PARLIAMENT (Medieval Ireland)

From the early days of the Irish lordship the chief governor was expected to act with the advice of the feudal tenants-in-chief, who were, in turn, required to proffer this advice as part of their feudal obligations. As the central government expanded, the King’s Council in Ireland included more and more permanent salaried officials. The Great Councils, when the king’s officers were joined by the chief magnates of the land, gradually evolved in the course of the thirteenth century into parliamentary sessions, as in England.

Beginnings of Parliament in Ireland

Up until the nineteenth century, historians believed that parliament in Ireland originated when Henry II was in Dublin in 1171-1172. However, regular parliaments were only instituted in England after 1258 and it appears that a similar system was introduced into Ireland at around the same time. Certainly, the first documentary reference to an Irish parliament comes from 1264 and was used to describe a gathering in Castledermot, County Kildare. Little is known about the business transacted at this parliament beyond the fact that an inquisition was taken before the justiciar and council. In the first century of its existence it remains difficult to distinguish which assemblies were indeed Irish parliaments as the term parliamentum was used ambiguously and sometimes implied no more than a parley with the Irish or others at war against the king.

Composition of Parliament

The nucleus of the parliament was the council, the permanently-constituted body of ministers who advised the justiciar. This group was augmented by the chief magnates and higher clergy of the land who were summoned to attend in person but were frequently represented by their stewards and bailiffs. There is no certain evidence of the presence of elected representatives in parliament before 1297 when two knights were summoned from each of ten counties and five liberties. On this occasion the sheriffs of counties and stewards of liberties were also present.

The towns were not requested to send representatives in 1297, but cities and boroughs to which foreign merchants came were required to send two citizens or burgesses to the parliament of 1299 and one year later, all cities and boroughs were required to send representatives. At the start of the fourteenth century, therefore, representatives of all the principal local communities were being summoned to attend parliament. This did not imply that the Irish parliament had become a democratic institution. Only the knights of the countryside and the burgesses of the towns were allowed to vote for representatives who were themselves drawn from this narrow class. Where the names of the representatives are known, it is clear that the local communities chose men of experience to assent to the legislation which they would ultimately be required to implement.

The makeup of any single parliament depended on the precise nature of the business to be discussed and the justiciar would therefore tailor the summonses to parliament to meet specific purposes. It is thought that during the early period of the institution’s existence, there was a distinction between "general parliaments" and simple "parliaments," with only the former requiring the attendance of local representatives. Popular representatives—also referred to as "the commons"— cannot be seen as playing an essential part in parliament before the middle of the fourteenth century when their summons to Irish parliaments became invariable. Until this date parliaments are certainly viewed by contemporaries as primarily aristocratic occasions and it would appear that as an institution the Irish parliament made little or no impact on the popular consciousness.

By the end of the reign of Edward III (1377) the commons had an established place in the Irish parliament and had been joined by the clerical proctors, representatives of the lower clergy. This group was summoned for the first time in 1371 and thereafter became a regular part of the Irish parliament.

By the reign of Richard II, the idea of a defined and limited class of peers of parliament had appeared in Ireland. This combined with other factors to result in the steady decline in numbers summoned to parliament. In the early fourteenth century as many as ninety laymen might be summoned by individual writ, but by the end of the fifteenth century there were only fifteen temporal peers. The numbers of heads of religious houses summoned shrank from around twenty to six, often because of claims for exemption from the abbots and priors themselves. The majority of the thirty-two Irish bishops seem to have been summoned but not all attended. Fourteen counties and liberties and twelve towns were entitled to send representatives but this number similarly shrank as the area controlled by the central government became more constricted and centred on what was to become the Pale.

The 1297 Parliament

The parliament held in Dublin in 1297 is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Although some fragmentary memoranda survive for the 1278 parliament, the 1297 one is the first from which substantial legislation survives. Furthermore, 1297 is regarded by many as the first real parliament to meet in Ireland as it was the first time, as far as is known, that the writs of summons contained a plena potestas clause. This meant that the representatives sent by the shires and provinces were to be given full powers to speak and decide for all and that the legislation of the parliament was to be fully binding. The legislation passed by the 1297 parliament had much significance for the localities and this was no doubt why the presence of their representatives was deemed important. The parliament considered the vital question of how best to establish and maintain peace in Ireland, and the legislation placed the burden of defense and peacekeeping firmly on communities and individuals. It identified the twin evils of absenteeism on the part of the great lords and what was termed "degeneracy" on the part of some resident subjects who were not preserving their distinctive English customs and traits.

These problems and how to deal with them occupied Irish parliaments for many decades to come.

