Parliament of Devils

The Coventry Parliament of November 1459 is often termed ‘The Parliament of Devils’ by modern historians. The Parliament came at a time of high tension. Writs of Summons to this session of Parliament were issued on 9 October 1459, from Leominster. Just weeks earlier, on 23 September 1459, an army loyal to the crown had intercepted the Earl.of Salisbury at Blore Heath and lost a battle against his retinue. As the Writs were being dispatched, the Royal Army was making its way to Ludlow, where on 12 October 1459 at the nearby Ludford Bridge the Yorkists fled in some disarray. Warfare had begun, and more seemed imminent. It was in this hostile environment that Parliament was hastily convened.

Benedictine priory of St. Mary, Coventry. Where the Parliament of Devils convened in November 1459.
Benedictine priory of St. Mary, Coventry. Location of the November 1459 Coventry Parliament. From British History Online.

Buildup to the Parliament of Devils

The Coventry Parliament of 1459 is noted for its punitive actions against the Yorkist Lords and their supporters. This was the result of years of tension in court, and a number of armed clashes and standoffs.

1440-1450: Tensions and murders

The 1440s had seen accusations of corruption and favouritism levelled at men at the heart of King Henry VI‘s government. It resulted in the impeachment and murder of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. The murder in Portsmouth of Adam Moleyns. Along with uprisings, largely in the South, such as the Jack Cade Rebellion of 1450.

Loyal Opposition

These were not the only long term examples of disharmony. The King’s uncle, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, had voiced concerns. He was arrested and died whilst in custody. With both the Dukes of Gloucester and Suffolk dead, and the rebellion of Cade ruthlessly suppressed in ‘a harvest of heads’ it may have been expected that court would become more harmonious. It didn’t. Instead, new faces took up the lead roles in King Henry’s council. Men such as the Duke of Somerset stepped up as close confidants and advisors to the King. The Duke of York assumed the role of leading the ‘loyal opposition‘.

Richard 3rd Duke of York. Leader of the Yorkist faction. Attainted by the Parliament of Devils
Richard 3rd Duke of York

Escalation of tension and violence 1450-59

Events in the 1450s saw an escalation in tensions between those of the Court Party, loyal to the advisors close to the Royal Family, and those who argued for changes, led by the Duke of York.

Brief Timeline of escalating tensions in the 1450s

1450Jack Cade led a revolt.

1450 – Richard 3rd Duke of York entered London brandishing his sword.

1452 – Armed Standoff at Dartford between the two factions.

1453 – Earls of Salisbury and Warwick ally themselves with the Duke of York following inheritance disputes with the Duke of Somerset.

1453 – Loss of English possessions in Gascony following the Battle of Castillon and Siege of Bordeaux.

1453 – King Henry VI became incapable of personal rule

1454 – Richard 3rd Duke of York appointed Protector. Duke of Somerset imprisoned.

1455 – King Henry VI resumed personal rule. Duke of Somerset regains positions and influence.

1455 – First Battle of St. Albans. Duke of Somerset, Earl of Northumberland, and Lord Clifford slain by victorious Yorkist force.

1455Richard 3rd Duke of York appointed Protector for a second time.

1456 – King Henry VI resumed personal rule.

1458Loveday Parade attempted to bring about a resolution to grievances held by Lancastrian lords over the deaths at St. Albans and regional tensions and violent clashes.

1458 – Men loyal to the Court Party attacked the Earl of Warwick’s men in a possible assassination attempt. The Earl escaped unharmed and left London for Calais.

1459 – Yorkist Lords agree to meet, with retinues, at Ludlow. This was in response to further perceived threats from the Court Party, led by Queen Margaret and the Duke of Somerset.

1459 – 23 September. Battle of Blore Heath. The Earl of Salisbury‘s retinue en route from Middleham to Ludlow was intercepted by a force loyal to the Crown. The Earl of Salisbury’s force won the day and made its way to Ludlow, where he joined the Duke of York and was soon joined by his son the Earl of Warwick and his retinue, including men of the Calais Garrison.

1459 – 9 October. From Leominster, Writs of Summons issued to attend a Parliament to sit at Coventry on 20 November. The leading Yorkist Lords were not summoned to attend the Parliament.

1459 – 12 October. Rout at Ludford. Yorkist lords flee.

1459 – 20 November. Opening of the Coventry Parliament.

