1403, 1405 and 1408) that serious, large-scale rebellion ensued: in one instance (at Shrewsbury in 1403) this culminated in a hard-fought and bloody battle and, in another (in Yorkshire in 1405), it led to the execution of the northern primate, Archbishop Scrope, and his ally, the Earl Marshal. The King’s health deteriorated so badly under the constant strain that confidence in his personal capacity to govern was undermined, and this in turn helped promote dissension, eventually an open breach, within the ranks of the Lancastrian royal family itself.8 Direct responsibility for the conduct of government and administration was, for a time (1410-11), actually assumed by the royal heir apparent, Henry, prince of Wales, and his friends, notably the Beauforts; and only towards the close of the reign was command restored to the King and his supporters, prominent among them his second son, Thomas, duke of Clarence, and Archbishop Arundel.

In view of such circumstances, Henry IV’s relations with his Parliaments were constantly uneasy and fraught. With royal expenditure rising because of internal conflicts, and ordinary royal income, by the same token, falling, the frequent calls for extraordinary revenue by way of parliamentary taxation gave ample opportunity for Parliament, particularly the Commons, to complain and criticize, and even, however much the King might resist such threats to his prerogative, to impose controls over governmental activities, albeit on a temporary basis. The appointment of royal councillors, a basic royal prerogative, was sometimes (as in 1404, 1406 and 1410) subjected to the requirement that they should be nominated in Parliament. In the field of parliamentary taxation, not only was there never any question of Henry IV being allowed the wool subsidy for life, as Richard II had been in 1398; but, even in the matter of direct taxation, Parliament demanded recourse for a time (1404-6) to the appointment of special treasurers for wars.9 The latter were to be appointed in Parliament as well as being obliged to render accounts there, a device which, not infrequently used in Richard II’s earlier years, had been in abeyance ever since.10 Moreover, Parliament was insistent that the proceeds of the taxes it granted should satisfy public requirements in accordance with appropriations made by the Commons; and in order to reduce the risk of the Exchequer intermingling any such revenue with ordinary royal income, and of the King spending it otherwise (as, for example, on the Household), it occasionally earmarked specific amounts for him to use as he pleased (£6,000 in 1406; 20,000 marks in 1410).11 So far as the procedure to be followed in the granting of taxes was concerned, the reign witnessed, at the Gloucester Parliament of 1407, a firm assertion by the Commons of the principle that, although authorization of grants by the Lords was necessary, their own consent was absolutely essential. The formula, ‘granted by the Commons with the assent of the Lords’, officially adopted in Richard II’s reign, was then given added validity by Henry IV’s express concession that grants, when once agreed by the two Houses, should, as had been customary, be announced to him by nobody but the Speaker, a provision intended by the Commons effectively to leave the last word on such matters with them.12 (On that occasion, both the King and the Lords had been at fault, the latter in voting a subsidy upon which only they had reached agreement, the former in peremptorily demanding that the Commons should simply endorse it.) In one other important respect, however, the Commons had been able to make no headway: their request, in 1401, that before making any grant of taxation they should be told the answers to their petitions, was eventually rejected, after Henry had agreed to consult the Lords, because it entailed a break with custom.13 Nor did the Commons again renew the suggestion.

The reign of the second Lancastrian King, Henry V, provided a great contrast with those of his two predecessors, as it witnessed a revival of public confidence in, and support for, the monarchy on a scale not experienced since the palmy days of Edward III. Indeed, it soon gave a promise of better things. Admittedly, Henry’s personal reputation can only have been, in the eyes of some at least, tarnished by his unfilial conduct during his father’s last years. But whatever activities on his part had given rise to disapproval or suspicion were, after all, only evidence of an impatience to reign and rule natural in an heir apparent of mature age with considerable practical experience of affairs. Besides, he was now soon credited from the outset by contemporary commentators with a desire for moral regeneration and a sincerely held intention to fulfil his kingly office with all due seriousness of purpose.14 Of course, personal ambition to succeed apart, there were many things in Henry’s favour. Having been accepted as the royal heir apparent from the very start of Henry IV’s reign (a status subsequently confirmed in a series of Acts approved in Parliament), he was sure of his own title to the throne; and naturally, with the passage of time, the shock to the body politic occasioned by the events of 1399, in circumstances of dubious constitutional propriety, had now abated. The new King himself proceeded to demonstrate, without delay, that this was indeed the case by having the body of Richard II exhumed at King’s Langley, Hertfordshire, and reburied in the tomb in Westminster abbey originally constructed to receive it:15 an ostensive act of piety, but one calculated to disprove the constantly recurrent rumours that Richard still survived. Henry was, moreover, so self-confident and magnanimous that he was ready to let bygones be bygones so far as were concerned the heirs and families of the nobles who had supported Richard II after his fall (like the Holands and the Montagues), or had been in conflict later still with Henry IV (like the Percys and Mowbrays). But, equally, he would brook no opposition. In his suppression of the lollards’ rising of 1414 (led by his old comrade-in-arms, Sir John Oldcastle*) he demonstrated the firmness with which he intended to govern in the interests of Church and State alike; and in deciding to mete out condign punishment to those responsible for the Southampton Plot of 1415 (notably the earl of Cambridge, his cousin, and Lord Scrope of Masham, an intimate friend), he made clear, once and for all, how ruthlessly he would deal with any treasonable threat to himself and his family.

