III. The Role of the King and his Officials

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer

The King had to do more than simply decide when and where Parliament should meet, and how long it should last. It was always important that parliamentary affairs should be conducted in his best interests, at least as he saw them, and thus for procedure to be controlled by him with the help of his ministers and other councillors. When, in 1387, Richard II, provoked by the injury done to his prerogatives in the Wonderful Parliament of 1386, put his famous questionnaire to the royal judges, their unanimous answer regarding the management of Parliament (‘regimen parliamenti’) was that this lay within his authority alone; and that it was his absolute right, too, to dissolve Parliament whenever he wished. Any interference with these prerogatives was, moreover, held to be treasonable.1 As events were soon to prove, the King had put himself politically at risk in demanding these pronouncements, and the judges had most certainly placed themselves in a vulnerable position by ruling as they did. Even so, the question of treason apart, their answers only reflected what, historically, had been customary and, except in special circumstances (for example, a royal minority or illness), was to remain so in practice.

Naturally, however, the King delegated particular responsibilities in Parliament to one or other of those chief ministers who constituted, ex officio, the core of his Council and were assiduous in the conduct of parliamentary as well as conciliar business. The chancellor was usually entrusted with the opening of a Parliament, which he performed by explaining why it had been summoned (the ‘pronunciatio’); and if he were an ecclesiastic of distinction (which was mostly the case), he would probably introduce or embellish his statement with a sermon preached on the basis of an appropriate biblical text. There were occasional exceptions to this practice. In Richard II’s first Parliament (1377), for instance, it was not the chancellor (Bishop Houghton of St. David’s, a friend of John of Gaunt), but Archbishop Sudbury who declared the causes of summons; in Henry IV’s first Parliament (1399) Archbishop Arundel did so; in Henry’s second Parliament (1401) William Thirning, c.j.c.p., did duty; and in 1410, when the chancellorship was vacant, Bishop Beaufort of Winchester, friend to the prince of Wales, stood in.2 But whoever made the declaration had to state what was required of Parliament (the ‘charge’): namely, that having been informed of the government’s policies and what was needed to implement them it should supply the means, which, in the case of measures for defence at home or abroad, inevitably involved taxation. So far as the administration of justice was concerned, individuals were invited to present their private petitions, and arrangements were instantly made for these to be inspected without delay by receivers (senior Chancery clerks) and heard by panels of triers (chosen from among the prelates, lay peers and judges). Regarding popular grievances for which a more general remedy by statute or ordinance might be forthcoming, the chancellor also asked for the submission of ‘common petitions’, which would pass, whether or not they originated with the Commons themselves, via the clerk of the Parliaments, either to the Lords or the Council (or possibly both) and finally to the King. It was, of course, understood that, since his right of veto constituted an absolute prerogative, the latter was fully entitled to do as he pleased with these petitions, either granting them or politely declining to answer (‘ le roi s’advisera’), which was tantamount to rejection. All that then remained to set Parliament on its course was for the chancellor to inform the Commons where they should meet for their own separate deliberations and, once the office of Speaker had become a permanent parliamentary institution (as was the case early in Richard II’s reign), to tell them when to elect and present him for the King’s acceptance.3 At the end of a Parliament, the chancellor announced the dissolution and gave leave for Members to sue out their writs de expensis.

It was, of course, possible for another chief official or councillor to be required to elucidate or expand upon the official opening statement. In Richard II’s first Parliament, on the day after Archbishop Sudbury’s declaration of the causes of summons, Richard, Lord Scrope, the steward of the Household, repeated the ‘charge’ in the Lords, and then, on the same day, in the chapter house of Westminster abbey, did likewise for the Commons’ benefit. On the third day of the next Parliament (on 22 Oct. 1378, at Gloucester), Scrope again told the Lords and the Commons about details of governmental expenditure on military establishments overseas, only this time his hearers congregated together. When the first Parliament after the Peasants’ Revolt met on 4 Nov. 1381 and was eventually opened five days later by William Courtenay, archbishop-elect of Canterbury and the then chancellor, with ‘a good sermon in English’ (‘une bone collacion en Engleys’), he gave only a partial declaration of the causes of summons. Indeed, it was not until 13 Nov. that a fuller statement was made by Sir Hugh Segrave, the treasurer of the Exchequer; and not until even the 18th that Lord Scrope, who had been appointed to succeed Courtenay as chancellor, replied to a request by the Speaker for further details about the King’s pardon to the rebels, and finally clarified the ‘charge’. Meeting in the Parliament of January 1397, the Lords and Commons were as usual first given the ‘charge’ by the chancellor, Bishop Stafford of Exeter, but since his statement had been couched in only general terms, he told the Commons on the second day of the session that, when they met on the third, they would be given it in detail (‘en especial’). True to his word, he himself, accompanied by the treasurer of the Exchequer (Roger Walden), the keeper of the privy seal (Guy Mone), the bishop of Coventry and Lichfield (Richard Scrope) and other royal councillors, then met the Commons in the refectory of the abbey and did as promised. The same procedure was adopted in 1402 when, having opened Henry IV’s third Parliament on 2 Oct., the chancellor (again Bishop Stafford) took the opportunity afforded by the presentation of the Speaker on the following day to reassure the Commons that the King would be sending them certain lords, his ministers, to elucidate the causes of summons. When, however, a week later another mission to the Lower House was arranged, it was for a quite different reason: namely, the delivery by Sir William Heron, the steward of the Household, and Master John Prophet, the King’s secretary, of a message on Henry IV’s behalf about the procedure of ‘inter-communing’. Heron and Prophet were under orders to inform the Commons that although, on this occasion, the King had agreed to their request for the appointment of some of the Lords to ‘intercommune’ with them on parliamentary business, the concession was made ‘de sa grace especiale’ and under protestation, and was not something he felt bound to allow, or acknowledge as customary. The mission was certainly accomplished, for the two officials reported hack that the Commons recognized and accepted Henry’s view of the matter: it was necessary for him to approve the use of such liaison committees.4

