Following on from part one, those called to parliament still have much to do and many rules to abide by. The studious clerk who started penning his treatise must have been either very keen, on a good commission or had underestimated the enormity of his task. There are still nine ‘rules’ left to discuss. He […]

via How to hold a Medieval Parliament: By those who were there (Part Two) —

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


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

Following on from part one, those called to parliament still have much to do and many rules to abide by. The studious clerk who started penning his treatise must have been either very keen, on a good commission or had underestimated the enormity of his task. There are still nine ‘rules’ left to discuss. He (and me) continue;

A group huddle by ‘grade’ was a good option for breaking the deadlock

Rule Twelve (too many cooks spoil the medieval broth) – The group huddle.

The problem with gathering a gaggle of church goers, earls, barons, the laity, citizens and burgesses is that sometimes no one can quite agree. Not even the king. To break through the deadlock everyone is allowed to go off in a huddle in their respective peer groups, so the earls pop out for wine with the earls, whilst the burgesses make for the mead with the rest of the burgesses. The king can talk to himself or head off anywhere so long as he remains within the vill of parliament, remember. Downside to the top job; sometimes there is just no one to talk to. The clerk notes that the issues are then put down in writing so everyone remembers why they are having a group ‘break out’ session in the first place. Once they have their eureka moment, each respective group responds in writing. These notes are collected up in the hope that actually in the smaller gatherings they have all seen reason and they are therefore broadly of the same collective mindset. Great, problem solved. Decision made.

But if not and deadlock continues, another strategy is adopted.

Rule Twelve Part Two: (Banging heads and polite internal elections)

The earl steward, the earl constable and the earl marshall, or at least two of them, shall select from those assembled in parliament a group of twenty-five made up of two bishops, three proctors of the clergy, two earls and three barons, five knights, five citizens and five burgesses. If twenty-five is considered a bit heavy for the task, they can be whittled down to twelve with thirteen of their number voluntarily stepping out of the elected group. If twelve is still too many, the group can be whittled to six, and from six to three. If the three want to be a smaller group they have to speak to the king and ask his permission first before the debate continues. In the end, what these last people left standing decide takes the day as they are deemed to represent the whole of parliament having been elected by major elements of the wider body. It’s all put into writing and then the written decision is presented to the king and his council who can then do what they wish, amending the details as they see fit but only with parliament’s agreement and, rather importantly, during the parliament. If the king changes his mind after everyone has gone home, its too late and he’s missed his chance.

Rule Thirteen: (Keeping to the agenda)

Someone has to do it and anyone knows if you don’t keep to an agenda the meeting is going to go on FOREVER and long after the last lamprey pie has run out!

The agenda, or more accurately, ‘the calendar of parliament’ sets out the order in which petitions are to be heard. All business starts with:

Top priority: anything that relates to the king, the queen or the royal children. Or war, because of course, fighting wars are important don’t you know.

Second priority: making laws, issuing writs of execution after judgements have been delivered are important matters. Need to sign off quick smart on those high profile execution jobbies as we can’t have kingdom criminals being allowed to outstay their welcome. Upholding the king’s justice is an important role of parliament and a fundamental part of the king’s sacred coronation oath.

Third priority: individual matters including petitions. In the case of the latter, they are heard in the order in which the petitions were first lodged i.e. first come, first heard.

Rule Fourteen: (Keeping up appearances)

The king can hold parliament anywhere he wishes in the kingdom and whenever he wants. However, on no account can it be in a secret or private place.

Keeping in with God also means parliament cannot be held on a Sunday, or on the feast days of All Saints (1 November), All Souls (2 November) and the Nativity of St John the Baptist (24 June).

Parliament should also begin each day at the hour of mid-prime, at which the king ought to be up out of bed, had his breakfast and be sat on his comfy bench if he’s coming to the chamber. Prime starts at 6am, Terce at 9am, so I’m guessing that mid-prime is about 7.30am. Edward II was a notoriously late riser, to the point that his early attendance to parliament in the summer of 1320 was noted by Thomas Cobham, bishop of Worcester in his private correspondence with Pope John XXII.(1) Rude!

The door to parliament was guarded to maintain order and keep the sanctity of the gathering

Rule Fifteen: (The crier…not as in the weeper!)

