Medieval clerks of the parliament – part 2

Last week Dr Hannes Kleineke blogged on medieval parliamentary clerks. In his companion piece, guest blogger Dr Euan Roger, Royal Holloway University of London, looks at the clerks’ lives outside parliament…

If in the life of the more or less permanent modern parliaments the recesses provide a rare opportunity for the clerical staff of the two Houses to pursue other interests, the more occasional parliaments of the middle ages absorbed only a fraction of the time of the clerks’ medieval precursors, who had extensive careers and commitments elsewhere

In their majority, the clerks of the period of the Wars of the Roses were secular clerics (men in holy orders who had not sworn monastic oaths and were thus able to engage with secular life, although unable to marry), and who could aspire to a career within the politics of the day alongside their religious duties. By custom, they gained some of their rewards from the King in the form of ecclesiastical preferment, particularly to canonries at one or other of the collegiate churches subject to the monarch’s patronage. In particular, there was a strong connection between the clerks of the parliaments and the colleges of St George’s, Windsor, and St Stephen’s, Westminster, both of which had been established in 1348 by Edward III. Both colleges were royal peculiars, and ranked among the most senior of the institutions subject to the king’s patronage. While with the benefit of hindsight we might expect a close link between St Stephen’s and the clerks of the parliament (Westminster was increasingly the normal meeting place of parliament, and after the Dissolution the Commons would adopt the college chapel as their chamber), it might seem surprising that a close affinity also came to exist with St George’s. Of the six clerks of the parliament who served between 1447 and 1509, two held the deanery of St George’s, and two held canonries.

When parliament was sitting, the medieval clerks of the parliaments had to divide their time between their official duties, and their responsibilities to their institutions, and they might exploit this state of affairs for the benefit of the latter. But at other times, also, these able administrators were kept busy.

John Faukes (dean of St George’s 1461-1471) had been appointed clerk of the parliaments in 1447, and held his positions concurrently until 1469. The first Yorkist dean, he replaced the attainted Lancastrian dean, Thomas Manning, after Edward IV’s accession, and during his tenure St George’s saw significant royal patronage from the new king. Moveable assets and treasures (including jewels, bells and furniture) were seized from the Lancastrian foundations at Eton College and King’s College Cambridge, and St George’s went to great efforts to secure their own Magna Carta, confirming their rights, privileges and possessions under the new regime. Faukes, as clerk of the parliaments, and also a Master in Chancery, was well placed to promote the college’s interests. He was committed to the college (unlike some of his colleagues in chapter) and regularly attended chapel until his death on 5 February 1471, by which time he had already secured the appointment of a fellow Windsor canon, Baldwin Hyde, as his successor in the clerkship of the parliaments.

Hyde, who served as clerk during the short-lived Readeption parliament of 1470-71, thus found himself at the heart of the affairs of state during the political crisis that might well have threatened everything that St George’s had gained during Faukes’s tenure. A rare surviving document found in the college’s archives sheds light on his activities during the dramatic parliament. The document in question is an attendance register, which recorded periods of absence and attendance at Windsor on a day-to-day basis, as well as times when a member of chapter was absent on official college business. The entries (marked by a dot) show that throughout Hyde’s time at parliament he was deemed to be acting on the college’s behalf, looking after its interests at Westminster.

If Faukes and Hyde served as clerk of the parliaments in times of dynastic upheaval, the same can certainly be said of John Morgan, a Welsh protégé of Henry VII, who replaced the short-lived Yorkist clerk Thomas Hutton (also a canon of Windsor). Appointed as clerk of the parliaments and dean of St George’s in October 1485, Morgan held both positions concurrently until his elevation to the see of St David’s in 1496. As his predecessors had done, Morgan was careful to utilise his privileged position at Westminster to secure the college’s interests in parliament. Almost immediately after his installation, in Henry VII’s first parliament of 1485, he was actively working on the college’s behalf in Westminster, in this case to protect the chapter from a petition seeking to saddle it with the maintenance costs of several retired royal servants. Morgan may well have regretted his support for the College, however, when he returned home from fighting its case in parliament. The grand new St George’s Chapel, begun in 1475 by Edward IV, had become somewhat neglected under Richard III, and it would be some years before financial support was forthcoming from the king. Thus, Morgan found himself with a chapel where pigeons were wont to roost, where the roof leaked (directly above a statue of the Virgin Mary), and where it was deemed prudent to appoint a night watchman to protect the fabric. No doubt, Morgan’s time spent in parliament was something of a relief from the ongoing repair works!

During periods of dynastic uncertainty and upheaval, the fifteenth-century clerks of the parliaments had privileged access to a wide network. Parliament itself only took up a fraction of the clerks’ lives, however, and concerns over the collegiate institutions in which the clerks of the parliaments lived and worked (whether a leaky ceiling, repair works, or the preservation of ancient privileges), could overlap with their work within the chambers of Westminster. Institutions such as St George’s were keen to utilise these concerns and parliamentary networks to protect their own interests, proving that the old adage of ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know’ certainly held true in the murky world of fifteenth-century politics. If the present parliaments allow little time for clerical staff outside of Westminster – in comparison to their medieval counterparts – it is hoped that the present clerk will find the time to pursue his own interests during the parliamentary recess, perhaps even finding the time to do some DIY of his own!

Dr Roger has recently completed his doctoral studies on St George’s Chapel and College, Windsor Castle, in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and is currently reworking his thesis for publication as a monograph.

Click here to read part one of this blog.

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