York v Lancaster: elections during time of Civil War

Today, Parliament will be officially dissolved and election writs issued for all constituencies. Over the election campaign, we’ll be running a series of blogposts on campaigning and elections throughout the centuries, starting with a post from Dr Simon Payling, Senior Fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 section, on elections during the Wars of the Roses…

Elections today may be closely-fought contests, but during the Civil Wars of the mid-fifteenth century they had a very significant role. They would often reflect the changing power dynamics between the Houses of Lancaster and York, as can be seen in the elections of 1459 and 1460.

Unfortunately for the historian, medieval parliamentary elections are poorly documented. For the most important elections, those held in the county constituencies, we are largely dependent on the election indentures instituted by a statute of 1406. These were drawn up between the sheriff, who presided over the election in the county court, and those present at the time of the election, and witnessed that the two county MPs had been duly elected. The indenture was then returned to the government at Westminster. The number of witnesses named in these indentures varies greatly, from a mere handful to, albeit infrequently, more than a hundred (as many as 450 are named in the Yorkshire indenture of 1442). It is a reasonable inference that the sheriff generally satisfied both himself and the demands of the statute by naming only the most important of those present at the election. Only when the election was contentious, did he seek added security by naming a greater number.

Some of these indentures, when seen in the context of the local and political affiliations of the individual witnesses and in the national political context of the election, can be very revealing.

Two indentures for the Parliament which assembled at Coventry on 20 November 1459 provide particularly clear illustrations of this point. This was one of the most controversial assemblies of the fifteenth century.  Writs of summons were issued on 9 October at Leominster, where Henry VI was at the head of a royal army on the march to confront the forces of Richard, duke of York, and the Neville earls of Salisbury and Warwick. The two armies met at nearby Ludford Bridge on 12 October where the Yorkists, finding themselves overmatched, fled under cover of night. The forthcoming Parliament offered the Crown the opportunity to add to its victory in the field by securing parliamentary consent to the legal confiscation of the lands of the Yorkist lords and their adherents.

One might surmise that the elections were informed by tensions of more than usual intensity. In some counties there appears to have been a concerted effort to exclude those favourable to the Yorkist cause. The Derbyshire indenture, although simply a list of 30 witnesses, is significant here. Unusually, nearly all the witnesses came from the north of the county, as did the two men, Robert Eyre and Robert Barley, they elected. Significantly both these MPs were servants of one of the principal Lancastrian lords, John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury, whose landed interests in Derbyshire lay in the north of the county. There can be little doubt that it was the earl’s influence that brought so many minor gentry south to Derby to secure the election of his men.

The Herefordshire indenture is suggestive of more explicit tensions. The county may lay claim to having been more starkly divided than any other in the late 1450s between Yorkist and Lancastrian factions. These divisions had produced serious disorder, most notably in the spring of 1456 when a Yorkist gang unlawfully hanged six citizens of Hereford whom they blamed for the death of a kinsman of Sir William Herbert, one of the duke of York’s principal lieutenants. These factions must have been well represented in the armies that confronted each other on 12 October 1459.

On the following day they faced each other again in a very different setting. The county court, which met every four weeks on a fixed cycle, was scheduled to meet on 13 October at Hereford, some 23 miles away from Ludford Bridge, and there the sheriff, Sir William Catesby, a senior member of Henry VI’s household, convened an election. No doubt the flight of the Yorkist lords only a few hours before gave him every reason to suppose that Herefordshire’s Lancastrian faction would carry that election without opposition. On the face of it, this is what happened: the indenture names 27 attestors who witnessed the election of Sir John Barre, once a retainer of the duke of York but now, due to family ties to Catesby and Shrewsbury, firmly identified with the Lancastrian cause, and Thomas Fitzharry, an influential lawyer and one of the leaders of the Lancastrians in the county. Yet an analysis of the witnesses suggests that all may not have been so straightforward. Although several of those present at the election can be identified as Lancastrians, also present, remarkably given what had happened on the previous night, were the duke of York’s receiver-general, John Milewater, and Thomas Bromwich, one of the leaders of the Yorkist gang who had hanged the Hereford citizens. It is not unlikely that several of those gathered at the election had been on opposing sides at Ludford Bridge and then travelled swiftly to Hereford for the election. No doubt the Yorkists did so in the hope of preventing the election of Lancastrian partisans. They failed, but the significant point is that they made the attempt.

These two elections suggest that, in times of acute political crisis, medieval county elections were largely determined by prevailing national political circumstances. The result of the next elections in Derbyshire and Herefordshire supports this view. In the autumn of 1459 the Lancastrian cause had been in the ascendant with the Yorkist lords defeated and exiled; by the time the next Parliament was summoned on 30 July 1460 the political situation had been transformed by the Yorkist victory at the battle of Northampton 20 days before. Now both Herefordshire (by an indenture that named only four witnesses) and Derbyshire returned leading Yorkists, including Sir William Herbert and another of the duke of York’s principal gentry supporters, Walter Blount.

This raises a question to which the surviving records offer no clear answer: when Parliament was summoned in times of national division, did the political faction in the ascendant secure the election of its own supporters because the adherents of the rival faction were deterred from standing, or was the exclusion of the latter determined by the electorate? The Derbyshire and Herefordshire elections of 1459 imply that, even in favourable circumstances, the ascendant faction needed to manage the hustings and could not take the election of its candidates for granted. On the other hand, the composition of the Parliaments of 1459 and 1460,the Yorkists excluded from the first and the Lancastrians from the second, leaves no doubt that such management was overwhelmingly effective.


Further reading: S.J. Payling, ‘County Parliamentary Elections in Fifteenth-Century England’, Parliamentary History, xviii (1999), pp. 237-59.

S.J Payling, Political Society in Lancastrian England: the Greater Gentry of Nottinghamshire (Oxford, 1991), pp. 158-67.

Parliamentarians at Law: Select Legal Proceedings of the Long Fifteenth Century Relating to Parliament, ed. H. Kleineke (Parliamentary History, Texts and Studies, ii, Oxford, 2008), pp. 106-211.

Look out for more on historic elections over the next six weeks!

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