V. The Composition of the House of Commons

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 contents of these volumes of the History present, in the main, the findings of an inquiry into the lives and careers of Members of the House of Commons: that is the knights of the shires, citizens and burgesses elected to Parliament by the local communities of counties and towns whose representation was demanded by the Crown. The names of the Members are by no means all known. Through negligence or accident, many electoral returns to particular Parliaments have disappeared, in one or two instances almost completely; and although names are frequently recoverable from the writs de expensis enrolled on the close rolls of the Chancery, this supplementary official source of information is no longer available after 1414 when enrolment ceased. In any case, it was mostly the shire knights, who, having sued out such writs, had ensured that they were formally registered by enrolment; only relatively few townsmen ever did so. Consequently, when serious gaps in the lists of Members occur, these relate mainly to the burgesses and less to the county representatives. Regarding the former, the lists are very defective for roughly one out of three Parliaments in the period as a whole; regarding the latter, for no more than about one in six (mostly late in Henry IV’s reign and early in Henry V’s).1 In this connexion, next to no help is forthcoming from the records of Parliament proper: the rotuli Parliamentorum. Individual Members of the Lower House were rarely mentioned there, except, of course, for the Speaker, once it had become the absolute rule, from late in Richard II’s reign, to record his election. It is, however, fortunate that we are far better informed about the outcome of elections for counties rather than towns, if only because the shire knights, by reason of their superior social status as gentry, their greater involvement in the regional administration of the country, and their more personal connexions with the King and members of the Upper House, discharged a more important role in the Commons than the townsmen, especially in the sphere of high politics.

By 1386 over half a century had passed since a Parliament had met to which the Commons—shire knights, citizens and burgesses—had not been summoned; and it had by then become unthinkable for these representatives not to be summoned. But this had not always been the case. Ever since 1254 there had been Parliaments attended by shire knights; and ever since 1265 Parliaments to which citizens and burgesses also had come. During Edward I’s reign, however, officially designated Parliaments to which any representatives had been summoned were in a minority (roughly only a third); and even when a ‘representative parliament’ happened to be called, it was then still possible for only shire knights to be summoned, without any townsmen at all (as in 1275, 1290, 1294 and 1297). Moreover, there was at first some lack of uniformity as to the number of shire knights or townsmen each constituency, county or town, was required to elect to any one Parliament attended by both types of Member, and their number could vary from one occasion to another. For example, in 1275 four knights were summoned along with six or four townsmen; in 1282 again four knights, but only two townsmen; and in 1283 two knights, and, again, two townsmen. Yet it is important to notice that the number of representatives of each type was always specified in the writs of summons, and that no constituency, whether county or town, was ever told to send less than two. (This was doubtless to ensure that if one of them failed to put in an appearance the constituency would not go unrepresented, and perhaps also to provide a measure of control, since they could watch over each other.) So far as the election of representatives to Parliament was concerned, the reign of Edward I was clearly a time of conscious experiment and improvisation. Even so, in its last decade Parliaments attended by representatives were in a majority (nine out of 15), and to most of them (seven of the nine) townsmen, as well as shire knights, were elected. By now each constituency, whether county or town, was only expected to return two representatives, a requirement which henceforward was strictly adhered to (except in the case of the City of London where, in 1355, the number was raised to four). The growing tendency in Edward I’s later years for Parliaments to include these representatives grew even more pronounced under Edward II. Indeed, two out of three of his Parliaments (19 out of 28) were attended both by shire knights and townsmen, two from each constituency. On this now established numerical basis, representation in Parliament of the local communities of counties and towns became a perfectly normal requirement, until well into the 16th century.

The total number of shire knights, citizens and burgesses returned to Parliament obviously depended not simply on how many were summoned from each constituency, but on the number of constituencies themselves. And, whereas the medieval shire knights were returned by 37 counties (all the counties of England save the two palatinates of Chester and Durham), the number of towns represented was always liable to fluctuate.2 The largest total making returns ever reached in the medieval period was in 1295, when 114 did so. But even under Edward I there was soon a reduction of roughly a quarter, and under Edward II a further decline. This was, however, compensated for to some extent under Edward III, especially in his later years, by an increase resulting in a level of borough representation which, thenceforward, was not to be significantly modified until the middle decades of the 15th century. Then, for the first time since Edward III’s reign, eight towns never previously represented were enfranchised.3 To take the highest number of towns represented in the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, respectively, it may be noted that in 1384 this stood at 88; in 1399, 81; and in 1421, 87. Which, in terms of personnel, means that the maximum number of townsmen returned to Parliament ranged, in our period, between 164 and 178 (London now electing four Members). So with a consistent Membership of 74 shire knights, the representatives from the towns brought the total number of the Commons in the late 14th and early 15th centuries to an approximate figure of 250, with the townsmen outnumbering the shire knights by about seven to three.4 Of course, these figures rest upon the assumption that when elected, and their names returned to Chancery, the knights, citizens and burgesses actually attended Parliament. Can we rest assured, or at least be reasonably confident, that this was so?

