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

Welcome back to our Named Parliaments series for June’s second installment from Senior Research Fellow, Dr Hannes Kleineke of our House of Commons 1422-1504 Section. Today Hannes continues with part two of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Wonderful’ focusing on the Wonderful and the Merciless Parliaments of 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 Wonderful and the Merciless Parliaments (1386/88)

Ten years after the Good Parliament (see last week’s blog), another such assembly attracted the poetic instincts of the chroniclers. In the autumn of 1385, Parliament had once again demanded reform of both Richard II’s household, and his administration, but the King and his advisers had ignored these demands. Not for the first and certainly not for the last time in English history, it was an external military threat that brought matters to a head. During the spring and summer of 1386 the French had assembled a large fleet, ostensibly with the intention of invading England. In the late summer, finally, Parliament was summoned to meet at Westminster on 1 October. When the assembly gathered, the Commons were already restive, and in subsequent weeks matters went from bad to worse, as proceedings descended into an open test of power between the 19-year-old King and the Commons. The King’s attempt to dismiss Parliament was met with an unveiled threat that he might share the fate of his great-grandfather Edward II in being deposed, although in the event it was the chancellor, Michael de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, who had to be sacrificed. Moreover, the King was forced to agree to the establishment of the Commission of Government, a body of lords empowered to control the administration, and thus in effect the King, for a period of one year. These were certainly dramatic events, and it is not altogether surprising that the opening of a contemporary tract should have – apparently – described the assembly as the ‘Wonderful Parliament’ (‘mirabilis parliamentum’), the name by which it is known today. Yet, it has been argued that the tract’s title ‘Historia Mirabilis Parliamenti’ is not contemporary with the text, which is in fact mainly concerned with a later Parliament, that of February 1388, and it was to this that the soubriquet ‘wonderful’ properly pertains.    

It was this latter Parliament, now more commonly known as the ‘Merciless Parliament’, that was also styled wonderful by another contemporary chronicler, Henry Knighton, an Augustinian canon from Leicestershire. Richard II had put a brave face on the need to accept the impositions of the Parliament of 1386, but almost immediately began to plot ways of freeing himself from its strictures. To this end, he began to raise armed men in his palatinate of Chester, and to enter into secret peace negotiations with the French. When rumours began to circulate that the King was proposing to bring French soldiers into the kingdom to reassert his rule, the Lords who had sought to restrain Richard for their part assembled an army, and formally appealed a number of the King’s councillors and supporters of treason. Parliament was summoned to meet at Westminster on 3 February to hear the appeal. Within a few weeks the accused had been condemned, and two of them – the former Chief Justice Robert Tresilian and the former mayor of London, Nicholas Brembre – executed at Tyburn. Two further series of trials were conducted in March and, during the second session which commenced in April after the end of the Easter festivities, followed by further executions: the victims included Thomas Usk, the undersheriff of Middlesex, and four knights of Richard II’s household, among them the King’s old tutor Sir Simon Burley, the steward of the household Sir John Beauchamp of Holt, and Sir James Berners. This brought an end to the blood-letting although a number of other men were sentenced to exile. Nor were the state trials the exclusive business of the Parliament, which passed a number of other measures, but they certainly dominated the popular perception of the Parliament which – as Henry Knighton also recorded – was widely, and not without justification, referred to as the ‘parliamentum sine misericordia’.

H.K.

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