Chapter II: The House of Commons under the Plantagenets (Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries)
The Early Speakers and Their Precursors
- Peter de Montfort
- William Trussell
- Henry Beaumont
- Geoffrey Le Scrope (Chief Justice)
- William de Thorpe (Chief Justice)
- William de Shareshulle (Chief Justice)
- Henry Green (Chief Justice)
- Thomas Hungerford
- Peter de la Mare
- James Pickering
- John Guildesborough
- Richard Waldegrave
- John Bussy
The Knights of the Shire, the backbone of the English representative system, were the logical outcome of the severance of the barones minores, or lesser tenants in chief, from the House of Lords, a body lineally descended from the feudal Norman Curia, and consisting of the greater tenants in chief or barones majores. These derived their Parliamentary existence mainly, if not wholly, from the principle of primogeniture. Sitting in the first instance by virtue of tenure, a very important modification, designed in the first instance to secure sufficient attendance on the King in Council, was in course of time introduced, which led to developments more far-reaching in their effect than their authors perhaps foresaw. This epoch-making innovation was the issue of a writ of summons, without which none could attend. Viewed by its recipients in the earliest days of its employment as an inalienable right, it gradually came to be regarded as a privilege, and especially when it was found that it could be used on occasion to exclude possible opponents as well as to include known supporters of the Crown. By a master-stroke, amounting to positive genius, Simon de Montfort so utilised this method of selection as to cause attendance on the King in Council to be regarded as a privilege by one classthe magnates of the realmand as a burden, haply to be evaded by the other.1
The precise date at which the lesser tenants-in-chief ceased to attend at Westminster, in company with the greater barons, and became merged in the body of the Knights of the Shire cannot now be determined, but, once the control of the Crown over the summons was tacitly admitted, it only remained to provide for the separate representation of the under tenants and freeholders in Parliament, and the transition from tenure to selection was in all essentials complete.2 From the ranks of the Knights of the Shire the Speakers were invariably drawn until the reign of Henry VIII, when a burgess was first selected for that honour.3 The aristocracy of the Lower House of Parliament, they were first summoned to Westminster during Henry the Third's absence in Gascony in 1254 by Eleanor of Provence and Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the King's brother.4
There is no evidence that the summons was ever obeyed, yet it stands as a landmark in our Parliamentary annals from its embodying the principle of popular representation. The industrious Prynne,5 writing in the seventeenth century, cited the terms of the writ commanding the sheriffs to cause two knights to be elected in every county by the counties themselves, to appear before the King in Council to report what voluntary aid each county would grant towards the defence of Gascony. "Praecipimus," the writ ran, "quod praeter omnes praedictos venire faciatis coram consilio nostro, apud Westmonasterium, in quindena Pasche prox futur, quatuor legales et discretes milites de Comitatibus praedictis, quos iidem Comitatus ad hoc eligerint vice omnium et singulorum eorundem, videlicet duos de uno Comitatu et duos de alio." Thus the financial exigencies of the Sovereign were the primary and determining cause of a resort to popular election.
The gradual decline of the feudal aristocracy of the Norman Conquest and the expulsion of foreigners enabled the great Simon de Montfort to realise his dream of England for the English, and to stamp his name for all time upon the Constitution, by setting up a representative assembly to which the writ of summons was to be a right, instead of, as in the case of the House of Lords, a privilege, to be issued or withheld at the will of the Sovereign. The loss of Normandy and other French possessions of the Crown had the important result of rendering the Baronage essentially English, a fact which must not be lost sight of in estimating the patriotic action of De Montfort.
A further stage in the growth of Parliamentary institutions was reached in 1264-65, when, for the first time, De Montfort caused the summons to be extended to the burgesses as well as to the Knights of the Shire:
" Item mandatum est singulis Vice Corn per Angi, quod venire faciant Duos milites de legalioribus, probioribus et discretioribus militibus singulorum Comitatum ad Regem London in Octob praedict in forma prsedicta. Item in forma praedicta scribitur civibus Eborum, civibus Lincoln et coeteris Burgis Angi quod mittant in forma praedicta Duos de discretioribus, legalioribus, et probioribus tarn civibus quam Burgensibus suis. Item in forma praedicta mandatum est Baronibus et probis hominibus Quinque Portuum prout Continetur in Brevi inrotulato inferius."
The Cinque Ports, it will be observed, were specially directed to send representatives to Parliament, an instance of the importance already attaching to the question of maritime defence.6
It would appear that the writs then issued to knights, citizens, and burgesses were identical in form and substance with those addressed to the spiritual and temporal lords. None were issued to the citizens of London, as their liberties had been seized by the King, many of them imprisoned, and their estates confiscated, for having sided with the Barons. York and Lincoln were the only cities specially mentioned, and throughout the long reign of Henry III distrust of the City of London and a preference for Westminster were shown by the reluctant conceder of Parliaments. On the one occasion upon which he called a Parliament to assemble in the Tower of London the Barons refused to attend except at Westminster.
The transactions of these early Parliaments, all of them of brief duration, consisted for the most part of petitions to the Crown for redress of grievances, and the principal function of their presiding officers was to collect the views of the majority and to report to the King what amount of aid the assembly was willing to grant. Little or nothing in the nature of articulate protest by the minority is entered on the Rolls, nor is it definitely known at what date the practice of dividing the House and recording the names of those who dissented from the majority was instituted. In 1258 Henry III was in such pressing need of money that he announced that he must have a third of all property. In return the Barons were powerful enough to extort from him7 a promise of direct control over the executive. Even whilst these pages were passing through the press, portions of three writs, addressed to the sheriffs of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, Surrey and Sussex, and Wiltshire, summoning both Knights of the Shire and burgesses to a Parliament to be held at Westminster at Easter, 1275. were accidentally found in the dust at the bottom of a chest transferred to the Public Record Office when the Chapel of the Pyx in the Abbey precincts was being cleared out, preparatory to its being thrown open to the public. This valuable historical discovery, foreshadowing to some extent the "Model Parliament,"8 included the names of the members returned for the above-mentioned counties, for Middlesex, Somerset, and Dorset, and also for Warwickshire and Leicestershire.
