The Good, the Bad and the Wonderful: The dramatic Parliaments of the late 14th century (Part One)

This month in our Named Parliaments series we hear from Dr Hannes Kleineke, Senior Research Fellow for our House of Commons 1422-1504 Section, about the dramatic Parliaments of the late 14th century, in two parts. In the first, today, we learn about the Good and the Bad Parliaments, 1376-1377, and in part two, on 27 June, he will elaborate on the Wonderful and the Merciless Parliaments, 1386 and 1388…

Perhaps richer in colourfully named parliaments than any other period in English history is the last quarter of the 14th century. Not only are we fortunate in having at our disposal a number of eloquent narratives penned by chroniclers with a keen interest in Parliament and its activities, but the numerous short assemblies of the period and their often dramatic proceedings lent themselves to pithy characterization. Four of the Parliaments that met in the twelve years between 1376 and 1388 are thus today known respectively as the ‘Good’, the ‘Bad’, the ‘Wonderful’ and the ‘Merciless’ Parliaments. Unusually for the medieval period, we owe several of these names to contemporary chroniclers, rather than to later historians. The nomenclature and its origins are, nevertheless, less straightforward than they would at first sight appear.

The Good and the Bad Parliaments (1376-1377)

When writs for a Parliament were issued on 28 December 1375, no such assembly had been convened for more than two years, the longest hiatus without a Parliament since 1305. This was in part a deliberate decision on the part of the Crown: the political community was fractious, and any gathering of its representatives was likely to present the Crown with unwelcome demands and challenges. Originally planned for February 1376, the opening of the Parliament at Westminster was ultimately delayed to 28 April. When the assembly finally got under way, business unfolded as had perhaps been expected: from the outset, the Commons went on the offensive against ‘certain councillors and servants about the King’, the traditional code used for any complaint about royal misgovernance. King Edward III and his heir, the Black Prince, were absent from most of the sessions on account of illness, and affairs were further shaken up by the Prince’s death on Trinity Sunday. It was thus left to the King’s eldest surviving son, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, to preside in his father’s place. In the event, the Parliament addressed an unprecedentedly high level of individual grievances, many of them adopted by the Commons as part of their communal requests, and it was probably this factor, along with the perceived removal of the ‘evil councillors’, that gave the Parliament its popular epithet: the chronicler Thomas Walsingham was clear in his assessment, referring to the Parliament ‘that was deservedly called “good”’ (parliamentum quod bonum merito vocabatur), and indicating that this was not merely his opinion, but that it was a Parliament ‘that was called “good” by many’ ([parliamentum] … quod bonum a pluribus vocabatur). 

One group within the political community that did not share Walsingham’s assessment was the court, now centred on the duke of Lancaster, as the King was fading and his heir a minor. The King’s ministers, led by Lancaster, spent much of the autumn of 1376 attempting to circumvent and undo the decisions of the Good Parliament. Having placed the Speaker of the Commons, Sir Peter de la Mare, under lock and key in Nottingham castle, on 1 December they issued writs for a fresh assembly to meet on 27 January 1377. Walsingham was adamant that John of Gaunt actively packed the Commons with his supporters, and, indeed, de la Mare’s successor as Speaker was one of the duke’s stewards, the Wiltshire Member Sir Thomas Hungerford. Yet, beyond the failure of many members of the 1376 Parliament to gain re-election to their seats, evidence for a packing of Parliament is slight, and it is arguable that the near-complete incapacity of the dying King, and the administration’s efforts to focus attention on the unprecedented achievement of the aged monarch’s 50th year on the throne (which was marked by the offer of a general pardon) played their part in making the Commons more compliant than their predecessors had been.

There is, nevertheless, no evidence to suggest that contemporaries identified the assembly of January 1377 as a particularly ‘bad’ Parliament. The convention of describing it as the ‘Bad Parliament’ was apparently one that originated with modern historians, probably in the 19th century: Charles Kingsford deployed the term in his biography of Edward III’s mistress Alice Perrers, published in the Dictionary of National Biography in 1896. 

H.K

Look out for part two on 27 June.

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