Text of lecture given to Gregynog undergraduate symposium. 1997


My objective in this lecture will be to look in a very general way at three aspects of county representation in the Parliaments of Edward Ist. First, the basis for representation and the electoral process. Secondly the purpose of representation, that is the functions performed by the knights in Edward's parliaments, and thirdly the social status of the knights returned to parliament.


The basis of shire representation was, of course, the shire court. The shire court was almost a microcosm of parliament with the role of the king being taken by his servant the sheriff and the composition of the court consisting of all the freeholders of the county irrespective of their feudal status. In practice it seems that the magnates very soon ceased to attend the shire court in person, though they may well have sent stewards or representatives. From the early thirteenth century it was dominated, more or less, by a small group of local knights, some of whom also represented the court in Parliament. It was the county court which made elections to parliament under the direction of the sheriff. The knights of the shire elected to parliament although themselves drawn from a narrow social group were expected to represent the whole community of the county and not just their own order. From the beginning, therefore, it was the community of the shire which was represented in parliament and not, as in other parts of Europe, a particular feudal class or Estate. There were such estates in England, in particular the Estate of Merchants and Edward Ist did deal with them as an Estate, but the representative assemblies to which members of the estate of merchants were summoned were different both in purpose and in composition from the wider representation embodied in what came to be called parliaments . The reasons for this distinction lie, at least in part, in the legal mechanisms used by the chancery clerks in framing the writs which initiated the electoral process.


The county election was initiated by a writ issued by the Chancery to the sheriff ordering him to arrange for the election of knights and burgesses to attend a specific parliament. The essential precepts of the writ of summons are enshrined in clause 14 of Magna Carta which states:

        1) MAGNA CARTA CLAUSE 14 (1215)

 Of course, this refers a feudal great council but it embodies most of the form of the later writs for county elections to parliaments. It is worth looking at the way in which the parliamentary writs develop because they grow out of existing Chancery formulae which have their roots in legal practices rather than constitutional theories.

 We can start with the writ of summons issued by Henry IIIrd in 1226 which ordered the sheriff of Gloucester to cause

The 1226 summons was not to a Parliament but to a special assembly, a colloquium, called to resolved practical problems arising from the implementation of Magna Carta. However the precision of framing suggests that the practice of calling representatives of the counties was not something new. The county court was already accustomed to making elections and understood what was expected of it. The writ also makes it clear that those elected are to act on behalf of the whole county.

 De Montfort's packed parliament of 1264 uses a similar form:

De Montfort's representative assemblies were exceptional meetings to which knights of the shire were summoned for political rather than administrative reasons. There is no explicit requirement that the representatives should have a mandate to bind their communities. The question of mandates begins to emerge from the middle of the thirteenth century, for example in this rather crudely framed proforma writ summoning burgesses to a Council meeting in 1268:

This is the first explicit requirement for a full and binding mandate but the form may relate more to the tendency of urban councils to do their own thing, ignoring commands passed to them by the sheriffs, and to the exceptional circumstances of the Baronial conflict with Henry III. By contrast the writ of summons to Edward Ist's first parliament in 1275 is very similar to that issued by De Montfort, requiring only:

The question of explicit mandates surfaces again in 1282 in a writ which combines a military summons with a very cursory order for an election:

Although this writ is idiosyncratic by comparison with later standardised writs of summons it explicitly embodies the requirement that the knights shall have full powers and it implies that at least one of their functions is to carry local information to the central government. By 1295 the writ of summons had achieved its conventional form, embodying a preamble explaining the reasons for the calling of the parliament or assembly, the order for the holding of an election, and the requirement that the representatives must have full powers:

This writ implies that the sheriff is himself to attend the assembly. Subsequent writs of summons follow the same basic format, of preamble, order for holding an election, declaration of plena potestas and order to return the writ endorsed with the names of those elected. The paradigm is exemplified in the writs to the Westminster parliament of 1305

The sheriff duly responded by returning the writ endorsed as follows:

The endorsement of the writ introduces another element in the appointment of guarantors or mainpernors by the county court to ensure that those elected turned up in the Parliament. This requirement for guarantors is never explicitly stated in the writ of summons but the practice is uniform for recorded elections in other counties and was clearly a well understood routine. The appointment of pledges or guarantors to secure the appearance of litigants in court was also an explicit feature of formulary writs at least from the possessory assizes of Henry IInd but the same formula does not seem to have been incorporated in parliamentary writs. Nevertheless the county court appears to have taken the initiative in completing the formula. Their reason for doing this is not clear but the obvious implication is that the County wished to ensure that it was properly represented at the Parliament. Whether the appointment of guarantors can be held up as evidence that those elected were reluctant or unwilling to go to parliament is open to question. I'll come back to that later. Finally, the knights were paid expenses for attending:

