The Statutes of Richard III’s Parliament

by D. Woodger

September 1997

My interest in doing a paper on the statutes passed by Richard III’s only parliament was started by noting an article on Harold Granville Hanbury in the September 1993 Ricardian. Harold Hanbury, a professor of English Law at Oxford University, wrote a paper entitled: “The Legislation of Richard III” which appeared in the 1962 volume of the American Journal of Legal History.

His perception of Richard as a legislator was a very positive one. By it he made contact with the Society, and Isolde Wigram formerly Honourary Secretary of the Society) recalled meeting him. Hanbury died in March 1993 at Pinetown, Natal at the age of 94, and was eulogized as a friend of the Society and King Richard.(1)

Hanbury’s “The Legislation of Richard III” is 19 pages long. Only about a page and a half concern the private statutes, and Hanbury’s main interest lay in the 15 public statutes. His comments on each statute vary from three lines to three pages. His remarks on statutes affecting commerce and the judicial system seem straightforward enough, but his comments on those affecting land reform are quite technical and difficult to understand. Other writers (ie. Paul Murray Kendall and Charles Ross) explain these in simpler language.

On 23 January, 1484, Richard’s Parliament assembled. It passed 18 private statutes and 15 public ones. What were the 18 private statutes? They consisted of:

a) Titulus Regius

b) various

c) inheritance claims/benefits for individuals.

a) Titulus Regius: By it, Richard was declared king, and his son Edward designated as heir apparent. Edward V and his brother were declared illegitimate because of Edward IV’s marriage to Lady Eleanor Butler.

b) Various attainders: Cheetham goes into some detail about the attainders (which relate to the October 1483 rebellion). “Ninety-five men had been singled out as the leaders of the rebellion and had their lands confiscated–twenty-eight from Kent and Surrey, fourteen from Berkshire, thirty-three from Wiltshire and eighteen from the Exeter clique.”(2)

Cheetham notes that the two women most closely implicated were well-treated. The Duchess of Buckingham received an annuity; the Countess of Richmond (Lady Margaret Beaufort) by the 6th Private Statute had her property given to the keeping of her husband, Lord Stanley.

c) Inheritance claims/benefits for individuals: Kendall mentions that Viscount Lovell and Sir James Tyrell were given certain lands, and Northumberland has lands returned to the Percy House.

What were the 15 Public Statutes? They can be roughly grouped as follows:

a) ending benevolences

b) protecting land purchase rights

c) reforming the justice system

d) preventing commercial dishonesty in the cloth trade

e) protecting the English merchant

f) preventing fraudulent collection practices

g) an act against Queen Elizabeth Grey.

a) the second statute: “The subjects of this realm shall not be charged with any benevolences.” Benevolences (arbitrary taxes, started by Edward IV) are condemned and forbidden. Later in his reign, Richard had to exact “…forced loans. But these differed from benevolences which were out-and-out gifts. The repayment of the loans was safeguarded.(3) Potter tells the delightful story of an exchange between Cardinal Wolsey and the mayor and aldermen of London in 1525:

“They were protesting against his demand for a benevolence in contravention of Richard III’s statute. “I marvel that you speak of Richard III, which was a usurper and murderer of his own nephews,” he reprimanded them. “Although he did evil,” they replied, “yet in his time were many good Acts made.” (4)

b) the first, fifth and seventh statutes sought to protect those who purchased land. The problem was that much land had been confiscated during the “Wars of the Roses”. Common law had been complicated and could not control the fraudulent disposing of land. Property rights were frequently contested by lawsuits.

(i) The first statute: “…took action against…a practice by which a seller of land concealed from the buyer that a part of the property had already been disposed of to somebody else. It was enacted that henceforth every estate feoffment, gift of land, and the like “shall be good to him that it made unto and against the sellers and their heirs.”(5)

(ii) The fifth statute: “With the first statute should be read the 5th…as a reassurance that the first statute had not altered the old rules, that the king could not be a feofee to uses.”(6)

(iii) The seventh statute: “Who shall be bound by a fine levied before the justices of the Common Pleas–and proclamations made thereof.” This statute “sought to prevent the concealment of property transfers, called “fines”, which were made in the Court of Common Pleas, by providing that such fines must be proclaimed by the court and notices of the transaction sent to various officials.”(7)

c) the third, fourth and sixth statutes sought to reform the justice system.

