Henry VII’s first parliament

As part of the ‘Tudor Court’ season, tomorrow night BBC2 will show ‘Henry VII: The Winter King’. Dr Hannes Kleineke discusses Henry VII’s first parliament in 1485…

Henry VII’s first Parliament assembled at Westminster on 7 November 1485, not much over two months after the decisive battle of Bosworth. Its businesss was naturally shaped by recent political events: the king’s tenuous title to the throne had to be fortified by parliamentary sanction, his supporters who had been attainted of treason under Edward IV and Richard III rehabilitated, the supporters of the dead Richard III attainted, and their possessions seized. In this it was not very different from the Parliaments that had opened the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III in 1461 and 1484. Uniquely for the late medieval period, we have the eye-witness account of two of the Members of the Commons, the representatives of the Essex town of Colchester who described what happened in the earliest known parliamentary diary. Not surprisingly, taxation was first on the agenda, and – as at all times – it proved contentious, and took several days to pass the Commons. Much time was spent in debate.

On 14 November there were arguments without conclusion. … On 16 November questions were moved for the common weal about the false persons who have ruled many days among us, and no conclusion. … On 25 November certain bills were read, and thereupon were arguments, and nothing passed that day.

the Colchester MPs recorded. Among the matters that came before the House were the quality of the coinage, the prohibition of the maintenance of private armies by the giving of liveries and badges, and the discontinuation of the court of requests. High politics nevertheless dominated the agenda, as a string of petitioners seeking restoration of their property trooped past over successive days.

If the Commons felt the new king’s hand heavy on their shoulder, they mostly hid it well. What was nevertheless left unsaid was that their chosen speaker, the Lincoln’s Inn lawyer Thomas Lovell, was a trusted adherent of the new monarch who was chosen speaker despite being an attainted traitor at the time of his election. Conversely, the list of those to be attainted for their opposition to Henry VII or their previous adherence to Richard III appears to have caused serious turmoil in the lower house. It had taken more than a month from the beginning of the parliamentary session to draw it up, but the Commons were, nevertheless, restive. ‘On 9 December the bill of attainder came in, and was sorely questioned’ the Colchester MPs wrote. It is tempting to suppose that it was Henry VII’s backdating of his reign to the day before Bosworth, that made traitors of any who had answered their lawful King’s summons to battle that particularly grated with the Commons, but of this the diarists gave no indication. Bills of attainder had come before Parliament on more than one occasion since 1459, and were routinely debated with vigour in the lower House. In any event, the Commons’ opposition was quick to crumble. Just a day later, the Colchester men recorded, ‘there passed the same bill of attainder’. Once this was done, the king was content. Later on the same day the Lords and Commons were dismissed to their homes for the Christmas recess.


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