On 11 February the Parliaments, Politics and People seminar welcomed Dr. Hannes Kleineke of the History of Parliament Trust, a Senior Research Fellow in the House of Commons 1422-1504 section. As that project’s coverage of the Lancastrian parliaments nears completion, Hannes has turned his thoughts to the subsequent assemblies of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII. On this occasion, in a paper entitled ‘The English parliaments of the Yorkist kings – a breed apart?’, he tackled the historiographical conundrum of whether the transition from Henry VI to Edward IV really saw a marked change in the character of Parliament and its relationship with the Crown. According to the 19th-century Whig interpretation of English history, a Lancastrian ‘constitutional experiment’ involving an enhanced role for Parliament, was followed by a Yorkist ‘new monarchy’ in which greater emphasis was placed on a strong central executive. According to this model, the Yorkist era represented a setback in England’s inevitable progress towards modern parliamentary democracy.
This simplistic analysis exaggerated the political strength of the 15th-century Commons, and has long been discredited by historians. However, Hannes set out the case for a partial rehabilitation of the ‘new monarchy’ concept, arguing that the Yorkist parliaments should be seen as a ‘distinct’ phase between the Lancastrian and Tudor eras. Focussing his attention on the reign of Edward IV, he demonstrated that between 1461 and 1483 Parliament met less frequently and for shorter periods than during the four previous reigns, and initiated fewer significant pieces of legislation. Nevertheless, this relative decline was less a symptom of greater royal autocracy in general, than a sign of Edward’s personal neglect of the institution. While recognizing that Parliament retained some necessary functions within government, he engaged with it no more often than was absolutely necessary. Edward’s own legislative programme was largely limited to measures aimed at entrenching his regime, such as the reversal of the attainders of reconciled former opponents, and the requirements of ‘royal housekeeping’, that is, the reassignment of noble inheritances to the members of the monarch’s immediate family, suspending the normal rules of the land law. Under normal circumstances, he had no need of parliamentary taxation, and on the rare occasions that he did request supply, it tended in any case to result in confrontation between the Commons and the Crown. Edward’s frequent use of prorogations indicates a high-handed disregard for Parliament, but beyond this he made little effort to influence its membership or agenda. Conversely, the primarily local character of most of the legislation promoted by the Commons does not point to an institution anxious to promote its role within the state.
Following Hannes’ paper, several of the questions arising sought to compare Edward IV’s reign with that of his predecessor Henry VI, and his Tudor successor Henry VII. In view of the loss of the majority of the election returns for the parliaments of 1461, 1463, 1470, 1483 and 1484 it is difficult to say precisely how many Lancastrian-era members of the Commons carried on into the Yorkist period, though there was some overlap, particularly up to the Readeption crisis of 1470-1. Edward’s use of multiple-session parliaments to some extent emulated the practice of the crisis years of Henry VI’s rule in the 1450s, while Henry Tudor in turn copied Edward by rarely summoning Parliament at all at the end of his reign.
For a fuller picture of all these issues, we await Hannes’s forthcoming monograph on the Yorkist parliaments, which will complement his past biography of the ‘playboy king’ Edward IV.
‘Parliaments, politics and people’ returns next week when the Victorian Commons‘ Dr James Owen will speak on ‘The struggle for political representation: Labour candidates and the Liberal Party, 1868-88’. Hope you can join us!