The regular enrolment, on the close rolls of Chancery, of writs de expensis authorizing the sheriffs to pay shire knights their travelling expenses and daily wages, provides some indication, down to 1414, that their attendance was generally quite exemplary; and, since the writs were usually enrolled on the day of a Parliament’s dissolution, it also suggests that most knights were present throughout the proceedings. In this connexion, it is worth noting that when, during the second of the three sessions of the Parliament of 1406, the Speaker requested the King to license the absence of Richard Clitheroe I, a shire knight for Kent who, as a recently appointed admiral, was required to put to sea at once, he then asked the Lords as well as the King that Clitheroe’s fellow representative might act in Parliament in their two names, just as if both were present.5 Apparently, so far as the shire knights were concerned, regular attendance was expected. Evidence of attendance by the townsmen, at least as contained in enrolments of writs de expensis is nowhere so complete; indeed, either because they did not always sue out their writs or, if they did, failed to get them enrolled, this source is manifestly defective. However, there is information enough from other quarters, including town records, to justify the conclusion that their participation was at least adequate. Judging from the statement in the Anonimalle Chronicle that the knights, esquires, citizens and burgesses in the Good Parliament of 1376 numbered 280, the attendance of the townsmen on that occasion must have been amply satisfactory.6 The Crown, moreover, did what it could to ensure prompt attendance, notably by making provision, at the very beginning of a Parliament, for a roll-call to be taken of all Members of the Lower House, and probably did so as a general rule. That this was done on six out of eight possible occasions between 1379 and 1383 (inclusive) is mentioned in the Parliament rolls; it is again reported in 1401 (when the roll-call was taken in Chancery, in Westminster Hall, in the presence of the chancellor of England and the steward of the King’s household); in 1402 (in the same place, but before the chancellor, the keeper of the privy seal, and other royal councillors); and in 1411 (at the door of the painted chamber of the palace, before the steward of the Household, ‘come le manere est’).7 As well as verifying the electoral returns and the bona fides of individual representatives, including citizens and burgesses, such a practice obviously monitored their first appearance. It was also, of course, a means of detecting failure on the part of any local authority or constituency to obey the writ of summons. In this context it is worth noting that after the Salisbury Parliament of 1384 had been in session for over a week and no elected ‘barons’ from the Cinque Ports had arrived, the Council ordered a fresh writ to be sent to the warden of the Ports, calling his attention to the absence of the barons, and ordering him to put matters right within a week.8 Such governmental vigilance might even, on occasion, be matched by scrupulous attention to duty on the part of an individual burgess. In May 1388, for example, during the second session of the Merciless Parliament, the controller of the customs at Bishop’s Lynn petitioned the Crown for leave to appoint a deputy there for the duration of the Parliament, which he was himself attending as one of the borough’s representatives, his request and the reason given together indicating that he took both his parliamentary duties and his obligations as a port official seriously.9 Assiduous attendance of townsmen in Parliament implies, of course, that their cities and boroughs were generally very ready to be represented, an assumption which seems to hold good from long before the end of the 14th century. At all events, by then only a handful of boroughs ever sought to be excused from the obligation to obey the sheriff’s precept to elect burgesses, and evidently those which did so realized that the formal exemption needed was a matter of grace. It was, in fact, seldom conceded. Given this development, there is every reason to view the tendency in the 15th century for resident burgesses to give way at local elections to outsiders, men who not only lived elsewhere but also had no real connexions with the towns they represented, as evidence of a competitive eagerness on the part of the newcomers to serve in Parliament which is quite incompatible with the idea of low attendance.10 That this trend towards non-residence was already evident in the early years of the century is indicated by the parliamentary statute of 1413, which required that both knights and burgesses, when elected, should be living in their constituencies. It does, indeed, appear that the Commons were more punctilious about attendance than, on the whole, were members of the Upper House, where the turn-out of individual peers, save among the bishops and senior magnates, tended to be spasmodic, often depending upon the gravity of the political situation.11

Although the representatives of cities and boroughs were obviously bound to outnumber those from the shires, it must not be supposed that the numerical superiority of the former ever exercised a determining influence upon the internal workings of the Commons, once shire knights and townsmen had combined to form a separate House. Indeed, weaker in number though the shire knights were, they always constituted the politically stronger and more active element. But when did that combination take place, or when, rather, did it develop?

Commenting, in his Constitutional History, upon parliamentary developments in the earliest years of Edward III, William Stubbs stated that ‘the definite and final arrangement of parliament in two houses must be referred to this period’.12 Expressed so roundly, this assertion may be questioned; and, in a later passage in the same great work, Stubbs himself retracted to the extent of saying that by 1341 the Lords and Commons only ‘seem to have definitely assorted themselves in two chambers’.13 Although it made their own regular combination possible, even probable, the physical separation of the shire knights and townsmen from the peers (the representatives of communities from those who represented only themselves), did not absolutely necessitate or entail such a development. Indeed, in the earliest years of Edward III’s reign, the knights and townsmen did not invariably or even habitually deliberate together. In the Winchester Parliament of 1330, for example, Roger Mortimer, 1st earl of March, was alleged to have previously deceived the shire knights into making a grant from every vill customarily represented at judicial eyres of one man-at-arms to serve for a year in Gascony at the vill’s expense; and they are likely to have consented in a meeting of their own. Certainly, from 1332 comes conclusive evidence of such a gathering: on this occasion, when the prelates are said to have met apart from the temporal lords, the shire knights, alone of the Commons, also withdrew into separate session. In the Parliament of March 1340 the citizens and burgesses voted the King a ninth of all their goods, and certain merchants, presumably acting on their own as well, gave a fifteenth; the knights, however, followed the Lords and granted a ninth sheaf, fleece and lamb. Whether or not they had conferred with the Lords, the knights had at least come to a decision of their own in meetings held independently of the burgesses.14