Representatives were allowed expenses in coming to parliament from as early as 1258, but there was no fixed rate of payment until 1327 when knight were to receive 4s per day, including travelling (burgesses got 2s). The expenses were levied by the sheriff in the counties on the authority of an expenses writ issued to the representative when he attended parliament. The endorsement of an expenses writ is thus prima facie evidence that the representative actually turned up in the parliament to which he had been returned. The stipulation that expenses were to be levied both within liberties and without was intended to preclude attempts by individuals to avoid contributing to the cost of representing the county by claiming that they were represented by their feudal lord who might also have been present in parliament.(see DOC 10 [ 52 Cam 1300]) The parliamentary writs of summons to secular barons are individually framed and never mention mandates to act on behalf of others, though, conversely, they do permit the sending of proxies who must have power of attorney to act on behalf of their principal.(See doc 11)

The legal concepts lying behind the granting of powers of attorney by an individual baron to his proxies are not so dissimilar from the mandates transfering power of attorney from a community to its elected representatives. The attorneys appointed to act for the Earl of Oxford in this case were two Essex knights neither of whom ever attended parliament in any other capacity. The relevance of this will become apparent later. Ecclesiastical tenants in chief were also responsible for ordering the election of representative of their diocesan clergy, who were also required to be given a full mandate. The development of the writs of summons thus provides us with a variety of clues to the nature of representation in English Parliaments.

Firstly they suggest that the practice of sending individuals to represent communities in royal courts and assemblies was well rehearsed long before representatives began to be summoned to those assemblies which came to be called parliaments. When kings began to summon representatives to their Great Councils they were able to tap into an infrastructure of representative practices which were already very familiar to those who ran both local and central government. Going to the king's court was nothing new for the knights who ran the county court, and parliament was but the greatest of courts. The difference between attending a royal court or assembly for the purpose of bearing the testimony of the county court and attending the king's parliament to participate in the great business of the king and kingdom may not have been perceived as such a radical novelty by men of the time, although it may seem so to us because of our own perceptions of the role of representation in democratic government. This may explain why the election of representatives to parliaments was not seen as a big deal by contemporary monastic chroniclers some of whom were themselves accustomed to long standing representative practices within the hierarchies of their own orders.

Secondly the legal procedures incorporated into the writs of summons suggest that those who organised these assemblies fully understood the concept of mandates and that mandates were considered necessary for two reasons.

Firstly, to ensure that decisions made in parliament would be binding on the communities represented there, so that no one in the counties or towns could later claim not to have been consulted about decisions which might affect him.

Secondly, as the 1305 writ states 'lest the business (of parliament) remain unfinished for lack of sufficient authority' which might suggest that the representatives had the potential to disrupt or delay the business of parliament.

We have no evidence that this ever happened in the assemblies of Edward Ist. But the framers of the writ clearly thought that it was possible and took steps to guard against it. Either way the incorporation of mandates of this kind gave the decisions of the king in parliament a special legal force when they took effect in the country as a whole. Representation was an expedient mechanism for enforcing executive authority, especially when it came to authorising the collection of taxation. Edward Ist and his lawyers were not alone in this perception of representation. When Philip the Fair called a meeting of the Estate General in France in 1318 he issued writs to the French towns which also specifically require the elected representatives to 'have sufficient authority from you to agree, and to undertake all that shall be decided'. This insistent legalism does suggest that there were principles involved which lawful kings wished to observe. Consent, or at least assent, mattered and royal officials wished to preempt local resistance to taxation by making is legally binding on all. Perhaps it is significant that the inclusion of full mandates in the form of writs begins to emerge in the middle of the thirteenth century at approximately the same time that the barons begin to show signs of reluctance to speak on behalf of those beneath them. So on February 14th 1254 Queen Eleanor and Richard of Cornwall wrote to Henry IIIrd in France advising him of recent negotiations with the barons concerning an aid for his expedition in Gascony tating that

On the same day the Regents authorised an election of knights to attend a Council to be held after Easter. The form of the writ is familiar but it includes an injunction to the sheriff to soften up the county court in advance so that the elected representatives will know what aid their county is going to make to the king, and it implies a full mandate to speak on behalf of all the men of the county.

