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R.B. Dobson

When Sir Lewis Namier was lying on his death-bed, he is said to have looked up radiantly at his wife and declared: ‘What a pity! Yesterday was the first time I saw in my mind’s eye the Survey of Parliament as a whole.’ A pity indeed, for the insight allegedly offered to Namier on the point of death has never quite been afforded to any of his disciples and successors. Ever since the appearance in 1964 of the first section of the History of Parliament (devoted to the House of Commons from 1754 to 1790 and edited by John Brooke and Namier himself), admiration for the scholarship of that and subsequent volumes in this extraordinarily learned enterprise has regularly been accompanied by acute uncertainty as to what purpose it is supposed to fulfil. How far the painstaking reconstruction of the careers of the Members of the Commons might explain political action at the highest levels is a question that has divided opinion for at least half a century. Even Namier himself apparently began to envisage the History of Parliament, which he did so much to create over a generation ago, as less of a ‘living sky-scraper’ than a mausoleum. Nor would it be too difficult to argue that the volumes scrupulously sponsored by the History of Parliament Trust have done less to write the history of Parliament than to prove that its history may be too complex and amorphous to write at all.

Ironically perhaps, the fact that several of these familiar reservations apply to the new four-volume The House of Commons, 1386-1421 does not detract at all from its resounding success. In the first place, as Gerald Aylmer points out in his introductory comments, this section of the History presents the first systematic application of biographical analysis to the total membership of the Commons over a comparatively long and critical period in medieval history. Given the previous obscurity of so many of these 3173 Members, and the exceptionally wide range of unpublished sources which needed to be exploited to rescue them from oblivion, it is hardly surprising that these volumes are the outcome of more than thirty years of research. Those who have long awaited their publication need be in no doubt that they surpass all expectations.

The first volume of the sequence is a model of how a biographical dictionary should be placed within its historical context. In addition to John Roskell’s magisterial introductory survey of Parliament (not only the Commons) between 1386 and 1421, and Linda Clark’s illuminating statistical appendices, this volume breaks new ground in providing a remarkably informative series of 135 substantial ‘constituency surveys’. Based on independent and original research, these range from Helston in Cornwall to Hythe in Kent, from Canterbury to Carlisle, and provide one of the most important contributions to medieval local history – especially the history of English boroughs – to have appeared for many years.

However, it is the alphabetically arranged accounts of all known members of the Commons during these 35 years which not only furnish the raison d’être of this History but also ensure that it will remain one of the handful of essential reference manuals for political and social historians of late medieval England. To the compilation of biographies, especially of the obscure, there can literally be no end; but it is hard to imagine that future historians will ever manage to improve more than very marginally on the labours of Linda Clark, Carole Rawcliffe and their colleagues.

In his introductory survey, Roskell reminds us that by 1386 it was already ‘unthinkable’ that an English Parliament should assemble without the presence of many representatives from shires and boroughs. It must be equally obvious that by the late 14th century large numbers of county knights and burgesses were not merely prepared, but often eager, to serve as Members of the Commons, despite the considerable labour and expense they thereby incurred. It is accordingly one of the more ironic (if hardly unexpected) features of this meticulous series of biographies that they can tell us so little of the Members’ individual political aims and objectives. Very few knights and burgesses in this period have left even the slightest record of their attitudes to the Parliaments they served; and even within Chaucer’s work there is little more than an occasional witty reference to the institution. To that extent it has to be said that the personal reasons which induced these individuals to attend the 32 sessions of Parliament in this period remain almost as conjectural as before. What is revealed, on the other hand, is a large group of individuals whose most striking qualities – ambition, acquisitiveness, litigiousness and at times a propensity to violence – are not uncharacteristic of quite a few of their successors.

Such a conclusion is not particularly surprising; exactly the same paradox was already apparent as long ago as 1936, when the remarkable, and remarkably energetic, Josiah Wedgwood published his pioneering Biographies of the Members of the Commons House, 1439-1509. As the original if somewhat amateurish begetter of methodical inquiry into the membership of Parliament, Lord Wedgwood certainly deserves most of the tributes he receives from Robert Rhodes James in a Foreword to this work. On the other hand, even in the Thirties it was optimistic of Wedgwood to suppose that the compilation of biographies of Members of the Commons would necessarily reveal the more admirable qualities of those Englishmen who allegedly ‘created democracy and hope’ for the future of their country. Wedgwood’s original grand design, to justify the ways of Parliament to his own countrymen and to the rest of the world, has in the event produced something rather different. These four volumes will in many ways be most valuable for what they tell us about matters that have nothing or little to do with the institution of Parliament itself.

