The 14th century origins of the impeachment process

In light of recent proceedings in the United States, in our latest blog Dr Charles Moreton, senior research fellow with our medieval project, House of Commons 1461-1504, discusses the historic origins of impeachment in English parliaments…

Thanks to the actions of Donald Trump’s political opponents in the United States, impeachment is very much in the news at the moment. It is therefore an opportune moment to consider the English parliamentary origins of the process.

The first recorded example of parliamentary impeachment dates back to the ‘Good Parliament’ of 1376. This, the penultimate Parliament of Edward III’s reign, was an assembly of great consequence which also saw the first record of the election of a Speaker by the Commons. Highly critical of the government, the Lower House submitted the longest list of petitions ever sent to a King in a medieval Parliament, conducted its own investigations into maladministration and demanded the appointment of a new council. Through their spokesman, Sir Peter de la Mare, generally recognised as the first Speaker, the Commons voiced their grievances and demands and initiated the procedural novelty of impeachment; that is, they drew up a formal set of allegations against those whom they suspected of incompetence and corruption at the centre of power, forming charges for the Lords to try in their role as a high court. A group of courtiers and merchant-financiers, those impeached in 1376 included Edward III’s chamberlain, William, Lord Latimer, and the wealthy London merchant and financier, Richard Lyons.

Edward III, as shown in his bronze effigy in Westminster Abbey

The impeachment process was an also important feature of parliamentary history under Edward’s successor, Richard II. Its use epitomised the serious political divisions of Richard’s reign, with a series of savage crises ending in his deposition.

During the so-called ‘Wonderful Parliament’ of 1386, Richard’s unpopular chancellor, Michael de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, was impeached and the King threatened with deposition, unless he agreed to attend Parliament and accede to its demands. Forced to suffer the imposition of a continual council to govern the kingdom for a year, Richard overturned this arrangement by securing legal rulings in defence of his prerogative in 1387. Yet events soon put him back in the mercy of his opponents, led by the ‘Lords Appellant’, and the following Parliament, the ‘Merciless Parliament’ of 1388, attacked his most prominent courtiers through appeals of high treason and impeachment.

The impeachment and execution of his former tutor, Sir Simon Burley, was a particularly grievous blow for the King who pleaded in vain for the knight’s life. Richard struck back against his opponents a decade later, and the Parliament of 1397-8 annulled the acts of the Merciless Parliament and brought down the original Lords Appellant, the duke of Gloucester and the earls of Arundel and Warwick. But he subsequently went too far in reasserting his prerogative. By banishing two of his greatest lords, the dukes of Hereford and Norfolk, he set in train his own downfall, for Hereford would return from exile and seize the throne as Henry IV in 1399. Impeachment also loomed large in the reign of Henry IV’s inept grandson, Henry VI: the Parliament of 1449-50 impeached William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, himself the grandson of the impeached chancellor of Richard II.

Although impeachment played a prominent part in such late medieval political crises, it happened that its use between the Middle Ages and its last occurrence in the nineteenth century was rare. It was nevertheless a process which enhanced the Commons’ involvement in high politics, being a means for them to hold anyone, save the King, responsible to the nation at large. It was with the monarch’s exemption in mind, that the Constitutional Convention which drew up the constitution of the new United States in 1787, determined that the President should not enjoy a like immunity, so making possible the actual impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, and the initiation of proceedings against Donald Trump.

C.E.M.

For more on impeachment in later centuries see this earlier blog and more information on our new Medieval project can be found on our website.

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