The lilting lament of The Coventry Carol is not especially festive, being as it is a mother’s song to her doomed infant as she waits for Herod’s soldiers to visit and murder him, however it is a haunting, beautiful tune with extraordinary history. If you’d like to know more about that, you can compare audio and read about it here, but we shall move on to a legal connection.
When we think of Coventry, most of us have heard the tale of Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom, and in modern times, the city is perhaps best known for the fate of its cathedral, destroyed by bombs in 1940 and its modern replacement consecrated in 1962, however there are many more facets to the town’s history. A timeline can be found in The History of Coventry by Benjamin Poole (Coventry, 1852). You can order the book in print to a reading room using your reader’s ticket from here or download a copy for free by right clicking and saving this link to your computer. Lesser known, is that on two occasions, in 1404 and 1459, Coventry was the seat of Parliament: see page 152 of Poole (213 of the pdf) for the section of the timeline mentioning both.
Parliaments of the time were commonly differentiated by nicknames and these could be quite dramatic. The 1404 Coventry Parliament, held in the 6th year of Henry IV’s reign, has been variously referred to as Parliament Indoctorum, the Unlearned Parliament, the Lack-Learning Parliament, the Ignorant Parliament, the Lawless Parliament and the Parliament of Dunces, whilst the 1459 Coventry Parliament, held in the 38th year of Henry VI’s reign, was also known as Parliamentum Diabolicum, the Diabolical Parliament and the Parliament of Devils!
Tomlin’s Law Dictionary (4th Edition, 1835) available in print in the library at KL40 TOM 1835 or free digitally by right clicking and saving this link to your computer, gives a little more information: see page 300 of the pdf. Also of interest is Life in an old English town, a history of Coventry by Mary Dormer Harris (London, 1898) which can be ordered to a reading room using your reader’s ticket here: see page 137 for her explanation of the naming of the 1404 “Unlearned Parliament” and 168 for the history surrounding the 1459 “Diabolical Parliament”.
In 1404 England was in the midst of the 100 Years War with France, in Wales Owain Glyn Dwr was leading a revolt against the English in collaboration with the French, and vital trading routes through Prussia were threatened by trade embargoes preventing the export of goods from the Baltic to England and prohibiting the English cloth trade. Henry IV was desperate to raise money and wished to make use of some of the assets of the Church, which was popularly viewed as rich and degenerate. Even so, his intentions may not have stood up under close inspection of those well versed in the law, and so he instructed the sheriffs to prevent the return of lawyers as members of Parliament. Coventry was a long way from the law courts in Westminster, which was undoubtedly helpful to his cause. More about the economic and political state of the country can be found in The Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485 by E.F. Jacob, available in the library at Legal Hist O98f.
In 1459 England was again in the midst of war, this time between the houses of Lancaster and York, both of whom were direct descendants of Edward III. Henry VI was suffering from bouts of mental illness and Richard, Duke of York, took the opportunity to further his own dynastic ambitions. Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s wife, was Richard’s sworn enemy, wanting the throne for her own son. She moved the Royal Court to Coventry, where in 1456 the Mayor and councillors swore allegiance to the Lancastrian cause. The two sides fought for many years. In 1459, after winning the battle of Blore Heath, the Yorkists regrouped in Ludlow and advanced towards Worcester. At Ludford Bridge they encountered a larger force headed by Henry VI in person. Henry granted a pardon to Andrew Trollope, who defected along with many Yorkist troops. The following morning the rest of the Yorkists fled. A Parliament was swiftly summoned to Coventry, to which none of the Yorkists were invited. According to Dormer Harris, 23 of their number were attainted in order to divest them of their land and power.
This action was almost immediately undone. The first Act in the Statutes at Large for the 39th year of Henry VI’s reign (1460) is: “The parliament holden at Coventry, 20 die Novembris, Anno 37 HEN. VI. repealed, and all acts, statutes, &c. made by authority of the same, reversed.” The wording is stern, giving a summary of the history and strong opinions. Interestingly it appears not to blame the King himself for the vengeful legislation, but “divers seditious and evil disposed persons, having no regard to the dread of God, nor to the damage of the prosperous estate of our said sovereign lord the King, nor his realm, sinisterly and importunely did labour to the said King to summon a parliament to be holden at his city of Coventry…” It goes on to explain that the “said seditious persons” have long held malice towards these “faithful liege people” and coveted their lands and possessions. It mentions that of those attending the Coventry parliament, “a great part of the knights for divers counties of this realm and many burgesses and citizens for divers boroughs and cities in the same appearing, were named, returned, and accepted, some of them without due and free election, some of them without any election, against the course of the King’s laws and the liberties of the commons of this realm…” In case there’s any doubting its intent, the final paragraph of the Act demands “That the said parliament holden at the said city of Coventry be void, and holden for no parliament. And, That all acts, statutes and ordinances, by the authority of the same made, be reversed, adnulled, undone, repealed, revoked, voided, and of no force or effect.” You can read it for yourself in the library at Cw UK 8 (formerly Cw UK 20 P595), volume 3 pages 334-5, or on pages 353-4 of the pdf obtained by right clicking on this link and saving it to your computer.