It is true that in 1275 the wording of the sheriffs' instructions was "Venire facias," leaving the all-important condition of election unspecified, but it must be remembered that from the time of King John until the various features of our complex Parliamentary system were, so to speak, stereotyped in 1295, novelties and experiments were frequently being introduced in the form of the directions issued by the King to the returning officers. Sometimes the Knights of the Shire and the burgesses were required to be elected, sometimes the vaguer form of "venire facias" was employed, and on more than one occasion the summoning of clerical proctors was dispensed with.
The important fact revealed by these documents, unexpectedly brought to light after lying unheeded for centuries within a stone's-throw of the chamber to which they refer, is that, so early as 1275, Edward I, when he had only been on the throne for three years, had improved upon De Montfort's original idea of a summons to each borough through its mayor; that is to say, that in the form which Parliament finally assumed the representatives of the town were summoned through the sheriff of the shire.
The Parliament of 1295, which has been called the "Model Parliament," marked the end of the experimental stage and the definite and permanent establishment of an assembly comprising the three estates of the realm. For while in the reign of King John, and at the accession of Henry III, the legislative assembly of the kingdom convened for the purpose of granting aids to the Crown may be deemed to have been wholly constituted by tenure, in and after 1295 it is clear that tenure did not constitute the qualification by which members of the Commons sat. Their qualification was henceforth constituted by election, and the earlier constitution of a legislature wholly by tenure was superseded. Besides the Lords and Prelates were now regularly included the proctors of each cathedral diocese, two knights from each shire, two citizens from each city, and two burgesses from each borough.
At the present day, when the powers and constitution of the House of Lords are being closely scrutinised, it is well to remember that in those far-oft Plantagenet times the non-hereditary element in the Upper House amounted to nearly a moiety of the whole body, a condition which continued until the reign of Henry VIII. The composition of the House of Commons which met at Westminster in November, 1295, though presumably based upon the distribution of the existing population, was remarkable (with certain exceptions, to be noted hereafter) for the preponderance of representatives from the southern and western shires. It numbered 292 members. Of these no less than 219 represented the towns, whilst only 73 Knights of the Shire were returned.
Cornwall, the county which in after years enjoyed the unenviable reputation of possessing the greatest number of rotten boroughs within its borders, had thus early five representative towns, Bodmin, Launceston, Liskeard, Tregony, and Truro. Dorset had four, Somerset five, Devonshire and Sussex six each, Hampshire nine, and Wiltshire, where no doubt the influence of the great territorial family of Hungerford was paramount, no less than thirteen! North of the Trent, the part of the kingdom which returned the greatest number of borough members was, as might have been expected, the county of York, which had eleven representatives, Worcester coming next to it with seven. It has, unfortunately, been impossible to discover the name of the Procurator, for such was the title given by contemporary chroniclers to the earliest leaders of the Commons, who presided over the deliberations of this Mother of Parliaments.10
The transactions of the important constitutional assembly which met at Westminster in February, 1304-5, have been analysed by the late Professor Maitland in his masterly introduction to the Memoranda de Parliamento.11 The representatives of the people then dealt with many subjects, and amongst others the impending subjugation of Scotland. They even concerned themselves with the internal affairs of Ireland; two natives of the sister isle actually petitioning the King to be placed under English rule.
No presiding officer can be positively identified as having been chosen in 1304-5, but from the list of names preserved in the Public Records we gather that a Lowther sat as Knight of the Shire for Westmorland exactly six hundred years before a member of the same ancient Northern family was raised to the Chair.12 The deficiencies of the printed Rolls of Parliament, the work in the first instance of the Clerks in Chancery, are both numerous and regrettable. Chiefly concerned as they are with Petitions, to the exclusion of debate, there is some reason to believe that many interesting details of the ordinary routine of Parliament in the days of its youth remain unedited and undigested in the national archives.
Valuable as are the six folio volumes printed between 1767 and 1777, their editors only made selections from a mass of available material. Historical research at the close of the eighteenth century had not attained to the high level reached in our own day by Professor Maitland and other labourers in the same field, and it is much to be desired that the entire series of Chancery Rolls should be edited afresh and printed in extenso in English, after the thorough manner adopted in the case of the Registers of the Privy Council. To these should be added a transcript of the various forms of Parliamentary Writs and a precis of all such documents in the Public Record Office as relate to the early history of both branches of the legislature.
Much divergence of opinion prevails amongst constitutional writers as to the actual date of the separation of the two Houses. Hakewil, who wrote in 1641, possibly had access to documentary evidence no longer extant, and he maintained that they deliberated apart, or that at all events they gave their assents separately, so early as 1260, and Sir Edward Coke asserted that he had seen contemporary evidence which proved that the separation of the two bodies took place at the desire of the Commons.13 But as there is no evidence in existence to show that the Parliaments held before 1264-65 included a more popular element than the Barons and Prelates, it seems safer to assume that the division into two Houses did not actually take place until early in the reign of Edward III.14
Throughout this reign the Rolls record regulations for the maintenance of order within the Palace of Westminster during the sitting of Parliament. In 1331-32 it was declared that "Our Lord the King forbids, on pain of imprisonment, any child or other person from playing at bars15 or other games, the taking off of men's caps, laying hands on them, or otherwise preventing them from peacefully following their occupations in any part of the Palace of Westminster during the sitting of Parliament."16
The precise nature of the game of "bares," to which the youth of Westminster were addicted, cannot now be stated, but it was probably some form of a game known in later times as French and English or prisoner's base. The snatching of men's caps, and other forms of rough horse-play were the traditional recreations of the idle apprentice. Nearly six hundred years later the police are directed, at the beginning of each session, to secure free access to members repairing to the Palace of Westminster, though it is no longer necessary to issue regulations as to the playing of games within the precincts of Parliament. When the Knights of the Shire first obtained representation at Westminster they acted with the Barons rather than with the citizens and burgesses, and it was not until the country gentry were fused with the new blood imported by the inclusion of the burgesses that an estate of the realm which, in the fullness of time, was destined to become the predominant partner in the Constitution, became an established fact.