Between 1386 and 1421, as at most periods of English history no doubt, the members of the Commons seem at first sight to be a motley crew. Thus Geoffrey Chaucer and Richard Whittington, for us the two most celebrated individuals recorded in these pages, are now remembered for totally different reasons. They were at least alike in attending only one Parliament, Chaucer as knight of the shire for Kent in 1386 and Whittington as borough representative for the City of London in October 1416. To that extent the careers of both are an important indication of the reluctance of some prominent men to become – or to remain – Members of the Commons. Parliamentary affairs figure only incidentally in the lengthy accounts of Chaucer and Whittington compiled by L.S. Woodger and Carole Rawcliffe respectively, but this does nothing to lessen their importance to medieval biography. At the other extreme there are Members – especially from the smaller borough constituencies – about whom little will ever be known. For many, like John Pabenham, who represented the borough of Huntingdon in the Parliament of 1393, only a fleeting reference in the proceedings of a local court permits any form of identification; and there are a few Members, like Richard Whiliare, a burgess of Portsmouth in 1393, about whom absolutely nothing can be discovered.

Such cases are, however, fewer than one might expect in a cohort of over three thousand individuals. Indeed, the cumulative effect of consulting even a few of these biographies is not only to enhance one’s respect for the remarkable detective work of the contributors but also to bring home how very well (if unevenly) documented the public life of late 14th-century England already was.

This abundance of evidence is used to most spectacular effect here in the biographies of the knights of the shire who represented the 37 English counties (Chester and Durham had no Parliamentary representation). The diversity and instability of their careers is striking. Service to the crown was the most important route to material success in the England of Richard II and the first two Lancastrians; but whereas it led Sir Richard Redmayne of Levens in Westmorland to an honourable death (and a magnificent tomb chest in the parish church of Harewood) in 1426, the distinguished Lancastrian war captain, Sir John Radcliffe, was eventually ‘stricken with poverty because of his devotion to duty to the Crown’.

Comparatively few of Edward III’s or Henry V’s war captains seem to have aspired to a place in the Commons. All in all, lawyers were the most numerous and obvious exemplars of upward mobility. They, too, could lead precarious lives: the wealth of one Devon lawyer, Nicholas Radford, led to his murder (‘among the most notorious crimes of the century’) at the hands of the Courtenays in 1455. And if one Lancastrian knight of the shire, Sir Peter Bessels of Berkshire, took the then highly unusual initiative of sponsoring a new monastic college at Oxford, the heretical religious interests of Sir John Oldcastle led to his being burned while hanging (presumably still alive) in St Giles’s Fields in 1417. One of the consequences, no doubt salutary, of this new wealth of biographical information may be to make it less easy to generalise about the careers of the Parliamentary knights of the period.

That said, some themes emerge vividly, most obviously the significance of a well-judged marriage and the importance of a longstanding connection with a powerful family or dynasty. Although the proportion of lawyers (approximately a fifth) in the contemporary Commons was not as excessively high as many people then believed, the number of knights of the shire who were actual, belted knights fell from 62 to 30 per cent between 1386 and 1421, indicating a crucial development in the political influence and social status of the English gentry which we have yet fully to understand.

This was the last period in English history when the borough constituencies of the kingdom were still largely immune from invasion by the local gentry and the placemen of king, magnates and – eventually – party. The burgess representatives of late medieval Parliaments have long deserved to be seen as a political force in their own right rather than as a faceless as well as a silent majority: they out-numbered the knights of the shire by as many as 170 or so to 74.

These volumes provide what amounts to the first systematic biographical study ever made of many of the most substantial inhabitants of late 14th and early 15th-century provincial towns. Understandably, the detail available for the hundreds of Parliamentary borough representatives varies immensely. At York, then ‘the second chamber of the realm’, the list of Members reads like a roll-call of its most powerful overseas merchants; while in small boroughs like Chipping Wycombe in Oxfordshire it can be exceptionally hard to know what the occupations of its Members actually were.

More interesting still are those medium-sized county towns whose representatives were evidently drawn from a wide spectrum of urban and local society. The 30 different men who represented Cambridge in the Commons included among them not only craftsmen and several lawyers and speculators in urban and rural property, but also two ex-porters from the royal castle as well as the remarkable John Bilney, whose origins as a petty clerk and scholar at King’s Hall did not prevent him from leading a bitter and violent campaign against his university in his later years.

Perhaps only the special circumstances of a university town could have produced a career quite so intriguingly volatile and prominent as that of Bilney. On the evidence presented here, however, it is notable that a remarkably large proportion of the borough representatives, comparatively few of them merchants, had a track record of unruly and litigious behaviour.

Have historians been correct to assume that burgesses of this type were more deferential within Parliament than they were outside it? One of the most interesting of the many general issues raised by these volumes is whether Members of the Commons played such an influential role during the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V precisely because they formed a more excitable, turbulent and at times even populist assembly than has usually been acknowledged. Some readers will put down this most remarkable of all tributes to the importance of the medieval Parliament with the uneasy suspicion that the Commons of six centuries ago may have represented the discordant voices of the English people more thoroughly than has ever been the case since.