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  • The Payment of Members of Parliament in the Fifteenth Century*
  • Hannes Kleineke

In the history of the English parliament, the fifteenth century marked a period of transition. It saw profound change not only in the composition of the parliamentary Commons, but also in the introduction of statute law regulating parliamentary elections, the evolution of the privileges of free speech and freedom from arrest, and in the practices governing the remuneration of the knights of the shire and parliamentary burgesses.1 If in their insistence on the return of local men, elected by local men meeting a property qualification, the electoral statutes placed emphasis on the preservation of a supposed status quo (however mythical this might be by the time it came to be codified), the changing and increasingly varied practices adopted for the payment of members of parliament did much to undermine that status quo.


From the earliest days of the English parliament it had been an accepted premise that the representatives of the shires and boroughs of England should not have to attend at their own expense, but should be paid wages by the communities that [End Page 281] elected them.2 On the day of the dissolution of parliament departing members of the Commons were issued with royal writs de expensis, which ordered the sheriffs or urban authorities of their constituencies to levy the necessary sums. Such writs are recorded in 1258, and although after 1414 they were no longer enrolled on the close roll, they clearly continued to be issued throughout the fifteenth century and beyond.3 By the reign of Edward II the writs for the knights of the shire were issued as a matter of routine:4 the enrolments on the close rolls are usually complete or near complete, and arranged in a fixed order.5 Rather less clear is the practice with regard to the parliamentary boroughs. Enrolments survive for an apparently haphazard selection of constituencies, arranged in no discernible order. A number of explanations have been suggested, ranging from clerical negligence to a failure of some of the burgesses to attend parliament. An alternative interpretation of the evidence is that whereas the writs were issued to the knights of the shire as a matter of course, the burgesses had to sue out their writs individually after each parliament, but only a proportion of them chose to do so, in some cases to provide borough officers with the formal authority required for the levying of the wages, in others perhaps to overturn prior agreements concluded with the boroughs that had returned them.6 Once the writ de expensis had been surrendered to the appropriate officials, its proper execution became their legally enforceable obligation: in January 1463 the common assembly of Reading agreed that since the [End Page 282] former mayor Thomas Clerk had lost the writ ordering the payment of Thomas Beke and William Pernecote, M.P.s for the borough in 1461, he should sue out a new writ at his own expense or else pay the two men's parliamentary wages himself.7

Whereas the earliest writs merely stipulated that the members should be paid 'reasonable' wages, from 1311 it was accepted that the duration of a parliament should serve as a guideline, and in 1315 a daily rate was set. For over a decade this rate varied from parliament to parliament, until in 1327 it was fixed at 4 s. per day for a knight of the shire and 2s. per day for a burgess or citizen.8 This rate was payable not only for days when the Commons were in session, but also for a number of days' travel, depending on the distance at which a member lived from the meeting place of parliament. In general, the clerks issuing the writs de expensis appear to have followed an established formula, but even in the fifteenth century this was still subject to some change. Whereas up to 1401 the members from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire had been allowed two days' travel to Westminster and two days returning, from 1402 they were allowed twice that length of time. At the same date, the allowance of the Devon members was reduced...


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pp. 281-300
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Archived 2008
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