The Coventry Parliament of 1459: Political Scenario

The Coventry Parliament of 1459 was summoned at a time of political and military crisis. The rival factions had borne arms against each other. There had been murders, attempted murders, and a period in which both sides suspicions of the other party had led to military preparations being made. Politically the division was enormous. Not only did the two factions have differing views on the best way in which the King and his council should govern, they also had deep personal animisity based on events at St. Albans in 1455 and a range of other matters such as imprisonments, land grabs, regional feuds, and feelings of having been betrayed.

Margaret of Anjou. The Queen was effectuve head of the Court Party and was the driving force behind the measures taken in the Coventry 1459 Parliament of Devils. Image is a scan of the manuscript illuminated by the Talbot Master (British Library, Royal 15 E VI, f. 2v)

Animosity prior to the Parliament of Devils

The Yorkist faction had, for parts of the mid 1450s, been very much in the ascendancy politically. In this period some leading members of the Court Party had been isolated from court, including the imprisonment of the Duke of Somerset. The Protectorships held by the Duke of York may have been well intentioned in terms of implementing fair, just, and efficient rule but even if that is taken to be the case, it resulted in aggrevating people such as Queen Margaret, the Duke(s) of Somerset, Duke of Exeter, Earl(s) of Northumberland, and Lords such as Clifford. As seen in the summary timeline above, this led to escalation of feuding between the Court Party and those allied to the Duke of York.

A bleak outlook: the Yorkists to blame?

When Summons were issued for the Parliament of Devils the future looked bleak. One Battle had already taken place, at Blore Heath. A Royal Army was marching on Ludlow with an expectation, perhaps, of further blood being lost on a field of battle. For the Queen, loyal Dukes, senior Earls, and other influential Lancastrian lords, the cause of the unrest was clear: it was the fault of the Yorkist Lords.

Court Party options in October/November 1459

Arbitration had been attempted, and failed. Military intervention had also been tried. And at the time of the Summonses being dispatched, that too had failed. It left the Court Party with two options, both of which were exercised:


Military Force: face the Yorkists and defeat them. This option was being exercised as Writs were dispatched. It resulted in the Rout at Ludford Bridge and the flight of the Yorkist Lords. With those lords in flight, the military position was of the Court Party having total dominance on the English mainland: but, as would later prove pivotal, not in Calais, or Ireland.

Ludford Bridge
Ludford bridge

Political options at thr Parliament of Devils

Political Force: control of the King’s person meant that the Court Party could act in his name. This would enable them, via Parliament, to take punitive action against nobles who they viewed as being traitors. Options here were varied including admonishments, bonds of recognisance, fines, impeachment. The most severe option was to strip lords of their rank, lands, titles, rights, or lives. Thr Parliament of Devils could achieve the latter through passing Acts of Attainder which would formally name persons as being traitors against the realm and make orders regarding their landholdings, positions, titles. All were options. As arbitration, bonds of recognisance, fines, and orders from Council, had already been used, there realistically was only one political tool that would be considered: attainting of the senior Yorkist Lords and their most influential followers.

The Coventry Parliament of Devils

In the summer of 1459 Queen Margaret had effectively transferred the seat of government from London, to the Midlands. Based in the centre of loyal Lancastrian lands she had already reduced the opportunities for Yorkist interference in the workings of state, and significantly the Yorkists ability to hold or challenge for key positions.

This relocation also enabled the Queen and loyal courtiers to control much of the geographic centre of England, enabling political changes which challenged and provoked the Yorkist Lords. The aim was clearly to remove the threat of Yorkist insurrection or interference: as evidenced by the raising of arms and challenge at Blore Heath to the retinue of the Earl of Salisbury.

The failure at Blore Heath along with the merging of Yorkist forces at Ludlow prompted an unusually fast summons to attend a Parliament. Usual conventions were to some extent set aside: some Sheriffs were ordered to issue writs despite their tenure of office drawing to an imminent close [See the second paragraph of this article].

The Parliament met on 20 November 1459, in the chapter house of St. Mary’s priory, Coventry. Parliament was convened in s Lancastrian stronghold, and no leading Yorkist lord had been summoned.

Attendance at the Coventry Parliament of Devils, 1459

Research into attendance at the Coventry Parliament shows that in terms of attendance by the Lords of the land, it had the highest proportion of attending nobles of any Lancastrian Parliament. Of 97 Peers who were summoned, some 67 are known to have attended. [Propaganda in the Prepared Parliamentary Speeches of 1455-61. Russell Butcher. [Pdf file via the Richard III Society].

