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  • Writer's picturePhil

Dunces, Devils and Coventry - Capital of England

I’ve been researching the political history of Coventry in the run up to the general election and want to explore the following themes over the next few days leading up to the general election:

1. What is parliament – how has it developed and why were parliaments held in Coventry in the 1400s?

2. How has Coventry been represented in parliament over the years – number of representatives / how were they appointed

3. Links with the church

4. Development of political parties

5. Political Unrest

6. Coventry’s local government

7. Further back – Anglo Saxon Coventry – how was it governed – the times of Godiva and Leofric, Vikings and Romans

Today I am covering the first of those themes - What is parliament – how did it develop in its early centuries and why were parliaments held in Coventry in the 1400s?

The word “parliament” has the same derivation as the French verb “parlez” – to speak. Following the invasion of 1066 the purpose of the parliament was to act as a gathering of Norman nobles and churchmen with their King – particularly to discuss and implement taxation and raise armies for their cause. This was very much in line with the Norman feudal system. The King was seen as central and all other parliamentarians subsidiary to him. Prior to the Norman invasion the Anglo-Saxon monarchs were advised by the "Witenagenot" - derived from the old English for "meeting of wise men" - a contrast to the Coventry "unlearned" or "dunces" parliament of 1404!

From 1295 parliament included the “commons” – members representing communities as opposed to the “lords” - those appointed through royal favour or inherited title. The “commons” were generally appointed locally dependent on local traditions and power bases – far removed from the universal suffrage of the modern age but the basis for our current constituency based “House of Commons”.

Henry IV’s “unlearned” parliament sat in Coventry between 6th October and 13th November 1404. Six years earlier Henry (then Henry Bolinbroke, Duke of Hereford) had been banished for his part in a duel famously aborted by Richard II at Gosford Green (and portrayed in Shakespeare's Richard II).

Henry had sat in Richard’s parliament along with his host prior to the aborted duel (Sir John Bagot) and his rival Thomas Mowbray – Lord of the Manor of Caludon and Duke of Norfolk. They were all vying for power at court and accusations of "treasonable utterances" led to the eventually aborted duel at Gosford Green. Mowbray rode out of Caludon to the duel, Bolinbroke out of Baginton Castle.

Both Mowbray and Bolinbroke were banished and had their lands seized by the crown (the Caludon estate was actually managed by Bagot at this time and he is reputed to have plundered the castle and woodland for building projects at his own Baginton Castle (there seems to be little honour amongst "nobles" between all of the players here!). Mowbray died in Venice shortly into his exile but Bolinbroke returned to overthrow Richard and to take the crown as Henry IV.

Henry's reign was a volatile one (and interrupted for a spell with Richard being re-instated) and he felt more secure moving his parliament to Coventry (then one of the country's most important towns economically and politically). Henry was an old style king and resented attempts by some of the commons to influence his spending and taxation regimes so sought to remove lawyers and those familiar with the law from his parliament based at Coventry's Priory.

Fifty five years later Henry VI’s “diabolical” parliament was held in the same location – the priory chapter house. Henry and his influential queen - Magaret of Anjou favoured Coventry as a safe and loyal location during times of further unrest and disputes for the crown. The "diabolical" tag came from the Yorkist members who were in effect barred from the parliament which legislated heavily against them and was an influential turning point in the conflicts which became known as the "Wars of the Roses". The priory was later visited by Richard III days before his defeat as Bosworth and Coventry hosted Henry VII on his return from victory there with the "first Tudor feast" being held at Mayor Onley's Bull Inn.

So Coventry held the last parliament outside of London in 1459. Even in the run up to the latest parliamentary elections there are many who would question whether we have moved on very far from the parliaments of the dunces and the devils........

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