Electoral Independence in Tudor England

As the election campaign continues, so does our series of blogposts on historic campaigning. Today, all constituencies are contested and the electorate freely cast their votes. In Tudor England the concept of electoral freedom was honoured more in principle than in practice, as Dr Simon Payling, Senior Fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 section, explains…

Tudor elections were functional rather than competitive, in other words, they were designed to secure the return of MPs with as little contention as possible. Most were uncontested, at least openly so on the day of the hustings. Thus, although the franchise in county elections was comparatively broad, including very minor landholders, and in some boroughs might extend to all the resident freemen, the electorate was infrequently called upon to vote.

In such a system there were very obvious opportunities for the Crown to secure the return of its own servants to the House of Commons. It is fair to ask what the concept of electoral independence, which was protected by fifteenth-century statutes, meant in these circumstances. One answer is that it existed only in its denial. In other words, it was widely considered as acceptable to avoid potentially disruptive electoral contests by informal local negotiations before the hustings. Yet it was not seen as acceptable for the Crown or a peer to attempt to influence these negotiations from outside. Although the surviving evidence of parliamentary elections in Tudor England is partial and contradictory, much of it supports this hypothesis, at least in the most important parliamentary constituencies, those of the counties and larger boroughs.

There is certainly evidence that county constituencies could jealously guard their electoral freedom. Take, for a well-known example, the Privy Council’s efforts to secure a county seat for its Speaker-designate, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Baker, in the Parliament of 1547. Having written to the sheriff of Kent, where Baker lived, instructing him to promote Baker’s election, the Council then rebuked him for representing this request to the electors as a commandment. It was, the Council piously remarked, not its intention to deny the shire its ‘liberty of election’. Baker duly went unelected for Kent. However, he was returned for Huntingdonshire, a county in which he was landless, undermining this impression of local resistance. In general, however, there is enough evidence to show that nominations for counties, when made directly by the government as in 1547, were an infrequent resort, and that they were made with due reverence to local sensibilities. In any event, nominations by the Crown were too rare to have a statistically significant impact on the composition of the Commons, and there is no evidence of any systematic attempts by the Crown to determine county representation.

Likewise, most of the largest boroughs – the cathedral cities and the county towns – guarded their electoral independence as an essential expression of civic pride. In 1555, for example, Gloucester refused to elect its own Recorder (its principal legal officer) John Pollard even though the Crown had designated him as Speaker in the forthcoming assembly. In 1557 the Cambridge authorities, on receiving a latter from Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, asking for the return of his servant, Sir Nicholas Lestrange, grandly replied that, as statute determined, its MPs must be ‘continually and daily resident’ in the borough. This is not to say that all large boroughs were successful in keeping both their seats fairly firmly in their own hands. Even in large boroughs, economic decline diminished the ability to pay MPs their wages and so threatened electoral independence. Both Lincoln and Reading periodically surrendered one of their seats to nomination in the Tudor period. Yet, taken as a whole, the greater boroughs provided only occasional opportunities for the nominees of Crown and peers.

In the numerous smaller boroughs, however, many of them newly created in the Tudor period, it is hard to argue that the concept of electoral freedom had any meaning. Often an MP of high enough standing could not be found locally, so a ‘nomination’ of a suitable candidate by an outsider did not directly contradict electoral freedom. This electoral vacuum was, not surprisingly, filled with royal servants. As a consequence, the Crown had no need to court unpopularity by attempting to deny the counties and the larger boroughs their freedom of election. It could still ensure that the Commons contained a very significant proportion of its men. In the Reformation Parliament of 1529-36, the most important of the sixteenth century, some 40% of the membership had places of one sort or another within the service of the Crown. One of its MPs, the chronicler, Edward Hall, sitting for the Shropshire borough of Much Wenlock, was thus guilty of pardonable exaggeration when he judged that, ‘the most parte of the commons were the kynges seruantes’. Yet all this the Crown achieved without apparent political controversy: it could honour the concept of electoral freedom in constituencies where it mattered because that concept did not matter in so many others.


You can read all in our series on historical elections here – watch out for more posts as the campaign continues!