This was an enlarged Great Council, not a parliament, though it contains most of the components of what are later called parliaments and the tax it is expected to grant is a variable aid rather than a lay subsidy at a fixed rate. Those who are elected are there to carry a message, not to listen to debates. Again, the ability of the county court to respond to this kind of summons is taken for granted. The concept of Virtual Representation is to be dealt with in another lecture so I will not pursue it here. What is clear is that by the middle of the thirteenth century it was felt to be necessary to deal separately with the non baronial classes, especially where taxation was concerned. Whether this was because the barons genuinely declined to speak for those below them, or because the government wished to extend the boundaries of its long standing liaison with the middle classes in the counties and the towns, or because of political expediency, is open for you to debate. You might also like to consider whether representation in later thirteenth century England grew as I have suggested out of the existing practices of the local and central courts, or whether it was, as Bishop Stubbs suggested in the nineteenth century, a result of the deliberate policy of an enlightened and corporatist king to bring the so called Estates of the Realm into the confidence of the government. If this was so it is also worth asking how far Edward was informed in his actions by contemporary theories of corporate resonsibiity in decision making as evinced in the Quod Omnes Tangit writ to Archbishop Winchelsey.


The endorsement and return of the writs and the issue of expenses writs provides substantial evidence of the names of those elected to Edward's parliaments, together with the names of their mainpernors, and this may, in turn, allow us to construct a rudimentary picture of the kind of people who represented their counties in the thirteenth century. What the writs do not tell us is how the elections in the county court were organised and what the elected representatives did when they attended parliament. It is evident from the returns that some knights were regularly reelected to successive parliaments, which may be taken as evidence that they were willing to attend. Most elections appear to have been achieved without incident but there were occasions when things were not exactly as expected and sheriffs sometimes took the trouble to make a note of irregularity. In particular it is also evident from the sheriff's endorsements that knights could be elected to parliament in their absence and where this happened mainpernors were not appointed. Instead securities were taken from the land of the elected knight pending the appointment of mainpernors. There were also occasions when the same knight was elected from two separate county courts to attend the same parliament. This must mean that some mechanism existed for nominating representatives, even if they were not personally present in the county court and that only those present in court at the time of the election could appoint mainpernors. The onus of finding securities thus lay with the elected knight and not with the court. A possible clue to the method of conducting elections may come from the town courts :

The mechanism of election is thus one of selection by consensus within a small group of Aldermen which, perhaps significantly, chose two men who were not apparently part of the Aldermanic circle. We do not know whether similar methods were used in the counties, though it seems logical. We can be fairly confident that whatever method was used to select knights of the shire to go to parliament it would not be by nomination and secret ballot. Selection by open consensus within a caucus might mean the election of unwilling candidates and could explain the selection of knights who were not present in court at the time of the election. This is a cynical view. It is more likely that election to parliament was regarded as an honourable duty which should fall to those who enjoyed the best reputation in the county court and were best fitted by experience to represent the county. Such people might be expected to be selected more than once especially if it can be shown that they were active in other areas of local government.


The writs of summons do not tell us what the knights did in Edward's parliaments. If we look at the preamble to the writs they invariably talk about the great business of the king and kingdom and his foreign lands. In desparate times Edward Ist used the writs as a means of blatant political propaganda, as for example in the famous writ to Archibishop Winchelsey in 1295 which uniquely uses the quod omnes tangit formula, (that which affects should be agreed to by all), and holds forth at length about Philip the Fair's intention to destroy the English language, or, closer to home, the writ to the Shrewsbury assembly in 1283 which bangs on about the wicked  ingratitude of the Welsh and openly thanks God for siding with the Plantagenets.  If we had only the writs of summons we would be obliged to assume that the principal function of parliament was politics, the great business of the king and kingdom which could mean whatever the king wanted it to mean at the time. For the most part the only other records which we have of Edward's parliaments are those which give effect to decisions taken in the time of parliament, the issue of statutes, orders for the collection of aids granted in parliament, diplomatic business, and long lists of petitions and legal cases apparently dealt with in time of parliament but not actually in parliament. These records follow parliament. What is lacking is any kind of parliamentary secretariate which produced records of what actually happened during the meetings of parliament. Although there are chronicle accounts of events in Edward's parliaments there is nothing equivalent to Matthew Paris's descriptions of the Great Councils of Henry IIIrd where the barons were evidently developing methods of debate and procedure, including the ability to withdraw from the king's presence in order to discuss policy in private. Presumably these skills were not forgotten by the next generation of barons but Edward was on better terms with his barons than his father, and kept a much tighter hold on his assemblies which, initially at least, were more instruments of royal will than vehicles for baronial discontent. If it is difficult to find out what the barons actually did in parliament it is even harder to find out what the knights and burgesses did. On the other hand the legal precision of the writs of summons leaves no doubt that the representatives were expected to do something and that something must relate to the specific rather than to the general functions of parliament. The obvious function is the granting of taxation. There is a high correlation between the presence of representatives and the granting of taxation, especially after 1290 and the legal implications of the full mandate would be a necessary condition for the successful collection of national taxes.

