The chapter house of Westminster Abbey filled with purposeful occupants. It was 29 April 1376: the second day of parliament. Since Easter, three weeks before, men had been making a political pilgrimage to Westminster from every corner of England. The majority of England’s magnates had arrived to sit in their capacity as the parliamentary lords. They were joined by men of the shires: the knights and gentry who now filled the chapter house as the parliamentary commons.
The previous day, all parliament had met together. The ailing king had come up from Havering to attend the opening ceremony, but it would be the last that parliament saw of him. Once he left, John of Gaunt represented royal authority. He sat with the other lords in the Painted Chamber at Westminster Palace. The commons, meanwhile, took their place in the abbey chapter house, a large, octagonal stone building in which the monks of the abbey sat every day to pray, read and discuss a chapter of the rule of St Benedict. It was a relic of Henry III’s extensive reworking of the abbey in the troubled 1250s, building work undertaken during that time when his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort had done so much damage to Plantagenet rule in the name of reform.
It was a magnificent building, described by Matthew Paris as ‘incomparable’. The floor was tiled with figures of kings and queens, the Plantagenet royal arms, and an inscription proclaiming the beauty of the chapter house and the munificence of its royal builder: ‘As a rose is the flower of flowers, so this is the house of houses, which King Henry, friend of Christ and the Holy Trinity dedicated …’
Now King Edward’s commons filled the stone room, tramping across the tile-paved floor and taking their seats on the tiers of stone steps that followed the walls. Above their heads, light poured through stained-glass windows decorated with heraldic symbols intended to remind all who sat in sight of them of the power of Plantagenet kingship. But the commons did not come to adore kingship. They came to summon something of the spirit of de Montfort, and call upon their king to correct his stricken realm.
The years that had followed the resumption of war between England and France had seen indignity after indignity heaped upon the realm. No one could ignore it. Something had to be done. For six years, England had been heading ever faster towards crisis. Militarily, there had been a catalogue of disasters. The opening period of the new war had sought to carry on where the English left off in 1359. But they had run into a more forthright enemy, a lack of leadership and a chronic shortage of good luck.
The failures were numerous. A chevauchée under the veteran knight and freebooter extraordinaire Sir Robert Knolles in 1370 ran chronically short of cash and disbanded six months into a proposed two-year campaign. In the same year, the ailing Black Prince was joined by his brothers John of Gaunt and Edmund earl of Cambridge as he tried to stem French attacks over the borders of Aquitaine. It was a futile effort. There was no love for English lordship in the supposed principality, and city after city simply opened its gates to the French when they arrived. In mid-September 1370, when Limoges surrendered to the duke of Berry, the Black Prince had taken a violent revenge, sacking and burning the town as punishment for its abandonment of the cause. Froissart may have embroidered his account and exaggerated the number of deaths by some tenfold, but he captured the horror of the sack:
The Prince, the Duke of Lancaster, the Earl of Cambridge, the Earl of Pembroke, Sir Guichard d’Angle and the rest entered the city on foot with their companies and their hordes of hangers-on. All of them were equipped for evil … It was heart-rending to see the inhabitants throwing themselves to the ground as he passed, crying out ‘Mercy, noble lord, Mercy!’ He was so enraged that he heard them not. No one listened to their appeals as the invaders ran through with their swords everyone they found in their way … Three thousand people, men, women and children, died on that day … And the looting did not stop until the whole city was stripped and left in flames.
It was a pathetic sight: the Black Prince carried around on a litter, commanding the deaths of innocent people in a fruitless, spiteful revenge. And it had been the prince’s last significant contribution to the war. By 1371 the Black Prince was back in England, a broken man too ill to make any more contributions to war or government. Two years later, the principality of Aquitaine had shrunk to little more than a narrow strip of English territory along the coast.
With the prince now sidelined, 1372 had brought even worse fortunes for the Plantagenets. Two attempts had been made to invade Aquitaine by sea. One fleet, under the earl of Pembroke, was captured; another, departing from Calais under the king, was forced back to port by adverse winds. It was the last campaign the king attempted to lead in person. When it failed he retreated into seclusion, his mind and body faltering.