Posted in Early modern history, Elections, Politics, social history | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Parliamentary Delegation to Buchenwald Concentration Camp – 70 Years On

On this day in 1945, a group of MPs arrived at Buchenwald concentration camp to report first hand on the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. Dr Myfanwy Lloyd, who has recently developed a new exhibition on the liberation of Bergen-Belsen for the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, guestblogs for us on the visit and the impact it had on the MPs who went to Buchenwald…

On 21st April 1945 a cross-party group of parliamentarians arrived at Buchenwald camp near Weimar, which had been liberated by Eisenhower’s men ten days earlier. They had been invited to see for themselves, and on behalf of the British people, what was the truth behind the stories beginning to circulate about German atrocities in concentration camps. Nothing could have prepared them for the gruesome sights that awaited them. Half-starved and disease-ravaged survivors, heaps of bodies, and the apparatus of routine torture were all taken in by the eight MPs and two Lords.

The camp at Buchenwald was opened by the SS in 1937 to house political prisoners, but it was eventually used to persecute a wide range of groups including Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and Sinti, prisoners of war and so-called ‘a-socials’, in total some 250,000 people from across Europe. One estimate puts the numbers of male prisoners murdered at 56,000, but a significant number of prisoners were never recorded, and their fate is unknown. When American soldiers from the 6th Armoured Division arrived, they found more than 21,000 prisoners still in the camp in a desperate situation.

Tom Driberg (Independent, Maldon) was delegated to use his journalism skills to write the report for the British Parliament. His own notebook from the Buchenwald visit, along with the notes of the other delegation members, is preserved in the Driberg Archive at Christ Church College, Oxford. Their visit was brief, and despite hopes to go on to Bergen-Belsen camp which the British had liberated on April 15th, the delegation did not proceed so far – Bergen-Belsen being still behind enemy lines. The MPs and Lords returned to Britain immediately, and on 25th April Earl Stanhope (Conservative peer) submitted the report to Churchill, who presented it to Parliament on 27th April 1945.

By then some photographs of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen had appeared in the national newspapers, spurring on the final efforts of the war. As well as still images, some of the horror of the camp is captured in film footage. Combined with film from Bergen-Belsen this was shown in cinemas after 30th April in a Pathe News broadcast. The only woman member of the delegation, Mavis Tate (Conservative, Frome) introduces and explains the news film, urging viewers: ‘Do believe me when I tell you that the reality was indescribably worse than these pictures.’

Mavis Tate had previously been associated with Archibald Ramsay’s anti-semitic ‘Right Club’. But after a nervous breakdown in 1940 she distanced herself from her former views. In contrast, the Liberal member for Birkenhead East, Graham White, had been a strong supporter of German refugees and internees from the outset of the war, making him an excellent candidate for the fact-finding mission to Buchenwald. Sydney Silverman (Labour, Nelson and Colne) had been imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the First World War, and was an indefatigable campaigner for penal reform. He was described in the report as ‘a member of the Jewish race.’ Two of the delegates were doctors: Sir Henry Morris-Jones (Liberal-National, Denbigh), and Lord Addison (Labour peer). Driberg remarked of Addison that he was able to cope with the Buchenwald visit by maintaining a ‘professional’ medical approach to the inhumanity around them.

But within weeks of the visit the members of the Parliamentary delegation faced the general election. In July 1945 both Tate and White lost their seats, along with Lt-Col Tom Wickham (Conservative, Taunton). Driberg may not be the most reliable witness to many episodes of political life, but his papers and writings reveal a dimension of the Buchenwald visit that has been overlooked. When, in his posthumously published memoir ‘Ruling Passions’ (Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1977) he writes ‘I am now the only survivor of the party’, Driberg is making self-conscious reference to their shared experience, as well as to the camp prisoners they met that day. Despite all their political and social differences, some sense persisted of themselves as a ‘group’, based on having been through the horror of the camp visit together, and on the immediate and lasting impact this had. Ness Edwards (Labour, Caerphilly) reported to his family the trauma of what the delegation had witnessed. In 1989 his daughter, now Baroness Golding, recalled in a Parliamentary debate on War Crimes how, on returning from the Buchenwald visit, her father did not sleep for weeks and had nightmares for years. Sir Archibald Southby (Conservative, Epsom) was the only Conservative of the group to keep his seat in 1945, but he did so during an extended convalescence of many months, having suffered from influenza and ‘near-jaundice’ from April 1945, which was attributed to his visit to Buchenwald. Mavis Tate, who struggled with both her physical and mental health after the loss of her parliamentary seat, committed suicide in 1947. Whatever the truth of her mental state, contemporaries in large part contributed her breakdown to the experience of Buchenwald.

