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The parliament of Richard III: 1484

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address by


Senator for New South Wales

The Ricardian Society : Sydney Branch

Saturday 7 October 1989




It is almost part of the folk-lore of English history that, "until the Tudor period, Parliament did not form a regular

part of the Government of the country"* but, as with so much of the folk-lore, such an interpretation is superficial. The fact of the matter is, that towards the end of the

Plantagenet era, the Parliaments, despite their

irregularity, had come to occupy a significant position in the political system. The ruthlessness with which Henry VII

pursued his policy of the destruction of the powers of the individual magnates has tended to make people see the period immediately preceding him as one where those magnates totally dominated the political scene, and the extraordinary career of Warwick is all too often thought of as typical.

The one parliament of Richard III demonstrates just what an important role that institution was developing in politics, and in its central role shaping the nation's economy.

That one parliament also gives some indication of the great

promise of Richard's reign which was so tragically denied

its fulfilment.


Before I turn to the specifics of the Parliament of 1484 it

may be useful to say something of the structure of

Parliament and the methods of election used for most of the Fifteenth Century.^

The major statutes governing the structure of Parliament and

the conduct of elections were passed in 1406 and 1429. The

statute of 1406 ordered that the election itself should take place in the first (four-weekly) county count held after

receipt of the writ and that the election should be


proclaimed in the market towns, and made in "pleyn" county

by the persons "there present, as well suitors duly summoned

for the same cause, as others."

Of course the issue of the writ to call the election was entirely a matter for the Crown. As a result Parliaments met only as and when the King thought it to advantage. However

from 1439 onwards Parliaments did meet quite frequently, indeed from 1439 to 1484 there were 25 parliaments elected,

although of these, four although elected, never met. These significantly were the Parliaments of 1462, 1469 and the two summonsed for late in 1483. The longest gap between

Parliaments in this period was the five years from 1478 to

1483, a point which compares very favourably for example with the eleven year gap from 1629 to 1640 under Charles I.

By the statute of 1429, the franchise was restricted to 40 shilling freeholders and it is to be remembered in English electoral law that those without property were not

enfranchised until 1832 and the vote was not extended to all women in Britain until 1928.

If I may pause on this issue of women in Parliament, it is

fascinating to note that in parliaments of the reigns of both Edward I and Edward III, ladies such as Abbesses of

Shaftesbury or the Countessess of Norfolk, Pembroke and

Oxford were summonsed to attend the parliament at


Occasionally other restrictions were imposed on candidates offering for election. For example for most of the period

the county sheriffs were estopped from becoming knights and

seeking election; in 1404 by the writ of Henry IV, lawyers were prevented from standing for election (no bad thing I

suggest), but this prohibition disappeared from subsequent

writs so that by 1442 about a fifth of the whole House was lawyers.


Servants of the Crown were of course eligible to be elected, and the holders of high office usually sought election. Generally about 30 per cent of the shire seats and 20 per cent of the borough seats were filled by these servants and bureaucrats. The high points for total membership of the House provided by the King's Servants were in 1447, 1459 and

1478 and the very peak was reached in the last desperate

Lancastrian Parliament of 1459.

Surprisingly there were very few members who did not actually reside in their constituencies, only once creeping over a quarter (1442). This contrasts with the modern House of Commons where very few members actually live in their constituencies. Again surprisingly most, but not all members were paid, the rate being fixed at 2 shillings per day.

However some members were paid quite considerably more by

their constituencies (some up to ten shillings) or were paid in kind, but other notables waived their payments. (It was not until 1912 that full salaries for British MPs were


Parliaments did not actually sit for long, usually only 2 or 3 months, with the longest being the Parliament of 1472/5 which actually sat for some 14 months; an interesting comparison with the Long Parliament which was elected in

1640 and dissolved in 1660.

In 1445 the Commons petitioned the King to regularise the

qualifications for election to provide that the persons

chosen should be notable knights of the shire which elected them, or else notable squires or gentlemen capable of

becoming knights and that no man of the degree of yeoman or below it be chosen.

Elections were actually held in the open county court. Names

were proposed and seconded, and while in some instances only

one name was put forward there were usually choices to be made.


Membership of the Parliament was not actually thought of as

being very much of an honour in the early Plantagenet period. Indeed Richard II gave the town of Colchester a special consideration by absolving them for five years from

the obligation of sending burgesses to Parliament.

Voting was by shout or show of hands. The election was conducted by the Sheriff who prepared the writ of return and indenture to certify the choice made. The law also provided that the election had to be held between the hours of Sam

and 11am.

In the whole of this period we do not know have one

contemporary complaint of a hole-and-corner election and it is only in 1467 that we have a complaint of electors being "treated", a practice which was to become entirely

commonplace in the early Hanoverian Parliaments.

