Parliaments in the Fifteenth Century

England, now a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is famous for not having any written constitution unlike, for instance, the United States of America which has a constitution dating from 1787. Instead, custom and practice has evolved into traditions which form an unwritten constitution, described in the 19th century by Bagehot.

Today the UK has a constitutional monarchy with a Prime Minister who heads a Government in the House of Commons which derives its power from universal suffrage of the adult population of the UK. A second, unelected, revising chamber – the House of Lords – is a direct descendant of the medieval Parliament of Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal.

To reach this position took approximately 700 years in a series of steps, some large, some small, starting from government by a king who wielded absolute power. The last king to claim this power of vis et voluntas (force and will) was John (d. 1216) until he was forced by the principal Barons to agree to the limitations written into Magna Carta (1215).

By the fifteenth century Parliament consisted of three separate groups with extensive ownership of land which was the real basis of medieval power:

Lords Spiritual: Bishops, Abbots and Priors of rich religious foundations;

Lords Temporal: dukes, earls and other senior nobles with large land holdings;

Commons: Knights of the shires and Burgesses (representing towns & cities).

Attendance at parliaments tended to be poor – around 50% – unless there was very important business such as in 1399 to appoint a new king, but even then, only about two thirds of those summoned showed up.

The king was responsible for inviting Parliament to assemble. Lords were invited more or less as of right;  not being invited could be a sign of trouble ahead. The Commons were elected for each Parliament, by prominent local citizens from amongst themselves, with a minimum amount of wealth as a qualifying condition for both voters and the elected representatives.

Parliament did not meet every year, as now: there were 48 Parliaments in the whole 15th century. The length of a Parliament varied greatly, the shortest was just over one week, the longest nine months; most met for between one and two months. Members of Parliament had their own properties which required their attention and travel on horseback was slow by today’s standards.  Unlike today, the monarch was usually physically present to hear arguments and put his point of view. Decisions could not be made without the king’s presence and agreement. Today this royal consent is a formality and, since the Civil War of the 1640’s, the monarch is forbidden to enter the House of Commons.

The buildings in which Parliament met at Westminster still stand: Westminster Hall, begun in 1097, the roof was rebuilt in the 1390’s in English oak and still in good condition. Parts of nearby Westminster Abbey were also used. Parliament met wherever the king summoned it besides Westminster: Coventry (1404, 1459), Gloucester (1405/6/7), Leicester (1414, 1426), Bury St Edmunds (1447). In the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII Parliaments were all in Westminster.

Whilst all kings were nominally head of government, there were times when Parliament stepped in and took over:

in 1327 when Edward II was judged incompetent of governance and was replaced by his young son with his mother (Isabella) acting as Regent for three years. This established a precedent which could be used to threaten future incompetent or tyrannical kings;

in 1399 when Richard II abdicated and Parliament summoned itself, rather than being summoned by the monarch, to appoint a new king (Henry IV);

throughout much of the lifetime of Henry VI who proved incapable of clear direction, government was managed by a Council, sometimes by Regents, and at times by the queen (Margaret of Anjou);

in 1483/4 to accede to the deposition of Edward V and confirm the accession of Richard III.

The main functions of Parliament in the fifteenth century were the granting [to the king] of taxation and the consideration of petitions. (ref Jacob) In other words it acted as a court of final arbitration in disputes over property, setting levels and methods of taxation and trying cases of treason. Most law arose from petitions: written requests from anyone addressed either to the king personally, or to the commons or Lords collectively. Today these would be called private members bills presented by an M.P. on behalf of a constituent or an organisation. Most legislation today is initiated by the government.

If the king wished to raise money for a specific purpose:  to raise an army for war in France; to improve coastal defences against invasion; to build ships to protect trade routes, then the king’s request could only be granted by the Commons, with the agreement of the Lords. This was because members of the Commons and Lords Temporal would be those responsible for ensuring that the taxes were collected from their tenants. The Church was usually exempt from taxation but might be asked to make donations or loans. However, in matters of constitutional importance the Lords might take precedence and act unilaterally such as the appointment of the Council during the minority of Henry VI in 1422.

Government documents had been written in Latin until the end of the 13th century when Norman-French began to be used. During the fifteenth century English became the language of debate in Parliament but, because government had been conducted in Norman-French during the previous century and was widely understood by the Lords and Commons, the official business of parliament continued in Norman-French. Some vestiges of this remain today in communications between the Monarch, Lords and Commons:  Le Roy/La Reyne le veult – is still the official announcement of royal assent to a Bill.

Strong connections with France persisted throughout the 15th century, apart from making war there. Richard II had been born in Bordeaux; Henry IV’s father, was born in Ghent, Flanders; Henry VI, born of a French princess, was crowned king of France in Paris (1430); Edward IV was born in Rouen (1442); Henry VII spent half his life in Brittany and France before Bosworth (1485). Everyone who mattered in Parliament understood Norman-French. English nobles received large incomes from their French estates until these were all lost by 1453.

The role of Speaker, a chairman of and spokesperson for the Commons emerged towards the end of the 14th century. Usually elected by the Commons themselves, but sometimes pressure was brought to bear to ensure that someone amenable to the king would be preferred. One example is Sir William Catesby, a close friend of the king, during the brief reign of Richard III.

Some Parliaments of special interest

October 1399 (interregnum)– the day after Richard II abdicated.

This Convention Parliament was the first of its kind in English history, as there was no monarch to summon Parliament. The main purpose was to offer the throne to Henry IV and then, as the new king, he had the power to re-summon Parliament which continued to meet in his name.

1406 (Henry (IV) The Long Parliament lasted nine months because the Commons refused to grant taxes to the king until he granted their demands.

1407 (Henry (IV) The Commons successfully asserted its right that it should originate all new taxes in its own House.

1414 (Henry V) Held at Greyfriars, Leicester – the same place that Richard III would be buried in 1485 and his grave rediscovered in 2012. Called the Fire and Faggot Parliament because it passed an Act to burn heretics who read the Bible in English.

1414 Henry V acknowledged that the approval and consultation of both Houses was necessary to make new laws.

1426 (Henry VI minority) Parliament of Bats (clubs, not flying mammals) Summoned at a time of dispute between Humfrey, duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Henry Beaufort, removed the latter from his office of Lord Chancellor. The carrying of swords was forbidden so the attendees carried clubs/bats for their defence in case a brawl broke out. Even today in the House of Commons Government and Opposition benches are said to be two sword lengths apart – about 4 metres. The sergeant at arms carries a sword and the sword of state plays a ceremonial role at the opening of parliament and other state events when the monarch is present.

1459 (Henry VI) Coventry Parliament of Devils. To pass bills of attainder against Yorkist nobles.

May 1461 (Edward IV) His first Parliament deposed Henry VI and presented the throne to Edward.

January 1484 (Richard III) – his only Parliament. Passed the Act Titulus Regius confirming Richard’s right to be king. Passed Acts of Attainder on approximately 100 people involved in the Buckingham Rebellion of October 1483. Passed a separate Act against Lady Margaret Beaufort, removing her land and other assets and placing these under the control of her husband, Lord Stanley. A fateful decision.



The Fifteenth Century 1399-1485 E.F. Jacob, (OUP, 1961) Chapter IX Government

The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot (Chapman & Hall, 1867)