Driberg himself was directly concerned with one Buchenwald survivor. He arranged for the speedy transfer of Latvian-born Joseph Berman into the hands of relatives in Britain. Berman had been interviewed by the delegation, and was quoted in the report submitted to Parliament, as well as in the newspapers, alerting his uncle that he was still alive. He was deeply disturbed by his experiences in the camp and struggled to manage after the war. Until at least the late 1960s, Driberg remained in touch with Berman and tried on more than one occasion to find him work or ease concern about his financial situation.

Seventy years on from the liberation of the camp, the report by the Parliamentary delegation is worth remembering as a document born out of eye-witness accounts by a group of MPs and Lords utterly unprepared for their visit into the devastation wreaked by Nazism. The individual fates of the delegates may have been varied, but there was truth in the final conclusion of their report:

‘The memory of what we saw and heard at Buchenwald will haunt us ineffaceably for many years.’


With thanks to Baroness Golding, Judith Curthoys (archivist at Christ Church College Oxford), and David Higham Associates – Literary Agents for Tom Driberg.

Dr Myfanwy Lloyd is a freelance historian and researcher based in Oxford. Between 2012-2014 she developed a new exhibition on the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and the role of Oxfordshire Yeomanry troops for the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum. She will speak about her research at the 70th anniversary event at the IWM in April 2015. She teaches for the Department of Continuing Education in Oxford and for the WEA, specialising in memory, gender and women’s history.

Posted in 20th century history, diplomatic history, Post-1945 history | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

MPs in World War I: Dr. John Esmonde (1862-1915)

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the third MP who died fighting in the First World War, and the second this week. Continuing our series of short biographies of these men, Dr Kathryn Rix, of the Victorian Commons, discusses the life of Dr John Joseph Esmonde…

While the first MP to die in the First World War, the Hon. Arthur O’Neill, was an Ulsterman and committed Unionist, the third MP to die came from the opposite side of the political divide. Dr. John Joseph Esmonde was elected for North Tipperary in December 1910, and died from pneumonia at his home at Drominagh, county Tipperary, on 17 April 1915 after a short illness. Unlike O’Neill, Esmonde, aged 53 at the time of his death, had not served in the trenches, but was instead stationed with the Irish Brigade in Tipperary. He had received a commission as captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps in January 1915.

Born on 27 January 1862, Esmonde was the second son of James Esmonde, of Drominagh Castle, and belonged to a family well-known in Tipperary and Wexford. His cousin Sir Thomas Henry Grattan Esmonde, a descendant of the leading Irish politician Henry Grattan, had sat at Westminster since 1885, latterly as Irish Nationalist MP for North Wexford.

A Catholic, Esmonde was educated at Stonyhurst and Oscott, before embarking on medical training. He received his diploma as a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1884 and became a Licentiate of the Apothecaries’ Hall, Dublin in 1891. He worked as a doctor in Cheshire, before moving to Walthamstow, where he had ‘a large and exacting practice’. He then settled at Thurgoland, near Sheffield, and held the post of medical officer of health for Penistone Rural District Council. He retired from medical practice in 1909, when he returned to Ireland to manage the family estates at Drominagh following the death of his mother the previous year. His older brother James had died in 1899, leaving Esmonde as the heir.

In December 1910 Esmonde was elected unopposed for North Tipperary, an Irish Nationalist stronghold. He became a popular and well-respected Member, who ‘enjoyed Parliamentary work while professing to find it tiresome’. He had a ‘bluff geniality’ and was remembered at the National Liberal Club, of which he was a member, as ‘a good raconteur’. As one of few medical men in the Commons, his opinions were often sought on health questions. He mediated between Lloyd George and the medical profession on the details of the 1911 National Insurance Act.