There are of course numerous examples of the use of

patronage where a local magnate wrote to the mayor and burgesses to suggest the name of the candidate who should be

chosen. We know something of this from our most familiar of sources, the Paston Letters. John Jenney who was elected for

Norwich in 1453 but failed to be re-elected in 1455 actually had long correspondence with John Paston from which we learn

a great deal.3

The number of members returned for the Shires remained

constant at a figure of 74 from 1439 to 1504, while the

number returned for the boroughs grew from 190 in 1439 to 222 in 1478 (reflecting the process of urbanisation and the

slight shift of political power to the cities) at which point it stabilised until 1504.



Summonses were issued for the calling of Richard's first parliament on 22 September, 1483, with the body to convene on 11th November. However, Buckingham's rebellion caused this summons to be set aside, with its reissue on 9th

December. Finally, on 23rd January, 1484, in the Painted Chamber of Westminster the King received "very many lords spiritual and temporal, and the commons of the realm of

E n g l a n d . T h i s parliament brought together the two knights of every shire, and the burgesses of the cities, ^ while it is also recorded that the Lords were two dukes, seven earls,

two viscounts and twenty-six barons.^

It is remarkable how much we know of the membership of the Parliament of 1484. Indeed we know the names of 38 of the 74 members elected by the Shires and 79 of the 222 Borough members. Of these 117, some 90 are known to have sat in

previous Parliaments. This is significant since if it be taken as an indication of the nature of the whole House then it means that the vast majority of members had served

previously in the several Parliaments of Edward IV and would

I suggest have hardly been likely to be willing parties to

any unjustified denigration of Edward or his deeds. The Parliament can hardly be thought of as being particularly Richard's rather than simply strongly Yorkist.

However of those known, there was a very high percentage of the Kings Servants, some 45 in total of the 117. Naturally

we would expect this figure to be higher among the known

members but the overall figure is about average for the


We also know the names of all the King's Principal

Ministers. The list is headed by John Russell, bishop of Lincoln, the Lord Chancellor. It includes our familiar

friends Viscount Lovell as Chamberlain of the Household; Lord Thomas Stanley as Steward; Sir James Tyre11 (member for


Cornwall) and William Catesby (member for Northampton) as Chamberlains of the Exchequers; John Howard, Duke of Norfolk

as Admiral and John Kendall as the King's Secretary.

The next step was the sermon given to open proceedings by

the Chancellor, Bishop Russell. This is a point of great interest, as we have preserved three sermons of Russell's -

the first prepared for a parliament of Edward V and two drafts for Richard III - one prior to Buckingham's revolt

and the one finally used.7 The one used, took as its text I Corinthians xxi,12: "In corpore multa quidem sunt membra, non autem omnia eundem actum havent," ("We have many members in one body, but not all have the same function") and the

sermon itself, calling for the unity of the realm, and warning against individual adventurism clearly reflects the uncertainties and troubles of the times.

Parliament's first task was the election of a Speaker, and the choice fell upon a member from Northamptonshire, William Catesby, who, on Wednesday, January 26th was presented to

the King "who was well content".® At age 34, Catesby was young to be Speaker and it is interesting that it was early in the Parliaments of 1484 and 1485 (Thomas Lovell under

Henry VII) that it first came to be regarded as vital for

the Speaker to be the King' s man in the Commons. Only a few decades back the office had been regarded as largely ceremonial and irrelevant, and it would not be until late in the reign of Elizabeth I that the office started to develop

into being the Common's voice to the Crown rather than the other way around. Speaker Lenthall's defiance of Charles I

in 1642 of course marks the absolute watershed of this


It should of course be remembered that participation in one parliament was often a cause of real trouble in the next in these revolutionary days. Catesby was the third of six

Speakers who were ultimately beheaded (Thorpe 1461, Tresham

1471, Catesby 1485, Empson 1510, Dudley 1510, Moore 1535).


In Henry's Parliament of 1485 there were some 23 commoners

attainted, most of whom probably sat in Richard's parliament including the likes of Brackenbury, Ratcliff and Kendall.

The preliminaries at an end, the parliament began its work

in earnest.


In terms of its most political work the Parliament first of all ratified the invitation to assume the crown made to Richard III before his coronation by the Lords and Commons, who had not been assembled in Parliament, in order to give

it constitutional effect. This invitation, or petition, stated that under Edward IV all politic rule was perverted; Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Grey was "pretensed" and therefore his issue was illegitimate and could not inherit; Richard was rightful heir to the throne by blood and by his doughty deeds, and was king by the Laws of Nature and of

God, and by the laws and customs of England; but his title was here ratified because people were ignorant of these laws and customs and because "the Courte of Parliament is of suche auctorite, and the people of this Lande of suche

Nature and disposicion, as experience teacheth, that

manifestacion and declaration of any trueth or right, made

by the Thre Estates of this Reame assembled in Parliament, and by auctorite of the same, maketh, before all other

thyngs, moost feith and certaynte."

