From Windsor to Westminster: the people of St George’s in Parliament in the later Middle Ages II: Knights vs Canons

In October, Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, delivered the ‘Maurice and Shelagh Bond Memorial Lecture’ at St George’s Chapel. This is the second blog in a two-blog series where Hannes reflects on the people of St George’s Chapel. Here, we look at the Poor Knights of Windsor and their major disagreement with the Canons…

St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Available here.

The deans and canons of Windsor who took their places among the clerical staff of Parliament do not represent the total presence of the men of Windsor in Parliament. There was within the Windsor community another group of royal servants some of whom also had a track record of parliamentary service. These were the Poor Knights, the precursors of today’s military knights. In the same way as the modern military knights join the community of St. George’s at the end of long and distinguished careers in His Majesty’s armed forces, so their medieval antecedents also came to Windsor after many years in the service of the Crown, and of this, membership of Parliament sometimes formed a part. Examples of MPs who came to secure one of the coveted retirement spots of the Poor Knights in Windsor castle during the second half of the 15th century include Lawrence Leventhorpe and Christopher Furneys.

The Military Knights of Windsor in the Garter Procession, Nick Warner (2008). (c) Nick Warner.

Leventhorpe spent much of his career in the service of two successive earls marshal of England, the third and fourth Mowbray dukes of Norfolk, serving as treasurer of their respective households. Perhaps through their patronage, he secured return to Parliament for the Sussex boroughs of Midhurst and Bramber in 1450 and 1472 respectively. When the fourth duke died in 1476, his only daughter and heiress married Edward IV’s second surviving son, Richard. This royal connexion may explain how Leventhorpe, who is not otherwise known to have been in royal service, and who, as far as we know, never attained a knighthood, came to be appointed a Poor Knight of Windsor in March 1482.

Like Leventhorpe, Furneys had strong connexions with the county of Sussex, where he served as controller of the customs in the Chichester district from June 1455. He entered Edward IV’s household in the early years of that King’s reign as a yeoman of the bottles in the royal buttery, and in 1467 was further rewarded with the post of porter of the outer gate of Windsor castle. Furneys was returned to the Parliaments of 1472 and 1478 for the Sussex boroughs of Lewes and Bramber. On the second of these occasions at least he may have enjoyed the King’s own patronage. The Commons of 1478 were notable for the large number of royal household servants in their ranks, many of them probably the King’s placemen. These had been sent to Parliament for the sole purpose of bringing about the condemnation of King Edward’s wayward brother, George, duke of Clarence, whose trial formed the principal business of that assembly. The Commons did what was required of them, and the King showed his gratitude: in the summer of 1481, Furneys was granted the place of one of the Poor Knights of Windsor.   

The remarkable medieval records of the College of St George allow us to construct a detailed picture of the activities in Parliament of both the canons and the Poor Knights during a brief period from 1483 to 1486, when the two groups suffered a major disagreement. At the heart of this quarrel was, as so often, money. Under the terms of the College’s first statutes of 1352 there was to be a body of 26 impoverished knights, who would be housed in the castle and receive wages of 12d. per day, as well as an annual stipend of 40s. Modest as the sums involved might appear, they could in total have amounted to almost £20 per knight in any one year. Had there ever been 26 of them, the funding of the knights would have been far beyond the College’s means, and throughout the middle ages the dean and canons were thus at pains never to have more than three poor knights resident in the castle at any given time, and often even just one or two.

Successive kings nevertheless continued to appoint additional knights who often remained in limbo for a number of years before eventually (if ever) gaining admission to a place at Windsor. In spite of repeated attempts at a settlement, none was achieved, and in the early weeks of 1483, finally, the matter came before Parliament. It seems that some of the unusually large number of royal servants who had been abortively granted places as Poor Knights of Windsor had used their preferential access to their royal master, to whom they were said to have ‘made gret instaunce and labour’, seeking the knights’ incorporation and endowment separate from the dean and canons.

In the event, however, the act of Parliament that passed was everything the dean and canons could have hoped for. Not only was the college of St. George formally incorporated, but in a final clause the dean and canons were exempted once and for all from any payments to the poor knights, for whom the King promised to provide in other ways.

This should have been the end of the matter, but within two months of the dissolution of the Parliament, Edward IV was dead. On his deathbed he was said to have added a codicil to his will, assigning the Lincolnshire manor of Long Bennington for the poor knights’ support, but if this was so, his successors never fulfilled this promise. The canons, for their part, took this as read and immediately stopped their payments to the knights, who were thus at a stroke deprived of any income at all. This remained the state of affairs during the short reign of Richard III.

Yet, when Henry VII came to the throne and in November 1485 opened his first Parliament, the Poor Knights were ready, and presented a petition to the assembly. Although King Henry’s newly appointed Dean of Windsor, John Morgan, was the clerk of the Parliaments, the knights’ bill caught the canons by surprise, and Canon-steward John Seymour had to pay 2s. for a copy of ‘a certain schedule placed into Parliament by the knights’.

Now, however, the canons swung into action, and within weeks the influence of most of the prominent members of the chapter and of its full retinue of legal advisers was thrown behind their case. On account of his office of clerk of the Parliaments, the Dean of Windsor, John Morgan, was present at Westminster throughout the two sessions, and although undoubtedly heavily preoccupied with his official duties, he nevertheless found time to devote himself to the pursuit of his college’s interests.

Both sides promoted their cases energetically. In the first instance, the officials who controlled physical access to the Lords and Commons needed to be won over. Canon Seymour paid the porter of the Parliament house (that is, the Commons’ Chamber), John Flygh, 2d. ‘for his favour’, and, probably out of similar considerations, on 1 February the Speaker’s serjeant-at-arms, John Harper, received 20d. Within the chambers, procedure was the main barrier, and the favour of the officials of both houses, as well as the support of professional men from among their membership needed to be ensured. The clerk of the Commons, Thomas Bayon, could be counted upon, as he had long been employed by the College of St George in a private capacity, but prudently he was treated to a sumptuous breakfast in addition to being paid his expenses. On 24 January, the Speaker of the Commons, Thomas Lovell, whose support could have a serious impact on the passage or rejection of a bill, was paid the substantial sum of 66s. 8d., and in subsequent days other sums of money were distributed to those expected to promote the college’s interests in debate.

The Poor Knights based their case on the argument that through the machinations of the canons the act of 1483 had been made without their knowledge and agreement, and that King Edward IV himself had on his deathbed expressed remorse at having allowed it to pass. The canons by contrast claimed that the act had had the knights’ full agreement, and had indeed in part resulted from the almsmen’s own lobbying of the monarch.

Yet, whatever was said in the Lords’ and Commons’ chambers, the king’s attitude was clearly of central importance. Consequently, Dean Morgan and Canons John Arundell and David Hopton joined Canon Oliver Kyng, a former private secretary to King Edward IV, in the royal presence, when the latter presented Henry VII with a gift of £100 in cash for his good will, and in February and March Kyng was at various times able to further promote the canons’ case while riding out with the sovereign.

In the event, the canons prevailed once again. Not only was the Poor Knights’ call for the repeal of the act of 1483 rejected, but the college’s privileges and endowment, including all of Edward IV’s generous settlements, were confirmed in full. In one important respect, however, the canons’ victory proved hollow. From 11 March 1486, just a week after the dissolution of Parliament, the canon-treasurer once more had to pay the wages of three Poor Knights, amounting to more than £54 p.a., as he recorded tersely, ‘on the king’s orders until they should be provided for by the king himself’.  The Poor Knights had survived to fight another day.


You can watch Dr Hannes Kleineke deliver his talk at the ‘Maurice and Shelagh Bond Memorial Lecture’, here.

Further Reading:

Hannes Kleineke, ‘Lobbying and Access: The Canons of Windsor and the Matter of the Poor Knights in the Parliament of 1485’, Parliamentary History, xxv (2007), 145-59.

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