Such decisiveness also characterized Henry’s policies abroad, notably in the position he took up regarding the General Council of Constance (1414-18) and its settlement of the papal schism, but more especially in the case of France. Having been only too ready when, as prince of Wales, he had held the reins of government in 1410-11, to interfere on the side of the Burgundians against the Armagnacs in the struggle between the factions in France, he did not now hesitate to go to war on his own account. Once diplomacy had failed, his prime object was to enforce the claim to the French crown first made by Edward III in 1337, withdrawn in 1360, but then renewed in 1369, since when, however, no satisfactory, lasting solution had proved possible. In Edward III’s closing years and during Richard II’s reign, the war with France had mostly gone badly for the English. Indeed, the best that could eventually be achieved was a state of truce, culminating in the long truce of 30 years attendant on Richard II’s marriage, in 1396, to Isabella, child of Charles VI. On Richard’s deposition this pledge of peace came to nothing; and although Anglo-French relations remained on a formally hostile footing, sometimes erupting into actual violence, the position during Henry IV’s reign with regard to the basic dispute over the claim to the French crown was virtually one of stalemate. Henry V’s ambitious renewal of the French war in 1415 consequently marked a fresh departure. Following his military conquest and occupation of all Normandy and much beyond, his achievement in France reached its apogee in the treaty of Troyes (1420). In accordance with the treaty, he not only married Charles VI’s daughter Katherine, but became Charles’s regent, which was of far more immediate importance, and was also recognized as his heir, a factor of even greater significance, both at the time and prospectively. Had Henry, who died on 31 Aug. 1422, survived his father-in-law, who outlived him by less than two months, he himself would then have lawfully become king of France.

Admittedly, by then enthusiasm in England for the war, stimulated by the great victory at Agincourt and later military successes, had to some extent cooled, partly because of Henry’s long absences in France, but more directly as a result of the financial cost of the war of conquest which, with its attendant diplomacy, had proved as expensive as it had been unremitting. Yet, all in all, the country had backed the King. Certainly, Parliament had given him moral encouragement, as well as providing a degree of financial support which pushed direct taxation to new levels, indirect taxation on all foreign trade having been in the meantime (1415) granted to him for life.16 Despite high taxation, Henry’s relations with Parliament, not least the Commons, were generally quite cordial; and it was mainly for this reason that whereas the reigns of Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV had witnessed some notable developments in Parliament’s powers of surveillance, his gave little scope for constitutional advance.

The period 1386-1421 was thus very eventful, mostly on the domestic front during the second half of Richard II’s reign and the whole of Henry IV’s, mainly regarding foreign relations in Henry V’s.

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: J. S. Roskell

End Notes

  • 1. A starting point of 1376 would obviously have covered the whole of Richard II’s reign (1377-99), not just its second half, but would have involved so many more Parliaments (15 in all) that the biographical content of the work would have been greatly expanded.
  • 2. Chron. Angliae 1328-88 ed. Thompson, 68.
  • 3. J.S. Roskell, Speakers, chap. 1.
  • 4. Historia Mirabilis Parliamenti (Cam. Misc. xiv), passim.
  • 5. For this crisis, see J.S. Roskell, Impeachment of Michael de la Pole.
  • 6. W. Stubbs, Const. Hist. Eng. (Lib. edn. 1880), ii. 510.
  • 7. H. Knighton, Chron. ii. 249.
  • 8. P. McNiven, ‘Problem of Hen. IV’s health,’ EHR, c. 747-72; St. Albans Chron. ed. Galbraith, 64-67.
  • 9. RP, iii. 368, 530, 546-7, 572, 632.
  • 10. Roskell, Impeachment of Michael de la Pole,46-47, 74-83, 188.
  • 11. RP, iii. 568, 635.
  • 12. Ibid. 611.
  • 13. Ibid. 458.
  • 14. As by Thomas Walsingham: ‘Qui revera mox ut iniciatus est regni infulis repente mutatus est in virum alterum, honestati, modestie et gravitati studens, nullum virtutum genus pertransiens quod non cuperet in se transferri’ (St. Albans Chron. 69).
  • 15. Ibid. 77.
  • 16. In January 1398 Richard II’s last Parliament had granted him the wool subsidy for life, but not tunnage on wine and poundage on general merchandise. Henry V’s grant for life was the first to cover all such subsidies; and, following his death, not until the Parliament of 1453-4 did a similar one occur.