Children and Parliament in Medieval England

Continuing the theme of children and Parliament following Helen Sunderland’s blog about schoolgirls’ visits to the House of Parliament, 1880-1918 from earlier this week, senior research fellow for our Commons 1461-1504 project, Dr Simon Payling, explores the relationship between children and Parliament in the later middle ages…

It is not surprising that children, whether as individuals or a group, appear very rarely in the records of medieval Parliaments. The notion of parliamentary legislation as a means of protecting their rights or providing for their education was then a remote one. Yet they are not entirely invisible in the parliamentary record. Most famously, on two occasions in 1423 and 1425, a child, Henry VI, was brought into the Parliament chamber nominally to preside over its deliberations (‘Henry VI and parliament: screaming the house down’, 14 May 2013).  An earlier reference is more diverting.  For most of the Parliaments of the 1330s the royal proclamation made at the beginning of each assembly included the injunction that, on pain of imprisonment, ‘no child or other person should play at bars or at other games, or remove people’s hoods, or lay hands on them in any part of the palace of Westminster during the Parliament’.  There is something rather risible in this apparent fear that the assembly of the leading men of the realm should be impeded by hordes of mischievous children, seemingly intent on stealing headwear. The injunction, however, does not appear after 1352. Perhaps the children of Westminster had found other ways to amuse themselves. 

A rather different aspect of childish behaviour was castigated in a speech made by the chancellor, Thomas Fitzalan, archbishop of Canterbury, in the Parliament of October 1399: ‘With regard to speaking, it is certain that a child is inconstant …. , he easily speaks the truth, easily tells lies; he easily promises with a word, but what he promises he quickly forgets’. As his listeners would have been well aware, the chancellor’s specific target here was the seven-year-old, Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, a potential claimant to Henry IV’s throne; but he may have been expressing a widely-held sentiment.

On the rare occasions that children appear as the subjects of parliamentary legislation, the aim was to diminish rather than extend their opportunities. In the crisis of labour occasioned by the Black Death, efforts to limit wages and restrict the mobility of labour were extended to the young. A statute of 1388 laid down that those accustomed to agricultural work to the age of 12 should continue in that work and not be apprenticed to any other trade or craft.  A petition presented by the Commons in the Parliament of 1391 sought to go a step further, asking that bondmen and villeins be forbidden to send their children to school, ‘for the maintenance and salvation of the honour of all the freemen of the kingdom’.  The idea that the social fabric was improved by extending educational opportunities was clearly not one then embraced by the Commons, although the Crown may have taken a more enlightened view.  The petition was rejected, and, when the 1388 statute was clarified in 1406, the restriction on the children of the labouring poor entering apprenticeships was specifically not extended to education in schools.

These few instances aside, children are almost invisible in the legislative record, leaving undefined certain matters which, to the modern mind, are fundamental. Not the least of these is the age of criminal responsibility.  Although it is anachronistic to think in terms of what legislation did not do, this is perhaps a surprising omission; for the common law gave no clearer guidance than that age was greater than seven and it was a question on which the judges occasionally found themselves divided.  The failure to answer, or even pose, such questions, gives some support to the notion, expressed most notably in the work of Philip Ariès (d.1984), that the idea of ‘childhood’ as a distinct phase of life, with its own cultural identity, postdates the medieval period.  This view is now almost universally derided, but Ariès could have found some support in the silence of medieval statutes.

S.J.P.

Further reading

N. Orme. Medieval Children (2001) 

For more from Simon and the medieval team head over to our Commons in the Wars of the Roses page.

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