Friday, 15 November 2013

Richard II & The Revenge Parliament in Shrewsbury

A few nights ago I had a ticket to watch David Tennant, in live link from Stratford, performing Shakespeare’s Richard II on the Cineworld screen out at Old Pott's Way. For days in advance I researched him [Richard, not David], interested to find out whether he had any Shrewsbury connections.  And did he, by gum.  This is what I found:

In 1387 King Richard II paid a visit to Shrewsbury that was to have a profound effect on the rest of his reign, leading in no small part to his being deposed and eventually to his tragic and thoroughly unpleasant death.  Owen and Blakemore's History of Shrewsbury describes what transpired during that Shrewsbury visit as ‘transactions of a remarkable nature’. Richard they describe as ‘that unhappy king’.    

At the time of his arrival in Shrewsbury the young Richard II had been on a general progress around the Marches in the company of his powerful and not-to-be-trusted uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. He was licking his wounds after a trouncing by what became known as the 'Wonderful Parliament', which  had stripped him of a number of his powers, in his eyes seriously damaging his royal prerogative.  

In Shrewsbury, Richard called together the chief justice of the day, Sir Robert Tresillian, and a group of other judges and eminent lawyers, and invited them to deliberate upon the validity or otherwise of parliament’s actions.   Richard's powers of persuasion were plainly considerable because this band of legal minds came out with exactly what he wanted to hear, whereupon they were sent home to put their opinions in writing.

Later, in Nottingham, Richard II met this group again, and received their written judgments. That these judgments were unconstitutional in their undermining of parliament was neither here nor there - Richard II wasn’t letting go of his power without a fight.

And a fight there was too.  When parliament discovered what Richard had been up to, they made his legal experts pay for their advice in the 'Merciless Parliament' of 1388. Those with seats in parliament faced impeachment. Some were fined, others were imprisoned and their advice overturned. The Lords Appellant who acted against the king included his uncle, Gloucester, and Henry Bolingbroke.  Keep an eye on that name.  

Meanwhile, back in Shrewsbury a spate of  grievances were being blamed on a group of non-elected burgesses who ruled the town for their own ends. At the beginning of the 1380s these burgesses had had their period in office extended because they were seen to be ‘conducive to tranquility’. By the end of the decade, however, these men were causing great dissent. 

Maybe change would have come about anyway but in their History of Shrewsbury Owen and Blakeway reckon that the cause of change was helped by that same group of constitutional lawyers who had been so useful to the king.  A legal Composition was produced on August 15th 1389, reciting a long list of grievances, fallings out and complaints. Chief amongst these were the town’s long-since unelected bailiffs and the fact that Shrewsbury’s profits and revenues were being disposed of by them to ‘the benefit of the same’.  

To remedy this state of affairs, the Compostion called for parliament to be petitioned  to produce an Act which would set municipal life in Shrewsbury on a more equitable footing. A procedure was proposed by a committee of the town whereby townsmen, [‘lawful, indifferent residents all’] should be nominated by the present bailiffs [having first sworn openly before the commons ‘not to be influenced by lucre, favour or enmity in their choice’]. Once this had been done, these townsmen, in their turn, should elect equally lawful and indifferent bailiffs who would receive £10 a year of land or rent in fee for their lifetimes, or £100 in merchandize.

This sounds to me like one lot of people voting in another in order to vote the first lot back.  What a lark. According to Owen and Blakeway some of the details of this Composition came in part from other towns’ constitutions [bailiffs should reside continually, dwelling as householders in the town, contribution to all its charges; no person who had been elected a bailiff should be re-elected for the following three years] but some were original, coming from the bailiffs who [surprise, surprise] were active in making suggestions as to how they should run the town. 

Hard as it is to believe, the result of all this constitutional re-alignment  was that something was put in place that corrected some of the evils that had been complained about.  There was, however, opposition.  One of the last acts of Richard II’s reign, before his abdication, was to issue to the bailiffs of Shrewsbury a mandate from their king stating that as some of them had infringed the Composition penalties would be levied against them.

But I run ahead of myself here. Back in 1389, the young Richard had moved to seize control of power, declaring himself to be of age and able to govern for himself.  Peace negotiations with France began. Westminster Hall was re built. Treaties were made and truces sealed. Opposition was put down,  including the murder of Richard's uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, and the condemning of the Earl of Arundel to the block. Now was the moment for Richard to tighten his grip on power - and to have his revenge on a parliament which had sought to cut him down to size. Parliament was convened in Westminster in September 1397, and then prorogued and moved by the king - to Shrewsbury.

Yes, you heard me. Shrewsbury.

Why Richard moved to Shrewsbury rather than anywhere else is not clear. Some say he reckoned he could more easily get away with the unhallowed project he had in mind in a more remote provincial town.  Richard claimed he did it solely because of his great love of the Shropshire people, but the true intention of this parliament was to establish his authority on the firmest of all possible bases – and in many people's eyes he did this by bringing about the ruin of the country’s freedom. For the years following the Great Parliament were a time of unbridled tyranny.

