In with the new – the appointment of Lord Chancellor Richard Neville in 1454

It was confirmed yesterday that the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party will be travelling to Balmoral next week, rather than Buckingham Palace, to receive the Sovereign’s invitation to form a government. This news comes amidst knowledge of HM the Queen’s ongoing mobility issues. But in 1454, when a new chief minister needed to be appointed it was the mental, not physical, faculties of the monarch that caused difficulty, as Dr Hannes Kleineke explores…

Painting of the bust and head of Henry VI. His clasped hands are half in view. He is wearing a black costume with two white lines on the outside of his body and a gold collar trim. He is wearing a gold coloured neck piece that has a cross attached and a black hat.
Henry VI

On 22 March 1454 John Kemp, cardinal archbishop of Canterbury, and Chancellor of England died suddenly. This left a gaping vacancy in one of the great offices of state at a critical time: the previous summer, King Henry VI had lost his mental and physical faculties. While Henry was ostensibly awake, he had fallen into a kind of stupor, and was unable to fulfil any of the functions of government. During the months of the King’s incapacity the lords of the council had muddled through as best they could, and had avoided any decisions on a more permanent arrangement for the event of the King’s continuing illness. But the choices of a new archbishop and a new chancellor were matters which, in an age of personal monarchy, could not be settled without reference to the King.

Parliament was at the time in session, formally presided over in the King’s absence by his relative, Richard, duke of York. Following the Chancellor’s death, the lords were in no doubt that the King, whatever his condition, needed to be consulted, and to this end on the 23rd dispatched a delegation (consisting of William Waynflete, bishop of Winchester, Thomas Bourgchier, bishop of Ely, Reginald Boulers, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, John de Vere, earl of Oxford, John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury, John, Viscount Beaumont, Henry, Viscount Bourgchier, Robert Bottyll, prior provincial of the English Hospitallers, William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, John, Lord Dudley, and John, Lord Stourton) to Windsor, where Henry VI was then residing.

Two days later, the envoys returned to Westminster and reported to the lords on their mission. When they had reached Windsor castle, they had found the King at dinner. While waiting for the monarch to finish his meal, the delegates decided that Bishop Boulers of Coventry and Lichfield should set out their questions to the King. This he did ‘most skilfully, solemnly and respectfully’, explaining the articles with which their peers had entrusted them, but failed to elicit any answer from Henry. Boulers then went on to lay before the King the other concerns with which they had been entrusted, including the need for an indication of his will in the matter of the appointment of a chancellor and an archbishop, but

to [these] matters, or to any of them, to any prayer or wish, doleful encouragement nor exhortation, nor any thing that they or any of them could do or say could they get any answer or sign, to their great sorrow and distress.  

At the suggestion of Bishop Waynflete the emissaries then went to their own dinner, before seeking a fresh audience of the King. They once again found Henry in his dining room,

and there they moved and roused him by all the ways and means that they could think of in order to have an answer of the aforesaid matters, but they could obtain no answer; and from that place they willed the king’s highness to go into another chamber, and so he was led between two men into the chamber where he lies; and there the lords moved and roused the king’s highness a third time, by all the means and ways that they could think of in order to have an answer of the said matters, and also desired to be informed by him if it should please his highness that they should wait on him any longer, and to have answer at his leisure, but they could obtain no answer, word or sign; and therefore with sorrowful hearts they came away.

PROME, xii. 258-9
A stained glass window depiction of Thomas Bourchier holding a crosier in his left hand and a unrolled scroll in his right hand. He is dressed in red robes and a red hat. He has a white neckline and blue sleeves. The stained glass reads 'Thomas Bourchier 1454-1486'.
1909 stained glass depiction in Sevenoaks Church, Kent, of Thomas Bour(g)chier
via Wikimedia Commons

For several days, the Lords prevaricated, struck by the realisation of the King’s complete inability to exercise his office. It was clear that what could be done by them collectively had reached its limits, and that a single individual needed to be assigned extraordinary power to act loco Regis. Eventually, they agreed that the duke of York should be granted the title of Protector, but they took care to ringfence his powers and limit their independent exercise.

On 30 March, the council, in response to a petition of the Commons, decided that Bishop Bourgchier of Ely should be recommended for elevation to the archbishopric. About the same time, the lords agreed to the appointment of York’s brother-in-law, Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury, as the new Chancellor, in itself a break with convention, as the office had not been held by a layman in more than 40 years.

The King would not recover until Christmas 1454, and when he did, professed to have no memory of what had occurred during the preceding 18 months. On 30 December, when Henry’s consort, Queen Margaret, introduced his son, the Prince of Wales to him, he was said to have declared that

he never knew him until that time, nor did he know what had been said to him, nor where he had been while he had been sick, until now. […] And she told him that the Cardinal was dead, and he said he never knew of this until that time; and he said one of the wisest lords in this land was dead.

Paston Letters ed. Davis, ii. 108

The King’s recovery brought an end to the earl of Salisbury’s chancellorship, when in March 1455 the office was reunited with the archbishopric of Canterbury in Thomas Bourgchier’s hands.


Further Reading;

R.A. Griffiths, ‘The King’s Council and the first Protectorate of the Duke of York, 1453-1454’, English Historical Review, xcix (1984), 67-82.

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