On this Day: 20 November 1459, The 'Parliament of Devils' assembles at Coventry
Our second specially commissioned article for Parliament Week. To find out more, visit www.parliamentweek.org
On this day in 1459 the ‘Wars of the Roses’ between the houses of Lancaster and York took on an increased ferocity. Parliament had not met for three and a half years, since March 1456, when it had been dissolved following the resignation of Richard, duke of York, as Protector and the nominal resumption of authority by the mentally-unstable Henry VI. That summer the seat of government was effectively removed to Coventry, in the Lancastrian heart-lands, and the chief offices of state were allotted to intimates of the queen, Margaret of Anjou. As order disintegrated across the country in the following months, England moved closer to outright civil war. Armed conflict eventually broke out in the autumn of 1459: on 23 September York’s ally, the earl of Salisbury, defeated Lancastrian forces at Blore Heath in Staffordshire. In response, Parliament was summoned by writs dated at Leominster on 9 October, as the royal army moved against its enemies. Three days later, rather than confront the King in battle, the Yorkist forces, marshalled at Ludford Bridge, scattered overnight. Its leaders fled abroad.
The timing of the summons proved problematic. The writs were addressed to sheriffs whose term of office was due to expire on 7 November, leaving them open to penalties for exercising their office for longer than a year if they remained in post to organize the elections. On 3 November the government sent out privy seal writs instructing them to proceed nevertheless, promising them immunity. Even so, the Yorkists were later to allege that many of the MPs were named without a free election, in order to achieve a house compliant to the regime, and several of the 156 known Members of the Commons did indeed subsequently emerge as committed Lancastrian partisans.
The Parliament opened in the chapter house of St. Mary’s priory with a speech by the chancellor, William Waynflete, bishop of Winchester, preaching on the text ‘Grace to you and peace be multiplied’, but the government’s purpose was undoubtedly to condemn York and his kinsmen and allies as traitors. A bill accused twenty-four persons of levying war against the King at Blore Heath and Ludford, and three more (including the countess of Salisbury) of plotting his death elsewhere. It recited York’s treasons since 1450; what had been done at St. Albans (in 1455 when the duke had eliminated several of his political opponents in a pitched battle in the streets of the town) had been an ‘execrabill and moost detestable dede’, prompted by ‘the moost diabolique unkyndnesse and wrecched envye’. Attainder was fully justified, whereby the traitors were condemned to death and all their possessions declared forfeit. Furthermore, their heirs were to be barred from inheritance forever. Contemporary accounts set out the issues in the form of a debate between Justice and Mercy, and the abbot of St. Albans’ report of the Parliament incorporates a similar debate, serving to dismiss the arguments for clemency. The chancellor’s choice of text for his sermon could be taken to imply an intention to pursue peace by softening the rigour of justice with the King’s prerogative of mercy, and at the end of the session Henry VI did indeed mitigate the effects of the act of attainder, insisting on a proviso that he could grant full pardon and restoration to those who humbly sought his grace. Securing exemption from the act came at a heavy price, both personally and financially, with some offenders coming into the monarch’s presence ‘in hyr scyrtys and halters in hyr hondys, fallynge by-fore the kynge’, and paying heavy fines to avoid forfeiting their lands.
The Parliament had been called for a purpose, and to the end ‘abideth upon the grete materes of attenyndre and forfeture’. The assembled 66 members of the Lords took an oath of loyalty to the king on 11 December and Parliament was dissolved nine days later, in time for Christmas. Yet when it met again, just ten months later in October 1460, the tables had been decisively turned. The Yorkist leaders had returned to England from Calais, triumphed at the battle of Northampton, and taken the King captive. The duke of York himself felt free to enter the parliament chamber at Westminster and assert his right to the throne, to the consternation of the assembled lords.
Dr Linda Clark