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SIR WILLIAM STANLEY – TURNCOAT OR LOYALIST

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It is well documented how, through the treasonable and treacherous actions of Sir William Stanley at Bosworth, Richard lost his crown and his life. He was hacked to death after Stanley, who brought 3000 men with him, intervened at the crucial point when Richard, with his household cavalry in a heroic charge, came within a hair’s breadth of reaching Tudor and despatching him.  There is a story that after Richard’s crown was found under a hawthorn bush, it was Stanley who crowned him.

Sir William seems to have been one of those people who can run with the hounds and play with the foxes, doing well under Edward IV, who made him Chamberlain of Chester and, interestingly, Steward of the Prince of Wales’ Household(1).  Later Richard made Stanley Chief Justice of North Wales and finally Tudor made him Lord Chamberlain and Knight of the Garter.  It is said that Stanley – step-uncle to Tudor and brother-in-law to Margaret Beaufort – was one of the richest men in England.  Bacon estimated his income at 3000 pounds a year.  Stanley was also step-father to Francis Lovell, having married Lovell’s mother, Joan Beaufort, widow of John Lovell, 8th Baron Lovell, but I digress!

Fast forward 10 years and it all ended ignominiously at Tower Hill, where Stanley was beheaded on 16 February 1495 for the treasonable act of communicating with Perkin Warbeck.  Stanley was accused of telling Robert Clifford, who informed on him, that if he was sure Perkin was indeed Edward’s son ‘he would never take up arms against him’.

The question I am raising here is not so much about Stanley’s interminable fence-sitting, which is common knowledge  – and a penchant he shared with his brother Thomas – but rather, did Sir William, an apparent dyed-in-the-wool turncoat, capable of the greatest untrustworthiness, actually possess a latent streak of honour, perhaps dating from the time when he was Steward to the Princes of Wales’ Household?  Did his time there give birth to a fierce loyalty to Edward’s sons, that later emerged with such a passion that he risked all, absolutely all,  when he joined the Perkin Warbeck plot?  Did he grow fond of young Edward, later focusing this affection on Edward’s brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, whom Warbeck purported to be?  OR, was he, as the historian Gairdner (2) suggested, merely attempting to secure his position in the event of an invasion?

(1)  Ramsay, Lancaster and York, ii 482

(2) W A J Archbold ‘Sir William Stanley and Perkin Warbeck’ English Historical Review 14( 1899) pp 529-534. ‘On 14 March (year unknown) Gairdner suggested in a note to Archbold that Stanley may ‘simply have wanted to secure his position with both sides in case of an invasion’.  I am grateful for this information which I have gleaned from Helen Maurer’s ‘Whodunit – The Suspects in the Case’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TREASON 3 – The Long Parliament 1649

Introduction

“ The scaffold was hung round with black, and the floor covered with black, and the axe and block (were) laid in the middle of the scaffold. There were divers companies of Foot and Horse on every side of the scaffold, and the multitude of people that came to be spectators were very great.”[1] The soldiers and the civilian spectators were present in Whitehall on a bitterly cold 30 January 1649 to witness the execution for treason of Charles I their lawful king. It remains an event unparalleled in British history.

 

The execution was delayed whilst the Dutch envoy made a last minute effort to get Charles reprieved. It was a hopeless cause as the House of Commons were determined that the law should take its course. Eventually, at about 2pm, the king stepped out from the Banqueting Hall onto the scaffold in Whitehall. He was wearing two shirts so that he did not shiver in the cold, which might otherwise be taken by the multitude for fear. His bearing was dignified and calm, and after commenting on the low height of the block he addressed his last remarks to those on the scaffold, it being pointless to address the multitude since they would not hear him. He regretted nothing except the death of his friend and advisor Thomas Wentworth earl of Strafford at the hands of Parliament. “ I only say this” he said, “that an unjust sentence I suffered to take effect is punished by an unjust sentence on me”. He said he was blameless of wrongdoing and charged parliament with causing the civil wars. He also made reference to the law of the land and his efforts to uphold his subjects’ rights and privileges under the law. Finally, he forgave his enemies and made his peace with God. He showed no remorse for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people from all three of his kingdoms in the civil wars [2]; nor did he repent his own conduct: “Then the king took off his cloak and his George giving his George to Dr Juxon [sic][3] saying ‘remember’ (it is thought for the Prince) and some other small ceremonies [were] past. After which the king stooping down laid his head upon the block. And after a little pause, stretching forth his hands, the Executioner at one blow severed his head from his body.[4]

 

His grim task completed, the executioner picked-up the king’s head and showed it to the crowd. The silence was deafening.[5] What is also remarkable is that the trial and the execution were uninterrupted by those whom it was subsequently claimed were utterly opposed to the proceedings. “It was as if the country had failed to catch-up with events at Westminster: they heard of them unfolding, in a sort of awe. When the shock wore off it would be different. But on Tuesday 30 January 1649 the shops remained open, the public went about its business, the king was not immediately missed.”[6]

 

At first sight, this trial has little in common with my two previous articles about the law of medieval treason and the constitution [7]. In the Merciless Parliament of 1388 (my first essay posted 19 May 2016) and the Parliament of Devils in 1459, (my second essay posted 20 May 2016) the law of treason was clear, as was the jurisdiction of the House of Lords to try traitors. Whilst I would not claim that either of those trials met modern standards of due process, the legal procedures complied with the law as it was known and understood at the time.[8] The circumstances in 1649, however, were completely different. The law of treason as it applied to the king’s subjects did not apply to the king [9]. He was the source of justice and could not be tried by his subjects for anything; nor was there a tribunal fit to try him. Magna Carta protected all freemen (and free women) from judgement except by their peers or the law of the land. [10] The king was peerless.

 

 

 

Despite these differences I have chosen this trial as the subject of my third (and last) essay on the theme of medieval treason for reasons, which I believe are compelling. First, notwithstanding their differences, there are also similarities between the events of 1388, 1459 and 1649, which are worth exploring. All the trials took place against a background of political and social unrest, and considerable criticism of the king’s performance. And they all had as an undercurrent to the proceedings a power struggle between the king and his parliament for constitutional sovereignty. The trial of 1649 and its consequence marked an important development in the ultimate resolution of that conflict. Second, this trial is legally significant because it marks the early evolution of the law from a medieval definition of treason as being purely against the monarchy, to a modern concept of treason (could be by a head of state) against a nation.

 

The Long Parliament

To understand what happened in England during January 1649 it is necessary to delve a little into the surrounding circumstances and into the nature of the king and the parliamentarians who opposed him. The Long Parliament is justly famous, not for its longevity, controversy or drama but because a ‘rump’ of its members instigated and oversaw the trial and the execution of king Charles I.[11] It was summoned following a period of eleven years during which the king ruled by his royal prerogative, without parliament. He had little time for parliament; he summoned five during his reign, in 1625,1626,1628 and twice in1640, and he quarreled with them all He only summoned parliament when he needed money; it was to him nothing more than a useful revenue stream. He suffered, their debates about the conduct of state affairs and the administration of the realm because he was gracious, but he ignored the outcomes because, strictly speaking, such matters were none of parliament’s concern. In 1629, frustrated by parliament’s attempt to curtail his prerogative,[12] Charles dissolved it, expressing the hope that he never had to summon another.

 

His personal rule was characterized by policies and actions his subjects bitterly resented. He imposed unlawful taxation and forced loans thereby undermining ancient laws of property and possessions. He imprisoned without trial and often without charge those who refused to pay, or objected to paying and he suborned the judiciary to find in his favour in litigation. Worst of all, he took money to assist catholic Spain in their war against the protestant Dutch, a policy that was anathema to the protestant English. On top of all that, he was at war with his Scottish protestant subjects; a war, which he wanted his English protestant subjects to pay for with their blood and their money.

 

By the spring of 1640, Charles’ impecuniosity compelled him to summon parliament for the purpose of voting him a subsidy sufficient for him to raise an English army to crush the Scots. The ‘Short Parliament’ (as it became known) lasted for three weeks. Charles dissolved it as soon as he realized the Commons would not vote him a farthing in subsidy until he addressed their grievances arising from his unparliamentarily practices. The peremptory dissolution of the Short Parliament did not solve Charles’ problem; the royal exchequer still lacked the means to pay for his war plans. By November 1640, Charles was compelled once more to ask parliament for money. It didn’t need a genius to foresee that parliament were unlikely to vote a subsidy until he satisfied their grievances on the two burning issues of the day: the demand for a new constitutional settlement, and religious reform.

 

On the constitutional issue, parliament was united in their resolve to bring the king to account for his despotic personal rule and to remedy its adverse consequences. First and foremost, they punished those whom they thought most culpable for the misgovernment of the previous eleven years. They also passed practical legislation to ensure that such misrule could not re-occur. For example, they passed an Act prohibiting the dissolution of parliament without its consent, and the Triennial Act, which made it obligatory for parliament to be summoned at least once every three years. The principle of no taxation without parliamentary consent (no taxation without representation) was established and the prerogative courts were abolished. [13] The king assented to these and other measures through gritted teeth; he had every intention of reneging on them as soon as he had restored his authority. Indeed he had already said that he would never consent to the curtailment of his prerogative. According to his version of English law, anything granted by the king under compulsion was null and void. [14]

 

The issue of religious reform was problematic because parliament was divided. Not only did the two Houses of parliament disagree with each other but the House of Commons was itself divided along sectarian lines. King Charles was the first English king to be born and raised in the traditional Anglican Church. Unlike his father James I, or his English cousin Elizabeth I both of whom managed to govern the church without being ‘of the church’, Charles was a lay member of its congregation. [15] Moreover, it suited his sense of orderliness and duty to bring the one true Church to all his subjects so that everybody could worship from the same prayer book and in the same way. It so happened that in William Laud, he had an archbishop of Canterbury whose vision for the Anglican Church exactly matched his own. Charles’ great mistake, however, was to believe that the protestant communion in England was settled. In point of fact, it was divided by its own deliberately vague doctrine. [16]

 

Laud reintroduced ornamental art into parish churches, stained glass windows, crosses and even crucifixes. He gloried in religious music and put back the church organs. He raised the holy table on a pedestal and called it an altar. And he used the bishops’ secular powers in the king’s prerogative courts to suppress puritanism and enforce conformity. [17] These were all reforms guaranteed to alienate the puritans in the House of Commons and which, together with the king’s friendly policy towards Spain and his toleration of the Mass at court (for love of his French wife it must be said), raised more widespread fears — whether rationale or irrational — of a return to the Roman Church.[18]

 

However, it was the Commons’ motion to exclude bishops from the Lords and to remove their temporal powers that bought the dispute between the two Houses to the fore. Not unnaturally, the Lords being largely old-school Anglicans rejected this attack on the Episcopal Church. It was a dispute that was bound to occur sooner or later given the religious differences; however, the Lord’s rejection of the motion provoked the Commons to publish a declaration that the Church and the Holy service must comply with the law of the land. It was notice of a return to more austere puritan worship and a clear warning that the ‘elected’ House of Commons was not only ready willing and able to challenge the royal prerogative but was also prepared to encroach on the authority of the Lords.

 

The crisis came over the Christmas period 1641. The House of Commons published the ‘Grand Remonstrance’, which was a list of grievances against the king and a damning indictment of his misgovernment. Notwithstanding its constitutional importance, the Grand Remonstrance only succeeded in making things worse. The political and religious differences had become a struggle for power and increased the likelihood of war. A few days after Christmas, the balance of power tipped against the king. His puritan opponents gained a majority in the Common Council of London, which was followed by the Lord’s unexpected agreement to a petition allowing the Commons to impeach the bench of bishops en block. These, two incidents together with a supposed threat by the Commons to impeach the queen, so enraged Charles that he made a catastrophic mistake. He attempted a military coup d’état by forcing his way into the House of Commons with four hundred soldiers to arrest and impeach five of its members (Francis Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, Sir Arthur Hesilrige and William Strode). The coup failed because the MPs were warned and had already left the building. The descent to war was now rapid. By the 10 January the king left his capital to prepare for what was to come. He did  not to see London again until 1648, when the Army bought him thither as a prisoner to await his trial.

 

The king’s dictatorial rule, his feeble and unpopular foreign policy and his religious reforms, none of which matched the sentiments of the English people were all factors that triggered civil war; though they were not the basic cause of the wars. The civil wars were fought for the sovereignty of England. It was an ancient struggle between king and parliament that had afflicted England for centuries. I believe this is what Samuel Gardiner was referring to when the blamed the inevitability of the civil war on the “… inadequacy of the intellectual methods of the day to effect a reconciliation between opposing moral and social forces, which developed their strength from the past development of the nation”.[19] Generally speaking, the Plantagenet and Tudor monarchs had managed their relationship with parliament pragmatically so as to avoid an open breach. But, by the last decade of the sixteenth century that relationship was breaking down as national and international political institutions evolved from medieval to modern paradigms. An open and a revolutionary conflict between king and parliament was inevitable: by 1640, it was probably overdue. Nevertheless, It would be wrong to think that Charles’ trial and execution were the inevitable outcome of the civil wars or that he was the victim of circumstances beyond his control. As Dame Veronica Wedgwood forcefully pointed out, he was directly responsible for his own downfall.[20] Ultimately his deceitful behaviour, his wanton disregard for the lives of ordinary people and his false views on the nature of kingship so antagonized his subjects and threatened the peace that his destruction was probably unavoidable.

 

God’s vice-regent

The most high and sacred order of kings is of divine right, being the ordinance of God himself, founded in the prime laws of nature, and clearly established by express texts both of the Old and New Testaments. A supreme power is given to this most excellent order by God himself in the Scriptures, which is, that kings should rule and command in their several dominions all persons of what rank and state soever… For any person to bear arms against their kings, offensive or defensive, upon any pretence whatsoever, is at least to resist the powers that are ordained by God…” [21] This quote is from the first Canon of the Book Canons 1640. It represents the Anglican Church’s considered theory of kingship. The convocation of divines, which deliberated between April and May 1640, published this canon and directed that it must be read out quarterly to every congregation, at morning prayers. It was a view of kingship that coincided with Charles’ own. He genuinely believed that God ordained him to rule over his subjects and that he was empowered with an absolute prerogative to do as he thought best for his subjects regardless of their sentiments or the outcome. This much is borne out by his modification to the traditional coronation oath, whereby he swore only to preserve the liberties of his subjects insofar as they were consistent with this prerogative. Later, he would hold himself “blameless of all actions of whatever kind which aimed at restoring his power and saving his people from the consequences of their folly.”

