Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Matt Raven, of the University of Nottingham. On 16 February 2021, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Matt will be responding to your questions about his pre-circulated paper on the development of parliamentary privilege in fourteenth-century England. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1215, chapter 39 of Magna Carta articulated the principle that no free man should be tried without the lawful judgement of his peers. In the following century, the membership of the House of Lords became increasingly stable and well defined as the parliamentary peerage was consolidated. One of the privileges associated with membership of the upper House by 1400 was the right to be tried for felonies and trespasses by their fellow Lords in parliament, the ‘peers of the land’. At some point in the fourteenth century, the principle articulated in Magna Carta had been appropriated by the Lords and reconstrued: their peers were those in receipt of a personal summons to parliament, not the general commonalty of free men, and it was in Parliament that they should be tried.
This parliamentary privilege had a long and eventful life and was abolished only in 1948. Its origins have been traced through a series of fourteenth-century trials, judgements and proclamations: in 1321, 1327, 1330 and 1341. However, it seems that a decisive shift towards the idea of trial by peers in parliament came in 1328-29, when Henry, earl of Lancaster, led an unsuccessful revolt against the de facto rulers of England, Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, who had monopolised control of Edward III’s person and who used his government for their own ends after Edward II’s deposition in January 1327. How, then, did Lancaster’s failed attempt to implement political reform push forward the idea that the Lords were a distinct social group who should be tried in Parliament? And why did the earl and his supporters claim that Parliament in particular was the proper place for legal proceedings against the ‘peers of the land’?
The contest over the place of Parliament began in September 1328. Lancaster’s supporters visited London and publicly demanded reform. The powerful commune of London headed by the mayor of the city supported the earl’s attempts to remove Edward III from the control of Mortimer and Isabella and pressed for a meeting of Parliament to be held in nearby Westminster as an advantageous venue for reform to be implemented. But the decision of when and where to hold a meeting of parliament was, of course, a monarchical prerogative and in September 1328 this meant it was a decision taken by Isabella and Mortimer. Parliament was therefore formally opened at Salisbury – and not at Westminster – on 16 October. Lancaster did not attend and his representative cited his fear for his own safety after recent disputes with Roger Mortimer as the reason for his absence. A tense armed confrontation between the Lancastrian retinue and the royal household followed the close of parliament (31 October) and the situation deteriorated towards a state of civil war. In this increasingly anxious time, the earls of Kent and Norfolk, who were broadly sympathetic to the Lancastrian movement, called for support by using the concept of the ‘peers of the land’. The king, they said, under the influence of Mortimer and Isabella was ‘destroying his faithful peers of the realm’ and steps needed to be taken to prevent such destruction.
Tension continued to rise through November and December as both sides attempted to mobilise support. Around 21 December, the mayor of London, John de Grantham,wrote to the king and brought together the twin themes of parliament and peerage. He adopted Lancaster’s portrayal of Parliament as a venue for mediation between the earl and the royal party and prayed that the king should order ‘all enmities cease until these matters can be redressed in the coming Parliament’.
The link between peerage and Parliament was reinforced by Simon Mepham, archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop reminded the king that Magna Carta bound him to proceed against his subjects only by due process and in accordance with the judgment of their peers. Mepham went on to say that the king should cease his threats against certain ‘peers of the land’ and instead should wait for the coming Parliament, ‘at which any peer who had offended might make amends and be punished according to due process of law’. Mepham may well have been a ‘political ignoramus’ (in the words of his biographer, Roy Martin Haines) but his projection of Parliament as the most politically appropriate place for due process of law against the peers of the land tallied well with the messages of the commune of London and with Lancaster’s own attempts to gain a hearing in Parliament. It was, then, at this particularly worrying point in time – the winter of 1328-9 – that the issue of trial by peers in Parliament emerged as a subject of political contestation, as a series of statements situated Parliament as the proper forum for legal process against the ‘peers of the land’.
But the course of events outran constitutional theory. Lancaster was forced to submit to Roger Mortimer at Bedford in January, before the opening of the Westminster Parliament. Instead of forcing confrontation to take place in legal guise in the favourable forum of parliament, Lancaster was subjected to a humiliating defeat in the field. This means, in effect, that the principle of trial by peers in Parliament was applied unsuccessfully as part of an increasingly desperate political dispute. Lancaster’s arguments were remembered and were important. But the fact that privilege of peerage to some extent owed itself to a revolt conspicuous for its failuredestabilises the lingering tendency to plot the establishment of this right by following a linear trajectory of growth through the judgments of 1321, 1327 and 1330 to 1341, a course which risks an assumption of inevitable historical progress towards the ‘fully-fledged’ rights of later years. The long and much venerated privilege of trial by peers in parliament had most uncertain and contentious origins.
Matt Raven is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Nottingham, working on a project provisionally entitled ‘Earls and Transnational Kingship in the Medieval Plantagenet Empire, c.1300-1400’. He is interested in the social and constitutional history of the late middle ages (particularly the relations between royal governments and aristocracies) and in the development of institutions and political ideas.
Matt will be taking questions about his research between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday 16 February 2021. To register for this Virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Matt, please send it to email@example.com.