However it would be wrong to assume that assent to taxation was the only function of the representatives. So it is worth looking at some of the other functions in which representatives might have a role to play. The functions of these early Parliament were not fixed in form, indeed the very identity of parliament itself is fuzzy to say the least. 71 were assemblies held in reign of Edward Ist and Knights of the shire were summoned to 18 of these. Only 45 of the 71 assemblies were described as parliaments in the contemporary records. The rest were variously described as Councils or Colloquia. The principal quality of Edward's parliaments was their protean nature, able to adapt themselves to the king's changing needs and circumstances. The functions acquired by the representatives at this time apear to be essentially passive. They were summoned to hear and do whatever the king and his council might command. Those functions in which the knights and burgesses might be expected to participate could include politics, taxation, legislation, and publicity.


The writs of summons to parliament usually state that the assembly is being held so that the king can discuss with his magnates and others the great business of the king and kingdom. This is generally interpreted as meaning politics, but in the reign of Edward Ist politics and administrative convenience go hand in hand. There are, of course, a variety of ways in which Parliament could be involved in politics. It is important to remember that we are not talking about orderly debates and divisions. Political conflict is likely to be personal in the sense of a confrontation between the king and a few baronial leaders whose political credibility may depend on the extent to which they genuinely reflect the interests of those standing behind them. The knights and burgesses were literally on the fringes of all of this. They did not have a meeting place of their own and although they probably outnumbered the barons they would have to stand on tip toe to see what was going on, let alone to hear. Nevertheless both the king and the barons valued the support of the knights when it suited them. Their presence alone could carry weight. Parliaments could of course, be used as a means of marshalling opposition to the king, as they were in the reign of Henry IIIrd but there is little evidence of the knights of the shire having any formal political role in Edward's parliaments, with the possible exception of the petition presented by the Lancastrian knight Henry of Keighley in 1301 protesting on behalf of the 'community of the land' (whatever that was) about Edward's failure to observe the charters and probably put up to it by the barons. Edward's parliaments become political only when parliament has itself developed its own institutional momemtum and ceased to be purely a creation of the king's will.

More significantly Edward used parliament to demonstrate the success of his policies to the nation. For instance the Parliament of Shrewsbury of 1283 in which the body of David ap Gruffyd was ceremoniously quartered and distributed to the four corners of England to demonstrate the success of Edward's policies against you know who. Edward clearly intended this as a mechanism for moulding national feeling. The passive presence of the representatives was enough to ensure that this would be achieved when they transmitted what they had witnessed back to the shires and towns. The use of Parliament by Edward Ist as the instrument of royal will and focus of national sentiment gave parliament the institutional identity which it had lacked in the struggle with Henry III. Once formalised Parliament could just as easily be used by the barons as an instrument of restraint against weak or incompetent kings. Whilst the knights and burgesses might be used as pawns in such struggles they were not in a position to initiate them. If the knights had a political importance it was at the level of local government where they could both defend royal rights and oppose royal abuses, particularly in the appointment and conduct of sheriffs and other royal officials.


Taxation is one of the most obvious functions of parliament and it is the one which the 'commons' were most intimately involved. By the end of the thirteenth century the financial needs of the monarchy had outstripped the resources which could be tapped from the exploitation of royal feudal rights and routine income alone. The only remaining resource was the Gracious Aid for which the king could appeal to his tenants in times of need and customs duties. The Gracious Aid was not, however, a mandatory tax. It could be refused. Or to put it another way, it required consent and by the end of the thirteenth century consent required justification. For Edward Ist justification usually took the form of appeals to national necessity in the face of threats from the French and the Celtic Fringe. In this sense taxation was an inevitable outcome of politics. In theory the Gracious Aid fell only on the barons, so their consent could be deemed to be sufficient. However the economic boom of the mid thirteenth century had generated considerable wealth in the hands of people lower down the feudal ladder, especially the gentry, and the towns. Economic activity in the land market, the redistribution of estates and the buying and selling of land by mesne vassals had also scrambled the links which once bound lords and vassals creating messy legal problems which had to be addressed by some of Edward Ist's great statutes. They also undermined the ability of the Barons to claim to speak on behalf of the rest of the community, on the grounds that since everybody was ultimately a tenant of some baron that baron was empowered to speak for them in a Great Council. Edward was faced with the problem of finding some means of getting money out of his subjects which gave them the illusion of consenting to taxation. Perhaps more importantly he was concerned to find some mechanism which would allow him to prevent his subjects refusing to pay taxes on the grounds that they had not been consulted, hence the insistent demand that representatives should come with a full mandate to cover all possible contingencies.