Esmonde’s maiden speech, however, had been during the passing of the 1911 Parliament Act, which limited the powers of the House of Lords to block legislation passed by the Commons, a potential obstacle to securing Home Rule for Ireland. He declared that

‘I believe it is important to push this measure through with the greatest expediency to make way for measures necessary both for Ireland and for Great Britain’.

Esmonde was an articulate spokesman for the Home Rule cause, addressing Liberal meetings in Britain at which he put the case for legislative independence for Ireland within the broader framework of Empire. At a United Irish League meeting at Walsall in March 1912, he argued that

‘This Empire was a great Empire, but its heart was not yet sound. England must do for Ireland what she had done for Canada and South Africa. She had trusted them with good results; she must trust Ireland if she wanted to make her heart sound’.

Later that year he told the Liberals of Chelmsford that

‘They in Ireland did not want separation from England; they were proud to belong to such a glorious Empire. Home Rule would be a great benefit to England, greater still to Ireland, and an enormous benefit to the Empire’.

Given these sentiments, it was unsurprising that when the war began he took an active role in recruiting in county Tipperary. Having been honorary colonel of the Tipperary regiment of the Nationalist Volunteers, he joined the R.A.M.C. in January 1915. One obituary recorded that ‘his exertions in stimulating recruiting and as a military medical officer probably exceeded his strength’, contributing to the illness which caused his death in April 1915.

At the time of his death, two of his eight sons (from two marriages) were also serving in the army. His son Geoffrey was killed in action in 1916, aged 19. The family had a notable tradition of military service: Esmonde’s uncle Thomas (1829-1873) had been awarded the Victoria Cross during the Crimean War. The same distinction was accorded posthumously to Esmonde’s son Eugene (1909-1942), a naval pilot killed in action during the Second World War.

Esmonde’s eldest son, John Lymbrick Esmonde (1893-1958), was elected in his father’s place as MP for North Tipperary, and became the ‘baby of the House’ when he took his seat in June 1915, aged just 21. He retired from Parliament in 1918, but later represented County Wexford in the Irish Dáil, 1937-44, 1948-51, making him one of very few individuals to have sat both at Westminster and in the Dáil.


You can read the rest in our MPs in World War I series here

Posted in 19th Century history, 20th century history, military history, World War I MPs | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

MPs in World War I: William Glynne Charles Gladstone (1885-1915)

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the second MP who died fighting in the First World War. Continuing our series of short biographies of these men, Dr Kathryn Rix, of the Victorian Commons, discusses the life of William Glynne Charles Gladstone…

On 13 April 1915 William Glynne Charles Gladstone, the grandson of the late Prime Minister, became the second Member of Parliament to be killed in action during the First World War. He died at the age of 29 near Laventie, in France, after being hit in the forehead by a rifle bullet as he tried to locate a German sniper.

William Glynne Charles Gladstone with his famous grandfather

William Glynne Charles Gladstone with his famous grandfather

Born on 14 July 1885, just after the end of his grandfather’s second premiership, Gladstone was the only son of William Ewart Gladstone’s eldest son, William Henry, who died of a brain tumour when Gladstone was not quite six years old. His mother Gertrude, to whom he wrote regular letters while he was serving in France, was the youngest daughter of the 12th Lord Blantyre.

Educated at Eton and at New College, Oxford, Gladstone developed his debating skills as president of the Oxford Union, and gained a second class degree in History. When he came of age in 1906, he ‘threw himself seriously and thoroughly’ into the management of the Hawarden estate in Flintshire, which he had inherited from his grandfather.

It was almost inevitable that Gladstone, who described himself as ‘a Liberal both by temperament and conviction’, would pursue a political career, but he was well aware of what a hard act his grandfather would be to follow. In 1910 he wrote to his uncle that ‘I have a great dread of falling short of expectation; people insist on thinking that one has inherited more than one has from one’s grandfather’ and decided that he would not try to enter Parliament ‘before making sure that I have derived necessary experience and qualification’.

Gladstone’s connections helped him to secure some interesting opportunities to gain experience in the wider world. He spent several months in Ireland in 1909 as assistant private secretary to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Aberdeen. In 1910 he visited India and Japan, and in January 1911 he arrived in Washington for a stint as honorary attaché to James Bryce, the British ambassador, who had held office under his grandfather.