Whilst Peers such as The Duke of York and Earls of Salisbury and Warwick were not summoned, this large number of attending Lords means that those in attendance were not simply just the nobles closest to the Queen or those whom were closely allied to the Court Party/ Lancastrian faction. The attendance of so many nobles meant that whilst the arguments against the Yorkists were almost certain to be accepted, the case would need to be presented clearly, fairly, and debated to ensure that outcomes were agreed and accepted by the vast majority, if not all, of those present.

In the commons, the attendance of some members was later challenged by Yorkists. This was a consequence of the haste in which the session had been called.

Was the session partisan? Undoubdedly the majority were sympathetic to the Court. Those who were not tightly allied to the Court Party faction would, generally speaking, be sympathetic to the arguments made against the Yorkist Lords. Afterall, the Crown can raise an army. Its opponents cannot, and the list of examples of Yorkist resort to arms was both well known, and indisputable.

Proceedings of the Parliament of Devils

A Bill of Attainder was presented. It accused twenty four men of treasonably waging war against King Henry VI at Blore Heath. Three more people, including the Countess of Salisbury of plotting the King’s death. Again, this is a treasonsble act.

‘diabolique unkyndnesse’

The Act of Attainder describing the actions of the Yorkist Lords.

The Act of Attainder was duly passed and the senior Yorkists and many of their closest confidants were subsequently deemed traitors, with their titles, lands, responsibilities, and rights all foreited. Legally removing these does not, however, mean that possessions and roles simply changed hands overnight. Whilst the King could reassign roles and lands, these were not neccessarily going to be easy to wrestle from the control of an attainted lord. Calais is a clear example of this. The Captaincy was stripped from Richard Neville,16th Earl of Warwick. The Earl was in situ though, having fled there from Ludlow. The garrison remained loyal to him, and was packed with men who had received patronage  from the Earl and his family. The newly appointed Captain of Calais, the Duke of Somerset, would need to take Calais by use of force: which was attempted, and failed.

Political Thought and the Coventry Parliament of Devils

A document referred to as Somnium Vigilantis was produced in late 1459. Its author, possibly Sir John Fortesque, presents the case against the Yorkist lords, in particular Richard 3rd Duke of York, and iterates the rightful role of King Henry VI within a just system of governance.

Somnium Vigilantis itself has been translated and copied several times over the centuries. Some parts of the original are damaged. Sections have been copied in a less than wholly accurate manner. And elements of the documents translation can be questioned.

A Defence of the Proscription of the Yorkists in 1459 by J. P. Gilson  in The English Historical Review, Vol. 26, No. 103 (Jul., 1911), pp. 512-525 set about the task of correcting errors in tranlation abd transcribing. Despite the age of Gilson’s work, it remains one of the most accepted versions of the document.

Somnium Vigilantis is significant as it is contemporary, written in a legalese style suggesting it may in fact have formed part of the case against the Yorkist faction, and is an example of Lancastrian rhetoric relsting to kingship and the actions of the Yorkist Lords.

Sir John Fortescu Knight, Lord Cheife Justice & Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry the Sixth.
Sir John Fortescu Knight, Lord Cheife Justice & Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry the Sixth. Thought by some to have authored Lancastruan arguments against the Yorkists for use at the Parliament of Devils.

Arguments contained within Somnium Vigilantis

Article 1: the King is at the centre of all that is just.

Article 2: discusses the dispensation of fair justice.

But yf thay ben utterly distroyed for thar offences the royame shall have much more hurt in thar subvercione than it was in ony of thar offence. Wherfor I conclude that itis more behovfulle to the kynge and the royame to pardon hem in thes pretens forysfactures than so yrreparably to ponyssche hem withoute pyte
or mercye

Article 3: raises the matter of rebellion and the King’s need to not be ‘put to destruction’.

the grete perplexite wherin the royame stode at that
tyme, and noboly employnge himselfe to pe reformacion tharof, this oght to be ascrybed rather to vertue and magnanymite than to rebellyoun or such other odious names, and so to have reuardis and thankvnges and not to be put to exicialle destruccion

Article 4: makes it clear that rebellion is against God’s will and that it is right and just for the perpetrators of revolt to be punished.

Such persones the whiche were odious to God and
to the peple for thaire miiysru…

for the whiche thinges to be punysshed it is incivile and unresonabl

Article 5: discusses how those who are not leaders of an uprising ought to be treated. It reminds the audience that they should return to the fold and defend the King. In effect, this is arguing that the Parliament ought to show mercy and reconciliation where it is likely to work.

