Real or imagined? Fifteenth-century MPs as perpetrators of violence

In our latest blog we’re exploring some of the dangerous reputations held by Medieval MPs with Dr Simon Payling, senior research fellow for our Commons 1461-1504 project. It seems that in the 15th century accusations of violence (even murder!) weren’t enough to stop you becoming an MP…

THE HISTORY OF PARLIAMENT: THE HOUSE OF COMMONS 1422-1461, edited by Linda Clark, is out now. For further details about the volumes, including purchasing information,  visit the Cambridge University Press website, here.

The catalogue of serious crimes laid at the door of men who either went on to sit or had already sat in the fifteenth century Commons gives the impression that, as a group, there numbered amongst them men of pathological violence. Two of the more lurid stories serve to illustrate the point. In the early years of Henry V’s reign, it was alleged that Sir Edmund Hastings, in the midst of a parliamentary career that saw him represent both Northumberland and Yorkshire, had commissioned an atrocity. William Bercher of Kingthorpe (Yorkshire), where Hastings was lord of the manor, complained to the King that a gang of ten men, acting on the knight’s orders, had put out his eyes and cut away most of his tongue (‘sez oyles ousterent et graunde partie de sa lange trencherent’). Later his attackers, learning that he could still speak, had taken, in a marked act of eccentricity, to disguising themselves as women (‘en arraie des femmes’) and lying in wait to kill him. Sadly, his ultimate fate is unknown. Equally alarming was the indictment laid in 1466 against Robert Eyre, MP for Derbyshire in the Parliament of 1459: he was named as an accessory to the brutal murder of one Nicholas Fox, whom, it was alleged, had had his right hand and foot cut off in the presence of his pregnant wife. To these lurid tales are to be added others less vivid. Although past and future MPs were only occasionally named as principals in cases of murder, a significant number were, like Eyre, indicted or appealed as accessories, implying that they either commissioned a killing or, at least, offered some assistance to the killers.

It would, however, be unwise to accept this picture at its face value. Medieval crime can only be viewed through a distorting lens. Nearly all the evidence of individual crimes comes in the form of ex parte statements, most obviously so in the case of petitions for redress and common-law appeals (in other words, at the suit of an offended party) but also in that of indictments (that is, at the suit of the Crown). Although accepted by a presenting jury as representing a likely truth, in origin an indictment is a description of an offence made to conform to certain legal conventions and designed to assert unequivocally the guilt of the indicted. Thus, not only do accounts of crimes given in indictments and appeals tend to exaggerate the wrong attributed to the charged, but that tendency was an almost universal one with, for example, manslaughters inflated into brutal murders. The famous ‘murder’ of Richard, son and heir of the MP, Sir Humphrey Stafford of Grafton (Worcestershire), in May 1448 provides an instructive example. An indictment laid before the county coroner portrays his death as a premeditated murder committed by Sir Robert Harcourt, MP for Oxfordshire in 1447; yet an eyewitness account in a contemporary letter gives the context as a clash between two armed men almost equally responsible for the unfortunate consequence. Any allegation of violence thus has to be viewed with caution. Malicious and exaggerated indictments were part of the game of local politics among the class from which MPs were drawn. This consideration partially explains why many MPs were indicted or appealed of the capital crime of felony, but not a single one was convicted and executed (the only executions were for treason).

A depiction of the Tower of London, taken from manuscript of poems by Charles, duke of Orleans, late 15th century. British Library via Wikimedia Commons

None the less, scepticism should not be carried too far. Some MPs, at least, had a very relaxed attitude to even the most brutal of violence. In 1467 Sir Robert Harcourt’s younger brother, Richard, asked the Pope for dispensation to marry again as, seemingly through no fault of his own, he had had his first wife and her suspected lover, one of his household servants, murdered for adultery. For others violent crime seems to have amounted almost to a profession with such a catalogue of offences attributed to them that their criminality is impossible to doubt. The most notorious of these was the Cornish MP, Richard Tregoose. From the time he came of age in the early 1420s until his murder at the hands of one of his many enemies in 1452, a series of indictments were laid against him for acts of apparently gratuitous violence, from false imprisonment and robbery to maiming and rape. It is striking that, despite this litany of complaint, he was elected to represent Cornwall in the Parliament of February 1449. A much wealthier and more important man, William Tailboys, had a similar record. Even before he was elected to represent Lincolnshire in the Parliament of 1445, he had a string of offences laid at his door, including one count of accessory to murder. By 1449 so notorious had his activities become that the Commons described him as ‘a comon Murderer, Mansleer, Riottour, and contynuell Breker of [the King’s] peas’ and asked that he be committed to the Tower. A handful of other MPs had comparable records of violence, sustained over years rather than manifest in a single act, and secured election even after their violent tendencies had become apparent. If a violent reputation was ever a bar to election in the fifteenth century, it was one that could be outweighed by rank and connexion.

SJP

Further reading:

H. Kleineke, ‘Why the West was Wild’, The Fifteenth Century III ed. Linda Clark, 83-88.

The biographies of many of the MPs mentioned in this blog feature in our recently published Commons 1422-1461 volumes. Find out more information about the publication via Cambridge University Press.

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