Social Distancing – Medieval Style: a Petition of the Commons in the Parliament of 1439

As discussions turn to how Parliament should operate during the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our 1461-1504 section, looks at the parliament of 1439. When Henry VI reluctantly called Parliament back to Westminster during the ‘Black Death’, MPs had just one request…

If the efforts to control the epidemic currently sweeping the world seem unprecedented to those living through them, to medieval Englishmen and -women repeated visitations of epidemic disease were a common experience. The well-known ‘Black Death’ of 1348-49 was neither the beginning, nor the end of the story. Fifteenth-century England experienced outbreaks of the plague in 1400, 1405, 1413, 1420, 1427, 1433, 1438, 1457, 1463, 1467, 1471 and 1479, and epidemics of the ‘French Pox’, brought home by Edward IV’s army in 1475, and the ‘Sweating Sickness’ in 1485 and 1489.

Qualitatively, the plague of 1438-39 seems to have been perceived by contemporaries as particularly severe: in a petition to the Crown the Commons in Parliament noted that ’a sickness called the pestilence was then more commonly reigning universally through the realm than had been usual before’. Although there was an understanding that the disease could be transmitted by contact with those infected, some individuals interestingly sought refuge in urban centres of population rather than the more isolated countryside, perhaps more hopeful of better medical provision than concerned about the miasmatic air thought to spread disease. So, for instance, in April 1438 the Devon lawyer and former MP Nicholas Radford moved from his country house at Upcott Barton into the city of Exeter, although most of his servants remained behind. Also brought to the city were the children of another lawyer and MP, John Wolston, who had previously been fostered by the tailor Thomas Skynner at Poughill.

Henry VI

By the autumn of 1439, Parliament had not met for a year and a half, and it is a measure of the financial pressures on the young Henry VI’s government and of concerns over the military situation in France that one was convened at this time, when it was otherwise common to cite epidemics of the plague as grounds for a prorogation, or at least a change of venue. While in 1439 there may have been some discussion over the meeting place of the Parliament (but the evidence for this is uncertain), there is no suggestion that there was any open opposition to its ultimate assembly at Westminster. There was, however, a different concern. Rudimentary as the epidemology of the period might be to modern eyes, it did at least recognise a connection between physical proximity and the spread of the infection. The Commons thus had a particular request:

‘…[the] pestilence is a most infective infirmity, and the presence of those so infected should be greatly avoided, as it plainly has been determined by noble physicians and wise philosophers before this time, and as experience daily shows. Wherefore we, your poor true liege people, considering and desiring the health and welfare of your most noble person above all earthly things, … beseech your most noble grace, in conserving of your most noble person, … in avoiding any such infection to fall on you, God forbid, graciously to conceive that whereas any of your said Commons who hold of you by knight’s service, in doing homage to you … ought to kiss you, to ordain and grant, by the authority of this present Parliament, that each of your lieges in the doing of their said homage may omit the said kissing of you and be excused thereof at your will, the homage being of the same force as though they kissed you, and have their letters of doing of their homage, notwithstanding the omitted kissing of you…’

The late Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, pays homage to the sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II during her coronation, 2 June 1953

Born in 1422, Henry VI had been formally declared of age in 1437, and for many of those attending, the gathering of Parliament in 1439 would have offered the first opportunity to perform the ceremonial act of homage to the now adult King. The vassal’s kiss of homage offered to his feudal lord formed an integral part of the ceremony (and is to the present day offered to the sovereign of the United Kingdom during their coronation). The Commons’ concern that it’s omission might invalidate the formal record of their homage provides an indication of just how far-reaching a measure of what we would now recognise as social distancing they were requesting, and the Crown was prepared to agree. In this, concerns over the succession were doubtless more prominent than a desire to avoid the spread of the disease. Following the death of John, duke of Bedford, in 1435, Henry VI’s sole direct heir was his uncle, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, who, like the unmarried King, remained childless. Gloucester, a noted humanist with close contacts among the scholars of Italy, might have been aware of the concept of quarantine that had been developing there even since the 14th century, but in England such measures would not officially be applied until the early 16th century.


Further Reading:

J.L. Bolton, ‘Looking for Yersinia Pestis: Scientists, Historians and the Black Death’, in The Fifteenth Century XII: Society in an Age of Plague, ed. Linda Clark and Carole Rawcliffe (Woodbridge, 2013), pp. 15-38

Jane Stevens Crawshaw, ‘The Renaissance Invention of Quarantine, in The Fifteenth Century XII: Society in an Age of Plague, ed. Linda Clark and Carole Rawcliffe (Woodbridge, 2013), pp. 161-74

Carole Rawcliffe, Urban Bodies (Woodbridge, 2013)

The Chancery Case between Nicholas Radford and Thomas Tremayne: the Exeter Depositions of 1439, ed. Hannes Kleineke (Exeter, Devon and Cornwall Record Society, 2013)

E.C.Roger, ‘ “To be shut up”: New Evidence for the Development of Quarantine Regulationsin Early Tudor England’, Social History of Medicine (forthcoming).

Our latest volumes, House of Commons 1422-1461, are due for publication in the second half of 2020. To stay up to date with our ongoing Medieval research, head to the ‘Commons on the War of the Roses‘ blog stream or click here.

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