The knights and burgess's were summoned to parliament to assent to taxation and, perhaps, to bargain about the rate at which it might be levied. Their role was apparently passive but their presence alone was sufficient to give a legal validity to the imposition of taxes which would override any local complaints about lack of consultation. There is no doubt that Edward Ist could have levied taxes without consent, as continental rulers did. Indeed he tried direct taxation in 1282 when John Kirkby was sent round the country to raise and aid, by negotiating directly with the towns and counties. The tactic was not repeated. There were good reasons why Edward chose to authorise taxes through representative parliaments. As in so many of his policies expediency was more important than theory. The knights controlled the county courts, their cooperation would be desirable for the effective collection of national taxes. This cooperation could be solicited by inviting the knights to agree to the taxes in parliament and then allowing them to supervise the collection of the taxes themselves. There was a view that Edward called the knights of the shire to parliament both in order to gain their consent and then to appoint them to assess and collect the taxes in their counties. It is true that the assessors and collectors were usually appointed by the government immediately after the parliament in which the tax was granted and there are cases where the representatives were also appointed as assessors and collectors of taxes granted in a parliament which they attended. These cases are exceptional and in practice it seems that the assessors and collectors were drawn from a different group within the county court community. It is possible, however, that the knights who attended parliament were empowered to nominate the assessors and collectors and sometimes nominated themselves. Whatever the mechanism of collection, in practice Edward got the taxpayers to tax themselves. No doubt there was some inevitable avoidance but the yield was probably greater than it would have been if the tax had been collected by a horde of ill mannered royal bureaucrats.


The statute legislation of Edward Ist was for the most part enacted in Parliament, though not necessarily in the presence of the 'commons'. The legal motives lying behind the promulgation of statutes are complex and I don't want to go into them here. It had been established at the beginning of the thirteenth century that kings could not make fundamental changes in the common law without the consent of the barons and the barons were quite capable of withholding consent. Edward was faced with necessity of bringing obsolete feudal land law into line with changing social and economic circumstances. Great Councils and Parliaments were the obvious place to do this. The promulgation of a statute in parliament gave it a special validity particularly if representatives were present. The process of witnessing was a conventional method of securing legal contracts in medieval law. The mere fact of representatives witnessing the king's acts gave legislation an extra weight and authority, as though it was endorsed by the whole community. In practice very significant statutes were promulgated without the presence of representatives, including 'De Donis Conditionalibus' (Statute of Westminster II, 1285) which was significant for the gentry, but in which they took no part. (they were at the 1290 Parliament for Quia Emptores) Parliament therefore developed into an agency in which the law could be regulated and changes in the law authorised. The crucial period for legal reform, the reign of Edward Ist, coincides exactly with the emergence of statutory instruments promulgated in parliament. The presence of the knights of the shire does not seem to have been essential for this and we have no evidence that they took any part in the framing of the statutes. But the statutes themselves address problems which may have been brought to the attention of the government through the inquests held by Edward at the beginning of his reign or through the regular interchange of information between the county court and the agencies of central government mediated by the same groups of local knights who also represented the county in parliament and who reported back to their communities the acts which they had witnessed in the king's parliament.


The role of justice in the early parliaments used to be highly contentious. It generates less heat now. It was an essential function of the medieval king was that he alone was the final source of justice and redress of grievance. He had an amorphous right of equity jurisdiction to which his subjects should have access. This could manifest itself in two particular forms. Firstly cases passed up from inferior courts for resolution by the royal council in time of parliament. Secondly petitions by individuals and groups presented to the king seeking redress of grievances or favours. So far as parliament was concerned it is true that unresolved cases could be passed up from inferior courts for a final decision by the king and his council. The Rotuli Parliamentorum consist largely of such cases. Since the holding of parliaments entailed a concentration of judicial and bureaucratic expertise it was sensible for the royal council to deal with outstanding cases at the same time as parliament, or immediately after the full meeting of parliament had dispersed. This is not to say that the dispensation of justice was a primary function of parliament. It was what economists call a multi co-linear phenomenon, ie., it happened at the same time. There were instances where parliament was concerned with the dispensation of justice in the trial of barons by their peers and where this overlapped with politics it might be in the king's interest to conduct the trial in the presence of representatives. Where evidence does exist, as in the rolls of Maitland's famous 1305 parliament, it suggests that the administration of justice was a routine function carried out after the bulk of the parliament had dispersed leaving the core of royal council in session to deal with reserved business. The knights do not seem to have had a collective part in this, although it is quite conceivable that individuals represented their counties in specific cases in courts meeting at the same time as parliament. The question of petitions is more directly relevant since it has been argued that the presentation of petitions and reports on royal abuses in local government was a principal reason for the summoning of representatives. The king could receive petitions from his subjects for redress of grievances, favours, complaints and so on. As the English parliament developed in the C13th agencies were created to receive and try most petitions before they reached the King. (1280, 1290, 1305). The development of a permanent machinery for receiving and trying petitions in time of parliament but not actually in parliament paradoxically contributed to the institutional identity of parliament by creating an expectation that such committees would be available to petitioners whenever parliament met. When Edward IInd forgot to appoint receivers and triers of petitions in 1309 he was sharply reminded :

From the point of view of the petitioner, of course parliament was an excellent opportunity for the presentation of petitions because one could sure of finding the king and his councillors, judges and administration all gathered together in one place at a time which was notified throughout the country at least one month in advance. But this is not an argument for asserting that parliament itself met to hear petitions or that it was a function of representatives to deliver petitions into parliament. On the other hand there is no doubt that certain petitions and complaints which were both powerful and reasonable could lead to statute legislation. It is also entirely likely that the representatives did indeed deliver petitions on behalf of others, but there is very little evidence in the thirteenth cengury that they thenselves presented petitions, either on their own behalf or on behalf of their communities.