Though there is conclusive proof of the Commons being thanked by the King for their services in I304-5,17 this does not necessarily imply that they had finally separated from the Lords, and when in 1315 one William de Ayremine, a Clerk in Chancery, was deputed by the Crown to note the business in Parliament he probably recorded the doings of both Lords and Commons. Another of this name was secretary to Edward II in 1325-26. The Parliament held at York in May, 1322, obtained from Edward II an acknowledgment of the supremacy of a complete representative assembly. This declaration, entered on the Rolls, virtually amounted to a written Constitution, and made it abundantly clear that, for the future, "all matters to be established for the estate of our Lord the King and his heirs, and for the estate of the realm and of the people" should require the consent of the prelates, the earls and barons, and the Commonalty of the realm. No mention is made at this time of the Knights of the Shire, who probably continued to act with the Barons until after 1332.18 In 1330 the Upper House had its own clerk.19 Sire Henry de Edenestowe was the first to be appointed to the honourable position of Clerk of the Parliaments. Apparently it was from the first an office of profit under the Crown, for in 1346 the King required a loan of £100 from him!20 Not until 1388, when John de Scardesburgh was chosen, does history record the appointment of a similar officer for the Commons, yet as he was established in office at that date it is reasonable to infer that his post existed previously. Turning aside from the conditions under which the Lower House first met at Westminster, its earliest presiding officers claim attention at our hands. The great names of Montfort, Trussell, Beaumont, Scrope, De la Mare, and Hungerford, six of the very flower of England, are associated with the popular assembly in the first years of its existence, and those, scarcely less considerable, of Pickering, Guildesborough, Waldegrave, and Bussy, completing the catalogue of Plantagenet Speakers, are all known to have played some part in the history of the country. The memory of others who filled the Chair in the turbulent times of the fourteenth century has been obliterated in the course of the centuries which have elapsed since they voiced the opinion of the representatives of the people in free Parliament assembled. England then, as now, was governed by opinion rather than by acts of despotism, as Sir Robert Peel was wont to remark. Peter de Montfort is said21 to have consented " vice totius communitatis" to the banishment of Ayrner de Valence, Bishop-Elect of Winchester and half-brother to Henry the Third. These were the identical words made use of by Speaker Tiptoft in 1405-6, when he signed and sealed the entail to the Crown,22 and yet the word communitas as applied by Peter de Montfort may only have been intended to convey a collective body of Crown vassals, whereas, in the latter instance, the Speaker undoubtedly referred to the House of Commons as a separate entity. The sole authority for Hakewil's statement is the Register Book of St. Alban's Abbey, formerly in the Cottonian Library, and, as he refers to the actual page,23 it appears that both he and Sir Symonds D'Ewes, who also quotes the Register, saw it with their own eyes. But it cannot now be traced in the British Museum, and it is to be feared that this valuable manuscript must have perished in the fire which destroyed loo volumes of the Cottonian Collection in 1731, and rendered a like number illegible. In 1259 Pope Alexander IV was striving with all his might to procure the recall of Ayrner de Valence from exile, but the answer which Peter de Montfort transmitted to Rome was couched in these uncompromising terms:
" Si Dominus Rex et Regni majores hoc vellent, communitas tamen, ipsius ingressorum in Anglia, jam nullatenus sustineret."24
From the date given by Hakewil,25 it seems not unlikely that Peter de Montfort may have acted as presiding officer of the so-called "Mad Parliament" of 1258, when he was undoubtedly one of the twelve nominees of the Baronial, as opposed to the Court, party, entrusted with the duty of carrying out the great work of reform known to our forefathers as the "Provisions of Oxford." But, as has already been pointed out, the Knights of the Shire and the burgesses were not represented in the Parliament of 1258, therefore Peter de Montfort can only have acted as the spokesman of a restricted assembly of Barons and Prelates, nor was there any Parliament actually in session at the time of his protest against the recall of Ayrner de Valence. To the Provisions of Oxford Henry III published his adhesion in the first known English Proclamation, and a copy of it still exists at Oxford. It is written chiefly in the Midland dialect and there is not a single French word in it. Probably Simon de Montfort felt the need of appealing to the nation at large, and this English confirmation of the royal acquiescence was duplicated by his orders in the Latin and French tongues.
One would naturally like to connect the name of the first Parliamentary spokesman with that of the great Simon, the originator of the principle of the House of Commons, if not its actual inventor ; and some writers have gone so far as to assert that Peter was his son, and that, like his better-known father, he was killed at the battle of Evesham. But, unfortunately for the holders of this theory, it does not anywhere appear that Simon had a son called Peter. He was, in greater likelihood. Baron of Beaudesert, and of Henley in Arden, in the county of Warwick, and of a family not known to have been nearly related to the great Earl of Leicester. One of the same name, a possible relative of Simon, fought and fell at Evesham, but if, as seems certain, the earliest Parliamentary spokesman on record came of the Warwickshire stock, his death did not take place till twenty years later.26
We have no certain knowledge of the individuals who acted as Procurator in any of the sessions known to have been held between 1261 and 1325, yet in all of them there must have been some presiding officer, some intermediary between Parliament and the Crown. But when the last Parliament summoned by Edward the Second is reached there is documentary evidence of a Parliamentary leader who achieved sufficient notoriety to be honoured at his death by burial in Westminster Abbey, a distinction, by the way, which has been conferred on but very few of his successors in the Chair. This was William Trussell,27 who acted as "Procurator totius Parliamenti"28 on the deposition of Edward the Second at Kenilworth, and the same man whom Marlowe refers to in his play of Edward II.29
" My Lord, the Parliament must have present news, and therefore say, will you resign or not?" Apparently Trussell acted in a similar capacity in the reign of Edward the Third, for in 1340 he announced a naval victory to the House,30 and was specially mentioned in the Rolls as undertaking to raise wools for the King's aid.
