II. The Place of Parliament in the King's Government

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

Long before the emergence of the ‘representative’ Parliament (that is Parliament as an assembly including elected representatives in addition to prelates and secular magnates individually summoned), expansion of the authority and power of the Crown had necessitated, at the centre, both specialization and devolution of governmental and administrative responsibilities. Secretarial, financial and legal functions had been siphoned off and, in large measure, come to be discharged by distinct and permanently organized branches of the executive and judiciary, chief of which were the Chancery and the Exchequer, and of course the courts of King’s bench and common pleas. In earlier, less exacting and more primitive conditions of administration, the King had almost entirely relied for help upon members of his Household, and this great primordial institution still continued not only to ensure the protection of his person and enhance his royal dignity, but also to supply a variety of such services. They included the secretarial and financial tasks performed by the two offices of privy seal and signet and by the wardrobe and chamber, as distinct from the work undertaken by the other, greater departments which had ‘gone out of court’. But whether dealt with by these great offices of State or, residually, by the Household, all government and administration had the King’s authority behind it and was run in his name; and much of its motive force continued to depend upon his personal capacity, interest and efficiency.

The sheer amount of administrative business affecting the Crown was bound to limit the King’s practical involvement, but there would always remain questions important enough to be finally determined by him (such as foreign policy). Personal monarchy depended upon prerogative; and, save when the King was incapable by reason of youth or illness, it was as much his duty as his right to exercise the power it gave him. He had, however, to use this power responsibly; and, in order to do so, he needed the advice of councillors. Not only did more information necessary for decision-making thus become available, but accountability would be to some extent shared, a fact of some comfort in itself. Yet here was a possible source of political difficulty, even risk. The appointment of those highly placed officials who, like the chancellor, the treasurer of the Exchequer and (eventually) the keeper of the privy seal, were counsellors ex officio and together made up the constantly operational core of the King’s Council, and of all its other members as well, was one of the most dearly cherished of the royal prerogatives; and there was always a risk that instead of recruiting men who would tell him what he should know and ought to do, the King would rely on councillors who, whether or not intimate friends, were inclined to tell him only what he wanted to hear, and then let him do as he liked. This very problem had, for example, given rise to the major political crises of the reign of Henry III, whose dependence on relatives and other supporters of foreign origin had aroused the opposition of his barons, and finally led many of them, including some of the most eminent (like Simon de Montfort, the Bigods and the Clares) to rise up in rebellion. The recurrence of such a situation was potentially so serious that contemporaries soon began to recognize the benefits of a scheme of government which would itself provide checks on the royal power, thus preventing the anarchy into which baronially inspired reform movements tended to degenerate.

It was in ‘general parliaments’ or specially summoned sessions of the King’s Council, made particularly solemn because they were meant to be attended not only by ministers but also, in large numbers, by prelates and secular magnates, that a solution was to be found, largely as a result of the recognized omnicompetence of such gatherings. And this could only be confirmed, indeed given a new dimension, by the conversion of Parliaments of that kind into ‘representative’ Parliaments, following the admission of elected Members from local communities, most notably shires, cities and boroughs. The transition, however, came about only slowly. Recourse to representative Parliaments, foreshadowed in 1265 by Simon de Montfort’s demand for elected representatives from both shires and towns, fortuitous during the reign of Edward I and still irregular under Edward II, only became normal after Edward III’s accession (1327). Having for a long time been accorded some significance, the presence of the Commons in Parliament had at last come to be regarded as essential. The basic function of Parliament remained, as before, to serve the King and kingdom, but the former took priority, the interests of the kingdom being, of course, subsumed among his personal concerns. If, as occasionally happened, Parliament made pretence to be an organ of control, this was, as a general rule, only when the royal authority was being weakly or uncertainly exercised (largely because of the monarch’s own incapacity or youthfulness). In origin and essence, Parliament was the King’s Council afforced. As such it was an instrument of royal government, the place where, supremely, confidence in the King’s rule could best be expressed, and support for its good continuance best be provided. Both before and after the beginning of Edward III’s reign, when the Parliament that was always representative finally took over from Parliaments that had only sometimes been so, it was the King’s prerogative to decide not only when Parliament should be summoned, where it should meet, and how long it should last, but also how it should behave and do business.

Few important occurrences or developments did not require or result in meetings of Parliament, but quite apart from particular exigencies, there were always sound general reasons for holding frequent assemblies. With King and subjects, government and governed, locked in an embrace of mutual dependence, information had constantly to be exchanged and, as regards both internal and external matters, views expressed. Parliament always provided a sounding-board whether relations between King and people were serene or strained, although in the latter case meetings were especially necessary. If unpopular domestic policies excited suspicion or led to division, or if the King’s management of foreign affairs met with disapproval in certain quarters, Parliament was the place where differences would most likely be resolved. And if, at a more humdrum level, serious complaints were made about the royal administration either central or local, Parliaments offered an ideal opportunity for their ventilation, with common petitions, for which the Commons were to become chiefly responsible, able to secure legislative remedies for specific grievances, provided the Lords assented and the King withheld his veto.

