Medieval MP of the Month: An MP Struck by Lightning

Today we hear from House of Commons 1422-1504 Section Editor, Dr Linda Clark for the next installment in our series ‘Medieval MP of the Month’. This series is a precursor to the History of Parliament’s forthcoming set of volumes relating to the reign of Henry VI that will be published in 2019. Sir James Berners was struck by lightning whilst on a pilgrimage with the King…

Sir James Berners.jpg
James Berners in armour, at his parish church of West Horsley in Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400, ed. Jonathan Alexander and Paul Binski (Royal Academy of Arts, Exhibition Catalogue 1987), 537.

At just a few months old, in 1361 James Berners became heir to valuable estates in Essex and Surrey, on the deaths of his father and elder brother. Initially made the ward of Humphrey, earl of Hereford, from 1375 he came under the guardianship of the Black Prince, and before long developed a close friendship with the Prince’s son who, aged nine, was crowned Richard II in 1377. Berners served on the expedition to Brittany led by the King’s uncle Thomas of Woodstock, in 1380, and was knighted in the following year, thereafter serving as a knight of the King’s chamber. While Sir James was accompanying the King and his queen Anne of Bohemia on a pilgrimage to Walsingham in the summer of 1383, a violent thunderstorm brought the party to a halt at Ely, where a bolt of lightning ‘left him blind and half-crazed’. Such was King Richard’s concern for his friend that he ordered all the clergy to process to the local shrine of St. Etheldreda the Virgin and pray for his recovery. Berners experienced a terrifying vision of his soul in judgement, but on being brought before the altar, he was miraculously cured.

Berners was returned to Parliament by the electors of Surrey in October that same year, but received royal letters of exemption from service as an MP on the ground that, as a member of the King’s retinue, his presence was required at Court. Such letters were rare, and underline the degree of personal attachment which had grown up between King and knight, an amity further expressed by Richard’s generous grants to his companion, which included one of £100 p.a. from the lands of an alien priory.  Berners represented Surrey in the Parliament of 1386, when other MPs expressed considerable hostility towards the King’s group of favourites. Even so, it is hard to see why in the ‘Merciless Parliament’ of 1388 the Lords Appellant singled Berners out to face the death penalty. Unlike the five most powerful and unpopular figures charged by them with treason (notably the duke of Ireland and earl of Suffolk), he was not appealed, but rather, along with three other household knights, was subjected to impeachment by the Commons (with the temporal lords acting as judges). The four knights were removed from imprisonment in the Tower of London for trial at Westminster on 12 Mar. In effect Berners stood accused of helping to exploit the King’s youthfulness by turning him against his proper councillors, and thus acting as an agent of the greater traitors. Condemned to death he was beheaded on Tower Hill on 12 May.

When eventually able to assert his authority, Richard II came to the assistance of his friend’s widow and children, and made provision for prayers for Sir James’s soul at the abbey of St. Mary Graces in London, where his much-loved queen was also commemorated. The attainder passed against Berners was reversed in the Parliament in January 1398, which proved to be the King’s last.

Far from unique among Members of the Commons to be executed for treason, Berners may have been the only MP ever to survive a lightning-strike. Others were less fortunate. According to contemporary rumour, lightning caused the death of Sir Richard Onslow (1601-64) – a man otherwise distinguished by being both grandson and grandfather of Speakers – and, less directly, of the MP Joseph Yorke who drowned in the Hamble in 1831 after lightning put paid to his yacht.


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