In recent months we have been looking into some of the more notable parliamentarians to hold the post of ‘Speaker’ throughout history. In today’s blog Charles Moreton from our Commons 1461-1504 project discusses Sir William Oldhall, a long-term ally to Richard, duke of York...
One of the better known fifteenth-century Speakers, Sir William Oldhall owed his political career to his association with Richard, duke of York. Born in the late fourteenth century, he was the only son of a prominent East Anglian esquire, Edmund Oldhall. He had already begun soldiering in France when he succeeded Edmund in 1416, and he continued to campaign there over the following three decades. He took part in the Agincourt expedition (although without fighting in the actual battle of that name) and probably won his knighthood at the battle of Cravant in July 1423. A year later, he fought in the hard-won and bloody Anglo-Burgundian victory of Verneuil, and in the following two decades he was one of the most prominent English captains in Normandy. He served under several commanders in France before becoming attached to York, among them John, duke of Bedford, uncle of the infant Henry VI and Regent of France, who on one occasion recommended him for admission to the Order of the Garter. It was following Bedford’s death in September 1435 that Oldhall entered the service of York, the King’s lieutenant-general of France and Normandy in 1436-7 and 1440-5. Some 16 years older than York, he became a close adviser to his new lord, who would appoint him chamberlain of his household and, like Bedford, nominate him for membership of the Order of the Garter.
Over the course of his military career, Oldhall acquired substantial estates across the Channel, but the future of the English in France was bleak when he retired from soldiering in the later 1440s. Although he would lose these valuable holdings, he had already made his fortune in the wars, so allowing him to augment his estates in England and to spend lavishly on the manor of Hunsdon in Hertfordshire, his principal residence in his later years.
Thanks to his continuing attachment to York, those later years were far from uneventful. By then the duke had assumed the leadership of the opposition to Henry VI’s government and court, and as one of his principal advisers Oldhall was inevitably embroiled in the turbulent domestic politics marking the final decade and more of Henry’s reign. In July 1449 he went to Ireland with York, who probably regarded his appointment as King’s lieutenant there as tantamount to a sentence of political exile, and he returned to England with him in the autumn of the following year. York came home in the wake of Cade’s rebellion. The rising, which had broken out in south-east England in the summer of 1450, was a dramatic manifestation of popular discontent with the failings of the King’s government, in which the rebels demanded a role for York.
Once back in England, the duke canvassed for the return of his supporters to the Parliament of 1450-1, to which Oldhall was returned as a knight of the shire for his adopted county of Hertfordshire. Parliament opened on 6 November 1450 and the Commons elected Oldhall as their Speaker three days later. The election of a Speaker with no previous parliamentary experience was unusual, but in Oldhall’s case it was clearly an expression of support for York. The choice of such a distinguished soldier for the office was probably also intended to signal the Commons’ disgust with the government’s failures in France. With Oldhall as Speaker, York and his allies were able to influence much of what was discussed in the Parliament, but they went too far in the final session of May 1451, when York’s legal counsellor Thomas Young proposed that the duke should become the childless King’s heir presumptive. This proved a mistake, since Parliament was brought immediately to a close, Young was sent to the Tower and York lost the political initiative.
While it is commonly accepted that York was behind the petition, it is possible that the Speaker played a part in prompting Young to present it, and in the months following the Parliament allegations about Oldhall’s part in his master’s political manoeuvrings steadily escalated. The charges were extremely serious, for they included the accusation that he had plotted the forcible deposition of Henry VI. Fearful for his safety, in the autumn of 1451 he fled to the sanctuary of the church of St. Martin le Grand in London, from which he was forcibly removed in the following January but restored after protests from the Church authorities. He finally emerged from his refuge in the early summer of 1455, following York’s victory at the first battle of St. Albans. The outcome of this encounter, the first of the ‘Wars of the Roses’, allowed him to gain a royal pardon and recover his estates, which the Crown had confiscated from him. By now he was of advancing years, and there is no evidence that he participated in the subsequent civil war battles of Henry VI’s reign. He was nevertheless arrested and confined in Kenilworth castle in mid November 1459, after a royal army defeated the Yorkists at the battle of Ludford, suggesting that he had continued to wield considerable influence in York’s counsels. In the brief Parliament of late 1459 which followed, he was proscribed for treason for the second time in his career and again lost all his lands and goods, only to be restored to them in the next Parliament, called by the Yorkists after they had recovered control of the government in the summer of 1460. As it happened, he had remained at Kenilworth until after the Parliament opened on 7 October and he cannot have played any part in planning the dramatic but misjudged claim to the throne which York made in that assembly.
Oldhall died at his London townhouse on 17 November, during the first session of the Parliament of 1460. His immediate heir was his only surviving child, Mary, then the wife of Walter Gorges. His own wife, Margaret, a daughter of William, Lord Willoughby of Eresby, had predeceased him.
Oldhall’s full History of Parliament biography can be read in the House of Commons 1422-1461 (published 2020).