Behind the presentation of both common and private petitions lay a consciousness, on the part of the King’s subjects generally, of their need to be satisfied that in Parliament, the highest court of the realm, and by its nature omnicompetent in secular affairs, justice would be dispensed at regular intervals and at convenient times.1 It was avowedly to this end that, in the 14th century, demands were made for at least annual Parliaments; and these sometimes obtained a favourable response, as in the Ordinances of 1311 and by statute in 1330 and 1362.2 The repetition of such requests, although probably reassuring at the time, suggests either that they were not being heeded or that the Commons nursed some fears on this score; and in the Good Parliament of 1376, which met after an interval of well over two years, and also in Richard II’s first Parliament, held in the following year (when, obviously, there was less cause for concern) they laboured the point yet again.3 But it was neither the dispensation of justice nor the provision of opportunities for voicing grievances which in reality determined when or how often Parliaments should be summoned. What really dictated the frequency of meetings of Parliament, and often the length of sessions in consequence, was the need to satisfy the King’s own requirements, especially his financial needs. These could only be met by parliamentary grants of direct and indirect taxes (subsidies levied on moveables and others deriving from external trade and commerce), for which the agreement of the Commons had, in the course of the 14th century, become just as essential as the Lords’. With the Commons not always so ready to observe the moral obligation to aid the King in financial crises as he might have wished, and, moreover, often making complaints about the conduct of his officials and courtiers, Parliaments were by no means always pleasurable or even comfortable occasions. Indeed, sessions could be exceedingly acrimonious, as the troubles of 1340-1, the impeachments of the Good Parliament of 1376 and the Wonderful Parliament of 1386, the appeals and impeachments of the Merciless Parliament of 1388, and the angry exchanges over taxation at the end of the long Parliament of 1406 all bear witness. So, whenever the King summoned a Parliament, it was usually for reasons of his own, not in order to conform with any largely theoretical obligation to convene one every year; and, certainly, there were years in which none ever took place. Consequently, on this score alone, the agitation about annual Parliaments had sometimes been justified in Edward III’s reign. For whereas in his early years, from 1327 to 1341, Parliament had met, oftener than not, twice or even three times a year, such frequency was not sustained.4 Only once after 1341 (in 1348) did Edward summon Parliament twice in a year; and in this later part of the reign no fewer than 13 years all told passed without a Parliament. Indeed, twice (in 1349-50, following the Black Death, and in 1374-5) two successive years elapsed when no Parliament assembled. Even so, Parliament still met with reasonable frequency overall: in a reign of 50 years, it assembled on as many as 48 occasions, although never for more than a single, often brief session.5 Most of those in the pre-1341 period actually lasted for less than a fortnight, some for even less than a week; and when, thereafter, Parliaments tended to be nowhere near so frequent, the length of session hardly compensated. A notable exception was the Good Parliament of 1376 which, as we have seen, met after an interval of two years. This sat for ten weeks, and was easily the longest of the reign, indeed the longest of any so far. But it was an extraordinary assembly in many respects; and Edward’s last Parliament, the Bad Parliament of January 1377, lasted only half that time. Three weeks was the average duration of a Parliament under Edward III.

In the course of the next three reigns, this rough average frequency was precisely attained, with 46 Parliaments meeting in so many years. Naturally, however, since the needs of the government varied considerably, and especially as changing relations with France demanded different levels of financial support from Parliament, the incidence of meetings fluctuated. In the first decade of Richard II’s reign (1377-86), not a single year went by without a Parliament: indeed, in 1380, as well as in each of the three consecutive years 1382-4, it met twice, so that no fewer than 14 sat in that period. Two Parliaments again met in 1388, 1390 and 1397; but otherwise, with none held in 1387, 1389, 1392 and 1396, the average frequency of assemblies tended to fall off in the 1390s, in favour of ‘great councils’ composed of magnates in addition to regular councillors. However, for the very first time in the proper sense, use was now made of prorogation. Three of Richard’s Parliaments, meeting in times of great difficulty and political stress—the first Parliament to follow the Peasants’ Revolt (1381-2), the Merciless Parliament (1388), and the last Parliament of the reign (1397-8)—each ran to two sessions. It may also be remarked that, in Richard’s reign, Parliaments were tending, on average, to sit for five weeks and more, nearly twice as long, overall, as under his grandfather. (Although reduced by five shorter Parliaments in the 1390s, each of which sat for only some three weeks, this average of well over a month was greatly boosted by the two sessions of the Merciless Parliament, which lasted for 100 days.)

