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King Richard III held only one Parliament during his reign, spanning 27 days between 23rd January and 20th February 1484. It had been planned for 6th November 1483, but Buckingham’s uprising had led to its postponement. The legislation passed in the session, like everything else touched by Richard, is a source of passionate division. Was he an enlightened legislator for the benefit of the common man or a desperate usurper in need of support?

An unflattering review of my novel, Loyalty, recently disapproved of what the reader saw as my portrayal of Richard as some kind of ‘proto-democrat’. It is an element of his character and work that I reference a couple of times but I thought perhaps it could bear a little closer, more dedicated examination.

Luke 15:8-9 tells the Parable of the Lost Coin “Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’” This parable formed the basis of the opening speech of Richard’s Parliament, made by his Chancellor, John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln. It towed the line of the disparaging language used to berate the rule of Richard’s brother Edward IV. Christ equates the woman’s elation at finding the coin to the joy felt by angels at a sinner’s repentance. In the search, she has also tidied her house and so is doubly rewarded with the finding and the cleanliness and order that results. It was used to define the purpose of Richard’s Parliament; to find that which had been lost, not only during his brother’s rule but throughout the civil unrest of the past 30 years, and to tidy England’s house. The implication was clear for all to see. England was a mess and Richard was going to sort it out.

Little is preserved for us of the composition of Richard’s Parliament in 1484. John Russell was his Chancellor, William Catesby, a man Richard was finding very useful, acted as Speaker, Dr Thomas Hutton was Clerk of the Parliament and the Master of the Rolls was Thomas Barowe, who Dr Anne Sutton notes was a cleric who had been in Richard’s service since 1471.

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Of much more interest are the statutes passed. Controversy permeates these too. There were 18 private statutes, which included attainders against those involved in Buckingham’s Rebellion the previous autumn, settlements of land for people such as Henry Percy, who saw the return of confiscated lands, Lord Lovell and Sir James Tyrell. The most significant of the private statutes was Titulus Regius, which set out the basis of Richard’s claim to the throne due to the illegitimacy of his brother’s sons, and further berated Edward IV’s rule.

The public bills passed by this Parliament will become the crux of this discussion and I will try to place them in the context of their time.  They broadly dealt with the removal of corruption and inequity that had permeated the legal system during the reversals and mass confiscations of the Wars of the Roses. It is worth bearing in mind who would be pleased with these statutes when examining Richard’s motives.

Significantly, the second statute of the Parliament put an end to benevolences, the practise created by Edward IV that allowed for extra-Parliamentary taxation by ‘requesting’ gifts of money from wealthy subjects. The statute simply and plainly states: “The subjects of this realm shall not be charged with any benevolences.” Parliament also enacted laws to curb corruption in the cloth trade and included anti-alien legislation that was popular throughout this period and was considered positive for English merchants.

All of these measures were immensely popular with the burgeoning merchant classes, especially in London. It was seen as a mark of Richard’s intention to manage his finances properly so that he would not have to resort to benevolences and to allow English trade to flourish. The wealthy merchants of London had fallen foul of Edward’s benevolences and these measures left them feeling more confident and free to reinvest their profits, encouraging the growth of trade.

A notable exemption from the anti-alien trade restrictions was the now well established printing trade. Books flowed into England and were not placed under the same restrictions as other goods. Richard’s own collection shows a devotion to books and this important exemption allowed the continued pouring into England of education and knowledge. It is difficult to say whether this was a deliberate personal commitment by Richard to books and learning but it is impossible to ignore the importance of the measure.

Other statutes sought to drive out corruption and fraud from land transfers and are considered vital developments in English land law. Jurors were required to be men of substance, holding freehold land worth 20s or more or copyhold land valued at 26s 8d or more. This sought to ensure that jurors were men less prone to bribery or bullying, thus offering fairer trials. It was not uncommon at this time for juries to be imported and either bribed or bullied into returning the desired verdict.

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Then there is that whole bail issue. Richard III did not invent bail, but he made vital and seismic changes to the law as it existed. He extended the rules of bail to apply to those not yet indicted because, the Parliamentary Rolls tells us, “various people are arrested and imprisoned daily on suspicion of felony, sometimes out of malice and sometimes on vague suspicion, and thus kept in prison without bail or mainprise to their great vexation and trouble”. A suspect could be deprived of their goods and property, even the tools of their trade, before a judge had even weighed the evidence against them. If they were found innocent, there was no requirement to return the confiscated goods and men could be left unable to pursue their profession and make a living. A malicious charge with no base could therefore see a man left destitute. What Richard’s Parliament did was correct this inequity.

The remaining public statutes outlawed fraudulent collection of the dismes, the tenth granted to the king by the clergy which had seen imposters unlawfully collecting this money, spying an opportunity created by the misrule prevalent during the period, and reversed grants made to Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville.

So, to business. Richard is frequently charged with cynically courting popularity with his measures. Polydore Vergil tells how he “began to give the show and countenance of a good man, whereby he might be accounted more righteous, more mild, more better affected to the commonality.” So was this approach to the lot of the lower classes new? It certainly was not.

In 1473, a petition to Parliament told how Richard had unknowingly taken into service the father of Katherine Williamson of Riccall’s husband’s murderers. When Richard discovered that the man had aided and abetted his sons he ordered that ‘the said Thomas should be brought unto the gaol of York, there to abide, unto the time that he … were lawfully acquitted or attainted’. At this time, it would have been usual for those wearing the livery of a lord to expect their protection from such a charge, but Richard was not swayed by such concerns in his pursuit of fair justice for all.