Attainder was passed against the late Duke of Buckingham;

Henry Tudor; Jasper Tudor; Thomas Grey; "late marquess of

Dorsett" Richard Beauchamp; Bishop Morton of Ely; Margaret,

countess of R i c h m o n d ; t h e Bishops of Salisbury and Exeter and some 90 or so other named persons whose lands were made

subject to the grants of the King.


On petition, attainder was reversed against Sir Henry and Thomas Percy late earl of Worcester and the yeoman John Durrant. Also a petition of grants of land were made to individuals, to the clergy and other minor matters (such as

swan-marking) were dealt with.

The parliament enacted 16 public bills, of which six were

matters of trade and commercial regulation; one annulled grants made to Elizabeth Woodville; one exempted the collectors of clerical tenths from proceedings in secular courts; four regulated and reformed local proceedings in matters of bail, juries, fines and the operation of

pie-powder courts; one regulated certain matters of the management of royal estates; and finally secret feoffments were forbidden.11

The statutes of particular importance and interest are those relating to court fines, benevolences and certain taxes on foreign merchants.


One sees that the administration of local justice had fallen

into a pretty chaotic state during the Wars of the Roses,

and Richard's parliament turned its attention to a major

overhaul of the judicial system. It enacted that juries should be chosen so as not to include those ""but such as be of good name and fame" with certain property holdings.1^

Further it enacted a major Statute of Fines which provided

for proper assessments and publication of fines; in addition provision was made to allow bail for felons and prohibit the

confiscation of property before conviction. In all, local justice was greatly reformed in its operation, so as more to

conform with Chancellor Stillington's proposition stated in 1468 that "Justice was ground well and wrote of all

prosperitie, peas and pollityke rule of every Reame."1^


The history of indirect taxation provides an interesting example of the growth and exercise of parliamentary power.

By the days of Edward III the parliament was claiming the sole right to impose tax by customs duty, and Edward was forced to concede that no taxes would be levied upon wool merchants without the approval of parliament.·^ This was

extended to woolfells and leather charges and renacted under Richard II. As a result, a system developed for the King to make us of "benevolences" or forced gifts from merchants and others to supplement the royal income. This practice became

increasingly common, and was especially used by Edward IV, so that at the time of Richard's accession it had become quite chronic and was serving as a major distortion of the economy and a severe brake on the growth of trade. His

parliament enacted swift measures, complaining to the King of the burden of such benevolences. Eventually a statute was enacted to cancel such benevolences as existed and to say that they should constitute no example, "but be damned and annulled forever."15 gy SUch a measure, a great burden was

lifted from commerce which was left to operate more freely and competitively. This in fact was a very characteristic attitude of the northern Yorkist lords and these statutes provided an important basis for the growth of English trade under the much more thoroughly commercial Tudors.


The Ricardian parliament was above all a strongly

nationalistic one looking particularly to strengthen English commerce. It enacted legislation to regulate dyeing,

measurement and preparation of cloth for sale, it regulated

sealing and watering, forbade the importation of silk by

other than English merchants and acted to increase both the quality and quantity of imported bow-staves by tying this to the wine trade and imports. Above all, it looked at the

problems of the wool trade and the role of the Lombard


merchants. Action was taken against merchants who

"deceitfully pack, cherish and keep until the time when the prices thereof are most enhanced for their greater profit"1* *

by insisting that all goods imported before May 1st, 1485 should be sold within eight months and that after that date, those unsold should be removed from the country within a further two months. Furthermore foreign merchants were to be restricted to wholesale selling only, and "also that none of the merchants of Italy not made denizen shall sell or barter

any wool, woollen cloth or other merchandise within the realm, which the merchants of Italy shall buy within the

realm." Foreign merchants are forbidden from having English

servants or apprentices.

Most interesting perhaps is the fact that the parliament showed itself conscious of the need to encourage learning by providing that "this act, shall in no wise extend to or be prejudicial .... to any foreign artificer or merchant of whatever national he shall be, for bringing into his realm,

or selling by retail of otherwise, of any kind of book, written or printed." Kendall goes so far as to describe this piece of legislation as memorable because the exemption for books was inserted into the Act by the King personally, and we know a great deal about Richard's personal interest in

books and about his own library. Kendall writes that "to Richard and his councillors belongs the honour of having

devised the first piece of legislation for the protection

and fostering of the art of printing and the dissemination

of learning by books.m1^

Given that we have a current debate under way in Australia

about the issue of restrictions upon the importation of foreign books - one currently designed to close rather than

open the market, the attitude of a Parliament sitting more

than 500 years ago is remarkably interesting.


