At the beginning of this week, the government sparked debate by announcing the possibility of relocating the House of Lords away from Westminster to the city of York. But this is not the first time that the city has been considered as a parliamentary host, as Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 section, explains…
In the light of suggestions that the House of Lords might move to York, it is worth reflecting on the 15th century experience of holding Parliament in that city.
One of the periods of English history to see the most intense focus on the north was that of the Wars of the Roses. This was no accident: both rival dynasties, the houses of Lancaster and York, based much of their power on landholdings in that region, from which they and other regional nobles recruited much of the man power needed for successive armed engagements. Particularly in the 1460s, the north also provided the stage for much of the fighting, including the battles of Wakefield (1460), Towton (1461), Hedgeley Moor (1464), and Hexham (1464), and the sieges of the Northumbrian castles in the same period.
These events demanded the personal attention of both King Edward IV and his cousin and principal lieutenant, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, and if it was not viable to move the machinery of government at large away from Westminster, it seemed at least possible to accommodate the King and his leading nobles by summoning meetings of Parliament to the north. Thus, in December 1462, it was decided that Parliament should meet at York on 5 February, but before long the meeting place was changed to Leicester. In the event, this ‘northern’ assembly never met, and after fresh elections the Lords and Commons convened in their normal meeting place at Westminster. In November 1463, the Parliament was prorogued, and York was once again set as the place of its reassembly, only for those members of either house who had made the trek north to be faced on three successive occasions (20 Feb., 5 May, 26 Nov.) by royal officials announcing fresh prorogations. No business was transacted until the Parliament was once more in session at Westminster in January 1465.
In the summer of 1469 the earl of Warwick placed his cousin, King Edward IV, under arrest, and attempted to use him as a puppet-king through whom he himself would rule. To this end, he summoned a Parliament to York, but before this could assemble, the King had escaped his captors, and the Parliament was cancelled, just days before it was due to open, once again leaving those who had faithfully ridden north facing unnecessary expenditure.
Small wonder, then, that the cities and towns of northern England were unpopular venues for the gathering of Parliament. Leaving aside the administrative effort and cost involved for the King’s officers tasked with preparing for the sessions, for private individuals the cost and inconvenience of a journey north, paired with the horrors of poor food and poorer accommodation – a particular concern for the pampered merchants of London who demanded higher rates of pay if Parliament met away from Westminster – were not even offset by the opportunities for the pursuit of private business which the law courts of Westminster and markets of London offered.
Men of quality thus where possible avoided return to Parliaments held away from London: at Wells in Somerset, a city that in the mid 15th century was dominated by its prosperous cloth manufacturers and traders, a brewer and a man of equally modest standing had to be prevailed upon to ride to York in February 1463. Yet, once it had become clear that Parliament would in fact meet at Westminster in the more agreeable month of May, two leading citizens were found to take their place.