Thursday, February 19, 2015


As the highest court of the realm, and the national forum for discussion of important public issues, Parliament became during the WARS OF THE ROSES the instrument whereby major political changes were legitimized and new royal regimes recognized.

Fifteenth-century Parliaments consisted of an upper chamber (the Lords) and a lower chamber (the Commons). The membership of the Lords included both laymen—titled nobles summoned by individual writ (see PEERAGE)— and churchmen—twenty-one bishops and some abbots of large monasteries. The Commons, whose membership by 1485 totaled 296, included two knights from each shire and burgesses who represented LONDON and other incorporated towns. The shire representatives— by law county landholders who were knights or who possessed sufficient land to support a knight’s estate—were elected by male residents of the county who held lands worth at least forty shillings per year. Voting for burgesses was more idiosyncratic, the electorate being defined by a town’s charter, which, in some cases, restricted voting to a small group (see TOWNS ANDTHEWARS OFTHE ROSES).

Fifteenth-century Parliaments were royal instruments of government, summoned and dismissed by the king. The speaker of the Commons, the officer who directed debate and managed business, was almost always a royal councilor and was paid by the Crown after 1461. During the Wars of the Roses, royal governments used their control to ensure that Parliaments confirmed royal titles, such as occurred in 1461 to legitimize the house of YORK, in 1483 to approve RICHARD III’s usurpation (see USURPATION OF 1483), and in 1485 to confirm the right of the house of TUDOR. Victorious regimes also used Parliament to pass bills of ATTAINDER against defeated opponents and to reverse attainders previously passed against supporters. Thus, although the Lancastrians attainted leading Yorkists at the COVENTRY PARLIAMENT in 1459, the first Parliament of EDWARD IV in 1461 reversed many of these attainders and passed new bills against prominent Lancastrians. With each change of political fortune came a new series of attainders and reversals.

To obtain a cooperative Parliament, royal administrations often manipulated borough (i.e., town) elections. Because borough seats comprised almost two-thirds of the Commons, and because town electorates were often small and easily influenced, kings could readily secure the election of royal servants and household officials, even though by law burgesses were to be citizens of the town they represented. For example, in 1478, Edward IV obtained a Parliament that was willing to condemn his brother, George PLANTAGENET, duke of Clarence. Besides some loss of independence, the Wars of the Roses also caused the Commons to lose some legislative initiative. Prior to the 1450s, most bills were initiated by petitions from the Commons, whose main functions were the granting of taxation and the consideration of petitions. Civil war Parliaments saw more bills drafted by the king and his COUNCIL, more attention to royal interests, and greater royal management of business. In general, the wars led to an increase of royal control over Parliament.

Further Reading: Butt, Ronald, A History of Parliament: The Middle Ages (London: Constable, 1989).

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