As Ricardians, you will all be aware of Matthew Lewis and many of you will have attended is talks or read his books. He is a member of the Richard III Society and a passionate advocate of our king’s good name and reputation.
I asked Matt to write something for our newsletter and I hope you will all enjoy it.
When writing my biography of Richard III (this will be the one and only plug, I promise!), I wanted to focus sharply on his parliament in 1484. As a result, and to give it more depth and context, his youth and time in he north dominated more of the story than his time as king because I wanted to see if it was possible to tie some of the actions of the parliament that have been widely praised directly to Richard. Detractors are quick to claim it was just the machinery of government in a way no one says about Henry VIII’s Reformation Parliament. Ricardians are keen to hold it up as evidence of Richard’s potential for good government, so I wanted to see which of these was supported by the evidence, or indeed whether the truth lay somewhere on a scale between the two.
Parliament opened at Westminster on 23 January 1484 and closed on 20 February, sitting for just twenty-nine days. The composition of Richard’s parliament remains largely obscured, and perhaps that should be no surprise. This session would pass Titulus Regius, and anyone wanting to make their way in Henry VII’s England after 1485 would hardly want to be associated with making his queen a bastard. William Catesby was elected Speaker, probably to please Richard, Dr Thomas Hutton was Clerk to the Parliament and Thomas Barowe was Master of the Rolls, but no other details have survived.
Bishop Russell, the Chancellor, drafted a speech for the opening of Parliament which we can only assume was delivered. Russell had drafted speeches for Edward V’s abandoned Parliament and the session Richard’s planned sitting in November, abandoned because of the October Rebellions. The draft speech likened the country to a human body, and contains language that seems to fit closely with Richard’s interest in equitable justice for those lower down the social ladder during his time in the north. Russell would say that within the body ‘no membre, be he never so nobille, that may sey to the leste or to the vilest of them all, I have no nede of thee’. The evil advise given to Edward IV by his counsellors led, Russell planned to say, to the blindness of the body: ‘was not hys pensissous sikenesse encreced by dayly remembraunce of the derke weys, that hys subtille feythe frendes had lede hym in?’
Russell’s speech would then go on to tell the Parable of the Lost Coin, in which a woman has ten coins and looses one. She searches her house and sweeps it clean to find what was lost, and when it is recovered, she calls together all her friends and neighbours to celebrate. The story appears along with the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son to explain God’s attitude to sinners. Blinded and having lost part of what made it whole, England could not be complete, secure or just. Parliament, Russell would assert, was the place to put things right: ‘We be yn the place where thys shuld be tretyd. Thys tyme ys prefixed for the same entente.’
Russell redrafted his speech in January, but what remains is only fragmentary. One of the surviving lines is cryptic, but perhaps means nothing. The application of hindsight and the question of the fate of Edward IV’s sons might give it meaning that the writer did not intend, but Richard is frequently criticised for failing to explain what happened to his nephews if he had nothing to hide. One line of Russell’s draft explains that ‘There be many children, many menne of divers condicions and estates, yn thys Reame of England whoyse body muste be preservyd.’ Was this an allusion to the fact that his nephews were safe somewhere, a careful response to the rumours of October that would not reveal their location?
Once the session began, Parliament’s first business was taxation, granting Richard what he needed to run the country. Titulus Regius was passed into law next, confirming the events of June 1483 and Richard’s title as king. Other private bills mopped up outstanding issues and attainted rebels from October, as well as correcting an injustice Richard perceived in the dealings of his brother with his sister Anne, her daughter and the Duchy of Exeter. Parliament abolished benevolences, a system of arbitrary taxation Edward IV had introduced in 1475 to fund the French Campaign and had enjoyed using so much he had continued until it was despised. The public bills, though, were the real meat of the business and are where Richard might be most clearly seen at work. They were largely separated into those dealing with trade and those addressing matters of justice.
When it came to matters of trade, Parliament addressed issues around the size and quality of cloth and insisted on the importing of properly quality bow staves with other goods to ensure that the English military was not weakened by cheap imports. Foreign merchants were restricted from operating certain trades in England and were charged far greater duties than their English counterparts. Italian merchants came in for particularly harsh attention. They were required to sell all of their goods to English subjects at cost price. Not only that, but they had to then spend their money on goods from English merchants before leaving Richard’s shores. I’m not sure what they had done to upset Richard, but they were certainly singled out for special attention.
These measures were demonstrably in line with Richard’s attitude to trade when he was in the north. For example, he tried to secure treatment for northern merchants that would place them on a par with the favourable terms London merchants enjoyed on the continent. Edward refused to permit that but did allow some tax breaks to ease his rejection of the request. I am left wondering whether Richard had some grand plan to reduce the influence of the nobility, whose power, autonomy and tendencies to use corrupt methods as part of the system of livery and maintenance offended him. The rising merchant class might have been the perfect foil, strengthened to counteract the nobility. If so, it was a policy that Henry VII would identify with and pursue.
Justice is perhaps where we can see Richard implementing his previous policies and interests most clearly. Aside from land law reform, there was a focus on bail reform. Richard did not, as has long been suggested in some quarters, invent bail, which was mentioned as early as 1275 in the Statutes of Westminster. What was enacted in 1484 was significant reform to bail. Parliament now made it law that bail could no longer be denied where it had previously been withheld, and also prevented the seizure of goods before a guilty verdict. It seems that men’s property, which might be the tools of their trade or all they had to provide for their family, were being seized when they were arrested and were not always returned after an innocent verdict. This is a reform perfectly aligned to Richard’s interests in justice and the championing of the common man against his social superiors during his time in the north.
Parliament also addressed the issue of jury composition. In a move that might sound harsh to modern ears, when everyone is entitled to sit on a jury, Parliament set restrictions on those qualified to appear. Jurors were required to hold freehold land in the same county as the court sat worth at least 20s a year, or copyhold worth 26s 8d a year. Those appointing jurors were to be fined 40s for each unqualified member appointed. The issue that this was targeted at was the corruption rife in courts, bought by those able to pay off or intimidate jurors who were unable to stick up for themselves, or who were so poor that they could not resist the bribes. Richard’s Parliament cut off this path to corruption by making sure jury members were harder to buy off or bully. This concern for the common man was also prevalent in Richard’s behaviour in the north, demonstrated by his involvement in the problems of fishgarths, handing over his own retainers to face justice and writing to advise men that he had found in favour of their social inferiors against them in legal disputes.
Richard III’s only Parliament offers a small, narrow glimpse of the king he might have planned to be, but it is also the best view we can get. The Parliament and its legislation are often overlooked, but they demonstrate a continuation of a decade of policy in the north. The problem is that Richard was clumsy in trying to translate his radical ideas to the national stage. He had been working in a single region, with his brother to protect him. On a national stage, exposed and solely responsible, he failed to take correct account of the reaction of the nobility and gentry, those with the most to lose from a rebalancing of the political scales.
When looking for reasons why local gentry turned against Richard in October 1483 and why so many nobles failed to fight for him at Bosworth, it is tempting to look to the traditional reason; that people believed he had murdered his nephews. A more logical explanation, and one which fits the evidence much better, is that Richard’s reforms threatened those with too much to lose. He hadn’t put his counter measures in place before making his policies known and the loss of the support of the nobles and gentry was still too damaging to his cause for him to succeed. It shows a political naivety that I think Richard shared with his father, an inability to see the motives of those around him and a willingness to blindly believe they were honest and honourable, because he was, and he expected others to be.