Presentations & Public Speaking

Virtue and the Common Good: Sermons and Political Practice in the Good Parliament, 1376

Résumé : En 1376, les « Commons » du Parlement anglais, les représentants de la petite noblesse des comtés et les élites urbaines, montent sur le devant de la scène pour la première fois en tant que véritables acteurs politiques. Il est clair que
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    Please cite this page as :  Christopher Fletcher, ‘Virtue and the Common Good : Moral Discourse andPolitical Practice in the Good Parliament, 1376’ in Charisma and Religious Authority : Jewish, Christian,and Muslim Preaching, 1200-1500, ed. Katherine L. Jansen and Miri Rubin (Turnhout, 2011), 197-214,p. 197 .    V  IRTUE AND THE C OMMON G OOD :M ORAL D ISCOURSE AND P OLITICAL P RACTICEIN THE G OOD P  ARLIAMENT , 1376   Christopher Fletcher hen parliament opened in April 1376 for the first time in two and a half years, a wave of discontent broke over the court of the ageing King Edward III. 1 The complaints expressed in the ‘Good Parliament’ had arange of sources which even those who were there at the time found difficult topinpoint, and which it has taken modern historians much labour to disentangle. Inthis atmosphere of confusion and crisis, political charisma and religious authority came together to motivate the Commons to action and to give coherence to theiragenda. Religious and political charisma helped to justify independent action on acomplicated variety of issues, centre around taxation, in an institutional context in which the Commons’ legitimacy to act was far from clear. Although over theprevious century they had secured the exclusive right to consent to taxation, it wasin the ‘Good Parliament’ that the Commons first took the lead in criticism of theking’s government. For the first time a single individual was selected to speak intheir name: Sir Peter de la Mare, selected for his personal charisma, his ‘leadershipand eloquence’. 2 Throughout proceedings, the morality of the court took centre 1 Since this article was completed, two important new publications have appeared on AlicePerrers and the Good Parliament. These are W.M. Ormrod, ‘The Trials of Alice Perrers’, Speculum  , 83 (2008), 366-96; G. Dodd, ‘A Parliament Full of Rats? Piers Plowman and the GoodParliament of 1376’, Historical Research  , 79 (2006), 21-49. 2 J.S. Roskell, ‘Sir Peter de la Mare, Speaker for the Commons in Parliament in 1376 and1377’,  Nottingham Medieval Studies  , 2 (1958), 24-37, p. 25. Cf. T.F. Tout, Chapters in Medieval  Administrative History  6 vols. (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1920-33), III, p. 305.    Please cite this page as :  Christopher Fletcher, ‘Virtue and the Common Good : Moral Discourse andPolitical Practice in the Good Parliament, 1376’ in Charisma and Religious Authority : Jewish, Christian,and Muslim Preaching, 1200-1500, ed. Katherine L. Jansen and Miri Rubin (Turnhout, 2011), 197-214,p. 198 .   stage, serving to organise and legitimate political action. In the thick of events,Bishop Thomas Brinton of Rochester preached a sermon calling for action againstthe abuses of the day. At the same time, one member of parliament, Sir ThomasHoo, dreamt a divinely inspired dream with much the same message. All this wasrecorded in the relentlessly moralizing account of events known as the ‘ScandalousChronicle’ (by the chronicler of St Albans abbey, Thomas Walsingham) whichhomed in on the sins of the courtiers, above all the king’s mistress, Alice Perrers,to legitimate the Commons’ actions. Yet, strangely, the significance of charisma and religious authority in theseevents has tended to be downplayed by historians. The morality of the court hasbeen treated as at best a slightly baroque additional motive for the Commons’actions, or at worst an irrelevant gloss applied to an infrastructure of morefundamental concerns. The issue of Sir Peter de la Mare’s charisma, meanwhile,and the charisma and authority of the Commons as a body, has been taken forgranted, or ascribed to their political power or their personal links. 3 Although it isagreed that scandal was raised by the ageing king’s long-running liaison with AlicePerrers, the real significance of the attack on the Edward III’s mistress is found inher involvement in the financial and judicial abuses which the Commons weretrying to root out. 4 Alice was no idle courtesan, no ‘gold-digging mistress’ contentto accrue valuable trinkets bestowed upon her by the king. 5 She was a savvy businesswoman, whose material wealth came largely from the wise investment andthe manipulation of her influence with the king in the law courts. 6 For historians,such scandalous rumours as Walsingham’s accusation that she employed sorcerersto secure the king’s affections thus furnish only a ‘curious’ addition to deeperconcerns about her influence. 