The death of the sitting Liberal MP caused a by-election in the Kilmarnock Burghs in September 1911, for which Gladstone was asked to stand. He was elected with an unexpectedly large majority. One Scottish observer praised his abilities as a speaker, noting that:

He has a clear voice of a distinctly musical quality … He has a good memory, for the notes are microscopic and usually limited to a diminutive postcard … He has a ready wit, a caustic humour, and, like his great namesake, deep, silent convictions that make him, on occasion, blaze into righteous indignation.

Although he was physically dissimilar from his grandfather, Gladstone’s name alone was enough to secure an attentive audience for his maiden speech, which came when he was asked by Asquith to second the address on 14 February 1912. Wearing his uniform as the Lord Lieutenant of Flintshire, he echoed what he had earlier told his uncle, stating that

I feel for ever doomed to fall short of the expectation which might conceivably, and very incautiously, be formed by some, of one who bears the name I do. On that ground, as well as on the more manifest ground of inexperience I ask the indulgence of the House.

He was not a regular speaker, but made important contributions on the question of the disestablishment of the Welsh Church. He shared his grandfather’s commitment to Home Rule for Ireland, speaking in support of the second reading of the 1912 Government of Ireland bill.

WGCGladstoneWhen war broke out in 1914, Gladstone was involved with the recruiting campaign in Flintshire. Although he wrote in August that ‘far from having the least inclination for military service, I dread it and dislike it intensely’, he enlisted himself. He initially had the idea of joining up as a private, but was advised against this, and was instead commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, based at Wrexham, 12 miles from Hawarden.

After completing his training, Gladstone left for France on 15 March 1915, and arrived at the front on 21 March. He moved up to the trenches on 11 April, writing to his mother that

A guide from the company we were to relieve met us at dusk at our billet, and we marched off, soon reaching the trenches along a low-lying ditch in single file, welcomed by the whistle of stray bullets.

Poignantly, this last letter home remained unfinished on his writing pad when he died on 13 April.

With the permission of the Prime Minister and the King, Gladstone’s body was exhumed and brought back from France for burial alongside family members at St. Deiniol’s Church, Hawarden. He was one of relatively few of those killed in action to be buried at home, as his case prompted Major Fabian Ware (later the vice-chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission) to secure an order from the Adjutant-General banning future repatriations, wishing to have equality for all classes in death.

While in the trenches, Gladstone penned what seems a suitable epitaph, reflecting that

It is not the length of existence that counts, but what is achieved during that existence, however short.


Further reading:

Viscount Gladstone, William G. C. Gladstone: a memoir (1918)

Crane, Empires of the dead: how one man’s vision led to the creation of WWI’s war graves (2013)

You can read the rest in our MPs in World War I series here


Posted in 19th Century history, 20th century history, military history, social history, World War I MPs | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Alexander Lock, ‘Magna Carta: law, liberty and myth’

Our last ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar of term took place on 24 March. Dr Alexander Lock, one of the curators of the British Library’s current exhibition ‘Magna Carta: law, liberty, legacy’ spoke on the impact and legacy of the 1215 Great Charter. His paper covered the full eight hundred year history of Magna Carta, and described how a failed medieval peace treaty came to be one of the most important legal documents and an internationally recognised symbol of liberty under the rule of law.

Dr Lock began by discussing Magna Carta in its medieval context, as a peace treaty between King John and the rebelling barons that dealt with very specific grievances against John’s rule. For example, several clauses protected the rights of widows after John had been charging huge fees to give his permission for their re-marriage. On one infamous occasion John ‘auctioned off’ the right to marry his former wife, Isabella, Countess of Gloucester to Geoffrey de Mandeville who was forced to pay 20,000 marks for the privilege. It is in the context of John’s specific abuses of his rule that the most famous clauses still in existence should be read: clause 39, that no free man must be imprisoned without ‘lawful judgement of his peers’, and clause 40 – that justice must not be sold, denied or delayed.

