The termination of medieval Parliaments on the demise of the reigning monarch

As much of the nation, and the world, continues to reflect on the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and accession of King Charles III, here Dr Hannes Kleineke from our Commons 1461-1504 project explores the now retired practice of terminating Parliaments following the death of the monarch.

By modern convention, the death of a sovereign and the accession of their successor do not bring a parliament to an end. Rather, Parliament meets as soon as practicable after the event, and Members and peers take the oath of allegiance to the new monarch. This was not always so. In the case of the Parliaments of medieval England, the death or deposition of a King put an end to any Parliament summoned in his name. Thus, the proclamation of Edward IV as King on 4 March 1461 was deemed to have ended the Parliament summoned in Henry VI’s name in the previous autumn, and the same was true of the Readeption parliament of 1470-1. In both instances, many Members of the assemblies had in any event dispersed long before their formal or legal ending.

Henry IV

It was more unusual for a King to die while Parliament was in session, but this did happen when Henry IV died in March 1413. Writs had been issued on 1 December 1412 for a Parliament that was to meet at Westminster on 3 February 1413. Although the King suffered repeated bouts of illness and had to delegate much of the ceremonial surrounding the opening to the Chancellor, Archbishop Arundel, he did eventually appear in public and pledge a crusade. To this end, the Commons agreed a grant of taxation, and other business, including the framing of an ordinance concerning the manufacture of cloth, was also transacted.

Yet, the Parliament was never brought to a formal close, but rather was unceremoniously deemed to have come to an end with the King’s death on 20 March. None of the formalities normally associated with a dissolution, such as the issue of writs de expensis (ordering the payment of wages to the Members of the Commons) were observed, and in the absence of the royal assent none of the Parliament’s measures were regarded as acts. As a result, no Parliament roll was compiled, and the records of the assembly were discarded.

The new King, Henry V, lost little time in summoning a new Parliament, and in this assembly, which met at Westminster on 3 May the Commons complained bitterly of the expenditure that their predecessors had incurred during the time of the earlier, abortive, gathering. Henry V equivocated. He ordered that the records be searched for any precedents, but rather than promising to follow these, he merely agreed that on their basis he would do what seemed best to him.      

H.W.K.

Further reading:

C. Given-Wilson, Henry IV (New Haven and London, 2016), pp. 515-16.

‘A Draft of the Protestation of the Speaker’, in Parliamentary Texts of the Later Middle Ages ed. N. Pronay and J. Taylor (Oxford, 1980), pp. 197-201 (here ascribed to 1504, but in reality probably dating from the Parliament of Feb. 1413)

The History of Parliament joins the nation and the world in mourning Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and in gratitude for her remarkable lifetime of service.

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