Nor is there any reason to doubt that, whenever necessary, the knights and burgesses continued to deliberate separately and, moreover, did so for some considerable time to come. When, in September 1353, a great council met to examine the question of the wool staple, and the Commons, having been asked to comment upon the proposed regulations, asked for a copy, one was supplied for the shire knights and another for the citizens and burgesses. Their reply was a joint one, and doubtless finally achieved in common meetings, but discrete discussions at some earlier stage may reasonably be inferred. Significantly under the circumstances, in the following year, when the Ordinances of the Staple came before Parliament for its approval, the knights alone were told at the outset to apply to the chancellor for a copy so they could write down their observations. Again, in 1362, the knights were first examined separately before the Lords regarding a proposal to concentrate the export trade in wool at Calais, although they excused themselves from making a positive reply on the ground that such a matter was better left to the merchants (who, they added, were by no means agreed among themselves).15 Even 20 years later, the roll of the first Parliament of 1382 suggests that it was still quite possible for the foremost merchants among the parliamentary burgesses, as well as the shire knights, to discuss certain aspects of the business of the Commons apart, by themselves, especially if the problems were financial. This Parliament had been summoned to supply the necessary backing for a loan to finance an intended royal expedition to France, a measure which had already met with approval in a great council of lords at Windsor. After the matter was put to the Parliament, the Commons as a whole asked how much ‘chevance’ the government actually required; but, on being told that £60,000 would not suffice, the shire knights alone (par eux mesmes) approached the Lords on the day after. They suggested that, because the chief responsibility for negotiating or contributing to the loan would fall on the mercantile community, the merchants then in Parliament, being more conversant with the question than men of other ‘degree’, were best qualified to discuss it. The Lords not only agreed, but nominated a committee of 14 merchants ‘pur treter et communer de lour part et par eux mesmes’, the knights and the rest of the burgesses being instructed to confer together in the meantime. In the event, both groups reported separately and, moreover, gave different answers.16 It may also be noted that, previously, at the end of the Parliament of 1357, the burgesses had been given leave to depart a full week before the shire knights were permitted to do so, the former suing out their writs de expensis on 8 May, the latter not until the 16th.17 At the Parliament of 1372, however, it was the other way round: the knights were the first to be allowed to go, while the burgesses were told to stay behind. Only on this occasion the delay was short, for all on the same day the townsmen met the Lords, agreed with them upon a renewal of tunnage and poundage for the next year (to meet the costs of protection at sea for merchant ships) and then they too went home.18 In fact, as late as 1523 the burgesses could still ‘sever themselves’ from the shire knights regarding a motion for an increased subsidy, after the knights and gentlemen had already agreed upon a grant from their landed income.19 These instances, some of which remind us that the shire knights and townsmen represented, albeit not formally, different sectional interests, are difficult to augment from the rest of the available evidence. Because such references to separate discussions are scarce, it would be rash to conclude that even in the 14th century the Commons frequently split up into their component parts once their combination had become usual. A precise verbal distinction between the shire knights and the citizens and burgesses was always retained in the Parliament rolls of the medieval period; but developments in borough representation during the 15th century whereby so many country gentlemen got themselves returned (evidently when county seats were not available), thus actually affording a numerical superiority in the Lower House to members of their class, meant that the line of division between knights and burgesses became only vaguely definable in social terms.20 This naturally reinforces the view that separate sessions would then be quite exceptional.

Whatever the imprecision or ambiguity of the variants—‘la Commune’, ‘la Communalte’, ‘les Communes’—used to designate the Commons in the early years of Edward III’s reign, it is clear that the shire knights, citizens and burgesses were already combining in order to ‘avow’, and to present as their own, petitions which affected the public good (‘communes petitiones’). The adoption and also the formulation of such petitions, which became statutes if they affected the law administered in the courts (having, of course, been first approved by the Lords and accepted by the King), are likely to have produced some measure of cohesion among the different elements composing the Commons. So, too, must their eventually recognized right to consent to grants of taxation, although the subsidies assessed on moveables varied between, on the one hand, the rural areas where fifteenths were paid, and, on the other, the towns where the levies were of tenths. The movement to combine was also prompted by other, general factors. The preference of the churchmen generally for meeting the King’s financial demands in their provincial convocations resulted, during the 1330s, in a withdrawal of the proctors of the lower clergy from active participation in much of the business of Parliament. This doubtless made the other elective elements feel their identity and a common bond as representatives all the more strongly, and the contrast between the elected Commons and the Lords clearer. Very probably, moreover, the Commons were encouraged from above to coalesce. It was obviously convenient for the King on most occasions if he and his Council could deal with knights and burgesses, whether about financial matters, petitions, or anything else, as one body, rather than as distinct groups; it usually saved time; and any practice which expedited parliamentary business was bound to be welcome to all parties, not least the government. As early as 1332, when Parliament assembled at York, the shire knights and ‘les gentz de Commune’ (unquestionably the burgesses) were actually required to treat together; and they were jointly given leave to depart before the magnates. Admittedly, in 1343 the word ‘Communes’ is used, in the Parliament roll, separately from ‘Chivalers’; and in the roll of 1352 a reference occurs to a ‘longe trete et deliberation eues par les Communes ove la Communalte’, which perhaps denotes a meeting of groups needing a conscious effort to bring them together.21 By then, however, use of the simple term ‘les Communes’ was quite normal, and is generally to be taken as a comprehensive reference to the whole body of shire knights, citizens and burgesses. In 1346 they are unmistakably represented entering into joint deliberation over royal demands for financial aid for the war with France.22 Their practice in this regard may not yet have become invariable; but although they occasionally still reverted to separate meetings, the general movement to combine, fostered too by the frequency of Parliaments, was irresistible. Precisely when the King first allowed the Commons the services of a ‘commun clerc’ (otherwise known as ‘sub-clericus Parliamenti’), presumably to help them inter alia with their common petitions, is not known; but a Chancery clerk was already filling this office by 1363. Official recognition of his existence in that year marks a significant stage in the process by which the shire knights, citizens and burgesses achieved corporate association and a common identity.

