‘Am I not your uncle?’: John of Gaunt, the murder of Friar Latimer and the Salisbury Parliament of 1384

Recently on the History of Parliament blog we have been looking into some of the occasions when Parliament met away from Westminster. In April 1384 they gathered in Salisbury, but it was not the location that made the events of this session so interesting, as Dr Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project describes…

The Parliament which was summoned to meet on 29 April 1384 was notable for three reasons. It was the third and last Parliament to meet at Salisbury, although no obvious reason can be assigned for its summoning to so relatively unaccustomed a venue. More interestingly, it witnessed, on the testimony of the well-informed Westminster Chronicler, a memorable public clash between Richard II, then 17, and Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, a foretaste of the rivalry between the two that was to do much to determine the troubled course of the reign. The earl made a scathing speech, ‘in full Parliament in the hearing of everybody present’, claiming that ‘the stormy whirlpool’ of bad government threatened the realm with destruction; this, unsurprisingly, prompted a furious response from the young King who, ‘white with passion’, told the earl he could ‘go to the Devil!’. It was, however, a much more violent incident to which the chronicler devoted most of his attention. He gives a lengthy and vivid account of an accusation of treason made against the King’s uncle, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and the terrible consequences suffered by the friar who made it. Here he appears to have been drawing on the best of sources, both now lost: a statement drawn up by Sir John Clanvow, one of the knights of the King’s chamber, who was present when the friar made his allegations before the King; and the deposition of the keeper of Salisbury gaol who later had the friar in his custody (and was, in the chronicler’s words, in the habit of ‘friendly conversation’ with him).

William Turner’s painting of the bishop of Salisbury’s palace (c.1795), where the Parliament of April 1384 convened

The story begins when the friar, a Carmelite, after celebrating mass in the King’s presence, told Richard that Gaunt was engaged ‘in a crafty and treasonable plot’ against his life. The King found him so persuasive that he ordered Gaunt’s immediate execution, but was persuaded to a more reasonable and constitutional course of action by some of his attendants, not identified in the chronicler’s account. On hearing that the duke was to be given the right of reply, the friar ‘immediately shammed insanity, stripping off his cloak and his shoes and throwing them out of the window’, a course of conduct unlikely to encourage much faith in the veracity of his allegations. Further, Gaunt himself made such an eloquent speech of exculpation to the King – ‘Am I not your uncle? Was I not your guardian?’ and much else to the same effect – that his innocence was held as generally proven.

Here the matter became much more sinister. The King instructed that the friar be committed to the keeper of Salisbury castle, but, as soon as the unfortunate cleric was out of the royal presence, a group of knights, headed by the King’s half-brother, Sir John Holland, seized him and took him to a nearby room. With the aim of discovering who had suborned him into making these accusations, they submitted him to a series of tortures (described in detail by the Westminster chronicler, probably drawing on what the friar subsequently told the keeper of the castle), hanging him from a beam, loading him with weights, burning his feet, and half-drowning him. All was in vain, as the friar ‘bore his ill usage with the patience of a servant of Christ’, and the knights then surrendered the gravely-injured friar to the gaoler.

What was the explanation for these disturbing events? That there was a real plot is hard to believe. The violent reaction of Holland and his confederates, a combination of servants of Gaunt and members of the royal household, is likely to have been provoked by anger not that a plot had been revealed (one that they themselves would have repudiated) but that Gaunt had been falsely accused by an enemy intent on bringing him to ruin. Whether they acted at Gaunt’s order is an open question, but the two best chronicle accounts imply that the initiative was their own and their motive ‘love’ of the duke. No doubt they had their suspicions as to the identity of this enemy – the best candidate is the King’s rising favourite, Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford – but wanted the friar to reveal it so that they could turn the tables on the hidden accuser. The friar’s refusal to identify that the originator of his false accusations implies either a noble and self-sacrificing loyalty (and an extraordinary element of physical courage) or else, much more probably, that he had contrived the accusations himself, revealing nothing because there was nothing to reveal. His concern, when he lay dying in Salisbury gaol, to apologise to the peer he had, seemingly randomly, accused with Gaunt, William, Lord Zouche, is further evidence that his accusations were false.

The importance of the episode lies not in the fact that the accusations were made but the disproportionate reactions to them, both by the young King, who was seemingly ready to condemn his uncle, the greatest man in the realm after him, to death without trial, and by Holland and the knights who tortured the friar to the point of death. These reactions, together with Arundel’s reproaches, indicate the poisonous tensions at court that were to result in the blood-letting of the Merciless Parliament of 1388. The events of 1384 also anticipate those of 1388 in another way. Although the Parliament Roll says nothing about it, the St. Albans chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, is explicit in his assertion that Zouche was, ‘unbelted and with uncovered head, like a thief or a traitor’, tried and acquitted before the King and Lords on a bill of accusation based on the friar’s claims. This process – a parliamentary trial based on an ex parte accusation of treason – anticipates the notorious appeals of treason employed by Arundel and his fellow Appellants to destroy the clique around the King in 1388.

S J P

For the two best chronicle accounts of these events:

The Westminster Chronicle, 1381-94, ed. L.C. Hector and B. Harvey (Oxford, 1982), pp. 66-87.

The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, trans. D. Preest (Woodbridge, 2005), pp. 215-17.

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