 

Charles was also an inflexible man. He once said ‘he could not defend a bad nor yield a good cause’. Veronica Wedgewood explains: “ …when he thought a cause was good he would not yield, and by ‘not yielding’ he did not mean he would yield on sufficient persuasion, or the day after tomorrow, or the year after next; he meant he would not yield.[22] He had, what Wedgwood calls, a ‘total capacity for resistance’. This is seen clearly in a letter he wrote to Prince Rupert in 1645. After the battle of Naseby Charles faced certain defeat; his nephew Prince Rupert wrote advising him to treat for peace. His reply was unequivocal “ If I had any other quarrel but the defence of my religion, crown and friends, you had full reason for your advice. For I confess that speaking either as to mere soldier or statesman, I must say there is no probability but my ruin. But as to Christian, I must tell you that God will not suffer rebels to prosper, or His cause to be overthrown; and whatever personal punishment it shall please Him to inflict on me must not make me repine, much less to give over this quarrel…I must avow to all my friends, that he that will stay with me at this time must expect and resolve to either die for a good cause, or, which is worse, to live as miserable in the maintaining it as the violence of insulting rebels can make him.[23].

 

We might admire Charles for having the courage of this convictions, were it not for the fact that his “extreme firmness of purpose (was) matched by an exceptional infirmity of judgement.”’[24] He was not just risking his own life, but also the lives of his subjects.   His conduct of state affairs was lamentable and his failure to understand this did not inspire their love or even affection. It is true that after the war people pitied him; but that it is not to be confused with love and devotion. In truth, ordinary people did not know him. He was by nature reserved and formal: one might even say aloof. He did not have that easy relationship with people that his father and his son enjoyed. He knew little and seemed to care less about the lives of his subjects or the state of his realm. He travelled infrequently and then not very far. His knowledge of the outside world was limited to what he was told by his narrow circle of court favourites and sycophants. Not only that, but he was untrustworthy, as J P Kenyon writes, “…it was one of (Charles’) less endearing traits that in the execution of his public duties he did not consider himself bound by the rules of honour that governed his conduct as a private gentleman…this double standard made it impossible to trust him except when self-interest ensured his fidelity.”[25]

 

The world turned upside-down

The civil wars changed everything, yet nothing actually changed; that is the paradox of these times. The fighting and the breakdown of normal government saw a drift towards anarchy and the founding of radical groups such as the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters and so on. These were groups of ordinary people who rejected the status quo ante bellum and held revolutionary ideas about democracy, republicanism and communism. The rise of these sectaries, though revolutionary at the time, changed nothing since the long-term beneficiaries of the civil wars were the royalists and the propertied classes, who in 1660 rejected almost all the social, constitutional and political ideas thrown-up in the previous eighteen years. Moreover, although these new ideas and their supporting groups caused a deep rift in the English Puritan ranks and tended to dominate the debate about what to do next, they did not themselves affect the king’s fate. Charles’ downfall was bought about by two factors outside his opponents control: one was old, the other new. His treachery was common knowledge; it is the reason why a constitutional settlement could not be agreed. This was not a new factor; it could have been anticipated. However, the emergence of the New Model Army as the most powerful military and political force in the three kingdoms was a new and decisive factor in the eventual outcome.

 

On the 5 May 1646, shortly after the defeat of his last field army, Charles arrived, not unexpectedly, at the Scottish bivouac in Southwell [26]. The decision to give himself-up was not an acknowledgment of defeat but a calculated ploy to sow doubt and suspicion between the English and Scots [27]. He hoped that at best he might be able to draw the Scots onto his side and at worst the English would suspect the Scots of concluding a separate peace. Charles was not of course negotiating genuinely with the Scots. He would never sign the covenant but thought there was no harm in pretending he might. “ For [Charles] politics was a matter of surface diplomacy and winning help from his fellow sovereigns abroad, of dividing Presbyterian and Independent, of Scots from English by bribes of power and favour.[28]

 

He knew that his best hope lay in exploiting the current and emerging rifts in the enemy camp. Meanwhile, he needed time for his other plans to mature. Charles never abandoned a project simply because a new one was to hand; he wanted to keep the military option in case there was an opportunity to renew the war. [29] Throughout this period he was in contact, sometimes separately often simultaneously, with the French, the Spanish and the Pope for military or financial aid in the civil war. In addition, he wrote to the royalist earl of Montrose, encouraging him continue the fight in Scotland and to James Butler marquis of Ormond about plans to bring an Irish army to mainland Britain.

 

On the 13 July 1646, the Committee of the Two Kingdoms put the first concrete proposals to Charles. The Newcastle Proposition was an attempt to reach a constitutional settlement that secured parliamentary sovereignty, imposed Presbyterianism on the English and the covenant on the king but preserved the monarchy and the existing social order. It was drafted on the premise that the king was beaten and that he knew it, and further that he would accept a compromise for his own good and the peace of the realm.  The committee was wrong. Charles would have rejected their proposition outright were it not for the fact that he needed time for his dissembling to bear fruit; therefore, he prevaricated in the hope that something else would turn-up. He was also wrong; nothing turned up from the Continent or elsewhere.

 

On the 30 January 1647, the Scots, convinced at last that Charles would not sign the Covenant and desperate for cash to pay their army, handed him over to the English for £400,000. There is no disguising the fact that Charles was a captive, albeit a privileged one. He was housed in relative luxury with many servants to maintain his household. Although his freedom of movement was curtailed, he was not held incommunicado, which allowed him to continue sending coded letters and secret correspondence to his fellow conspirators, expressing his intention to renege on any agreement with the English and Scots, and his hope that a foreign army would yet invade his kingdom and restore his authority.

 

Meanwhile, the relationship between the English Parliament and the Army, already frosty, deteriorated further during the spring of 1647. The first civil war coupled with a poor harvest and a recession in trade had dislocated the civil government and almost ruined parliament.   In an attempt to economize they voted to disband that part of the New Model Army not required for service in Ireland, without their arrears of pay.  It was a foolish mistake since the Army, already suspicious that the negotiations with Charles might cost them the fruits of their military victory, became mutinous over the arrears of pay. The New Model Army was unique. It was the most effective fighting force in the three kingdoms but it had, in modern parlance, been radicalized by the Levellers and the other extreme groups among its ranks. Of particular concern to its commanders was the effect of the Leveller’s revolutionary ideas on the Army’s rank and file, who were no more prepared to accept religious despotism than royal tyranny. When ordered by parliament to disband, the soldiers refused. They would obey their officers but not parliament. The situation was dangerous. Fairfax and Cromwell did not agree with the Leveler’s left-wing views but they were faced with military anarchy at the precise moment that it seemed possible the civil war might resume. [30] Perforce, therefore, they backed their soldiers’ demands for restitution of their rights.[31] The trick, which Cromwell carried through  superbly, was to retain the trust and confidence of  the  loyal (but concerned) soldiers whilst weeding-out the Levellers and the mutineers. Thus was he able to return the Army to a condition of discipline and good order, which was just as well in view of what lay ahead.

 

Charles accepted a modified version of the Newcastle Proposition in May 1647, ten months after he first saw it.  The Presbyterians in blissful ignorance of Charles’ true intent to renounce their accord as soon as he could [32] and fearful of the danger posed to them by a belligerent and confident Army declared immediately that the proposals were a ‘fitting basis for an accommodation’.[33] Unfortunately for them, they  were too late. On the 4 June 1647 Cornet George Joyce, on the pretext of securing the artillery train at Oxford and accompanied by five hundred soldiers, rode to Holmby House where the king was and took him into Army custody. It is not clear what Joyce’s orders were and who gave them to him but there is little doubt that both Fairfax and Cromwell realized the importance of securing possession and control of the king’s person [34]. Ten days later the Army published a declaration asserting its right to oppose parliament in defence of its rights. Furthermore, the soldiers, who refused to disband without full satisfaction of their political and financial grievances, bought charges against eleven Members of Parliament, whom they alleged were overthrowing the peoples’ rights and obstructing justice. The soldiers claimed to speak for the people because they were not “…merely mercenary soldiers, brought together by the hopes of pay and the fortunes of war; the peace of our country, our freedom from tyranny, the preservation of due liberty, the administration of judgement and justice, the free course of the laws of the land, the preservation of the king, the privilege of parliament, and the liberty of the subject, were the main things that bought us together.“[35] Nonetheless, the Army’s occupation of London on the 6 August 1647 was an obviously dangerous and illegal interference in the government of the realm. The reasons for taking such drastic action were threefold. First, political necessity: there was a genuine fear (which as it turned out was justified) that the constitutional settlement accepted by parliament would lead to a renewal of the civil war. Second, the Army was probably more representative of the Commons’ constituencies than parliament.[36] Third, London was already in the grip of Presbyterian rioters who had to be pacified.

 

After a futile attempt at reconciliation with parliament, the senior officers in the Army negotiated directly with the king. The ‘Heads of Proposals’ put forward by the Army were ahead of their time. They removed the Crown’s direct authority over parliament and substituted its ‘influence’; they bought the Commons under constituency control and widened the electoral franchise; they provided for biennial parliaments with a maximum length and put the Army directly under parliamentary control. It was entirely foreseeable that the king would reject these terms. In typical ostrich fashion, he convinced himself that the Heads of Proposals were the work of a few ambitious officers and were not supported by the Army at large. [37] By the end of September 1647 it was clear that the king had rejected the Army’s constitutional settlement. Cromwell was now in a difficult position since he still believed it was possible to do business with the king and continued to try and reach a settlement that preserved Charles’ honour but was consistent with a restriction of his prerogative. A rift was now developing between Cromwell and the Army over what to do next. The private soldiers had lost all faith in the king’s sincerity. In October Charles rejected any compromise and withdrew his parole. He had been in further secret negotiations with the Scots, who had changed sides. It was the revelation of the secret correspondence between Charles and the Scots concerning the possibility of a Scottish invasion of England to restore Charles’ throne that convinced Cromwell that the only course now was to deliver the English nation from oppression and slavery. [38] In November the Army proposed a vote of ‘no address’. There would be no more negotiations or even communication with the king [39].   The king responded by trying to escape.

 

By the start of 1648 Charles was a prisoner in the real sense. The involvement of the Scots raised the spectre of civil war, which became reality in the summer. The royalists made common cause with the Scots and the English Presbyterians to invade England in an effort to restore Charles to his throne. It was as well that the New Model’s discipline had been restored because it was England’s only credible defence; fortunately it was enough. Cromwell with a large contingent of the New Model Army routed the duke of Hamilton’s royalist Scottish army at Preston on the 17 August 1648; whilst, Sir Thomas Fairfax with the remainder of the New Model Army defeated royalist risings in Kent and Essex. By the 27 August 1648 the second civil war was over. Thereafter, events moved relatively swiftly to their bloody conclusion

 

Even before hostilities had ended, the Presbyterian majority in parliament repealed the vote of no address and prepared to renew negotiations with Charles. Time was of the essence for them, since they realized that whilst the Army was busy fighting royalists they could not interfere with a Presbyterian settlement. It was the Treaty of Newport that bought the Presbyterians down and sealed the king’s fate. [40] Parliament ignored the Army’s remonstrance and continued ‘lenient’ negotiations with the king.   On the 5 December they repudiated the actions of the Army and accepted Charles’ terms for his restoration. The next day (6 December), Colonel Pride with a regiment of soldiers cleared parliament of all Presbyterians, leaving only a ‘rump’ of supporting Independents. Within a week, the king was bought to Windsor under guard ‘ in order to bring him speedily to justice’.

 

A patient martyr

The King” said Algernon Sidney “can be tried by no court, and this court can try no man”. Sidney, a parliamentarian war hero with republican leanings and one of the Commissioners selected to judge Charles Stuart, was in no doubt about the pretension of the High Court of Justice. Cromwell is reputed to have replied “ I tell you, we will cut off his head with the crown upon it.” It is perhaps an exchange we should take with a pinch of salt, since if killing the king was the object why bother with a trial? Assassination would do the trick just as well. A tragic accident, a sudden malady or fever, or he could be shot while trying to escape (Charles had tried a number of times). Those were possible options for disposing of an unwanted king. Indeed, historically, deposed monarchs could expect to meet an unnatural and lonely end in captivity, rather than to die peacefully in their bed. Court Martial followed by a summary execution was another option. The cavalier generals Lisle and Lucas had been so tried and executed after the siege of Colchester. As a captured enemy commander, Charles enjoyed no special immunity or privilege under the international law of arms. The summary execution of traitors and rebels on the battlefield or soon afterwards, was a feature of English internal wars since the time of Edward I. [41]

 

‘The purpose of victory was to enjoy peace; a captured enemy commander, especially if untrustworthy or in a position to renew the strife should be put to death’; that was the philosophy behind international martial law in the mid seventeenth century, as was the old maxim that a dead man cannot renew a war. [42] Had they wished, the Commons and the Army could have applied this logic and the law to their conflict with Charles. Yet they eschewed both these options in favour of a public trial with all its associated cost and risks. The soldiers of the New Model Army kept their discipline and risked their own lives to protect the man who had fought against them so bitterly. I will come to the legal impediments shortly, but I want to consider the trial of Charles in that context because, in my opinion, it refutes Clarendon’s allegation that despite its grandiose title and process, the trial was no more than a pretext for ‘king-killing’. The ‘great business’ was done openly and not ’in a corner’; moreover, there was a possibility of acquittal.  The Commissioners were not unanimous in their resolve to bring the king to account,  nor in their aversion  to him. There was some wavering amongst their ranks which only irrefutable evidence of guilt could calm. I do not suggest that the chances of an acquittal were great since this was in reality a political trial; nonetheless, it was a risk that the Commons and the Army need not have taken.

 

Although the Army had earlier discussed bringing the king to trial on the basis of lex talionis (the law of retaliation), no serious thought was given to his trial before November 1648. It was, of course, impossible to try the king for treason, or for anything else under English law as it was applied for centuries past. The king being the fountain of all justice was immune from prosecution. The king himself noted the legal advice he had received from Sir Orlando Bridgeman “…by the letter of the law, all persons charged to offend against the law ought to be tried by their peers or equals. What is the law if the person questioned is without peer?[43]

 

Nonetheless and despite the seeming legal impossibility of bringing the king to trial, there was a mood within the House of Commons and in the Army that a way had to be found, in the broader interests of justice, to bring the king to account for the mischief, he had caused. The justification for such a trial is twofold. First, it is retribution for the innocent blood spilt in two civil wars: the second being more reprehensible that the first. Second, it would serve as a warning to would-be tyrants that the monarch was not above the law of Magna Carta. It is important to bear in mind that none of this implied the removal of hereditary monarchy; the aim was to reform the king, not ruin him. The idea that heads of government can be charged with war crimes for waging an ‘unjustified’ war has particular resonance for the UK today; not because such a prosecution is taking place, but because it isn’t. In the sixteenth century, however, it was a concept ahead of its time.