Although, obviously, the King was bound to depend heavily upon his major officials and other councillors in the conduct of Parliament, there was, potentially, and indeed sometimes demonstrably, no greater influence than his own. Such influence was, of course, largely conditional upon his personal attendance. He was by no means expected to put in an appearance among the Lords day by day, as a matter of routine, but there is enough evidence to indicate that he often attended the Upper House; and there were clearly times when plain common sense required him to do so. Yet, irrespective of the dictates of immediate self-interest, the King’s personal attendance was a constitutional duty that could not lightly be set aside. Never was this more dramatically brought home to a medieval English monarch than to Richard II soon after the opening of the Parliament of 1386. Following his attempt, in leaving Westminster for Eltham, to scotch the impeachment of his chancellor, Michael de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, and then to hinder proceedings generally, Thomas, duke of Gloucester, and Thomas Arundel, bishop of Ely, acting as a deputation, threatened him with deposition if he did not return and attend Parliament. Richard had little choice but to comply, and thus became party to the judgement on de la Pole, and also to the establishment of the statutory commission of chief officials and peers entrusted by Parliament for a year with what amounted to the exercise of regnal authority. It was only on the last day of the Parliament, however, that the King made ‘overte protestation par sa bouche demesne’ that none of the proceedings should harm his prerogative or the liberties of the Crown. Under very different circumstances, but similarly on the day his last Parliament was dissolved, on 31 Jan. 1398 at Shrewsbury, Richard again made a statement ‘par son bouche demesne’, this time as a warning to the Commons that the general pardon he was about to issue would depend on the continuance of their grant to him for life of the wool subsidy. When, however, the Commons petitioned Henry IV in his second Parliament that Richard Clifford, keeper of the privy seal, should be exempted from the Statute of Provisors because of his devoted service, and the King agreed ‘par bouche’, he did so on 2 Mar. 1401, in the week before the dissolution; and it was during the course of the same session that, ‘de sa bouche propre en plein Parlement’, the King ‘recorded’ the loyalty of Edward, earl of Rutland (son of the duke of York), and of John Beaufort, earl of Somerset (his own half-brother).5

