As the bones of King Richard III are laid to rest at Leicester this week, there has been much renewed debate over the kind of King he might have been, had he reigned for longer. Richard’s apologists in particular have pored over the records of Richard’s only Parliament in search of evidence in support of their hero. But what really happened?
Richard’s only Parliament opened at Westminster on 23 January 1484 and sat for less than a month before being dissolved again on 20 February. But this was only part of the story.
A Parliament had originally been summoned to Westminster to meet on 25 June 1483, three days after the date set for the young Edward V’s coronation. Although the Parliament was never cancelled, it was to the acclamation of an informal gathering of his subjects that Richard turned on 26 June to justify his assumption of the Crown: in this he was following a precedent set by his brother, Edward IV, in 1461. In late September Richard finally summoned a Parliament of his own to meet at Westminster on 6 November. Within a matter of weeks, the King was faced with the rebellion of his erstwhile ally, the duke of Buckingham, supported a large number of former servants of Edward IV. Nevertheless, Richard delayed until 2 November before he had the Parliament cancelled. Fresh writs were issued on 9 November. For the country, this repeated prevarication was nothing less than a costly nuisance. Parliamentary elections could at the best of times provide a focus for local disorder, and the cost of sending representatives to the Commons could be equally burdensome. Indeed, in frequently unruly Norfolk there was a dispute over the election of the Norwich Members, and both in June and November a number of MPs travelled to Westminster and charged their constituents for their abortive journeys.
When Parliament finally met, there were a number of notable absentees. In the Lords, the crisis of 1483 had claimed the lives of the duke of Buckingham, earl Rivers and Lord Hastings. The young duke of York’s whereabouts were uncertain, his half-brother, the marquess of Dorset and the bishops of Ely, Salisbury and Exeter had taken refuge in France. In the Commons, many leading members of the county communities who had regularly represented their neighbours during Edward IV’s reign had become implicated in Buckingham’s rising and had to be replaced by newcomers.
Central to the Parliament’s proceedings was a single item of business, the Titulus Regius, Richard III’s justification of his usurpation on the grounds of his brother’s bigamy and the consequent bastardy of his nephews. There was by now nothing unusual in placing such a document before the Lords and Commons. In both 1399 and 1461 Parliament had been invited to sanction the fait accompli of Henry IV’s and Edward IV’s respective usurpations, although in 1461 at least the new King had at least been able to base his claim on a decision reached in Parliament a year earlier.
Royal housekeeping did not stop here. The declaration of the King’s title was followed by several acts of attainder, the equally customary means of placing the King’s opponents outside the law, and of confiscating their estates, that had been used effectively in 1459, 1461 and 1472. These measures were unpopular, and like other similar bills, Richard III’s occasioned much debate. Yet, the measures of 1484 also went further than previous acts. In a highly unusual step three bishops, John Morton, bishop of Ely, Lionel Woodville, bishop of Salisbury, and Peter Courtenay, bishop of Exeter were included among those attainted. The dowager queen, Elizabeth Woodville, while not attainted, was stripped of the lands settled on her by her late husband and suffered the added indignity of being styled ‘late the wyf of Sir John Grey, knyght, and late callyng her selfe quene of Englond’ in the act.
Next, the King’s principal supporters needed to be rewarded. Francis, Viscount Lovell, gained part of the estates of the dukedom of Exeter, while Sir James Tyrell saw a dispute with his wife’s family, the Arundells from Cornish Lanherne, over her inheritance settled in his favour.
The King’s other immediate need was money. Edward IV had left the treasury all but empty, and Richard needed a secure stream of revenue. To this end, Parliament was prevailed upon to allow him to raise customs and subsidies on imports and exports of goods for his life time in the same way as Edward IV had done before him.
Yet, in return for their financial support the parliamentary Commons expected the King to address some of their concerns. Richard obliged. In the first instance, he made an eye-catching, but in the immediate term cost-free concession: he agreed to abolish for good the benevolence, an unpopular form of levy that Edward IV had raised repeatedly without the express consent of Parliament on the spurious grounds that it constituted a ‘free gift’ from his subjects, rather than an actual tax. The King also responded favourably to his subject’s petitions in two areas that had long been of concern to the Commons: the maintenance of law and order, and the regulation and protection of English merchants and their trade.
None of the small number of measures designed to improve the upholding of the law contained an earth shattering innovation, although one measure at least sought to plug the difficult legal loophole of landholding to the use of another individual. Several measures simply reaffirmed earlier legislation. New measures provided that henceforth juries taking inquiries should be made up of men with an annual income of at least £1 (half the sum required to qualify a man to vote in a parliamentary election). And far from introducing as a complete innovation, as has been claimed in recent days, the release of a defendant on bail, Richard’s act merely extended the power to grant bail to the justices of the peace, thus extending this power which had previously been the preserve of the professional judges to the well-born amateurs who sat on the county benches.
The importance of the merchant community in providing ready loans to King in anticipation of future taxation found its reflection in a rather more substantial portfolio of measures designed to curry their favour. It is hard to see as anything but blatantly populist a measure designed to curb the commercial activities of Italian merchants. In terms all too familiar from 21st-century political debate it complained about the proliferation of illegal immigrants, and their habits of bringing their large families and only employing their countrymen, thus taking away Englishmen’s jobs. Foreigners were also blamed for the excessive cost and poor quality of imported bowstaves, the subject of another act.
Hand in hand with this went several protectionist measures – a confirmation and extension of existing prohibitions of the import of silk and laces, and a new prohibition of the import of a wide range of goods manufactured by cloth- leather- and metal-workers of a variety of trades and other artisans, as well as regulations governing the manufacture and dying of cloth and the sale of wine. In this commercial legislation at least we may see the personal intervention of the king who – himself a known bibliophile – insisted that booksellers and printers be exempted from the restrictions on the Italians.
Taken as a whole, Richard III’s Parliament was unexceptional: it was a workmanlike and pragmatic affair. There were no important legislative initiatives comparable to those seen in, for example, the Parliaments of Henry VI in 1429 or Henry VII in 1495. In 1484, Parliament transacted the business the King wished to see transacted, and just enough business of concern to the Lords and Commons to keep them pliant. There is no suggestion of open hostility to the King on the part of Parliament, but nor is there a sense that they were being cowed into submission by an overbearing monarch. The balance of business benefitting King, Lords and Commons respectively was comparatively even, and suggests negotiation, rather than confrontation: it may be assumed that the Commons’ Speaker, William Catesby (the ‘Cat’ of the notorious trinity of ‘Cat, Rat and Dog’) played his part. When the King had achieved all he wished to achieve, parliament was dissolved: it was not prorogued and kept in existence, as had been the case with several of Edward IV’s Parliaments with a view to returning to outstanding business. Of the King himself, the proceedings of the parliament tell us little, beyond his taste for imported books. One thing, though, is clear: Richard III had no more inclination to rule through Parliament than his predecessors or successor, unless he needed to.