 

The House of Commons ignored the Lord’s opposition and passed an Act creating a ‘High Court of Justice for trying and judging Charles Stuart king of England’. [44] Lacking, as it did, the concurrence of the Lords and royal assent, it was not legitimate legislation within the strict, conventional construction of the law. However, it claimed a higher legality in that it sought to enforce the rule of law and in particular the ancient concept enshrined in Magna Cart, that the king was not above the law of the land. It is a principle that we take for granted today but in the sixteenth century was controversial. The preamble to the Act is worth quoting extensively since it illustrates this point quite well: “Whereas it is notorious that Charles Stuart the now king of England, not content with those many encroachments which his predecessors had made upon the people in their rights and freedoms, has had a wicked design totally to subvert the ancient and fundamental laws and liberties of this nation, and in their place to introduce an arbitrary and tyrannical government, and that besides all other evil ways and means to bring the design to pass, he has prosecuted it with fire and sword, levied and maintained a cruel war in the land, against the parliament and the kingdom, whereby the country has been miserably wasted, the public treasure exhausted, trade decayed, thousands of people murdered, and infinite other mischiefs committed[45]

 

The trial began before a packed courtroom at Westminster on Saturday the 20 January 1649 in the afternoon. The first order of business was to arraign the king; that is to say, to put the charges to him and take his plea. The charge as drafted by the prosecution accused the king of traitorously and maliciously levying war against parliament and ‘the people therein represented’. It was a broad charge embodying accusations of tyranny, treason and murder, and that Charles was responsible for all the “…rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations damages and mischiefs to this nation acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby.”[46] The charge was made up of fourteen specific offences with dates and places, which the prosecution had to prove.

 

The Charge having been read, Charles was required to give his answer: was he guilty or not guilty? His response was entirely predictable; he challenged the jurisdiction of the Court (indeed of any human court) to judge his actions. Standing up, he said he would fain know ‘by what authority he had been bought hither’; until he knew this, he could not answer the charges. Charles, who claimed ‘to know as much law as any gentleman in England’, had put his finger on the nub of the problem as he saw it. The king was above the law. John Bradshaw, the Lord President of the High Court, replied that king was required to answer the charges by the authority of the Commons in Parliament on behalf of the people of England ‘by which people you were elected king’. It was a silly mistake, since, as Charles pointed out, ‘England had been a hereditary kingdom these thousand years’ and there were no Lords present to validate the trial. [47] What should have been an arraignment degenerated into a quarrel about jurisdiction, during which the king made some eloquent points and Bradshaw blustered. It continued in this vein for about an hour until Bradshaw adjourned the hearing. Thus it went on: for two more days Charles refused to plead to the charge. In truth, the jurisdiction point, though not improving with repetition, induced some wavering among the ranks of the Commissioners; Charles sounded so reasonable; whereas the court sounded so unreasonable. On the second day, Bradshaw was better prepared to deal with an argumentative king. He asserted the authority of the court; Charles was not allowed to challenge its authority or to give his reasons. The charge was put to Charles once more but again he refused to answer it. Bradshaw, frustrated ordered him to be taken away; his parting shot hit home ”Sir, you are not to have liberty to use this language. How good a friend you have been to the laws and liberties of the people, let all England and the world judge” The constitutional significance of the refusal to allow Charles to dispute the court’s authority is that it recognized the House of Commons as the source of legislative power in England. [48]

 

However, Charles’ refusal to plead had serious consequences for him and for  the High Court . Bradshaw’s timely assertion of judicial authority had calmed some nerves on the bench but not all. Ideally, the court needed to hear the prosecution’s evidence of Charles’ guilt. There were thirty-three witness proving the specific offences set out in the charge; moreover, the prosecution possessed Charles’ correspondence detailing his attempts whilst still negotiating with his opponents to bring a foreign power to England and restore his absolute authority. This was ‘evidence of his violence and ill will’ towards his English subjects to contradict his oft-repeated claim to speak for their rights and liberties.

 

The prosecutor’s application that Charles should be convicted pro confesso unless he answered the charge was not meant seriously. The intention was to provoke Charles into answering the charge, so that the trial could proceed and the prosecution’s evidence presented in public. The reality was that Charles did not have a viable defence to the charges on their merits. His best, indeed his only, hope was to successfully challenge the court’s jurisdiction. He made one slip when he was almost drawn into defending his conduct during the civil wars on the grounds of self-defence, but otherwise he kept his guard up. The decision to convict him pro confesso (as though he had admitted the charge), whilst understandable (it was the common law), was a misjudgment; if instead, the court had treated Charles contumacy as a not guilty plea, the prosecution could have presented their evidence, which the king would have to refute or accept.  He could defend himself, or stand mute while the prosecution proved his guilt. The ploy failed; Charles continued his defiance and was, perforce, condemned pro confesso

 

The Commissioners who tried Charles were sincere men but they were not professional judges and the trial exposed their limitations in that regard. They had correctly anticipated the king’s challenge to their authority and were unanimously resolved that he must not be allowed to do so. John Bradshaw did his loyal best to implement the agreed strategy; however, his repeated refusal to acknowledge that Charles’ had any grounds for challenging the court’s authority resulted in an unseemly disputation, which makes uncomfortable reading even today. Instead of proceeding as though there was nothing unusual in the court’s conduct when there plainly was, the Commissioners “…might have done better to assert, even to boast about the novelty of their procedure. In that case Bradshaw could have elucidated their intention in the most stirring language at his command, instead of trying to proceed correctly according to the common law, which was evidently not applicable.[49]

    

Having condemned the king, the Commissioners adjourned to consider the sentence. On the 24 January, John Cooke the Solicitor General took the depositions of thirty-three witnesses (many of whom were royalists) proving the king’s guilt of the specific crimes in the charge. The following day, those witnesses were called to court to prove their depositions on oath. These were then read aloud in public to the Commissioners After hearing this evidence and reading the kings incriminating correspondence, the Commissioners concluded that he had committed capital crimes. The death sentence was confirmed unanimously the next day; but in a concession, borne more of hope than expectation, the Commissioners agreed to reconsider their judgement if — even at such a late stage — if the king submitted to the courts jurisdiction  . On Saturday 27 January 1649, Charles was produced to the High Court to hear sentence. It was Bradshaw’s duty to give the courts reasons for the sentence. However, Charles asked leave to speak to the Commissioners in the privacy of the Painted Chamber before sentence was passed. After a brief interchange with the king, Bradshaw concluded that in fact he was still being contumacious and rejected his request. In his reasons, Bradshaw made a number of points that attest to the justness of the proceedings. First, he pointed out that the king’s theory of kingship was erroneous and he had not ruled according to the law of the land. Furthermore, he was not above the law. Under the ancient laws of England lex was rex. Second, he reminded everybody that in the past, tyrannical kings were called to account by the barons (He was referring to king John in 1215 and the depositions of Edward II and Richard II.). Third, this is not new but ancient law and it is implied in the coronation oath, which is a contract and bargain ‘made by the people’. Fourth, where the people have no remedy against tyranny “the parliament were to do it”. Finally, he highlighted Charles intention to destroy parliament to the detriment of the law and liberties of the people. It was adjudged “…that the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy, shall be put to death, by the severing of his head from his body”. Hearing his doom, Charles protested but Bradshaw was implacable and ordered him to be taken down: the end was nigh. [50]

 

Bradshaw was making an important distinction between the person of the king, the office of king, and the kingdom of England. It was not a new concept in 1649, though it may have been a surprise to those who seemed to have forgotten it. The differential between king, crown and land is inherent in Magna Carta, which binds English monarchs to the rule of law. It was also a distinction made by the duke of York during his rebellion against the Lancastrian regime in the 1450’s. It was the rationale behind the appeal of the Lords Appellant in 1388 (The Merciless Parliament). In 1459 at the Parliament of Devils, Henry VI managed to reassert royal authority against Yorkists rebels who complained of Lancastrian misgovernment. However, it served only to convince York that Henry VI had to be removed from the throne, which was an act that would guarantee a dynastic civil war. Cromwell and the Commissioners of the High Court of Justice faced a similar dilemma in 1649. Charles’ intransigence and duplicity drove them to conclude, albeit reluctantly and in stages, that unless he  was removed from the throne there would be no peace in the realm; moreover,  if the king was successful, freeborn Englishmen would be no better off than slaves.

 

Epilogue

Unlike the dethroning of previous English kings, Charles I was not immediately followed by another king. His tyranny and character was such that the Army would not countenance another Stuart on the throne. The king’s execution was followed by an eleven-year hiatus in English monarchy, during which England was governed variously by a republican parliament, by the Army and by the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. His death in 1658 prompted the Stuart restoration, which followed in 1660. The restoration settlement was similar what had been proposed at Newcastle thirteen years before. Charles II was, like his father,  an absolutist and the restoration saw a renewal of the conflict between the king and parliament for sovereignty. For a time it threatened the establishment of constitutional government. However, the achievement of the Long Parliament had demonstrated the power of parliament and given parliamentarians the resolve and the strength to challenge Stuart notions of absolutism. In 1688, Charles successor, the Roman Catholic James II was deposed by the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and replaced by the Protestant William of Orange, who co-reigned with Mary Stuart at the invitation of and by the consent of the English parliament. The idea of a constitutional monarchy in England was now unassailable. [51]

 

[1] Roger Lockyer (Ed) – The Trial of Charles I (The Folio Society 1959) p.133: this is a contemporary account of Charles I’s trial and execution taken from the memoirs of Sir Thomas Herbert (1606-1672) who was the groom to the Bedchamber of the king during his captivity; and also from the ‘Historical Collections’ of John Rushmore (1612-1690) who was variously a lawyer, clerk-assistant to the House of Commons, and secretary respectively to Lord Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. Rushmore collected state papers of the period, which he published periodically from 1659 as ‘Historical Collections’. They are amongst the most important primary sources of the period. ’ The opening paragraph of this article is taken from Rushmore’s account of the king’s execution.

[2] Geoffrey Robertson- The Tyrannicide Brief (Vintage Books 2006) p.384, note1: Robertson refers to the figure of 800,000 dead in the British Isles (mostly in Ireland) citing Diane Purkiss – The English Civil Wars: a peoples history (Harper Press 2006).

[3] William Juxton (1582-1663) was bishop of London in 1649. He was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 1660, on the restoration of Charles II.

[4] Lockyer, p.137

[5] JG Muddiman (Ed) – The  Trial of Charles I (Wm Hodge & Co 1928) pp. 153-54. Muddiman draws attention to the fact that there is no evidence that the executioner said ’behold the head of a traitor’, which is usual on these occasions. It is also notable that nobody acclaimed the accession of the new king (‘the king is dead. Long live the king’). The explanation for this is that Parliament had that very morning passed a statute prohibiting such an acclamation and there were sufficient roundheads present to enforce it. The report of a ‘groan’ of anguish arising from the multitude as the axe fell is a restoration embellishment.

[6] Robertson, p.200

[7] See https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/2016/05/page/2/ for both articles

[8] In 1388 and in 1459 House of Lords exercised their statutory discretion to declare whether or not doubtful cases were non-statutory treason and, in the particular circumstances of 1388 and 1459, to condemn and pass sentence on the accused.

[9] The Treason Act 1351 (25 Edw. 3 Stat. 5 c.2): the ‘Great Treason Act’ was still the law in 1649 (it is still the law today). Prior to Charles’ trial treason was defined exclusively as an offence against the king, not by the king.

[10] David Carpenter – Magna Carta (Penguin 2015), p.53

[11] The Long Parliament sat from 1640 until 1653, when Cromwell dispensed with parliament altogether. It actually passed primary legislation forbidding its dissolution without its consent; the Long Parliament was not, therefore, formally dissolved until 1660 when the monarchy was restored.

[12] EN Williams – A Documentary History of England (Pelican Original 1965) pp.36-48 reproduces the terms of the Petition of Right 1628 (ref 3 Cha.1, c.1), which set out non parliamentary grievances; it was intended to balance the royal prerogative with liberty of the subject. Although Charles claimed at the time that parliament ‘ had neither intention not power to hurt his prerogative’ and that the petition was merely a re-statement of his subject’s ancient liberties, it was a parliamentary defeat for him and a restriction on his prerogative.

[13] The measures passed by the Long Parliament formed the basis of the constitutional settlement in 1660.

[14] Godfrey Davies – The Early Stuarts (Oxford 1959, 2nd edition) p104

[15] JP Kenyon – The Stuarts (Fontana 1966) pp.75-80. Kenyon’s essay on Charles I provides a useful summary of the religious issues confronting the Long Parliament.

[16] CV Wedgwood – The King’s Peace (Fontana 1966) p.85

[17] Wedgwood – The King’s Peace p.89. When the Act of Supremacy 1558 (1 Eliz c 1) and the Act Uniformity 1559 (1 Eliz 1 c 2) established the unified Anglican Church in England, many points of doctrine were left deliberately vague. This was because Elizabeth I was not so much concerned with  her subjects inner beliefs as their outward show; she wanted Protestant doctrine to be a ‘framework’ of beliefs that as many of her subjects as possible could conform to, without offending their consciences. It was a weakness in Charles I’s character  that he lacked the maturity to realise that some flexibility in protestant doctrine was necessary to preserve unity and to keep the peace.

[18] Nevertheless, neither the king nor the archbishop of Canterbury was a papist. The Anglican Church was intolerant of Roman Catholicism.

[19] SR Gardiner – History of the Great Civil War (1894) (Windrush Edition 2002), four Volumes: Vol 1, p.1

[20] Lockyer, intro, p.5

[21] Davies p.94

[22] Wedgwood – The King’s Peace p.85

[23] Austin Woolrych- Battles of the English Civil War (Pan 1966), p.139

[24] Lockyer, intro, p.9.’

[25] Kenyon pp.75-80

[26] Gardiner, Vol 3, pp. 92-102. Charles had been negotiating with the Scots prior to surrendering to them. He offered nothing but a vague promise to give ‘full contentment’ to the Church question. In return the Scots gave verbal promises inter alia that they would secure his safety and honour, that they would not ask him to do anything against his conscience and that they would take his part in the event that the English refused to restore his authority. Their complicity in Charles escape from the encircling New Model Army is clear from intercepted correspondence.

[27] The English and the Scots made common cause in 1644, when they realised their joint interest in opposing Charles’ ambitions. The Scots sent an army to support parliament and a joint committee of the two kingdoms was formed to settle war strategy etc.

[28] CV Wedgwood – The King’s War (Fontana 1966) p.485

[29] Gardiner, Vol 3, pp.13-19.

[30] Gardiner, Vol 3, p. 259 note 3 and p.265, note 1; There were genuine fears that the English Presbyterians in parliament with the agreement of the Scots would attempt to move the king from England to Scotland and to ‘set him up as the head of an (invasion) army there’

[31] Cromwell disagreed with the Levellers. He supported his soldiers out of a natural loyalty to the men he had fought with and because he deemed it the best way to keep control of the situation. He did, however, punish mutiny ruthlessly. There were some in the army with extreme republican views who were suspicious that Cromwell would sell them out.