The Parliament which assembled at Westminster, "a la quinzeine de la Seint Michel," in 1339,31 whether it was presided over or not by Trussell, was one of exceptional interest and importance, although its proceedings have received very scant attention at the hands of constitutional writers. John Stratford, the Archbishop of Canterbury, came from overseas with a message from the King to his Parliament; the Proclamation calling the Lords and Commons together was made in the Great Hall, and the cause of summons made no secret of the fact that the King was in urgent need of a great sum of money for the defence of the realm. The Abbot of Westminster, Thomas Henley, Monsieur Hugh ie Despencer, Monsieur Gilbert Talbot, Monsieur Robert de I'lsle, and Monsieur William de la Pole are amongst those specially named in the Rolls as assenting forthwith to the granting of a sum sufficient to meet the King's necessities, "ou autrement il serroit honiz [shamed] & deshonurez et lui et son poeple destruyt a tous jours." But when Parliament came to consider the method of raising the necessary supplies, there occurred one of those marked divergences of opinion between the two Houses which occasionally agitate the public mind in the twentieth as in the fourteenth century.
In 1339 the Lords consented to grant the King the tenth sheaf of all the corn in their demesnes, except of their bound tenants, the tenth fleece of the wool, and the tenth lamb of their own store, to be paid within two years. To this they attached a proviso to the effect that the great burden proposed to be laid upon wool ought to be revoked at no distant date, and that the grant should not be turned into a custom. But the Commons, when asked for an equivalent levy, made answer that before they were prepared to assent to this novel taxation they desired to consult their constituents, and, in effect, they prayed the King to dissolve the Parliament and call another to decide the question. Mutatis mutandis,, the impasse in 1339 was not dissimilar to the deadlock of 1909, though, whereas in the former year the Commons desired to take the opinion of the country before agreeing to a new form of taxation, in 1909 it was the Upper House which refused to pass the Budget of the year without first referring it to the judgment of the people. The whole record on the Rolls is of such historical importance that no apology is needed for reproducing in extenso the answer of the Commons: "Et ceux de la Commune donnerent lour respons en un autre cedule, contenante la fourme souuzescrite. "Seignurs, les gentz q sount cy a ce Parlement pur la Commune ount bien entendu l'estat nre Seignur ie Roi. et la graunt necessite q'il ad d'estre aide de son poeple ; et molt sount leez de cuer, & grantment confortez de ce q'il est tant alez avant en les busoignes queles il ad empris, a l'honur de lui, & salvacion de son poeple; et prient a Dieu q'il lui doigne grace de bien continuer & victorie de ses enemys a l'honur de lui, & salvacion de sa terre. Et quant a la necessite q'il ad d'estre aide de son poeple, les gentz de la Commune qi sount cy scievent bien q'il covient estre aidez grauntement, et sount en bone volente de la faire, si come ils ount este touz jours devant ces houres. Mes pur ceo q'il covient q l'aide soit graunt, en ce cas ils n'osoront assentir tant q'ils eussent conseillez & avysez les Communes de lour pais. Parquoi prient les ditz gentz q cy sount pur les Communes a Monseigneur ie Due, & as austres Seign q cy sount, q'il lui pleise somondre un autre Parlement au certein jour covenable, et en ie meen temps chescun se trerra vers son pais, & promettent loiaument, en la ligeance q'ils deyvent a nre Seignur ie Roi, q'ils mettront tut la peine q'ils purront chescun devers son pais pur aver aide bon et covenable pur nre Seignur ie Roi, et quident, od l'aide de Dieu, bien exploiter. Et prient outre, qe Brief soit mande a chescun Viscont d'Engleterre, q deux de mielx vanez Chivalers des Contez soient esluz & enviez at preschein Parlement pur la Commune, si qe nul de eux soit Viscomt ne autre ministre."32 It would seem that the request of the Commons was granted, for the King called a new Parliament to assemble at Westminster only three months later. On this occasion the infant Black Prince was the nominal guardian of the kingdom in his father's absence, while the administration of the country really lay in the hands of the Council.
Three years later, in 1343, the Rolls relate: "Et puis vindrent les Chivalers de Counteez et les Communes et repondirent par Mons' William Tnissell en la dite Chambre blanche" to a communication from the Pope. Dean Stanley says that he was buried in the Abbey in 1364, but, if the statement in G. E. C.'s Peerage that he died before 1346 is correct, Stanley's note is in all probability a misprinted date. Trussell's tomb was in St. Michael's Chapel under the image of St. George. A foliated cross remaining in the pavement may be his memorial, for, though the slab has long been supposed to mark the resting-place of one of the Abbots, a herald's roll of the reign of Edward III records that: "Monsire William Trussell port d'argent une crois de gules les bouts floretes,"33 which accords with the blazon on the stone at Westminster. The Rolls record the names of one or two more Parliamentary spokesmen of early date, though the constituencies they represented are not now in all cases to be ascertained.
Of the Parliament which met at Westminster 16 March, 1331-32, we read: "Lesqueux Contes Barons et autres Grantz puis revindrent et repondirent touz au Roi par la bouche [de] Mons' Henri de Beaumont." And in the next Parliament Sir Geoffrey Le Scrope, the King's Chief Justice, is mentioned as acting in the same capacity. Both Beaumont and Scrope, and probably others, were, however, almost certainly the mouthpieces of both Houses rather than the especial servants of the Commons. It now became customary for the Chief Justice to declare the cause of summons at the opening of a new Parliament, and instances are cited by Elsynge of this being done by William Thorpe, Sir William Shareshull, and Henry Green. Occasionally the King's Chamberlain acted as his deputy.34 Elsynge, however, misconceived the true functions of the individual selected by the Crown to declare the cause of summons, and he was quite wrong in assuming that the Chief Justice performed duties analogous to those of the modern Speaker. All the evidence which exists goes to prove that the Commons had not a's yet acquired the right of electing the Speaker of their free choice.
