Plague, prorogation and the suspension of the courts in fifteenth-century England

In another timely blog from our History of Parliament researchers, today Dr Simon Payling, senior research fellow for the Commons 1461-1504 project, discusses Parliament’s response to another plague outbreak as the courts of justice were suspended in June 1464.

On Wednesday 6 June 1464, at the beginning of Trinity term, a small piece of theatre was played out in Westminster Hall. Three justices of the court of common pleas ordered everyone present to hear the King’s command. The seal of a royal writ, dated ten days earlier, was then broken and the writ read aloud: the King, absent in the north campaigning against the Lancastrians, had heard of the plague raging in London and Westminster and decided to suspend the court for the whole of Trinity term. This sensible precaution reminds us that, although no visitation of the plague to these shores approached the devastating mortality of the Black Death of 1349, plague remained a recurring and unwelcome visitor into the fifteenth century and beyond. Indeed, over that century, at least ten law terms were lost, in whole or part, to such court suspensions, most notably the successive terms of Easter and Trinity term 1479 when the visitation of the plague to London was particularly severe.

Royal writ of 27 May 1464 suspending the court of common pleas and King’s bench

Similarly, the prevalence of plague was sometimes given as a reason for proroguing Parliament or for summoning it to meet away from London. The most notable of these prorogations occurred on 1 July 1467 when Parliament was suspended on the grounds that,

‘plague was beginning to hold sway to such an extent that some luminaries of the commons house had caught that plague and died, to the manifest danger of the lord king himself and of the lords and commons who should be present in the said parliament’.

Tomb chest of Sir William Vernon in the church of Tong (Shropshire)

Parliament was not to reassemble until 6 November and then in Reading rather than Westminster. Two of these dead MPs can be tentatively identified, namely the Dorset MP, John Filoll, who died on 29 June, and Sir William Vernon, MP for Derbyshire, who died on the following day. The latter was buried in a magnificent tomb in the Shropshire church of Tong.

Rubbing of brass on Vernon’s tomb

The deaths of Filoll and Vernon show that these precautions were taken in response to real dangers. In their freedom (leaving aside the restraint imposed by the sitting of courts and Parliament) to move away from infected areas, the higher ranks of society enjoyed the means to protect themselves from the plague, but that protection was only a relative one. Plague claimed many prominent victims in the fourteenth century, not least Richard II’s queen, Anne of Bohemia (d.1394), and it continued to do so, albeit to a lesser degree, in the fifteenth. Among the principal of these victims was Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond, half-brother of Henry VI and father of Henry VII, who died at Carmarthen on 1 November 1456, and Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, who died at his castle of Trim in Ireland on 18 January 1425. Another was Sir John Paston, who was one of the many claimed by the plague of 1479. On 29 October he wrote to his mother:

‘I have ben heer at London a xiiij nyght, wheroff the first iiij days I was in suche feere off the syknesse, and also my chambre and stuffe nott so clene as I demyd, whyche troblyd me soore’.

He was right to be fearful, for a fortnight later he was dead.

Yet, although outbreaks of plague proved occasionally disruptive to government and fatal to members of the ruling class, that disruption was limited by a tolerance to the dangers and an understanding that they would be fleeting. In early September 1454, for example, Sir John Paston’s uncle, William, then a student at the Inner Temple, was so concerned about the ‘gret pestelens’ in London that he intended ‘to fle in-to the contré’. Yet a month later a busy Michaelmas term began and proceeded as normal. On other occasions, the decision to suspend sittings was left as late as possible. Although occasionally, as in 1464 and 1479, terms were lost in their entirety, other suspensions only came after a significant part of the term had passed. In 1420, for example, Trinity term, was suspended on 25 June, a fortnight after it had begun and only a week before it was due to close. In these cases, the suspensions are probably to be seen not as the government’s considered response to the threat of a mounting infection but as one forced upon it by the natural instinct for self-preservation on the part of lawyers. When the Crown ended Michaelmas term a fortnight after it had begun in both 1426 and 1438, the writs of suspension explained that pleas could not be determined because the serjeants-at-law and attorneys had fled. The implication is that the courts would not have been suspended if the legal profession had been more robust.

If, on occasion, the threat or fear of plague could lead the government to take measures it would have preferred to avoid, it could also serve to give the cover of justification to its acts of political expediency. The prorogation of 1467 might have been amply vindicated by an impending danger, but the same is not to be said of other prorogations. The most notable example is that of 30 March 1450, at the end of a session which had seen an unrestrained parliamentary attack on Henry VI’s chief minister, William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk. The government was understandably anxious to remove Parliament from the febrile political atmosphere of Westminster, and thus the next session was summoned to the calmer political waters of Leicester. The pretext given was the highly implausible one of plague, a plague that did nothing to curtail the Easter term which corresponded with the Leicester session.

All this suggests that, for the most part, the visitations of the plague were recurrent but the disruption they caused to the work of the courts and Parliament was kept to a minimum. Some contemporaries, at least, casually accepted the dangers plague posed. In a letter, written from London on 29 Nov. 1486, Thomas Betanson, a priest, wrote to his master, Sir Robert Plumpton, ‘Also they begyn to dye in London; ther is but few pariches free’, before adding, matter-of-factly, ‘At summer they die faster’ and it was only then that he proposed to return home to Yorkshire. Yet others put their faith in simple remedies. Another of Plumpton’s correspondents suggested to Sir Robert in 1499 that a good long-term precaution against the plague was to fast annually on the eve of St. Oswald (that is, king and martyr rather than bishop and confessor, for any readers who are impressed by the wisdom of this advice).

S.J.P

More blogs on epidemics, health and medicine, including parliamentary measures to quell outbreaks, can be found here.

Stay up to date with the research of our Commons 1461-1504 project at the Commons in the Wars of the Roses section of our blog.

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