MPs as law enforcers in Late Medieval England

In today’s guest blog, from Dr Gordon McKelvie from the University of Winchester discusses whether the MPs who passed legislation in medieval England were actually that keen on enforcing them…

A common debate about criminality is the reliability of criminal statistics – i.e. do changes in such statistics reveal actual changes in levels of crime or simply changes in the recording of crimes. Most historians of crime and the law have noted that our records for criminality normally tell us more about the nature of enforcement than levels of criminal activity per se. This tension between perceived of levels of crime and violence and the prosecution of criminals has a long tradition in parliamentary history.

In earlier times, the sort of men who sat as MPs in parliament were frequently appointed as justices of the peace. As such, they would be responsible for ensuring that the king’s laws, that is the laws that they themselves helped to pass, were enforced. Yet, it seems that many MPs were somewhat lackadaisical about enforcing new laws that they themselves were involved in passing, so much so that by the Elizabethan period MPs needed reminding of their responsibilities when they returned home. For instance, the Lord Keeper’s speech at the close of parliament in 1559 reminded MPs that he should not need to remind them ‘how small purpose good lawes doe serve being not daylie and diligently executed.’ For the medieval period we do not have records of such speeches. Yet, surviving sources such as parliamentary petitions and the large corpus of judicial records give us some a means of considering the effectiveness of new laws passed by parliament.

One such crime that local justices seem to have been unenthusiastic about enforcing was a set of laws dealing with the distribution of noble liveries (the badges and insignia of specific lords). During the fourteenth century, the practice of nobles giving their personal insignia to a large body of family, servants and general well-wishers as a means of displaying their standing and prestige began to attract criticism from several quarters, including the MPs, or at least some MPs, in parliament. A feeling had emerged that the wearing of such liveries encouraged acts of violence and petty crimes which would go unpunished because local justices and juries would be apprehensive of prosecuting those who wore the livery of a powerful lord. Moves were therefore made to have laws either limiting or banning the practice which seems to have caused some dispute between the two houses. In 1384 the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, reportedly responded to complaints from the Commons by saying that he could discipline his own men and a new law was not needed. Yet, by 1390 enough pressure had been exerted that Richard II passed a law that limited the categories of servants to whom nobles could give their livery.

Despite this apparent victory, repeated petitions were presented to parliament over the next several decades complaining that the law was being wilfully ignored. Indeed, the first large cluster of cases did not arise until a generation after the initial act of parliament, when Henry V prosecuted 21 such cases in Staffordshire in 1414 as part of a more general law enforcement drive before launching an invasion of France which culminated in his victory at Agincourt the following year. The lack of cases is somewhat paradoxical as those people responsible for enforcing the law were drawn from the exact same class of men who sat as MPs for the shire: the county gentry. Later prosecutions were predominantly targeted against members of the gentry (those holding the rank of knight, esquire or gentleman) as opposed to those lords who received an individual summons to parliament and sat in the House of Lords. In many ways the gentry were law-makers, law-breakers and law-enforcers.

One could take the view that such complaints were ultimately meaningless or a cynical attempt to appear tough on a problem no one really wanted to solve. However, it seems to have been difficult to get a new law enforced with any great vigour in late medieval England. The enforcement of another new law followed a similar pattern. In 1401, parliament passed the act De Hertico Comburendo [Of the burning of a heretic] which proscribed the death penalty, by burning, for lapsed heretics. Heresy had long been a crime in England by this point and heretics were burned in previous centuries. The passing of this act may therefore suggest a new religious zeal to stamp out heresy from England. However, between 1401 and 1414 only two men were executed for heresy: William Sawtre on 2 March 1401 (curiously, before the act itself was passed in parliament) and John Badby, in 1410. There was apparently no great religious fervour for a heretic-hunt. Indeed, the first mass execution of heretics was in 1414 in the wake of a Lollard Rebellion against Henry V. Here, their main crime was treason, not their religious beliefs and practices.

In all, the only new law that seems to have been enforced almost immediately were the labour laws that were passed in aftermath of the Black Death with the expressed intent of keeping wages low by setting them at pre-Black Death levels when wages were much lower. This attempt at wage capping offered tangible benefits to MPs who employed waged labour for a variety of tasks and the law seems to have been enforced with great enthusiasm. In Essex 7,556 people were fined for taking excess wages in 1352. The fact that so many were fined may indicate that the laws were not effective as people seemingly continued to accept higher wages with the potential fines offering no meaningful deterrent. Although the effectiveness in changing employment practice is doubtful, it is rather curious that the one law that seems to have been enforced straight away was the one law that was most likely to be of personal benefit to local justices, many of whom also sat, at one point or another, as MPs.


Dr McKelvie is Lecturer in Late Medieval History at the University of Winchester.

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