[32] Gardiner, Vol 3, p.166; citing correspondence between the king and bishop Juxton, in which Charles swore ‘as God is my witness’ to restore the Episcopal Church once his own authority was restored.

[33] Ironically, this agreement triggered the second civil war in which the English Presbyterians and the Scots joined forces with the cavaliers against the independents and the Army

[34] The balance of scholarly opinion is that Joyce was acting on the orders of the Agitators, since neither Fairfax nor Cromwell are likely to have put a junior cornet in command of five hundred men on a mission to abduct the king. Indeed, Fairfax sent a colonel down to take command as soon as he heard of the abduction. That doesn’t mean, of course, the two generals were not well pleased with the outcome.

[35] Peter Young and Richard Holmes – The English Civil War 1642-51 (BCA Ed1974) p.274; the brigadiers Young and Holmes are quoting from ‘an apologeticall Declaration concerning the army…TT E.401 (24)’. See also Gardiner Vol 3, p.293; who quotes that the Army “…was no mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a State, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations of Parliament to the defence of their own and the peoples’ just rights and liberties.” They contended that an erring parliament must be corrected as much as an erring king.

[36] Christopher Hill – God’s Englishman (Penguin 1990) p.54. In 1644, the Long Parliament realised that to defeat the king they would have to arm and tax the ordinary people. They also realised the risk that this entailed, since it might encourage the common folk to think of themselves as the equal of gentlemen. Of course, many thousands of the ‘commons’ already considered themselves at least the equal of gentlemen; however, their opinions were suppressed. The civil war loosened the restraints placed on the expression of radical ideas and encouraged the creation of political movements to champion them; it had ‘turned the world upside down’. It is in this context that the New Model Army was recruited from the ranks of decent ordinary people. What is remarkable for the time is that that many of these men were volunteers (certainly the officers and the cavalry), which went against the grain at this time as most army recruits were pressed men from gaols and from the lowest sort of men. Moreover officers were appointed on merit and not on the basis of their wealth or family tree. In one of his most famous (and quotable) comments, Cromwell praised the ‘plain’ men of the New Model: “I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than what you call a gentleman and is nothing else. I honour a gentleman that is so indeed.” When a parliamentary grandee complained that the ‘officers were not men of estate but common men, poor and of mean parentage’, Cromwell enunciated his policy in no uncertain terms: “It may be that it provokes some spirits to see such plain men made captains of horse. It had been well that men of honour and birth had entered into the employment, but why do they not appear? Who would have hindered them? But since it is necessary the work must go on, better plain men than none at all.”

[37] Gardiner, Vol 3, pp. 330-33 and 341-42; contains a useful discussion of the negotiations between the king and the Army.

[38] Gardiner, Vol 4, p.6

[39] Gardiner, ibid

[40] Gardiner Vol 4, pp.210-223

[41] Summary justice administered under the authority of the Constable of England or the Provost Marshall was prevalent during the rebellion that deposed Edward II, the Revolution of 1399 that deposed Richard II, and during the Wars of the Roses.

[42] Robertson pp.133, 391 note 23-25 for a résumé of the law.

[43] Robertson, p.129: quoting from Robert Partridge – ‘O Horrible Murder’: the trial, execution and burial of Charles I (London 1998) p.49. Robertson makes the point that this argument, which is ‘legalistic to a fault’, was easily disposed of by the prosecutor  “…on the basis that no man — not even the king — was above the law. Magna Carta — the law to whose letter Bridgeman referred — was John’s guarantee to the barons that they would be tried by peers (i.e. barons) and not by the king: if a king were charged with a crime, then it would not breach the spirit of the `Great Charter to try him before as distinguished and representative group of judges as parliament could put together.” Subsequent legislation interpreting Magna Carta has made it clear that ‘peers’ means social equals (i.e. a jury) and furthermore, ‘free man’ means a man or woman ‘of any estate or condition’ and ‘law of the land’ means treatment according to due process (see Carpenter pp. viii, 271 & 301.) I am not sure that the last part of Robertson’s last sentence necessarily applies to the Commissioners who tried Charles. See CV Wedgwood – The Trial of Charles I (Fontana 1966) pp.109-118, for a robust assessment of the judges. Although, they were not all lowborn, as royalist propaganda suggests, there were a fair number of known ‘rogues and knaves’ among their membership.

[44] Davies pp.160-161; Gardiner Vol 4 pp.287-291; the Lords opposed an ordinance for the trial of the king. Consequently on the 4 January 1649 the Commons passed three resolutions, described by Gardiner as ’strangely democratic’, asserting their supreme power to enact and make law as the representatives of the people and that anything they declare shall have the force of law notwithstanding that has neither the concurrence of the Lords nor the assent of the king. It was the first step in the establishment of the Commonwealth of England.

[45] John Phelps – A true copy of the Journal of the High Court of Justice for the trial of King Charles I as it was read in the House of Commons, and attested under the hands of Phelps, Clerk to the infamous Court 1683 (1684) pp.1-2. The Act was passed by the Rump on the authority of the resolutions voted on the 4 January 1649: see note 43 supra.

[46] Phelps pp. 29-32; Muddiman pp.26-29; Lockyer pp.81-86: see also Robertson, Chapter 8, pp.135-50 for a modern QC’s commentary on the charge against Charles.

[47] 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 had no judicial powers. The House of Commons was exclusively a political forum, which is the point Charles is making.

[48] See note 43 supra

[49] Wedgwood – The Trial of Charles I, p.153

[50] Gilbert Mabbott – A Perfect Narrative of the Whole Proceedings of the High Court Justice in the Trial of the King in Westminster Hall (anonymous 1649), pp.10-15; Muddiman pp.122-131: Muddiman is much criticised by Geoffrey Robertson for his bias, which may or may not be true. However, I found Muddiman to be a useful source for ‘Bradshaw’s Journal’, which is the official transcript and report of the proceedings produced for parliament in 1650 (Appendix A at pp.193-230); The kings reasons for challenging the courts jurisdiction (Appendix B pp.231-232). Although the king was stopped from giving these reasons at the trial, he wrote them down and they were published on the 5 Feb 1649; John Cook’s prosecution speech (Appendix C pp. 233-260). Cook never got the chance to make this speech, as the king was convicted pro confesso. It was published in Feb 1649; and Charles’ last speech from the scaffold (Appendix D pp.260).

[51] David Ogg – England in the Reign of Charles II (Oxford1956) in two volumes.

TREASON 2 – The Parliament Of Devils, 1459

Introduction

This is the second of two articles I have written about treason. In the first article, I wrote about the Merciless Parliament of 1388 at which eighteen of king Richard II’s closest advisors and friends were tried by parliament and condemned as traitors, against the king’s wishes. In this article I am writing about the ‘Parliament of Devils’ (1459) at which twenty-nine of the kings subjects were attainted and condemned as traitors at the king’s command. Although both parliaments took place against a background of agitation for political reform, there is  an important difference between them. In 1388 there was an identifiable judicial process to determine guilt before sentence was passed; whereas in 1459, the Yorkists were condemned as traitors without any previous judicial procedure.  The judgement of the parliamentary lords had been replaced by the act of attainder.

 

Parliament had been the venue and the tribunal for hearing state trials since the reign of Edward I. In cases of high treason it was necessary to try the accused and obtain the judicial judgement of parliament as the kings high court. However, the deposition of Richard II changed all that. From the beginning of the fifteenth century, the judicial procedure all but disappeared.

 

The Attainder

An act of attainder is a pronouncement of sentence without a judicial determination of guilt. Although attainders have political connotations and were frequently, if not exclusively, used for political ends, the concept is not political in origin. The attainder has its provenance in the common law doctrine of ‘notoriety’. For example, the offence of levying war against the king would be considered notorious if many people had seen it in a battle. In such a case, notoriety acted as an instant conviction.[1] However, by the second half of the fourteenth century, notoriety no longer acted as an instant conviction. It was now considered to be the crown’s indictment, setting out the basis for a prosecution. By the turn of the fifteenth century, the use of notoriety had ceased altogether; the procedure having further changed into the act of attainder.[2] It was the Treason Act of 1351 that drove this process by changing the legal framework. In particular, it had given parliament the power to declare non-statutory offences as treason. That is what happened in 1388, where the grounds for conviction were basically ‘notoriety’. Parliament used its power to ‘declare’ treason as a prelude to a trial and the seizure of the traitors’ estates. Even though this was an unintentional consequence of the act, it set a precedent for others to follow

 

The sophistication and use of attainders developed by degrees during the first half of the fifteenth century. The act of attainder made against the rebel Jack Cade after his death is a landmark since it was felt necessary to extinguish his civil rights after his death. His offences of ‘imagining the king’s death’ and ‘traitorously levying men’ were not declared treason in 1451; it was simply asserted that they were treason. In 1453, this breach of procedure was remedied by a formal declaration in parliament.

 

The attainder of the deceased duke of Suffolk was another important case since it was bought by the lords and then by the commons, and resisted on both occasions by the king. Originally, the lord’s attempted to commit Suffolk for misprision in public office. However, this was defeated because the charges were too vague. The commons took on the case by bringing specific allegations of treason, which the king refused to accept on the basis that “treason was neither declared nor charged”.[3] Eventually, the king was forced to accept Suffolk’s impeachment on charges of misprision, but he used his prerogative to save Suffolk’s life. Notwithstanding Suffolk’s subsequent murder at sea, parliament further petitioned for a declaration of treason and forfeiture on the grounds that he had failed to make sufficient response to the impeachment. Although the king refused the petition, he took note of parliament’s formula and showed his own willingness to adapt and use it in 1459. From that date we see a distinct change in the nature and process of attainder. The context for that change was the disaffection caused by the king’s government during the 1450’s.

 

Context

When the duke York and the earls of Warwick and Salisbury fought the king’s army at St Albans in 1455 they committed treason. Only victory saved them from the consequences of their actions that day.   However, the battle left a legacy of bitterness and hatred between the queen, the sons of the Lancastrian lords killed in the battle, and the duke York and his faction. It was a vendetta that neither Lancastrian nor Yorkist ideology was capable of settling for sixteen years.

 

Six months after St Albans the king had a mental breakdown. Owing to Henry’s incapacity, York was appointed Lord Protector. It was a short appointment as the king recovered his wits within three months. York resigned his position and retired to his northern stronghold. Meanwhile, Queen Margaret took the king, the court and the government administration to Coventry in the Lancastrian heartland. Given the enmity between the queen and York, the task of restoring effective government and preserving a workable balance of power fell on the unaligned nobility. They did their best to preserve loyalty to the king’s royal authority, whilst compromising wherever they could in the interests of unity. However, this became increasingly difficult as the queen’s grip on the king tightened[4]. Gradually, the feeling grew that the queen’s governance, no matter how partisan, was preferable to re-fighting St Alban’s: or worse.

 

Queen Margaret saw York as a threat to the throne, and an incorrigible rebel and traitor whom she was determined to crush. Eschewing any attempt to heal the wounds created by the rift, she prompted the Lancastrian regime to take an increasingly aggressive stance against York and his supporters. The loss of the protectorship had left York politically isolated, a situation that deteriorated further during 1456-57. First, the queen replaced the Chancellor, the Treasurer and the Lord Privy Seal with her own men. Next, she moved quickly to re-assert royal authority in South Wales at York’s expense. By 1458, York’s exclusion from mainstream English politics was almost complete. His standing as the senior royal duke and second in line to the throne was unsustainable unless he could curb the queen’s power. In March 1458, Henry returned to Westminster from Coventry, ostensibly to address the dissention and division in the realm. Unfortunately, his attempt to arbitrate the differences between Yorkists and Lancastrians  was biased. It succeeded only in making matters worse. The subsequent ‘loveday’ at which York and Margaret walked from St Paul’s hand-in-hand was a futile sham. The queen was determined to destroy the Yorkists and they were determined to confront the king with their grievances

 

On the 24 June 1459, the king held a great council at Coventry. York, Warwick and Salisbury were summoned but did not attend.[5] Such was their mistrust that they would not attend in the absence proper guarantees of their safety. This mutual mistrust was at the heart of the country’s problem leading to war[6]. When the Council did meet, the three Yorkists were indicted for their absence at the instigation of the queen; however, the implication that they had committed treason is obvious.

 

Queen Margaret had been preparing for outright war in the king’s name for some time. By September 1459 the preparations were almost complete. The king was at Kenilworth with the main body of his army.[7] The queen was recruiting in Cheshire with the Prince of Wales. The military advantage was undoubtedly with the king’s forces. They were strong in numbers and concentrated in a central position; whereas, their opponents were weak in numbers and widely dispersed. York was at Ludlow on the Welsh Marches. Salisbury was two hundred miles away at Middleham in the Yorkshire Dales. Warwick was even further away across the English Channel in Calais. In theory at any rate, the royal army was well placed to manoeuvre on interior lines and defeat the Yorkists in detail. Sensing their peril, the Yorkist arranged to unite their retinues in the west midlands[8] and to put their case directly to the king from a position of relative security, if not strength.[9]

 

Blore heath and Ludford Bridge

The earl of Warwick landed at Kent in September. He was in a hurry with no time for recruiting sympathetic Kentishmen. Consequently he entered London on the 20 September with only ‘a few hundred’ professional soldiers from the Calais garrison.[10] The next day he left for Warwick and a rendezvous with his father and uncle[11]. Meanwhile; the earl of Salisbury with about five thousand men was on his way from Middleham. York was at Ludlow, nearest to the rendezvous. It is possible that Warwick’s march was ‘shadowed’ by the duke of Somerset’s retinue coming from the southwest and he (Warwick) was ‘forced north of the town and onto Ludlow’ having narrowly avoided a clash of arms with Somerset in the streets of Colehill near Coventry.[12] It may be, as Johnson insinuates, that Somerset was afraid to engage Warwick’s veterans[13].

 

While Warwick was in London, or soon after, Salisbury’s contingent was approaching Nottingham.[14] Warned of his approach, the king re-deployed his army to cover the Trent crossing, thereby, forcing Salisbury to change course westward towards Ludlow.  The proximity of the king’s army and the enforced change of direction had put Salisbury in a tight spot since he was now between the queen/Prince of Wales with the Cheshire levies in front, and the main body of the royal army to his left rear. On the 23 September, Salisbury’s scouts spotted a large Lancastrian force marching to towards them.[15] The queen had detached Lord Audley with ten thousand men to block the Yorkist’s  path. Salisbury tried to negotiate a peaceful way out of his  difficulty but was unsuccessful. Battle was joined at 1pm and lasted for four hours. It was bitterly fought: however, many of Audley’s troops were green and no match for Salisbury’s northerners, hardened by years of skirmishing on the Anglo-Scottish border. Audley was tricked into leaving his strong defensive position to attack the Yorkists. He mounted two cavalry assaults and one infantry assault, all of which were repulsed. In the last infantry melee, Audley was cut down and the battle lost. Two thousand Lancastrians died in the battle and the close  pursuit. Despite his victory, Salisbury was still in danger of being trapped; the king was closing in behind and the Prince of Wales’ remaining levies were nearby. Instead of pressing on to Ludlow immediately, Salisbury dallied on the battlefield. Luckily, the king’s tardiness enabled the Yorkists to slip away under cover of their artillery, which was fired by a lone friar.[16]

 

Although there was no fighting or politicking for the next fortnight, it would wrong to suggest, as Johnson does, that nothing much was happening. Both side were manoeuvring for an advantage. We can follow the royal army’s southward movements from the king’s itinerary for this period.[17] After combining his forces near Market Drayton (probably on the 25 or 26 September), the king marched it south towards Worcester via Walsall and Coleshill. According to the Parliamentary Roll this was arduous campaigning for Henry. He spent thirty days ‘in the field “…not resting two nights in the same place, except on Sundays’, and sometimes ‘resting in a bare field two nights in a row…in the cold season of the year[18].