'The boke of Magna Carta' translated by George Ferrers, 1534 (held in the BL)

‘The boke of Magna Carta’ translated by George Ferrers, 1534 (held in the BL)

Lock explained that Magna Carta only lasted a few weeks before it was annulled by the Pope: certainly a failure as a peace treaty. It was reissued several times by John’s heirs but by the time it was copied on to the first statute roll in 1297 many of its original clauses had been removed. The charter returned to obscurity for two hundred years until it was published in Latin and English during the early Tudor period, becoming the first statute that many student lawyers read during their training. This began its transformation into both a vital principle of Common Law but also as a political symbol of individual liberty.

For Tudor governments, Magna Carta could be troubling: the first clause on the liberty of the English Church was used against Henry’s religious settlement by those opposing the Reformation. Such opposition to the monarch was certainly not in fashion under Tudor rule and whilst men like Sir Thomas More literally lost their heads invoking it, others like William Shakespeare and George Peele purposefully missed it out of their plays on King John to help curry favour. It was in the early seventeenth century that the lawyer, jurist and MP, Sir Edward Coke, began to publicise Magna Carta as the best defence of ancient English rights, whose clauses 39 and 40 ensured the independence of the judiciary and Parliament in the face of growing Stuart absolutism.

In the case of the Common Law, the popularisation of the Great Charter had significant consequences. It was written in to law codes in English colonies across the world, most importantly of course, in the American colonies. Yet the political strength of Magna Carta from the seventeenth century onwards, Lock argued, was its malleability as a symbol. The charter was used to defend positions on both sides during the English Civil War. It was used by 18th and 19th century radicals to justify opposition to Parliament: most famously by the US colonists during the US War of Independence, but also by British radicals such as John Wilkes and Sir Francis Burdett. Images of the charter peppered political cartoons and popular prints, but by this time there was very little understanding of the medieval context of the charter.

Cartoon captioned “Magna Carta” in Votes for Women, 27 January 1911 (held in the BL)

Cartoon captioned “Magna Carta” in Votes for Women, 27 January 1911 (held in the BL)

Magna Carta continued to be used throughout the world as a political rallying point and is still being used so today. The suffragettes used it to justify their direct action for the vote; clauses 39-40 were consciously echoed in the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights; it has been used against the US government on behalf of inmates at Guantanamo Bay. For Lock, this legacy owes much more to its popularisation and interpretation in the seventeenth century than to its original medieval context.


Parliaments, politics and people will return next term: full details available here shortly.

The British Library exhibition on Magna Carta is open until 1 September 2015. UK Parliament are also coordinating a series of events to celebrate the anniversary: ‘Parliament in the Making’. This includes ‘The Beginnings of that Freedome’ exhibition at Westminster Hall; the new digital arts project ‘Democracy Street’ and they invite you all to take part in ‘LiberTeas’ on June 14.

You can read more about Magna Carta’s legacy in our current blog series marking the anniversaries of Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’s parliament.

Posted in Conferences/seminars, Early modern history, Magna Carta & Simon de Montfort, medieval history | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Eleanor de Montfort, countess of Leicester (b. c. 1215-d. c. 1275): A countess and a rebel

Continuing our ongoing series celebrating the anniversaries of Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’s Parliament, this week’s guest blogpost looks at the role of a woman who helped to shape the politics of her time. Louise Wilkinson, Professor of Medieval History at Canterbury Christ Church University, explains the key role of Eleanor de Montfort…

In the thirteenth century, Eleanor de Montfort was one of the most important women in England. She was a key political player and a major protagonist in events. Yet her life has long been overshadowed by the career of her second husband, Simon, earl of Leicester, who headed a movement to reform the government of Eleanor’s brother, King Henry III. During the period of baronial rebellion in England from 1258, Eleanor worked tirelessly to support her husband’s cause until the fateful outcome of the battle of Evesham in 1265.

Eleanor was born around 1215, the daughter of King John. Her first marriage, to William Marshal junior, earl of Pembroke, when she was just nine years old, was a political one. However, due to Eleanor’s youth the couple lived apart for most of their short union, which ended with Pembroke’s death in 1231 (Eleanor was around 16). Under the influence of her governess, Cecily of Sandford , the grieving young widow took a vow of chastity, promising to devote her life to Christ, a decision that Eleanor later came to regret. In 1238 she secretly married Simon de Montfort, the ambitious younger son of a French count who had come to England intent on pursuing a claim to the earldom of Leicester. This union was possibly a love match and had Henry III’s blessing but when news of it leaked out, it caused a national outcry. Later Henry III himself very publicly claimed that Simon had seduced Eleanor, something that might or might not be true.