The last major function of parliament is that of publicity. Publicity links all of the other functions. Through Parliament Edward was able to justify his policies to his subjects using the knights and burgesses as a means of communication with the regions. It is too simplistic to argue that Edward Ist took the country into his confidence or that the quod omnes tangit formula addressed to archbishop Wincheslea was literally meant for all. He was, after all, the first king to demonstrate an ability to manipulate the media, such as it was. However, the fact that he felt it necessary to publicly justify his policies, especially in extreme circumstances during the 1297 crisis, suggests that he valued the support of the political classes. This use of parliament as a sounding board for royal policy and a means of liaison between the king and his subjects goes hand in hand with the concept of parliament as a national institution.

Parliament, then, was used by Edward Ist as a sort of propaganda agency, and as a means of communication between central and local government. In addition it had an almost mystical significance as an agency in which the nation participated in government merely by witnessing its operation. Edward Ist also used parliament for ceremonial functions, for example the marriage of his eldest daughter, and the knighting of his eldest son were both held in parliament, and both incidentally were used to justify a mandatory tax levied as a parliamentary lay subsidy. One other function of parliament which is worth considering is that it allowed administrative departments to get together in one place to discuss policy and expedite outstanding business. The use of parliament as a means of internal liaison between administrative departments was a necessary consequence of the increasing complexity and professionalisation of central government. No doubt there was other routine business of liaison between central government departments and the county courts which could be most effectively expedited in time of parliament. My guess is that the knights elected from the counties did not come to parliament on their own but that they came in a party with others from their county who had business with the king's government, perhaps including the sheriff, coroners, petitioners, litigants and so on.


On one level this is relatively easy. After 1290 returned and endorsed writs are more or less continuous and nicely calendered by Francis Palgrave in the nineteenth century. We are thus able to know at least the names of those returned by most of the 37 counties to most of the later parliaments of Edward Ist. We may also suspect that these are the people who are described by Bracton as Buzones and who appear at the end of the Provisions of Oxford as the vavasours of the County. Buzones come from the medieval French word Buzo meaning great, in the sense of big fish in a small pool. (It is also used to describe a kind of large clinker built fourteenth century fishing boat which mutates into the buss, as in herring buss) These are people who are much closer to being gentry than to being knights. The question of what distinguishes knights from gentry is one which you might like to discuss. (preferably with Professor Coss) For the time being the concept of the Buzone is useful and I will use it herafter as a means of denoting the county caucus, those who run local government, go to parliament and look more like gentlemen than warriors. Knowing the names, however, is not enough. What we need to know is what are the buzones and how do they relate to other knights or people of equivalent status in their counties. Why did they get selected to represent the county court and not others ? In order to begin to answer this question we need firstly to compile some kind of list of all the knights associated with a particular county and secondly to accumulate sufficient biographical information on individual knights to allow us to discriminate between them. This is not easy, in fact it is a real can of worms. We can compile lists of names of active knights by looking at surviving government records of the appointments of local officials, sheriffs, coroners, justices, jurors etc.

The main problem arises in trying to arrive at a control group, that is those who are not apparently involved in the relations between local and central government. One possible starting point is the so called Parliamentary Roll of Arms dated around 1307 (see Denholm Young) which lists over 1000 barons, bannerets and armigerous knights by counties. For some counties there are exchequer or chancery lists of the numbers of knights available for specific military purposes. For example there was a list drawn up in 1295 of all the knights available for coastal watch in Essex. This list identifies 101 persons deemed to be knights of whom 65 were said not to be resident in the county, 25 were residents and 11 were described as 'impotens'. This instantly alerts us to the obvious fact that knights could have holdings in more than one county and further complicates the compilation of a viable list. The alternative to the top down approach of looking at 'official' lists of knights is a bottom up approach looking at tenurial records for evidence of individuals holding knight's fees in a given county. This is even more fraught with pitfalls because it is not always clear that tenure of a knight's fee necessarily makes a knight, or one might find a knight with half a fee in Essex but remain blissfully ignorant of his principal and unrecorded estates in Shopshire. Alternatively there may be individuals holding fragments of knight's fee who consider themselves to be knights or at least behave like country gentry. Then there are the £20 landholders forcibly distrained by knighthood by Edward Ist in order to make them liable to scutage and/or military and administrative service. Its a bit of a dog's dinner. The solution it seems to me is to leap in, draw up a provisional list of known county knights as a starting point, find out as much as possible about the lands, wealth and other activities of those knights and see what comes out of it. Even allowing for the obvious banana skins the conclusions to be drawn from a study of this kind must necessarily be limited in scope, since the results obtained from an examination of the knights in one county cannot reasonably be advanced as anything more than a guide to possible trends in the nation as a whole. For example thirteenth century Essex was highly manorialised and close to London; contemporary conditions in the North Riding of Yorkshire may well have been very different indeed. I mention Essex because I used to know something about Essex knights.

We should be very wary, therefore, of trying to draw conclusions for the country as whole until there is sufficient information to do so. And we should certainly be very wary indeed of taking a few well documented examples as evidence of the norm. We can, however, begin to analyse the knights or gentry of a given county into their constituent parts, and identify those knights in a county who may rightly be called Buzones and make some general conclusions about the nature and characteristics of the Buzones as a class, and on what constitutes a gentry, both locally and nationally. There is not time here to discuss the range of sources which may be used to dig out information about people who, whatever their local importance, did not leave big footprints in sands of time. There is sufficient but patchy evidence available to allow us to formulate a hypothetical model which can be used to distinguish between groups within the general class of knights. These are criteria which we might use as a model for investigation and as with all models the questions we choose to ask may change as our undertanding improves:




This model may allow us to identify the most active or strenuous knights in a given sample and also the most weighty in terms of landholding. So far as Essex was concerned the parliamentary and tax collecting knights did form a clear and substantial majority within the more active group.

From any general standpoint they were amongst the most significant knights in the county, and obvious candidates for election to parliamentary. On the other hand, the parliamentary knights alone did not constitute the county caucus. In order to distinguish the key administrators from other important knights it is necessary to concentrate on the most significant public and private factors. These are the asterixed characteristics. From this more limited point of view the weighty knights subdivide into two groups.

Firstly, those having primarily administrative characteristics augmented by a significant economic base, either a large number of estates, or an acreage total exceeding 500.

Secondly, those having status orientated characteristics, being weighted in terms of economic standing and private or military interests. The former group may be said to constitute the core of the Buzones, the latter represent an alternative local elite, comparable or superior in social and economic status, but less involved in local government. The general characteristics of the two groups are roughly comparable, but certain differences do emerge. Apart from the specific distinction between administrative and non administrative gentry there appears to be a significant distinction in the performance of military service. Only three of the Essex Buzones were summoned for service more than four times, compared with five out of nine knights in the alternative group. On the other hand the parliamentary knights came more or less equally from both elites, though most of those in the alternative group also took some part in local government. In general both groups were roughly comparable in terms of wealth and status, with a slight bias in favour of the alternative elite. All but three of the Buzones had a fairly high scale of landed interests, compared with all but one of the knights in the alternative group. The alternative group were more likely to have major holdings in other counties, sometimes remote from Essex. The major distinction between these two upper groups follows in all probability from the interests and attitudes of those involved. The Buzones appear to have used the freedom provided by their wealth and status to take part in local government and are closer in character to what we think of as gentry.

The alternative group perhaps pursued more grandiose or traditional activities, using the courts and the machinery of local government for their own interests, and absorbing their time in the administration of their estates and in military duties in association with local barons. The two knights, Bouser and Wascoyl, who acted as attorneys for the Earl of Oxford in 1306 were Essex knights belonging to the none parliamentary group, with estates associated with the Oxfird estates at Castle Hedingham. The remaining knights fall into a rag bag of apparent apathy, obscurity and relative poverty. Though some were apparently on the fringes of the county caucus, law worthy and discreet men who might be called upon to give service to the county when required but lacking the weight of Buzones.

Seen in these terms the typical buzone emerges as a man at the top of the middle range of county knights, not the wealthiest of the knights in the county, but by no means amongst the poorest. He was probably, though not invariably, a tenant in chief whose family had been established in the county for several generations. His estates would be substantial without being prodigious, usually consisting of demesne land in the 400-500 acre range, and located either in a fairly compact group in adjacent parishes, or spread over other counties. These estates provided sufficient income and free time for the holder to engage in local government duties, but were probably insufficient to support any more martial or chivalric knightly activities. Such a man would necessarily make frequent use of the courts in order to safeguard the disposition of his estates or to arrange for the settlement of estates on his heirs. His familiarity with the practice of local government also gave him confidence to use it, and abuse it, in his own and others interests. During his lifetime the typical Buzone would apply his skills and abilities to the service of his king and his community through the performance of useful jobs in local government, either in executive duties as sheriff or coroner, or in various judicial duties and special commissions in which he associated with professional justices from whom he might learn more of the skills and policies of central government. The interests of his county and the approbation of his associates might take him to parliament as the representative of his county, the interests of the king might involve him in the collection of taxes and the implementation of justice. The amount of time he might expect to spend would not be negligible, by comparison with modern jury service for example, but it was probably not excessive, and the effort involved could bring its own rewards. On the other hand the penalties for failure could be stringent, though failure to render proper accounts arose more often from incompetence or inexperience than from deliberate malversation.

