Reporting Parliament – In the Later Middle Ages

Today’s post is the first in our special series of blogs for this year’s Parliament Week: Reporting Parliament throughout the ages. Dr Hannes Kleineke, Senior Research Fellow in our Commons 1422-1504 project, describes how medieval constituents kept up to date with parliamentary business…

The evidence for the medieval English parliament, more limited than for other periods of its existence, can give it a somewhat unreal quality. Yet, there is no doubt that it was very real indeed not merely to the Lords and Commons who attended it, but also to the men and women who were governed by the statutes it passed, and, above all, who were taxed by it. The inhabitants of medieval England enjoyed paying taxes no more than most of their modern descendants, and the exclusive use to which premodern parliamentary taxation could by convention be put – the defence of the realm (that is, wars of conquest in France) – was hardly designed to endear these periodic levies to them any more. ‘I prey God send yow the Holy Gost amonge yow in the parlement howse’, wrote John Paston in March 1473 to his brother Sir John, then a Member of the Commons, ‘and rather þe devyll, we sey, then ye shold grante eny more taskys [taxes].’

A dislike of some decision taken in Parliament did, however, also mean that medieval Englishmen, not least those put in some position of authority took a keen interest in the business transacted. We have only a single example of a written report by a pair of MPs to their constituents, that penned by the Members for Colchester in 1485, but it is probable that other similar accounts were compiled at various times. The Colchester men’s colourful narrative recounted the events of the state opening, commenting on Henry VII’s appearance in his ‘ryall estate’ and and the chancellor’s ‘worshipful sermon, in that he shewe many worshipfull points’. They then turned to the election and presentation of the Speaker, before coming to a day-by-day account of the session. On some days, business was transacted more promptly than on others:

The xth day of Novembre there was red a byll for the Subsedy betwen the kyng and the merchaunts, whiche byll was examyned amonges us … and non conclusyon. The xjth day of Novembre the same byll was red afore us and there passed as an aucte. … The xiijth day of Novembre it was Sonday.

On other occasions, Members of the Commons did not submit written reports, but might instead appear before their constituents to give a verbal account of the proceedings to which they had been party. So, on Christmas Eve 1423 the MPs for Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk in that autumn’s Parliament appeared before the mayor and council of the town, ‘many other burgesses being present to hear what had been discussed’ during the session, and ‘openly told of many and diverse matters that had been debated there’, while on 30 Dec. 1461 the MPs Simon Pigott and Henry Bermyngeham were said to have ‘declared the acts of Parliament, … some in writing and some verbally’, suggesting that alongside the verbal report the Members returned with copies of some of the acts passed. Some declarations could be more formal, as well as more comprehensive. In July 1425 one of the Lynn Members, Thomas Burgh, read out the various items of business of that year’s Parliament from a scroll, while his colleague John Copnote gave fuller details of what had been discussed under each heading. At other times, however, the Lynn members were less forthcoming about their doings, and merely provided a summary of what had occurred.

Nor were the audiences for these reports mere static observers. The reports could be followed by some discussion, at least among the ruling elite of Bishop’s Lynn, and could inform fresh instructions given to the MPs, as could interim reports sent by the MPs to the authorities back home: in October 1427 the Members for Lynn, Philip Frank and Bartholomew Petipas sent one such a letter, asking for funds to be spent in the course of building a body of support for Lynn’s interests in the House, a request which was granted on condition that the men would repay any money they might have left over. Money was, as ever, at the heart of the matter. Far from being particularly diligent in carrying out their representative duties, the Lynn Members routinely followed up their reports with a request that they might now be paid their parliamentary wages: clearly, their accounts were, above all, designed to demonstrate that they had done their jobs!

Beyond this immediate, ‘newsworthy’ reporting of Parliament, the medieval period also saw another form of narrative recording of parliamentary proceedings: the chronicle account. These reports were in their nature different from those made by Members to their constituents, but to the modern observer of equal, if not greater use, as their authors – rather than giving a blow-by-blow account of what had occurred – often strove to separate out matters of greater importance worth preserving for posterity from the merely circumstantial. Some such accounts merely noted the dates of the opening and prorogation or dissolution of parliament, along with a few selected events or acts that stood out to the author’s mind: this was, for instance the case with John Benet’s Chronicle of the final years of Henry VI. Others, however, stand out by their colourful narratives and rich circumstantial detail: to the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, we owe many important details of the parliamentary procedure of the last quarter of the 14th century, such as the elections of the early Speakers of the Commons, as well as some interesting commentary on a few of the leading parliamentarians of his day, like Sir Thomas Hungerford. Even here, though, money was never far from the parliamentary reporter’s mind. In 1410, Walsingham reported tartly, the cost of the wages of the parliamentary knights of the shire came to almost as much again as the tax that they had already granted to the King.


Further reading:

  • Parliamentary Texts of the Later Middle Ages ed. Nicholas Pronay and John Taylor (Oxford, 1980).
  • The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham (1376-1422), trans. By David Preest, intr. By J.G. Clark (Woodbridge, 2005).

Our ‘Reporting Parliament’ series will continue throughout Parliament Week.

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