Whenever, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Commons were assigned a particular place in which to assemble (and this happened to be recorded), it was shared by them all. In 1343 the knights of the shires and ‘Communes’ were ordered to meet in the painted chamber of the palace of Westminster (‘et de treter, conseiller et assentir entre eux’ regarding a proposed embassy to Pope Clement VI, ‘et de reporter lour Respons et lour Assent en ... Parlement’). It was here again that in 1352 ‘twenty-four or thirty’ of the Commons were to hold a discussion with a number of magnates, but now ‘lour compaignons de la Commune’ were told to withdraw to the chapter house of Westminster abbey, there to be informed in due course of the discussion. In both 1365 and 1366 the Commons were left together in the painted chamber where, as usual, Parliament had been opened; and in 1368 they were directed to a smaller room in the palace (‘la petite salle’). Five years later, the painted chamber was once more assigned to them, expressly so that they might be near the Lords in the white chamber, in case they should need their advice. Given such a special reason for a meeting of the Commons in the palace, it is hardly surprising that when, in 1376, they were once again told to use the chapter house of the abbey, this was now described in the Parliament roll as ‘lour aunciene Place’ (their former, not necessarily their ancient, place). Since there is some evidence in support and none to the contrary, it looks as if the Commons continued to assemble there until 1395, when they were offered the monks’ refectory as an alternative, and may, perhaps, have chosen it in preference. In 1397, certainly, they met in the refectory; and whenever their place of assembly at Westminster was subsequently noted in a Parliament roll, the refectory, not the chapter house, was allotted them (the last such explicit reference occurring in 1416).23 If Parliament met away from Westminster, special provision of a meeting-place for the Commons was, again, sometimes recorded: at Gloucester in 1378 and 1407 they were assigned, respectively, the chapter house and the refectory; at Northampton in 1380 they were given use of the new dormitory at the Cluniac priory of St. Andrew; at Leicester, in 1414, the Franciscans’ infirmary; and, in 1426, a basement (‘quaedam bassa camera’) in the castle was put at their disposal.24 The obvious inference from these brief and scattered references is that the Commons’ separate meetings were of shire knights and burgesses together. Originally used in a locative sense, the terms ‘Domus Inferior’ and ‘Domus Communis’ (in English, ‘Lower House’ and ‘Common House’) eventually acquired an institutional meaning; and in 1485 the expression ‘Domus Communitatuum’ (House of Commons) first appears. Yet early in the century the Commons had already come to be officially regarded as possessing a corporate identity as one of ‘the three estates’ in Parliament, the other two being the lords spiritual and the lords temporal.

So far as the institutional development of Parliament is concerned, the corporate identity of the Commons was one of the main achievements of the 14th century. In this formative period of the history of the Lower House, shire knights, citizens and burgesses had come to work habitually together. Even so, these different categories (‘gradus’), reminiscent of the earlier organization of Parliament, continued to survive in the terminology of the Parliament rolls. Such formal distinctions reflected, of course, the bases of representation: the local communities of county, city and borough. Indeed, the word ‘Commons’ itself, which is most often used to describe them in the Parliament rolls (in French, ‘Communes’, or Latin, ‘Communitates’) meant not that the Commons were either commoners or the representatives of common (in the sense of plebeian) people, but rather that they represented communities.

Of course, the counties, cities and boroughs thus represented in Parliament were, institutionally and in their traditions and modes of social life, very different. The shires were the chief, and among the oldest surviving, local administrative areas of the kingdom and, having been originally imposed upon it or taken over by the Crown, they conformed to a largely uniform scheme. Each operated through its shire court, and all were now administered for the Crown by identical officials: a sheriff, an escheator, coroners and j.p.s. The towns, on the other hand, having for the most part achieved separate financial and jurisdictional arrangements with the Crown, regulated their internal affairs independently of their shires; and, moreover, they did so through officials and institutions—mayors, bailiffs, borough courts, common councils, merchant guilds and so on—which, being the product in each case of a peculiar historical evolution, varied from place to place. The distinction between counties and towns rested upon even more fundamental differences. The prosperity of the countryside was dependent upon the successful exploitation of the soil, that is upon what the land produced in crops and timber and sustained in flocks and herds. More people lived in the countryside than in the towns, but the latter naturally enjoyed the benefits of a greater concentration of population. This afforded more scope for the specialization of economic function, and the affluence of the towns partly derived from the wider variety of sources of livelihood: skilled craftsmanship (whether or not controlled by guild regulations); trade in shops and markets; provision of taverns and hostelries; availability of commercial facilities (including credit); and, in the larger towns, a plethora of churches and other ecclesiastical establishments, which not only enriched the quality of religious and social life there, but in so doing attracted considerable financial investment, in the form of gifts of property, rents and ready money (alms and testamentary bequests). The economic stability of the rural areas depended upon the gentry as lords of manors and overlords of tenants (both free and unfree), while that of the towns (however oligarchical or unrestricted their constitutions) lay with their merchants, tradesmen and artisans: an apparently basic distinction between the different communities whose parliamentary representatives made up the Lower House.

However, just as countryside and town were, naturally, economically interdependent, so too those who directly controlled the economies of one or the other tended to overlap socially, if only at the edges. A country gentleman might own a house, and perhaps even join a religious guild in a nearby town; a merchant might buy a manor or land within reach of his town, so that he and his family could enjoy at first hand the pleasures and satisfactions of rural life; either of them might marry off children into the other’s family; and a lawyer, who quite probably was himself of gentle birth, country-bred and a landowner, would, in his professional capacity, serve the interests of townsmen as well as those of members of his own class, thus helping to bridge the social divide. The difference in social esteem between those who lived by the sweat of other men’s brows and tradesmen, merchants, or lawyers, who at least earned their own keep, long outlived the Middle Ages. Admittedly, in our period gentry, merchants, and lawyers all shared a common designation: in the view of those who, if only elementarily, sought to define the nature of contemporary society, they were lumped together as ‘mediocres’. Only some of them were ‘middlemen’ in the modern economic sense of the word, but all were of the middling sort, standing far above the common people but well below the great ones of the land. Even so, within the broad band of ‘mediocrity’, the country gentry as such enjoyed a recognized superiority of social status, largely deriving from ancestry and their position as landowners. This was a fact of life, reflected in the higher standing of the shire knights among the Commons in Parliament: having been elected by their fellow gentry and other freemen, they indirectly represented the interests of their class in general.