This left the war and the realm under the effective command of John of Gaunt. The duke was in no sense the military equal of his father or eldest brother, but by 1373 there was precious little for him to defend. In Brittany, the Anglophile duke John de Montfort was forced out of his own land into exile at Edward’s court. Aquitaine was overrun so far that there was nothing left of the territory ceded to the English in 1360. A chevauchée carried out under Gaunt’s personal command in 1373 was thwarted by the Fabian strategy of the French, who refused to give battle, allowing the English to wear themselves out. The Channel teemed with pirates. For many, particularly London’s super-rich wool traders, the threat to shipping routes had become so acute that they were chartering private fleets in self-defence. The English claim to the French throne was as hollow a legal fiction as it had been at any time since the 1340s. All that was left was to sue for peace, which was achieved temporarily in a year-long truce agreed at Bruges in 1375.
The commons who sat in the chapter house were as familiar with these failures as everyone else in the realm. After all, it was to them that repeated requests for taxation to fund the fruitless campaigns of the early 1370s had been addressed. Lest there should have been any doubt about it, the Anonimalle chronicler records that when the parliament began the chancellor, Sir John Knyvet, stood before it and described ‘how the realm of England was in peril and on the point of being destroyed by its adversaries … wherefore Sir John asked on the king’s behalf aid and succour against his enemies’. The king, he said, wanted a tax of a ‘tenth from the clergy and a fifteenth from the laity’. The truce made at Bruges would run out within a year, and fighting must resume. It was a familiar story.
But foreign failures were only a part of it. There was a growing sense that the assertive, charismatic kingship which had characterized Edward’s reign was giving way to a power vacuum. It all seemed so far from the glory days that England had once known. ‘Little by little all the joyful and blessed things, good fortune and prosperity decreased and misshaped,’ wrote the chronicler Thomas Walsingham.
The king and his eldest son were sickly and incapacitated. Edward’s household had ceased to become a centre for chivalry, and was peopled instead by rapacious hangers-on exemplified by Alice Perrers. The king’s ambitious mistress had scandalized public opinion the previous year in London, when she had ridden from the Tower to a tournament at Smithfield, dressed as the Lady of the Sun. She arrayed herself in magnificent finery, all of it derived from the aged king, while the rest of the country collapsed into disorder. In the localities there was a developing crisis of law and order. There were divisions between some of the leading magnates. The bishops were unhappy, since as the price of papal mediation for peace in Bruges in 1375, John of Gaunt had agreed to allow papal taxation of the English clergy for the first time since the 1340s.
War finance was increasingly dominated by corruption. To raise quick cash from Italian merchants, licences were being sold to avoid the Calais Staple. Other merchants were either loaning the government money at extortionate rates of interest, or else buying up government debt at discounted rates and cashing it in – a practice that provided short-term liquidity to the Crown but allowed profiteering among the wealthy. London was seething with tensions between factions of merchant guilds and foreign traders. Government was collapsing both at the centre and in the localities. It was, undeniably, a crisis.
Thus, when the commons met, it was in restive mood. The various interest groups – merchants, knights, county gentry – shared a common sense that it was their duty to counsel and correct the king and his government. Moreover, they knew they had the power to do so, for without their grant of funds, war could not continue. During the ten weeks that elapsed – which formed the longest parliament that had ever been held – they put forward a remarkable series of reforms and legal processes against royal government and those they felt were corrupting it.
Almost every day between the opening of what became known as the Good Parliament on 28 April and its dissolution on 10 July 1376 brought forward shocks to Edwardian government. The commons began by giving one another oaths of mutual support in the chapter house, before compiling all of their grievances about corruption and misgovernment in a single lengthy petition. Then they elected as their speaker Sir Peter de la Mare.
De la Mare was the earl of March’s steward. He was a prominent member of the Hertfordshire knightly class, who had served as sheriff for the county and had raised troops for March during a campaign to Ireland in 1373. He was articulate, courageous, politically astute and well connected with the lords in parliament. And it was to the lords, led by John of Gaunt, that de la Mare presented a long list of the commons’ grievances about the government of the realm in early May, with a request that a committee of twelve lords be established to meet with the commons and discuss means by which to repair the realm.
The bargaining tool that de la Mare wielded throughout the Good Parliament was an old one. Without reform, he consistently argued to John of Gaunt and the committee of the lords, there could be no grant of taxation. But in pressing for a direct involvement in the detail of reform, de la Mare and the commons in 1376 pushed the role of the county men far more centrally into Plantagenet government than had ever been achieved in the past. In 1341, when Edwardian government had experienced its last serious political crisis, the debate had been played out between the lords and the king, while the commons played only a very minor role in the background. In 1376 they came directly to the fore.
