A Speaker-Elect Makes a Quick Escape from the Parliamentary Turmoil caused by England’s Precipitous Exit from Europe

In light of the recent controversy surrounding the current Speaker of the House of Commons and his position on Brexit, Dr Linda Clark, Editor of the House of Commons 1422-1504 Section discusses how Agincourt veteran, Sir John Popham narrowly escaped assuming the daunting task of Speaker nearing the turbulent end of the Hundred Years’ War…

THE HISTORY OF PARLIAMENT: THE HOUSE OF COMMONS 1422-1461, edited by Linda Clark, is out now. For further details about the volumes, including purchasing information,  visit the Cambridge University Press website, here.

A chronicler laconically remarked of 1449 that ‘This yere the kynge helde his Parlement … and was all Normandy loste’. When Parliament assembled on 6 November it was promptly moved to Blackfriars away from the ‘infected air’ at Westminster, but the miasma did not all stem from the plague. Quantities of hot air were directed against Henry VI’s government as news reached the MPs that Charles VII had reopened the war in France, and that the depleted English garrisons in Normandy were ignominiously succumbing to his armies. The capital at Rouen had surrendered on 29 October, and the only possibility of avoiding total expulsion from northern France was for a substantial force to be immediately dispatched across the Channel; that required swift grants of subsidies by the Commons.  On 8 November they presented as their Speaker Sir John Popham, one of the Members from Hampshire, whose long and distinguished military career amply qualified him to frame a response to the crisis.

Knighted on the field at Agincourt 34 years earlier, since 1415 Popham had served as a commander of castles, chancellor of Normandy, chamberlain and councillor to the regent and lieutenant of France, and diplomatic envoy to negotiate truces with the French. As the lord of estates in Normandy he could style himself ‘seigneur et baron de Thorigny’, and he had a personal stake in the continuation of the close and long-held ties between duchy and kingdom.  Thought to have been one of just three veterans of the 1415 campaign present in the Parliament, none of his companions knew at first hand as much as he did about the French conquest and the hard struggle to maintain it under Henry V and since that king’s death. His nomination may thus have been intended as a symbolic gesture to signal the Commons’ disgust at how the government had handled French affairs of late, compared with the ‘glory days’ of the past.

It was common form for the Speaker-elect to refer modestly to his own inadequacy and request to be passed over, so it is not surprising that Popham formally declined the office, ostensibly on the grounds of old age and debilitation owing to the hardships of war –expressly ‘debilitate sui corporis guerrarum fremitibus, ipsius Domini Regis et Patris sui obsequiis, ac diversarum infirmitatum vexationibus, necnon senii gravitate multipliciter depressi, considerata’. In fact, he was in his mid to late fifties, and survived for 13 years more. His real reason may have been an all too clear awareness of the daunting nature of the task of Speaker, given the parlous situation in Normandy. For the first recorded time, and uniquely in a medieval Parliament, the nominee’s expressed wish to be excused was respected:  Popham was allowed to stand down. He thus escaped the responsibility of leading the Commons in a turbulent three sessions marked by the assassination of the keeper of the privy seal, the impeachment and murder of the King’s chief minister, the duke of Suffolk, and finally, in June 1450 the collapse of order in the southern counties as defeated and mutinous soldiers fled across the Channel demanding recompense for the loss of their property and livelihoods. 

The catastrophic beginning of the end of the Hundred Years’ War fomented civil war at home.


Further reading:

Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, xii. 82.

J.S. Roskell, ‘Sir John Popham, knight banneret of Charford’, Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club, lii (1959), 43-55.

A full biography of Popham appears in the recently published The Commons 1422-61 volumes, accessed here.

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