Yet other qualifications besides landowning all but guaranteed the shire knights a dominant position in the Lower House. As individuals, they not only enjoyed the prestige conferred by gentility, but were mostly either knights or esquires, as well as being armigerous. In a period when involvement in war was almost a necessary condition of a popular and acceptable foreign policy, many of the county representatives, whether knights or esquires by rank, themselves followed the profession of arms, at least for a time. Moreover, far from being small-scale landlords, several owned manors and estates which vied in value and geographical spread with those held by lesser members of the titular nobility. Some of them were even allied by close kinship and by marriage with the peerage; indeed, a few were themselves to enter its ranks. Most of them were important, too, because they were appointed to the provincial and other local administrative offices of the Crown, acting as sheriffs, escheators, coroners, j.p.s, custodians of royal castles and lordships and the like. Many also helped manage the property and serve the interests of the great magnates of their neighbourhood, from whom they sought ‘good lordship’, personal protection and support, sometimes at the expense of legal propriety, and from whom they received the fees and favours due to valuable retainers. It was in this environment of ‘bastard feudalism’ that so many of the shire knights made their bid for personal and family aggrandisement. Involvement in parliamentary service played a more than symbolic part: it counted as an objective in itself, and as a means of achieving other ends. A significant proportion of shire knights, not least the lawyers, had proper parliamentary careers, attending numerous Parliaments; and a few of them, by successive re-elections, did so continuously, sometimes for quite lengthy periods. Such experience, once gained, became itself something of a qualification. Of course, general as well as personal factors helped to determine the part played by the shire knights in the House of Commons. Not only as belonging to the upper social ranks of their communities did they represent the counties, which together provided the basic framework of the provincial administration of the kingdom (while at the same time remaining proudly conscious of their own separate identities), but they represented also the landed interest upon whose successful management of the rural areas the national economy depended. Whether these qualifications were of a personal or general nature, they combined to ensure that the knights would dominate the proceedings of the Lower House, and, indeed, would exercise a greater influence upon the affairs of Parliament as a whole than the more numerous representatives of the urban communities. This state of affairs is confirmed by evidence from a variety of sources, literary as well as official, from chronicles as well as from the rolls of Parliament.

Whereas, when considering the events of particular Parliaments, all the extant chronicles of the time refer to the representatives collectively as ‘the Commons’, some of them occasionally describe the shire knights as being so especially active as virtually to constitute a distinct element. Thomas Walsingham, precentor and historiographer of the abbey of St. Albans, is particularly noteworthy in this respect. In his Chronica Majora, he begins his long relation of the events of the Good Parliament of 1376 by stating that it was the knights (‘milites de comitatibus’) who, by divine inspiration, but after careful discussion, refused to answer Edward III’s demands for a general tax until counselled by the Lords. When, later in the Parliament, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, attempted to suppress the Commons’ impeachment of William, Lord Latimer, the King’s chamberlain, he himself actually entered a gathering of the knights (‘coetus militum’), so the chronicler says, in an effort to bring this about. Since the duke intended, once the next Parliament had met in January 1377, that it should reject the enactments of its predecessor, one of his first steps was to interfere in elections to the Commons: significantly, according to Walsingham, he was solely concerned with the choice of county representatives. His alleged objective was to have nominees of his own arbitrarily substituted for shire knights of the Good Parliament, thus replacing the men who had been active in the cause of reform; and as a result of his intervention no more than a dozen knights were re-elected.25 (Walsingham’s reckoning was near enough, for only nine shire knights actually sat in both Parliaments, one having been elected for a fresh county, the remaining eight for the same constituencies as before.) In his account of the Lent Parliament of 1383, the same chronicler records with undisguised satisfaction how, after much evasion on the part of the leading men of the kingdom and wranglings between many of the earls and barons, opposition to the Flemish crusade of Bishop Despenser of Norwich was abandoned, and the project approved as a result of the praiseworthy steadfastness of the parliamentary knights (‘laudabili constantia militum Parliamentalium’). Walsingham subsequently describes the stand made by Archbishop Courtenay in the Parliament of 1385 against an attempt to have a grant of a lay subsidy made conditional upon one by the clergy, adding that the reaction of the mass of the Commons (‘turba communium’) was such that the shire knights (‘milites Communitatuum’), in their rage, and along with certain magnates, demanded that the churchmen should be compelled to surrender their temporalities. Some of them, he notes, openly advocated such a proposal as a means of reducing the clergy to a becoming state of humility. Walsingham also informs us that a group of shire knights (‘quidam de militibus Parliamentalibus’) incurred Richard II’s wrath in the Parliament of 1386, for having both attacked his chancellor, the earl of Suffolk, and obstructed the grant of a subsidy.26 This particular allegation finds some support in one of the charges laid against the King’s chief friends by the Lords Appellant in the Merciless Parliament of 1388: namely, that they had encouraged him to recruit armed forces not only for the purpose of suppressing the parliamentary commission of 1386, but also in order to destroy certain shire knights who had sat then.27 It was solely to the knights, moreover, that Walsingham attributed resistance to a proposal to moderate the Statute of Provisors in Pope Boniface IX’s interest, made in the Parliament of 1391.28 He also suggests that the hostility shown by certain shire knights to the clergy was responsible for Archbishop Arundel’s anxiety when he met the Convocation of his province in 1399, immediately after Henry IV’s accession; and he describes how, in the ensuing first Parliament of the reign, the ‘milites Parliamenti’ were told to re-petition for confirmation of whatever Acts passed in Richard II’s last Parliament they wished to retain (‘quia Parliamentum illud nullum fuit’).29 Again according to Walsingham, demands for the arrest of Richard’s evil councillors came from the same quarter; and at the end of the session the knights as well as the peers were asked by the King whether they knew the origin of certain letters threatening a revolt because he had been lenient towards those who had appealed the late duke of Gloucester of treason. To the ‘milites Parliamentales’ Walsingham attributes the impudent scheme put forward in the ‘Unlearned Parliament’, which met at Coventry in 1404, that the temporalities of the Church should be seized for a time to the King’s use; and also the even more mischievous proposal made in 1410 that all the temporalities of bishops, abbots and priors should be permanently confiscated. The latter proposal, as well as resistance to an equally unreasonable demand from Henry IV that in every future year of his reign, without any need for Parliament to meet, he should enjoy a clerical tenth and a lay fifteenth, caused Parliament to drag on for two sessions spread over some four months. As a result the wages of the shire knights were, Walsingham says, almost as heavy a burden upon their constituencies (at the normal rate of 4 s. a day each) as the fifteenth finally granted by Parliament.30 So far as the length of the 1410 Parliament could be blamed on the Commons at all, Walsingham felt that the knights were mainly responsible. He had said the same of their conduct in the Parliament of 1406, which had run to three sessions amounting in all to some 23 weeks. Certainly, he ascribed its long-delayed end to the reluctance of the ‘milites Parliamentales’ to vote a subsidy, their obstinacy eventually leading not only to a clash with the peers over the conditions of the grant, but also to a bad-tempered outburst on the part of the King himself which, effectively, cowed the knights into giving way and conceding the tax.31

