Come Let’s Travel by the River… the vicissitudes of getting to Parliament in the later Middle Ages

As the discovery of the Palace of Westminster’s medieval river wall hits the news, Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, reflects on how MPs and peers in the later Middle Ages travelled to Parliament. While the River Thames is now a place for spectacular tours, it was once a dangerous commute to work for many in Parliament…

Amid news of the discovery of part of the medieval river wall of the Palace of Westminster, it is worth remembering that for many centuries the river was, for MPs and peers, the preferred route of access to the meeting place of Parliament. There were multiple landing places near the palace, the sites of which were submerged when additional land was reclaimed from the River Thames at the time of the construction of the new palace after the fire of 1834.

Boatmen were available for hire both on the South Bank, at the archbishop of Canterbury’s manor at Lambeth, and in and near Southwark where many of the inns that accommodated Members of the Commons were situated. They also plied their trade at the various quays of the city of London. Travelling to Westminster by boat spared the traveller the arduous journey through the crowded streets of London, where he would be repeatedly accosted not only by a flock of apprentices hawking their masters’ wares, but also less savoury elements, such as pickpockets and cutpurses.

Etching on discoloured parchment of Parliament House, Westminster Hall and Westminster Abbey, from left to right, as seen from the south bank of the river Thames. Smaller residences are directly on lining the river bank, in front of the larger Parliament buildings. A jetty is extending into the water and a number of boats are drawn on the water.
Westminster Abbey, Hall and Parliament House
Wenceslaus Hollar 17th c
CC by NC National Galleries Scotland

In the most extreme circumstances, the traveller could even fall victim to their enemies, or their hired hitmen and assassins, from whom a journey by water offered some limited protection – provided the traveller could reach his boat in the first place. Thus, in March 1446 Sir Thomas Parr, one of the knights of the shire for Cumberland in the Parliament then in session, was making his way from his lodgings in the city of London to the river when in a place called ‘Cornewalesse grounde, besyde the Crane in the Warde of the Vyntrye’ he was attacked by the two brothers of his longstanding enemy, Henry Bellingham.

Parr managed to escape, and successfully petitioned the King to place his assailants outside the normal process of the law: a proclamation was to be made in the city of London, ordering them to appear in court. If they did so, they were to be clapped in prison and remain there without the possibility of bail until the normal (and protracted) process of the common law had taken its course. If they failed to appear, they were to be deemed convicted of felony without the possibility of suing out a royal pardon. The Commons, horrified by the attack of one of their Members, put forward a bill under the terms of which the same draconian measures should become the rule in the case of any attack on a member of either house of Parliament, but this proved a step too far for Henry VI and his ministers, who instead directed that the existing statutes covering such matters should be observed and enforced.

Of course, not all watermen who plied their trade on the river were themselves honest. At some point in the final years of the 15th century one John Tadgas, the parish clerk of Lambeth, complained to the chancellor, cardinal Morton, of having been attacked at the landing place known as the King’s Bridge at Westminster by John Borell, a local waterman, as he came from his work at Lambeth. By Tadgas’s account, the waterman beat him unconscious and disoriented. There was evidently more to the matter, for according to the parish clerk’s tale, the waterman subsequently sought out his wife and struck her several times with a drawn sword (perhaps the flat of it, since the unfortunate woman survived her ordeal), before having his victim clapped in the abbot of Westminster’s gaol.

H.W.K.

Biographies of Sir Thomas Parr and his assailant Thomas Bellingham by Dr. S.J. Payling have appeared in The History of Parliament: The Commons 1422-61, published by Cambridge University Press in 2020.

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