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The wrong Lady Anne….!

For Honour and Fame - Nigel Saul

Having just acquired Nigel Saul’s For Honour and Fame, about chivalry in England from 1066 to 1500, one of my first actions was (as always!) to go to the pages that refer to Richard III. Well, it’s second nature to any Ricardian, I think.

So, on page 279, I read:

“. . .A generation later there was to be another, still greater, heiress who was to play a role in the preservation of specifically chivalric memory. This was Anne Neville, daughter of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, and sister and heiress of his son Henry, duke of Warwick, who died young. Anne’s self- appointed task in the last years of her life was to cherish and protect the memory of her late father, one of the Lancastrian monarchy’s greatest captains. . .”

Um. . .eh? For a moment the penny didn’t drop, and I couldn’t fit Anne Neville with such a claim. Then I realized it was one of those banes of all writers, a monumental blooper. It was not Anne Neville who was meant, but her mother, Anne Beauchamp.

Phew!

So, the mix-up of Lady Annes is an error by either Nigel Saul, or his publisher, Bodley Head. Oh, and the book then goes on to mention Richard III’s “seizure of the throne”, which did not impress this incurable Ricardian. He has two further, brief, mentions. So, if you’re looking for books that deal in any meaningful way with Richard III, give this one a miss.

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Medieval earthquakes in England….

Marmara_earthquake_1509_(1)-medium

The above is the Marmara earthquake of 1509. I couldn’t find a suitable image for an English event.

We do not suffer a great many earthquakes in the United Kingdom, but there have been some, occasionally quite considerable. Our main sphere of interest on this site is the time of Richard III, and while I was investigating another earthquake, from the previous century, I happened up information about an earthquake of 1480:- “. . .’A very great earthquake’, says Reverend Francis Blomefield, in his topographical History of the County of Norfolk, of an upheaval on December 28th, which affected most of England and threw down buildings in Norwich and elsewhere. . .”

What a tantalizing reference, but unfortunately, there is no further information in the book in which I found it – The Great English Earthquake by Peter Haining (which deals mostly with the major earthquake in 1884). As far as I recall, at this time Richard had returned to Sheriff Hutton after the Scottish campaign, so maybe he did not experience this earthquake personally. But he would have heard about it.

A king of the previous century, Richard II, would almost certainly have experienced the earthquake of 21st May, 1382, which has been described as ‘one of the strongest of all British earthquakes’. Holinshed gives the time as about 1 pm. “. . .‘An earthquake in England, that the lyke thereof was never seen in Englande before that daye nor sen.’ (R. Fabyan). . .” Another report says “. . .‘A great earthquake in England. . .fearing the hearts of many, but in Kent it was most vehement, where it suncke some Churches, and threw them down to the earth.’. . .”

Holinshed further reports that there was a second disturbance on 24th May. “. . .Earlie in the morning, chanced another earthquake, or (as some write) a watershake, being so vehement and violent a motion, that it made the ships in the havens to beat one against thye other, by reason whereof they were sore bruised by such knocking together. . .”

“. . .On the day of the first shock, John Wycliffe was being tried at Westminster for his opinions on the Bible, and the sudden shock caused the court to break up in alarm: thereafter the assembly was known as the ‘Council of the Earthquake’!. . .” The Church, of course, pronounced that the earthquake was God’s condemnation of Wycliffe.

The-Trial-of-John-Wycliffe-in-the-Monastery-of-Blackfriars-London-1382

Another source tells that it was a 5.8 earthquake (I’m not sure how this can be stated as a fact) and the bell tower of Canterbury Cathedral was ‘severely damaged’. The six bells ‘shook down’.

Anyway, according to Nigel Saul, Richard II was in Westminster during this period, so I guess he certainly felt the cataclysm!

In my life I have only once experienced an earthquake. It was some time ago, and (I think) was centred off the coast of North Wales. My husband and I were in bed. It was morning, and we had yet to get up. The bed suddenly swayed backward and forward in a most peculiar manner.

My husband looked at me. “Did the earth just move for you?”

“Yes.”

He grinned. “I’m a marvel. I didn’t even have to touch you!”

Magna Carta and King Richard II….

Richard II under arrest

Here is the opening paragraph of an intriguing article by the excellent Professor Nigel Saul:-

“As increasing numbers of early copies of Magna Carta are identified in fourteenth- and early fifteenth century registers and cartularies, so we are becoming more aware of the close interest taken in the document by lawyers and political actors in the late Middle Ages. Of especial interest in this connection are the copies of the Charter made at two Gloucestershire monasteries at the end of the fourteenth century. Both copies attest to the revival of interest in the Charter at a time when Richard II’s bold autocracy was raising vital questions about how royal authority might legitimately be constrained and how such constraint might be maintained in the long term….”

Enter another Duke of Gloucester who was also the king’s uncle. In this instance, Thomas of Woodstock, youngest son of King Edward III. In his article, Professor Saul deals with the reasons why a new copy of Magna Carta was created in 1397, at a point in Richard’s reign when he, like King John, was being confronted by his angry barons (who are known to posterity as the Lords Appellant).

Professor Saul is always immensely readable, and he certainly knows his stuff when it comes to Richard II and the 14th century. The article is well worth reading, not least for the subtle political machinations of the Lords Appellant.

 

The truth about Prince Arthur, Prince Henry, and Katherine of Aragon….?

Henry VIII's prayer rollAs so often happens, acquiring a book for a specific reason leads to something else that is quite thought-provoking. In this case, the book is The Medieval Python: The Purposive and Provocative Work of Terry Jones, in which the subject of one of the eighteen contributions is Catherine of Aragon and her two marriages.

Do not make the mistake of thinking this volume is light or Pythonesque, because Terry Jones is not only brilliant when it comes to humour, but also very dedicated, knowledgeable and educated on medieval matters. The sections within the pages are not all by Terry himself, but by illustrious names that include Chris Given-Wilson, and Nigel Saul.

Now, before I get to the nitty-gritty, let me say that the item that prompted the essay A Prayer Roll Fit for a Tudor Prince, by John J. Thompson, is a fairly recent acquisition of the British Library (MS Additional 88929), and for a brief explanation about it, I suggest a quick glance at http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2011/02/henry-viii-prayer-roll.html, which describes the roll as follows:

21 February 2011 – by Andrea Clarke

Henry VIII Prayer Roll

“The British Library has recently acquired a unique medieval prayer roll that once belonged to Henry VIII, and contains one of only three surviving examples of his handwriting from before his accession in 1509. Produced in England in the late 15th century, it is one of the finest English prayer rolls, and consists of four parchment strips sewn end to end that measure some four metres long when fully unrolled. The roll contains thirteen illuminations — images of Christ, focusing on the Passion, its Instruments and the Sacred Blood, as well as depictions of various saints and their martyrdoms. Accompanying these are prayers in Latin and rubrics (religious instructions) in English. The rubrics promise that the recital of certain of the prayers will offer safety from physical danger, sickness or disease; others will shorten, by specified amounts, the agony of Purgatory, while the placing of the roll on the belly of a woman in labour will ensure a safe childbirth.

“The prayer roll was once owned and used by Prince Henry, evidenced by the inclusion of his royal badges at the head of the roll. These include two Tudor roses, the Prince of Wales crowned ostrich feather, as well as Katherine of Aragon’s personal symbol of the arrow-sheaf of Aragon. At some point prior to 1509 Henry presented the roll to William Thomas, a Gentleman of his Privy Chamber, and added an inscription at the top of the second membrane, under the central image of Christ’s Passion: ‘Wylliam thomas I pray yow pray for me your lovyng master Prynce Henry’.

“The Henry VIII Prayer Roll is now London, British Library, MS Additional 88929. It is currently on display in our Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, and will also be displayed in our Royal exhibition which opens in November 2011.”

The roll displays Tudor badges and emblems, but also the sheaf of arrows (maybe arrows passing through a tower) of Katherine of Aragon, who in November 1501 married Arthur, Prince of Wales. Arthur died six months later, at Ludlow Castle, of the “sweating sickness”, and was buried in Worcester Cathedral. His tomb displays the same Tudor symbols as the roll.

Heraldry, Tudor, Prince Arthur, Worcester Cathedral, Chantry

Arthur’s younger brother, Henry (to be Henry VIII) soon became Prince of Wales. His father, Henry VII, waited until he was sure the widowed Katherine was not pregnant and then proposed that she married the new Prince of Wales. Katherine swore her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated. This was essential, because the Church forbade a man to marry his brother’s widow. It was, and still is, in the Bible, and is one of the Ten Commandments.

