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Reading Abbey: 
Events in the
Late Middle Ages
Councils & Parliaments

Perhaps the most famous incidents in the history of Reading Abbey were the councils and parliaments held there from time to time. On several occasions councils of bishops and abbots were held at Reading. Sometimes the King would call his chief nobles to Reading and take counsel with them. Once, in 1229, the courts of law, usually held at Westminster, were held at Reading. Above all, seven times during the fifteenth century, the Parliament of England assembled at Reading, and held its session in one of the halls of the Abbey, either in the refectory or in the chapter-house.

In 1381, William Courtney, Bishop of London (and afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury), son of Hugh Courtney, Earl of Devon was appointed Chancellor by King Richard II, while staying at Reading Abbey. Three years later many of the nobles of the Realm, together with the Mayor and Aldermen of London, assembled at Reading to condemn John Northampton, late Mayor of London, for sedition. On 3rd May 1389, a grand Council was held at Reading, when the King, aged twenty-two, dismissed his former advisers and declared himself ready to take the reins of government into his own hands. By his early appearance at the Council, John of Gaunt prevented any dispute arising between the King and the barons, and so softened the resentment existing between them that, when the Council was dissolved, all went peacefully to their own homes.

Kings Henry IV and Henry V seem to have favoured the Royal lodgings to a lesser extent. King Henry IV was at the Abbey in 1403 and took up a large consignment of rich cloth of gold as a present for his bride, Johanna. In 1416, Princess Constantia, the daughter of Edmund Langley, Duke of York (son of Edward III) and wife of Thomas Despenser, Earl of Gloucester, was buried before the High Altar in the Abbey Church. Whether her cousin, King Henry V, attended the funeral is not recorded.

During the reign of King Henry VI, the Parliament, which assembled at Westminster on 12th November 1439, was adjourned, on 21st December, to meet at Reading on 14th January 1440. This was the second time in its history that Parliament had met in Reading, a hundred and seventy-seven years after the last time. At this Parliament, it was ordained that all foreign merchants should lodge with Englishmen, and dispose of their goods, and make purchases, within the space of six or eight months, paying the person with whom they lodged twopence in the pound for what they bought or sold. Every house­holder who was an alien should also pay to the King thirteen pence a year, and every servant alien sixpence. Measures were also taken against dishonest purveyors. At this Parliament, too, a new rank in the English peerage, that of ‘Viscount,’ was constituted: John Lord Beaumont being created Viscount Beaumont by King Henry VI.

Twelve years later, Parliament again adjourned, on 20th November 1452, to Reading, on account of the unfavourable condition of the air at Westminster, but soon after adjourned to 11th February, owing to plague in Reading itself. The following year, Parliament was again convened at Reading on 6th March and met in the Refectory at Reading. In the lead up to the Wars of the Roses between the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions at Court, the place was probably selected as one free from the Yorkist influence, which was strong in London. The election of the Speaker showed that the Duke of York was not likely to have his own way in the assembly. The choice fell on Thomas Thorpe, a knight of the Shire for Essex and a Baron of the Exchequer, who was strongly opposed to him. The session was short. Little was done beyond granting supplies, the liberality of which seems to show that the pacification was regarded as satisfactory. A grant of a tenth and of a fifteenth was voted. The other taxes, tunnage and poundage, the subsidy on wool and the alien tax, were continued for the King's life. A force of 20,000 archers was, also, granted, to be maintained by the counties, cities and towns, according to their substance. These grants were made on 28th March and the Parliament was then prorogued to 25th April, when it was to meet at Westminster. The following November (1454), the Parliament again met at Reading, only to be prorogued till the following February. On 11th February, the assembly was prorogued till the 14th at Westminster.

After the main part of the War was over and King Edward IV was in the ascendant, his cousin ‘the Kingmaker’ Earl of Warwick busied himself with negotiating a treaty for the marriage of the King with the Lady Bona, sister-in-law of Charles VII, King of France. However, unbeknown to the Royal Court, a marriage was privately celebrated between King Edward and the beautiful widowed Elizabeth Woodville, Lady Grey (daughter of Jaquetta, Duchess of Bedford), with whom he had fallen madly in love. This marriage was kept secret for six months; but, at a Council of the Peers, held at the Abbey complex on Michaelmas Day 1464, Edward IV publicly declared Elizabeth to be his wedded wife and their lawful Queen. She was then led, in solemn pomp by the King’s brother, the Duke of Clarence, to the Abbey Church, where she received the congratulations of all the assembled nobility.

In 1466, Elizabeth’s father was made Lord Rivers. The rising power of this low-born family was highly distasteful to the old baronial party led by the Earl of Warwick, but they were unable to prevent Rivers’ children, especially his many daughters, making great and influential marriages. Early in the same year, Margaret Woodville married Thomas FitzAlan, Lord Maltravers (son and heir of William Fitz-Alan, Earl of Arundel) at the Abbey.

King Edward continued to favour Reading Abbey as a convenient site to assemble Parliament. In 1466, Parliament was adjourned from Westminster to Reading, on account of the prevalence of the plague in London. The following year, the third Parliament of Edward IV assembled at Westminster on 1st July, but, on account of the heat and of the plague from which several members of the House of Commons had died, it was adjourned to 6th November at Reading, where "in a certain apartment within the Abbey, prepared for the purpose, the King being seated on a royal throne, and the three estates in full Parliament assembled, Robert, Bishop of Bath and Wells, Chancellor of England, declared the said Parliament again prorogued to 5th May next ensuing at Reading." The Parliament met accordingly at Reading on 5th May 1468, but was adjourned to 12th May at Westminster.

Nothing shows us more clearly the national importance of Reading Abbey, the splendid accommodation of its buildings, and the convenient and central situation of the town, than the fact that Parliament itself should so often have been summoned to sit there.

Edited from JB Hurry's "Reading Abbey" (1901)


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