Rogue Prorogations? Suspending Parliament in the Later Middle Ages

In addition to Dr Vivienne Larminie’s blog about averting the prorogation of Parliament in May 1641, here’s Dr Hannes Kleineke of our House of Commons 1422-1504 project on the origins of the practice of prorogation and examples thereof in the later Middle Ages…

Until recent days, prorogations of Parliament have generally been regarded as an arcane piece of parliamentary theatre, of limited concern to anyone except those interested in the historic procedures and ceremonial of the British legislature. Certainly, the procedure of proroguing Parliament, that is, suspending the meetings of the Lords and Commons until a set future date is of venerable antiquity. The earliest English Parliaments generally met for only a few days, and there was thus no call for these assemblies to be interrupted and resumed. The earliest examples of what was formally styled a ‘prorogation’ thus served to allow for a change of originally intended meeting place or date of a Parliament. Even where a meeting cut across a major feast in the church’s calendar, and had thus to be interrupted for a few days, the records usually speak of an adjournment, rather than a prorogation.

It was only from the later 14th century that longer Parliaments began to be held, and interrupted for longer periods of time, to allow the members of the Lords and Commons to return to their homes for feasts like Christmas and Easter, or, indeed, for the essential annual activities of harvest and hunting. Thus, the Parliament of 1381 was prorogued for Christmas from 13 December 1381 to 24 January 1382, and the ‘Merciless Parliament’ of 1388 broke up for Easter from 20 March to 13 April 1388.

Henry VI

By the second half of Henry VI’s reign it was normal for Parliaments to last for months at a time and to be prorogued repeatedly, and in this the political crises that punctuated Henry’s time on the throne played their part. So, for instance, the Parliament that assembled at Reading on 6 March 1453 sat for less than a month, before being prorogued for Easter from 28 March to 25 April. The Lords and Commons then sat at Westminster until 2 July, when the assembly was again prorogued for the harvest season until 12 November. In the intervening period, the King lost his mental and physical faculties, and when the members of Parliament returned to Reading on 12 November, it was only to hear the proclamation of a further prorogation until 14 February 1454, by which time, it was hoped, the King might have recovered. 

Allowing for the peculiar circumstances of an individual assembly’s day, prorogations took a set form. The King might or might not be present, but the pronouncement of the prorogation was usually made by the chancellor or another officer of state.

Edward IV

If the repeated prorogations of the Parliament of 1453 had been necessitated by Henry VI’s mental and physical collapse, in the reign of Edward IV the practice became a bad habit. That King’s early parliaments in particular were subjected to repeated prorogations, ostensibly at the monarch’s whim, the Lords and Commons being dismissed again on the day of their reassembly. The Parliament of 1463-65 provides an extreme, but not atypical example. Even before its assembly, there had been some confusion over the date and time of its meeting. Originally summoned to gather at York on 5 February 1463, arrangements were changed in January, Lords and Commons being now instructed to come to Leicester on 7 March. Before the end of February, but still with at best a few days’ notice, parliamentarians (many of whom had probably already set out for Leicester) were now told to come to Westminster on 29 April.  Here, Parliament sat until 17 June, before being prorogued until 4 November. When the Lords and Commons returned on that day, they were met by Thomas Bourgchier, archbishop of Canterbury, and the Chancellor, George Neville, bishop of Exeter, who immediately told them to return home for Christmas, and instead come to York on 20 February 1464. Having travelled into the freezing north, on that day the hapless peers and commoners were once again sent packing, this time until 5 May. The Yorkshire weather in May was perhaps more clement than that in February, but the news with which the members of Parliament were met was not. The King was still preoccupied with other matters, so a further prorogation until 26 November was needed. By this stage it cannot have come as any surprise to those Lords and Commons who even made the journey to York, to be told that the King had now returned to the south, and was proposing to hold Parliament at Westminster on 21 January 1465. Here, some 18 months after its last full session had been prorogued, Parliament finally resumed its business and eventually concluded it two months later, on 28 March. 

To characterise Edward IV’s rule as a form of ‘tyranny’, as some of the older literature did, is surely wide of the mark. Rather than by a determination to oppress his subjects, the King’s attitude to Parliament was characterised simply by profound self-indulgence and a total lack of appreciation of the concerns of his subjects. That this did not go down well with these same subjects, stands to reason. Even in November 1463 the Commons made use of the single day’s sitting to reduce the taxes they had previously agreed to provide to the King by a substantial amount. We can only speculate about the reaction of those who realised (after the event) that when the abbot of Fountains dismissed the Lords and Commons at York in May 1464, the King was occupied not by weighty matters of state, but by the pressing business of wooing Elizabeth Woodville.  

For the time being, the Commons could merely grumble, but by the end of the 1460s popular discontent found an outlet in open uprisings against King Edward’s rule. Following Edward’s temporary deposition and exile in 1470-1, and in the run-up to the invasion of France, prorogations came to be used in a more circumspect manner. By this date, however, the honeymoon between the King and his people was at an end.

HK

 

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