Unlike the earlier period, evidence of the King’s attendance in Parliament and personal involvement in its business for the years 1401 to 1406 derives from sources other than the official record contained in the Parliament rolls, but their circumstantial detail certainly rings true. For example, an anonymous Canterbury chronicler describes how the Commons, faced in the Parliament of January 1404 with a demand from Henry IV for a large subsidy, objected on the ground that the normal revenues of the Crown, together with increases in taxes on trade made by Richard II, profits from royal wardships, and particularly the income from the duchy of Lancaster, newly available on Henry’s accession, should be adequate to his needs. This, he adds, greatly annoyed the King, who persisted with his demand, staunchly refusing to part with any of his own inheritance.6 A newsletter sent from London to Durham in the course of the same Parliament leaves little doubt that there were personal exchanges in the Upper House between the Speaker and King Henry, again regarding the contentious royal demand for taxation. These confrontations proved so acrimonious that the dialogue deteriorated into open wrangling: at one stage, the newsletter states, the King was so put out that he absented himself from Parliament for five or six days together. When, on his return, the Commons asked that the lords should be required openly to speak their minds, Henry himself ordered them to do so, piously observing that this was what Parliament was for, and further protesting that he owed his crown to the election of the lords.7 Thomas Walsingham, referring to the close of the 1406 Parliament, recounts that when, four days short of Christmas, the Commons, who had long opposed the King’s demand for a subsidy, yielded only on conditions unacceptable to the lords, Henry flew into a violent temper with them all (‘rex furibundus irascitur contra omnes’). Indeed, according to this account, he actually threatened, in the event of any further obduracy, to resort to armed force on the following day, whereupon the Commons promptly voted the subsidy.8 Understandably, the Parliament roll says nothing of this unseemly incident, merely recording that Parliament, having granted a single tenth and fifteenth, was immediately dissolved on 22 Dec., a date so inconveniently close to Christmas that it lends credibility to Walsingham. In other respects, too, the official record of this Parliament is singularly lacking in explicit references to the King’s personal involvement in its affairs. It does, however, state that when, on 22 May 1406, half-way through the second session, the Speaker recalled Henry’s undertaking at the beginning of the Parliament to choose wise councillors and accept their advice, he not only personally (‘par son bouche propre’) confirmed his intention to do so, but also nominated his Council in a bill of his own (‘une bille faite par le Roy mesmes’), an action the Lords asked should be recorded in the Parliament roll, ‘depuis ceste bille fuist la volunte du Roy et de sa mocion propre, et nemye a lour seute’. That later in the same session (7 June) the King was present in Parliament, enthroned (‘seant ... en soun see Roiale’), is of less immediate significance, since it was then decided to restrict the royal succession to his sons and their heirs male, instead of to them and the heirs of their bodies, an occasion when his absence would have been inconceivable.9 In the next Parliament, which met at Gloucester on 20 Oct. 1407, Henry IV’s personal presence in the Upper House provoked yet another incident which, though nothing like so undignified as that which had occurred in the previous year, was still a cause of considerable general embarrassment, not least, in the light of what followed, to the King himself. The affair was, on his orders, fully reported in the Parliament roll in the form of a ‘Schedule of Indemnity’ which was read in the presence of the King, Lords and Commons on the last day of the Parliament.10 The ‘schedule’ makes clear that on 21 Nov., one month into the session, Henry had attended a discussion in the Lords about taxation, actually taking part in it himself (‘communez estoit entre eux’); and that once the Lords had concluded what taxes should be granted, he took immediate steps to have the Commons simply accept their decision. Although he ultimately obtained the grant as first agreed by the Lords, his conduct did not pass without protest by the Commons, and also, by reasonable inference, on the part of the Lords as well. Among the concessions made by him to Parliament as a whole as a result was an admission to the Lords in particular not only of their right freely to discuss ‘the estate of the realm and whatever remedy was needed’, but to do so in his absence (‘en Absence du Roy’). The Lords evidently felt that when a request for taxation had been made on the King’s behalf, it hardly became him to be party to its discussion in the Upper House: this would be taking his regimen parliamenti too far. His right to be present at all other times was, of course, indisputable.

Unfortunately, the rolls of those of his Parliaments which Henry V was actually able to attend do not furnish accounts of proceedings as detailed as those discussed above, and evidence of his presence in the Lords other than at the opening and dissolution is very sparse. However, the roll of his first Parliament, which met on 15 May 1413, records his attendance on two occasions in the second week. Firstly, on Monday 22 May, the Speaker, William Stourton, recalled and repeated the complaints of lack of good governance made by the Commons in the previous reign, adding that these remonstrations had proved less than effective, as the King himself knew only too well (‘en ad bone conisance’). Then, on the Thursday following, when a deputation from the Commons, headed by John Doreward, objected to Stourton’s over-eager compliance on the earlier occasion with Henry’s wish that the Commons should put their complaints in writing, it asked him to accept a schedule ‘briefment appoyntez’ instead. He agreed to this proposal, which resulted in the submission of a list of subject headings entitled ‘Articles monstrez en presence du Roy par le Parlour du Parlement’. The occasion on which Henry appeared formally enthroned before his second Parliament, at Leicester in the spring of 1414, and created his younger brothers, John and Humphrey, dukes of Bedford and Gloucester respectively, and his cousin, Richard of Conisbrough, earl of Cambridge, is not precisely dated on the Parliament roll. Nor do we know exactly when he came in person to attest the loyalty shown by Edward, duke of York, to both Henry IV and himself. Yet it looks very much as if these events occurred in the course of the session, because the roll then goes on to describe how, ‘en mesme le overt Parlement’, the King confirmed his next brother, Thomas, as duke of Clarence, and his uncle, Thomas Beaufort, as earl of Dorset, explicitly recording that this was done on the last day. Such important matters would clearly necessitate the King’s presence, although in view of Henry V’s characteristically keen attention to governmental detail and his general watchfulness we may reasonably assume that his attendance in Parliament could usually be counted on.11