Although no other contemporary writer mentions so often, or so emphatically, the particular role of the shire knights, such references as do occur elsewhere tend to strengthen the impression left by the St. Albans chronicler. The author of the Anonimalle Chronicle of the abbey of St. Mary of York, who wrote in detail of some episodes of the Good Parliament of 1376 (showing his informant to be fully conversant with parliamentary procedure), mostly refers indiscriminately to the elected Members as ‘les communes’. However, in this account also, the knights are sometimes clearly distinguished from the rest of the Lower House: the chapter house of Westminster abbey was, for example, given up for meetings ‘a les chivalers et communes’; and such speeches there as are briefly reported in the chronicle were made by knights, who went to the lectern to speak. Moreover, when, at the end of the same ten-week-old Parliament, a feast was held to celebrate the dissolution, the knights alone were the hosts, the burgesses being among their guests.32 So far as the chronicle of Henry Knighton of Leicester is concerned, the only specific allusion to the knights occurs in an account of the Parliament of 1386, at the beginning of which both Lords and Commons insisted that Richard II should attend Parliament and stop delaying the trial of his chancellor, the earl of Suffolk. According to Knighton, the King then required a deputation of 40 ‘knights from among the more experienced and worthy of the Commons’ (‘milites de peritioribus et valentioribus communibus’) to attend upon him and explain their collective demands.33 A continuation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, written by a monk of Westminster and covering the years 1381-94 in considerable detail, supplies a comparable comment when describing the reception given by the Parliament of 1394 to the terms of certain Anglo-French peace negotiations. These were apparently disclosed only to ‘the kingdom’s older and more worthy knights’ (‘inter milites seniores et valenciores regni’).34 But when, at other times, this chronicle refers to the Commons, it simply uses the terms ‘communitas regni’ or ‘communes’, without calling special attention to the knights. There are, however, sufficient grounds for accepting the above-mentioned references, most notably in the writings of Thomas Walsingham, to the superiority of the shire knights among the Commons, and indeed to their prominence in Parliament as a whole. Any doubt on this score must largely be allayed by evidence from the Parliament rolls themselves, reticent though they generally are about procedure, especially where the Commons are concerned.

A particularly interesting source of information derives from entries concerning the composition of parliamentary committees appointed to perform specific tasks, upon which Members of the Lower House were required or allowed to serve. Shire knights were at least numerically preponderant. This was so in a Parliament of 1340 when 12 knights, as against six burgesses, joined a committee of lords and royal justices set up to deal with petitions. When, in the Parliament of January 1380, a commission of inquiry into the state of the King’s household and of the royal administration in general was appointed, three shire knights (including the Speaker) were chosen, along with three merchants, of whom only one, however, was an MP at the time. The commission created in January 1398, to complete, with the authority of what proved to be Richard II’s last Parliament, the business left over from the short, final session at Shrewsbury, was comprised of ten lay peers and six shire knights, first among whom was the Speaker, Sir John Bussy. The only parliamentary commissions of which we have notice in the 15th century (and which were far less important than that of 1398-9) were all set up during the long Parliament of 1406. On 3 Apr. (the last day of the first of the Parliament’s three sessions), the Speaker, Sir John Tiptoft, referring to the government’s failure to reach an agreement with the merchants about the safe-keeping of the sea, proposed that the articles of negotiation should be engrossed, and a committee of certain MPs appointed to treat with the King’s Council. Those duly nominated to settle matters included Tiptoft himself and five other knights: given the nature of the business in hand, the omission of parliamentary burgesses is especially noteworthy. Then, on 19 July following (at the close of the second session), in response to a request for the discharge of the two special treasurers for wars appointed in the Coventry Parliament of 1404, the chief baron of the Exchequer and a peer were appointed to view the relevant accounts, and the Commons were allowed to add other auditors from among themselves. Their nominees comprised five shire knights but only one representative from a town, who had, in fact, been returned for the City of London. A third committee of the 1406 Parliament was set up on 22 Dec. (the day of dissolution), its purpose again being to assist at the enactment and engrossment of the Parliament roll; and when the Commons asked the Upper House to propose some of its own members, they themselves submitted the names of the Speaker and nine other shire knights with, in addition, only two townsmen, both of whom were London MPs (including the one previously asked to act as an auditor).35