It has often been stated in print that the Commons, from the time when they began to deliberate apart, were in the habit of assembling in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey. This building was begun about 1250, but it was certainly not finished in 1256, when Dean Stanley states that the Commons met in it. He also stated that the "Commons of London," a rather vague term, assembled in the cloisters in 1263, yet in neither of these years was there a Parliament summoned. Other writers give 1282, when Ware was Abbot, as the year in which the Chapter House was first so used ; but, unfortunately for the holders of this theory, no Parliament is known to have been summoned to meet at Westminster between 1275 and 1290, though an informal assembly of ecclesiastical and civil magnates was held there on 23 April, 1286.
A careful study of the Rolls will show that these several assumptions are based upon a misapprehension of the facts. The Commons' first known place of assembly apart from the Lords was the Painted Chamber, and they met in it at least as early as the Easter Parliament of 1343.35 This apartment was in close proximity to the White Hall, or Chambre Blanche, in which the Peers and Prelates were accustomed to meet. Moreover, at the beginning of the fourteenth century relations between the King and the Abbot were very strained, and after a robbery of the Royal Treasury, to be mentioned hereafter, the Abbot of Westminster and many of his monks were committed to the Tower of London. In 1348 came the Black Death, which reduced the income of the monastery almost to vanishing point.
Not until 1351-52 is there any mention in the Rolls of the Commons deliberating in the Chapter House. But in that year Simon Langham was Abbot of Westminster, and it is conceivable that, owing to his interest with the King, they were then induced to forsake the Palace for a building not originally intended for lay purposes, and which lay under the iron rule of the most powerful ecclesiastic whom Westminster had yet known. From his great wealth (liberally expended on the fabric, both in his lifetime and after his decease), and his commanding personality, Simon Langham, Cardinal and Archbishop, came to be known as the third Founder of the Monastery on the Isle of Thorns.36
Like the earlier Simon, the still greater De Montfort, the Abbot of Westminster had his share in the development of Parliamentary institutions. Only a little while before the first definite association of the Commons with the Chapter House the representatives of the people had shown an inclination to find fault with the existing land laws, and Edward III may have thought the moment an opportune one for bringing the knights, citizens, and burgesses more directly under the influence of the Church. Yet in 1368, the forty-second year of Edward III, the Commons were back in the Palace, meeting in the Petite Salle, and the Lords in the Chambre Blanche.37
Abbot Langham, from his unique position at the head of a monastery with vast territorial possessions, was a most competent adviser of the Crown on all questions relating to the ownership of the soil, and, once within the sheltering walls of the sacred building, the earlier note of discontent amongst the Commons was hushed, at any rate for a time. Becoming Treasurer of England in 1360, Langham was Chancellor three years later, and in that capacity he declared the cause of summons (in the English language) at the opening of more than one Parliament. When, in 1366, he was promoted to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, he received the pallium from the Pope in the Royal Chapel of St. Stephen; nor was this his last connection with the scene of his upbringing. From far-off Avignon, where the closing years of his life were spent, his heart always turned to the Isle of Thorns beside the Thames, and his body was brought back to be buried in the Chapel of St. Benedict, the especial resting-place of his Order, where to this day his stately monument, happily uninjured by the accidents of time, is conspicuous among the older ecclesiastical tombs in the Abbey over which he formerly ruled. The fact that Trussell was buried there at a time when the right of interment at Westminster was confined, almost without exception, to members of the Royal Family and to ecclesiastics of high degree is an additional proof, if any were needed, of the bond of union which existed between Church and State in the days of the Plantagenets. Moreover, Simon Langham, though not yet Abbot, was a prominent member of the great Benedictine Monastery at least as early as 1346, in which year Trussell is believed to have died, and it may have been owing to his intervention that a new precedent was set when a Parliamentary leader's bones were laid to rest at Westminster.
Amongst the Abbey MSS. there is an entry on the Sacrists' Roll of the year 1377-78, at which date Langham was dead and had been succeeded by Abbot Litlington, which refers to certain floor coverings which had been worn out by the fretful feet of the knights and burgesses in the course of a recent session. The monks, with the care which characterised all their doings, then took note of "Mattis pro choro & Capitulo empt 16/8 quia tempore Parliamenti Mattae erant destructse." And, as there appears to be no earlier mention in the archives remaining in the custody of the Dean and Chapter of similar purchases for the use of the Commons, it seems reasonable to assume that the incomparable Chapter House, as it was called by Matthew Paris, was not habitually used for Parliamentary purposes before the middle of the fourteenth century.
There may have been isolated instances, owing to the close connection which existed between Henry III and the Abbey of his foundation, in which the Lords and Commons sitting together as one body assembled somewhere within the walls of St. Peter's at the earliest dawn of the English Constitution, but all the evidence goes to show that the Commons did not finally separate from the Lords until Langham sat in the Abbot's seat.
The removal of the representative Chamber from the disturbing influences of the Court to the austerer serenity of the Cloister having been found in practice to conduce to good order in debate, the Abbey became the usual home of the Commons during Litlington's beneficent rule in the Isle of Thorns, and entries in the Rolls show that they assembled in the Chapter House in 1376, 1377, 1384, and 1394-95. But the great statute of Praemunire,38 which restrained the papal authority in England, was not, as supposed by Dean Stanley, enacted at Westminster, but at Winchester in the Parliament of 1393.
In the picturesque language of Sir Walter Besant, there lay on the other side of the wall which formed the eastern boundary of the Abbey: "The Palace, the Court and Camp of the King, a place filled with noisy, racketing, even uproarious life. There were taverns without the Palace precincts where the noise of singing never ceased. There was the clashing of weapons ; there were the profane oaths of the soldiers; there was the blare of trumpets; there were the pipe and tabor of the minstrels and the jesters. . . . Only a low wall between a world of action and the world of prayer."39
Besant emphasises the gloomy side of monastic life in the Isle of Thorns, but he might have added, with equal truth, that, within the jurisdiction of the Abbot, scenes of violence and disorder were of such frequent occurrence that for a man "to take Westminster" became in after years synonymous with his flight from justice.