In the period under review there were inevitably times when Parliament had to meet without the King; and on such occasions his place was customarily taken by the most eminent member of the royal family available. Since Edward III was too ill to attend the Parliament which met in January 1377, his grandson, Richard (now prince of Wales), was empowered to act on his behalf by letters patent dated on the eve of Parliament’s meeting and addressed collectively to all those assembled. As the Parliament roll itself reported, when Parliament opened the young prince sat in Edward’s place, expressly as ‘president’. But the parliamentary petitions then submitted were still referred to the King; and, in any case, Parliament was largely managed by the duke of Lancaster, his eldest surviving son. The only comparable occasion to arise between then and Henry V’s reign was during Richard II’s absence in Ireland in 1394-5. With the duke of Lancaster away in Guyenne, the next in line to do duty was the King’s second oldest uncle, Edmund, duke of York; and he presided, as Custos Anglie, over the Parliament of January-February 1395, which had been summoned in the previous November by writs issued under his teste. Thereafter, it was not until Henry V’s resumption of the war with France led him to spend long periods abroad that recourse was again had to such special arrangements. When, on 12 Aug. 1415 (the day after his first expedition to Normandy set sail), Parliament was summoned to meet at Westminster on 21 Oct., and later at Michaelmas when the meeting was postponed to 4 Nov., both sets of writs were issued under the teste of John, duke of Bedford. The latter, who was the King’s only brother to have been left behind in England, was acting as Custos, and thus took his place. Later on in the reign, after Henry had launched his second expedition to France in July 1417, Bedford again presided over the Parliaments of November 1417 and October 1419. The next Parliament, of December 1420, was held by the youngest of the royal brothers, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, similarly in the capacity of Custos: and then, after the King himself had been available to attend the Parliament of May 1421, Bedford was once more responsible for the conduct of the last assembly of the reign, which met at the end of the year.12

By way of postscript, we may note that, in view of Henry VI’s tender age, it was out of the question for him to participate in even the ceremonial openings of the next two Parliaments (held in November 1422 and October 1423). And so, in the absence of the duke of Bedford (as his regent in France), these Parliaments, summoned in Henry’s name, were opened, held and, with the advice of the Council, dissolved by the duke of Gloucester. The latter had been appointed expressly as the King’s commissary in letters patent which, in each case, were issued formally under the royal teste as late as the day before the assemblies actually met. The patent of 1423 did, however, envisage the possibility of the infant King’s appearance at some stage in the proceedings, at the same time making it clear that in this event Gloucester’s commission would remain unaffected. In fact, on one occasion, during the first session (17 Nov.), Henry was brought into Parliament where, sitting in the queen-mother’s lap, he was welcomed by a grateful address from the Speaker. By the time that the third Parliament of the reign met on 30 Apr. 1425, it had evidently been decided that, although he was not yet three-and-a-half years old, he should be present at the opening; and, indeed, he did attend, thus making the appointment of a commissary unnecessary. He also attended on 2 May, and was present at the dissolution, on 14 July. His appearance on any other days is, however, very doubtful, especially in light of the fact that, on 25 May, Parliament was adjourned to the end of the month by virtue of letters patent conferring upon the duke of Gloucester ‘a special power and authority’ to do whatever was needed.13

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: J. S. Roskell

End Notes

  • 1. RP, iii. 233-4. For a fuller discussion of these questions, see Law Quarterly Rev. lxxii. 364-90, and J.S. Roskell, Impeachment of Michael de la Pole, 52-54, 55 n. 11.
  • 2. RP, iii. 3, 415, 454, 622. On a number of occasions between 1348 and 1363 Parliament had been opened by the c.j.KB, and he sometimes declared the causes of summons.
  • 3. J.S. Roskell, Speakers, chap. 1.
  • 4. RP, iii. 5, 34, 98-100, 337-8, 485-6. On the procedure of ‘intercommuning’, see J.G. Edwards, Commons in Med. Eng. Parls. 5-18.
  • 5. H. Knighton, Chron. ed. Lumby, ii. 216-20; RP, iii. 224, 230 art. 4, 369, 459-60.
  • 6. Eulogium ed. Haydon, iii. 399-400.
  • 7. Bull. IHR, xxxiv. 197-9.
  • 8. St. Albans Chron. ed. Galbraith, 2-3.
  • 9. RP, iii. 572-4.
  • 10. Ibid. 611-12. For a fuller description of the contents and significance of the ‘Schedule of Indemnity’, see below pp. 92-93.
  • 11. Ibid. iv. 4, 17, arts. viii-x.
  • 12. Ibid. ii. 361; iii. 329-30; iv. 62, 106, 116, 123, 150; Reps. Lords’ Cttees. iv. 752-3, 839, 842, 845, 851-2.
  • 13. RP, iv. 169, 197, 261-2, 275; Chrons. London ed. Kingsford, 280-1.