Now the important feature of the work of this parliament which commands our attention is that for the first time, the

origin of much of the reformist legislation lies with what we might call the executive that is, that the King's chief

agents in the parliament were chiefly instrumental in proposing these new measures and for the first time an overall and coherent programme of reform legislation is presented to the Parliament.·*·® When one considers Richard's

far reaching administrative reforms carried out through the Council of the North, this all seems to fall into a pattern of the King as a genuine reformer and innovator, anxious to ease the lot of ordinary citizens and promote the growth of

a great English commercial system - the latter a policy most readily taken over by the Tudors, who in fact patterned much of their governmental activity on the lines developing under King Richard.·*·®


The King's genuine concern at the state of the realm is reflected in his address to the Parliament which deplores the fact that "the ordre and politique rule (is) perverted ... the Customes and Liberties ... wherein every Englishman

is Inheritor (are) subverted and condemned, against all reason and justice, soo that this Land was ruled by selfwill and pleasure, feare and drede, all manner of Equite and Lawes layed apart and despised."20 His parliament was in

many ways a model one, not notable for any significant

constitutional measures, but one which has been judged as going "further towards alleviating the sufferings of the

realm than any other Parliament had done in many a long year. It instituted a number of governmental reforms,

legislated for the removal of various grievances and treated petitions with kindness and consideration. Parliament, in fact, enjoyed a notable revival after the long period of

impotence into which it had sunk in the preceeding

strife-torn decades."21


This of course reflects the nature of the King himself, presiding over a parliament which was very much guided by his desires (via the Speakership of Catesby) and whose works were very much products of his initiatives; and yet a parliament of independent knights and yeomen who had not yet

felt the yoke of parliamentary subservience that was soon to

become a Tudor imposition.

Much was done to regularise local justice and to set the developing national economy on a sound footing after the troubles of the previous century. The economic system which had floundered and fallen very much into the hands of

foreign merchants to the disadvantage of Englishmen was

bolstered and returned in large measure to English hands. Even in the exemption of the book trade from regulatory and restrictive measures one sees the influence of the King.

But it is always best to let a man's contemporaries judge him. Before his parliament opened, the King was on a

northern progress, and Dr Thomas Langton, Bishop of St. David's, wrote to his friend the Prior of Christ Church

wishing for Richard's speedy return to London for:

"He contents the people wherever he goes better than any prince, for many a poor man that has suffered wrong many days has been relieved and

helped by him and his commands in his progress.

And in many great cities and towns were given him great sums of money which he has refused.

Upon my word, I never liked the qualities of any prince so well as his: God has sent him to us for the welfare of us all."22

1 »

14 -

FOOTNOTES 1. Elton, G.R. England under the Tudors (Metheun 1955) p .13.

2. The following section is based on data to be found in

History of Parliament - 1439-1509 issued by House of Commons

(HMSO, 1938).

2a. Wright, A. and Smith, P.: Parliament. Past and Present (hutchinson) p. 10-12.

3. Paston Letters i .340.

4. Rot, Pari, vi 237 ff.

5. Stubbs, W. Constitutional History of England vol.III (Oxford 1903) p.236 ff.

6. ibid p.237.

7. Chrimes, S . English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth

Century. (Cambridge 1936) passim.

8. Rot.Pari, vi 237.

9. Laundy, P .: The Office of Speakers (Cassell 1964) p.

10. Stubbs at p.236 holds that Lady Margaret was in fact

attainted but Jacobs, E. English Historical Documents 1399-1485 at p.632 denies this.

11. Rot.Pari, vi 244-8.

12. See Jacobs: op cit.

13. ibid.

14. Maitland, F.W. The Constitutional History of England

(Cambridge 1961) p.180-181 for a history of indirect

taxation legislation. See also 36ED III stat. 1 c.ll, 1362.

15. ibid, p.181.

16. Statutes of the Realm II 489 - see Jacobs: op cit. p.1051-2.

17. ibid. Also Kendall, P. M. : Richard the Third (Allen & Unwin, 1955) p. 285. On Richard's own interests and library

see the series of eleven articles by Sutton, A. and

Visser-Fuchs, L. which appear in The Ricardian (London) Nos. 94 to 105 (Dec 1987 - June 1989) 18. ibid. p. 284, also Chrimes: op cit.

19. Chrimes, S. Lancastrians. Yorkists and Henrv VII.

20. Text in Chrimes: op cit.

21. Laundy, op cit. p.152.

22. Christ Church Letters ed. Sheppard, J. (Camden Soc. 1877) p. 45.