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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Appendix 4: The Great Council


First and foremost, the "Great Council" must be distinguished from the King's Council. This latter body, about 20 in number, consisted of some of the Great Magnates, both clerical and lay, a number of lesser churchmen and nobles, and often some men of lesser rank of whose out-standing abilities the King felt a need. It was in continuous session, and its duties included the tendering of advice to the King on the government of the country and the carrying into effect of the decisions so reached. In many ways, and in particular the enormous amount of business of which it disposed, it may be compared to a modern cabinet.

The Great Council however was a singularly amorphous body which had no definate form or structure. The leading work on the subject [The House of Lords in the Middle Ages -

J. Enoch Powell and Keith Wallis pp 377 et sequa] describes the baffling dificulties of containing it within the bounds of any definition, however widely it may be drawn. Before the Parliament of 1265, when Parliament as it was known during the period of the Wars of the Roses first began to take shape, the King would summon those who he thought could help him on some intractible problem (usually taxation) - or, as must often have been the case, who would give him the answer he most wanted to hear. Such an assembly would be arbitrarily chosen, and would consist of some of the Magnates or Lords, some of the churchmen, or a mixture of both. Very occasionally some of those who were lower down the social scale would be included. There was no definate or enduring membership of the Council so summoned, and some would be summoned on one occasion and not on another. The contempory records do little to clarify the confusion, and the words "Council" or Great Council"were freely used to describe such gatherings without differentiating between the ranks of the persons attending or the importance of the business being discussed. The gatherings were, at best, some survival of the Witanagemot of Saxon times, which the early Norman Kings were anxious to maintain as a rudimenatry form of rule by consent. The Magnates and the Barons took this a step further, and were most insistant on a confirmed right to a greater say in public affairs in Magna Carta 1215 and the Provisions of 0xford 1258, and wrung from King John and King Henry 111 reluctant oaths that they would observe what these documents provided for. It was not helpful that the Pope later absolved each King from his oath.

"Great Councils" continued to be summoned after 1265, but due to the growing importance of Parliament, which made huge strides in the 14th-century, they became steadily rarer before the date (1377) with which this work commences. They were not formally abolished however. According to the list prepared by Parry [Parliaments and Councils of England] King Richard 11 called 4 Great Councils (1388, 1392, 1397 & 1399) and King Henry IV 3 (1400, 1403 & 1406). Neither King Henry V nor his son King Henry VI called any such Councils, although the "love-day" of 1458 [page ] must have had this character even if it was not so known at the time. Likewise neither King Edward IV, King Richard 111 nor King Henry VII made any use of them during their reigns, although the gathering of Magnates and Nobles in St Pauls Cathedral on 25th June 1483 [page ] could be said to have been a "Great Council" even it was not so described. It was not summoned, but all the Noblemen were in London for the Coronation, as they expected of King Edward V, so they were "assembled". Not even the legislation of the 1484 Parliament, which regularised King Richard 111's position as King, referred to this gathering as a "Great Council"; it simply described their proceedings as "not being in the Fourme of Parliament."

"Great Councils" never enjoyed any formal constitution, and became steadily more obsolescent as time went by,  Between the Ascension to the Throne of King Richard 11 in 1377 and the death of King Henry VII in 1509, altogether 132 years, there were only 9 Great Councils (sometimes called no more than "Councils" and on two occasions not even accorded this dignity), and there were more than 90 Parliaments.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003