Arthur and Catherine

The roll does not name a Prince of Wales, but it was surely made for Arthur, and emerges as a very important relic of this fraught time in history. It cannot be dated to much before 1490, when Arthur became Prince of Wales, and if it includes Katherine’s emblem, then it was probably around the time of their engagement or marriage. Its later ownership by the young Henry VIII is confirmed by his writing on it, and it is suggested that what he wrote reveals him to have been as devout a Catholic as everyone else. At least, he was at that point. Then the roll came into the hands of a devoted Tudor servant, William Thomas, before disappearing from history for 500 years, reappearing in the 19th century. If it were not for it coming to light again, its existence would never have been known at all. Its real purpose is still not known.

It is usually imagined that Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon were content enough together (I certainly had that impression), but now a truly remarkable fact has been uncovered in the register of briefs in the Vatican archives. It is dated 20th October 1505 and notes Pope Julius II’s response to Arthur, Prince of Wales, who by that date had been dead for over three years. So Arthur had to have sent a letter to the pope, whose answer had been mislaid or at least misfiled. The prince’s request also contained mention of his wife, so had to have been written within that six-month period before the prince died.

The pope’s response has not survived, and we do not know if it was ever sent (I strongly suspect it was, and it arrived in England) but it apparently granted papal authority to Prince Arthur to restrain his wife (Katherine of Aragon) from continuing to engage in “excessive religious observances injurious to her health since these would imperil the maritalis consuetudo (marital custom) of Roman law and endanger her ability to bear children”.

So, when it was too late, the Pope authorised Arthur to insist his pious wife conduct less strenuous religious exercises, these to be determined on the advice of her confessor. From which, it would seem all was not well in the young people’s marriage. Arthur (and Henry VII, no doubt!) was alarmed by discovering just how intensely devout his new wife was. I do not know what Katherine was doing to cause such concern, but whatever it was, she was clearly going far further than the conventional Tudors liked. Well, conventional at that time, because Henry VIII’s Great Matter lay in the future. The begetting of heirs was the whole point of royal marriage, so anything that might get in the way of this was to be stopped immediately, if not sooner!

After Arthur’s untimely death, a treaty for marriage was drawn up for the widowed Katherine to marry his younger brother, the future King Henry VIII. It was signed on 23rd June 1504, and the two were formally betrothed on 25th June. Henry was 12, Katherine 17. Two years later, on 27th June, 1505, Henry appeared before Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester, and the Lord Privy Seal. The young prince had reached his maturity, and wished it to be formally recorded that he disowned his part of the marriage contract.

young henry viii

Now, why? What brought this about? Had the Pope’s response to Arthur finally arrived, and Prince Henry seen it? Whenever the letter from Rome turned up, I think that Henry read it in the first half of 1505.

The fact that the register of briefs at the Vatican is dated October 1505, does not mean the pope’s letter was written then. It merely records the letter. So was Henry now warned of exactly how extreme and pious his new bride would be? Arthur had learned too late, after marriage. Henry, Prince of Wales, may have also been devout, but clearly not to the same degree as Katherine. However, on the death in 1509 of his father, Henry VII, the marriage took place anyway. Something else had clearly happened since his appearance before Bishop Fox. Might it have been that the Pope’s instructions had taken effect, and Katherine had moderated her religious devotions? I have no idea what else it might have been, only that once old Henry VII was dead and buried, his son married Katherine after all.

henryvii

It is always said that for a number of years Henry and Katherine were happy together, until the absence of a male heir—and the increasing likelihood of Katherine’s age preventing such an heir—prompted Henry to start looking around. Had this lack of an heir caused such anxiety to Katherine that she resumed her former devotions? Certainly she would turn to God for divine help.

Did it then become a vicious circle, with Henry being more and more alienated by such extreme religion, and Katherine seeking more and more comfort from her devotions? Was this another cause of his suggestion that she and Arthur had after all consummated their marriage, making his own marriage to her invalid? If such a charge could be made to stick, so to speak, it would certainly rid him of an increasingly inconvenient wife. By then he wanted to marry the enchanting vixen Anne Boleyn, of course, but infuriatingly, the Pope wouldn’t agree to it! If the Pope had granted Henry his wish, would we still be a predominantly Catholic country? Certainly we would have been for a lot longer than actually happened.

The fact that Arthur had approached the Pope on the matter of Katherine’s religious activities being detrimental to the bearing of children, was something that I believe Henry pounced upon.  Leviticus 20:21 was very clear: “And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”  

So, was it in Henry’s mind that by continuing such extreme devotions, Katherine was knowingly preventing further living births? Did he believe that this was why his marriage had resulted in one living child, a girl, all other pregnancies having ended in miscarriages or stillbirths? It would also have been easy enough for Henry to convince himself that Katherine’s marriage to Arthur had been consummated. All this, and fascinatingly desirable Anne Boleyn was there, tantalising Henry with her inaccessible charms.  But even without Anne, would Henry have wanted to end his marriage anyway, because he so desperately wanted a male heir and knew that Katherine’s age, apart from anything else, was against such a likelihood?

So, was Anne only one aspect of Henry’s wish to be free of Katherine? Were there in fact two Great Matters wrapped up as one? The first due to religion having led to childlessness; the other due to lust, that was to prompt a change of religion?

The above has been prompted by the essay by John J. Thompson, and is my conclusion from the facts as presented. I recommend that the essay be read in its entirety, because its details about the prayer roll are fascinating. Although, one thing does need pointing out. Henry VII was never the Duke of Richmond!

Two Richards, one fate….

Two Richards

This post harks back to a previous one of 5th November 2014. Both concern the similarities between the lives and deaths of Richard II and Richard III, but I have now come upon a passage in a book that is actually about Richard II, but much of which could be applied to Richard III. The book is The Medieval Python, by and about Monty Python’s Terry Jones, Chapter 4, Terry Jones’s Richard II by Nigel Saul.

“For Terry Jones, Richard II is a much maligned ruler. Obstructed by a gaggle of obscurantist barons, deposed by a slippery usurper, and with his reputation besmirched by Lancastrian propaganda, Richard, in Terry’s view, is deserving of better in the eyes of posterity. Far from the self-centred, vengeful monarch portrayed in textbooks, Richard, for Terry, was actually a wise and beneficent ruler who sought the good of his people. In his final years, when he ruled without baronial constraint, he conducted what Terry calls ‘a bold experiment in ideal kingship’. Its aim was to shield the king’s humbler subjects from the policy of aggressive war with France that suited only the warmongering baronage. After 1399, however, when Henry IV seized the crown from his cousin, history was rewritten to blacken the former king’s name. Our assessment of Richard’s kingship, Terry argues, should be based not on the hostile Lancastrian accounts, but on sources that date from the king’s own lifetime. In particular, we should try to judge Richard’s achievement in the light of contemporary expectations of kingship for the common good. Viewed in this light, Richard can be seen for what he was—an exponent of the ideas in the ‘mirrors of princes’ literature, a monarch who triumphed over faction, ruling in the common interest. . .”

Saul goes on to argue against Jones’ judgement, but that is beside the point. I think you will have to agree that these two Richards (forget the so-called Lionheart) were subjected to very similar, very cruel fates.

As I said in my previous post (indicated above) the similarities are astonishing, even to both being married to Annes who died before them and left them childless, and both being removed from life by Henrys who proceeded to ruin their reputations with endless lies. Oh, and they both have the misfortune to attract Shakespeare, who is always on the wrong side! Well, I think he is.

 

The Epiphany Plot of 1400

Following the deposition of Richard II, his leading supporters among the nobility were put on trial before Henry IV’s first parliament. Well, all apart from the Earl of Wiltshire who had – in plain terms – been murdered at Bristol on Henry’s orders before Henry became king. (As a Lancastrian, Henry was of course allowed to do this sort of thing without receiving any criticism from historians.)

Some brief pen-pictures of the men in question may be helpful, since they will be unfamiliar to many readers:-

Edward, Duke of Aumale, highest ranking of the accused, was the elder son of the Duke of York, and was thus first cousin to both Richard II and Henry IV. Despite his relative youth (26 in 1399) he had been high in Richard’s counsels since the early 1390s and had received an astonishing array of offices from the king, being, among other things, at one point both Lord High Constable and Lord High Admiral. A devious man of considerable ability, described by one chronicler as a ‘second Solomon’, his contribution tends to be underrated by historians. He was also a survivor. Despite involvement – or alleged involvement – in several plots against Henry IV, he was to survive long enough to be the leading English casualty of Agincourt. Nevertheless, in the Parliament of late 1399 he had a most torrid time. It is likely that Richard II intended Edward to be his heir.

John Holland, Duke of Exeter was King Richard’s half-brother – they shared the same mother, Joan of Kent. He was married to Henry IV’s sister, Elizabeth of Lancaster. Exeter was at this time in his late 40s. He had not always been a strong supporter of Richard, and had at one point been quite closely associated with his father-in-law. However, during the 1390s he had become increasingly important as a member of Richard’s inner circle.

Thomas Holland, Duke of Surrey was Exeter’s nephew, the eldest son of Thomas Holland, late Earl of Kent. Another relatively young man, he had recently replaced his deceased brother-in-law, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March (killed 1398) as Lieutenant of Ireland. He had also replaced Aumale as Lord High Admiral.

John Montagu (or Montacute) Earl of Salisbury, who was in his late 40s, had only succeeded to his uncle’s earldom in 1397, having been for many years merely Sir John Montagu. His uncle had alienated many of the family estates – there was bad blood between them – and Salisbury was by some way the least wealthy of the accused. Nor had he received any particular rewards in land from King Richard. Acting as Richard’s ambassador to France, he had been unfortunate enough to earn Henry Bolingbroke’s personal enmity because of the message he had brought to Charles VI on Richard’s behalf – which was essentially that Henry should be treated as persona non grata. Salisbury was known to be a Lollard – an early Protestant – and attracted some hostility for that reason. King Richard himself was generally hostile to the Lollards but nevertheless tolerated Salisbury and a few other followers of that movement at his court.

Thomas Despenser, Earl of Gloucester was married to Constance of York and was thus Aumale’s brother-in-law and the Duke of York’s son-in-law. 26 years old at this time, he had commanded King Richard’s rearguard in the 1399 campaign in Ireland and been one of the king’s strongest supporters during the upheaval of 1397. Even without the rewards given to him in 1397, he was a very wealthy man, in terms of landed income much more so than his father-in-law. The jewel in his crown was the very valuable Marcher Lordship of Glamorgan.

They had all served as ‘counter-appellants’ in 1397, when Richard II had taken his revenge on his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and the earls of Arundel and Warwick. All, except Salisbury, had received generous grants of forfeited lands. All except Despenser (Gloucester) and Salisbury had also participated in the partition of the Lancastrian estates earlier in 1399. As a group, they were very much Richard’s ‘Party’ and it cannot be denied that most of them had been very handsomely rewarded for their loyalty. Apart from Salisbury they were all closely linked to Richard by blood or marriage or both.

The outcome of the trial – to cut a long story short – was that the accused lost the lands granted to them in 1397 and those who had received upgraded titles (everyone except Salisbury) lost them and reverted to their pre-1397 status. For the purpose of this article, I shall continue to refer to them by their Ricardian titles, to avoid unnecessary confusion.

The group were placed into the temporary custody of the Abbot of Westminster, who was a Ricardian himself. It appears that they immediately began to conspire against Henry, although on the face of it the King meant to rehabilitate them fairly quickly. With the exception of Salisbury – against whom Henry maintained a rather obvious grudge – they were, for example, very quickly restored to the Council. Edward of Aumale even received confirmation of some valuable land grants, including the Lordship of the Isle of Wight. Of course, Edward was rather a special case, being the King’s cousin, and perhaps more importantly, York’s son. The Duke of York (who had been Richard’s Keeper of England during the King’s absence in Ireland) had given Henry quite strong support, almost from the minute he surrendered to him near Berkeley Castle a few months earlier.

In addition, Edward had not been aligned politically in quite the same way as the others. Richard divided his army in Ireland – allegedly on Edward’s advice – sending the smaller portion to North Wales under Salisbury while returning himself to South Wales with the remainder. When Richard broke up his army near Carmarthen he actually left Aumale behind, possibly fearing that his cousin was no longer reliable in view of the defection of the Duke of York at Berkeley. It seems likely that this defection was a principal cause – if not the main cause – of the King’s panic and his decision to join Salisbury in North Wales. (This decision led to the collapse of his cause and his eventual capture by Bolingbroke.) The other lords involved were all with the King to the bitter end.

A note on sources. The main sources for the Epiphany Rising are Walsingham and Traison et Mort. Both have their issues. Walsingham (though used as a principal source for the reign) is hopelessly biased against Richard II, and frequently reports rumours, however ridiculous, if they tend to Richard’s discredit. He can not infrequently be caught out in direct falsehoods. Traison, on the other hand, was written by a French member of Queen Isabelle’s household. He is heavily biased towards Richard, tends to blame Edward of York for the King’s downfall, and reports details of matters of which he cannot possibly have had direct knowledge, such as the manner of Richard’s death.

The key to the plot was an attempt to assassinate Henry IV (and perhaps his sons) at Windsor Castle. The great army that Henry had assembled to place himself on the throne had, for the most part, gone home. Therefore the King was vulnerable to an attack from a small force, which was all the conspirators could assemble. (Many of their retainers had found alternative patrons by this time, or were otherwise unreliable, and in any event, for obvious reasons, only the most loyal could be trusted in a scheme of this kind.)

At the same time, a number of risings were to be provoked across England, and King Richard was somehow to be released. (His exact location was almost certainly not known to the conspirators.) Richard was to be represented, in his absence, by his clerk and double, Richard Maudelyn, who was probably either a half-brother or cousin of the deposed monarch.

By one means or another, the plot was revealed to Henry at the last moment. Traison blames Aumale, who accidentally revealed the plot to his father, York. The pair of them then hurried to warn the King, Edward being immediately pardoned. Walsingham merely says that Henry was ‘forewarned’ but does not disclose the method. Another source, Continuatio Eulogii, says that one of the King’s squires picked up the intelligence from a prostitute who had previously slept with someone involved in the plot. A final possibility must be that Elizabeth of Lancaster got wind of her husband’s dealings and sent warning to her brother.

Most modern historians tend to dismiss Aumale’s ‘serious’ involvement in the plot. Even so, it is hard to see how he, with his connections, could have remained innocent of what was going on. On the other hand, it must be recognised that many in England (and even more in France!) were deeply suspicious of his motives throughout, and accusations or mutterings of treason against him continued regularly for some years. It is hard to discern how much of this was smoke and how much fire.

Be this as it may, the fact remains that Henry and his sons escaped from Windsor with only hours to spare, so whatever warning was received came at the last minute, in true dramatic style.

The King’s escape was, in effect, equivalent to the defeat of the conspiracy, as the rebels did not have the forces to match those which Henry was soon to raise from London and the surrounding counties. According to Traison they held the bridge at Maidenhead for some hours, which was probably as good a fight as they could make of it. They also sought to recruit from the various towns and villages they passed, and according to Walsingham also visited Queen Isabelle (Richard’s very young wife) at Sonning, seeking her support and that of her household.

Unfortunately, the news that Henry was not far behind them with a large and growing army could not be long concealed, and tended to put a damper on recruitment. The rebels’ retreat rapidly turned into flight, which came to an end at Cirencester, where, exhausted, their ‘army’ camped in the fields while the lords took up lodgings in various inns. What happened next is unclear, but it appears the inhabitants of the town realised that the lords were fugitives, and besieged them in their lodgings. A fire started, and Surrey and Salisbury surrendered, and were initially lodged in the abbey. However, when the townsfolk of Cirencester grasped the measure of the damage done to their town by the fire, they dragged the two lords out again, and summarily executed them without legal authority. Walsingham states that Salisbury, who was a Lollard, refused to make confession before his death.

The mystery of Exeter and Gloucester.

According to Traison these two lords were at Cirencester, escaped their burning inn by climbing out of the window, and fled in different directions. In the case of Exeter in particular this seems most unlikely. Walsingham states that he remained in London, which makes sense if his role was to raise the Ricardian element among the citizens. Such men were in a minority, but they certainly existed, and if Henry had not escaped they might well have put themselves forward. Exeter was eventually captured in Essex. He was also murdered by the local population without lawful authority, at Pleshey Castle, seat of the late Duke of Gloucester, the uncle Richard II had (possibly) had murdered in 1397. The location was, of course, highly significant.

Had Exeter been in Cirencester, he would surely have been wiser to flee towards Devon, where he had extensive land holdings, than eastward, directly into the teeth of Henry’s forces. I therefore conclude it is most unlikely he was at either Windsor or Cirencester. Though, as an experienced warrior and tough fighter he would have been something of an asset if he had been.

Thomas Despenser, Earl of Gloucester, is barely mentioned by Walsingham at all, except in the matter of his escape and capture. Again, there is at least a possibility he was not at Windsor or Cirencester and that he never left Cardiff. Indeed, it may be he was guilty of nothing more than misprision of treason at worst. Hearing that the King’s men were on their way to arrest him, he took ship from Cardiff, carrying a considerable amount of portable wealth. However the ship’s captain refused to take him anywhere but Bristol, where the citizens chose to prove their loyalty to Henry by murdering him.

If Despenser was indeed innocent of any active involvement in the plot, it might help explain his widow’s bitter hatred of Henry, which culminated in her plot, in 1405, to remove the Mortimer heirs from Windsor Castle and place them in the protection of Owain Glyndwr.

Many of the lesser supporters of the plot were assembled at Oxford for trial. Maudelyn, Sir Bernard Brocas and William Feriby were brought to London, to be hanged and beheaded at Tyburn. Sir Thomas Blount and twenty-five others from Cirencester were hanged, drawn and quartered at Oxford. Another thirty-seven received pardons, and at least one, Salisbury’s stepson, was actually acquitted. Roger Walden (the deposed Archbishop of Canterbury), the Bishop of Carlisle and the Abbot of Westminster were all imprisoned for a short time, and Henry Despenser, Bishop of Norwich, fell beneath an uncomfortable level of suspicion, but was not proceeded against.

A number of small risings broke out across England in support of the plot, but all subsided with little fuss. The one in Chester was perhaps the most serious and led to a brief siege of the castle. Ironically the man who put it down, the Bishop of St. Asaph, was soon to number among Henry’s enemies as a firm supporter of Owain Glyndwr.

As for the widows, Henry treated Elizabeth of Lancaster and Constance of York with considerable generosity – of course they were his sister and first cousin respectively. These two remained very rich ladies indeed, and did superbly well compared to the widows of ‘traitors’ in the Tudor period or even the Yorkist era. The other widows had less kindly provision, although the worst treated of all, the Countess of Wiltshire, had suffered from Henry murdering her husband before he even became king, and had no connection to the plot.

In the aftermath of the plot it appears that Henry (and almost certainly his Council) decided that King Richard’s life should be cut short to discourage any further rebellions in his favour. Richard died at Pontefract on 14th February 1400. Various explanations are given, but the most likely seems to be that he was starved to death. Despite this, and the public display of his body in St. Paul’s, rumours that he had escaped and was alive and well in Scotland continued to plague Henry – and indeed his son. That a ‘Richard’ was living at the court of Scotland is an undoubted fact – whether he was the real Richard is quite another matter.

Sources

The most useful source by far is Chronicles of the Revolution 1397-1400 by Chris Given Wilson.

Other sources:

The Usurper King – Marie Louise Bruce

Fears of Henry IV – Ian Mortimer

Richard II – Nigel Saul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TREASON 1 – The Merciless Parliament 1388

 Introduction

Treason is a terrible crime. It denotes a betrayal so wicked as to be unforgivable. In medieval England a traitor was executed with the maximum of corporeal pain and all his goods and chattels were forfeited to the crown, thus disinheriting his heirs and successors forever. Henry de Bracton a thirteenth century English jurist, held that it was ‘scarcely permissible for the (traitor’s) heirs to live’ since they too were contaminated by his deeds. Bracton, who had a penchant for Roman law, may well have been thinking of Imperial Roman practice. By the fifteenth century, treason, or more precisely the law of treason, was the legal-political tool of choice for kings and over ambitious subjects who wished to destroy each other. Acts of treason formed the backdrop of English history from Magna Carta until the Glorious Revolution. Kings have been destroyed and dynasties bought low by treason. This was especially true during the civil wars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which began and ended in treason. The Victorian historian Frederic Maitland was surely right to describe treason as a crime with a history all of its own.

 

This is a story about treason; not the wicked type but the political treason of offending against the king’s most powerful subjects. In 1388, an English parliament condemned eighteen of the king’s closest ministers and advisors for such treasons. Their trials by the lords in parliament were controversial and raised several legal and constitutional issues of some consequence: including, the status of parliament, the judicial function of parliament, due process and parliament’s rights and privileges to conduct state trials. The trials also challenged the king’s prerogative to do as he liked. But above all, the Merciless Parliament was a catalyst for a chain of events leading to the deposition of an anointed king, which changed the course of English history. However, before I tell my story, it might be useful to explain a little about the concept of treason.

 

Nowadays, treason is defined by the Treason Act 1351.[1] Prior to the Act there was no universally accepted definition of treason, nor much distinction between treasonable offences and everyday felonies. The king’s justices sitting with a ‘grand’ jury had to construe whether or not a particular crime was treason on a case-by-case basis. Inevitably, there were inconsistencies of interpretation. The law was uncertain and arbitrary; many men went to a traitor’s death and forfeited their estates for offences that were not treasonable. The most obvious and best example of this is the general offence of accroaching royal authority. Essentially, this is a political offence and not obviously treason (though it would depend on the circumstances). In the reigns of Edward II and Edward III, the courts had a pronounced tendency to construe even minor common law accroaching as high treason. It was a practice that had destroyed many noble (and loyal) families. Predictably, there was an aristocratic clamour for a narrow, fixed definition of treason. In 1351, Edward III felt able to assent to a petition from parliament proposing the appropriate legislation. In the opinion of professor Bellamy, the Treason Act 1351 is second only to Magna Carta in its constitutional and legal importance.[2] The Act itself raises many issues that I cannot explore in this article. From my perspective the two important points to note are: first, the conservative definition of treason, which viewed high treason entirely as offences against the monarch or the royal family (It is still treason to cuckold the heir to the throne.) and second, parliament’s reserved power to declare non-statutory treason in doubtful cases.

 

The Merciless Parliament convened on the 3 February 1388 and sat for four months. It was the longest parliamentary sitting before the fifteenth century. Its common title derives from the fact that virtually all-parliamentary business was given over to a violent purge of the king Richard II’s advisors and household servants. The king was systematically humiliated; he was forced to witness the condemnation of his friend and he had no choice but to acquiesce in their doom. It was the nadir of his life thus far. Even though he was twenty-one he was prevented from exercising his royal authority or his prerogative, or even his royal grace to save at least one man from death. For all practical purposes he was still regarded as a boy and too immature to govern unsupervised. His royal authority and his royal prestige were in ruins. It was a trauma he never forgot.

 

Context

The situation in in 1388 has to be seen in the context of power struggle between a rebellious teenage king trying to assert his royal authority and his older councillors anxious to preserve their own status and influence. Richard was headstrong and clearly had an authoritarian vision of kingship. Even as a fourteen year-old, he had approved of the brutal reprisals taken against the rebels of 1381. He was called to book on at least one occasion for attempting to make the offence of treason a prerogative one.[3]   He was unfortunate to succeed to the throne at a time when England’s fortunes were in decline and when he was too young to be taken seriously. The failing war with France had resumed, the burden of taxation was excessive on those who could afford to pay it and the country was experiencing the socio–economic consequences of the Black Death. There was widespread social discontent, of which the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the most extreme expression. Even so, there were concerns about his behaviour, and his readiness and ability to rule wisely with prudence. He preferred the advice of young fops to that of his ‘natural councillors’ and he longed to exercise personal rule. However, his ‘insolence’ and extravagance was such that far from allowing him personal rule, parliament was intent on clipping his wings. It was the parliament of 1385 and the ‘Wonderful Parliament’ of 1386 that set the scene for a showdown in 1388.

 

Parliament’s efforts to control the burgeoning cost of the royal household and to install some fiscal discipline into the government began in 1385. They appointed a commission of twelve councillors to review the running of the king’s household and to reform the government’s finances.[4] This was, in fact, a continuation of the minority council that ruled in the king’s name during his tender years; the problem was that Richard was now aged seventeen and well old enough by medieval standards to exercise personal rule. Richard accepted some of the proposed reforms with bad grace; but he rejected outright any attempt by parliament to curb his authority or prerogative. He pointed out that the running of the royal household and the appointment of ministers were matters for him alone and he would do as he pleased. Consequently, neither the king nor his ministers took any active steps to implement Parliament’s directions. It was a predictable reaction, but a foolish one since he needed the cooperation of parliament for his next grant of taxation. At some point he would have to summon them and they were bound to raise this issue.

 

When Parliament next met, on the 1 October 1386, it was against the background of a threatened French invasion. William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk and the king’s Chancellor opened parliament by requesting a huge grant of taxation to meet the royal commitments.[5] Unsurprisingly, the commons rejected this request and together with the lords petitioned ‘with one assent’ for Suffolk’s dismissal as Chancellor. Thomas duke of Gloucester Thomas earl of Warwick and Richard earl of Arundel were foremost among the lords demanding Suffolk’s dismissal.[6] Once it became clear that Parliament’s intended to impeach Suffolk for dereliction of duty and embezzlement,[7] the furious king retired to his palace at Eltham in ‘high dudgeon’, exclaiming that he would not sack a scullery boy at parliament’s request. The duke of Gloucester with Thomas Arundel bishop of Ely, travelled to Eltham to speak to him. Eventually, Richard was forced to return to parliament and to accept the dismissal and impeachment of his Chancellor, and the supervision of the continual council. It was only the scarcely concealed threat of deposition that convinced him to swallow his pride.[8]

 

The Judges Questions

The dismissal and impeachment of Suffolk was a direct challenge to the king’s royal authority and prerogative, which was compounded by the continuance of a minority council to supervise his rule. It was indeed a damning verdict by parliament on the king’s fitness to rule. The situation was all the more chastening since Richard’s ‘tender years’ were behind him: he was now twenty-one. Although he knew he had to bend to parliament’s will, the king never accepted their right to limit or even to question his regality in any way. He took every opportunity to promote his regality and to demean the ‘continual council’s’ status. Suffolk was released from custody and reinstated by Christmas, and the king moved the court to the midlands to avoid the council’s oversight.

 

In August 1387 he summoned Chief Justice Robert Tresilian and his justices from the King’s Bench to meetings at Shrewsbury and Nottingham. He needed legal opinion on the actions of the Wonderful Parliament. There is nothing intrinsically unusual or sinister about Richard’s request for legal advice. The justices and particularly, the sergeants at law were continually providing the government with technical legal advice on procedural rules, and fiscal and feudal law. However, the ten questions, which were carefully drafted for the king by his personal lawyers were of an altogether different nature; they, went to the burning issue of the day: the king’s right to personal rule by prerogative and the subordination of parliament to the king’s will.[9] They covered three main points: first, whether the appointment of the continual council was derogatory to the king’s regality, second, whether the king controlled parliament’s order of business and whether he could summon and dismiss it at his will, and third, whether the impeachment of Suffolk was lawful. The importance of this process and these questions lies in the king’s attempt to re-define a political problem as a legal one, for which (he hoped) his lawyers would provide a solution.

 

The judges’ answers gave the king everything he wanted. The continual council was derogatory to the king’s regality and therefore unlawful. Furthermore, it was the king’s prerogative to choose his ministers, who were responsible to him and not to parliament. It was the king who set the order of business; nothing could be discussed or passed without his assent, and it was for the king to summon and dismiss parliament at his will. Finally, the impeachment of Suffolk was unlawful.[10] The judges held back from actually declaring the actions of the Wonderful Parliament to be treason[11]; though they did consider them to be capital offences punishable as traitors. This opinion was a complete vindication of Richard’s view of kingship and provided him with a ‘legal’ foundation for his revanche.

 

Although the judges would later say that that were coerced into giving these answers, they seem, on the face of it, to have been given in good faith. Their interpretation of the law at that time is not obviously wrong. It would be difficult to argue as a matter of law that the continual council was not prejudicial to the royal prerogative, or that historically, it was not for the king to arrange the business of parliament, and that he might not dissolve it at his will, or that as  the impeachment of the king’s officials had been repudiated in 1377, the judgement against Suffolk was invalid. These are opinions that any other lawyer trained in the common law might have given to the king if asked.

 

The crisis occurred during the autumn/winter of 1387. Warned of the judges’ opinion [12] and their insinuation of treason, Gloucester, Warwick and Arundel combined their retinues near London and sought a meeting with the king. On the 17 November they told Richard of their intention to appeal Robert de Vere duke of Ireland, Michael de la Pole earl of Suffolk, Alexander Neville, archbishop of York, Robert Tresilian, Chief Justice and Nicholas Brembre erstwhile mayor of London, for treason. Richard set aside a date in February for parliament to hear the appeals. Shortly thereafter, Thomas Mowbray earl of Norfolk and Henry Bolingbroke earl of Derby joined Gloucester, Warwick and Arundel as the lords appellant.

The speed and defiance of the lords appellant’s response panicked the king and his friends. De Vere went north to Cheshire, to raise a royal army, while the king remained at Windsor. After raising 3-4000 troops, de Vere moved south to rescue the king. Warned by their scouts of de Vere’s approach, the lords appellant intercepted and surrounded him at Radcot Bridge on the river Thames. In thick fog the royal army was routed. De Vere barely escaped to France with his life. Meanwhile, the earl of Suffolk and the archbishop of York fled to France. Richard, aware that de Vere’s defeat had ended his last hope of resisting the lords appellant, moved to the greater security of the Tower of London. There, on the 30 December they came to see him accompanied by five hundred soldiers. Although the main chronicles (Walsingham, Knighton and Westminster) differ on the detail, they agree about the main points discussed. Richard was reprimanded and possibly threatened with deposition. Eventually a modus vivendi was achieved preserving the king’s regality and serving the lords appellants’ purposes. However, the obscure Lancastrian chronicler of Whalley Abbey contradicts that version of events. According to his narrative, Richard was ‘deprived of his throne’ for three days and was only reinstated due to a disagreement between Gloucester and Derby about the succession.[13]

 

Whalley is the only chronicler who describes Richard’s actual deposition; however, it is corroborated by Gloucester himself. In his signed confession, written in Calais shortly after his own arrest for treason in 1397. Gloucester, said this: “…insomuch as I was present when the question of deposition of my lord was discussed, I acknowledge that we did, for two or three days, agree to do this, but then we performed our homage and our oaths to him and restored him to as high estate as he had been previously.”[14] In professor Saul’s opinion, the fact that ‘no letters for the last three days of December were entered in the close and pattern rolls’ suggests that Richard was probably deposed and a few days later he was restored to the throne.[15]

 

The Merciless Parliament

The trials began on the 3 February 1388. First up were the main appellees: Robert de Vere, William de la Pole, Alexander Neville, Robert Tresilian and Nicholas Brembre. Between them, they faced a total of thirty-nine articles containing the details of their offences. Four articles related to their undue influence over the king; thirteen, alleged that they abused their power for personal gain by taking advantage of the king’s tender years; fifteen, alleged that they encouraged the king to defy his natural councillors and the remainder claimed that the appellees encouraged the king to take military action against his loyal lords and especially the three senior lords appellant. It should be noted, however, that not everybody appeared in every article.

 

Unfortunately, four of the appellees were absent when the trials began. De Vere, de la Pole and Neville were beyond the jurisdiction, and Tresilian was in hiding.[16] Only Nicholas Brembre was in custody at the start. The king and the lords appellant had already agreed that parliament would hear the appeal. Parliament was by 1388, well established as the proper tribunal for state trials;[17] similarly, the judicial function of the parliamentary lords was well recognised.[18] It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that by instituting proceedings by way of an appeal, the lords appellant envisaged a trial conducted under common law rules. However, there was a serious objection to continuing against the absent appellees under the common law, since in that jurisdiction they could not be condemned in their absence. Given the obvious political dimension to these proceedings, it would be naïve to think that the lords appellant could withdraw their appeal and expect to survive the outcome. Parliament’s political imperative was to condemn and execute the main appellees as quickly as possible. That being so, and on the king’s behalf, the lords appellant asked a panel of judges and lawyers how they should proceed.[19]

 

The judges and the other lawyers ducked the question; they merely confirmed what everybody already knew; namely, that this appeal was not according to the civil or the common law.[20] Their actual reply is recorded in the Parliamentary Roll: “…[they] informed the said lords of parliament that they had seen and well understood the tenor of the said appeal and they said that the same appeal had not been made or affirmed in accordance with the procedure required by either [the civil or the common] law.”[21] Much — perhaps overmuch — has been made of this reply and it is worth considering it in a little detail before judging its meaning and its importance. First, it is only legal advice; it does not have the force of law. Second, it is only relevant if one accepts the premise that parliament was legally bound by the relevant civil and/or common law. Third, it does not state that appeal proceedings before parliament were unlawful per se, nor should we infer that that is what they meant; it is merely alluding to a defect in this appeal viewed from the perspective of the existing civil and common law. Fourth, it is a cautious answer: the judges and other lawyers well understood that this was a politically loaded question (‘the tenor of the appeal’). It is inconceivable that they would knowingly commit themselves to recommending a particular course of action that might alienate either the king or the five most powerful subjects in the realm. They only had to consider the predicament of the judges who had denounced the Wonderful Parliament to see the danger of giving a ‘wrong’ opinion. Accordingly, their answer was as neutral as they could make it, so as not to offend anyone and to ensure that they could not be held responsible for what happened next. In other words the panel baulked at circumscribing the judicial power of the parliamentary lords or upsetting the king.

 

The lords’ reaction to this legal opinion has received a mixed press. Nigel Saul described parliament’s subsequent pronouncement of its privileges and authority as ‘legal sleight of hand’, which implied that ‘parliament could make-up the rules up as it went along’.[22] Chris Givern-Wilson suggested that the panel’s answer cast doubt on the legality of this appeal procedure, which he describes as ‘legally dubious at best’. Of course, these opinions are only sustainable if one accepts the premise that parliament as a court of law was inferior to the courts of civil and common law, and therefore bound by their procedure and law. Stanley Chrimes takes a more ‘constitutional’ line; he described parliaments declaration as the first ‘ explicit theory of parliament as the king’s high court’.[23] On any view, parliament can scarcely have ever made a more assertive or categorical assertion of its own rights and privileges, and its judicial primacy as the superior English court of justice. It might be useful at this point to reflect on what parliament actually said and did. “…in the case of so high a crime as that alleged in this appeal, which touched the person of the king and the estate of his kingdom perpetrated by persons who are peers of the realm and others, the case should be conducted nowhere other than in parliament, not by any other law than the law and usages of parliament and to their franchise and liberty of the ancient custom of parliament to be judges in such a case with the assent of the king. And that (being) so, it will be done in this instance by decision of parliament because the kingdom of England was never in the past, nor by the will of the king our said lord and the lords of parliament ever would be ruled or governed by the civil law; and also it is their intention not to rule or govern so high a case as this appeal, which will neither be tried or determined elsewhere than in parliament, as was said by the course, process and procedure practiced in any lower court or place within the same kingdom, which courts and places are not executors of the ancient laws and customs of the kingdom and the ordinances and decrees of parliament. And the same lords of parliament were advised by the assent of the king our said lord, that this appeal should be made and affirmed well and duly and the process would be good and effectual according to the laws and course of parliament and thus they should decide and adjudge it” [24] Personally, I cannot detect any impropriety in this assertion. Far from being ‘legal sleight of hand’, their pronouncement is an eloquent exposition of parliament’s judicial and jurisdictional status then and now, which provided a legal foundation for the future development of parliamentary law and procedures.

 

Nonetheless, it is true that there was an element of trial and error in the conduct of these proceedings. It was a novel situation for which, as yet, parliament had neither a settled law nor a settled procedure. In the wider interests of justice, the absent appellees could not be allowed evade their trial by absconding, since that bought the rule of law into disrepute. Parliament therefore adopted a hybrid procedure borrowed from the civil law. The appellees were summoned to appear for their trial on three separate days; when they failed to appear after the third summons, their default was noted and the lords proceeded to judgement.[25] According to the Parliamentary Roll, the lords approached their task with “great pains and diligence”. They examined the thirty-nine articles over the course of several days and after “a good and thorough discussion” declared that fourteen of the thirty-nine articles were treason. Thereafter by “ due examination and by evidence and information by which they could anyway inform themselves”, they found the four defendants guilty on all the charges, including those not declared as treason.[26] On the basis of this formal account the parliamentary lords appear to have discharged their judicial duties responsibly and properly. However, some historians doubt the completeness of this account and they may have a point. The official version will undoubtedly have been sanitised for public consumption. Considering the magnitude of what the lords appellant were undertaking and their control over the proceedings, they are unlikely to have allowed it to include any error or controversial material which is pejorative to the justice and correctness of these proceedings. However, there are some independent chronicles that enable us to construct a fuller narrative of events and the quality of justice dispensed. I shall come to back to this point after I have addressed the parliamentary declaration of treason.

 

The Treason Act of 1351 abolished common law treason.[27] From January 1352, English law only recognised two types of offence as treason i), those defined as treason in the Act and ii) offences declared as non-statutory treason by parliament.[28] While we cannot doubt parliament’s discretion to declare these articles as treason, a question mark remains about whether they exercised that power properly. The legislation does not fetter their discretion, nor do we know of any regulations or guidance governing the exercise of their discretion. As far as we know, it was entirely a matter for parliament to declare what is or is not treason, as they thought fit. It is also important to bear in mind that at this stage, the lords were simply determining the nature of the offences. They were not determining guilt or innocence. Nevertheless, as judges, the lords had a judicial responsibility to make a decision based on the evidence and the relevant law.

 

Since there was no prospect of appealing parliaments decision, even if they got the facts or the law, or both, wrong, it is of academic interest to consider whether they acted properly. That having been said there is no evidence that they got the law wrong in this case. We do not know what they said in their deliberations but it is possible to construct a working hypothesis of their reasoning and the factors that influenced their decision. For example, we can deduce from the fact that less than half of the articles were declared treason that they discriminated between the different offences. Furthermore, it is clear from their judgement that they distinguished offences of pure accroachment (not treason) from those with aggravating features (treason). The aggravating features that appear in most of the fourteen treasonable offences are: the appellees attempts to get the king to use armed force against the lords appellant; the appellees encouragement of Londoners to attack and kill the lords appellant; and by raising forces themselves, to destroy the lords appellant and the ‘king’s other of loyal lieges’. In the lords’ judgement these were the offences that most injured the king and his kingdom. They also considered that the appellees evil counsel was responsible for England’s unpreparedness for the threatened French invasion. Last, they thought that de Vere’s attempt to persuade Richard to make him king of Ireland, was to the prejudice of the kings’ allegiance from Ireland and therefore treason.[29]

 

The parliamentary lords (and the lords appellant) were probably aware of the precedent set by the accusations against the Despenser in 1326[30]. The father and his son were charged with accroaching royal authority and executed. The younger Despenser’s main offence was accroaching the royal authority by seeking advice from the king’s lawyers on how to best to prosecute Thomas earl of Lancaster for treason. The aggravating feature that made the offence treason was that he arraigned and convicted Lancaster ‘on the king’s record’ and (ultimately) had him executed.[31] As Lancaster was of royal blood, his execution without the king’s licence was a step too far. The allegation of accroachment was added to supplement the substantive treason. Professor Bellamy emphasises the wider significance of this very point. He has researched the relevant common law cases: “ A close inspection reveals that in fact the word’s ‘accroaching’ the royal power were used in the majority of instances merely to describe an accepted treason or felony and to afforce (sic) the gravity of the offence. In two cases only was there a danger of treason and accroaching the royal power being drawn together and confused. After the statute the practice ceased altogether. There has never been a case before the courts of common law wherein a man was sentenced for ‘accroaching the royal power’ by committing a crime which was not a felony or treason. It could not stand by itself.”[32] And there was also the example of Roger Mortimer’s treason trial in 1330. Based on Bellamy’s research and the Despenser precedent, and if my hypothesis is correct, there would appear to be little cause for concern about the lords’ understanding to the law as it was in the fourteenth, or their reasoning. Nevertheless, treason trials cannot be viewed in a legal vacuum. Political rivalry was the driving force of state treason trials during the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries, especially during the reigns of dysfunctional monarchs. This was a political trial and frankly the outcome was pretty much a foregone conclusion. The law was only able provide a cloak of legitimacy for the purge of king Richard’s administration.

 

We get a feel for the atmosphere that pervaded parliament from two different accounts of the trial of Nicholas Brembre. The Parliamentary Roll account is pithy. He was produced for trial on the 18 February 1388 and arraigned. He pleaded not guilty and offered to prove his innocence in trial by battle but that was deemed inappropriate. The lords considered the matter by “all means required to the honour of God.” On the 20 February, Brembre was adjudged guilty and sentenced to a traitor’s death; he was drawn and hanged the same day. [33]

 

The Westminster Chronicler’s narrative is detailed and colourful. On being produced, Brembre asked for legal representation: that was refused. He requested to see a copy of the charges: that was also refused. He tried to respond to the charges as they were put to him but he was told he could only plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. At this point the king tried to intercede on Brembre’s behalf; however, he was shouted down when dozens of MP’s threw down their gages as proof of Brembre’s guilt. A sub-committee chaired by the duke of York was set up to consider the matter. Shortly thereafter, York reported the committee’s conclusion that Brembre had done nothing to warrant death; this enraged the lords appellant and almost bought Gloucester and York to blows. It was difficult to know how to proceed, so members of the city guilds most affected by Brembre’s activities were asked to pronounce his guilt; they could not do so and were dismissed peremptorily. Eventually, the Mayor and the Recorder of London agreed when pressed that Brembre may have been ‘more aware than innocent’ of the treasons perpetrated by the other appellees. On these very thin grounds, Brembre was adjudged guilty of concealing treason. He was drawn and hanged the same day.

 

Even though, Brembre’s trial could not be considered fair in any century, the procedures adopted in 1388 were  not unprecedented at the time. The refusal to allow him legal representation followed precedents set in state trials in 1376 and 1377 , and in 1381 when parliament decreed that defence counsel was not permitted in treason trials.[34] Neither was it unusual for the accused to be denied a copy of the charges in writing. It is true there was no consistency an arraignment. Some men were allowed to plead to the charges and offer there defence; others, like Brembre were simply required to plead guilty or not guilty. The condemnation of men unheard was not popular. Public opinion was in favour of allowing suspect traitors to answer the charges. In 1399, the commons in parliament petitioned that anybody accused of treason should not be condemned unheard. Henry IV did not consent to the petition[35].

 

Nicholas Brembre’s execution marked the end of the appeal proceedings, but not the end of the trials, or of the king’s humiliation. On the 2 March, the commons began impeachment proceedings against thirteen of his officials implicated in the appellees treasons. The impeachments began with the six judges who had denounced the work of the Wonderful Parliament. The king’s justices Robert Bealknap, Roger Fulthorpe, John Holt, William Burgh and John Carey together with John Lockton, sergeant–at-law, were charged that in response to the questions put to them on the law, they gave the king false answers that were not according to the law, and which gave ‘boldness and hardihood’ to the appellees. They were also charged with concealing their knowledge of the appellees treason. The justices’ defence that their answers were given under duress availed them little, since on the 6 March the lords adjudged them guilty of treason. They were sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life exile.

 

Thomas Usk and John Blake, the draftsmen of the ten questions were produced for their impeachment on the 3 March. They were charged with knowing the appellees treacherous intentions in having the questions drafted and put to the justices and with concealing their knowledge of the appellees treason. Their defence that they were only obeying orders made things worse. The next day, they were adjudged guilty on their own confession, and drawn and hanged. The last person to be impeached for his involvement in the denouncing of the Wonderful Parliament was the bishop of Chichester. He incited the justices’ ‘with threatening words’ to answer as they did and he did not reveal his knowledge of the appellees treasonous plans. The bishop denied the offence, saying he had done no more than tell the justices to answer according to the law. This was taken as a confession and not a defence and the offence declared as treason. The bishop was exiled to Ireland for life

 

Last, four knights of the king’s household were impeached on sixteen articles for their involvement in the appellees conspiracy. In broad terms their offences amounted to accroachment. The offences were declared treason and on the 5 March, Simon Burley, John Beauchamp, John Salisbury and James Berners were all convicted. And executed. It was the execution of Simon Burley that caused the king most anguish, since he was an old and faithful family retainer. He had served the king’s father and as Richard’s mentor. Both the king and the queen (in tears and on her knees apparently) begged for Burley’s life. Normally the grace of the king was sufficient to redeem a traitor’s life, but not in this time. The lords and the commons were obdurate: Burley must die. The only mercy shown to him was that he was granted a quick death by beheading. It was the most obvious and public humiliation for Richard.

 

Epilogue

By the end of the parliament, Richard’s authority counted for nothing and his prestige for even less. He was forced to acknowledge the limitations of his vision of kingship. It was a severe lesson that made him compliant for the next six or seven years: he had no choice. However, the political wheel turned in his favour. By the mid 1390’s, his confidence and authority were restored. Moreover, he acquired a personal military force capable of enforcing his will. Within a decade of the Merciless Parliament Richard moved to destroy Gloucester, Warwick and Arundel in his own ‘Revenge Parliament’ of 1397. Not only that, but in 1398 Mowbray and Derby fell out and were exiled Unfortunately, Richard mistook revenge for kingship; before the century was out, he had been deposed as ‘useless and unfit to rule’, and replaced by a Lancastrian king.

 

The Merciless Parliament is significant for two reasons. First, it triggered a chain of events that resulted in Richard’s deposition, thus changing the course of English history. Second, it was the first and most telling demonstration of how the law of treason could be manipulated for political ends. Kings and nobles were quick to see the benefits of the power given to parliament in the Treason Act, to extend the scope of treason beyond its statutory limitation. The appeal process and impeachment disappeared by the fifteenth century. They were awkward to use and the Lancastrian kings developed a much quicker, surer and more serviceable weapon for their needs: the act of attainder. That, however, is another story…

[1] The Treason Act 1351 (25 Edw. 3 Stat. 5 c.2): the ‘Great Treason Act’ is still the law today. It has been expanded, and modern law has replaced some of its medieval provisions; nonetheless, the Act itself has never been repealed and is as relevant today as it was six hundred and fifty years ago. See also JG Bellamy –The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge 1970) pp. 59-62 and 98-104; and Chris Given-Wilson (Gen Ed) – The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England (Boydell Press 2005): Volume 5, Mark Ormrod (Ed) pp.35, 44 for the medieval definition of treason. Richard II passed his own Treason Act in 1381 (5 Ric.2 c.6), which extended the scope of treason in response to the Peasants’ Revolt.

[2] Bellamy, p.100

[3] Nigel Saul – Richard II (Yale 1999) p. 132

[4] PROME Chris Givern-Wilson (Ed) Volume7 pp. 2-3 (introduction), 19-27 and 28-29. This contains extensive details of the commons’ petition and the king’s response

[5] Parliament needed convincing that the taxation previously granted was being well spent in the defence of the realm. Instead of addressing parliament’s concern Suffolk announced the king’s plan for leading an expedition to France; he asked for a ‘substantial grant’ but declined formally to say how much was needed. However, he ‘let slip’ a figure of four fifteenths and tenths, which was double the normal grant. The result was uproar!

[6] Saul pp.176-180: all three lords had cause to resent Richard’s court. Their influence within the government had diminished, particularly their warlike policy towards France, which the king had disregarded. Furthermore they harboured personal grievances against Richard for furthering the aspirations his personal favourites at their expense.

[7] Saul at p157; Suffolk’s sins were of omission and commission. He omitted to use the taxation previously granted by parliament wisely for the defence of the realm, or to do anything about implementing the commission of government. His sins of commission were various; for example, he purchased lands and sources of royal income “contrary to his oath and greatly in excess of his deserts”. There were other peculations specified in the indictment preferred against him. Suffolk pleaded the collective responsibility of the council in respect of his omissions and was acquitted. He was however, convicted on three counts of peculation, and imprisoned and fined.

[8] Saul at pp.157-164; Bennett at pp.27-28 (Citing Knighton at pp.353-388) and PROME, Vol 7, P32 (citing Knighton, ibid; St Alban’s Chronicle at pp.786-806; the Eulogium Historiarum at pp. 359-360 and the Westminster Chronicles pp. 166-186) all provide an account of the ‘Wonderful Parliament’. Gloucester and the bishop of Ely reminded the king that if he absented himself from parliament for forty days without good reason the members could disperse to their homes without granting the taxation he required. They pointed out to him the foolishness of carrying out his threat to seek aid from the king of France against his own subjects, since France was England’s greatest enemy and generations of Englishmen had fought and given their lives against France. It was, they said, the intolerable burden of taxation and the government’s incompetence that had bought matters to a head. Finally, Ely reminded him of ‘an ancient law’ whereby if the king alienated his people and did not keep the law of the land the people might replace him with another of the royal line. It was this allusion to the fate of Edward II that caused Richard to back down.

[9] See Saul at pp.173-175 for an analysis of the origin and nature of the ten questions put to the judges; see also PROME Vol 7, pp. 92-93 for their precise wording, including the judges’ answers. There is no satisfactory explanation for why two meetings were necessary (McKistay at p.448, n.2).

[10] Saul at p.174

[11] Bellamy at p.112, and n.2; Bellamy provides an authoritative analysis of the judges construction of the law. The actions of the Wonderful Parliament amounted only to accroaching royal authority, a charge that was incapable of standing as treason by itself. In those treason trials where accroaching was alleged, it has always been as an additional count to a substantive treasonable offence such as, for example, compassing the king’s death and accroaching royal authority.

[12] Saul, ibid: it is not clear who leaked the information to Gloucester and his allies. The judges suggested that was the earl of Kent. However, the Westminster Chronicle (p.206) says it was the archbishop of Dublin.

[13] Saul at pp.189-190: citing BL, Harley MS360.

[14] Chris Givern-Wilson Chronicles of the Revolution 1397-1400 (Manchester UP 1993) p.81

[15] Saul p.190, n.56

[16] During the course of the trial Tresilian was betrayed by his servant and seized from his sanctuary in Westminster Abbey

[17] See Bellamy at pp.23-54 for comprehensive case-by-case analysis of the origins of the English state trial in the thirteenth century. The trials of the Welsh rebels David ap Gruffydd (1283) and Rhys ap Maredudd (1292), and the trial of the Scottish nationalist William Wallace (1305) are the most famous examples of this type of trial. They were all heard by the English parliament as being the king’s high court and therefore possessing the gravitas and authority to try such serious offences of treason against the king’s royal person. By bringing the appeal before parliament, the lords appellant were following a well-trodden procedural path in accroaching cases. In 1330, Roger Mortimer and many of his retainers were indicted, tried and condemned by the lords in parliament for treason, which included allegations of ‘usurping royal power.’ The impeachment trials of 1376 were tried by parliament and in 1386 Suffolk had been tried and impeached by parliament. There is clear legal authority for a case of this type to be tried in parliament and for the judicial authority of the lords.

[18] R G Davies and J H Denton (Eds) – The English Parliament in the Middle Ages (Manchester 1999 edition) at pp.43-50 contains a summary of parliament’s development as a high court of justice in the fourteenth century; S B Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge 1936) at p.71 also attests to parliaments enduring function as the ‘king’s high court’ from the outset. Nicholas Pronay and John Taylor – Parliamentary Texts in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford 1980) at pp.36-37; whilst acknowledging the lords’ judicial function, Pronay and Taylor note that parliament ‘as a whole’ was not predominately a court of law since the commons of parliament had no judicial powers.

[19] PROME Vol 7, p.99

[20] Saul, p.192, n.66 speculates about the judges and lawyers’ meaning. They cannot have meant that the appeal method did not belong to the common law per se since, as Saul points out, it was the standard procedure for instituting proceedings in the courts of common law. Furthermore, it is inconceivable that they were referring the fact that none of the charges met the statutory definition of treason since the judges and the other lawyers well knew that the Treason Act of 1352 conferred a statutory discretion on the lords in parliament to declare whether or not doubtful cases were tantamount to treason.

[21] PROME Vol 7, ibid

[22] Saul, ibid: PROME Vol 7, p58

[23] Chrimes, ibid: although the word ‘court’ was rarely used before the 1380’s, parliament’s forms were those of a court/tribunal from the outset.

[24] PROME Vol 7, pp.99-100

[25]. The procedure of calling an absent defendant on three separate days is still used today. If he or she fails to appear on the third occasion, the trial can proceed in their absence. However, the prosecution still has to prove the defendant’s guilt to a jury with evidence that satisfies the criminal standard of proof (‘so that you are sure’, or ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’) before he or she can be convicted.

[26] PROME Vol 7, pp.103-104

[27] See 25 Edw. 3 Stat. 5 c.2; Bellamy pp.59-62 and 98-104; and PROME Vol, 5 pp.35, 44

[28] In the parliament of 1351-52, it was recognised that offences might occur that seemed to be treason but which fell outside the statutory definition. In such cases, justices were not to proceed to judgment until they had referred the matter to parliament for a declaration whether the offence was treason or a felony. The procedure envisaged seems to have been that once parliament had made the declaration the case would be remitted to the lower court for a trial by a judge and jury on the facts. See Bellamy pp.180-81, citing Rezneck- Eng Hist Rev XLII, pp. 473-513) According to Rezneck’s research only one case followed this procedure between 1352 and 1500!

[29] PROME, Vol 7 p 102

[30] The relevance of this case to parliament in 1388 is that Gloucester (like Lancaster in 1326) was a royal duke.

[31] ‘On the kings record’ means on the word of the king without any corroborating evidence. It applied to treasons that were actually witnessed by the king. In such cases English law presumed the king’s word to be the perfect evidence as it was above reproach and nothing else was needed to convict the accused.

[32] Bellamy p.112

[33] The trial was interrupted on the 19 February by the sentencing and execution of Robert Tresilian who had been seized from sanctuary in Westminster Abbey and bought before parliament.

[34] Bellamy pp. 168-169, provides details of the relevant cases

[35] Bellamy, ibid

 

Another Maligned King – or Propaganda Strikes Again

Richard_II_of_England

This portrait of Richard II in Westminster Abbey is familiar. What is less well-known is that it is heavily ‘restored’ over the years, most recently in 1866. In Richard II, Manhood, Youth and Politics, 1377-99, Christopher Fletcher reveals that when examined under infra-red reflectography the king’s beard was much more developed, covering much of his face, the line of his jaw was much more defined, the lips were less full. In other words, Richard’s image has been deliberately ‘feminised’ to match his reputation – or more precisely, the reputation Lancastrian propagandists attached to him as they went about distorting his character.

The fact is that only one contemporary Chronicler, that of Evesham Abbey, makes any reference to Richard appearing in any way feminine. He wrote that Richard had ‘fair hair, a white, rounded and feminine face, occasionally corrupted by a phlegmatic humour.’ But as this writer could not even get so basic a fact as the king’s height correct, one is left to wonder whether he actually set eyes on Richard. In any event, the description was set down after the king’s fall, and may well have been influenced by the propaganda of the new Lancastrian government.

So whence does this reputation proceed? As Fletcher explains, the medieval concept of manhood (based on classical tradition) held that women (and youths) were imperfect men. In particular they lacked the reason of men, were inconstant and apt to tell lies. These alleged defects are among those attributed to Richard, and help to explain why he is often spoken of as a ‘youth’ or ‘youthful’ or influenced by overly young advisers, even when it is obvious that (at least in the later part of his reign) Richard was not a youth – by our standards, let alone medieval ones – while even a casual examination of the facts will reveal that the majority of his advisers, throughout his reign, were his seniors, in some cases by many years.

In short, what medieval people meant by ‘youthful’ or ‘female’ was something different to what we mean by these terms, and implied a character defect. It did not necessarily mean that Richard was (in our terms)  young in years or feminine in his ways, or that his advisers were literally youths.

It is interesting to note that in his speech to Henry IV’s first Parliament, Archbishop Arundel stated that England had been ruled by youths by the counsel of widows. This sounds very much as though there was a suspicion that Richard had ignored his formal council and had in effect been advised by a sort of informal cabinet council in which women had their say! That he kept women at court in some numbers is undoubted. But did they really have political influence?

Arundel’s comment may be nothing more than a party political swipe to justify the overthrow of Richard’s government, but it is a good example of the conservative attitude towards the rule of women in England, which Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville were to face in years yet to come.

Although we are told not to judge by appearances, it is an unfortunate fact that appearances do influence opinion, even the opinions of professional historians. If Richard II’s portrait had not been ‘adjusted’ one wonders whether the king would have been referred to as ‘slightly epicine’ by Nigel Saul in his 1997 biography, or whether Saul would have dwelled on his ‘narcissistic’ personality.

The irony is that on three separate occasions in the 1380s, Richard proposed to lead an army to France in person. What stopped him from being a putative Henry V was that Parliament would not, or could not, supply the necessary funds. (A tale so familiar in later 15th Century history!) Richard was in fact keen to prove himself in the traditional ‘manly’ way, and it was scarcely his fault that there was no money available for the purpose. (By the way, at this point he was spending less on his household than Edward III had done, so  wild expenditure on pretty clothes and favourites cannot be blamed.) In 1385, he actually did invade Scotland – with one of the largest English armies assembled in the middle ages. He gets little credit from English historians for this – unfortunately his opponents ran away and there was no set-piece battle – but apparently Scottish and French historians are rather more impressed.

Contrary to popular opinion, Richard also appeared in tournaments, and won honours on occasions. Of course, one must also put an asterisk against tournament honours won by kings, but he certainly took part. He also rode right through the night on one occasion in his haste to get to London. Was this a physical weakling?

The final irony is that Richard’s burning, relentless determination to avenge himself on his enemies, to avenge his honour as he saw it, was the very epitome of noble masculinity as it was defined at the time!

This article is heavily influenced by and could not have been written without:-

Richard II, Manhood Youth and Politics 1377-99, by Christopher Fletcher, Oxford University Press 2008

 

 

 

 

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