i) The third statute: “every Justice of the Peace may let a prisoner to mainprize. No officer shall seize the goods of a prisoner until he be attainted.” This statute allowed “bail to those suspected of felony, protected them from imprisonment before trial, and at the same time prevented their goods being forfeited before conviction.”(8)

ii) The fourth statute: “Of what credit and estate these persons must be which shall be impanelled in the sheriff’s tourn.” This statute laid down property qualifications for jurors. Jurors had to own freehold land worth 20 shillings or copyhold land worth 26 shillings, eight pence. The problem was that better jurors were needed because innocent men were being declared guilty, and guilty men were being let off.

iii) The sixth statute: “That in every court of piepowders plaintiff or his attorney shall be sworn.” This statute “was aimed at correcting abuses in the courts of piepowders, that is, the courts which sat only to determine offences committed at fairs and which were usually under the direction of the bailiff or steward of the land on which the fair was held. One of King Edward’s Parliaments had authorized these officials to rule in matters which did not originate at fairs; but since the statute had resulted in a variety of oppressions practiced by bailiffs and stewards, it was now enacted that they have jurisdiction only over cases arising at fair time.”(9)

d) the eighth statute: “the length and breadth of cloths, and the order of dyeing them and wools” sought to prevent commercial dishonesty in the cloth trade. Hanbury lists technical details–giving 9 safeguards. Broadcloth must be fully watered before being put up for sale and must be 24 yards long, 2 yards broad. No “deceitful thing” is to be cast on cloth, and no chalk is to be used on white cloths. Hanbury concludes: “This statute may be said to provide a powerful index of Richard III’s thoroughness, his insight into technical processes, and, above all, his appreciation of the necessity to keep in close touch and consultation with technical and commercial experts He had a quality of manysidedness which recalls Henry II and Edward I.” (10)

It is left to Paul Murray Kendall to point out that on the following October 25, King Richard, at the request of merchants, announced the cancellation of this statute because “…it hurt more than it helped.” (11)

e) Statutes nine to thirteen sought to protect the English merchant against unfair foreign competition.

(i) the ninth statute: “In what sort Italian merchants may sell merchandises; several restraints of aliens.” This regulated the conditions under which these merchants could import and export goods. Kendall notes that books and the printing of them were exempted from these restrictions. “To Richard and his councillors belongs the honour of having devised the first piece of legislation for the protection and fostering of the art of printing and the dissemination of learning by books.” (12)

(ii) the tenth statute prohibited the importation of silk lace and ribbons, scissors, bells, nails, etc.

(iii) the eleventh statute required Italian merchants to import with each butt of malmsey ten good bowstaves.

(iv) the twelfth statute: “Certain marchandizes prohibited to be brought into this realm ready wrought.” was designed to protect native craftsmen. (Hanbury)

(v) the thirteenth statute: “the contents of vessels of wine and oil, which may not be sold till gauged” was, according to Hanbury, designed to prevent the sale of wine and oil in short measure and for excessive price.

The last two statutes are commented on only by Hanbury.

f) the fourteenth statute: “Accomptants for dismes of the clergy not chargeable to answer other men’s suits in the exchequer.” Hanbury describes this statute as taking us into a border land between constitutional and ecclesiastical law. These dismes–the tenths of all spiritual livings given to the prince, were granted to the king by the clergy. There were designated collectors “but other persons had seized the opportunity to charge….with pretended dues.” (13)

The object of this act was to prevent such fraudulent collection practices.

g) the purpose of the fifteenth statute: “A resumption of all grants, and estates of land….made to Elizabeth Grey, late Queen of England” “must have been to bolster up the statute Titulus Regius and to emphasize that the marriage of Edward IV to Lady Grey was invalid.” (14)

We now enter a controversial area. The legislation, in itself, is regarded favourably by writers and historians, but in terms of how it related to Richard III and what Richard III’s motivation is to have it, these writers and historians divide (as usual) into pro-Richard camps (Paul Murray Kendall, Jeremy Potter, Anthony Cheetham, Harold Hanbury) and anti-Richard camps (A.R. Myers, Desmond Seward, Alison Hanham, David Hume) with Charles Ross taking a middle-of-the-road approach.Three “interpretations” of Richard’s role/motivation regarding the legislation come from these two camps.