 

For their part, the Yorkists lords joined forces at Ludlow as soon as possible after Blore Heath: possibly on the 26 or 27 September. What they did next is certain. Their first joint action was to march the army from Ludlow to ‘the neighbourhood of Worcester’. Why they did this, is not so certain. They may have intended to block the king’s  advance southward, which threatened their communication with the Southeast, where the most of their sympathisers were. Professor Goodman speculates that they took up a blocking position between Kidderminster and Worcester. [19]  However, as soon as the king appeared at the head of his army and ’in guise of war’ (with his banner displayed), the three lords withdrew to Worcester. It wasn’t simply that they were outnumbered; the Yorkists were loath to fight the king’s army, as that would be treason. As if to emphasise their dilemma of whether to fight or not, York and his Neville relatives swore an oath of fellowship in Worcester Cathedral that — saving only their allegiance to the king — they would come to each other’s aid in time of need. They also took the opportunity to further reaffirm their loyalty and to compose an indenture of their grievances. The indenture was sent to the king through Garter King-At-Arms. Whether, the king saw the indenture we cannot say; however, his next action was unequivocal. He ordered the royal army to resume its advance on Worcester

 

York had no choice now but to retreat southwards.[20] He still baulked at fighting the king and it was necessary to maintain some distances between the two armies. However, York’s decision to cross the river Severn at Ledbury was the defining moment in this campaign since it meant abandoning any hope of escape to the south and the acceptance that he may have to fight for his life. The increasingly fragile Yorkist morale may have forced him to take refuge in the more defensible terrain around Ludlow and the Welsh border. If he had to fight the king then it would be on ground of his own choosing. By the 9 October the Yorkists were at Ludlow and the king was at Leominster, a few miles away. The next day, the Yorkist wrote an open letter to the king protesting their innocence and setting out their case in detail[21] It was a last desperate plea to reason, but it was useless. By now, the fighting spirit in York’s army was non-existent. The king had offered pardon to those who surrendered to his grace within six days; nobody wanted to fight the king. It was the defection of Andrew Trollope who commanded the Calais garrison troops together with most, if not all, of his men (and with valuable intelligence about York’s battle plan) that decided the outcome at Ludford Bridge. York and Rutland fled to Ireland, Warwick, Salisbury and March fled to Calais. Their soldiers and the remainder of York’s family were left to the mercy of the king and queen.

 

From a military point of view it was a miserable campaign, notable only for the fact that neither side achieved their objective. Despite their numerical superiority and central position, the king’s army failed to defeat the Yorkists in detail, or to prevent the concentration of their retinues. Worse still, they allowed the Yorkist leaders to escape abroad. For their part, the Yorkists failed to convince the king — or anybody else — of their loyalty and good intentions, and were forced to flee ignominiously. However, from professor Bellamy’s point of view ’this pattern of events is of more than antiquarian interest’, since it explains the legal aspects of war. According to the international usages of war, the presence of a king at the forefront of his army with his banner displayed is tantamount to a declaration of war[22]. The Lancastrian keenness to get the monk-like Henry into harness, mounted on a warhorse at the front of his army, with the royal banner displayed was probably inspired by their knowledge of the law. Once these things were in place on the battlefield any attempt by the Yorkists to engage the royal army in battle would be treason (levying war against the king). It would enable the Yorkists’ possessions to be forfeit to the crown without the need for legal process. The sentence of attainder and forfeiture would extend to the Yorkists’ heirs in perpetuity. York’s refusal to stand and fight at Worcester and at Tewkesbury may also have been prompted by his knowledge of the law; it was consistent with his personal position throughout the 1450’s.

 

The Parliament of Devils

Parliament was summoned to meet at Coventry on the 20 November in anticipation of completing the annihilation of the House of York and the Yorkist cause. Queen Margaret must have thought that after three years of military and political preparations, her plans were about to bear fruit. York and his confederates were within her grasp; their capture or death in battle would ensure Lancastrian hegemony. Even though her enemies had escaped to fight another day, there was still much to play for. The parliamentary attainder of the Yorkists and the forfeiture of their estates would bring unprecedented wealth and power into the royal coffers, which could be exploited for the king’s benefit.[23]

 

The Coventry Parliament was packed with loyal Lancastrians to ensure royal success.[24] Nothing had been left to chance. The petition for attainder, which was presented to the king, was a carefully worded document in two parts. In all probability, it was drafted by the king’s own lawyers.[25] The first part contained an indictment of Yorkist disloyalty dating back to the beginning of the decade. First, York was accused of stirring Jack Cade to defy the king’s will and to incite rebellion in the realm, and of accroaching royal authority (1450). Second, York was forsworn; he broke his most solemn oath of loyalty and obedience to the king sworn at St Paul’s in 1452. Third, York conspired with the earls of Warwick and Salisbury to levy war on the king at St Albans and despite the king’s clemency he persisted with his wrongdoings. Fourth, the earl of Salisbury with several (named) confederates levied war on the king at Blore Heath. Finally, York and his (named) confederates levied war on the king at Ludford (1459).[26]

 

On the face of it, the government’s case seems a good one, which Johnson thinks has never been successfully refuted[27]. In truth, the facts are largely against York; he did break his oath of 1452 and he did fight a battle against the king’s army at St Alban’s. It is unlikely that he was behind Cade’s rebellion, but he exploited it to further his own political agenda. Furthermore, his constant criticism of the Henry’s advisors and of their appointment was a direct challenge to the royal prerogative, which possibly amounted to accroachment. Even so, the crown’s case was very far from being irresistible. First, the decision to proceed against the Yorkists by way of parliamentary attainder rather than using the king’s other proscriptive powers, suggests that the government had doubts about the strength of their case. It is a common misconception that the king needed a parliamentary attainder in order to seize the rebels’ possession. As professor Bellamy points out “ It was not the act [of attainder] that supplied the crown with its rights to the rebels’ possessions but the ancient royal prerogative which operated in time of open war.”[28] Bellamy is referring to the king’s power to convict the rebels in a state trial ‘on the king’s record’. That is to say, on the king’s testimony, without the need for corroborative evidence. Under this power, forfeiture would follow as part of the court judgement. The fact that the government did not follow this process raises questions about whether in law, a state of open war existed in 1459. The king was not present at Blore Heath, nor was the royal army engaged in battle at Worcester, Shrewsbury or Ludford. Moreover, the courts of justice remained open during September and October (In the past, the closing of the courts was taken as a sign of open war.). The Yorkist persistent declarations of their loyalty to the king were also problematic, since they struck a cord with those (and there were many) who were sympathetic to the York’s call for political reform but nonetheless demurred at using armed force against the king. These doubts raised the possibility in Lancastrian minds that at some point in the future any judgement obtained ‘by the kings record’ may be challenged, with concomitant wrangling and litigation over the disposal of forfeited estates. This risk would be avoided by a parliamentary declaration of treason and an act of attainder. This particular attainder was actually a clever legal document, which was not open to legal challenge and provided comprehensive provisions for the forfeiture of the Yorkists’ estates.

 

Another indication of Lancastrian anxiety is found in a contemporary manuscript entitled Somnium vigilantis.[29] The Somnium is a highly stylized narrative of a fictitious court case at which a Yorkist and a Lancastrian argue about justice and mercy. It was written prior to the Coventry parliament by a Lancastrian sympathiser and is partisan. And yet, it provides an insight into the issues exercising the minds of the good and the great at this time. The Yorkist is characterised as arrogant and boorish, bursting into court and demanding clemency. The Lancastrian, who is ‘courteous and just’, allows him a hearing. The Yorkists’ defence is put forward on several grounds. First, mercy is a necessary attribute in a king. That is true and probably explains why there is a subtext of justice and mercy in the Parliamentary Roll account of proceedings and why Henry saw fir to preserve his prerogative to deal with the rebels mercifully, as he saw fit. Second, the realm needed the nobility. I presume that this point is allied to the Yorkist’s third point, that the cause of reform was honourable. These two points together could be construed as arguing the necessity for nobility as a check to a tyrannical monarch. Of course, in the fifteenth century such a view was political dissent. Fourth, there were no specific charges against the Yorkists. This is a good point and may have been legally embarrassing for the crown: but it was not a case winner. Fifth, in view of the threat of a foreign invasion, this was not a good time to destroy those nobles favoured by the people to defend them. These grounds do scant justice to the actual Yorkist position and, predictably, the Lancastrian representative has no trouble crushing them to his own satisfaction. However, the amount of time and ink expended by the author in arguing that the cause of reform, whilst honourable, was an inadequate defence to insurrection suggests Lancastrian nervousness about the strength of their case.

 

Although the Yorkists were unable to defend the charges against them in parliament, their defence is well known to posterity, having been argued in extant correspondence, bills and indentures produced by them over the course of a decade. The bill published by Warwick on his way over from Calais and the open letter sent by the Yorkists to the king on the 10 October were simply the latest iterations of Yorkist complaints that hadn’t changed in substance since 1450 and which were always carefully drafted to avoid any imputation of treason.[30] Their defence was simple and had the benefit of consistency. The problems of the realm were caused by the king’s evil councillors and not by the king. He was innocent, and was being prevented from ruling, as he would have wished, by these same evil councillors. Ultimately, the Yorkists were compelled to act in the way they did by the intransigence and aggression of the king’s evil councillors. Kendall’s implication that the Yorkists approach had not changed since 1455 does scant justice to the longevity of their argument, which, in fact hadn’t actually changed since 1450. Kendall’s other point, that the repetition of the same narrow pattern of factional armed protest was not enthusing the general population to flock to the Yorkists’ banner, is more substantial.[31] As John Watts has pointed out, it was not that York and the Nevilles lacked imagination so much as the fact that the old arguments still seemed valid.[32] The dispute had not changed in nine years. York continued to blame the ministers and not the king, and the government continued to regard any discussion of its performance as treason. Furthermore, the queen could no more exercise royal authority on behalf of an ineffective king than could York during two protectorships. The underlying problem that the king in his innocence was unfit to rule, was rising to the surface with dangerous consequences for everyone. It would be irrational for York to suppose that he could change the outcome by using the same argument and the same method of protest, He must eventually realise that his problem was insoluble while Henry remained on the throne.

 

The second part of the attainder contained the provision for forfeiture of the Yorkists’ estates. It was the nub of the document, which in the words of York’s biographer “… bought all of York’s property into the king’s hands”.[33] That is not to mention all the property belonging to the earls of March, Warwick, Salisbury and Rutland, and all the property belonging to the twenty-four other Yorkists who were attainted, all of which fell into the king’s hands. This included property held in fee simple (which was usual) and property held in fee tail (which was unusual).[34] The severity of the forfeiture is an indication of the government’s determination to destroy the Yorkists and their cause. Insofar as the king was merciful, he extended his prerogative to Lord Powis, Walter Devereux and Sir Henry Radford by rejecting the claim for their lands and pardoning them. He also refused a request to attaint Thomas, Lord Stanley for his betrayal at Blore Heath.[35] However, he had no intention of pardoning York or the four earls. They had not submitted to the king’s grace and their destruction was to be permanent.

 

Little was granted away in fee simple or in fee tail; neither were many leasehold grants made and then only for short periods. The vast bulk of the forfeited estates were put in the charge of royal stewards who were given lifetime appointments and expected to produce a high income for the royal coffers (That is a clear indication of the permanence of the arrangements.). The estates of York and the Nevilles were absorbed into the royal demesne along with, in a few cases, their existing servants. Generally, established administration procedures were respected; although, some rationalization was necessary. For example, the estates of York and Salisbury in Essex and Suffolk were put in the charge of a single royal steward.[36] Despite the care of these arrangements the changes of ownership did not always go smoothly. There was some natural resentment of the new Lancastrian overlords, and the stewards did not all receive a warm welcome when they arrived at the forfeited estates. Johnson believes that, generally, the arrangements for the takeover were honourable; the ducal estate was not dismembered and in theory could be resurrected in the future. Moreover, whilst a pardon for York was unthinkable, Duchess Cicely did receive a maintenance grant from the king for her and her younger children. It was unfortunate for the royal party that the effectiveness of these arrangements was undermined by the fact that the Yorkist leaders were at large and expected to return to England.

 

Epilogue  

The events of the summer and autumn of 1459 changed the course of English history. The Yorkist notion that the king was an innocent victim of his evil councillors was no longer tenable. Regardless of whether he was prevented from reforming the government or was simply unwilling to do so, Henry’s incapacity was obvious; he was unfit to rule. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that this was probably the moment when the duke of York became convinced that he must claim the throne to survive and to bring good governance to the realm. It was a course of action that involved the deposition of an anointed king and the disinheritance of his heir[37]. A protest for political reform was about to become a dynastic civil war.

 

The Parliament of Devils also had a constitutional importance in its own right. It provided a template for the destruction of the king’s political enemies that upset the balance of power between the king and the three estates of parliament. Since the twelfth century, the cohesion of the English lords had been a relatively effective counter to any royal tendency towards tyranny. Nevertheless, the lords had not themselves succeeded in transforming the government into an oligarchy, though they had tried to do so. And the commons were incapable of creating a democracy; although neither the king nor the lords could ignore them. In the words of professor Bellamy: “The late medieval law of treason was both a cause and a result of this balance and when it was tampered with there was a serious danger to constitutional government.” [38]

 

Acts of attainder were a method for popular participation in the ‘legal’ process. The lords or the commons could sponsor them, or the king could introduce them. Those bills put forward by the lords and by the commons were not always successful (e.g. the impeachment of Suffolk, 1450) those introduced by the king were never unsuccessful. The Parliament of Devils confirmed that royal power was paramount. The attainted Yorkists’ protest that they had not been allowed to answer the charges against them was unique. There is no evidence that either the lords or the commons opposed a bill of attainder by the king. From 1459, the attainder process was dominated by the royal prerogative: “It was openly acknowledged as a much surer way of getting a conviction for treason than by [the] common law and for this reason was used as often as possible. It is a form of treason in which the magnates and people play no part except when they were the victims.”[39]

[1] JG Bellamy –The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge 1970) pp.177-179.