Parliamentary Legislation

Parliaments had a judicial and a legislative role and were used to deal with petitions and settlement of disputes as well as to formulate legislation and obtain consent to various measures. One of the most important pieces of business regularly transacted in parliaments in the later Middle Ages was the granting of subsidies to the chief governor. The amounts to be levied from these subsidies varied considerably until they became standardized in the fifteenth century. With the growing threat to the lordship in the fourteenth century came increased demands for taxation. The representatives of the local communities, which had to bear the main burden of taxation, played an important part in the granting of subsidies. During the 1370s William of Windsor’s heavy fiscal demands provoked opposition in parliament and when the king tried to bring representatives of the Irish counties and towns to England in order to ply them with demands for money, their electors reacted by denying them the authority to make grants.

It would appear that parliamentary rolls on the English model were not kept in medieval Ireland and prior to the fifteenth century our knowledge of parliamentary legislation comes from a variety of documentary sources. In 1427 the statute rolls, which contain enactments of the Irish parliament, began as a series and while all those for the medieval period were destroyed in 1922, a great deal of the legislation survives in transcripts. It has been said, however, that much of the legislation was trivial or ephemeral, intended to deal with immediate and often personal problems. There were exceptions, of course, and perhaps the most famous legislation of an Irish parliament is the body of statutes passed by the assembly summoned by Lionel of Clarence to meet in Kilkenny in 1366.

No other corpus of legislation passed in Ireland during the Middle Ages is accorded a status equivalent to that of the Statutes of Kilkenny. The preamble to the legislation identifies a special preoccupation with the problem of "degeneracy" and one group of statutes is concerned with regularizing relations between the Irish and English communities. In particular, the English are forbidden to adopt Irish language, dress, and culture or to form alliances with the Irish through marriage or fosterage, while the Irish are to be excluded from appointment to certain church offices. Other statutes deal with economic matters, such as price and wage fixing, with the reform of central government, and with the relationship between church and state. It is now generally acknowledged that while some of this legislation was new, most can be traced back to 1350 and some to 1297. However, in the Statutes can be seen an attempt to combine a whole series of enactments whose purpose was to deal with the problems of the lordship.

The Statutes of Kilkenny demonstrate the extent to which Irish parliaments and great councils had became concerned with issues caused by the growing problems of absenteeism and "degeneracy." As time went on parliamentary assemblies were increasingly used by the Anglo-Irish as occasions to formulate appeals to the king and send messengers to the English court. For example, in 1385, meetings in Dublin and Kilkenny were used to draw up arguments to convince Richard II to personally intervene in the colony.

Parliament in the Fifteenth Century

The role of the parliament as a high court where legislation particular to Ireland was enacted and where petitions from the lords, gentry, and communities of the lordship were dealt with continued in the fifteenth century. However during this century there also emerged an enhanced sense of parliament’s status. This was exploited in 1460 by Richard, duke of York, when the Drogheda parliament (in its own way exploiting Richard’s vulnerability) issued its declaration asserting Ireland’s jurisdictional identity under the crown, and denying the validity of English statutes unless these were accepted "by the lords spiritual and temporal and the commons of Ireland in a great council or parliament." The legislation of this parliament was truly revolutionary in nature but its real significance has been much debated. Some have characterized it as an aberration, a reaction to the particular circumstances of the time which had no historical precedent. Another school of thought sees the declaration as having a certain amount of historical justification and interprets it as an important expression of Anglo-Irish separatism.

The support in Ireland for Yorkish pretenders to Henry VII’s throne helped prompt the enactment of Poynings’s Law by the parliament that met in Drogheda in 1494-1495. Henceforth, no parliament could be summoned to meet in Ireland without the king’s explicit license and no legislation could be enacted until it had been inspected and approved by the king and his council in England. Thus the English government gained unprecedented control over the business of the Irish parliament and the medieval phase of Irish parliamentary history was brought to a close.

The similarities between the parliaments of medieval Ireland and England have been correctly acknowledged by parliamentary historians but so too have the differences. All English institutions were to some extent modified and adapted to the Irish situation and parliament was no exception. Among the distinctive characteristics of the Irish parliament was the regular inclusion from the late fourteenth century of the proctors of the lower clergy who in England met in separate convocations. Another respect in which the Irish parliament differed from its English counterpart was the practice of financially penalizing those who were absent from parliament when summoned. However, the greatest difference between the two institutions was surely that whereas in England those summoned to parliament were expected to represent all parts of the country, if not all sections of society, in medieval Ireland the parliament was representative of only one of the two nations within the country—the English nation. In 1395 Richard II made an attempt to include Gaelic Irish leaders within parliament. This attempt failed and it was not until the reign of Henry VIII that some Gaelic lords were allowed to take their place in the ranks of the peerage. The medieval Irish parliament therefore was an institution that represented only the colonial section of the Irish population.

Next post:

Previous post: