A turning-point in the Wars of the Roses: the attainders of the Coventry Parliament

In our latest blog Dr Simon Payling, Senior Research Fellow in our 1461-1504 project, discusses the short Lancastrian parliament of 1459 and an Act that would have a lasting impact in the Wars of the Roses...

The brief Parliament, which met at Coventry between 20 November and 20 December, 1459, marked a determining moment in the Wars of the Roses. The Lancastrian regime, in the political ascendant after the rout of the Yorkist lords at Ludford Bridge, resorted to an extreme measure. By parliamentary Act it pronounced the legal deaths of its leading opponents and annexed their extensive estates to the Crown. This was, however, achieved at significant political cost.  Not only did the Act create widespread sympathy for the Yorkists, but it justified to Richard, duke of York, an extreme measure of his own. In the next Parliament, he took a measure he had long forsworn, publicly asserting his hereditary claim to the throne. A struggle for the control of a hapless King’s government was thus transformed into one for the Crown itself.

Henry VI

As significant, however, as this Parliament was in the history of the Wars of the Roses, it had as least as great a longer-term significance. It saw the first systematic use of the brutal legal weapon of attainder, one which retained its political currency into the seventeenth century. Without any trial at common law, this condemned the attainted to legal extinction and the forfeiture of property. In constitutional terms, this subversion of common-law process was achieved through, and validated by, Parliament’s preeminent legislative function; in functional terms, its justification, lay in the Crown’s need to proscribe enemies who had died in open rebellion or, as in the case of the Yorkist lords, fled abroad or into hiding.

In 1459 attainder was not a new concept. Its conceptual evolution had begun as early as the Parliament of 1401 when the  Lords with the assent of the King declared five leading supporters of the deposed Richard II, all killed while in rebellion, to be traitors and condemned them to  forfeiture under common law (in other words, excluding the lands entailed to their heirs or held in trust). The Commons had no part in the process, and the judgement was thus open to the objection, that, since acts of Parliament depended upon the assent of both Houses, then that judgement could not be understood as such.

This explains why, when attainder was next employed, the Commons played a full role. In 1450 they successfully petitioned that Jack Cade, the dead leader of the rebellion of the previous summer, be ‘atteynt’ of treason. Here attainder is understood as the process it was to be for the rest of the period and beyond, namely a petition either presented by or assented to by the Commons, declaring a person or persons guilty of specific acts of treason. The royal assent was then all that was needed to condemn the accused to death (if they still lived) and forfeiture.

This chain of development culminated in the great Act of 1459. No fewer than 27 Yorkists, including three of the greatest lords of the land, the duke of York, and the Neville earls of Salisbury and Warwick, were victims of an act of a then unprecedented scale. In legal terms, at least in respect of most of these victims, their condemnation was justified. Of the 27 attainted, 19, including the three principal Yorkist lords and York’s two sons, the earls of March and Rutland, had been in arms at Ludford Bridge with banners displayed in face of the King, a treason of which they could be convicted by the King’s record alone, and a further eight had been at the battle of Blore Heath, an act of open war enough in itself to condemn them as traitors.

Although, however, the Act could be justified in legal terms, contemporaries had doubts about its justification in moral ones.  One contemporary saw it as the result of the ‘malicyows conspiracye’ and ‘vengeable labowr’ of various senior Lancastrian lawyers, and the need to repudiate this view is found in two contemporary texts. These describe a debate between ‘Justice’, stating the case for condemnation, and ‘Mercy’, setting the case for pardoning the Yorkist lords. Although in both texts the case for the latter is firmly repudiated, the need for such a repudiation reveals the degree to which the case for the former was circulating.

Edward IV

Modern historiography reflects these contemporary doubts. In general, the Act has had a poor historical reputation. Not only was it passed by a partisan assembly, meeting away from Westminster and from which the sympathisers of York were excluded, it also extended forfeiture to entailed land. Such an extension was not unprecedented, but it was here employed to an unprecedented degree. In political terms too, it proved to be disastrous. Just as Richard II’s similar condemnation of his enemies in the Parliament of 1397-8 weakened his regime while appearing, in the first instance, to strengthen it, so did the attainders of 1459 prepare a fertile ground for the Yorkist invasion in the following summer. Yet there is a case to be made in its defence, or at least for the view that it was, at the time, a rational choice. Henry VI’s government had every reason to suppose that, without the proscription of the Yorkist lords, there could be no security, as there had been none since Cade’s rising in 1450 (although, as it transpired, there was none with it). Further, although seemingly an extreme measure, it was comparatively modest compared with the Act of Attainder of the first Parliament of Edward IV’s reign, which had 123 victims extending, unlike the Act of 1459, far beyond the leaders of the defeated side.


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One thought on “A turning-point in the Wars of the Roses: the attainders of the Coventry Parliament

  1. Yes, the Act of Attainder was an easy tool to use but a difficult one to justify. It was almost always used when the ruling regime was not in control – a vain attempt, as you say, to mask its weakness. Resorting to Attainders usually helped – as in this case – to increase support for the very people attainted.

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