Simon and Eleanor’s marriage was a highly successful union in personal terms, if somewhat tempestuous. Eleanor bore Simon six children who survived the illnesses of medieval childhood. She became her husband’s close confidante and accompanied him as far as Italy when he went on crusade in the early 1240s. She then often resided with him in Gascony in modern day France when Simon served as the king’s lieutenant there. Eleanor and Simon shared the same spiritual interests and formed a close circle of friends that included the Franciscan friar, Adam Marsh. Marsh famously rebuked Eleanor in his letters for her forthright behaviour, for being quick to anger and for her love of ostentatious dress and finery.

In 1258, Eleanor and her husband’s lives changed for ever when they became involved in a baronial movement to reform English government. Eleanor played a significant part in this campaign. Most notably, she deliberately obstructed Anglo-French peace negotiations by personally refusing to renounce her claims to the Angevin lands in France between 1258 and 1259. She did so in the hope of forcing Henry III to agree to a long-awaited financial settlement with her and her husband. Yet it was in 1264 that Simon and Eleanor’s fortunes in England were completely transformed, when Simon and his supporters defeated and captured Henry III at the battle of Lewes on 14 May, effectively wresting control of government from him. From her base in the south of England, at the castles of Wallingford and Odiham, Eleanor played a leading role as a political hostess, entertaining and sending food and wine to her husband’s allies. The sheer strength of the countess’s relationship with her husband and her personal importance to him was clearly illustrated when Earl Simon set out to join Eleanor at Odiham immediately after the great Hilary Parliament of 1265 dispersed, arriving there on 19 March for a family conference. But Earl Simon and Countess Eleanor’s political ascendancy was not to last. The true fragility of the Montforts’ position was exposed when their nephew, the Lord Edward (Henry III’s eldest son and heir) escaped from their custody at Hereford on 28 May 1265. As soon as news reached him of Edward’s escape, Simon dispatched messengers to his wife, worried about her security in the face of a renewed royalist threat. She hurriedly packed up her household and made a hasty retreat to safer territory, travelling by night to Portchester Castle on borrowed horses and covering more than 40 miles in a day. After gathering further supplies and supporters, Eleanor then headed for the greater protection offered by Dover Castle, which she reached on 15 June.

Rather than waiting passively for the gathering storm, Eleanor turned her flight into an exercise in public relations for her husband’s regime. She regularly entertained local sympathizers to the Montfort cause, attempting to buttress her family’s hold on the region, until her fortunes were shattered at the battle of Evesham on 4 August, 1265. On that day, Prince Edward was victorious, Henry III was restored to power and the rebels were trounced. Both Simon de Montfort and his eldest son were killed. In the weeks that followed, the widowed Eleanor overcame her grief and rose to her role as the matriarch of her family, sending two of her sons, Richard and Amaury, into exile in France, along with the family treasure. Once they were safe, Eleanor negotiated with Prince Edward the surrender of Dover and her own departure from England. The last ten years of her life were spent in exile in France, where she entered a Dominican convent. Even so, she still continued to fight for her English lands and rights.


Louise J. Wilkinson is Professor of Medieval History at Canterbury Christ Church University. She is the author of Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England (Continuum, 2013). She is currently working on a new edition of the household rolls of Eleanor de Montfort and Eleanor of Provence for the Pipe Roll Society, and is a co-investigator of the AHRC-funded Magna Carta Project, led by Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia.

You can read  all the posts so far in our ‘Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’ series here. The series is in preparation for our, ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’ conference, which will take place in London 30 June-3 July 2015. You can see all the latest news on the conference website.

UK Parliament are also coordinating a series of events to celebrate the anniversary: ‘Parliament in the Making’. This includes ‘The Beginnings of that Freedome’ exhibition at Westminster Hall; the new digital arts project ‘Democracy Street’ and they invite you all to take part in ‘LiberTeas’ on June 14.

Posted in Magna Carta & Simon de Montfort, medieval history, social history | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Proceedings in Parliament 1624: the road to publication

In the third in our series of blogs marking the release of the Commons’ proceedings of the 1624 Parliament – with those for April 1624 now available here – Dr. Maija Jansson, Director Emerita of the Yale Center for Parliamentary History, places them in their wider historical context and recounts the protracted story of their publication.

The online publication of the Commons’ proceedings in the English Parliament of 1624 is a cause for celebration on two counts. For one thing, it completes the body of modern editions of parliamentary texts from 1610 through to the first year of the Long Parliament in 1640. These debates constitute the record of tumultuous years of high drama in the annals of men learning to govern themselves. Later years would build on their experience, but at the time it was a matter of mastering the balance between the interests of parliamentary expression with the assumptions of a ‘divine-right’ monarchy.

That span encompasses the accession of Scottish-born King James, the contentious sessions of 1610 where MPs argued over government finance, followed by the Parliament in 1614 that was so rancorous the King ordered many notes of its sitting burned. In 1621 the Parliament impeached Sir Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor, and three years later, in 1624, took on foreign policy and argued against the Spanish marriage treaty. By 1625 the Parliament welcomed a new King but within a year impeached his favourite, the Duke of Buckingham. By 1628 MPs arrived at the doors of Westminster with a multitude of grievances spelled out in the arguments for drafting the Petition of Right. Blaming the lawyers for their influence in those debates, Charles I dissolved the Parliament in 1629, ushering in a decade of governance without Parliament, followed by civil war and the (temporary) end of monarchy. The proceedings in any one of these Parliaments by itself does not tell the tale. To understand pre-civil war England we must think hard about the positions and arguments of MPs and Lords put forward in all of the parliamentary debates of these decades.

Secondly, the publication of this account marks the success of the History of Parliament Trust in an undertaking that over a period of time had defeated a number of others. Various scholars over many years had their hearts and hands in this project but almost from the outset it was fraught with problems. Briefly the story was this. A collection of photocopies and microfilm of the debates in 1624 was sent from England to the United States in 1918 or 1919 under the direction of Wallace Notestein who had himself, however, in the interval, become involved with editing the papers for 1621. Consequently, he began looking for a suitable editor and funding for the compiling of an edition of those proceedings. With the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and later, the outbreak of the Second World War, the project languished. By the 1950s Mark Curtis, a professor of history at University of California at Los Angles, and a friend and colleague of Wallace Notestein, who was then teaching at Yale University, proposed taking over the project, whereupon trunks containing the 1624 material were shipped west. It seems, however, that funding was illusory. Eventually the materials were returned to Yale where it was believed they would be edited at Jack Hexter’s Center for Parliamentary History. However, 1624 was now out of the chronological sequence of editions set up at Yale to edit the proceedings in the Caroline Parliaments, 1625, 1626, 1628, and the first session of the Long Parliament. Nevertheless, work on editing the 1624 material was undertaken elsewhere between the late 1960s and 1980s by Robert Ruigh and Mark Kennedy but eventually ran out of funding. Again, 1624 was put on hold. Following the completion of the seven volumes on the first year of the Long Parliament, when funding was no longer available, Yale closed the Center in 2007. At that time the 1624 materials were once more packed up in boxes, this time shipped back across the Atlantic to the History of Parliament Trust in London. There, from a collection of disparate memos, notes and diaries, a dedicated staff compiled a readily accessible scholarly edition of texts. With great expectation we await the full printed publication with annotation and index.

Philip Baker, the editor of Proceedings in Parliament 1624: The House of Commons, has done a masterful job with organizing this material and setting up, in tandem with British History Online, a very functional and clear website. The Leverhulme Trust, Paul Seaward and the History of Parliament Trust, and Parliament itself are to be recognized and thanked for their part in the support of this important edition.


Don’t forget that over on twitter we’re marking the publication of Proceedings in Parliament 1624: The House of Commons’ with extracts from the diaries on each day that the Commons sat using #1624Parl. Do follow us for the tweets – starting again from 12.30pm today.

You can also see Professor Chris Kyle’s earlier blogpost on the 1624 Parliament here, and Philip Baker’s blogpost on the diaries here.

Posted in Early modern history, historyofparliamentonline.org | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment