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19.09.34 Bradford/McHardy (eds.), Proctors for Parliament

19.09.34 Bradford/McHardy (eds.), Proctors for Parliament

Historians of late medieval England might be forgiven for having largely overlooked the presence of clerical representatives below episcopal or abbatial rank in the parliaments of this period. Indeed, it has been assumed that after 1340 the representatives of cathedral chapters and diocesan clergy withdrew from parliament into convocation. Alison McHardy has done much to revise this perception in her earlier publications, and in this volume together with its sister edition (covering the period from c.1248-1539) she and Phil Bradford publish the evidence to substantiate their arguments that there was a substantial clerical presence in medieval parliaments, perhaps as many as two hundred individuals in any one assembly. [1] They demonstrate that in the Lords, heads of religious houses and bishops frequently sent proxies to act in their place and in the Commons there were significant numbers of lesser clergy or their proctors representing their chapters and dioceses. Indeed, as the editors of this volume attest, "even if not all attended, they [clerical proctors] still constituted a significant element of the membership of parliament in these years"(xi). The two editors effectively succeed in rescuing these clerical proctors from relative obscurity and show how they were an integral part of medieval English parliaments.

Sealed letters of appointment by the individual or body these proctors represented form the majority of the source material for this edited collection and are to be found in the National Archives collection SC10 (Special Collection: Parliamentary Proxies). This series, like others in the 'Special Collections' class, was artificially created in the late-nineteenth century and it is unclear whether these letters were once kept all together or whether they were removed from groups of related documents to create a collection that was regarded as having some archival integrity. The editors calculate that for the three centuries covered by SC10 at least two thousand men were appointed as proctors of the clergy in parliament but that this represents only a partial record of the total numbers of proxies. The documents are calendared here in tables arranged chronologically by parliament from the accession of Richard II until the dissolution of the monasteries and the end of monastic representation in 1539. Regrettably, no letters survive for the parliaments which met between 1447 and 1523. Each entry is translated into English from the either the original Latin or French and records the name of the appointer, the name(s) and titles of the proctors together with the date and place the letter was issued. Besides eight black and white illustrations of some of the original letters, the volume contains seven valuable appendices, several of which provide supplementary details of proctorial appointments drawn from a number of different sources, including both published and unpublished bishops' registers.

Whilst the introduction to volume one examines the place of both the higher and lower clergy in the system of proctorial appointments across the period c.1248-1539, the introduction to the second begins by examining patterns of appointment before moving on to consider the actual proctors themselves. By Richard II's reign when proctors were appointed by a body or individual it was common to appoint two or three of them. In the first half of the fifteenth century there was change away from choosing almost exclusively clerics or religious proctors and they became increasingly drawn from a variety of different backgrounds. Chancery clerks were one such group frequently selected to represent the higher clergy in parliament along with a growing number of MP's and laymen with links to the court and to the House of Lancaster. Another group who grew in number and importance in the period up to 1447 were lawyers, often with local connections to the religious house or institution they represented. One name that catches the attention in this regard is William Paston, the founder of the family's fortunes in the early fifteenth century. He began his proctorial career when appointed by the abbot of his local Benedictine house of St. Benet of Hulme to represent him in the parliament of 1417 by which time Paston was a successful county lawyer, and he continued to serve as the abbey's proctor at a series of parliaments until 1435, six years after he had been appointed a justice of the common pleas. Highly placed lawyers with local connections to the house or chapter they represented would have been valued by their senders since they were so frequently involved in litigation and they would have been valuable in defending and promoting their interests.

There were also obvious financial advantages for religious houses and chapters in appointing proxies like Justice William Paston whose legal work involved spending much time in London and thus reduced the costs of sending one of their own monks or canons on long journeys. What did these laymen get from such service? We have very little evidence for their fees (or, indeed, for their activities within parliament) but doubtless for ambitious individuals and careerists like Paston the opportunity to rub shoulders with the great lords of the realm in the upper chamber would doubtless have proved an attractive one. The SC10 evidence also suggests an increase in the number of upper-class proctors being appointed by the late 1440s. Quite why Thomas Spofford, bishop of Hereford appointed John, Lord Scrope of Masham and the 'Honourable and Magnificent' Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland as two of his proctors to represent him in the parliament of 1442, or why Richard Praty, bishop of Chichester chose two prominent courtier lords in John, Viscount Beaumont and Ralph Boteler, Lord Sudeley as his proxies for the same parliament cannot be known, but as the editors suggest it was likely connected to increased political uncertainty and growing anxiety over the king's ability to manage the government of the realm. This was a trend which apparently gained momentum during the intervening period for which no letters survive so that by the time we get to Henry VIII's reign nearly all the proxy appointments are made by bishops and abbots, the lower clergy disappearing almost entirely from the sources, and amongst this group they were exclusively appointing other lords, both spiritual and temporal, to represent them. It appears it had now become unacceptable for someone to be appointed a proctor who was not entitled to sit among the Lords in their own right.