Given the dislocation of government, and the urgent need of the Crown to refinance the war before the Treaty of Bruges expired, there was little that Gaunt could do but listen. What he heard was a chorus of complaint about royal policy, which centred on the corrupt activities of a number of people close to the increasingly senile king. After lengthy deliberations, formal accusations were made to Gaunt in full parliament against three in particular: Lord Latimer, a veteran soldier serving as chamberlain of the king’s household; Richard Lyons, a wealthy merchant and royal counsellor who had advanced a great deal of money to the Crown; and the king’s mistress Alice Perrers, who had amassed land, wardships, and jewels that had belonged to Queen Philippa, and whose bewitching power over the king was such that Thomas Walsingham wrote that she ‘had such power and eminence in those days that no-one dared to prosecute a claim against her’. The first two were denounced for financial corruption and avoiding the Calais Staple, while the commons demanded that Alice Perrers be removed from the king’s company. By the end of May there had been more accusations: against Lord Neville, another veteran who was steward of the royal household, and three more merchants.
John of Gaunt could do little more, in the face of such serious accusations, than play for time. He adjourned parliament briefly and let his father know that there were serious problems, and that many of those in the royal household were about to be arrested. According to the Anonimalle Chronicle, ‘the duke [i.e. Gaunt] sent certain lords to announce to [Edward] the advice of the commons and the assent of the lords, that he should be counselled to banish from his presence those who were neither good nor profitable … and the king benignly told the lords that he wished entirely to do what would be for the profit of the realm … [and] that he would willingly act by their advice and good ordinance.’ It was a remarkably timid response. Edward may have been warned that parliament was considering deposing him, as they had done to his father. That shame would have been too much to bear. The lion of a man who had roared in 1341 was reduced to a mouse.
All those accused by the commons were brought to trial before parliament in June 1376. When de la Mare was asked who brought charges against the accused, he replied that they did so ‘in common’. Thus the process of impeachment before parliament was born. Latimer was accused of a whole compendium of crimes in Brittany, including extorting money from the king and neglecting the duchy’s defence. He was also accused of embezzlement of war finance on a grand scale, along with plentiful other crimes. He was convicted and imprisoned. Lyons, the merchant Adam Bury and Alice Perrers all forfeited goods and land. And Lord Neville was dismissed. A council of nine was appointed to advise the king.
It was a clean sweep of government with quite the best intentions. But it would have quite unforeseen long-term consequences. For as the impeachments were taking place in parliament, on Trinity Sunday, 8 June 1376, the Black Prince died. Even as he lay bedridden, the warring factions of the Good Parliament had battled for his support. Indeed, he had been sent a large barrel of gold by Sir Richard Lyons, in an attempt to win his support against the commons. (When he refused it, Lyons sent it to the king, who accepted, saying: ‘He has offered us nothing which is not our own.’)
‘Thus died hope for the English.’ This was the sad verdict of Thomas Walsingham following the death of the Black Prince. And indeed, it felt to many other writers in 1376 that – even with the great King Edward clinging to life – when the Black Prince died England had lost the last of the Edwardian heroes. The Black Prince had been at the heart of what many Englishmen ranked as the greatest victories their realm had ever known: Crécy, Poitiers, Najera and the sack of Limoges. His body was honoured and buried with the utmost military ceremony. His will had requested that he be buried at Canterbury (where it was translated in October 1376) beside Thomas Becket, rather than at Westminster:
When our body is taken through the town of Canterbury to the priory, two destriers covered with our arms and two men armed in our arms and in our helms shall go before our body, that is, one with our whole arms of war quartered, and the other with our arms of peace with the badges of ostrich feathers, with four banners of the same suit: each of those who carry the said banners shall have on his head a hat with our arms. He who wears the arms of war shall have an armed man by him carrying a black pennon with ostrich feathers.
It was a soldier’s passing. His tomb was decked in the symbols of the Holy Trinity for which he reserved great reverence, and decorated with his armour, symbols of his military power and his motto, Ich dien: ‘I serve’. In his later life, blighted by illness, the prince had become morbid – depressed by the fact that his warrior’s spirit would inevitably be let down by his fragile flesh. His will requested that a French poem be inscribed around his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, warning others of the same perils:
Such as you are, sometime was I.
Such as I am, so you shall be.
I thought little of Death
So long as I enjoyed life.
On earth I had great riches …
Land, houses, great treasure, horses, money and gold …
But now I am a poor captive,
Deep in the ground I lie …
My great beauty is all gone,
My flesh is wasted to the bone …
The loss of the prince, inevitable as it was, struck a last, devastating blow to Edward’s regime. Moreover, in death he catapulted to the centre of English politics the last of the Plantagenets: a nine-year-old boy called Richard of Bordeaux.