Lords and Commons in Late Medieval England

As the government’s bill to trigger article 50 and leave the European Union progresses through the House of Lords, the relationship between the Lords and the Commons is once more under discussion. In today’s blog, Dr Simon Payling, Senior Research Fellow on our Commons 1422-1504 project, discusses the relationship between the two houses in late medieval England…

The relationship between the Lords and Commons in late-medieval Parliaments has often been characterised as one of subordination and dependence, with the Commons looking to the Lords for political leadership.  There is a strong case for such a view.  There can be no doubting the superiority of Lords to Commons in social status and individual wealth. Indeed, on the part of the greatest lords the social divide was enough to breed condescension: according to the monkish chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, described the county MPs as ‘those degenerate knights of the hedgerows’.  Nor can it be doubted that, as the natural counsellors of the King, the Lords were very much closer to the great affairs of state than the social ranks – principally the gentry elite of the shires and the mercantile elite of the boroughs – from which the Commons were drawn.  It was, after all, from the Lords that the great officers of state, the leading military commanders and most of the royal council were drawn.  Add to this the consideration that a significant number of MPs in each Parliament were the retainers and servants of individual lords and it is hard to see that the Commons could have been otherwise than subordinate to the Lords.  The Commons themselves might even assert their inferiority and dependence: the Anonimalle chronicler, perhaps drawing on an eye witness account, has the first speaker, Sir Peter de la Mare, saying, ‘We [the Commons] are so simple of wit and of wealth that we cannot redress [the important matters facing us] without the counsel of wise folk [in other words, Lords]’.

Yet this picture of subordination is too simple.  It rests on the assumption that the community of interest between Lords and Commons was unvarying.  Certainly, at times of great political crisis, the Commons looked to the Lords for support and advice as Parliament sought to impose reform on an errant executive, as they did famously in the ‘Good Parliament’ of 1376 when de la Mare was the first speaker.  On others a faction of powerful lords could exploit for their own ends the Commons’ desire for better government, as the Lords Appellant did in the Merciless Parliament of 1388.

None the less, the Commons also spoke with a voice that was manifestly their own.  In the fields of local government, the administration of justice and the distribution of royal patronage, they often forcefully expressed views that stood in contradiction to those of the Lords.  One such example is the electoral legislation passed between 1406 and 1445, sponsored by the Commons and designed to restrict the influence of Crown and lords upon county elections; another is their campaign in the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV against the unbridled distribution of livery badges by which lords could quickly recruit large followings to the detriment of local order.  But it was in the central field of finance and taxation that, constitutionally at least, the most important of these points of divergence lay.  The Commons had a far greater interest than the Lords in the Crown’s fiscal economy.  They represented constituents on whom the burden of parliamentary taxation fell; the Lords represented only themselves.  It was for this reason that, in the mid-fourteenth century, it became the accepted practice that the Commons alone should adjudicate the level of taxation to be granted to the Crown (and that this grant could be reduced but not increased by the Lords).  It was an apparent challenge to this established practice that lay at the heart of a clash between Lord and Commons in the Parliament of 1407: the Lords contravened the established custom by unilaterally making a grant of taxation to the Crown; and the Commons responded by successfully asserting their right to make such grants, a right that was not subsequently challenged.

There can thus be no doubt that the Commons were capable of asserting their own interests without the support, or even against the interests of, the Lords.  This independence was yet too reactive and too occasionally manifest to translate into an initiatory role in national politics; even so, it is not fanciful to discern, in the parliamentary history of the late middle ages, the future primacy of Commons over Lords.


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