The parliamentary records proper also provide evidence about the composition of deputations sent by the Commons to the Lords, which, although admittedly less complete, points in the same direction. Normally, of course, the Commons communicated with the Upper House through the Speaker, but if, for some reason, a deputation were to take a message without him, it would at least be led by another knight. For example, in November 1423, during Henry VI’s second Parliament, when the Commons wished to thank the duke of Gloucester (the King’s commissary) and the other lords for having given them news of the negotiations for the release of King James I of Scotland, and to ask to be informed about the conclusion of the matter, they sent no more than five delegates, all of whom were knights, one acting as spokesman. This is the only instance of such a proceeding in pre-Tudor Parliament rolls where all the members of the deputation are named. In the few other reports of similar delegations the compiler of the official record was content to supply at most the name of the leader, who was invariably a shire knight. Thus, at Leicester in 1426, Roger Hunt*, one of the Huntingdonshire knights and himself a former Speaker, headed a party sent to complain to the Lords about their dissensions before the Commons had actually elected a Speaker. In November 1455, when Henry VI was said to have relapsed into insanity, the lawyer, William Burley*, a representative for Shropshire, along with ‘a notable nombre’ of the Commons, urged the Lords to re-appoint the duke of York as Protector no less than three times in the space of five days.36

Furthermore, there is a strong possibility that the Speaker’s election was invariably announced in the Upper House by one of the shire knights. Before the Tudor period, this individual’s name is given in the Parliament roll only twice, but each time a knight declared the election: in 1427, Richard Baynard*, Member for Essex, himself a former Speaker; and in 1437, (Sir) John Hody*, who was sitting for Somerset.37 By the beginning of Henry VII’s reign, if not before, it was normal practice for the formal communication of the Speaker’s election to the King and Lords to be made by a group of shire knights. Such a procedure is clearly documented in a report, made by the two burgesses who had represented Colchester in the Parliament of 1485 to their fellow townsmen, and later set down in the borough’s ‘Red Paper Book’. They first related how, once Thomas Lovell (the chancellor of the Exchequer) had been elected Speaker, ‘it pleased the Knyghts that were there present for to ryse from ther sets [seats] and so for to goo to that plase where as the Speker stode and brought hym and set hym in his sete’. The recorder of London had then reminded the House that ‘there hath ben an ordir in this place in tymes passed that ye shulde commaunde a certeyn of Knyghts and other gentilmen, such as it pleaseth you ... to the nombre of xxiiij, and they to goo togedir un to my Lord Chaunseler, and there to show unto his lordship that they have doon the Kyngs commaundement in the chosyn of our Speker, desyring his lordship if that he wold shew it un to the Kyngs grace’.38 The Parliament roll of 1495 itself states that the deputation announcing the Speaker’s election was led by Sir Reynold Bray (the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster), Sir Richard Guildford (the controller of the Household) and Richard Empson (the attorney-general of the duchy of Lancaster). In 1497, however, Sir Thomas Lovell (by now treasurer of the Household) reported the election alone.39

The high standing of those presenting the Speaker on these later occasions might be taken to imply that, if they had not actually nominated him in the first place, they and their fellow shire knights were bound to have exercised considerable influence on his election. Indeed, the possibility of the Speaker’s having once been chosen by the knights alone cannot be entirely ruled out. In this connexion, it may be recalled that, in alluding to the election of Sir Thomas Hungerford*, a retainer of John of Gaunt, as Speaker in Edward III’s last Parliament, Thomas Walsingham writes as if he had been elected simply by a majority (‘a majori parte’) of the shire knights.40 However, this event, if correctly recounted by the chronicler, coincided with the first formal record of the office of Speaker, and can hardly therefore be accepted as a safe guide to subsequent practice, which evidently changed. And, certainly, Walsingham’s account is left unconfirmed by an otherwise important report, recorded in a guildhall roll of Bishop’s Lynn, of the Speaker’s election in 1420. According to this report, one of the Members, who had just returned from Parliament and was describing the proceedings to the townspeople, explained that the election had been so closely contested as to necessitate a scrutiny or test (‘examinacio’) of votes (‘voces’), the favoured candidate (Roger Hunt) ‘prevailing’ over his rival (John Russell III) by a majority of four. Unfortunately, the report, at least as written down, does not state precisely who declared their preferences, whether shire knights alone, or in conjunction with the parliamentary burgesses. Even so, both nominees were knights.41

In view of the superior standing of the shire knights, it is hardly surprising that the Speaker, whose primary function was to represent all the Commons in the Upper House, and so personify their corporate unity, was throughout the medieval period chosen exclusively from among the county Members. It was not, in fact, until 1533, during the Reformation Parliament, that a burgess is first know to have been elected to the chair, in the person of Humphrey Wingfield, who was sitting for Great Yarmouth.42 Himself a lawyer, Wingfield was, however, no ordinary, simple burgess: a member of an old family of substantial East Anglian landowners, he was a kinsman of the duke of Suffolk, and one of the chamberlains of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary. Nor is it without some significance that at the very ceremony in which Wingfield was presented and accepted as Speaker, the King dubbed him knight.43 Long before this time, so many country gentlemen, including royal officials, lawyers, and servants of the aristocracy, had grown accustomed to sit in Parliament for either counties or towns, mostly for a town first and a county later (but just occasionally the other way round), that well before the end of the 15th century the House of Commons contained roughly twice as many gentlemen as townsmen proper.44 And yet, despite such an important change in the social structure of the Lower House, the entrenched nature of the practice (possibly principle) whereby the Speaker was always a shire knight is clearly demonstrated by the manner in which Sir Thomas Fitzwilliam obtained a seat in the Parliament of 1489-90, of which he was to become Speaker. Recorder of London since 1483 and one of its representatives in the three previous Parliaments, Sir Thomas was initially returned for the City on 2 Dec. 1488. However, his own county of Lincolnshire subsequently elected him as well; and although, according to the journal of the court of aldermen, he did not at first ‘choose for which to sit’, a substitute was elected by the City on 7 Jan. 1489. He thus finally entered the Commons as a shire knight, there to be elected Speaker on 14 Jan. (the second day of the session).45 The most reasonable explanation for his second election to Parliament is that his nomination for the Speakership had been decided well in advance, albeit after his election for London, so that he then had to be returned for a county in order to avoid any break with established custom.

