How to hold a Medieval Parliament: By those who were there (Part One)

At some point during the reign of Edward II a studious clerk, most likely between 1316-1324, sat down to work one evening and took his pen to parchment and wrote a treatise. This treatise set out, rather helpfully for us seven hundred years later, the ‘dos’ and ‘dont’s’ of holding a medieval parliament as dictated by centuries of medieval custom. It’s a fascinating document and creates a window in which to peer into the highly hierarchical world of medieval England. The clerk was keen to point out that these rules had been about during the reign of Edward the Confessor (r.1042 -1066) and were adopted by William the Conquerer after the Norman’s conquered England, beginning with the battle of Hastings in October that year. So it goes according to the clerk (and naturally with a little bit of banter from me) as thus;

Rule One (Set the date of course)

Parliament, the clerk declared, was invited by a writ of summons sent from the king, at least forty days before it was due to start. Presumably allowing for travel along poor roads, during winter, famine etc, forty days was just the ticket. In the fourteenth century, parliaments were not like today, held annually and throughout most of the year. They were ad hoc affairs, called when the king had urgent need, and sometimes lasted only a few weeks. Sometimes years went by before the next one.

An idealised image of Edward I sitting in parliament in the 1270’s

Rule Two (Whose on the party, erm invite list?)

So during a ‘full’ parliament the guest list was a bit longer than a normal average parliament. Those invited included;

The church: The archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops, abbots and priors and other leading clergy who held their offices and lands by an earldom or baronage were on the list. Any church folk below that was not, except if they had been specifically invited. Lucky them!

The earls & barons: they had no choice. All of them were expected. Its a hard job being near the top.

The other laity: Those who owned lands in various forms, especially if your lands produced an income of £20 a year, were all in the parliament club. The rest, in terms of land qualifications, gets very complicated, so for now lets keep things simple.

The barons of the Cinque Ports: those of whom were appointed as ‘barons’ to look after the strategically important towns of Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, New Romney and Hastings, representing the interests of all their inhabitants and mercantile trade, were also in the club.

The knights: The king’s writ of summons would be sent to his sheriffs in the counties (think evil sheriff of Nottingham) for the sheriffs to ensure two knights of good repute were elected from each county by the good folk of the said counties to go to parliament.

The citizens:The king’s writ would go to the mayor and his bailiffs of places like London and York and other towns to elect two ‘suitable’, ‘honourable’ and ‘experienced’ citizens to attend, representing their respective towns.

The Burgesses: Last but never least, the bailiffs of the boroughs were instructed to ensure two ‘suitable, honourable and experienced’ burgesses were elected to represent the said boroughs.

So there we have it, the body of parliament. During a lesser parliament, the king often invited only the church and the earls and barons. During the reigns of Edward I and especially under Edward II, full parliaments became more frequent but still not the norm.

Rule Three (The party begins) – Opening Parliament

The king, as head honcho, gets the prime seat, sitting in the middle of the ‘greater bench’ and has to be present on the first and possibly sixth day (translation gets a bit ropey here). The king also has to be present for all the other days of the meeting to, if not actually in the chamber, at least in the local vicinity or ‘vill or pale of parliament’.

You don’t all arrive on the same day – to much paperwork and name calling to do in order to complete the registers taken by the chancellor, the treasurer, barons of the exchequer and the justices. So there is an order to when you turn up;

Day One – the burgesses and the citizens rock up.

Day Two – the knights in their shiny armour arrive looking menacing and resplendent at the same time.

Day Three – it’s the turn of the barons of the Cinque ports

Day Four – it’s the proctors of the clergy

Day Five – the deans, priors, abbots, bishops and not forgetting the archbishops.

For no-shows expect a hefty fine of around one hundred marks. Ouch!

The earls and barons are not noted by the writer of the treatise in terms of when they attend. Presumably they needed to turn up by day six when the business really got going, but perhaps he felt they were notoriously rude and turned up mostly when they liked so did not take the pain to record this. Thomas of Lancaster in 1316 arrived horribly late, but Thomas was always more than a bit rude.

A king takes counsel

Rule Four (No sickies) 

If you were summoned you had to turn up otherwise you were fined heavily. If you were ill whilst at parliament, you had to send a representative to say you were ill (a bit like calling in sick). After three days, two witnesses were sent to check you were not pulling a sickie, and to confirm your near death man flu (today’s sick note as witnessed by a doctor). Not much changes.