So far as the reigns of the first two Lancastrian Kings are concerned, no great change occurred in the frequency with which Parliaments were summoned. In the 13-and-a-half years during which Henry IV occupied the throne (1399-1413), a total of ten Parliaments met, that is exactly the same number as in the second half of Richard II’s reign. (The last, held in February-March 1413, was abruptly terminated by the King’s death and, although it had then sat for over six weeks, its proceedings were nullified and unrecorded.) However, only once, in 1404, did two Parliaments meet in a single year; and none sat at all in 1400, 1403, 1405, 1408, 1409 and 1412. The new tendencies apparent under Richard II—the longer average duration of Parliaments and the occasional recourse to prorogation—continued. Prorogation resulted in two Parliaments of long duration: that of 1406 which, with its three sessions comprising in all 23 weeks (the final session alone lasting ten weeks), was the longest Parliament to date (and so remained until 1445-6); and that of 1410, with two sessions lasting twelve weeks. The latter had previously only been exceeded in length by the Merciless Parliament of 1388 and, a fortiori, the 1406 Parliament. Excluding the two assemblies of 1406 and 1410, the average duration of Parliaments in Henry IV’s reign equalled that of Richard II’s: but including them it surpassed it, at nine weeks, by over half. Because the resumption of the French war by Henry V in 1415 imposed a much greater need for extraordinary revenue from direct taxation than had been the case during the mainly internal troubles of his father’s reign, Parliament now met more often than it had done since the first half of Richard II’s reign. Although Henry V ruled for a mere nine-and-a-half years (1413-22), that is four years less than his father, as many as II Parliaments were summoned in that time. Not only did Parliament assemble twice in 1414, 1416 and 1421, but only one year, 1418, passed without a meeting. However, only a single Parliament, that of March 1416, ran to two sessions, with the second (mainly convened to allow the Emperor Sigismund to address Parliament)6 unlikely to have lasted long, because the King was busy with diplomatic negotiations. Moreover, the average duration of Henry V’s Parliaments was considerably shorter than in the two previous reigns, amounting to no more than between three and four weeks. In this connexion, it has to be remembered that the offensive in France prevented him from attending five of the Parliaments of his reign: the short one which met on 4 Nov. 1415, ten days after the battle of Agincourt, and all those held after 1416 save the Parliament of May 1421.

Just as it rested with any King, doubtless as advised by his Council, to decide if and when a Parliament should meet, so too did he choose the place. This was a matter which generally posed little difficulty, for unless special reasons dictated otherwise, Parliament assembled at Westminster. Here, or within easy reach, the King and his Council were usually resident; and, with the Chancery, the Exchequer and the courts of common law normally in situ (along with their archives and current memoranda), it was at Westminster that the governmental, administrative and judicial work of the Crown was carried on. When Parliament met elsewhere, it was invariably either to suit the convenience of the King and his government or as particular circumstances warranted. This had always been the case. The treason trial of David ap Gruffydd, brother of Llywelyn, the last Welsh prince of Wales, following Edward I’s military conquest of the country, had taken place in 1283 in a Parliament held at Shrewsbury. Later in Edward’s reign, his intervention in the Scottish succession question was responsible for two Parliaments at Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1292 (which the Scottish prelates and magnates were required to attend); and while the ensuing war with Scotland was still in progress, his last Parliament met in 1307 at Carlisle. During the years following Edward II’s defeat at Bannockburn (1314-22), when the Scots were either invading northern England or were likely to do so, five out of six Parliaments took place at York, and the other (1316) at Lincoln. And in the 1330s York again became the venue: Parliament met there in 1332, and when Edward III, having taken up the claim of Edward Balliol to the Scottish throne, heavily involved himself over the next five years in another war in Scotland, it did so again in 1334 and 1335. Once more summoned to York late in 1336, Parliament was now, however, prorogued to Westminster; and from then on, for the rest of Edward III’s reign, it invariably met there. Interspersed with great councils of one sort and another, 31 separate Parliaments assembled at Westminster over the ensuing 40 years. It was during the next reign that a break in this continuity soon came about and, for a variety of reasons, recurred both then and later.