The crier of parliament (think town crier), must stand outside the door of parliament and the door keeper shall tell him what to proclaim (in a particularly loud and possibly quite irritating voice).

The doors were not to be closed. Instead the king appointed his serjeants-at-arms to keep crowd control. Anyone caught getting in the way and obstructing peoples’ entrance into parliament when it was their turn were to be arrested and fined. There was no room for any last minute shenanigans where petitions were concerned. The rights of access to the king, to parliament and the common law was enshrined in Magna Carta after all. The sanctity of parliament was therefore important in medieval England and well protected.

Rule Sixteen: (Making your voice heard)

Parliaments in medieval England were as rowdy as they are today. Much like now, in the fourteenth century, everyone had to sit in their seats and only those who were talking were allowed to stand at anyone time in order to be heard. If you were in a group presenting your issues your group could all stand at the same time.

Rule Seventeen: (What about ‘em taxes gov?)

Since King John, and his descendants thereafter, reluctantly attached their seals to the various copies of Magna Carta from 1215 onwards, the king was only permitted to raise taxes on the populace through the consent of parliament. He had other canny sources of revenue he could exploit, but parliamentary taxation remained, and still remains, the only way to raise general and by far the most lucrative form of royal revenue.

Rule Seventeen Part Two: (Power to the people)

It was a requirement that all the peers in parliament were needed to grant their consent. The treatise is ambiguous but it reads as though no objections were allowed in order for the motion to pass. It was consensus only. In regards to taxes, unusually the social order was turned upside down for this special occasion. The clerk writes,

‘Two knights carried more weight in parliament in granting and refusing [aid]than the greatest earl of England’.This therefore means, that only during a full parliament, could the king raise taxation otherwise known as ‘aid’. If the king held a smaller parliament of just representatives of the church and the earls and barons, then an aid was impossible to achieve. Power to the people folks! This remains law today with the much later evolution of the two houses. The House of Commons holds sway over the House of Lords in all matters financial.

Rule Eighteen: (Is it time to go home yet?)

Not until all the petitions have been heard because the king made an oath at his coronation to uphold justice and the law and customs of the realm. Damn it. And no. No fancy break dancing moves from the knights are going to change that!

A knight busting the latest party moves!

No sneaking off either. You had to get the permission of the king and all your peers in parliament before you could make excuses like you kept your medieval spit boy on duty roasting the boar, and if you don’t get back asap, like within the next two weeks, he’s in danger of burning down your castle.

In the end to dissolve parliament all the petitions have to be heard, at least in principal, or everyone has to agree to hear them at the next parliament, whenever that will be. A loud proclamation is made and if everyone has been heard who is listed on the calendar of parliament, then providing no one objects, everyone can go home. You just hope none of those smart citizens feel the need to drone on about mercantile rights again!

Rule Nineteen: (For the record – ‘he said what’!)

Just in case you were riding your horse back to Durham and forgot that bit about that petition you needed to remember for your mate, you could ask one of the clerks to make you a transcript of proceedings at a fixed cost of a penny for every ten lines. Best hope they write small. Which any keen medievalist will tell you they often did with most of us now requiring reading glasses! If you could prove on oath you were shamelessly poor then you could get a copy for free. Who said being poor was a burden in medieval England?! I blame that Robin Hood fella!

Rule Twenty: (The king is the head honcho & everyone has their place. Don’t forget it!)

Just in case you had any wild and rebellious thoughts whilst you and your colleagues were huddled together, our studious clerk is keen that we remember this. The king is ‘the head, beginning and end of parliament, hence he has no peer in his grade and so the first grade consists of the king alone’. The second grade consists of the church and the third grade the proctors of the church. The fourth grade consists of the earls and barons and those with good incomes equivalent to an earldom. The fifth grade goes to the knights remember; the sixth to the citizens and burgesses. Don’t go getting above your station and thinking because you rubbed shoulders with those in a higher degree that you can become one. You don’t!

Such were the rules for holding a medieval parliament by those who attended and got the tunic to prove it.



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

(1) Register of Thomas de Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, 1317-27, ed E.H Pearce (Worcester, 1930), 97-8


Image One: BL Royal 17e. iii, f. 93v

Image Two: BL Royal 14e iii

Image Three: ‘The Alfonso Psalter’ – BL Add. MS 24686


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