This blog was written by Dr Daniella M Gonzalez, Cataloguer.
1st September 2022 marked the 600th anniversary of Henry VI ascending to the throne of England. To mark this, we are taking a look at his reign and an Act of Parliament in our collection. Henry VI succeeded to the thrones of England and France before the age of one, when his father Henry V and his grandfather Charles VI of France died within months of one another. Henry was crowned King of England in 1429 and, in 1431, King of France. He reigned during a period known to historians as the Wars of the Roses, a time of great conflict and civil war that rampaged England. Henry VI has typically been viewed as a weak king who was very different to his father Henry V, who you may be familiar with as the hero of Agincourt. In contrast to the military persona of his father, and of his great-great grandfather Edward III, both of whom had conquered French territory during the Hundred Years War, Henry VI was the opposite of what a medieval king was expected to be. He was far more interested in religious matters, and, because of his weak kingship, England saw huge losses of this French territory during the 1440s and 1450s.
It is this context that is important in understanding the Act of Resumption of 1451, a copy of which the Parliamentary Archives holds in its collection (Reference: Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/RO/1/39). The Parliamentary Archives holds original Acts of Parliament from 1497 any Acts predating this are typically found at The National Archives (Reference: C 65).
Written in a fifteenth-century court hand, the standard type of handwriting used in the Middle Ages for legal and administrative records, the Act of Resumption is a manuscript composed of two membranes stitched together, which are made of parchment (animal skin). This record is a contemporary part of the Act of Resumption, however, because the phrase 'Le Roy le veult' is not found on this record, it is suggestive that this is not in itself an Original Act.
Acts of Resumptions were passed by Parliament as a way of recovering royal lands and royal grants that had become alienated. This might happen when they are distributed or given to others through a grant, usually to the monarch’s favourites. The Crown would then have another source of income and, therefore, be strengthened financially. In this Act of Resumption, for example, the Act begins by stating that
‘Wherefore please it youre highnesse the premisses graciously to considre and that by thadvyse and assent of youre lords spirituelx and temporelx and by auctorite of this youre present parlement for the conseruacion of youre high estate and in confort and ease of youre pore comyns wolde take resume seale and reteyne in youre hands’.
What Parliament were outlining to the King, is that he should take their advise in this matter and retake and retain his own lands for the ease of the realm. Additionally, we see the stress place on conserving the King’s own ‘high estate’ – Parliament were also presenting this argument as one which would look after the King’s own interests. Royal lands were a stable source of revenue and income for the Crown and, given failure in France and the cost of this conflict, it is no wonder that Parliament were looking for ways for the King to finance this war through his own money. It was a way of relieving direct taxation and financing an impoverished Crown.
During the medieval period, people very much believed that the King should ‘live of his own’, meaning that the King should be able to use what is lawfully his to finance what he needed/wanted. Indeed, the rebels of 1450 who took part in Jack Cade’s Rebellion, a popular rebellion that started in Kent against the government and evil counsellors, like William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk (who ended up beheaded at sea by an angry mob in 1450!), made this very complaint, stressing that they believed that the King should live of his own.
On several occasions during the reign of the Lancastrian kings (spanning the reigns of Henry IV to Henry VI), notably 1399, 1406, and 1450-1456, that Parliament became increasingly concerned with Crown lands. In fact, most of this Act of Resumption is concerned with lands held by the King, including, but not limited to ‘Castels, lordshippes, Townes, Towneshippes, maners, londes, tenements’ in both England, Wales, and Ireland, as well as territories in France, notably Calais. What the Act of Resumption in fact did, was ensure that these properties were returned to the Crown.
We also know from this Act of the Resumption of the agreement that the King and Parliament came to, with Henry VI agreeing to resume the lands that he had distributed by letters patents and lands belonging to the Duchy of Lancaster that he had given out by grants. Henry even agreed to take back the lands given ‘to the prouostes and Scholers of his Collage ro
The point of Acts of Resumption was to make sure that royal lands were not squandered and were designed in such a way to recover these royal estates so that the Crown would have money to finance what it needed. Indeed, as outlined in this Act of Resumption, any lands ‘[w]hich his highnesse hath grauntes by his lettres patentes (open letters issued under the monarch’s Great Seal that covered many topics, such as land, pardons, commissions, and granting of official positions) or othirwyse syth the first day his reigne’, being 1st September 1422, needed to go to the Exchequer as from Lady Day in 1451 (25th March, the start of the New Year at this point in time). Writs had even been sent out on 2nd August 1451 detailing that this was being enforced and that the penalty for not meeting this requirement would be £100. Parliament did not even wait to hear back from the sheriffs and escheators who were responsible for jointly supervising that the requirements of this newest Act of Resumption were met; the minute the Act of Resumption 1451 was passed, it completely abolished the validity of any grants and leases of land. This tells us a lot about the power that a medieval parliament had and just what influence parliamentary authority had through enforcing these acts of resumption over the control of Crown revenues to the Exchequer.
The 1451 Act of Resumption had made a more significant impact than the previous Act of Resumption of 1450 and the bearing that the 1451 Act had in other financial sources of the period, can be seen in other contemporary records, like Receipt Rolls (these can be found at The National Archives, Reference: E 401). The story around the Acts of Resumption of 1450 and 1451 also tells us a lot about parliamentary authority and the agency that the Commons had in voicing their grievances and taking action. Indeed Parliament reminded Henry VI at the very start of the Act of Resumption of the power they held, stating that Henry should ‘graciously to considre and that by thadvyse and assent of youre lords spirituely and temporely and by auctorite of this youre present parlement’. This told Henry that it was important for him to consider the arguments being made by Parliament and the power that they had on matters regarding the realm.
The success of the 1451 Act of Resumption, however, was short lived and we see further Acts of Resumptions enforced later down the line, such as in 1455, reflecting the further trials and tribulations that characterised Henry VI’s reign. These troubles were to continue throughout the 1450s and 1460s, witnessing Henry’s deposition on 4 March 1461 by Edward IV. Whilst he was briefly restored to the throne between 1470 and 1471, Henry’s story is a tale of woe. His son, and only heir, Edward, Prince of Wales was killed on 4 May 1471 at the Battle of Tewskesbury and Henry, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London at this time, died on 21 May 1471, according to a contemporary chronicle of the time, called the Historie of the arrivall of Edward IV, upon hearing the news of his son’s death.