Rule Five (Don’t forget God in all this)

In the highly spiritual age of medieval England, God was present in everything. Parliament opened to a sermon from either the Archbishop of Canterbury or York or a bishop in whose province the parliament was being held. Whoever it was had to be ‘experienced’, which one hopes given their vocation, this was easy to find. Above all he needed to be ‘eloquent’. Hmm.

The other part of the rule here: The sermon could take place on any of the first five days after everyone had arrived, so long as the king was present. I am sure the king was chuffed to bits with that bit of the rule! Sermons in the medieval period were notoriously long.

Rule Six: (Why we here? I left my royal writ back at the castle)

After the sermon, to wake everyone up, the chancellor would stand up and tell everyone to get up to for a bit of exercise (like one of those training sessions about team motivation everyone hates to do) and announces on behalf of the king why everyone is here.

The studious clerk notes at this point, that if the chancellor speaks too low or can’t be heard, then he can be heckled so as to speak up. Lucky man! If he still can’t quite cut it, another can speak for him so long as the king presumably agrees.

Rule Seven: (The king’s speech – no, not the film)

As custom dictates, after the chancellor has done his bit and got everyones blood pumping before the break of mead and dishes of lampreys (just kidding), the king reminds those assembled that they have been called together to offer him counsel and to act in ‘accordance with God’s will and after that for his and their honour and advantage’.

Rule Eight: (Damn it, the king’s on holiday)

Just occasionally, the king might be off tormenting the French, the Scots or fancies a pilgrimage to Canterbury when it looks like storm clouds in parliament are gathering. He might be late.

Unfortunately, for the head honcho, as top of the tree he has no choice but to be present. He and the body of parliament are bound together by sacred custom. No king = no parliament. In medieval England, the king has to come back from his hols. He can however, appoint others, especially the steward, his chief justice or someone equally trustworthy to open and carry on parliament in his name until he arrives . Nothing stands though without his arrival so it’s considered bad form if he wastes everybody’s time.

Seating in parliament was then, and remains today, highly hierarchical

Rule Nine: (That’s my seat…Where are we again?)

Every one has their place and heavens forbid if you get muddled up. It was no doubt like that awkward first day at school. Especially if this was your first time at such a gig.

As I said, the king got the best spot in the middle of the ‘greater bench’.

On the right of the king: sits the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops of London and Winchester and the other bishops, abbots and priors of the archbishop’s province in rows according to their rank or grade.

On the left of the king: sits the Archbishop of York, the bishops of Durham and Carlisle and the other bishops, abbots and priors of the archbishop’s province in rows according to their rank.

It’s all very neat.

At the right foot of the king: sits the chancellor (after his speech of course), the chief justice of England, and his ‘fellows’ as well as the clerks of parliament.

At the left foot of the king: sits the treasurer, chamberlains and barons of the exchequer, the justices of the bench and their clerks of parliament.

Rule Ten (Taking the minutes)

To ensure no one is telling porkies after everyone has gone home, two principal clerks of parliament sit amidst the justices and enrol all the pleas and business of parliament onto the parliamentary rolls, and whilst they do it, they are accountable to the king alone. One or two of the justices are allowed to peek over their shoulders and check they are not doodling and are keeping accurate records. (This is all true – it really is. It’s in the clerk’s rule book. I promise you).

Rule Eleven (Paying the hired help)

It’s the king’s job to assign five skilled clerks to serve upon all those at parliament starting with the king’s needs first, the church second, the earls and barons third and so on. For their efforts they shall receive the princely sum of two shillings a day, unless they eat at the king’s table at which their expenses are reduced to 12 pence a day. When they are not running errands they help the clerks enrol petitions.

So parliament is a busy old place…

Part Two…

This clerk was certainly studious and the business of holding parliaments was a complex and highly regulated affair. For the rest of his treatise and the remaining nine ‘rules’ in particular, come back early next week for part two.



‘How to hold a parliament (1316-1324)’ in English Historical Documents, 1189-1327 citing M.V.Clarke, Medieval Representation and Consent (1936), p374-84


Feature and Image Two: From ‘Garter Book’ written and illustrated for Sir Thomas Wriothesley in c.1524

Image One: BL Cotton Vitellius A.XIII


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Twitter: @SpinksStephen

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