Parliament and the removal of a political leader: a fifteenth-century example

Despite Westminster’s image as the home of Parliament, throughout our project there are many examples of members gathering in other locations. On 10 February 1447 Parliament met away from London, in Bury St Edmunds, with a particular purpose in mind, as Dr Charles Moreton from our Commons 1461-1504 section explains…

The Parliament of 1447, which assembled on 10 February 1447, is noteworthy for its brevity, unusual venue and political significance. The shortest of Henry VI’s reign, it sat at Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk and witnessed the arrest and death of the King’s uncle and heir presumptive, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, an event of momentous political consequences.

Duke of Gloucester, shown on the frontispiece of the illuminated manuscript Talbot Shrewsbury Book, British Library via Wikimedia Commons

The duke of Gloucester arrived at Bury late, on 18 February, eight days after Parliament had opened. Later on the same day he was arrested by several of his fellow peers at his lodgings in the town, but there is no proof that he was actually charged with treason before his sudden death on the 23rd. The day after he died, Members of the Lords and Commons formally viewed his body. It was popularly believed that he had been murdered, but he was in ill health and it is feasible that he died of a heart attack brought on by the shock of his arrest.

Several chronicles are quite unambiguous in stating that the Parliament of 1447 was called in order to bring Gloucester down. Although they are far from objective sources, this is the analysis accepted by most modern historians. First, the Parliament was summoned to meet well away from London where the duke enjoyed popular support. It had originally been meant to meet at Cambridge, but rather late in the day, on 20 January, had instead been moved to equally provincial Bury St. Edmunds. Secondly, more of the King’s household servants than usual appear to have gained election to the Commons, perhaps in readiness to support any formal proceedings against Gloucester during the Parliament. Thirdly, the brevity of the Parliament might suggest that it ended much sooner than anticipated, since Gloucester’s death meant that no trial (assuming one was intended) was needed. Finally, it is not entirely clear that the government had any other reason to call a Parliament, given the limited amount of business with which the assembly dealt. Most significantly, it did not grant any taxes and there is no evidence that the government sought such funding.

Whatever its cause, Gloucester’s death ridded the government of a strong opponent of its policy for France. The duke was a vigorous advocate of pursuing the war across the Channel, while the government hoped to come to terms with the French king and was prepared to surrender English territory in France in order to achieve peace.

It is also possible that the King feared that Gloucester had ambitions to seize the throne. If immediately to the government’s political advantage, Gloucester’s removal from the scene was to have serious consequences for it and the royal court, both of which were now increasingly dominated by William de la Pole, marquess of Suffolk. Public opinion appears to have held Suffolk responsible for Gloucester’s downfall and death, and several chroniclers recorded that it prompted popular opposition to the King’s advisers. After Richard, duke of York, assumed the role of the leading opponent of the government and court in the following decade, he and his supporters were able to use Gloucester’s fate as a propaganda tool to their own advantage. In short, Gloucester was adopted as a martyr for the cause of the Yorkists, who were to overthrow Henry VI 14 years later.

C.M.

Find more information on the 1447 Parliament and the members represented in the recently published House of Commons 1422-1461, edited by Dr Linda Clark.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s