Yesterday, the Commons Speaker John Bercow suggested that MPs may have to move out of the House of Commons for extensive repair work to take place in the Palace of Westminster. Yet Parliament has not always been held in Westminster, or even London. Dr Hannes Kleineke, Senior Research Fellow on the Commons 1422-1504 section, discusses Parliament’s travels in the medieval period…
If by the present day the Parliament of the United Kingdom has become so synonymous with its Westminster home that the Palace of Westminster is widely referred to as ‘The Houses of Parliament’, this was not always the case. Indeed, in the centuries up to Henry VII’s accession in 1485 it was not uncommon for the Lords and Commons to sit elsewhere in England.
The ‘witan’ who advised the Anglo-Saxon monarchs routinely assembled wherever in the kingdom their peripatetic masters might happen to be, and even after parts of the English kings’ administration had found permanent homes, first at Winchester and subsequently at Westminster, Parliament continued to meet periodically in other parts of the realm. The first quarter of the 14th century in particular saw Parliament regularly held away from the south-east of England. Between 1301 and 1335 the Lords and Commons met no fewer than eleven times at York, three times each at Lincoln and Northampton, and twice at Nottingham, while individual Parliaments were held at Carlisle, Oseney, Salisbury, Stamford, Winchester, and Windsor. Other venues were periodically considered, but abandoned: in the autumn of 1322 Parliament was summoned to meet at Ripon, but subsequently moved to York, while parliaments planned to be held at York in 1310, and Lincoln in 1312 were moved to Westminster before they could assemble.
It was Edward III’s invasion of France and the monarch’s consequent long and frequent absences on the continent which saw Parliament make Westminster its permanent home. Richard II, who recast Westminster Hall, nevertheless held occasional parliaments elsewhere in the kingdom, but it was under his Lancastrian successors that Parliament once again began to abandon Westminster more frequently: in 1414, 1426 and 1450 the Lords and Commons met at Leicester, in 1404 and 1459 at Coventry, in 1440 and 1453 at Reading, in 1447 at Bury St. Edmunds and in 1449 at Winchester. By contrast, all of Edward IV’s attempts to assemble Parliament in the north were doomed to failure: on several occasions in the 1460s the Lords and Commons were instructed to assemble at York, only to be sent home again each time without having transacted any business at all.
Even in the early 14th century, however, parliamentary sessions in the further-flung parts of the kingdom were normally convened in direct response to the monarch’s immediate needs or to a pressing political or other crisis. War on England’s northern border, above all, necessitated meetings in that region. Thus, it was Edward I’s war in Scotland that brought parliament to Carlisle in 1307, fresh threats from the Scots saw parliaments held at York in 1314, 1318 and 1322, while Edward IV’s planned but aborted parliamentary sessions in York in 1464 were intended to allow the king to remain close to the ongoing fight against residual Lancastrian strongholds in Northumberland.
In 1449 Parliament moved from Westminster to London’s Dominican friary, ostensibly on the grounds of the ‘infected air’ at its normal meeting place, but the inconvenience of the move was such that in spite of the threat of the plague the Lords and Commons returned to their normal home just a day later. Part of this inconvenience was the threat of the ever-volatile London mob, against whom the mayor and aldermen saw themselves forced to take measures throughout the parliament, and at the end of March the threat was deemed so great as to necessitate the move of the Lords and Commons to the comparative safety of the Lancastrian stronghold of Leicester, where Parliament had previously met in 1426. Similar considerations informed the summons of the Lords and Commons to Coventry, traditionally known as ‘the queen’s chamber’ for its close ties to the ruling monarch’s consort, on the very eve of the outbreak of open civil war between the supporters of the rival lines of York and Lancaster.
In choosing an alternative venue for Parliament, the local infrastructure played an important role. In the first place, suitable venues were needed as meeting places of the two houses. A hall or chamber to house the Lords (usually numbering between 100 and 150) needed to be found, together with rooms to match the capacity of the chapter house and subsequently the monastic refectory of Westminster abbey, which were used by the Commons (numbering between 200 and 300) when in session at Westminster. To this came the members of the King’s entourage and the retinues accompanying the various temporal and spiritual lords, all of whom needed to be accommodated in accordance with their status and in some instances provisioned for the duration of Parliament.
Clearly, a major religious house comparable to Westminster abbey, located close by a large urban centre was thus best suited to host Parliament, and just such houses existed at York, Reading, Leicester, and Bury, while Coventry and Winchester possessed substantial cathedral priories. In 1316, King Edward II took up residence in the lodgings of the dean of Lincoln cathedral, while business of parliament was transacted in a variety of locations, the dean’s hall, the cathedral chapter house and the local Carmelite monastery.
This still left fixtures and fittings to be provided, which at Westminster could be left in situ from one year to the next. Thus, in April 1450 the porters of the parliament chamber, who had the duty of fitting out the meeting place of the Lords, had to provide not only benches and barriers, but even as seemingly mundane an object as ‘a chair for the king to sit in’ in lieu of the throne that had remained in the palace of Westminster. Just how important the choice of a structurally sound meeting place could be, had been recognised since at least 978 when the Witan had humiliatingly tumbled through the collapsing floor of their upper-story chamber at Calne.
From an early date it was accepted that some allowance should be made for the distance that a Member had to travel to attend Parliament, and as a result additional wages were assigned to those MPs who would take extra days to reach the meeting place of the Commons, be it at Westminster or elsewhere. This naturally made a meeting of Parliament in the provinces an attractive prospect for the inhabitants of surrounding constituencies, who could see the cost of their representation substantially reduced, while inconveniencing all others, but none more so than the citizens of London who – concerned that their MPs should cut suitably grand figures – had laid down by ordinance that they would pay their representatives at no less than twenty times the normal rate, should the Commons happen to gather away from Westminster.
In spite of such measures, by the mid-15th century many potential Members regarded parliaments held at a distance from Westminster and its law courts (and at the same time also from the markets of the city of London) as little more than a costly nuisance. In 1447 many constituencies had to take recourse to the return of carpetbaggers to fill their seats in the parliament summoned to meet first at Cambridge and then moved to the even less attractive provincial backwater of Bury St. Edmunds, while two years later some of the men elected successfully insisted that their wages should be doubled when Parliament moved from Westminster to Winchester.