Parliamentary Elections in the reign of Henry VI

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Hannes Kleineke, of the History of Parliament. On 1 June 2021, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Hannes will be responding to your questions about his pre-circulated paper on parliamentary elections in the reign of Henry VI. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

Henry VI CC NPG

The importance of the reigns of the Lancastrian Kings, and above all that of Henry VI, for the codification of the rules governing parliamentary elections is well known.

It was in 1406 that a statute was passed which required the sheriffs of the English counties to make their returns in the form of indentures counter-sealed by the electors who had in each instance participated in the choice of the knights of the shire, and thereby laid the foundations for what is now the single most important source for the study of medieval parliamentary elections.

Subsequent statutes passed in 1410 and 1413 provided for financial penalties on any sheriffs who should make fraudulent returns, required prospective members to be resident in their constituencies on the date when the writs of summons were issued, and restricted the electoral franchise in the shires to those who not only dwelt within the county but were personally present in the county court on the day of the election.

But it was two final statutes, passed respectively in 1429 and 1445, that had the greatest significance in stratifying electoral procedure. The first drastically limited the county franchise, restricting it to those who held freehold land worth 40s. p.a., ostensibly on the grounds that social unrest threatened, since individuals of insufficient standing had claimed a voice in the elections equal to that of the wealthier knights among the electors; and at the same time added a year’s imprisonment to the penalty imposed on any sheriff making a fraudulent return.

The statute of 1445 for its part imposed qualifications of income and social status on men seeking election as knights of the shire, explicitly excluding men of the status of yeoman or below. There were now also rules for the conduct of the elections of City or borough Members in so far as the county sheriffs were involved in them, and new penalties for misconduct were introduced not only for these, but also for urban returning officers and – for the first time – individuals taking up seats to which they had not lawfully been elected.

Crucially, what this body of statutory legislation did not do was to establish a uniform system for the conduct of parliamentary elections. Rather, it simply fixed a series of financial penalties that an aggrieved party could exact from a sheriff or other returning officer deemed guilty of wrongdoing. As far as its regulatory impact went, it was to establish a limited body of ground rules for the conduct of county elections; where the urban constituencies were concerned it left the door open to a broad range of practices and conventions too varied to be discussed here.

Even in the shires, however, what actually happened at a parliamentary election was determined by circumstances on the ground. Central to this was the gathering of the county court, at which, under the terms of the electoral statutes, the formal election had to be held.  

If this seems like a relatively straightforward requirement, it was not necessarily so, for in most counties the court only met every four weeks, and in a number of northern counties as many as six weeks elapsed between courts.

This meant that the sheriffs had to be given considerable notice of any meeting of Parliament, and if an assembly was to be convened in haste, there was a risk that an election could be subject to challenge, or some MPs, elected with only days to spare, would arrive late. Indeed, in the northern counties sheriffs periodically had to summon extraordinary meetings of the county court ourtside the normal cycle in order to conduct elections in something resembling the manner required by statute.

In a crisis such as that which followed the rout of the Yorkist lords at Ludford Bridge in the autumn of 1459, the Crown might summon Parliament with unseemly haste, and accept that some county sheriffs were quite simply unable to hold an election, and that entire shires might thus go unrepresented. In 1459 this was the case for Hertfordshire and Sussex, while the sheriff of Shropshire as doggedly as dutifully held his election some nine days after Parliament had opened at Coventry

In other instances, electoral meetings might erupt into chaos as the supporters of rival candidates shouted for their men, and sheriffs and undersheriffs sought to keep order. All too often, such disorder was sparked by the presiding officers’ ultimately doomed efforts to establish which members of the baying mob were actually entitled to participate in the election under the terms of the electoral statutes: after 1429, the presiding officers were expected to swear each man attending as to whether he met the income qualification.

How practical this was in reality can only be guessed at: medieval electorates were no better behaved than their later successors. At Warwick in 1427 some of those present in the county court were said to have ‘shouted unreasonably’ in nominating Sir William Mountfort and Sir William Peyto for election as knights of the shire, and in the Norfolk elections of 1461 some were said to have shouted for two of the four candidates and others for the other pair.

Small wonder then, that for much of Henry VI’s reign the time-honoured practice of ‘arranging’ elections seems to have prevailed, and the shire courts were merely asked to assent to the return of candidates who had already been agreed upon by the leading men (and sometimes ladies) in the shire.

Just occasionally, the records suggest that a sheriff took this to extremes: one example of this was John Roger, sheriff of Berkshire in 1452-3. Whereas the Berkshire county court normally met at Abingdon, in 1453 the meeting convened by Roger for the parliamentary elections occurred at Chipping Lambourn, which just so happened to be the sheriff’s own place of residence.

To add to the suspicion of foul play, not only did Roger return his own young and inexperienced son Thomas, but the election return was countersealed by just 11 other men, half of whom were, as far as it is possible to tell, novice voters, suggesting that in avoiding the unpleasantness of a potentially riotous county court, Roger had instead settled the election at a congenial dinner party at his own house.  

H.W.K.

To find out more Hannes’s full length paper ‘Parliamentary Elections in the reign of Henry VI Revisited – Some New Perspectives on an Old Subject?’ is available here.

Hannes will be taking questions about his research between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday 1 June 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 Hannes, please send it to seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

The House of Commons 1422-1461 is available now

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