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30 The Story of Parliament


Opposite: Te fabulously wealthy Richard (Dick) Whittington, seen here in a 17th-century engraving with his (possibly mythical) cat, was MP for London in 1416, as well as serving three times as mayor of London


Sir William Bagot and Sir Henry Green (who figure as the villains Bushy, Bagot and Green of Shakespeare’s play), and Richard III’s henchman the “Cat” (Sir William Catesby)—who were there to do their sovereign’s bidding. But by no means all MPs were subservient to the crown. A Speaker like the intrepid Sir Peter de la Mare could courageously express his views, although another, William Stourton, was demoted by his fellows for too-readily agreeing to Henry V’s demands before consulting them. Te shire representatives were heavily outnumbered by those


of the boroughs—there were two each from selected towns and cities, though London, uniquely, elected four. Te smaller towns sent a mixture of lesser tradesmen, inn-keepers, masons, cloth- producers and so on, but the London members belonged to the City’s greatest livery companies, such as the Mercers, Grocers and Vintners. Tey might easily rival and outstrip the knights in terms of wealth, and merchants like the famous Richard Whittington could, through their philanthropic bequests, acquire almost mythical status. Other major ports such as Bristol, Hull and Southampton elected members experienced in trade with Mediterranean countries, Spain, Gascony, Iceland and the Baltic, while wealthy wool-merchants took on an important role in the business of parliament, not least because of their financial muscle: it was to them that the cash-strapped exchequer looked for loans. Tere was a thin line between international trade and piracy. Te “adventures” at sea of the likes of William Long of Rye, John Hawley (probably the model for Chaucer’s “Shipman” in Te Canterbury Tales), and Robert Wenington of Dartmouth adversely affected the process of diplomatic negotiations between England’s ambassadors (who were often themselves members of the Commons at some point in their careers) and their foreign counterparts. Although a few of the members may have been barely


literate, others had attended local grammar schools and a few had been to the newly founded Winchester College. An increasing number had been trained as clerks in the government departments of the chancery and exchequer, where fluency in French and Latin (in which most government and legal documents were written) was essential. Te university-educated physician to Henry VI, Master John Somerset, took a seat in the House, as too did the


“Wealthy wool-merchants took on an important role in parliament”


celebrated poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Many studied at the legal training schools, the inns of court in London, and became attorneys or officials in the law-courts based at Westminster Hall. Te most able among them rose to be judges, such as the acclaimed chief justice Sir John Fortescue. Yet their tendency to spend more time on their clients’ business in the courts than they did in the Commons led Henry IV on one occasion to prohibit the election of professional lawyers to the House. Te author of the poem “Mum and the


Sothsegger” complained about the many different ways in which members failed to protect the interests of their constituents—by slumbering through the sessions, taking bribes, gossiping to the king about the doings of the House, or mumbling their speeches incomprehensibly. In fact, medieval members of parliament brought much useful experience to the House—not least of local government, for it was usually the same men who enforced the law in the shires as sheriffs or magistrates, and in urban communities as mayors and bailiffs. Tey could be outspoken and opinionated. On one


occasion these vociferous, highly spirited individuals had to be kept forcibly in check by Richard II’s archers; on another, when told to leave their weapons at home, they arrived in the House armed instead with bats, ready to make a forceful political statement in support of rival magnates. Edward IV found John Hall of Salisbury to be “seditious, hasty, wilful and of full unwitty disposition”. It is unlikely that men such as they would seek election merely for the wages their constituencies were expected to pay them. In any case, these, set at the daily rate of four shillings for the knights and two shillings for the burgesses, frequently fell into arrears, and impoverished towns offered seats to anyone willing to accept less, or even a barrel of herring in lieu.


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