Today, the new Prime Minister Theresa May makes her first diplomatic trip to meet her counterparts in Germany and France. Here Dr Simon Payling, Senior Fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 section, blogs about parliament’s reaction to another major realignment in European relations, although in very different circumstances, Henry V’s attempt to unify the crowns of England and France in 1420…
On 21 May 1420 Henry V’s great victories in France, and the divisions in the French kingdom that had allowed them, culminated in the treaty of Troyes. Charles VI of France, incapacitated by recurrent bouts of madness over nearly 30 years, agreed that, on his death, the kingdom of France would not be inherited by his son and heir, the Dauphin, Charles (the future Charles VII), but would pass instead to Henry V, who would take as his wife the Dauphin’s sister, Katherine. In the meantime, the English king would rule France as Charles VI’s regent.
The unification of the crowns of England and France, almost unimaginable at the outset of Henry V’s reign in 1413, had become a reality, at least in so far as realities are manifest in treaties. In truth, of course, there were obstacles, ultimately insurmountable ones, in the way of that unification. The Dauphin still controlled more than half of France and had neither incentive nor inclination to accept his disinheritance. Thus, in the summer and autumn following the treaty, Henry V continued to campaign as he had done since 1417, reducing to obedience Dauphinist strongholds to the south and east of Paris, most notably Melun. He was thus absent from Westminster when Parliament gathered there on 2 December 1420.
One might have expected this Parliament to have assembled in celebratory mood. The king had vindicated his dynasty’s claim to the French throne, albeit not entirely on the terms Edward III had claimed it in 1340 (the treaty of Troyes did not precisely address the grounds on which Henry was to assume the French throne: was it because he had the superior hereditary right over the line he was to supplant, or was he doing so as the adopted heir of the rightful king?). There was also the promise that the financial burden of maintaining the French war would be lifted from the taxpayers of England: the conflict was now not a war between two nations but a civil war in the kingdom of France between Henry V, as regent of Charles VI and heir-apparent to the French crown, and the Dauphinists, as rebels against their king, and so the burden of maintaining the war should thus fall exclusively on French taxpayers.
Yet there was another side to this optimistic picture. The siege of Melun, which had lasted four months, had demonstrated that the war would not come to a swift conclusion, and many must have shared the opinion of one modern historian that the treaty was ‘not so much a guarantee of peace as the prime cause of continued war’. [Curry, ‘Parliament of December 1421’, in Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, ix. 246.] In such circumstances, whatever the theoretical arguments against further taxation, any relief from war taxation might be a very temporary expedient. It was also possible to see the treaty in terms of loss rather than profit from the English point of view. For many among the Commons and the Lords, particularly perhaps those who had campaigned in France, the treaty had supplanted an outcome that was far more desirable than the unions of the two crowns, namely that Normandy, the conquest of which was then complete, should be re-annexed to the English crown to be held in full sovereignty. Yet, under the terms of the treaty, Normandy, the most valuable province of the kingdom of France, was once more to be part of the realm of France and to become subject to Henry V not as king of England but as king of France.
These concerns explain why the Parliament following the treaty proved the most difficult of the reign. The Commons in their petitions presented a surly and xenophobic face. Many of them must have listened doubtfully to the opening speech of Chancellor Langley, extolling the treaty as ‘the welcome conclusion of peace [to] the undoubted advantage and perpetual happiness of all this kingdom of England’. Even setting aside the consideration that the treaty of Troyes was no peace, the Commons were sensitive to its other potential disadvantages. It promised a future in which the king of England would be routinely absent from England, not only on campaign but also as the ruler of another and larger kingdom. They thus successful petitioned that, if Parliament should be in session during one of those absences (as, indeed, the present assembly, was), the king’s return should not result in a dissolution. Another of their petitions addressed a much more central issue. They asked for the confirmation of an undertaking made by Edward III when he had laid claim to the French throne in 1340, namely that Englishmen ‘should never be nor ought to be in subjection or obedience to the kings of France … or to the kingdom of France’, in other words England was to retain its sovereignty even though its king was also king of France.
In some ways, the fears expressed by this Parliament set the tone for the Parliaments of the remainder of the 1420s. No direct taxation was either asked or granted during this assembly, and the last two Parliaments of the reign granted between them only one full subsidy (about £37,000). No further subsidy was granted until the Parliament of December 1429. By then the military situation – the failure of the siege of Orleans and the defeat at the battle of Patay – had turned decidedly if not decisively against the English, and all realistic hope of establishing a dual monarchy in the hands of Henry V’s young son, Henry VI, had been lost. The Commons may have viewed the loss with indifference, for they had certainly done nothing to make it a reality. Had Henry V not died in August 1422 leaving a baby as his heir, his force of character may have shaken the Commons out of their indifference, but that is a doubtful surmise. By the end of his reign the euphoria of the victory at Agincourt had given way to war-weariness and a conviction, on the part of the Commons, that the defeat of the Dauphin would not be bought with English money.