Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Eliza Hartrich, Influencing Parliament in 15th-century England: some observations on ‘The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye’

Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section reports back from our final ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of 2014…

The final Parliaments seminar of term welcomed Eliza Hartrich from Magdalen College, Oxford. Eliza’s paper sought to cast new light on the way in which late mediaeval parliaments operated through examination of The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye: a poem in Middle English dating in varying forms from 1436 to 1441. The piece is relatively long, running to 1,164 lines and presented in rhyming couplets: memorable and easily disseminated in small sections.

As students of mediaeval parliaments are all too aware, a detailed understanding of the workings of the institution is hobbled by the limitations of a number of the sources, such as the Parliament Rolls and certain types of financial records. While it is known that some interest groups were able to get petitions treated favourably as matters of ‘common interest’, quite how they were able to achieve this is a matter of some mystery. It was in answer to this that Eliza presented the Libelle as a possible solution. Her contention was that the poem helped illuminate the rhetorical process by which people were able to convince Parliament to prioritize matters of interest to them.

The dating of the Libelle in its earliest form is possible from internal evidence, notably references to a still reigning Emperor Sigismund (d. 1437) and to the Burgundian siege of Calais (of summer 1436). Written in the aftermath of the duke of Burgundy’s desertion of the English for the French in the latter stages of the Hundred Years War, the Libelle can be read as a piece of propaganda presenting clear policy initiatives. It has thus been regarded by at least one other historian as a kind of ‘white paper’ that may even have been produced by a courtier or minister, treating on matters of particular importance to the sessions that met between 1437 and 1442, and in particular to business relating to mercantile and Naval policy. Strong kings, who had invested heavily in their fleets are praised, and dire warnings uttered of the problems inherent in allowing foreign merchants to be granted liberties denied their English counterparts.

While Eliza queried the idea of the Libelle as such a formal expression of policy, she argued that it can be seen as a political pamphlet which was intended to help press particular matters of business and that its concentration on matters of significance to the merchant community is suggestive that it may have been commissioned by some of their members, in the hopes that its distribution would help ensure their concerns were treated by Parliament as a matter of urgency. The large numbers of place names included within the text could have been a deliberate effort to draw in Members of the Commons from a wide area and to have helped secure the commissioners’ aim of having their concerns treated as matters of ‘common interest’.

Whoever composed the piece (and its authorship remains unknown), there is evidence that the Libelle was read by a number of influential courtiers, including at least three royal councillors. It also appears to be the case that numerous copies were made, helping to explain the composition of later recensions. The existence of three version is also indicative that this was a successful medium that was employed time and again. This was an intriguing subject and the ensuing question session was predictably lively with comments ranging from queries about authorship to the reason for choosing verse over prose. This was undoubtedly a fine piece with which to round off the term.


This term’s programme of seminars has now been announced, available here. Hope to see you there!

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