Too few lawyers? The ‘Unlearned Parliament’ of October 1404

Following Dr Hannes Kleineke’s two part piece on the Good, the Bad, the Wonderful and the Merciless Parliaments of the late fourteenth century in June, Dr Simon Payling of our House of Commons 1422-1504 project discusses the ‘Unlearned Parliament’ of 1404…

In the modern Parliament lawyers are the best represented of the professions with between about 10% and 15% of MPs qualified as barristers or solicitors.  In one sense, this can be seen in positive terms for, arguably at least, a cohort of MPs rich in legal knowledge is more likely to make good laws than one which is not; on the other hand, it could be argued that lawyers are over-represented to the exclusion of others with valuable experience in other fields and to the impediment of necessary reforms of the legal profession. Whatever the merits of these opposing views, the prominence of lawyers in the Commons is no recent development and, in times past, the debate about its desirability has been more heated than it is now. During the Reformation Parliament of 1529-36, for example, in which nearly a quarter of the MPs were lawyers, a petition complained that abuses in legal administration could not be amended because so many lawyers ‘byn rulers in your (the King’s) commen house ayenst whome noo man there dar ne may make reason in any cause ayenst theyre advayles and profettes’.  The so-called ‘Unlearned Parliament’ of October 1404 illustrates a different aspect of this debate.  According to the chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, a monk of St. Albans, the assembly had been summoned by writs which, uniquely, prohibited the election of those, ‘who knew anything about the law of the realm’ in favour of those who were ‘entirely illiterate.  For which reason the Parliament was thereafter deservedly known as the ‘Unlearned Parliament (‘Parliamenti Illiterate’)’.  The writs themselves confirm at least part of this charge, for they instructed the sheriffs that, ‘no apprentice or any other man of law should be elected’.

These writs and Walsingham’s hostile comment upon them raise many questions.  There is one straightforward political interpretation, namely that the King, Henry IV, had come to see lawyers as the organisers of opposition to his requests for parliamentary taxation, and, in desperate need of finance to meet the mounting threat of rebellion in Wales, sought to exclude them. Yet it is worth noting that the writs of 1404 were not the first manifestation of hostility to the presence of lawyers in Parliament.  A royal ordinance made in the Parliament of 1372 had outlawed, ineffectively as it transpired, the future election as county MPs of ‘Men of law pursuing business in the King’s court’.  Here the objection was practical rather than political, with lawyers seen as the self-interest promoters of the interests of their clients to the detriment of the public business of Parliament.  It is, therefore, possible that the writs of 1404 simply mark the re-emergence of this sentiment. On balance, however, the political interpretation is to be preferred, for it is consistent with other accusations made against Henry IV that he had sought to influence the membership of the Commons.  Further, with regard to lawyers, the writs were not the only measure Henry took to exclude them.  Parliament was summoned to meet away for the Westminster law courts, namely at Coventry, just three days before the beginning of the Michaelmas law term.  Few lawyers of any rank would have found it profitable to compromise their practices by travelling to Coventry.    

Against this background, it is perhaps surprising that any lawyers were returned at all.  Unfortunately, the membership of the Parliament is imperfectly known but, of the 99 known MPs, six were lawyers.  This is a lower figure than might have been expected. Some 10% of the MPs in the previous Parliament, that of January 1404, and 12% of those in the next, that of 1406, were men of law.  The King, it seems, was at least partially successful in excluding them.

Nonetheless, it remains to ask why the exclusion of lawyers should have raised Walsingham to so roundly condemn the Parliament. The real reason for his anger is to be sought elsewhere.  According to his account, the Commons, as a means of avoiding making a heavy grant of taxation, proposed the most controversial of measures, no less than the annexation of the temporalities of the Church.  This demand, in Walsingham’s narrative at least, was effectively resisted by Archbishop Arundel of Canterbury.  No record of this controversial proposal appears on Parliament Roll but, given its nature, this is not surprising, and there is no reason to doubt the chronicler here.  It is this proposal that, understandably, raised him to such anger.  He described the alleged originators of the proposal, the county MPs, as ‘laymen in both faith and doctrine and less wise than pagans or any heathens’.  To add strength to his case, he took the novel instruction of the writs as evidence that the Parliament was not properly constituted.  What is not clear is whether he believed that, had the Commons had their proper complement of legal minds, they would not have made so base a proposal. It may be that he did: he cites as the strongest argument against the annexation the clause of Magna Carta guaranteeing ‘that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired’.  He may have naively believed that, had more members of the Commons, known the Charter, the annexation proposal would not have been made. 


Click here for more in our Named Parliaments series.

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