It is one of the boasted advantages of our Parliamentary system that the Legislature is powerless to bind its successors, yet William of Colchester, who ruled over the Abbey in 1393 could hardly have foreseen that, within fifty years of the Commons accepting the shelter of the Church, measures limiting the power of its acknowledged head, though not within the walls of St. Peter's Monastery, would be debated and placed on the Statute Book.
The Chapter House can never have been a very suitable place for the sittings of Parliament. It was inconveniently situated for the purpose of rapid communication between the two Houses; it was required by the monks themselves every day of the week, and it is probable that the actual number of times when it was used by the Commons was much smaller than has been generally supposed. The use of this particular building may only have been extended to the Lower House by Abbots Langham, Litlington, and William of Colchester.
The Speaker would, no doubt, occupy the Abbot's stall facing the entrance door; whilst the knights and burgesses seated themselves, as best they could, in the eighty stalls of the monks. Late-comers would have to be contented with standing-room, though, as the attendance of the burgesses in the fourteenth century was never large and the sessions were of brief duration, no great inconvenience may have been caused. To the central pillar supporting the roof were attached placards having reference to the business to be discussed, though there were occasions on which mischievous hands affixed libellous documents in the same conspicuous position.40
But there was another, and even nobler, apartment in the monastery in which the Commons of England are known to have assembled. This was the great Refectory beyond the south cloister walk. Originally of Norman construction, it was consumed by fire in 1298, but promptly rebuilt, together with other domestic offices, under Abbot Langham and his successor. It was a rectangular hall of great magnificence, 130 feet long, nearly double the length of the existing House of Commons, and 38 feet broad. If Parliament is desirous of commemorating its former association with the Abbey, it would do well to restore, as far as possible, the ruined glories of Litlington's work. Its north wall still stands, together with some of the windows and the corbels of the roof; and on its inner face a portion of the Norman arcading of the earlier building may still be seen. As rebuilt in the fourteenth century, it had a fine timber roof, from which hung a crown of lights the fall of which is mentioned by Caxton. Over the high table was a painting of Christ in majesty, an inspiring symbol of the union subsisting between Church and State.
The actual date at which it became ruinous is not known, but though the Commons assembled in it in 1397, 1403-4,41 1414, 1415 and 1416, during the whole of which period William of Colchester was Abbot of Westminster, the Rolls are silent as to the actual place of meeting after the last-mentioned date. It is almost certain that until the dissolution of the monasteries they occupied either the Little Hall or the Painted Chamber. They removed to St. Stephen's Chapel on its becoming vacant in i547 never again to desert it except when directed to assemble at Oxford in the seventeenth century.
It would seem that too much importance has hitherto been attached to an entry in the Rolls of the year 1376. which speaks of the Chapter House as the "ancient place" of meeting for the Commons. Ail that the phrase was intended to convey was that, although earlier meetings had taken place within the Abbey precincts (one of them, as has been seen, in the Chapter House during the session of 1351-52), a return to the Palace had been made in 1368. Therefore, when in 1376the year in which De la Mare first held an office practically indistinguishable from that of the later Speakers, though there is no mention in the Rolls of his having been then elected to the Chair by his fellow-membersthe King directed the Commons to repair once more to the Chapter House, the officials whose duty it was to record the proceedings of Parliament were only desirous of showing that a precedent existed for the alteration in the rendezvous.
The Rolls do not specify the Chapter House as having been used for Parliamentary purposes after 1394-95. The Refectory was probably used in its stead until it fell into disrepair; but after the great fire in the Palace, which occurred in 1512, the chamber used by the Commons was found to be so inconvenient as to necessitate a temporary removal to Black Friars, and it was there, and not at Westminster, that Sir Thomas More was chosen Speaker in 1523.42
Whilst the Lords adhered to one of the chambers in the King's Palace, there may have been occasions when both Houses assembled in Westminster Hall in obedience to the King's summons. But there can be no doubt that after the middle of the fourteenth century the usual practice was for both bodies to deliberate apart and to transact business separately with each other and with the King. In 1362 the opening speech was for the first time delivered in English, though for long after the records continued to be kept in Norman-French.
In the "Good Parliament," which met at Westminster 28 April, 1376, the names of 117 members are known, of whom 73 sat for counties, and 44 for boroughs and cities. The foremost man returned to it was Sir Peter de la Mare, Knight of the Shire for Hereford, and Seneschal to Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, a connection which intensified the animosity of his relations to the House of Lancaster.43
Edward III, when well stricken in years, had fallen under the baneful influence of Alice Perrers, a squire's daughter whose rapacity and shamelessness as the King's mistress-in-chief is only paralleled by some of the especial favourites of Charles II and George IV. In one year the King, in his senile infatuation, spent many thousands of the public money in settling her jeweller's bill, besides making her large grants of land and constituting her the guardian of several rich orphans.44 It became expedient for ambitious nobles to stand well with her, and even John of Gaunt took up her cause against the Black Prince. The financial exigencies of the Sovereign were now great, and the public dissatisfaction increased rapidly after the loss of all England's French possessions with the exception of Calais, Bordeaux, and Bayonne. The Commons grew uneasy concerning Alice's influence with the King, and when, emboldened by the success of her political intrigues, she appeared in Westminster Hall, and presumed to lecture the presiding judge on the duties of his office, the patience of the House was exhausted. In a long game of give-and-take between De la Mare and the King's mistress the former scored the first point when he discovered that Alice was marriedand bore the legal title of Baroness of Windsor. The King swore that he knew nothing of the marriage, and Alice was expelled from Court. Moreover, in order to humour the Commons he gave his assent to an Ordinance whereby any woman thenceforward, and especially Alice Perrers, was forbidden to prosecute the suits of others in Courts of Justice, by way of maintenance.45
After protracted debates, both by themselves and in conjunction with the Lords, the Commons appeared in full Parliament with De la Mare at their head. His first duty was to answer the usual demand for money, made to the Lower House on this occasion by the Chancellor, Sir John Knyvet. Not only did De la Mare take upon himself to refuse supplies until the grievances of the nation were redressed, but he adopted the financial position as the text for a sermon on the required reforms.
Edward the Black Prince now lay a-dying at the Abbot of Westminster's manor-house of Neyte, in what is now Pimlico, and it was known that it was John of Gaunt's intention to secure for himself the succession to the throne.. In the subsequent proceedings of the House, perhaps the most interesting to that date, De la Mare , voiced the opinion of a nation more than he represented the views of any one party. He was, in fact, more of a Parliamentary autocrat, combining in his personality many of the attributes of Pym and Lenthall, than the mouthpiece of the Commons, and the Parliament which he dominated resembled, more perhaps than any of its successors down to the Revolution of 1688, the Parliament of to-day in the extent of its powers. In 1376 the Commons proceeded to impeach Lord Latimer, thus affording the earliest recorded instance of a Minister of the Crown being arraigned by the Lower House.
For a time the fortunes of the contest inclined to the side of the reforming party in the Commons. But with the death of the Black Prince the supreme power once more fell into the hands of John of Gaunt, and a change quickly came over the scene. Alice Perrers reappeared openly at Court, De la Mare was imprisoned, without trial, in Nottingham Castle, and would have been put to death if the King's mistress could have had her way. Wykeham was deprived of his temporalities on a frivolous charge and banished from the precincts of the palace.
The new Parliament was controlled by John of Gaunt, who, by putting pressure upon the sheriffs, was able practically to pack the House with men of his own choosing. Yet some of De la Mare's old fellow-members managed to secure re-election, and though they promptly petitioned for his release, counter influences were too strong for them. One of the first acts of the reactionary assembly of 1376-77' usually known as the "Bad Parliament," was to reverse the sentence against Alice Perrers.
From the point of view of the Constitutional historian the Parliament is a memorable one, since in it the Speaker's office first emerged from the twilight which shrouds its origin into the full light of day. Summoned at the close of a year in which a King of England celebrated the jubilee of his reign, the House of Commons, for the first time in its history, is known to have been represented at Westminster by a presiding officer of its own choice. Sir Thomas Hungerford, specified in the Rolls as having " les paroles pour les Communes d'Engleterre en cest Parlement," made a daring speech to the throne at the close of the session, calling the King's attention to various grievances and alleged infringements of the liberties of his subjects, both male and female.
This, the first recorded utterance of the House of Commons to find public expression through the mouth of its responsible president, has been strangely overlooked by Parliamentary historians, as has also the interesting fact that Hungerford, on the same occasion, delivered seven "Bilies" to the Clerk of the Parliament, to which, alas for the budding hopes of the representatives of the people, the Lords vouchsafed no reply, "a cause q ie dit Parlement s'estoit departiz & finiz a mesme ie jour devant q rienz y fust plus fait a ycelles."
Sir Thomas Hungerford was the head of the powerful Wiltshire family which owned Farleigh Castle. Like Chaucer's Frankleyn, "full oft tyme he was a Knight of the Schire," for his career at Westminster extended over thirty-six years. He died in 1398, and was buried at Farleigh Hungerford, in Somerset, where his tomb and a portrait in a stained-glass window are still to be seen.46
On the death of the King, a new Parliament was called by Richard II, in October, and De la Mare, again the most prominent figure in the popular assembly, was voted to the Chair. The sentence of the Good Parliament against Alice Perrers was re-enacted and the power of John of Gaunt was finally broken.47
De la Mare again represented Herefordshire in 1379-80, 1382, and 1383, after which date his name disappears from the page of history, nor has the year of his death been ascertained.
Sir James Pickering, the head of a great Westmorland family, became Speaker in 1378.48 His speech, asserting the right of free speech and declaring the loyalty of the House to the throne, remains upon the Rolls and is the first of its kind on record. It is interesting at the present day to recall the fact that Speaker Pickering's wife was a Lowther. To him succeeded Sir John Guildesborough, Knight of the Shire for Essex, in the Parliament which met at Northampton on 5 November, 1380. This Speaker set an important precedent which, to a certain extent, foreshadowed the modern procedure in Committee of Supply. He demanded of the Crown that a schedule of the exact sums needed, and the purposes for which they were required, should be laid before the Commons. Thus the annually recurring phrase in the King's speech "estimates for the expenditure of the year will in due course be laid before you," is the logical outcome of a procedure adopted more than five hundred years ago.
The Eastern Counties also supplied the next Speaker, Sir Richard Waldegrave of Smallbridge, Suffolk, ancestor of the present Earl Waldegrave. He begged to be excused from accepting the post, but the King charged him on his allegiance that since he was already chosen by his colleagues he should execute the office. His is the first instance of a Speaker declining appointment, and for generations after his day a similar formal excuse was put forward, only to be refused, nor was the precedent set in 1381 broken until the reign of Charles II, when Sir Edward Seymour, who had been chosen against the King's wish, merely said, on presenting himself for approval in the House of Lords: " The House of Commons have unanimously elected me their Speaker, and now I come hither for Your Majesty's approbation, which if Your Majesty will please to grant, I shall do them and you the best service I can." The Chancellor had been instructed to express the King's acceptance of the customary excuse, but the Speaker's unexpected utterance took him so aback that he could only falter out that the King wished to reserve him for other services and desired that the Commons would make another choice. After a heated discussion and a prorogation a compromise was arrived at, but the important principle was established that the Crown has a right to veto, but not to dictate, the Commons' choice.
Sir Richard Waldegrave's motive, as far as it is possible to analyse it, appears to have been a prudential one. Grave disputes were likely to arise between Parliament and the people respecting the enfranchisement of the villeins to whom Richard II had lately granted charters of freedom. But as the King contended that these charters had been extorted from him when he was not seized of his full kingly power, he ultimately revoked them. Waldegrave may have been apprehensive of the consequences likely to result from this evasion,.hence his desire to be relieved of the post.48
From 1383, when Pickering was called to the Chair for the second time, the Rolls of Parliament are defective for about ten years, though it is highly probable that he again acted as Speaker in one or other of the Parliaments held in 1384, 1388, 1389-90, 1390, and 1397-98, in all of which he is known to have sat for Yorkshire.
The last, and in some respects the most notorious of Plantagenet Speakers was Sir John Bussy, or Bushey, the first man to be twice elected to the Chair, and also the first to be alluded to by Shakespeare.49 He represented Lincolnshire (where his family owned land at a place called Grentewell, at Domesday), between 1383 and 1397" 08. He was first chosen Speaker in 1393-94' re-elected in January, 1396-97, and again in September, 1397.50 During his second term of office occurred the important case of Privilege arising out of the trial of Sir Thomas Haxey, a prebendary of Southwell and proctor of the Clergy attending Parliament. Haxey introduced a Bill or rather an article in a Bill complaining of maladministration, and making specific charges of extravagance against the King" Richard II, when he heard of it, called upon the Speaker to give up the name of the person responsible for the introduction of the obnoxious measure. The Commons were alarmed and made a scapegoat of Haxey. He was adjudged a traitor and condemned to death, his trial taking place in the Salle Blanche of the Palace. He was eventually pardoned, and in Henry IV's first Parliament the judgment was formally reversed. Haxey, who was an ecclesiastical pluralist of an extreme type, became Treasurer of York and was a benefactor to the Cathedral, in which he was buried in 1425.
Hakewil calls Bussy "a special minion to the King," but this appears to have been a prejudiced opinion. On the landing of Henry, Duke of Lancaster, at Ravenspur, where the whole countryside greeted him with acclamation, Bussy took possession of the Castle at Bristol with others of Richard's ministers.
" To Bristol Castle, which they say is held by Bussy, Bagot and their complices."51
A little later in the same play Shakespeare writes slightingly of him as
" A caterpillar of this Commonwealth which I52 have sworn to weed and pluck away."
On the surrender of Bristol to the invader, Bussy, with the Lord Treasurer (William Le Scrope, Earl of Wiltshire), and Sir Henry Green were executed without trial,53 as the first act of the new dynasty. Thus, with the possible exception of Peter de Montfort, whose end is somewhat of a mystery, the last of the Plantagenet Speakers was also the first to die a violent death, a fate which, as subsequent chapters will show, was to befall many of his successors in the Chair of the Commons. Within six weeks of Bussy's murder Henry reached London, bringing Richard with him captive, and took up his abode in St. John's Priory in Clerkenwell.
On 29 September, the day before the intended meeting of Parliament, he had an interview with his cousin in the Tower. Having obtained from him the crown and sceptre, the outward symbols of kingship which counted for so much with the populace, he hurriedly deposited them in the treasury of Westminster Abbey, now usually known as the Chapel of the Pyx.
This ancient building, which should not be confused with the Royal Jewel House of which there is an illustration in this book, undoubtedly formed part of the Confessor's foundation. It makes the proud claim, in common with an adjoining apartment long used as the gymnasium of Westminster School, to be the oldest building in London. Henry III spared it when he pulled down the Confessor's Church, and in it, or in the undercroft of the Chapter House hard by, the kings of England kept the regalia and other treasures, of which a list is given by Dean Stanley. The advantage of having more than one such treasure-houseand if the Jewel Tower is reckoned there were three in close proximity to one anotheris obvious ; because an intending thief would be unaware in which, for the moment, the royal wealth lay hid. But the utmost secrecy will not avail against treachery from within, and in 1303 the Chapel of the Pyx, or, as some think, the undercroft, was the scene of a great robbery. The sacristan of the Abbey and two monks were involved in the rifling of the treasury by one Richard Podlicote, who contrived by their help to force an entrance and to carry off articles of priceless value. A jury empanelled to investigate the crime found that Master William Torel, the famous English sculptor who made the effigies of Henry III and Eleanor which are still to be seen in the Abbey, bought two ruby rings in good faith from the thief, and the sacristan was found to have in his possession a bowl of unknown value which he could not account for. The manner of Podlicote's punishment is not certainly known, though it was long believed that he was flayed alive. Some fragments of human skin adhering to one of the doors leading out of the east cloister walk have been thought to be his, though within the recollection of the present writer these remains, if human, indeed, they be, were confidently stated to have been portions of the skin of a Dane, executed as a terror to evil-doers at an even earlier date. The probability is that both stories are apocryphal. Towards the close of his illstarred reign Richard II, who throughout his life had a graceful passion for extravagance, practically rebuilt Westminster Hall in the shape in which it now stands. Even the names of the royal craftsmen employed upon it are known. Robert Brassington made the shieldbearing angels of the incomparable roof. William Burgh filled the great window with " flourished glass "would that it had escaped the ravages of timeand William Cleuderre sculptured some of the images of "grave kings" which still stand at the upper end of the hall.54 By the irony of fate, no sooner was the vast building finished than it became the scene of Richard's deposition.
For in Westminster Hall Henry of Lancaster, aided by the dignitaries of the Church, including the Abbot of Westminster, came forward to "challenge the realm of England " on the last day of September, 1399.55 Amongst the Harleian MSS. in the British Museum,56 the collection of which England owes to a Speaker to be mentioned hereafter, is a representation by a Frenchman named Creton (who accompanied Richard on his last journey to Ireland), of the great hall as it appeared on this momentous day. It shows the throne at the upper end unoccupied "sede regali cum pannis Auri solempnitur prgeposita tune vacua."57
Nearest to the throne stands Henry of Lancaster wearing a high-crowned cap of fur. On the right of the picture are grouped the spiritual, and, on the left, the temporal Lords and the Knights. All appear to be actual portraits, while the figures of two men in the foreground would seem from their dress to be officials. Neither of them can have been intended to represent the Speaker, for with Bussy dead, no presiding officer of the Commons existed. For two hundred years until that September day the doctrine of hereditary right to the throne had been preserved without interruption, but now in Richard's newly finished hall, far surpassing Rufus' original building and adorned from end to end with the white hart, the badge of his adoption, amidst a shout of acclamation which made the rafters ring, the Plantagenet dynasty passed away and a new era opened for England and for Parliament.58
End of Chapter 2 / end of this excerpt