Bats and Devils: Henry VI’s ‘seasonally-named’ parliaments

Rather appropriately for our Halloween blog offering, we hear from Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our House of Commons 1461-1504 project, on the fifteenth century Parliaments of Bats and Devils as part of our Named Parliaments series…

The long reign of Henry VI was not short of high political drama, and so it is perhaps not surprising that is has also given us two of the most dramatically named Parliaments of the middle ages, the Parliament of Bats of 1426 and the Parliament of Devils of 1459. By their names, the two assemblies would seem an apt subject for a blog in the Halloween season, yet, in the first instance at least, the nomenclature is not everything it seems.

Henry VI

The Parliament of Bats assembled at Leicester on 18 February 1426, and continued to sit there over two sessions from 18 February to 20 March, and 29 April to 1 June of that year. The political atmosphere in the country was highly charged, owing above all to an acrimonious quarrel between two of the young King’s closest relatives and counsellors, Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, and Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, in which other lords took sides. It was this dispute which, above all, accounted for the unusual choice of venue: while the Bishop of Winchester could rally armed support in Southwark, where he controlled a sizeable liberty, the ever unruly London mob could be expected to back the duke of Gloucester, and the council was thus justified in fearing that a Parliament at Westminster might lead to open violence between the two sides.

Even in Leicester, a stronghold of the ruling house of Lancaster, there were concerns about outbreaks of violence among the retainers of the various lords. Therefore, as a London chronicler recorded, ‘every man was warned and it was cried throughout the town that they should leave their weapons in their inns, that is to say their swords and shields, bows and arrows’. This, however, did not deter those intent on a fight: ‘And then the people took great bats on their shoulders, and so they went. And the next day they were charged that they should leave their bats at their inns, and then they took great stones in their bosoms and their sleeves, and so went to the parliament with their lords.’ And so, the chronicler concluded, ‘some men called this Parliament the “Parliament of bats”.

Some 23 years after the events at Leicester, Parliament again met in the midlands. For much of the late summer and early autumn of 1459, Henry VI’s close relative Richard, duke of York, and the Neville earls of Salisbury and Warwick, who were implacably opposed to the court party surrounding Henry VI and his formidable French queen, Margaret of Anjou, had been preparing themselves for an armed confrontation with the court’s forces. Matters came to a head in late September and early October, and following the desertion of part of their army from an encampment at Ludford bridge, York and the Nevilles had fled into exile. Already, a Parliament had been summoned to meet at Coventry, where the King and his court had based themselves, and in the Yorkist lords’ absence this now turned into an outright reckoning with the ruling party’s opponents, who were attainted and stripped of their property.

The measures of the Coventry Parliament were promptly overturned a year later, when the Yorkists had returned from exile to overcome their opponents. Much opprobrium was heaped by contemporaries on the Coventry assembly and those who had dominated its business, but it was left to later historians to coin the now well-established usage. It may have drawn upon the existence of a mystery play of the ‘Parliament of Devils’ in the play cycle performed at Coventry, but seems to have become associated with the Parliament of 1459 only in modern historiography.


Further reading:

Andrew Broertjes, ‘The Lancastrian Retreat from Populist Discourse? Propaganda Conflicts in the Wars of the Roses’, Limina, 20:3 (2015), 1-21

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