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

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 9: King Henry IV and Parliament


Previously expressed views

By the evening of 30th September 1399, a totally novel situation had arisen. Parliament had just created a new King, something it had never done before. How did Parliament envisage the new King should rule? Should he do so by the customary method, that is to say by the Royal Prerogative whilst assisted and advised by his Council? Or did Parliament intend that some restrictions should be put opon the King, and that some of the existing powers of the Throne should henceforth be exercised by Parliament, or should at least be under its supervision and with its consent? Parliament could have felt that it could demand some concessions from King Henry IV. Did it in fact do so?

The opinion has been expressed, primarily by Bishop Stubbs, that the Lancastrian period of rule during the first half of the 15th-century represented the trial and the failure of a great constitutional experiment, namely that the King undertook to rule through his Council and defer in all things to Parliament. This view is also expressed by Mowat in an even stronger form, that the King took the advice of the Privy Council in all important matters, that his ministers were appointed with the approval of Parliament, and that any legislation which Parliament as a whole desired was freely accepted by the King. King Henry IV is said to have acted in this way in faithful compliance with a compact, or at least an understanding, with Parliament reached at the time of his Accession on 30th September 1399. The point is important, because his grandson, King Henry V1, when he came of age to rule in his own right in 1436, is said to have appointed his own Ministers without reference to Parliament. By thus reverting to the unquestioned practice which pertained before 1399,  he is said to have broken the compact made by his grand-father, and thus drawn onto his own head the responsibility for all the disasters,   particularly in France, which happened before the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, and which led to them, to the exclusion of the reponsibility of Parliament itself.

[Stubbs; The Constitutional History of England 5th Edition (Oxford 1898) iii 5 - Mowat;The Wars of the Roses page II]

Later research reveals that the validity of these views should now be regarded as doubtful.

Was there any compact between King and Parliament?

What then really happened on the Accession of King Henry 1V in 1399? Was there in fact any such compact or even understanding? Was medieval man yet prepared to abandon the contempory concept of Kingship for a form of rule that was only reached after the Restoration in 1660, some 260 years later? We have some difficulty in answering these questions because there are great gaps in the contempory records showing what was said and done. We have to look elsewhere, and primarily to the events, to get reliable guidance on how an usurping King and his Parliaments came to terms with each other.

There are however some firm indications. There are the events surrounding King Richard II's abdication and the methods by which King Henry IV ascended the Throne. [Chapter ] There are the Records of Parliament which give a good insight into the relationship between King and Parliament during Henry's reign; had there been any such compact, the handling of matters such as Resumption would have taken a very different course. [Chapter ] There is also the answer given to Parliament on 6th October 1399 on how the new King intended to rule; if there had ever been any such compact, then this too must have taken a very different form.


The answer given on 6th October 1399

Immediately after his accession on 30th September 1399, King Henry IV was asked to clarify whether the ancient Statute-making process, which dated from before the days of Parliament, was finally abandoned. By this precedure, a Statute could be made by the King and his Council and was sufficient to add to, alter or otherwise change the Law. During the 14th-century, it had become the practice to make the Statutes in Parliament alone and the ancient procedure had not been used. The despotic King Richard II had however shown an inclination to revive the ancient procedure, and some members of Parliament saw this as a possible instrument for tyranny. In fact, Parliament had contributed to the confusion. A Statute passed in 1322 during the reign of King Edward II had sought, not very successfully, to place limits on the Royal Prerogative. In 1391, Parliament had repealed it, saying that it desired King Richard II to be allowed to exercise the Royal Prerogative to the full extent that his predecessors had done.

There were at least three obvious motives behind this request. Some genuinely wanted to know if the King accepted that Parliament and Parliament alone would henceforth make the Statutes, and would not govern by what was, in effect, rule by decree. While this did not really touch upon the question, other members of the Common House had become badly frightened of the part they had played in the unseating of King Richard II. Whilst nothing could now be done about that, they would have liked to distance themselves from the awkward question of his disposal. They had frequently, and brusquely, been told of the precedent that "in weighty matters, such judgements belong solely to the King and the Lords", and therefore they should not seek to interfere or meddle. This, they pleaded, was just such an instance. Yet others, namely those who disapproved of Henry's assumption of the Throne, and paricularly those activated by malice towards him, were eager to know if the ancient Statute-making process would remain in being. If so, they would not hesitate to proclaim that the apparatus for Richard's tyranny remained in place, and that all that had happened was the departure of an actual tyrant and the arrival of a potential one. On this occasion, King Henry IV gave them an answer which was seemingly frank and forthright, but on closer examination was not wholly so:-

"that the Commons are Petitioners and Demanders, and that the King and Lords, of all time, had had, and ought to have, of right, the Judgements in Parliament; save that in a Statute to be made, or in Grants and Subsidies, or for the common profit of the Realm, the King will have their advice and assent; and this order shall be holden and kept in all time to come."

[Parry - Parliaments and Councils of England pp 158.]

This was a very careful answer, and no doubt Thomas Arundel had a hand in its preparation. It could be said to mean all things to all men. Down to the first semi-colon the King undertook, in the most general terms, to take the views of his Parliaments into account when he governed; more-over, he had a right to hear them and could even demand them. Nothing was said about the time-honoured method of rule or the Royal Prerogative, which in itself could be said to contain the ancient Statute-making process, although some might have been minded to dispute this. After this semi-colon, there followed three instances, two in specific and one in general terms, where the King would require not just the advise, but also the assent of Parliament as well. In "grants and subsidies" (namely taxation), he already needed this of Parliament, while "common profit of the Realm" was so general as to be almost meaningless; it could be interpreted in any way that the King chose or the situation demanded. In the making of Statutes however he did give a seemingly binding commitment that Parliament's advice and assent was required.

On its first reading, Parliament felt it had every reason to be pleased with this reply, and even accepted the hint that nobody could, or should, try to distance himself from the difficult question of what was to be done with the King they had just displaced. Anybody with cold feet must somehow find means of warming them, because the King had a right to know their views, and they should have more pride than to seek to shift the burden onto other shoulders. [Richard was consigned to perpetual imprisonment] It is only when looking at the 'small print', a process which requires some leisure, that the full casuistry employed by the King becomes apparent.

King Henry IV had in fact given away or abandoned nothing, and he would have felt that, at this stage, it would be most unwise to be seen to make any explicit concessions.

If his own position was weak, then so presently was that of Parliament; like himself, it was a party to the treasonable act of displacing a King. If he was seen to make concessions now, not only would he encourage demands for more, but he would draw onto his own head a greater, and unfair, share of the reponsibility and odium for the displacement of Richard to the lessening of that of Parliament. If others thought that he had made any concessions now, then in due course they could be in for a rude awakening. The Royal Prerogative contained, perhaps arguably, the ancient Statute-making process, and as has already been said, nothing was done to place limits upon the Prerogative. Whilst the point was not expressly made, there had for some time now been a twin Statute-making process, one under the Royal Prerogative, and another with Parliament's "advice and assent." Only the latter was confirmed by the King.

On 6th October 1399, Henry must have been very conscious of the weakness of his own position, and he cannot have felt any inclination to strengthen that of Parliament; it should be kept in a similar state of unease. He had been proclaimed King a week before by a process some may have regarded as dubious, and the Coronation was another week away. In one sense, a week is but a short time, but in another, and the one with which he was concerned, it can be a very long one. He was well aware of the malicious and hostile elements who could be expected to seize with glee upon any open concessions and promptly demand more. Whilst he made none on 6th October, he was to prove by his actions, over a long period of time, that the ancient Statute-making procedure had in fact been tacitly abandoned. Neither he nor his successors made any attempt to use it.

King Henry IV's relations with his Parliaments

From the start it would seem that Parliament readily accepted that it was in no position to undertake the executive arm of government. It met too infrequently, its members did not possess the necesary skills, and because the members were usually different from one Parliament to the next, there was not the necessary continuity. Only one body, namely the King and the Council, which consisting of 15 to 20 or so of the Great Magnates and some able and gifted commoners, and which was in constant session, could be expected to cope with the day-to-day demands of government. [This is not to be confused with the Great Council which included all the Magnates, some 80 in all] This was in any case the accepted and constitutional method of contempory government, and the records show that the Council dealt with a huge amount of business. Everybody had had quite enough of despotism from the previous reign, and there had to be some restraint upon the King as the Chief Executive, even though it was accepted that he should rule by right of the Royal Prerogative; this would in some measure be provided on a day-to-day basis by the Council, even though they were the King's nominees. Yet King Henry IV understood the concerns of his subjects represented in Parliament (he had suffered from the exercise of Richard II's despotism himself), and readily made it clear that he would not govern alone but would seek the advice of 'wise Counsellors'. The frequency with which the Council met and the vast volume of business that it dealt with is evidence that he did so, but he went further than this. In 1401, he was asked to make considerable changes among his ministers and the Royal Household. The obscure John Scarle was replaced as Chancellor by an immensely experienced administrator, Edmund Stafford, Bishop of Exeter. The Earl of Worcester (already a member of the Council) became his Steward in place of Sir Thomas Ramston, whilst Thomas More replaced Thomas Tutbury as Treasurer, and Sir Thomas Brownfleet became Comptroller in place of Robert Litton. In 1404 he was asked by Parliament to remove some members of his household and again he did so, although he said he could see no reason for this. A document survives which shows some of Parliament's further wishes and, although it is not known if it was ever presented to the King, it terms are quite revealing. The King should ordain his great officers and his Council, and that Parliament should be informed who they were and what duties they were to perform.

It seems Parliament did not expect to have to give its consent before their appointment, but only to know who they were and the tasks with which they were charged. In 1407 Parliament felt that there was a threat to its right to grant taxation, and King Henry IV went out of his way to be conciliatory and re-assuring. Even so, it must not be thought that Henry was at the bidding of Parliament in all things. He intended to rule as a medieval Monarch had always done, even if he did show a greater sensitivity to his subjects concerns than had his predecessors, and Parliament seems to have accepted this.

One thing in particular was accepted by King Henry IV which no previous King would ever have dreamt of permitting.

Following the custom set by Sir Peter de La Mar, [page ] the Speaker was allowed to address the King standing up without adopting the obsequious posture that protocal demanded, look the King straight in the eye, and say what he had to say in a frank and forthright manner. Undoubtedly this irked King Henry IV considerably, and the first occasion was not a success. Sir Thomas Arnold, who was well known to the King as a member of the Council, was so outspoken as to be thoroughly offensive. Henry was so angry that he retired from Parliament for a few days to let his rage abate. He was far too sensible to lock up the Speaker, but Parliament took to heart the lesson that some tact was required. By the time of Henry's last Parliament, a formula had been worked out. Sir Thomas Chaucer (the son of the poet) asked the King if he had leave to speak freely. The King glowered at him for enough time to pass for the impression to made itself felt, and then growled that Sir Thomas had such leave, but that he had better be respectful. The King had something more to add:-

"...that he would have no novelties introduced, and will enjoy his Prerogative."

Later the King rubbed this home to Parliament itself. He intended:-

"...to stand and be free in his Prerogative as any of his predecessors..".

The problems of King Henry IV's reign

King Henry IV was not blessed with an easy and peaceful reign. In its first half, there were four major rebellions, no less than three being inspired by the Percy Earls of Northumberland, and the Welsh Wars which dragged on until 1410 were a constant drain on money and resources which could have been better employed elsewhere. Every frontier seemed under threat, although in two cases there was some good news to report. In 1402, the Scots invaded the North in considerable force, and were resoundingly beaten by the Percies at the battle of Homildon Hill; this was at least some recompense for the English defeat at the battle of Bannockburn nearly 100 years before. In 1403, the Bretons inflicted a naval defeat on an English force, and went on to burn Plymouth and occupy Jersey and Guernsey. Sir William Wilford gathered some ships together and paid them out in their own coin. In 1404, an enemy fleet appeared in the Thames, but was not punished for this presumption. Aslo the French invaded the Isle of Wight and for a time even threatened Southampton before being driven off by the local inhabitants. Money, the key to so many problems, was always desperately short, and there was always a mound of unpaid debts. For instance John Beaufort, Marquis of Dorset, was owed 11, 000 for two years wages as Captain of Calais. The amount suggests that he found the pay of the garrison from his own pocket, but he had scant hope of any re-payment. Sometimes the government even had to suspend the payment of pensions as the King and his Council struggled with the financial chaos left by King Richard II. Parliament complained loudly of the state of the national finances, the waste of money, the alienation of Crown lands and their income into the hands of the undeserving, the failure to 'resume' Crown lands which had been given away, the cost of the Royal Household, the spasmodic attendence of some Council members, the ineffectual nature of the Council, the state of the nations defences at sea and a host of other matters, all of which required attention. Parliament was not entirely negative however, and did make suggestions how the Council might become more efficient. 1n 1404, it presented a list of 22 names of people it thought should be on the Council. Most already were, but to please Parliament, the King added two people, Thomas Neville, Lord Furnival who had enormous experience of the Scottish Marches, and Sir Peter Courtenay, the Captain of Calais. In 1406, the King presented 9 Articles (there may have been more) which described the work of the Council and the remits of its individual members. Not satisfied, Parliament presented 31 of its own, and an epic contest of wills resulted. Being part and parcel of the story of Resumption, it is dealt with in Chapter .

The second half of the reign was somewhat easier, mainly because the legacy of stubborn financial confusion was at last beginning to yield to the persistant and sustained efforts of the King to produce order out of chaos. When the country was at last starting to live within its means, the resolution of many seemingly insoluable problems was now at last within reach. The King was not however to enjoy peace and quiet. The illness which eventually killed him first made itself apparent in 1405. Increasing its grip upon him as time went by, he could only attend to business with the utmost difficulty, and for long periods of time he was totally incapacitated. His very able eldest son Henry, Prince of Wales (the later King Henry V) had to rule in his place. The two men were very different, and did not see eye-to-eye on many issues. Many things that the Prince did greatly annoyed his father, and at the end of his reign the King came to regard his son as just another problem.

When recalling the early and glittering promise of Henry of Bolingbroke, there is something very tragic about his early death on 20th March 1413. [page ] He was in his 47th year, not a great age even by the standards of the time.

He was to be remembered, not as a great and charismatic King as his son became, but as a shrewd and careful administrator who had, in spite of everything, largely corrected the abuses and mis-management of the previous reign, even if his early death denied him the complete success for which he had aimed. He went to his rest, worn out by constant toil and the effects of his debilitating illness, his work well begun, but in the end not completed.

The supposed compact

It seems doubtful in the extreme that this ever existed as Bishop Stubbs and Mowat would have us believe. If it had been made, then the answer of 6th October 1399 would have been in a very different form. [page ] If Parliament had any special means of calling the King to order in the matter of Resumption,  [Chapter ] it is inconceivable that it would have refrained from using it to resolve an issue to which it attached great importance. That it made no complaint in the most strident terms tends to re-force the belief that no such compact was ever made. Apart from these issues, the record does show that Henry's rule was by the time-honoured method of the Royal Prerogative, with the advice and assistence of his Council, and Parliament expected this and did not object. King Henry IV did understand that after the excesses of King Richard II, Parliament did regard the Crown with some suspicion, and often went out of his way to allay its fears in a manner his predecessors would not even have contemplated. In modern parlance, he was a King who was very ready to listen, and Parliament appreciated this.

Parliament remembered King Henry IV in tender terms in its first assembly in the reign of King Henry V even if there was a hint, not too delicately conveyed, that the new King was expected to do at least as well as his father had done, and indeed better:-

"The late King, whom God assoil [have mercy upon],  had often been asked by the Commons for good governance; and had always granted the request. But how afterwards it has been held and performed his Lordship the King well knew."

This was still a graceful valediction from his subjects, and they were in the best position to judge.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003