In history there are two names for the parliament that sat in Shrewsbury. One is the Great Parliament, the other the Revenge Parliament. Every Shrewsbury child should know this fact. It’s one of the fascinating but little-known details of our town’s long life.  In the centuries-long battle between king and parliament, this parliamentary is most definitely one that stands out. 

The king arrived in Shrewsbury determined to have his way, not least by overwhelming parliament with his kingly splendour.   On 25th January, having previously set up court in Lilleshall Abbey, he entered the town with great pomp and circumstance. The opening of parliament provided the perfect opportunity for Richard to indulge his taste for magnificence. He put on a sumptuous feast that dazzled parliament with the awesomeness of monarchy.  By the time that it sat, parliament was completely in Richard's hands. This obsequious parliament is how it's described in Owen and Blakeway's History of Shrewsbury - and it's not hard to see why.

Previously, parliament had punished Lord Chief Justice Tressalin and his fellow judges for their unconstitutional advice to the king. Now that advice was agreed by the full assembly to be totally constitutional, and all the proceedings of the previous parliament, instigated by the Lords Appellant, null and void. In other words, all the powers gained by that earlier parliament now returned to the king. Not only that, but parliament granted subsidies on wood and leather for the king’s life, and a generous sum of money for the purpose of making compensation to ‘those persons who had suffered for their attachment to the royal cause’.

Richard had what he wanted – but it wasn’t quite enough.  To put a seal upon his achievement, he forced all lords, spiritual and temporal, to swear in parliament on the cross of Canterbury, [brought in for the occasion] that the statutes of this parliament would be kept for ever. The clergy had to swear this too. So did the knights of the shires, called to stand around the king as they did so.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Richard sought the backing of the mob, sending out a proclamation to the people of Shrewsbury, demanding to know if these new parliamentary measures had their assent. In an act of solidarity with their king, the good folk of Shrewsbury are on record as having lifted up their hands and cried aloud that they were well pleased. Highborn and low, common men and lords, at the Revenge Parliament in Shrewsbury all gave their assent.

Richard must have left Shrewsbury in a fine frame of mind, blithely unaware that his victory would be short-lived. For the last chapter in the story of his kingship proved to be turbulent.  What the country wanted wasn't kingly elegance and pageantry. It was wisdom in government and courage on the battlefield, and though Richard II had shown great promise in his youth [the way he stood up - in person - to Wat Tyler and the mob was nothing short of extraordinary] he was to finally fail  on both those counts.  

In 1398, Richard's cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, was exiled to France. In 1399, Bolingbroke's father died and Richard seized his lands. That year Bolingbroke returned, gathering an army around him.  It was the end for Richard [as witnessed by the picture above, which is of Henry IV being presented to parliament].    

By the time that Henry Bolingbroke had seized the crown as Henry IV [that usurper is how Blakeway and Owen refer to him], the tide in Shrewsbury had turned too. Henry’s arrival in the town that only two years before had proclaimed in loud voice its support of Richard as king, was greeted by an outpouring of extravagant joy. Shrewsbury’s townsfolk are described as Henry’s ‘loyal liegemen of the county of Salop’ who, with ‘their most entire will and heart’ attended on the new king to the utmost of their power, ‘supporting and strengthening him and his adherents’. 

So there you have it – the life and times of Richard II as viewed from Shrewsbury.  Richard's end came swiftly. Forced to abdicate, he's reputed to have been starved to death in Pontefract Castle. Henry went on to become a powerful king, but it never escaped him that he'd seized the throne, and his reign was spent defending himself against plots, rebellions and assassination attempts.  

And, after all that research, I never did get to the David Tennant live Shakespeare Richard II broadcast. I'm gutted. Typically I wrote the wrong day in my diary! And it was reckoned to be brilliant too.  By a happy  coincidence, however, I did get to hear David Natzler instead, the Clerk Assistant to the House of Commons, who gave a fascinating talk on Thursday night at Shrewsbury's Sixth Form College on the subject of our town's connection to parliament - including the Revenge Parliament of 1397.  

A poem was written about that parliament afterwards, by someone called Richard the Redeless.  It's in Chaucer's English, I'm afraid, so not that easy to follow. However, the translation points out that in order to get his way - and in defiance of custom and law - Richard is alleged to have appointed knights of the shire and others to sit in parliament, ensuring his wishes were met, and to have promoted a number of earls to the rank of duke.  Richard may have been failing in some respects, but plainly he knew how to swing a vote.

PS. I'm with David Tennant on the subject of Shakespeare. Apparently Julian Fellowes - who's adapted Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet for the big screen by modernizing the Elizabethan language - reckons you need a 'very expensive education' to understand Shakespeare these days. But Tennant disagrees. 'I don't have an expensive education,' he's on record as saying. 'I went to a comprehensive in Paisely, and I don't think Shakespeare's plays are remotely difficult.'

What do you think?   


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