Violent times? MPs as victims of murder in the mid-fifteenth century

Today Dr Simon Payling of the 1422-1504 Section explores the murders of MPs in the mid-fifteenth century…

The completion of a set of History of Parliament volumes, in this case those for the reign of Henry VI (1422-61), provides an opportunity to answer some statistical questions.  How often, for example, did MPs fall victim to murder?  In the modern era, such murders, whether of sitting or former MPs, are mercifully rare: the tragic death of Jo Cox in 2016 was the first since the IRA’s assassination of Ian Gow in 1990.   In earlier more violent times, such murders were undoubtedly significantly more frequent.  A recent blog on this site (‘Wikidata, British Politicians and the History of Parliament Trust’) has, for example, cited instances, in 1603 and 1684, when one MP met his death at the hands of another.  Even so, it may be that this increase, as one moves back in parliamentary time, was not as profound as might have been expected.

The reign of Henry VI, was, at least in the 1450s, notorious for the level of violence among the political classes.  Yet, of the 2,844 recorded MPs for the reign, no sitting MP and only 23 former ones are known to have been murdered.   The statistic does, of course, need to be treated with caution.  It does not include deaths in battle or in the suppression of rebellion, which might be said to fall into another category of violent death (although the distinction is not always clear cut: Sir William Lucy fell on the Lancastrian side at the battle of Northampton on 10 July 1460 yet his was no typical death in battle for he was killed by the lover and future husband of his young wife: ‘The battle of Northampton and the strange death of Sir William Lucy’,).

There is also the obvious difficulty of the failure of evidence.   Even though legal records survive in abundance, some murders would have been recorded in records now lost; others in records not yet examined; and yet others would have escaped any record, either because murder was not suspected or no indictment was laid or appeal made.    Even so, although the figure of 23 is very much a minimum one, it implies a murder rate rather lower than suggested by the violent reputation of the times.   Further, these murders are not spread evenly chronologically.  As many as seven of the 23 occurred in the first three years of Edward IV’s reign, which seems to have been a period of exceptional disorder, and none are known between Henry VI’s accession in 1422 and 1435.

On the other hand, if the number of murdered MPs was lower than might have been expected, the contexts in which the majority of them took place are none the less revealing of a society where the social constraints on the resort to extreme violence were much less developed than they subsequently became.  Only a few of the deaths occur in contexts which have a strong modern currency.   Two could be described as domestic murders.  Lucy’s death in 1460 falls into this category, as does that of Sir John Butler.  MP for Gloucestershire in 1439, he was killed in 1477 by perpetrators commissioned by his second wife, whom he had only recently married ( See our blog on the subject there: ‘Dangerous Liaisons in 15th Century England: Sir John Butler’).    Another MP may have met his death in a sexual encounter gone wrong.   On the night of 11 November 1446 Walter Rich, MP for Bath on as many as six occasions between 1414 and 1435, was making his way along ‘Chepestrete’, when he encountered a group of people led by Agnes Carpenter, a ‘wyfe’ of Bath.  Carpenter brought Rich to her house, where she suffocated him with a linen towel and strangled him with a leather belt, sitting on his chest to be doubly sure of his death.   This, however, is the only one of the 23 murders that might plausibly be said to have been the result of apparently casual violence.   Most of the others had a rational framework in that they occurred in the course of disputes, generally over land, and were often expressions of long-standing enmity.

William Tresham, Speaker of the Commons in four Parliaments and the most important of the murdered MPs, provides a clear example: in 1450 he was killed in an ambush, elaborately laid by Simon Norwich, whose inheritance he had illegally annexed (‘The murder of Speaker Tresham’ 27 October 2015).   Another MP, Sir Robert Harcourt, was killed in 1470 by the Staffords of Grafton in revenge for his part in the death of Richard Stafford more than 20 years before.   Such deaths reflect the failure of the law to provide an effective framework for the resolution of quarrels, with the weaker party sometimes driven to extreme measures for lack of a legal redress.   It was, for example, the control that the lawyer, Robert Crackenthorpe, exercised over the organs of local justice in the remote county of Westmorland, that led to his murder in 1438 at the hands of his wife’s family, the Lancasters, whom he had deprived of lands to which they had a moral if not a legal right.

These murders show that, at least in the context of disputes, the legal and social restraints against resort to violent self-help were weak.   Against this background one might have expected the murder of the officers of central and local government to have been significantly more common than it was.   It is true that as many as six former MPs met their deaths at the hand of the Cade rebels in the summer of 1450, with two of them, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, and his brother-in-law, William Cromer, executed as, in the eyes of the rebels, corrupt agents of the state.   Leaving this episode aside, however, only one of the 23 deaths falls into a similar category, and that came in the disturbed early years of Edward IV’s reign.   On 27 October 1463 John Doding, bailiff of Gloucester, sought to escape a mob of peasantry by taking refuge on the infirmary of Gloucester abbey, but they dragged him out and decapitated him at the high cross in the centre of the town before displaying his head over the west gate.  His offence, real or perceived against them, is unknown.

SP

In 2019 the Commons 1422-1504 Section will publish their first set of volumes pertaining to the period 1422-1461. For more info see here.

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