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: J. S. Roskell

End Notes

  • 1. Few burgesses’ names are available for the Parliaments of 1390 (Nov.), 1394, 1401, 1404 (Jan.), 1404 (Oct.), 1410, 1411, 1414 (Apr.), 1415 and 1416 (Mar.). In the case of county elections, there are serious gaps in the returns to the Parliaments of 1410, 1411, 1415, 1416 (Mar.) and 1417. All returns, either for counties for towns, to the Parliament of 1413 (Feb.) were destroyed on the death of Henry IV; and all those for 1416 (Oct.) have been lost, save for Dunwich (Suffolk), although the names of 28 Members from other constituencies are known from other sources: see Appendix A3.
  • 2. Not until 1543 (when Wales was divided into 12 counties, each enabled to send one knight to Parliament, and each shire town one burgess) was Cheshire first permitted to return two knights for the county and two burgesses for the city of Chester. But only in 1675 was the county of Durham first represented, and the city in 1678. Lancashire, although made a county palatine by Edward III, was always represented.
  • 3. M. McKisack, Parl. Repn. Eng. Bors. 8-10, 25-28, 45-46. The eight new towns were Wootton Bassett (1447), Hindon (1449), Westbury (1449), Heytesbury (1449), Gatton (1453), Grantham (1467), Ludlow (1472) and Much Wenlock (1472).
  • 4. See Appendix A3.
  • 5. RP, iii. 572.
  • 6. Anonimalle Chron. ed. Galbraith, 80. This figure most probably exaggerates.
  • 7. RP, iii. 55, 71, 98, 122, 132, 149, 454, 485, 647.
  • 8. Reps. Lords’ Cttees. iv. 710.
  • 9. CPR, 1385-9, p. 439.
  • 10. J.S. Roskell, Commons of 1422, chap. 7.
  • 11. See pp. 27-39 above.
  • 12. Const. Hist. Eng. (Lib. edn.) ii. 410.
  • 13. Ibid. 465.
  • 14. RP, ii. 52, 66, 112 (the ninth sheaf, and so forth, was presumably a second tenth, the first tenth having gone to the Church as tithe).
  • 15. Ibid. 246, 254, 269.
  • 16. Ibid. iii. 123.
  • 17. Handbook of British Chronology ed. Fryde etc. (3d edn.), 562.
  • 18. RP, ii. 310.
  • 19. E. Hall, Chron. ed. Ellis, 657.
  • 20. Roskell, chap. 7.
  • 21. RP, ii. 69, 136, 237.
  • 22. Ibid. 159.
  • 23. Ibid. 136, 237, 283, 289, 294, 316, 322; iii. 329, 338; iv. 94. On the subject of the Commons’ meeting place at Westminster see J.G. Edwards, Commons in Med. Eng. Parls. 25-27.
  • 24. RP, iii. 33, 89, 608; iv. 16, 295.
  • 25. Chron. Angliae 1328-88 ed. Thompson, 68, 76, 112.
  • 26. T. Walsingham, Hist. Ang. ed. Riley, ii. 84, 140, 150.
  • 27. RP, iii. 243 cap. 14.
  • 28. Hist. Ang. ii. 203.
  • 29. J. Trokelowe et al., Chrons. et Annales ed. Riley, 290, 303.
  • 30. Ibid. 320, 391; St. Albans Chron. ed. Galbraith, 56-57.
  • 31. St. Albans Chron. 2-3.
  • 32. Anonimalle Chron. 80-82, 94.
  • 33. H. Knighton, Chron. ed. Lumby, ii. 216.
  • 34. Westminster Chron. 1381-94 ed. Hector and Harvey, 516-19. Although Adam of Usk incorporated notes on a number of late 14th and early 15th century Parliaments in his chronicle, and wrote extensively on that of 1397-8 (allegedly attending the first session at Westminster every day), he is quite unhelpful regarding the point at issue, referring to the Commons almost invariably as ‘plebei’ (Adam of Usk, Chron. ed. Thompson, 10, 12).
  • 35. RP, ii. 113; iii. 73, 360, 569, 577, 585.
  • 36. Ibid. iv. 199, 296; v. 284-5.
  • 37. Ibid. iv. 317, 502.
  • 38. Red Ppr. Bk. Colchester ed. Benham, 62.
  • 39. RP, vi. 458, 510.
  • 40. Chron. Angliae 1328-88, p. 112.
  • 41. McKisack, 142.
  • 42. House of Commons, 1509-58 ed. Bindoff, iii. 640-1. Wingfield was certainly returned for Great Yarmouth at the start of the 1529 Parliament, but he possibly replaced Sir Thomas Wentworth as a shire knight when the latter was made a peer in December of that year. If so, he would thus have ceased to sit as a parliamentary burgess long before his election as Speaker.
  • 43. LP Hen. VIII, vi. 63.
  • 44. Roskell, chap. 7.
  • 45. J.S. Roskell, Speakers, 74, 300.