Under Richard II, and also, albeit to a lesser extent, the first two Lancastrian monarchs, Parliament met elsewhere than at Westminster on quite a number of occasions. In Richard’s reign this was mainly on account of possible trouble with the Londoners. His second Parliament was held at Gloucester in 1378, and his fifth at Northampton late in 1380, both times at the instance (so Thomas Walsingham of St. Albans credibly informs us) of John of Gaunt, whose quarrel with the citizens in 1376 had recently been revived.7 And yet another outbreak of violence among rival factions in the City, in 1384, may well account for Salisbury’s attractions as an alternative venue. When, following the dissolution of the Merciless Parliament in June 1388, it was soon decided that Parliament should meet again in September, Westminster was again ruled out. On this occasion the Lords Appellant, who had there staged the trials and convictions for treason of a number of the King’s friends and supporters, and were still in control of the government, possibly felt that some other place might profitably promote a calmer, cooler atmosphere. Cambridge may well have been chosen because in the previous December, when the Appellants had been busy adding to the forces with which they went on to defeat the royalist army under Robert de Vere at Radcot Bridge, they had found the area favourable to their cause. Cambridge was, moreover, in the diocese of Ely, only a short distance from the cathedral city, where the chancellor, Thomas Arundel, brother to one of the Appellants (Richard, earl of Arundel), was bishop. Yet other reasons, besides high politics, may have influenced the decision to hold Parliament at a safe distance from the volatile London mob; and it can hardly have been coincidental that this assembly gave serious consideration to changes in the organization of the guild system. Not surprisingly, when Parliament next met away from Westminster, in January 1393, it was in the aftermath of the King’s remarkable quarrel with the City over its refusal to grant him a loan in the previous summer.8 He had, indeed, been so incensed by this display of obduracy on the part of the mercantile elite that, having first removed himself and his household to the east Midlands and dispatched the Chancery, Exchequer and law courts to York, he dismissed, imprisoned and fined the mayor and sheriffs, appointed a royal councillor as warden of the City (first Sir Edward Dallingridge*, then Sir Baldwin Raddington) and nominated two fresh sheriffs. Only in return for a large corporate fine of £10,000 (first set at £100,000) did he agree to restore the City’s liberties. The quarrel had been patched up before Parliament was summoned, but evidently it was still deemed expedient for the meeting to take place at Winchester, well away from the scene of recent tension. Five years later, in the last days of January 1398, Parliament met at Shrewsbury for a brief second session, the first one, held at Westminster in the previous September, having witnessed the passage of measures certain to antagonize the people of London. These included the condemnation, for treasonable activities in 1386-8, of Thomas, duke of Gloucester (then recently murdered at Calais), Richard, earl of Arundel (executed forthwith), Thomas, earl of Warwick (sentenced to exile) and Archbishop Arundel (also exiled). Moreover, having obtained in this first session the annulment of the parliamentary commission of 1386-7, Richard was now planning to have all the proceedings of the Merciless Parliament of 1388 rescinded as well, once Parliament re-assembled. That even before the first session ended, Shrewsbury had already been chosen as a more suitable venue for the second, is readily understandable. Itself a royal borough with a castle, the town was within easy reach of the palatinate of Chester (Richard’s own earldom, recently converted into a principality), where the infamous bodyguard of archers used to overawe the Westminster assembly had been largely recruited. It was also close to certain lordships in the adjacent march—Bromfield and Yale, Chirk and Oswestry—which, on their forfeiture by the earl of Arundel, had already been incorporated as dependent enclaves in the new principality, and where the previously Fitzalan tenantry, doubtless left uneasy at the change, were likely to be so restive as to need watching.9

In contrast with the reign of Richard II, when six Parliaments had met away from Westminster, the period covered by the first two Lancastrian reigns, which was of roughly equal duration, witnessed only three such Parliaments: those which met at Coventry (1404) and Gloucester (1407) under Henry IV and at Leicester (1414) under Henry V. During Henry IV’s reign, however, there were times when, for particular reasons which lost their initial urgency, Parliament had first been required to assemble in another part of the country, only to end up at Westminster after all. Following Henry’s brief invasion of Scotland in August 1400, for example, his second Parliament was summoned on 9 Sept. to meet on 27 Oct. at York.10 But suddenly, within the next fortnight, Owen Glendower’s private quarrel with Reynold, Lord Grey of Ruthin, flared up into a major insurrection, causing destruction not only in the principal English settlements in Denbighshire and Flintshire, but also down in the Welsh march, at Oswestry and at Welshpool (where, on 24 Sept., however, the rebels were heavily defeated and temporarily dispersed by shire levies from the west Midlands). Having first had news of the revolt at Northampton while travelling south, the King himself reached Shrewsbury two days later, and it was probably there and then, before making a show of strength involving a full circuit of north Wales from which he only arrived back in Shrewsbury on 15 Oct., that he realized the impracticality of holding Parliament at York, as originally intended. By writs dated at Westminster no later than 3 Oct., Lords and Commons were redirected to gather there instead, Parliament being then also prorogued to 20 Jan. 1401.11 Once it did eventually meet, a great deal of time was occupied in weighing up the consequences of the Welsh insurrection.