[2] Bellamy p.180

[3] Bellamy p.187; see also James Gairdner (Editor) -The Paston Letters 1422-1509 (Constable 1900) Vol 2, p.99 and EF Jacob – The Fifteenth Century 1399-1485 (Oxford1987) p.493

[4] JS Davies (Editor) – An English Chronicle of the Reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI (Camden LXIV 1856) p.79 http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/acv5981.0001.001  Bertram Wolffe – Henry VI (Yale 2001 edition) pp.302-318. Wolffe disputes the conventional view that Henry was a saint-like innocent in the hands of his vengeful queen and her Lancastrian ‘gallants’. Facets of his character identified by Wolffe are: unforgiving, vindictive credulous, divisive, vacillating but stubborn and lacking political acumen. He argues that Henry was simply a bad king, who knew what he was doing: “if he was manipulated by the queen…he was manipulated willingly” (318). For a contrary opinion see RA Griffiths – The Reign of Henry VI (Sutton 1980): “ The [Yorkist] lords accurately divined that whatever his personal inclinations were…[Henry] was powerless in the hands of the queen and her advisors and it was they who were pursuing the vendetta against York and his Neville allies.” (819).

[5] Alison Hanham – John Benet’s Chronicle 1399-1462: an English translation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) p.44: according to Benet, in addition to the absent Yorkist lords, the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops of Ely and of Exeter, the earl of Arundel, Lord Bourchier and others failed to attend. All were indicted ‘ as a result of the advice of the queen’.

[6] Wolffe, p.317; Griffiths p.817

[7] Anthony Goodman – The Wars of the Roses: military activity and English society 1452-97 (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1981) pp.30, 237 note 57. Goodman cites Dr Colin Richmond (The Nobility and the Wars of the Roses 1459-61; Nottingham Medieval Studies, 21 [1977]). The following were rewarded for their service against the Yorkists: the dukes of Buckingham and Exeter, the earls of Arundel, Devon, Northumberland, Shrewsbury and Wiltshire, Viscount Beaumont and ‘at least ten barons of parliament’. In addition, the king had Somerset’s retinue arriving from the south-west, plus the remainder of Northumberland’s northern contingent (Thomas Percy, Lord Egremont and the earl of Westmorland). The queen was recruiting troops in Cheshire and Lancashire with the Prince of Wales (nominally commanded by the infant Prince but actually commanded by the queen.).

[8] PA Johnson – Duke Richard of York 1411-1460 (Oxford 1991 edition) p.186 and Goodman p.26.

[9] Wollfe pp.316-319; Griffiths p. 817 and Johnson p.188

[10] Griffiths (pp. 817, 847 note 275) puts the figure as ‘variously 300-500 men’; Johnson (p186) says he had a significant force’. It is difficult to know what Johnson means by ‘significant’ but with the benefit of hindsight we can see that Warwick’s retinue was probably counted in three figures. However, their significance may have been their military quality and not their numbers. Goodman (p.26) credits Warwick with ‘a few hundred men’.

[11] Goodman (p26). This is plausible; nevertheless, it is only conjecture.

[12] ‘Gregory’s Chronicle: 1451-1460’, in The Historical Collections of A Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1876), pp. 196-210. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/camden-record-soc/vol17/pp196-210 [accessed 19 March 2016].

[13] Johnson p.187 and Goodman p.236 note 35. Goodman finds it difficult to account for Warwick’s presence in Coleshill. He might have been acting independently against the king as Goodman suggests; though, it seems unlikely since he was weak in numbers and in the midst of the king’s army. It is also possible (I put it no higher) that he was looking for the quickest way out of a trap, with the intention of making his way across country to Ludlow. By now he would have realised the impossibility of the Yorkists’ meeting at Warwick.

[14] Goodman p.236, note 40, provides a useful summary of the contemporary estimates of Salisbury’s numbers, which I need not repeat. I personally think he had between 3000 and 5000 men, with an artillery train. His contingent was probably the most effective fighting force at the Yorkists disposal.

[15] Goodman p.236, note 40 lists the various chronicle estimates of the comparative size of the respective armies. Suffice to say that Salisbury was outnumbered, perhaps by 2:1

[16] Gregory’s Chronicle, ibid: see also David Smurthwaite – The complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain (Michael Joseph Ltd 1984) p.101.

[17] Wolffe, p.371: Wolffe’s biography has been much criticised; however, the royal itinerary he has constructed from the kings signet correspondence, household accounts, privy seal documents and royal warrants was invaluable in helping me to understand these events.

[18] Chris Given-Wilson (Gen Ed) – The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England (Boydell Press 2005): Rosemary Horrox (Ed) Volume 12 p.459

[19] English Chronicle pp.80-81; Benet p.44 and Goodman p.29: for a different interpretation see Trevor Royle- The Wars of the Roses (Abacus 2010) pp. 242-243. Royle reverses the roles: he suggests that it was the king who intercepted the Yorkists on their march to London. Once York saw the king’s army in position and the way blocked, he retreated to Worcester. It is not an impossible scenario, but it is unlikely. I can think of no good reason why York would march his army north towards the king’s host, if he was actually trying to escape to the southeast. Goodman’s analysis seems far more plausible to me.

[20] Johnson p.188 thinks it is ‘odd’ that York retreated to Ludlow via Tewkesbury since it implied he was trying to escape to the south, a manoeuvre that Henry successfully blocked. My interpretation of Yorks reasoning is slightly different. First, Henry was obviously not in close pursuit of York; we have no record of skirmishing between the forces; moreover, Henry’s whole command had been ‘sluggish’. His failure to concentrate his forces quickly had allowed Salisbury to escape the trap at Blore Heath. Second, York may well have been trying to escape southwards, but changed his mind in light of his army’s fragile morale (The Yorkist soldiers were wary of fighting their anointed king and the offer of a pardon was tempting.). Ludlow offered a good position if the Yorkists had to fight.

[21] English Chronicle pp. 81,82; this sets out Yorks letter in full, which I would not repeat here, as the Chronicle is freely available on line for anybody interested to read.

[22] Bellamy p.201

[23] Griffiths pp. 825-826 It was never a realistic prospect that this wealth would be used to support the public exchequer or frittered away on injudicious grants to royal friends. Given royal impecuniosity this vast wealth was more likely to find its way into the king’s purse.

[24] Griffiths p.823; “ Among the 169 members whose identity is reasonably certain (out of 260), one has to search long and hard to find a single servant of either York or Neville”. In Griffiths’ opinion the election was engineered in favour of known loyalists (an opinion echoed by Bellamy (p.147). Nevertheless, Rosemary Horrox doesn’t believe it was an aggressively partisan assembly. She ‘deduces this from the care taken to justify the severe measures taken’ (PROME p.448).

[25] See Bellamy at p.197 and Griffiths at p.824; the authorities disagree as to who precisely drafted the act of attainder.

[26] Even though, York and the other leaders fled, the Yorkists ‘fired their guns at the king’.

[27] Johnson p. 189

[28] Bellamy p.204

[29] Johnson p.190; PROME p.450 both citing JP Gilson – A defence of the proscription of Yorkists in 1459 (H.E.R 26, 1911)

[30] Margaret Kekewich and others (Eds) – The Politics of 15th Century England: John Vale’s Book (Sutton Publishing and the Richard III & Yorkist History Trust 1995) P.27. The Articles if the earl of Warwick on his way from Calais to Ludlow, 1459 (British Library Manuscript Additional 48031A ff. 137-138) is published for the first time at pp. 208-209. See also, Gregory’s Chronicle, ibid: Johnson p.188, and Griffiths p. 817

[31] Paul Murray Kendall – Warwick the Kingmaker (George Allen & Unwin 1957) p.53

[32] Kekewich and others;ibid

[33] Johnson p.192

[34] The SOED, 5th edition (2005); Fee simple’ is defined as the ‘Tenure of a heritable estate in land etc. forever and without restriction to any particular class of heirs. Fee tail is defined as ‘Tenure of a heritable estate entailed or restricted to some particular class of heirs of the person to whom it is granted’.

[35]. The king ordered Thomas Lord Stanley with his northern retinue to join the queen/Prince of Wales’ levies in Cheshire; but Stanley, who was in secret correspondence with Salisbury, prevaricated and did not arrive in time to fight at Blore Heath. His northern troopers were sorely missed by the green Lancastrians and it is clear that feeling against Stanley ran high in royal circles. However, in typical fashion he managed to rehabilitate himself with the king so that he was not included in the attainder. The king refused to grant a separate petition for Stanley’s attainder; probably, because his support in the northwest was essential after York escaped to Ireland. William Stanley who fought with Salisbury at Blore Heath was attainted. The Stanley’s did  not just ‘sit on the fence’; they  straddled both sides of it.

[36] Almost all of this section is taken from Griffiths (p.826) and Johnson (pp.192-194).

[37] My opinion about York’s intention is conjecture; though his subsequent attempt to claim the throne suggests it is plausible. Unfortunately, as the events of 1460 were to show, York had misjudged the mood of the country. Even though there was dissatisfaction with the government’s performance, there was  little  appetite for Henry’s deposition.

[38] Bellamy p.206

[39] Bellamy p.212

 

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

 

William de la Pole – the most hated man in England

As the sun rose on the morning of 2nd May 1450, it revealed a grisly sight on Dover beach. A headless body lay on the sand, dried blood staining the butchered neck. Beside the body, atop a stake, the vacant eyes of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk stared out over the sea where he had met his fate, a fate that many felt he deserved. His family had risen from humble beginnings, a fact that had contributed to the odium that caused those of more noble families to turn their noses up at them. From such a height, the fall was devastating.

In the mid 14th century, William de la Pole, great grandfather of this duke, was a successful and wealthy wool merchant, lending money to the crown under Edward III. His sons enjoyed favour at the court of King Richard II, the eldest, Michael, becoming Chancellor on 1383 and being elevated to the peerage as Earl of Suffolk in 1385. Michael’s younger brother Edmund served in the prestigious position of Captain of Calais.

The family’s star was in the ascendant, but was closely aligned now with that of King Richard II. As his popularity plummeted, Michael took the brunt of the hatred as a figurehead of his government. Criticising God’s anointed king was not an option, and so his closest advisors must take the wrath of a nation. In 1387 the Lords Appellant accused him of treason and before the Merciless Parliament sat in February 1388, Michael fled to Paris, where he died the following year aged about 60.

Michael’s son, another Michael, father to our duke, was 22 when his father died and found himself without the lands and title that his father had been stripped of. He was more closely aligned to the Lords Appellant, which left him out of favour with Richard II. He fought for the restoration of his lands and properties over the years that followed his father’s death, finally being restored as 2nd Earl of Suffolk in 1398, shortly before Richard II fell. Although Michael heeded the Duke of York’s call to arms to defend the kingdom from Henry Bolingbroke, he eventually embraced the cause of Henry IV.

As a part of Henry V’s campaign in France, Michael died of dysentery in September 1415 at the Siege of Harfleur, not yet 50 years of age. Michael had been blessed with five sons and three daughters but the king’s efforts in France were to decimate his family after claiming his life. His oldest son, Michael, had travelled to France with his father and was one of the few notable English casualties at the Battle of Agincourt. Aged only 19, he had been 3rd Earl of Suffolk for only a month before his death.

Coat of Arms of William de la Pole

William de la Pole became 4th Earl of Suffolk on his brother’s death. His other brothers were all to perish over the next two decades in France. Alexander was killed in 1429 at the Battle of Jargeau, the first encounter with a resurgent France led by Joan of Arc. John died a prisoner in France in the same year and Thomas perished while acting as a hostage for William.

When he returned to England, William grew ever closer to the meek and peaceable King Henry VI. By this time William was nearing forty and had been fighting in France for most of his adult life, almost twenty years. It would be interesting to know what this old soldier thought of his king, son of the Lion of England, but described as a lamb who had an acute distaste for war. Whatever their differences, Suffolk grew close to his king and, as his grandfather had done, he was soon to find his fortunes all too closely tied to a failing king.

King Henry VI

Suffolk’s first major contribution to English politics was to organise a marriage for King Henry VI in 1444, by which time the king was 22. Suffolk selected Margaret of Anjou in a match that was to cause outrage. The king’s uncle Humphrey was dismayed that he intended to ignore the contracted union to the Duke of Armagnac’s daughter. Grafton wrote that “Humfrey Duke of Gloucester, Protector of the realme, repugned and resisted as muche as in him lay, this newe alliaunce and contrived matrimone: alleging that it was neyther consonant to the lawe of God nor man, nor honourable to a prince, to infringe and breake a promise or contract” (Grafton’s Chronicle (Richard Grafton) (1569) p624).

Baker wrote of the problems that this match created for Suffolk. “In the mean time the Earl of Suffolk, one of the Commissioners for the Peace, takes upon him beyond his Commission; and without acquianting his fellows, to treat of a Marriage between the King of England, and a Kinswoman of the King of France, Neece to the French Queen, Daughter to Rayner Duke of Anjou styling himself King of Sicily and Naples: In which business he was so inventive, that it brought an aspersion upon him of being bribed” (A Chronicle of the English Kings (Baker) p187). It was soon to be revealed that, due to the poverty of Margaret’s father, not only was there no dowry for the marriage, but Suffolk and the king had agreed to hand a quarter of England’s territory in France back by ceding Maine and Anjou. For his part in the arrangements, William was further elevated as Marquess of Suffolk.

After the death of John, Duke of Bedford in 1435 and the emergence of Henry VI’s personal distaste for fighting, the campaign in France had ground to a halt, frequently deprived of funding and commitment. It is possible that this situation led to Suffolk’s negotiation. Marriage to Margaret of Anjou, a niece of the French king Charles VII, would bring the peace that Henry craved. Giving back Maine and Anjou would sweeten the deal and might also have been intended to make English territory in France more manageable. If that was the intention, it was to fail spectacularly. The effect of the handover of the vast tracts of land was to embolden the French and lead them to seek to drive the English from France altogether. Suffolk was blamed for opening the door through which the English would be expelled from France so that within a few years only Calais remained in English hands.

The king’s uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester died in 1447, with many believing that he had been murdered at the queen’s behest. Gloucester had been Protector during Henry’s minority and his loss saw the end of an era as the last son of King Henry IV passed. Suffolk, it seems, stepped into the void quite willingly, but suspicion grew all about him, not least that he had been the instrument of Humphrey’s destruction. By 1448 William had been created Duke of Suffolk, reaching the pinnacle of the nobility and attaining a title previously reserved for princes of the royal blood. His ascendancy was complete, and that brought him enemies.