7   3 Anthony Goodman, ‘Sir Thomas Hoo and the Parliament of 1376’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research  , 41 (1968), 139-49; Roskell, ‘Sir Peter de la Mare’; George Holmes, The Good Parliament  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), ch. 5, esp. pp. 134-9. 4 Holmes, Good Parliament  , pp. 68-9; Chris Given-Wilson, The Royal Household and the King’s  Affinity: Service, Politics and Finance in England, 1360-1413 (New Haven and London: YaleUniversity Press), pp. 146-60. 5 Quote from K.B. McFarlane, The Nobility of Late Medieval  England (Oxford: ClarendonPress, 1975), p. 131. 6 James Bothwell, ‘The management of position: Alice Perrers, Edward III and the creationof a landed estate, 1362-1377’,  Journal of Medieval History  , 24 (1998), 31-51. 7 Thomas Walsingham, The St. Alban’s Chronicle, vol. i, 1376-1394 , ed. J.Taylor, W.Childs andL.Watkiss (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 44-8; Holmes, Good Parliament  , pp. 136-7.    Please cite this page as :  Christopher Fletcher, ‘Virtue and the Common Good : Moral Discourse andPolitical Practice in the Good Parliament, 1376’ in Charisma and Religious Authority : Jewish, Christian,and Muslim Preaching, 1200-1500, ed. Katherine L. Jansen and Miri Rubin (Turnhout, 2011), 197-214,p. 199 .    As they have come to understand the complex array of grievances which cametogether in the Good Parliament, so historians have tended to discard the morality of the court as of at best peripheral interest. 8 Placed alongside the military, legal,fiscal, commercial and financial grievances which found their expression inparliamentary petitions, scandal at the king’s morality is left as something of a sideissue. 9 Even those who accord importance to ‘personalities’ treat morality asindependent of other concerns. The distasteful characters of the courtiers provideone further motive for the Commons’ anger to add to tax and maladministration. 10   There is a tendency to reduce moral indignation to material srcins, as if scandal was a simple product of the courtiers’ abuse of the king’s favour for their owngain. 11   I intend to argue in this essay that charisma and religious authority performedtwo important functions in the events of the Good Parliament. First, they provideda justification for independent action on the part of a group which had neverbefore assumed the foremost role in political debate, despite its growing power. They helped the Commons to surmount powerful barriers to action present in theaccepted form of politics as it had developed in the fourteenth century, and so toput into practice the theoretical gains of the last hundred years. 12 Second, theinvocation of religious and moral authority provided a structure for the Commons’actions, directing their arguments in certain directions and away from others,giving a particular form to their political action in which the morality of the king and court assumed a vital organisational role. In a way comparable to the moraleconomy of the crowd identified by writers on post-medieval popular revolt, those who took the dangerous route of projecting their grievances against the royalgovernment onto the court found the strength to act and a script for their action in 8 Holmes  , Good Parliament  , chaps. 1-4. On Ireland see also S. Harbison, ‘William Windsor,the Court Party and the Administration of Ireland’ in England and Ireland in the Later Middle Ages  ,ed. James Lydon (Irish Academic Press: Black Rock, Co. Dublin, 1981), 153-74. 9 Holmes, Good Parliament  , pp. 63-90, 108-26. 10 Ibid, p. 150. 11 Given-Wilson, Royal Household  , pp. 23, 144-5, 154-5 12 Christopher Fletcher, ‘Corruption at Court? Crisis and the theme of  Luxuria  in Englandand France, c. 1340-1422’ in The Court as Stage: England and the Low Countries in the Later Middle  Ages  , ed. Steven Gunn and Antheun Janse (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2006), 28-38 (pp.30-1).    Please cite this page as :  Christopher Fletcher, ‘Virtue and the Common Good : Moral Discourse andPolitical Practice in the Good Parliament, 1376’ in Charisma and Religious Authority : Jewish, Christian,and Muslim Preaching, 1200-1500, ed. Katherine L. Jansen and Miri Rubin (Turnhout, 2011), 197-214,p. 200 .   the ‘serious’ realm of the promotion of morality and virtue. 13 Morality bothjustified action at the outset and continued to affect its course, much as the violence of Reformation crowds continued to follow the rituals which hadstructured its srcin long after the first outburst. 14  Faced with the litany of grievances which bubbled up in 1376, it would not besurprising if the head began to reel somewhat. This is very much what seems tohave happened to Sir Thomas Hoo, an experienced knight of the shire forBedfordshire, then in his sixties, when he retired for the night after one of the early debates of the Good Parliament. 15 Once in bed, Sir Thomas could not sleep for‘thinking about the present business, as to the ways and means of leading the king back to a better way of life (  ad correctiorem vitam   )’. He was preoccupied by thequestion of how the abuses in the kingdom could be rooted out, and how thepeople could enjoy peace. Worrying about such matters, he eventually drifted intoa dream, where he saw himself back in the Commons’ debating chamber. Hisattention wandered in the course of deliberations, until his eyes fixed on sevenflorins on the floor. Picking them up, he searched for their owner. At last he cameupon an old monk who provided the moral explanation for the coins’ presence. They are not lost, he explained, but rather they are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit bestowed on him and the others ‘gathered at the present to further the welfare and to restore the well-being of the realm (   pro utilitate et reformatione status regni   ).’ 16 The gold signified the wisdom (  sapientia   ) bestowed on the Commons toinvestigate how these things might be reformed, and to explain them with tact tothe leading men of the realm. 17 On waking, Sir Thomas told all to the Commons, which allowed the chronicle who recounts his dream, to confirm that ‘theproposals which were made for the amendment of the kingdom on behalf of thenights were prompted by the loving counsel of the Holy Spirit.’ 18   13 E.P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past and Present  , 50 (1971), 76-136; Peter Burke, ‘The virgin of Carmine and the revolt of Masaniello’ in his The Historical Anthropology of early modern Italy: Essays on perception and communication  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 191-206. 14 Natalie Zemon Davis, ‘The Rites of Violence’, Past and Present  , 59 (1973), 51-91. 15   Walsingham  , pp. 4-6; Goodman, ‘Sir Thomas Hoo’. 16   Walsingham  , p. 6. 17 Ibid.: ‘ exprimere gratiosus in conspectu principum huius regni.’ 18 Ibid.    Please cite this page as :  Christopher Fletcher, ‘Virtue and the Common Good : Moral Discourse andPolitical Practice in the Good Parliament, 1376’ in Charisma and Religious Authority : Jewish, Christian,and Muslim Preaching, 1200-1500, ed. Katherine L. Jansen and Miri Rubin (Turnhout, 2011), 197-214,p. 201 .   For Sir Thomas Hoo, it was the Holy Spirit which guided and hence legitimisedthe actions of the Commons in the Good Parliament. His vision endowed theCommons with charismatic authority in the sense coined by Max Weber andelaborated by Edward Shils. It removed them from the everyday and granted themthe authority to invert the routine order of things by appeal to the divine and theuniversal. 19 It gave shire knights the authority to give ‘counsel’ to the great of thekingdom, a role normally reserved for the Lords. 20 The Commons were only supposed to give ‘advice’ on how particular problems might be resolved. 21 This was the first time that the Commons had taken the lead in calls for reform of theroyal government. By the 1370s the Commons had secured the exclusive right togive consent for extraordinary lay taxation in an age when there was no such thing as ordinary taxation. What they had not gained, on the other hand, was the right to withhold this consent in the face of the king’s necessity. 22 The assumption of religious charisma and moral arguments helped them to overcome this barrier toaction. The authority of the Holy Spirit would have provided them with animportant justification – to themselves, to their political opponents and theirpotential allies – for their innovative assumption of the lead in the pursuit of thereform of the kingdom.Soon after Hoo had his dream, a single charismatic figure emerged who wouldgive coherence to their complaints. After discussions ranging in matter from thepeople’s inability to pay to innovations in arrangements for the wool customs, SirPeter de la Mare took the stand in the Commons’ private debates. 23 This knight of  19 Max Weber, ‘Charismatic Authority’ in  Economy and Society  , ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (New York: Bedminster Press, 1968), pp. 241-5; Edward Schils, ‘Charisma’ in Center and Periphery: Essays in Macrosociology  (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1975), pp.127-34. 20 J.L. Watts, Henry VI and the politics of kingship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1996), ch. 1, esp. pp. 23-28. 21   Rotuli Parliamentorum  , ed. J. Strachey and others, 6 vols (London, 1767-83), III, pp. 145-8;G.O. Sayles, The King’s Parliament of England  (London: Edward Arnold, 1975), p. 126; A.L.Brown, ‘Parliament, 1377-1422’ in The English Parliament in the Middle Ages  , ed. Richard G. Dabiesand Jeffrey H. Denton (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1981), pp. 109-140 (pp. 131-2, 137-9). 22 G.L. Harriss, King, Parliament and Public Finance in Medieval England to 1369  (ClarendonPress: Oxford, 1975); Harriss, ‘Parliamentary Taxation and the Origins of Appropriation of Supply in England, 1207-1340’, in Gouvernés et gouvernants, Recueils de la Société Jean Bodin  , 24 (1965),165-79. 23   The Anonimalle Chronicle  , ed. V.H. Galbraith (Manchester: Manchester University Press,1970), pp. 81-2.
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