In times of war or civil stress the duties of the Buzone might become more onerous and could include a variety of military duties, both practical and administrative, and special judicial commissions for the keeping of the peace or for the enforcement of the Charters. Lastly, the blend of status, wealth, experience, and respect which marked out the Buzones as best fitted for the duties of local government also commended them to their colleagues and to the lesser gentry, on whose behalf they might act as securities, witnesses, or executors of wills.

These men were the natural leaders of the county community, they constituted a stable core within the more fluid structure of the gentry as a whole. But, at the same time, they did not constitute a closed or exclusive class, and it was possible for those who had the means and the inclination to move into the administrative caucus, even from the parallel structure of urban government and society. By comparison with most of the rest of the knights in the shire the Buzones were undoubtedly more discreet, more diligent and more 'apt for work' in the king's service. Within the upper echelon of the gentry, however, there were men who inherited a long standing alignment with the baronial nobility. These men appear to have followed a more strictly military style of life on the borderlines of the baronial chivalry. Their interests and traditions brought them into the realm of national politics either through service as professional knights and bannerets in the royal household, or as the followers and associates of local barons who were themselves involved in the great business of the king and kingdom. Such men were exceptional by comparison with the bulk of the gentry. They pursued their ambitions on a wider field and by so doing placed their lives and interests at a greater risk, both economically and physically. In a sense they were neither gentry, nor Buzones, nor properly barons, but genuine warrior knights, as such they eschewed the mundane business of the county and its government.

The political attitudes of the gentry cannot easily be discerned, except in times of constitutional crisis, and the only such crisis in the reign of Edward I did not lead the gentry to compromise themselves individually by taking sides in a civil war. Some of the knights in the Essex sample, or their ancestors, were actively involved in the disturbances of Henry III's reign, and having taken up arms for their beliefs suffered penalties which marked them down on official records. So far as Essex familes were concerned the political adventures of Henry III's reign do not appear to have affected the lives and careers of the gentry under the firmer rule of Edward. It may be worth noting that all of the Essex knights who played an active part in the baronial rebellion were men of above average wealth and status, and therefore rather more likely to take sides, either in defence of their own interests, or in support of the barons with whose interests they may have identified. We know very little about the motivation of the Buzones in taking up local government duties, and the extent to which such duties constituted a burden. The general impression is that while the majority of the gentry avoided public office there remained a small interested minority which was regularly active in the king's service.

The willingness of this small group to undertake such duties is thrown into sharper relief by two further factors.

Firstly the existence of an alternative elite, comparable in economic status to the Buzones, but largely devoted to military service tends to suggest that the Buzones assumed their administrative duties from choice rather than compulsion. It is equally possible that the more powerful non-administrative knights were better equipped to resist or avoid local government service, preferring instead to seek honour and prestige in the courts of barons and, perhaps, being retained by them.

Secondly, within the class of Essex Buzones themselves there apparently existed an inner core of perhaps only one or two individuals, whose names persistently recur in the performance of certain specific duties, especially in attending parliament, collecting taxes and holding Judicial commissions. It can scarcely be doubted that these individuals found some advantage in the frequent performance of such duties and undertook them by choice rather than by compulsion. For these men the attractions of power, influence and respect probably outweighed the risks, responsibilities and effort required of them. Finally, the whole trend of royal policy towards local government, from the reign of Henry II onwards, had been to increase the independence, authority and self reliance of the local gentry in order to bring the counties more directly under royal control, both as a political counterweight to the baronage, and as a cheap and effective means of ruling the country. By the reign of Henry III these habits were deeply ingrained within the ruling groups in the counties and Henry's attempts to replace royal officials with royal favourites were undoubtedly sufficiently resented to align many of the gentry with the barons in their struggle for reform. Demand for local control of local government thus became a significant issue in the constitutional struggles of the mid thirteenth century and by the reign of Edward I self government had become a privilege well worth maintaining, even if it was only to be exercised under the king's stringent command. Thereafter the Provisions of Oxford were more consistently observed, and the counties were increasingly to be ruled and represented by 'loyal people, and substantial men, and holders of land who shall treat the people of the shire well, loyally and rightfully.'

revised 03/12/98
©J.S. Illsley 1998