The final significant shift in the pattern of appointments which Bradford and McHardy discern is the practice between 1515 and the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 for lay and spiritual lords to only appoint their own kind as their proctors, which as the editors suggest may have been attributable to the effects of the Richard Hunne affair of 1514-15. It was only in the 1530s as the Church came under pressure and the break with Rome progressed that the higher clergy started to take attendance at parliament seriously and to turn up in increasing numbers. So it was that "a comfortable majority of abbots were present in 1539 and were complicit in making themselves redundant"(xxi).

The publication of the SC10 material will prove of great value to historians of both the late medieval English Church and parliament. There is much to be gleaned from both these letters and the supplementary records which are printed as appendices about which members of the clerical hierarchy did and did not attend parliament. Robert Lancaster, bishop of St. Asaph appointed proctors on twelve occasions during the period of his episcopacy (1410-1433). Was he someone who took his diocesan responsibilities conscientiously and eschewed the business of politics as too worldly (he was a member of the Cistercian Order) or did he simply find the journey from north Wales to Westminster too onerous? We also learn much from these volumes about the types of people who sat in parliament as proctors and of patronage networks and friendship circles amongst the clergy and laity. These records will prove of inestimable worth for future prosopographical research in such areas. The SC10 letters also serve to highlight the careers and connections of serial pluralists such as Adam Moleyns, bishop of Chichester (incorrectly noted as bishop of Bath and Wells on p.465). For the parliament of 1439, Moleyns as canon of Wells, was appointed proctor for the abbot of Glastonbury, and for the assembly in 1442 when simply described as 'clerk' he acted in the same role for the abbot of Thorney. A helpful appendix provides brief biographical details for many proctors.

Another appendix records the appointments of parliamentary proctors in SC10 made by secular peers between 1307 and 1529 and serves as a valuable reminder that this system of proxy representation was not exclusively a clerical prerogative. The reasons why both clergy and lords who were entitled to attend parliament but chose not to do so can only be guessed at and must have been varied. In the case of Edmund Lacy, bishop of Exeter, who made at least twelve proctorial appointments for the parliaments which covered the period of his episcopacy (1420-1455) we know that in 1435 he was exempted from further personal attendance and given permission to appoint proctors on account of painful shins which prevented him riding. [2] The surviving series of proxies appointed by Edward Courtenay, earl of Devon (d.1419) for nine parliaments between 1400 and 1417 are surely to be explained by his blindness which also contributed to the disintegration of the exercise of his political authority within the county. Both examples serve as reminders of the way physical infirmities, largely hidden from our view, could affect parliamentary attendance and involvement in the exercise of political power.

This is a fine publication and Bradford and McHardy are to be commended for making the SC10 series and supplementary material available in such an accessible format. The five indexes for both this and its sister volume covering introductions, appointers, proctors, places and parliaments make them easy to consult, and the introduction, although split across both volumes, points the way for further research on this largely neglected group. The editors have made an important contribution in making available to historians of the late medieval English Church such an important corpus of source material and both they, the Canterbury and York Society and the Boydell Press are to be congratulated upon publishing the volume to such a high standard.



1. Phil Bradford & Alison K McHardy (eds.), Proctors for Parliament: Clergy, Community and Politics c.1248-1539 (The National Archives, Series SC10). Volume I: c.1248-1377, ((Canterbury and York Society, 108.) Woodbridge: Boydell Press for the Canterbury and York Society, 2017)

2. J.S. Roskell, 'The Problem of the Attendance of the Lords in Medieval Parliaments,' Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 29 (1956), 203.