Although no other venue but Westminster was even considered for the next Parliament, which assembled there (after a brief deferment) on 30 Sept. 1402, all of the five Parliaments which followed between then and 1410 were first summoned to sit elsewhere. None was destined to meet in 1403, the year of the great Percy rebellion which was crushed in July at the battle of Shrewsbury. But the Welsh uprising inspired by Glendower’s revolt had now spread so far that when, after the King’s withdrawal from an inconclusive expedition into South Wales in September, it was decided to hold another Parliament, the writs as first issued on 20 Oct. summoned it to assemble on 3 Dec. in the west Midlands, at Coventry.12 The choice of Coventry, where no Parliament had ever met before, was doubtless dictated by the sound, practical reason that it lay within comparatively easy reach of all those shires which, being adjacent to the Welsh march, were under constant threat from the rebels. A Coventry Parliament would, moreover, have proved especially convenient for the prince of Wales, who had been in general charge of military operations in Wales and the march since the spring of 1401, at first only in name, but by now, following his appointment as the King’s lieutenant in the principality in March 1403, in actual fact. Coventry was, indeed, his own city, since he was lord of the duchy of Cornwall manor of Cheylesmore within which it lay, and of which the mayor, bailiffs and townsmen were corporate tenants.13 However, the first writs of summons were superseded on 24 Nov. (barely a week before Parliament was due to meet), when fresh ones ordered a prorogation to 14 Jan. 1404, and changed the venue to Westminster.14 This Parliament was naturally preoccupied with the consequences of the Percy rebellion, although, not surprisingly in view of Prince Henry’s attendance, the Welsh problem too attracted enough concern to result in the confirmation of his appointment as overall commander of military operations in the principality. Even so, the rebel cause still continued to go from strength to strength: in 1404 Glendower seized the castles of Harlech and Aberystwyth, as well as formally claiming the title of ‘princeps Wallie’ in the course of negotiations for help from France. By now the people of Shropshire were even so afraid of his forces that in August they concluded a three months’ truce ‘with the land of Wales’.15 During this troubled month (on the 25th) Parliament was again summoned to meet at Coventry on 6 Oct., and this time it actually did so.16 With the undoubted intention of encouraging MPs to concentrate upon these pressing problems, the writs sent to the sheriffs had expressly prohibited the election of professional lawyers, a ban which was far more likely to prove effective in a Parliament held away from Westminster, where legal suits inevitably distracted lawyers from the pursuit of parliamentary business. The renewed choice of Coventry, however, also had positive aspects, at least so far as Welsh affairs were concerned. The most immediately alarming of the ‘imminent dangers’ expressly mentioned in the writs of summons obviously arose from the situation there. Indeed, the chancellor, who at the opening of Parliament was at pains to explain why it should be meeting again so soon, referred to the last Parliament’s failure to provide adequate remedy for ‘les graundes Meschiefs touchant la Rebellion de Gales’.17 Moreover, since the King had spent much of the previous spring and all the summer in Yorkshire and the north Midlands (between the issue of the writs and the meeting of Parliament he visited Lichfield, Tutbury and Maxstoke), Coventry was very convenient for him personally.18 And the choice of place would also suit the prince of Wales, who had recently been deputed to make preparations for leading a sizeable expeditionary force (500 men-at-arms and 2,000 archers) into his principality.

As in 1403, so again in 1405 no Parliament met because of King Henry’s preoccupation with rebellion, this time in what proved to be the most critical year of his reign. However great an element of make-believe there may have been in the famous tripartite indenture, prospectively dividing England and Wales between Owen Glendower, his son-in-law, Edmund Mortimer (uncle to the young earl of March), and Henry Percy, the old earl of Northumberland, who in February 1405 concluded a joint alliance, the threat posed by the rebellion of Northumberland and Lord Bardolf in May, supported by Archbishop Scrope and the Earl Marshal in Yorkshire, was certainly real enough. Thanks mainly to the Nevilles, this northern revolt collapsed, and its leaders paid the price with either death by execution (as in the case of Scrope and Mowbray) or voluntary exile (Percy and Bardolf). But Glendower’s cause continued to prosper; and his rebels, now supported by modest contingents from France, even crossed Herefordshire into Worcestershire in August, thus creating such a dangerous situation that King Henry was himself obliged to remain in the area until early October.19 When the writs summoning the next Parliament were issued on 21 Dec. he had been back at Westminster for over a month, but with Wales, evidently, still very much on his mind.

