Medieval clerks of the parliament – part 1

The summer recess in parliament is not just a chance for MPs to take a break, but some peace and quiet for the clerical staff as well! In a series of two blogs, beginning today with one from Dr Hannes Kleineke, Senior Research Fellow on the Commons 1422-1504 section, we’ll look at some of the later medieval predecessors to today’s parliamentary staff…

It is a peculiar feature of the offices of the various members of the clerical staff of the British parliament that they find themselves at the heart of the political events of their day, without normally becoming protagonists in them. This state of affairs has a long tradition: even in the middle ages successive clerks avoided being drawn into the sometime stormy politics of their day – at no time more so than during the Wars of the Roses of the mid-15th century. Many of the clerks were nevertheless men of some wealth, as well as of considerable education and culture.

The office of a specific clerk assigned to serve Parliament can be traced back to at least the early 14th century. Responsible for all the writing work associated with the assembly, above all the compilation of Parliament’s main record, the Parliament roll, the clerk’s work expanded as parliament evolved, and by the 15th century there were also at least two other clerks, the under-clerk of the Parliaments (later the Clerk of the Commons), and the clerk of the Crown in Chancery, who took on much of the preparatory work for the meeting of the Lords and Commons, such as the issue of the writs of summons. By the 15th century, some of the clerks routinely carried out their duties by deputies, indeed, in about 1438 the under-clerk of the day, Thomas Haseley, admitted that he had ‘nevere come in the Parlement’ since 1425.

The first of the clerks of the period of the Wars of the Roses was John Faukes. Appointed in time for the dramatic assembly at Bury St Edmunds that saw the arrest and death of the King’s uncle, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, Faukes was to hold the post for an impressive 23 years. It fell to him to record not only the stormy proceedings against the duke of Suffolk in 1450, but also the proceedings during Henry VI’s repeated mental incapacity in 1453-55, the highly partisan measures against the duke of York and his adherents in the Coventry ‘Parliament of Devils’ in 1459, and the parliamentary accord of 1460, which settled the succession in favour of the Yorkist line. He continued in office after Edward IV’s accession, and kept the record of the settlement required by the change of dynasty, and it was only old age that final saw him retire at the end of the 1460s. Faukes’s burden was much increased by the additional work contingent arising from the numerous bills of proviso that exempted individuals and institutions from the provisions of successive acts of resumption, but he may also be credited with some degree of innovation, not least perhaps the compilation of the first journals of the proceedings of the lords.

Faukes’s eventual retirement left Parliament bereft of an experienced clerk (although his long-serving under-clerk, Thomas Bayon, continued in post) just as Edward IV’s temporary deposition and Henry VI’s restoration by the earl of Warwick created fresh political uncertainty. It was thus perhaps at Faukes’s recommendation that Baldwin Hyde, a Chancery administrator of some years’ standing, replaced him for the assembly of 1470-1. Although Hyde’s appointment was by no means a political one, he was nevertheless removed from office on Edward IV’s return, and replaced by John Gunthorpe, the King’s former almoner. Gunthorpe, who remained in post for the remainder of Edward IV’s reign, not only kept the record of the unusually protracted Parliament of 1472-75 with its large number of legislative measures, but was also present for the state trial of the monarch’s brother, the duke of Clarence, in 1478. During the long gaps that intervened between Parliaments in the 1470s and early 1480s, he was regularly employed on diplomatic missions by his royal master.

He evidently became acquainted with Edward IV’s surviving brother, the duke of Gloucester, and on the latter’s accession as Richard III was promoted to the keepership of the privy seal. Although it was clear that Richard’s usurpation would require parliamentary sanction, and that the Lords and Commons would thus have to meet before long, it was not until the eve of Parliament’s actual assembly in early 1484 that Thomas Hutton was appointed as the new clerk of the Parliaments, perhaps on the recommendation of the chancellor, Bishop John Russell. Hutton, like Gunthorpe before him, found extensive employment as a diplomat, while his parliamentary activities remained limited to the single assembly of Richard III’s short reign, but he may perhaps nevertheless be credited with collaborating with his predecessor Gunthorpe in instituting the practice of the sessional printing of statutes.

Hutton’s relationship with Henry VII is so obscure as to arouse curiosity: he had on several occasions acted as King Richard’s emissary to the Breton court, and there can be little doubt that the subject of the pretender Henry Tudor sheltering there was raised. There is nevertheless no suggestion that Hutton fell victim to major reprisals after Bosworth, and in the second half of the 1490s Henry VII even admitted him to his council. He was, all the same, stripped of the clerkship in favour of John Morgan, a distant relative of the new King. Morgan, it seems, threw himself into his task with some vigour, as indeed he needed to, for the requests for exemption from the fresh act of Resumption passed in 1485 were unusually numerous. Morgan remained in post until 1496, and it thus fell to him to record the proceedings of the important Parliament of 1495, perhaps the assembly most active in legislation during the entire second half of the 15th century. Morgan’s eventual successor, Richard Hatton, the final clerk of the parliaments of the middle ages, followed a long tradition in his personal connexions with the predecessors, not least John Gunthorpe. His parliamentary work was to remain limited, for just two Parliaments met in the thirteen years of his clerkship.

HK

Further reading:

  • A.F. Pollard, ‘Fifteenth-Century Clerks of Parliament’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 15 (1938), pp. 137-61.
  • Michael Hicks, ‘King in Lords and Commons: three insights into late-fifteenth-century parliaments 1461-85’, in People, Places and Perspectives ed. Keith Dockray and Peter Fleming (Stroud 2005).
  • Hannes Kleineke and Euan Roger, ‘Baldwin Hyde, Clerk of the Parliaments in the Readeption Parliament of 1470–1’, Parliamentary History 33 (2014), pp. 501-10.
  • Hannes Kleineke, ‘Thomas Hutton, clerk of the parliaments to Richard III’, The Ricardian 26 (2016), pp. 19-30.

Part two to follow next week!

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