A John Randson appealed to Richard in 1480 against Sir Robert Claxton of Horden, a leading member of the local gentry, who Randson claimed was preventing him from working on his own land. Not only was Claxton of higher social rank, but he was father to one of Richard’s retainers and father-in-law to another. These social and family ties would have been expected to see Claxton’s cause championed by the Duke. However, Richard found in favour of Randson, warning Claxton ‘so to demean you that we have no cause to provide his legal remedy in this behalf’.

Ardent detractors might suggest that this whole history was a decade or more or cynical populist stunts but I find that hard to accept. It is at this point that I would return to a consideration of who Richard was trying to woo if he was waging a propaganda war. What did he have to gain by courting the disenfranchised, powerless common man? Nothing really, and so it would be an odd tactic. Consider also at whose cost he operated these policies. Each advance for the common man came at the expense of ancient rights, privileges or corruptions enjoyed by the gentry and nobility, the very manna that kept them in their lofty position. By eroding this, Richard alienated the powerful upon whom, particularly as king, he must have relied. It is intriguing to extrapolate these considerations onto the battlefield at Bosworth and consider their impact on the nobles who did not come to their king’s aid and those who did in spite of his actions in this arena.

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Another oft questioned aspect of this Parliament is how much credit Richard can personally take for its legislation, even if it is accepted as good, or even enlightened. His supporters will say that it was all his own doing. His detractors will tell us that Parliament probably did most of the work itself, the council mopping up the rest. As with so much involving Richard, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. As we have seen, Richard displayed a genuine concern for justice for the common man, but it is likely that he worked alongside the council and that some of the measures applied to trade were brought by merchants of London for the king and council’s consideration. So, I suspect, this good work was a collaborative effort but the end result was a raft of positive legislation which surely had the king’s support. It is striking that other monarchs are not subject to similar debate.  Who doubted that Henry VIII personally drove the legislation that broke with Rome?

One thing is undeniable about Richard’s Parliament. It was the first time that the laws of England were published in English. Was there a cynical agenda at work here? If so, I struggle to see it. The law suddenly became more accessible to the populace at the same time that it became more concerned with their rights and providing them with justice. Equity was the watchword. Previously, the law had been published in Latin and so was the preserve of the clergy and the nobility able to speak Latin. Although literacy was not yet universal more could read English than Latin and knowing the law as it applied to you no longer required an education beyond the reach of the overwhelming majority. If the law was in English, it must have, at least symbolically, felt more like an Englishman’s law. What greater, more equitable gift could a king give to his subjects?

Interestingly, this is one aspect of Richard’s rule upon which there is more consensus throughout history than most others, though not all are sympathetic. There is a well reported story that in 1525 Cardinal Wolsey sought to extract a benevolence from Londoners on behalf of Henry VIII, only to be reminded by the crowd that Richard III had made them illegal. Wolsey derisively retorted “I marvel that you speak of Richard III which was a usurper and murderer of his own nephews.” The representatives of the crowd replied that “…although he did evil, yet in his time were many good acts made.” It must be accepted that these men were trying to avoid being deprived of their money but that they would cite Richard III as a defence in Tudor London is telling.

Lord Bacon, a man well versed in Parliamentary history, wrote at the outset of the Stuart era in the early 17th century that Richard III “was a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people.” Sir Richard Baker wrote in his Chronicles of the Kings of England that “In no king’s reign were better laws made than in the reign of this man.” As Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice, Lord Campbell wrote in the nineteenth century: “We have no difficulty in pronouncing Richard’s parliament the most meritorious national assembly for protecting the liberty of the subject and putting down abuses in the administration of justice that had sat in England since the reign of Henry III.”

We are stuck with the oft-sounded lament that Richard was deprived of time to see how far his legislative program may have gone. It is possible to mire him in charges of detachment from Parliament’s activities or cynical plays for popular support, for he is doomed to take all of the blame but none of the credit. Yet his laws favoured the weak over the strong, the poor over the rich and the oppressed over the oppressors. Why would he do this when it was the strong, rich oppressors who would keep him on the throne? Indeed, his favouring of their social antithesis probably cost him vital support at Bosworth.

What of the tenth coin? Would Richard have found it? He certainly set about cleaning England’s parlour. I think that his policies may have been too far ahead of their time, and that is meant not as a plaudit but as a criticism. He misjudged the mood of the establishment in his concern for the country and he alienated those he needed to bring into the fold for his reforms to have any hope. His intentions, I believe, were good, but his methods reflected his intractable, blunt nature and lacked the subtlety they might require.

What of my ‘proto-democrat’? I still see him and still see it as yet another captivating facet of the character of a man who has sparked and fuelled debate for over 500 years. Perhaps it is a fanciful flight. Perhaps England would have needed no civil war a century and a half later to curb the misuse of royal authority had Richard’s legislative program seen fruition.

It’s a tantalising thought.

Matthew Lewis is the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.

Matt’s has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.

Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.

Research and Further Reading

“The Tenth Coin – Richard III’s Parliament and Public Statutes” – Susan Troxell: http://www.r3.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Rebuttal-Richard_s-Parliament-Laws.pdf

“The Statutes of Richard III’s Parliament” – D Woodger http://home.cogeco.ca/~richardiii/statutes.html

“His Parliament” – Dr Anne Sutton http://www.richardiii.net/2_3_0_riii_leadership.php#parliament

“Richard III The Lawmaker” – Boar and Banner http://www.richardiiiboarandbanner.com/richard_iii_lawmaker.html

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