Parliament and the Politics of intimidation in Medieval England

As some of our previous blogs demonstrate, Medieval parliamentarians were no stranger to acts of physical violence. However as Dr Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project suggests, sometimes the mere threat was enough to influence political change…

It is a central tenet of parliamentary history that the political complexion of a Parliament was determined by its membership, particularly that of its fluctuating electoral element, the Commons. This, in turn, rests on the assumption that the most important events during a Parliament occurred within the chambers of Lords and Commons. In one sense, this assumption is incontrovertible: taxation was granted and legislation enacted within and by Parliament. In another, however, this focus on composition is to conceive Parliament, understood as a political rather than a purely legal entity, too narrowly. Parliament was (and is) not simply an assembly of its members. This latter observation is starkly true of medieval assemblies. These were very considerable gatherings which brought to Westminster, or to wherever the Parliament was summoned, not only the MPs (and their personal servants) but numerous unelected royal and baronial retainers who, although they had no place within the Parliament, contributed powerfully to the atmosphere in which it met.

Tomb of Edward II in Gloucester Cathedral

On occasion, that contribution was very direct and immediately threatening. The most famous instance dates from the so-called ‘Revenge Parliament’ of September 1397 when Richard II sought to use Parliament against his enemies in the same way as they had used it against his servants in the ‘Merciless Parliament’ of 1388. One chronicler describes the King, ‘riding menacingly through the middle of London surrounded by five thousand armed men’ adding, gratuitously and in an expression of his own political sympathies, ‘most of whom were malefactors’; another claims he drew up his archers around Westminster palace yard. This episode, however, is an isolated one. No doubt the presence of the royal retinue outside Parliament, as well as inside it, had an impact on its deliberations on other occasions, but it was baronial retinues that were the more frequent ‘destabilising’ factor at time of Parliament.

Arms of Thomas, earl of Lancaster

Sometimes their appearance had a determining effect on the course of political and parliamentary events. The clearest and most straightforward example is the Parliament of July 1321. The presence of the great retinues of Humphrey Bohun, earl of Hereford, and other lords of the Welsh March, all seemingly clothed in a common livery of green and yellow with a white band as a symbol of their unity, effectively forced Edward II into exiling his favourites, the Despensers. This and other examples from that troubled reign relate to the intimidation not of the institution of Parliament but of the person of the King, with Edward’s principal opponent, his first cousin, Thomas, earl of Lancaster, a routine offender. According to the Vita Edwardi Secundi, Lancaster came to the Westminster Parliament of August 1312 at the head of 1,000 horse and 1,500 foot; and, in an indictment laid against him after his execution in 1322, he was accused of impeding the work of the Parliament which met at York in 1318 by bringing 1,000 men. Indeed, at this date, riding in the lord’s retinue to Parliament was part of the service a lord expected of those he retained, with the obligation laid down in the indenture of retainer. In May 1319, to cite a notable example, Lancaster retained no lesser a man that William, Lord Latimer, to come to him to Parliament at the head of his own retinue.

In the fifteenth century parliamentary politics was more complex than it had been in Edward II’s reign. Then it had been possible to see Parliament principally in the context of the relationship between the King and the great lords; but the growing independence of the Lower House meant that this was no longer the case by the end of the fourteenth century. Richard II certainly used employed the tactics of direct intimidation during the ‘Revenge Parliament’ but he also employed more subtle ones, seeking to control the Commons through a compliant Speaker, Sir John Bussy, and intervening in county elections to secure the return of an unusually large proportion of royal retainers. The future of royal regulation of Parliament lay in such comparative subtleties, and the great lords too came to see the exertion of influence within the chambers of Lords and Commons as more effective (and more politically acceptable) than the intimidatory use of their retinues. It may be significant that the last indenture of retainer to contain the retainer’s obligation of parliamentary service dates from as early as 1332. None the less, the pressure of events produced an occasional regression to the parliamentary politics of Edward II’s reign, with the Parliament of November 1450 as comfortably the most striking example.

This met in an atmosphere of the acutest political tension. The twin shocks of popular rebellion, in the shape of Jack Cade, and the loss of Normandy were followed by the return, uninvited by the King, of the duke of York from Ireland, where he was lieutenant. In accordance with the new dispensation, he immediately began a successful campaign to secure the return of MPs favourable to his cause, most notably that his chamberlain, Sir William Oldhall, who was to be chosen Speaker. Yet he was not content with this. On 23 November, 17 days after Parliament convened, he arrived in London at the head of a retinue that one chronicler put at as many as 3,000 men, quickly afforced by the retinues of his allies, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, and John Mowbray, duke of Norfolk. The author of Gregory’s chronicle was struck by the impressive and intimidating spectacle of ‘every lorde whythe hyr retynowe welle harnysyd and welle be-sene; and every lorde hadde hys bagge a-pon hys harnys, and hyr mayny also, that they myght ben knowe by hyr baggys and levereys’.

The undesirability of this state of affairs, however impressive the spectacle, seems to have been recognised by the leaders of both York and Lancaster. In respect of the Parliaments of 1455, which met in the wake of the Yorkist victory at the first battle of St. Albans, the lords were instructing to come to Parliament only ‘mesurably accompaignied accordyng to yo[ur]estate w[ith] yo[ur]household mayney and noon otherwise’. The dominance of the Lancastrians when Parliament met at Coventry in 1459 and of the Yorkists when it met at Westminster at 1460 probably explains why they too, despite the controversy of the proceedings in Parliament, were not attended by large-scale disturbances outside. Parliamentary politics had been, seemingly, permanently returned to a more peaceful course, with no return to the days of Edward II.

S J P

Further reading

J.R. Maddicott, Thomas of Lancaster, 1307-1322

The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England,1275-1504, XII

Follow the work of our Commons 1461-1504 project via the Commons in the Wars of the Roses blog page.

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