The Parliament of 1406, which was destined to sit for far longer than any of its predecessors, was originally intended to meet on 15 Feb. following, again at Coventry. But then, on 1 Jan., fresh writs were issued, ordering it to assemble at Gloucester instead. These justified the choice on the ground that Prince Henry would, with every prospect of success, soon be moving against the rebels in Wales, thus making it necessary for the King and magnates to be near enough to exercise surveillance and give support (‘gubernacioni et presidio’). However, as late as 9 Feb. Parliament was once again prorogued, the new writs requiring it to meet on 1 Mar. at Westminster.20 The express reason for changing the venue yet again was that attacks on merchant ships had recently been made by a French naval squadron stationed in the mouth of the Thames, which was still seriously upsetting the movement of English exports and imports (most notably wine and other commodities from Gascony), as well as threatening the safety of Calais. Under the circumstances, it would have been dangerous for the King and magnates to travel far from London; indeed, he was apparently planning to lead against the enemy in person. The prince’s forces, comprising his own retinue and trustworthy levies from the shires adjacent to the Welsh march, were now, in any case, considered quite adequate for the purpose of castigating the Welsh rebels and, through divine favour, subduing them for good. Given all these considerations, Westminster now seemed the only possible place for Parliament to meet. Prince Henry’s rather surprising decision to attend this assembly rather than commanding the proposed expedition is, incidentally, revealed by the Parliament roll itself. On 3 Apr. (the last day of the first session) the Commons urged that, to resist the malice of the rebels in Wales, he should be ‘continuelment receant et demurrant sur les Guerres illoeqes’; and on 7 June (a fortnight into the second session) the Speaker requested him to leave for the principality ‘ove toute le haste possible’, to neutralize the earl of Northumberland’s treasonable activities there.21 Yet, although his commission as the King’s lieutenant was more than once renewed, the young Henry stayed on at Court, leaving operations in the field to subordinate commanders. Not until the spring of 1407 did he actually return to active service, to undertake the siege of Aberystwyth. Although the fortress seemed bound to surrender, Glendower managed to relieve it; and when the next Parliament, summoned on 26 Aug. following, met on 20 Oct. there were few achievements to report from that quarter.22 Even so, Parliament still assembled at Gloucester for his convenience, in particular, and the choice of place, so near to the southern end of the Welsh march, was in itself something of a promise to continue a more energetic offensive in Wales. This took longer to fulfil than expected. But when the next Parliament met, over two years later, not only had the earl of Northumberland’s last desperate throw ended in total disaster at Bramham Moor (Yorkshire), in February 1408, but also, in the course of the following 12 months, Glendower had been prised out of Aberystwyth and Harlech, the last real refuges of his cause. Here, in Wales, there remained little more than mopping-up operations which Prince Henry could once again leave to subordinates.

The situation in Wales can thus hardly have had much bearing on the decision, made on 26 Oct. 1409, to summon a Parliament to meet on 27 Jan. 1410 yet again in Gloucestershire; and, indeed, on 18 Dec. the meeting-place was changed from Bristol to Westminster. Why the initial choice should have fallen on Bristol (on the only occasion in its history) is unclear. It is, however, conceivable that, in the autumn of 1409, the King and Council were already aware of the danger posed by a serious resurgence of the lollard movement. This actually resulted in a proposal, made by some of the shire knights in the ensuing Parliament, for the confiscation of the temporalities of most of the bishops (including Archbishop Arundel) and many of the abbeys and priories, the income from which could be used partly to relieve the King’s treasury, partly to endow fresh promotions to the peerage. The government can hardly have been ignorant of Bristol’s unsavoury reputation as ‘one of the chief urban centres of Lollard influence’.23 If the intention to introduce this scheme of ecclesiastical disendowment had already leaked out, the government might have known, or at least suspected, that the plan emanated from Bristol, and, accordingly, have been anxious to see it utterly defeated there. They may also have feared local popular support for it during the Parliament, and have planned appropriate counter-measures. (It is significant to note, in this context, that the rapid spread of lollardy at Bristol had been largely due to the Wycliffite, John Purvey, who had, in a special tract written no more than ten years before, formulated a closely similar scheme.) At all events, the reasons for finally deciding against Bristol and holding Parliament at Westminster instead are far easier to define. Quite apart from the fact that Westminster was the traditional meeting-place, the King’s deteriorating health had become a major consideration, and a journey to and from Bristol, in mid winter at that, might well have severely overtaxed his strength. But whatever had prompted the change of venue, it was now possible (once Convocation had been summoned on 3 Jan. 1410 to meet in London on 17 Feb.), for the trial for heresy of John Badby to take place there while Parliament was still in session. Although over a year had passed since Badby, a tailor from Evesham with connexions in Bristol, had been first examined at Worcester before his own diocesan and then imprisoned, there had been no convenient opportunity for further proceedings. It was not until 1 Mar. 1410 that he was brought before the bishops in Convocation, with a fair number of lay magnates present as spectators. Whether the decision to hold the trial just then was prompted by the horrid lollard bill for ecclesiastical disendowment, or whether it had already been agreed to deal with Badby while Convocation and Parliament were both in session so as to ensure the maximum amount of publicity for a rejection of heresy and confirmation of royal orthodoxy, now seems beside the point, at least in view of the outcome. Badby’s conviction followed on 5 Mar., and he was burnt at Smithfield on the same day, in front of a great concourse of people, including many bishops and lords. Prominent among them was the prince of Wales, who vainly tried to get Badby to recant.24

For the next 16 years Parliament always met at Westminster, with the one notable exception of that originally summoned by Henry V, on 1 Dec. 1413, to assemble at Leicester two months later. Although the threat of a lollard rising under Sir John Oldcastle* led the King on Christmas Eve to postpone the meeting until 30 Apr., there was no change of place.25 From the very outset Leicester had seemed a sound choice, and when the second set of writs was sent out it appeared even more appropriate. Poor enforcement of law and order under Henry IV had resulted in violence and tumult in many parts of the country; and Henry V intended, once he had dealt with the aftermath of rebellion in Wales, to mete out justice to malefactors elsewhere, especially in Leicestershire and adjacent counties in the north Midlands which were notoriously unruly. He now turned his attention to this problem, exploiting the capacity of the King’s bench to conduct a superior eyre, first at Leicester and Lichfield while the Parliament was actually in session, and then elsewhere.26 Moreover, following upon Oldcastle’s rebellion, the borough of Leicester itself needed to be left in no doubt of the King’s abhorrence of heresy, for of all provincial towns, save perhaps Bristol, it had long been the most seriously infected with lollardy. Certainly, Henry’s own sense of justice required that anti-lollard legislation of great severity should be passed in a Parliament assembled at Leicester, ‘the heretics’ metropolis’.27 Interestingly enough, when Parliament next abandoned Westminster, which was not until 1426, it again assembled at Leicester, but this time for predominantly political, rather than mainly judicial reasons; and again it was important to keep clear of London.28

In special circumstances, evidently, it was still sometimes necessary for Parliament to meet away from the normal seat of government, even as far afield, for instance, as Shrewsbury (1398), Coventry (1404), Gloucester (1407) and Leicester (1414). The choice of any meeting-place at a distance from Westminster was, however, bound to result in some measure of inconvenience with regard to the conduct of parliamentary business, as well as for individuals attending Parliament. Ample accommodation was always available in the palace of Westminster, with its painted chamber (used for the opening of Parliament), the white chamber (regularly appropriated by the Lords) and, amongst other smaller rooms, the chamberlain’s chamber (occasionally used for conferences between Lords and Commons).29 And, of course, there was the great abbey nearby, which allowed the Commons to occupy first its chapter house (until 1395) and then its refectory (whenever their separate meeting-place is recorded thereafter). But similar provision was not necessarily to be had in the exclusively ecclesiastical establishments to which, invariably, recourse was had when Parliament met elsewhere. These included the Benedictine abbey of Gloucester in 1378 (when Parliament was opened in the great hall and the Commons met in the chapter house) and 1407 (when the Commons were assigned the refectory); the Cluniac priory of St. Andrew at Northampton in 1380 (when the young Richard II lodged at Moulton five miles out of town, and the Commons used the monks’ new dormitory); the episcopal palace at Salisbury in 1384 (when the session began in the great hall); the Augustinian priory of Barnwell, Cambridge, in 1388; the Benedictine priory of Coventry in 1404 (when Parliament first assembled in ‘a great chamber’); and the Franciscan priory at Leicester in 1414 (when Parliament was opened in a purpose-built hall near the priory church and the Commons were assigned the friars’ infirmary).30 For those peers attending Parliament who had inns of their own in the City or outskirts of London, or could be found quarters in the palace precincts, Westminster was naturally far preferable to any other place; and MPs in need of lodgings could find them more easily there or in London than in any provincial town. But whatever the various difficulties or inconveniences caused by meetings away from Westminster, they seem not to have been insuperable. And although the Parliaments which, in our period, sat elsewhere generally tended not to last as long as those held at Westminster, and certainly never ran to more than a single session, they seldom appear to have been cut short. The only possible exceptions are the Winchester Parliament of 1393, which met for just 20 days, and the Parliament of 1397-8, which, having sat at Westminster for only 13 days, ended in a second session at Shrewsbury lasting no more than five. But even a Westminster Parliament could be strikingly brief, especially if it came within a short time of the previous one. When, for example, following the Peasants’ Revolt, Parliament assembled at Westminster in November 1381 and, after two sessions together equivalent to ten weeks, ended late in February 1382, only to be summoned within a month to meet there again in May, it now lasted for barely a fortnight; and when held there yet again in October following, it sat for less than three weeks. There is, in fact, no reason to suspect that whenever a Parliament met away from Westminster its business was likely to be unduly curtailed.

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: J. S. Roskell

End Notes

  • 1. For the dispensation of justice in Parliament, see H.G. Richardson and G.O. Sayles in Bull. IHR, v. and Law Quarterly Rev. lxxviii; and, for a different interpretation of the evidence, J.G. Edwards in Bull. IHR, xxvii.
  • 2. RP, i. 285, art. xxix; Statutes, i. 265.
  • 3. RP, ii. 355; iii. 23.
  • 4. Information regarding the frequency and duration of Parliaments is derived from Handbook of British Chronology ed. Fryde etc. (3rd edn.), 525-81.
  • 5. Following the Parliament which sat at Westminster from 24 Feb. to 29 Mar. 1371 (eight days before Easter), a meeting of Lords and Commons was held in Winchester in June, at which the outstanding business was completed. But did this constitute a second session of the Parliament? When, having granted a tax on parishes intended to yield £50,000, the Westminster Parliament dispersed, it was soon realized that, with the number of parishes grossly overestimated at 45,000, the agreed average levy per parish of 22s.3d. would have to be greatly increased, and that a meeting of at least some of the Lords and Commons would be needed to do this (RP, ii. 303-4). Consequently, on 27 Apr., 21 lords spiritual and temporal (four bishops, four abbots, seven earls and six barons) were summoned to Winchester for 8 June; and, on the same day, a writ was issued to every sheriff ordering him to ensure attendance of one of the shire knights and of one burgess from every borough of his bailiwick, each one of whom, having been returned to the recent Parliament, was named in the writ itself (Reps. Lords' Cttees. v. 650-3. This halving of the number of representatives was expressly in order to reduce the burden of travel and costs.) By the same writs, the sheriffs were also instructed to certify the actual number of parishes in their counties; and evidently, the archbishops and bishops were to do the same for their dioceses. Once it had established the real number of parishes (less than a fifth of the previous estimate), the Winchester assembly agreed that the average levy per parish should be increased to 116s., appointed collectors (nominated by the shire knights present) and overseers, and then, on 17 June, departed. Finally, the decisions taken were recorded on the roll of Westminster Parliament (the preparation of the roll obviously having been postponed to provide sufficient space: RP, ii. 304). At first sight, this special provision for enrolment seems to indicate that the ten days spent at Winchester were a second session proper of the Westminster Parliament, although contemporaries viewed the assembly in a different light. The writs requiring the lords spiritual and temporal had referred to it as 'quoddam consilium', a designation simply converted in the Parliament roll to 'Grant Conseil'. This was doubtless because of the assembly's unusual constitution. The lords summoned were comparatively few; and the commoners (formerly elected but now selected) did not more than meet the bare minimum requirement if all their local communities were to be represented. But at least some semblance of general consent was obtained.
  • 6. St. Albans Chron. ed. Galbraith, 100.
  • 7. Chron. Angliae 1328-88 ed. Thompson, 211, 280; R. Bird, Turbulent London Ric. II, 47, 50.
  • 8. Bird, 103-6. For a more detailed account see Reign Ric. II ed. Du Boulay and Barron, 181-95, and the constituency surveys for London and York.
  • 9. Reign Ric. II, 257-64.
  • 10. Reps. Lords’ Cttees. iv. 770-2.
  • 11. Ibid. 773-5.
  • 12. Ibid. 785-7.
  • 13. VCH Warws. viii. 18-21; CPR,1399-1401, p. 118; CChR, v. 386, 465. See also St. Albans Chron.66-67 (the prince of Wales’s signet letter of 17 June [1412] dated ‘in civitate nostra Coventrie’).
  • 14. Reps. Lords’ Cttees. iv. 787-90.
  • 15. J.E. Lloyd, Owen Glendower, 81-83, 86; G. Williams, Owen Glendower, chap. 5.
  • 16. Reps. Lords’ Cttees. iv. 790-2.
  • 17. RP, iii. 545.
  • 18. J.H. Wylie, Hen. IV, iv. 292-3.
  • 19. Lloyd, 104; Williams, 41-42.
  • 20. Reps. Lords’ Cttees. iv. 793-9.
  • 21. RP, iii. 569, 576.
  • 22. Lloyd, 130-3; Reps. Lords’ Cttees. iv. 801-3.
  • 23. K.B. McFarlane, Wycliffe, 127.
  • 24. Ibid. 127, 155; St. Albans Chron. 52-55; Wylie, iii. 312; P. McNiven, Heresy and Pol. Reign Hen. IV, passim; Reps. Lords’ Cttees. iv. 804-6, 807-9.
  • 25. Reps. Lords’ Cttees. iv. 818-23.
  • 26. E. Powell, Kingship, Law and Society, chap. 7.
  • 27. McFarlane, 172.
  • 28. In the previous autumn (1425) there had been an outbreak of armed violence between the supporters of Bishop Beaufort, the chancellor, and those who, mostly Londoners, backed Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, the Protector. Thereafter it was not until Henry VI came of age that Parliament met anywhere other than at Westminster. However, it then did so on a number of occasions. The Parliament of 1437, having first been expected to assemble at Cambridge, was actually held at Westminster; and when the Parliament of 1439-40, which was supposed to meet at Oxford, had held its first session at Westminster and was then prorogued, it went to Reading for its final session. Plans to locate the 1447 Parliament at Cambridge were changed in favour of Bury St. Edmunds. Other later Lancastrian Parliaments met away from Westminster; but save for that of 1453-4, which, of its four sessions, held the first and third at Reading and second and fourth at Westminster, and also that of 1459, which began and ended its single session at Coventry, recourse to other places was always by adjournment from Westminster: to Winchester in June 1449, to the London Blackfriars in November 1449 and to Leicester in April 1450. Edward IV summoned his second Parliament (1463-5) first to York and then to Leicester, although it eventually met at Westminster. But from then onwards, except for a month's session at Windsor in 1545 in the course of Henry VIII's last Parliament, Charles I's anti-parliament at Oxford in 1643-4 and Charles II's week-long Parliament at Oxford in 1681, whenever Parliament has met to do ordinary business, it has always sat at Westminster.
  • 29. J.G. Edwards, Commons in Med. Eng. Parls.25-27.
  • 30. RP, iii. 32, 33, 88, 89, 166, 545; iv. 15, 16; EHR, lxxxiv. 225-43.