A Speakership that never was: Sir Thomas Hungerford and the Parliament of 1378

Throughout 2022 we have been looking into the careers of some of the people to occupy the role of Speaker- a title first recorded as being attributed to Sir Thomas Hungerford in 1377. But this did not mean that Hungerford’s place in the House of Commons was guaranteed, as Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, explores…

There is a modern-day convention that at a general election sees a sitting Speaker of the House of Commons unopposed by the major political parties, thus all but guaranteeing their re-election and consequent availability to resume the chair at the beginning of the new Parliament. In the earlier centuries of Parliament, by contrast, Speakers were more often than not elected by the Commons on an adhoc basis, and even when the Crown sought to place one of its supporters in the Chair, it had to secure this individual’s presence among the elected Members first. In this context, it is interesting to consider the curious circumstances of the election of Sir Thomas Hungerford as one of the knights of the shire for Gloucestershire in the Parliament of 1378.

Effigies of Sir Thomas de Hungerford and his second wife Joan Hussey.
Farleigh Hungerford Castle Chapel via Wikimedia Commons

Hungerford came from an ancient but relatively impecunious Wiltshire gentry family. While both his father, Sir Walter, and his uncle, Sir Robert, had dominated the parliamentary representation of Wiltshire in the early decades of the reign of Edward III, it fell to Thomas to build up the family’s wealth and landholdings through marriage and purchases. In this, he was much assisted by the connexions he established among the ruling elites not merely of his own county, but also further afield. Over the course of time, Hungerford’s connexions came to include both prelates such as Bishop Edington of Winchester and Wyvil of Salisbury, and secular peers like Bartholomew, Lord Burghersh, and William Montagu, earl of Salisbury. In parallel, Hungerford became active in local administration, serving lengthy spells as sheriff and escheator of Wiltshire. He also continued his family’s tradition of parliamentary service: between 1357 and 1393 he was returned to the Commons on no fewer than seventeen separate occasions, twelve times as a knight of the shire for Wiltshire, and five times for neighbouring Somerset.

This impressive spell of parliamentary service was, however, interrupted in 1362 (Hungerford’s third Parliament) for a period of nearly fifteen years. By the early 1370s, Hungerford had entered the service of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, as chief steward of his estates. As Edward III’s faculties began to decline, the duke’s political role grew, and the death of his elder brother, Edward, the Black Prince, in the summer of 1376, and the minority of the King’s new heir, the future Richard II, left him as the de facto leader of those around the ageing monarch. That same summer, the conduct of the government by the King’s councillors came under concerted attack from the Commons in the ’Good’ Parliament, who proposed a programme of reform. Yet, even in the autumn of 1376 Gaunt struck back and began to undo the measures passed just months earlier. A fresh Parliament was summoned to meet in January 1377 to formally repeal the acts of its predecessor.

While there is now doubt over the extent to which Gaunt succeeded in having his own men returned to the Commons, Hungerford now made a reappearance in the lower house, and was elected Speaker by a majority of the Commons. His conduct, so the chronicler Thomas Walsingham suggested, was partisan: ‘He would not say anything other than what he knew would been pleasing in his Lord’s eyes.’

Interestingly, Hungerford was not re-elected to the autumn Parliament of 1377, the first of Richard II’s reign. His seat was instead taken by the veteran MP Nicholas Bonham whom he had briefly displaced earlier that year. Even more interesting, however, are the circumstances of his reappearance in the Commons in 1378. That year, the two Wiltshire seats were taken by two complete newcomers, Sir John Dauntsey and Sir Ralph Cheyne. Yet, it seems to have been decided that Hungerford was needed in the Commons. In the aftermath of the Parliament, the Somerset knight Sir John Stretch would complain that the sheriff of the county, Sir John de la Mare, had informed him of his return to the Commons as a knight of the shire. He had consequently made preparations to travel to Gloucester, where the Parliament was to meet, and had incurred considerable expenditure, only to find on his arrival that the sheriff had returned Hungerford in his place.

On the precedent of the Parliament of October 1377 which had seen the Speaker of the Good Parliament, Sir Peter de la Mare, elected to the Chair for a second time, it seems possible that in 1378 there were those who intended to see Hungerford elected Speaker for a second time. If so, they failed, for the Commons instead chose the Westmorland knight Sir James Pickering, who distinguished himself by his robust resistance to the Crown’s demands.

H.W.K.

Further reading:

Parliament Rolls of Medieval England ed. C. Given Wilson et al. (16 vols., Woodbridge, 2005).

H. Kleineke, ‘The Representation of Devonshire in the “Bad” Parliament of January 1377’ in Creativity, Contradictions and Commemoration in the Reign of Richard II ed. J.A. Lutkin and J.S. Hamilton (Woodbridge, 2022), 135-48.

Parliamentarians at Law ed. H. Kleineke (Oxford, Parliamentary History Texts and Studies 2, 2008).   

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