Article 6: notes the limits to the King’s mercy.

And so betterit were and lasse prejudicial to pe kynke to take hem now to mercy than so laboure and paine to pe finalle destruccion of thaim, unto pe whiche to attainne it wolbe a [hard?] thilnge.

Somnium Vigilantis’ questions for decision makers at the Parliament of Devils

Following the six articles the author of Somnium Vigilantis enters into theoretical discussion and poses questions. If mercy has been shown when a Lord rebels once, should it be shown repeatedly for a lord who is intent on destroying the King’s person? Should the Parliament of Devils take decisive action to stop repeated acts of revolt? Acts that are ‘odious’ in the eyes of God. Ones for which the King’s mercg has been offered, and spurned.

The argument is clear. Mercy is a sign of a fair and just King. Repeatedly rebelling shows that mercy does not work with some Peers. And for those who reject opportunities to reconcile themselves with the Crown and who regularly threaten the King’s person, no further mercy ought to be shown.

The case presented, probably with attendees at the Parliament of Devils in Coventry, is that the Yorkist Lords have taken advantage of the King and his mercy too often. Placed the King at risk more than once. And have reached the point where mercy should no longer be offered. It is a justification of the Court Party wish that the Coventry Parliament should take firm,decisive, final, actions against the rebellious Yorkist Lords.

Why is the Coventry Parliament called The Parliament of Devils?

The application of the term Parliament of Devils to the November 1459 Coventry Parliament appears to be relatively modern. Contemporary accounts and those written in the later period of Yorkist, or Tudor, rule do not use the term. It has become commonplace within the past 200 years. It is possible that a mystery play c1468 inspired the use of the term. Amongst a series of medieval plays known to have been performed in Coventry in 1468 was one named the Devil’s Parliament. However, that term predates the Coventry Parliament, as illustrated in this posts header image which is French in origin and dates to earlier in the 1450s.

As the Act of Attainder refers to the wickedness of the Duke of York and his affinity, and Lancastrian texts such as Somnium Vigilantis reference actions being odious to God, it can be assumed that the Devils in question are those who were attainted. However, a Yorkist leaning historian or observer may well view the actions of the Queen’s affinity at this session of Parliament as being the work of the devil.

Consequences of The Parliament of Devils

Formally and legally the senior Yorkist peers were attainted and stripped of their standing and wealth. Traitors by Act of Parliament, they had no legal legitimate basis to operate as magnates.

Realistically, the attainting of the Yorkist lords stripped them of the ability to make use of parliamentary process, removed them from decision making in the King’s Council, and made it theoretically harder for them to develop their support, as any lord joining their cause would now be aiding traitors.

As the Yorkists had already fled to Calais and Ireland, the situation was that they were political outcasts but very powerful ones. And, now they had nothing to lose. Beyond capturing and executing the attainted lords, there was no higher punishment available to the Court Party: and the likelihood of execution would have been very clear to the Yorkists.

The consequence of this was that the Yorkists plotted their next moves. Calais was held and defended against the newly appointed Csptain of Calais,the Duke of Somerset. Raiding destroyed part of the Crown Fleet and captured Richard Woodville at Sandwich. Then military action followed a period of propaganda and readying. An invasion in 1460 saw London seized, and at Northampton in July 1460 a Yorkist army defeated the Crown’s army and took possession of King Henry VI.

The attainders passed by the Parliament of Devils were subsequently overturned by a Yorkist dominated Parliament.

Links on the Parliament of Devils

British History Online: Parliamentary Roll, November 1459. Subscription required.

History of Parliament: 20 November 1459, The ‘Parliament of Devils’ assembles at Coventry.

History of Parliament: Bats and Devils: Henry VI’s ‘seasonally-named’ parliaments.

History of Parliament: A turning-point in the Wars of the Roses: the attainders of the Coventry Parliament

Murray and Blue: TREASON 2 – The Parliament Of Devils, 1459. A Ricardian view.

Google Scholsr / Scholarworks. [Abstract linking to pdf]. Helen E. Maurer, Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England. Boydell, 2003.

JSTOR – A Defence of the Proscription of the Yorkists in 1459. J. P.Gilson. English Historical Review. Vol. 26, No. 103 (Jul., 1911), pp. 512-525

Featured Image

Devils’ parliament. Robert de Boron, Roman de Merlin, Poitiers c. 1450-1455

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