One writer tells how “Many now recollected how stoutly the duke of Gloucester had stood up against the surrender of those provinces from which the king of France had made his attack” (History of England Volume II (A Clergyman of the Church of England) (1830) p524), further accusing Suffolk “of plotting to get the English crown into his own Family, by marrying his infant ward, Lady Margaret Beaufort, to his own son;- she being, they observed, the presumptive heiress of the royal house of  Lancaster, as long as the king had no children.” William had married his son to the Beaufort heiress Margaret. Although the marriage was annulled by Henry in 1453, it drew accusations that by promoting Margaret as a potential heir to the throne while Henry remained childless, he was seeking to see his son made king. The unlikely scenario of her accession though suggests that the attraction may have been the same financial one that saw Edmund Tudor marry her soon after the annulment.

By 1450, Suffolk was unable to fend off the charges of treason any longer. He was accused of meeting with the French in an attempt to have England invaded. Baker wrote “That he had Traiterously incited the Bastard of Orleance, the Lord Presigny, and others to levy War against the King to the end that thereby the King might be destroyed; and his Son John who had married Margaret Daughter and sole Heir of John Duke of Somerset, whose Title to the Crown the said Duke had often declared, in case King Henry should die without issue, might come to be King.” (A Chronicle of the Kings of England (Baker) p189). Henry could no longer protect his favourite and even the indomitable queen could not save him. He was arrested and charged with treason. Before Parliament, a long list of charges were laid before him, each of which he denied fervently. But his defence was never going to prevail.

At this point, Henry intervened on behalf of his favourite, exercising his prerogative to deal with the matter personally in the same way as Richard II had intervened on behalf of the duke’s grandfather. Henry refused to find Suffolk guilty of treason but found against him on some other more minor charges. Henry sentenced Suffolk to banishment for a period of five years, beginning on 1st May 1450. As he tried to move to his London home Suffolk was mobbed in the streets. Driven from London by the furious crowds, he retired to his manor at Wingfield. His son John was now 8 years old. William, fearing that he was to miss the formative years of his only son, wrote him a letter before he left which is filled with the kind of fatherly advice that Shakespeare’s Polonius was to employ. He counselled John as follows;

My dear and only well-beloved son,

I beseech our Lord in heaven, the Maker of all the world, to bless you, and to send you ever grace to love Him and to dread Him; to the which as far as a father may charge his child, I both charge you and pray you to set all your spirits and wits to do and to know His holy laws and commandments, by which ye shall with His great mercy, pass all the great tempests and troubles of this wretched world.

And also that weetingly ye do nothing for love nor dread of any earthly creature that should displease Him. And whereas any frailty maketh you to fall, beseech His mercy soon to call you to Him again with repentance, satisfaction, and contrition of your heart, nevermore in will to offend Him.

Secondly, next Him, above all earthly things, to be true liegeman in heart, in will, in thought, in deed, unto the King, our elder, most high, and dread Sovereign Lord, to whom both ye and I be so much bound; charging you, as father can and may, rather to die than to be the contrary, or to know anything that were against the welfare and prosperity of his most royal perity of his most royal person, but that so far as your body and life may stretch, ye live and die to defend it and to let His Highness have knowledge thereof, in all the haste ye can.

Thirdly, in the same wise, I charge you, my dear son, always as ye he bounden by the commandment of God to do, to love and to worship your lady and mother: and also that ye obey alway her commandments, and to believe her counsels and advices in all your works, the which dread not but shall be best and truest for you.

And if any other body would steer you to the contrary, to flee that counsel in any wise, for ye shall find it nought and evil.

Furthermore, as far as father may and can, I charge you in any wise to flee the company and counsel of proud men, of covetous men, and of flattering men the more especially; and mightily to withstand them, and not to draw nor to meddle with them, with all your might and power; and to draw to you, and to your company, good and virtuous men and such as be of good conversation and of truth, and by them shall ye never be deceived nor repent you of.

Moreover, never follow your own wit in any wise, but in all your works, of such folks as I write of above ask your advice and counsel, and doing thus, with the mercy of God, ye shall do right well, and live in right much worship and great heart’s rest and ease.

And I will be to you, as good lord and father as mine heart can think.

And last of all, as heartily and as lovingly as ever father blessed his child on earth, I give you the Blessing of Our Lord, and of me, which in his infinite mercy increase you in all virtue and good living and that your blood may by His Grace from kindred to kindred multiply in this earth to His service, in such wise as after the departing from this wretched worlde here, ye and they may glorify Him eternally amongst His angels in Heaven.

Written of mine hand,

the day of my departing from this land,

Your true and loving father

SUFFOLK.

Wingfield Manor

With that, Suffolk took ship to head into exile on 1st May 1450, the date appointed for the beginning of his five year expulsion. As his boat crossed the channel a huge ship of the royal fleet, The Nicholas of the Tower, intercepted him. William Lomner wrote to John Paston on 5th May that men of the Nicholas boarded Suffolk’s ship and “the master badde hym, ‘Welcom, Traitor,’ as men sey”. He described Suffolk’s fate, continuing “and thanne his herte faylyd hym, for he thowghte he was desseyvyd, and yn the syght of all his men he was drawyn ought of the grete shippe yn to the bote; and there was an exe, and a stoke, and oon of the lewdeste of the shippe badde hym ley down his hedde, and he should be fair ferd wyth, and dye on a swerd; and toke a rusty swerd, and smotte off his hedde withyn halfe a doseyn strokes” (The Paston Letter 1422-1509 Volume II James Gairdner 1904 Ed).

It was an ignominious end for a duke, a man whose family had risen in four generations from merchants to the height of England’s nobility. Perhaps the only consolation that William could have taken was that his son seemed to have heeded his words. John became 2nd Duke of Suffolk and has been nicknamed The Trimming Duke, perhaps for his ability to trim his sails to suit the prevailing political winds. He married a sister of the Yorkist King Edward IV and lived into the Tudor era without ever finding himself in any trouble. It was not to last though. John’s son, the Earl of Lincoln was appointed heir to Richard III and rebelled unsuccessfully against Henry VII. Another son, Edmund, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, took up the cause of the White Rose. He was imprisoned by Henry VII and finally executed by Henry VIII in 1513. Edmund’s youngest brother, Richard de la Pole continued the fight from the continent until he was killed fighting at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 to the delight of Henry VIII. The brother between Edmund and Richard, Sir William de la Pole holds a most dubious record. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1502 and remained there for 37 years until his death in 1539. No one else has remained imprisoned in the Tower for longer in all of its history.

It is hard to determine whether William, Duke of Suffolk acted out of greed or well meant service, doing what he determined was best in spite of the consequences. As with most things, I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the space between the two extremes. His letter to his son has been cited as proof of his good character, yet a man can be a father, a warrior and a politician without any of his facets overlapping. There is no room for the contemplative advisor of his letter on the field of battle, yet I suspect that a man would need something of the warrior about him to survive the politics of Henry VI’s court, particularly if his background allowed others to sneer upon him.

William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk stood at the apex of his family’s power. It took four generations of work to get to where he was. In two further generations the family was destroyed. As his empty eyes stared out across the Channel toward the land where his fortune had been made, he would never again look upon the country that had turned its back on him, nor would he see the bitter civil war that followed. His place was swiftly filled by Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and it is this, and the conflict it was allowed to breed, that lays the blame for the fate of so many at the clasped, praying hands and bowed head of the Lamb of England, King Henry VI.

War was on that horizon that William gazed upon without seeing.

John Guy on More …

… or how a Lord Chancellor fell victim to the King he idolised and one historian stayed loyal to his mentor but another didn’t:

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/tudor-terror-john-guy-is-on-a-mission-to-bring-history-to-the-masses-876441.html

The Fall of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester

Whilst researching my biography of Richard, Duke of York I found myself drawn by a bitter feud that lasted for years and which in many ways was a kind of prequel to the Wars of the Roses. The more I learned about the acrimonious dispute between Cardinal Henry Beaufort and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester the more it fascinated me and the more I began to see it as a pre-cursor to the troubles that followed. I found it almost impossible to tell Richard, Duke of York’s story without reference to the context provided by this relationship. It has been largely forgotten in the violent civil war that followed its shocking end but without the fall of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester there may never have been a Wars of the Roses.

Cardinal Henry Beaufort was born around 1375, the second son of John of Gaunt by his mistress (and later third wife) Katherine Swynford. His older brother was John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, whose descendants would become the infamous Dukes of Somerset who would rise to fame in the fifteenth century. His younger brother was Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter, a very capable soldier, and Joan Beaufort, his younger sister, married Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland and became the matriarch of the Neville clan that rose to prominence as opponents of her brother’s Somerset descendants. Henry was half-brother to Henry IV, uncle to Henry V and great-uncle to Henry VI. As Bishop of Winchester he held the richest see in England and this made him invaluable to a Lancastrian crown perpetually short of money.

Cardinal Henry Beaufort

Henry Beaufort acted as Chancellor to his half-brother before they fell out, returning to influence under his nephew Henry V, who was close to his uncle. In 1417 Beaufort was created a Cardinal and papal legate, only for his nephew to place pressure on him to give up the Cardinal’s hat. The king feared the encroachment of papal influence but needed to keep his uncle, and not least his money, close. Henry Beaufort (no doubt grudgingly) agreed but in 1426, shortly after the accession of the young Henry VI, he was once more appointed Cardinal. This apparently conflicting role as Papal representative and senior royal counsellor would attract criticism, most notably from Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.

Humphrey was born around 1391, the fourth and youngest son of the man who would become King Henry IV. Created Duke of Gloucester by his brother Henry V in 1414, Humphrey took part in several campaigns in France, most notably fighting at the Battle of Agincourt. On his brother’s death Humphrey served as Regent in England for his nephew, though his power was severely limited by the Royal Council and was always subservient to the position of his brother John. Often viewed as reckless and bitter, Humphrey was almost permanently at odds with his half-uncle Cardinal Beaufort – and his behavior may have had another explanation as we shall see later.

After the annulment of his first marriage to Jacqueline of Hainult, Humphrey married Eleanor Cobham around 1430. The couple were popular and well liked, their court becoming a centre of poetry and learning. A part of Humphrey’s library was bequeathed to Oxford University and formed the basis of the Bodleian Library. When John died in 1435 it left Humphrey as heir presumptive to his childless young nephew and removed the one control on the rivalry between the duke and Cardinal Beaufort. From this point onwards the feud became ever more bitter and personal.

The first point of conflict came with the decision that had to be made quickly as to the identity of John’s replacement in France. The Cardinal wanted the prestigious position for his nephew John Beaufort, son and namesake of his older brother, as he sought to use his substantial influence to promote the position of his family in Lancastrian England. Humphrey was equally determined not to allow the Beauforts such power and promoted his closest legitimate royal relative, the young and powerful Richard, Duke of York. Humphrey won the argument and York was dispatched to France but the battle was only intensified.

When Parliament opened in November 1439 it was flabbergasted to hear a tirade of complaint from Duke Humphrey against his uncle Cardinal Beaufort just before Christmas. After Christmas the articles were presented in writing, nominally addressed to his nephew but clearly meant for a wide audience. Beginning by complaining about the release of Charles, Duke of Orleans, who had been taken prisoner at Agincourt and whose release Henry V had forbidden, Humphrey quickly launched into a sharp berating of his uncle’s actions over the last decade or so, not least his conflicted role as Cardinal and royal councilor. Charges rained from Humphrey’s pen but, perhaps reflecting the balance of power that was driving him to make his complaints, nothing came of his accusations and Cardinal Beaufort was not even investigated. Instead, the next strike would be made by the Cardinal’s faction.

Humphrey’s wife Eleanor Cobham was arrested and tried for treasonable necromancy in 1441, accused of having engaged the well-known ‘Witch of Eye’, Margery Jourdemayne, to predict the death of Henry VI that would give her husband the throne. Eleanor claimed that she had only sought help to conceive a child but it is unlikely that any defense would have saved her. Although she escaped a death sentence Eleanor was forced to perform a public penance, divorce Humphrey and remain imprisoned for the rest of her life. She eventually died at Beaumaris Castle in 1452, still a prisoner, but the scandal of her arrest, trial and conviction forced Humphrey to retire from public life. It seemed that Cardinal Beaufort had won the war, but Humphrey remained a popular man, well loved by the general populace, viewed as a champion of their cause against a disinterested king and court party.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester

By 1447 the English conquests in France were in the final throws of a prolonged and painful demise. Henry VI’s government, by this point headed up by William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was trying to hand back vast swathes of land won by Henry V and to the preservation of which John and Humphrey had dedicated their lives. There is little doubt that the government feared a backlash from Humphrey that could gather popular support and become dangerous. On 14 December 1446 Parliament was summoned to meet at Cambridge on 10 February 1447 but on 20 January the location was suddenly changed from Cambridge, where Humphrey was popular, to Bury St Edmunds in the heart of Suffolk’s power base. This clearly suggests that at some point over the Christmas period a plot to deal with Humphrey once and for all was crystalizing.

An English Chronicle recorded that Humphrey arrived after the opening of Parliament, was met outside the town and that before ‘he came fully into the town of Bury, there were sent unto him messengers commanding him on the king’s behalf’. He was ordered to go straight to his lodgings and not to try to see his nephew the king, who seems to have been convinced that his fifty-six year old childless uncle was actively plotting to seize the throne, a notion probably promoted by Suffolk and Cardinal Beaufort, who spied a final end for his longtime nemesis. Humphrey was arrested on 20 February by Viscount Beaumont, accompanied by the Duke of Buckingham, the Marquis of Somerset (Edmund Beaufort), the Earl of Salisbury and Lord Sudeley. Either that day or the following Humphrey suffered what was reported to be a devastating stroke. He lingered until 23 February when he finally died. His body was placed on public display before being buried at St Albans Abbey but rumours quickly sprang up that he had been murdered, perhaps poisoned. There is no evidence to support this and a natural cause is entirely possible, but the belief that Humphrey had been wronged lingered for years and his death was undoubtedly convenient to the government.

Humphrey is often remembered as a reckless, petulant, unreliable and belligerent man who resented his lack of power compared to his brother and the Council. This reading of events is not entirely fair to my mind. At the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 Humphrey had been injured and knocked to the muddy ground. As French knights raised their weapons to finish him off an armoured figure stepped across his prone body and beat the attackers away. So close was the combat that the man defending Humphrey had a fleur de lys cut from the crown atop his helm. Humphrey’s life had been saved by his brother, King Henry V. For the rest of his life Humphrey would devotedly try to see his brother’s aims in France realised, perhaps because he owed his life to the famous warrior. Watching the floundering of English fortunes must have been painful and seeing the Beauforts attempting to use the Cardinal’s wealth to benefit themselves in a way Humphrey probably felt did not benefit England may have been behind his animosity to the Cardinal.