a) the first interpretation: Richard III is concerned with justice and for his subjects. Kendall states that in only eighteen months Richard “…laid down a coherent programme of legal enactments, maintained an orderly society, and actively promoted the well-being of his subjects.” (15)

Harold Hanbury concluded his paper with the following eloquent passage:

“This paper will have served its purpose if it has succeeded in portraying him [Richard III] as a singularly thoughtful and enlightened legislator, who brought to his task a profound knowledge of the nature of contemporary problems, and an enthusiastic determination to solve them in the best possible way, in the interests of every class of his subjects.” (16)

b) the second interpretation: Richard III is the usurper, trying to get goodwill by his legislation and thereby hang onto the throne. Charles Ross believes Hanbury makes Richard’s intentions ‘implausibly pure’ and argues instead that Richard reacted to: “...his own political circumstances, as a usurper who was given little breathing-space to affirm his good intentions as King, and for whom an immediate appeal to the goodwill of his subjects was of overall importance.” (17)

Ross then quotes Polydore Vergil–Richard “began to give the show and countenance of a good man, whereby he might be accounted more righteous, more mild, more better affected to the commonality.” (18)

A.R. Myers and David Hume give similar opinions, but Jeremy Potter challenges this interpretations or Richard’s need to buy popularity.

“This is a guess about motivation which can be neither proved or disproved. It is a speculative accusation which may be brought against almost any political leader in any age. From the point of view of the governed and their welfare it is scarcely relevant.” (19)

c) the third interpretation: Richard is not responsible for the legislation (therefore he does not deserve credit for it). This comes from Alison Hanham: “Specific acts dealing with commerce are likely to have been inspired by discussions between the council and interested parties among the merchant community.(20)

Desmond Seward points out Alison Hanham’s suggestion, but again Potter challenges this negative interpretation: “Richard’s role in history is to be responsible for the bad, not the good.”(21)

It can also be challenged by referring to Charles Ross. To Ross, Richard III is an efficient king who has a high interest in legal matters. “It is not wholly unlikely that Richard’s personal interest in legal matters had something to do with the pronounced emphasis on law reform which runs through the legislation of his only parliament.”(22)

This would seem to discredit Alison Hanham’s statement.

To conclude, it would appear (in my unbiased opinion) that:

Based on the comment of Charles Ross, Richard had an influence on the legislation and deserves (at least some) credit for it.

Richard III had a high interest in and was competent in legal matters.

The legislation is quite commendable and stands up well. I could not find any writer who would criticize the actual legislation. Even Desmond Seward grudgingly admits it is ‘useful’.

Accordingly, Ricardians in Canada and abroad will no doubt applaud the words of the nineteenth-century Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice, Lord Campbell, when he declared: “We have no difficulty in pronouncing Richard’s parliament the most meritorious national assembly for protecting the liberty of the subject and putting down abuses in the administration of justice that had sat in England since the reign of Henry III.” (23)

Douglas Woodger


(1) The Ricardian, September 1993, obituary notice by John Saunders, p. 15.

(2) Anthony Cheetham, The Life and Times of Richard III. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, p. 158.

(3) Harold Hanbury, The Legislation of Richard III. Temple University, 1962, p. 106.

(4) Jeremy Potter, Good King Richard? London: Constable, 1983, p. 23.

(5) Paul Murray Kendall, Richard the Third. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., p. 340.

(6) Hanbury, p. 101.

(7) Kendall, p. 340.

(8) Charles Ross, Richard III. University of California Press, p. 188.

(9) Kendall, p. 341.

(10) Hanbury, p. 109.

(11) Kendall, p. 342.

(12) ibid., p. 343.

(13) Hanbury, p. 112.

(14) ibid.

(15) Kendall, p. 385.

(16) Hanbury, p. 113.

(17) Ross, p. 189.

(18) ibid., p. 190.

(19) Potter, p. 23.

(20) Alison Hanham, Richard III and His Early Historians 1483-1535 (quoted from Potter, p. 53.)

(21) Potter, p. 53.

(22) Ross, p. 174.

(23) Lives of the Lord Chancellors of England (1845) (quoted from Potter, p. 53)