Cardinal Henry Beaufort would appear to have won the long war with Humphrey, though his victory was short lived. He died on 11 April 1447, less than two months after Humphrey. A legend sprang up, probably originating from the Tudor antiquarian Edward Hall and embellished by Shakespeare, that Cardinal Beaufort became delirious on his deathbed and offered Death all of his treasure for a longer life, though the contemporary Croyland Chronicle records simply that he died ‘with the same business-like dignity in which for so long he had lived and ruled’. In his early seventies, he had lived under four kings and amassed huge wealth and influence, a basis from which the Beauforts would flourish further.

Perhaps the real impact of the feud between Cardinal Henry Beaufort and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester lies in what was to come after both of their deaths. The Beaufort family were set on an upward trajectory and enjoyed the favour of the king that the Cardinal’s influence had won for them. Richard, Duke of York had been promoted by Gloucester as a legitimate member of the blood royal and was widely viewed as the successor to Humphrey’s position opposing the peace party at court, meaning that whether he wished it or not he became an opponent to the Beauforts, perpetuating the feud of a previous generation. This rift would eventually widen until civil war broke out. Humphrey’s name would be closely associated with York’s cause for more than a decade after his death, his rehabilitation promoted by Cade’s Rebellion and his name finally cleared in Parliament when York held power.

The House of York and the House of Beaufort appear to have been set on a collision course by the disputes between Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Henry Beaufort. Henry VI’s inability to force a closure to the rifts at his court meant that the bitterly opposed factions caused a rupture in the nation that we remember as the Wars of the Roses. It is because of the course that Richard, Duke of York was set upon by these events that I found it impossible not to tell this story in order to explain his actions and the events that surrounded him. Although it is lost in the vicious war that followed, the long battle between Humphrey and Cardinal Beaufort laid the foundations for the Wars of the Roses that followed their deaths and Humphrey’s fall marked the implosion of the House of Lancaster in a manner usually believed to be the preserve of their successors in the House of York.

Humphrey was a well-liked figure who was popular with the common man and retained sympathy for the House of Lancaster as the government of his nephew became increasingly unpopular and out of touch with the country. The policy of eliminating those closest to the throne thrust Richard, Duke of York to prominence as Humphrey’s natural successor, caused those who had looked to Humphrey for a lead to turn their focus from the House of Lancaster and made York, not unreasonably, frightened of meeting the same fate simply by reason of his position. Perhaps paranoia was a part of the makeup of Henry VI’s mental issues even at this early stage, perhaps the Beauforts were manipulating him to improve their own prospects or perhaps it was a little of both. Whatever the reason, it backfired on Henry and the Beauforts, dragging England into a bitter and prolonged civil war.

{Matthew Lewis}

 

Parallel lives – and deaths?

Many of the facts about Anne Boleyn are well known nowadays. As the second “wife” of Henry VIII, she was beheaded for treason by adultery in 1536. Their marriage was annulled shortly before her execution but it was quite possibly bigamous anyway and invalid by affinity in that Henry had previously slept with her sister. Anne’s last request was that a swordsman be brought from Calais for the purpose and he seems to have obtained a work permit. She left Henry a daughter.

Fifteen centuries earlier, Messallina (1) was the third wife of the emperor Claudius until she too was beheaded, in 48 AD to be precise, for treason by adultery, leaving him a son and a daughter. The facts are rather more confused by the further passage of time and the sources appear to be very partial but the accusations against Messallina are more convincing. Suetonius (2) records that “… it turned out that she was not only guilty of other disgraceful crimes but had gone so far as to commit bigamy with Gaius Silius and even sign a marriage contract before witnesses so Claudius had her executed …”. Graves (3) goes into rather more detail, describing a mock divorce, a “marriage” to Silius, an attempted escape and a surrender to a group of soldiers in the Gardens of Lucullus. He also implies that Claudius’ freedman Narcissus ordered the execution, with or without the emperor’s endorsement.

In the years between these deaths, and more certainly from 400 onwards, executions by decapitation were carried out more crudely, usually with an axe. Anne Boleyn’s special request was the only prominent use of a more humane implement in the British kingdoms, except the Halifax Gibbet (c.1280-1650) and Scottish Maiden (c.1550-1710).

(1) I use this spelling because her father’s name, from which hers was derived, was Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus.
(2) The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Classics edition, p.203, note 26.
(3) Claudius the God. A modern novelist wouldn’t normally have such an exalted status but Graves accessed many contemporaneus sources and indeed translated (2) above.

The Problem with ‘Usurpation’ (re-blogged from http://www.annettecarson.co.uk/357052370)

With my long-standing interest in treason and usurpation, I was fascinated to see the video of the mock trial of the Magna Carta barons staged in the wonderful surroundings of Westminster Hall on 31 July 2015.* I use the term ‘Magna Carta barons’ loosely, and indeed the trial itself could address only one arbitrary, early point in the long journey of the development of that charter which eventually gained its famous title. This was the moment in time at which King John had, after much ducking and diving, sealed the charter in June 1215 and immediately reneged by getting Pope Innocent III to repudiate it.

Though doubtless there will be historians who disagree, I take it – as did the script of the trial – that King John had hitherto behaved in a manner so thoroughly unacceptable as to be termed tyrannical. In giving his judgement, The Hon. Stephen Breyer from the USA cited John Locke’s (albeit anachronistic) assessment that for his subjects to have the right to rebel, a king should be seen to have systematically refused to adhere to the law of the land. Of course no method of testing a king’s behaviour in a court of law existed in 1215, but for his rule to be considered truly tyrannical I think this criterion would be taken as read.

Legal frameworks of the time would have been governed by the weight of precedent, and certainly the judges at our mock trial took the view that John himself had been ‘made king’ by a legal process. This process included religious ceremonial with sacred oath-taking, not only oaths of allegiance but also the coronation oath sworn by the king himself. In consequence of King John’s breaching of the latter, the rebellious barons invoked a long-standing custom and – therefore – legal right known as diffidatio, i.e. they exercised the right of a free man to repudiate his oath of loyalty to his overlord for a justifiable reason. Underpinning this right of diffidatio was the recognition that fealty was a two-way street: that for a subject to keep his oath, the king must do the same.

In our modern age, when promises made are routinely broken, and ‘God-fearing’ is no longer a term to be taken literally, the significance of an oath sworn while invoking the presence of God is scarcely understood and seldom respected: consider the context of judicial process, which is one of the few surviving circumstances when such oaths are still routinely encountered (and routinely flouted). Yet in the Middle Ages, as I have tried to indicate in writings such as my Small Guide to the Great Debate, the process of oath-swearing was one of the pillars of mediaeval society. It was a crucial matter if either party abandoned their solemn oath.

The bonds of this mutual compact defined the relationship between king and subject, already long-established by the 13th century, and gradually developing throughout the ages. It is this promise on the part of the king that is most often forgotten in the cries of ‘usurper!’ that are so widely bandied about in relation to certain monarchs; and it is key to my repeatedly asserted argument that most often the term ‘usurpation’ is a misnomer that merely reflects the prejudices of the person using it.

In pre-Conquest England there was in place a history of election of kings by the Saxon equivalent of Parliament (the Witangemot), based on the fundamental requirement of the office to perform a mutually understood function: the defence of the realm and its people. This was gradually extended to include wider responsibilities, notably for the proper administration of justice. In return, the king was entitled to call upon his people to perform whatever was understood to be due to enable him to fulfil such responsibilities. The principle that the king had a duty to perform a job of work continued to be understood for many centuries, and it was only by analogy with succession from father to son in other areas of life that a similar expectation developed in relation to the throne. Although kings often tried to influence who succeeded them, there was never any ‘law of succession’.

Requirements such as embodying the fount of justice as well as the office of leader and commander throw a clear light on crises of succession like the deposition of Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI who fell short of expectations. An even more relevant case is that of the conflict between Stephen and Matilda. Matilda might be the only surviving legitimate issue of Henry I, but his decision to make her his heir was self-serving and ultimately catastrophic: she was not born into an age when a woman could don harness and lead an army in the field. Returning to the mock trial of the barons, a question raised by the presiding judge exemplifies an abiding misapprehension on this point. Why, asked the judge, did the barons in 1215 not choose to replace John with his son, Henry (later Henry III), then aged seven? The question answers itself when you are not blinded by the assumption that the crown was governed by some imagined law of father-to-son succession: in a time of turmoil and civil strife, when the very rule of the land needed to be taken into strong hands, what fool was going to opt for rule by a seven-year-old? That he was later able to succeed upon his father’s death (now aged nine) was principally a function of the abilities and virtues of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, his champion and Regent of England.

In 1399 a new dimension entered into the matter of the succession when Henry IV challenged Richard II for the crown and the latter abdicated, rather than defending his right to the death as would have been appropriate to the tradition of the warrior-king. Parliament was drawn into the front line in the disposition of the crown, going through the formal procedure of acknowledging the abdication of Richard and the succession of Henry. The new king is said to have publicly exhibited proof of his genealogy, but the record of the Rolls of Parliament is remarkably non-committal in regard to his descent, and much more specific as to the rewards of his victory over the ruinous former king:

‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I, Henry of Lancaster, claim this realm of England, and the crown with all its members and its appurtenances, inasmuch as I am descended by right line of the blood from the good lord King Henry the third, and through that right that God in his grace has sent me, with the help of my kin and of my friends in recovering it, which realm was at the point of ruin for lack of governance and destruction of the good laws.’ [Parliamentary Rolls of Mediaeval England, 1399 Part 1, vol. iii, pp.422-3.]

Here we have an echo of that same accusation as used by the barons against King John; and despite the fascinating arguments concerning precisely which line of royal descent Henry IV might have claimed, the salient point of this remarkable statement, as accepted and recorded by Parliament, was that God had favoured him in stepping in to avert the ruin of the realm. Had there existed a law of succession which stipulated primogeniture, there was in fact a royal descendant whose claim would have been superior to Henry’s: this was the young Mortimer heir Edmund, Earl of March, then the same age as the son of King John whom we encountered above. Clearly, when the option of the valorous and successful adult Henry was available, there was no support for the claims of a seven-year-old, however senior his line of descent. A child of that age, and one who lacked the support of a strong figure as Regent, ipso facto failed the basic qualification as warlord-cum-lawgiver.

It is also noteworthy that the childless Richard II, knowing that the succession to the crown was being eyed by his several uncles, had kept them guessing by naming alternative heirs at different times: another indication that primogeniture was not regarded as the primary criterion. Henry IV, once on the throne, tried to secure the succession to his line by statutory enactment in Parliament, but the view of Stanley Chrimes (in English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century, p.24) is that this was merely declaratory and did not determine the line of succession: it recognized but ‘did not create’ Henry’s title. By the same token, it made no general provision for a public law of succession.

Only in 1460, when Richard, Duke of York came to press his claim to the throne in opposition to Henry VI, was the emphasis on primogeniture brought to the fore. York’s claim depended on it wholly – it rested on his sharing the same senior line of descent as the Mortimer heir disenfranchised by Henry of Lancaster sixty years earlier. And although Parliament made several attempts to avoid passing judgement on the matter, when forced to reach a conclusion they decided in York’s favour. There were, of course, excellent reasons for striking the bargain that reduced Henry VI to a cipher, since his inept and compliant rule had bankrupted the crown and allowed England to degenerate into a smouldering civil war.

In the case of Henry IV, could the word ‘usurpation’ be applied? The historically literate answer is no. In 1399 Richard II had abdicated rather than defend his crown to the death, effectively abandoning the throne to the judgement of Parliament which accepted Henry of Lancaster’s argument that God had helped him rescue the realm from misgovernment and lawlessness. This echoed the complaints of the Magna Carta barons, namely that the king had resiled from his sacred oath to fulfil his responsibilities to his subjects. So by these standards, and as accepted by Parliament, Henry IV cannot be named a usurper in terms of the legal structure of the day.

It was only in 1460 that Richard, Duke of York secured a decision by Parliament which established primogeniture as an acknowledged criterion for the succession. How this criterion was applied in hindsight to the Lancastrian succession raises a thicket of legal questions, the untangling of which would take someone more expert in jurisprudence than me. Clearly York’s argument was that the first Lancastrian king was a usurper, and his statement to Parliament went into extensive genealogical detail to disprove Henry’s fanciful tale that his mother’s line of descent from Henry III was senior to the line of Edward III and Richard II. However, to this inexpert observer it seems that the Parliament of 1460 stopped short of disallowing the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty, which fits with their desire to reach a compromise with Henry VI. It would have been simpler, and in hindsight would have prevented much unrest and loss of life, if they had declared him a scion of a usurping line, but that would have meant deposing him. Perhaps their legal advisers balked at the idea of retrospective legislation. And York himself had always vowed himself Henry’s true subject. Whatever their reasoning, an accommodation was cobbled together which permitted Henry to keep his crown on condition that York was acknowledged as his heir apparent. I am tempted to suppose that the Lords in Parliament recognized that Henry’s mental capacity was dubious, and that it would be unrealistic to hold him to oaths he had sworn as a child which he probably no longer remembered or comprehended. Whichever way you look at it, although York’s claim of primogeniture was accepted, the deal of 1460 was unique to the prevailing circumstances; it could scarcely be regarded as a precedent, and indeed it permitted the line of Lancaster to cling to the view that theirs remained the rightful royal house of England.

Thus Parliament had signally failed to grasp the opportunity to codify any law that stipulated primogeniture (or anything else) as a qualification for the succession. As Stanley Chrimes commented, ‘It does indeed seem that no such public law existed. In the absence of a direct and competent heir, politics, not law determined the succession. Hence both judges and commons avoided the topic.’ [Op. cit. p.22.]

The effect was that however the royal family’s internal issues were decided, whether by themselves or by any outside agency, the situation remained as it was in 1215: that he who took on the sworn obligations of kingship would be held to account for how he performed them. And if he should be adjudged deficient, it was not usurpation but a necessary service to the kingdom to remove and replace him.

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MU7tK6HM3Q. For those of us who have crossed swords in the past with James Eadie, QC, there was a particular piquancy to his defeat on this occasion.

Debunking the Myths – Richard III’s Execution of a Political Lampoonist

Richard III’s Execution of Collingbourne. A new take.

RICARDIAN LOONS

Ripon Cathedral misericord “And in another isle toward the south dwell folk of foul stature and of cursed kind that have no heads. And their eyes be in their shoulders.” – Sir John Mandeville (14th c.)

It’s funny how myths and legends become a part of history. This column – Debunking the Myths – is devoted to exploring the many false rumors, tales, and impressions that have embedded themselves into our modern perception of Richard III and his times.  Join us, as we hunt down the Loch Ness monsters, Sasquatches, and Blemyae that have roamed the Ricardian historical landscape for centuries.  No need to bring a weapon.  Just bring an open mind!

Today’s blog is about the infamous lampoon posted on the doors of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in July 1484, during the second year of Richard III’s reign.  Even the casual reader of Ricardian history can recite it from memory:

“The Cat…

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