Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Shrewsbury Parliament, 1283

King Edward I sumoned the third Parliament of his reign at Shrewsbury in the autumn of 1283. It was attended by a large number of lords, plus bishops, knights representing the shires of England and burgesses from the corporate towns. The reason for meeting there was because of Shropshire's proximity to the border with Wales. Edward's campaign to conquer Wales had led to the death of Prince Llewellyn ap Gruffudd the previous year, and then in June Llewellyn's younger brother Dafydd, after a career devoted to changing sides, had finally been captured near Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon, in June. Edward was determined to make an example of him, and the Parliament was accordingly summoned to witness Dafydd's trial and execution.
   The verdict was inevitable. Dafydd was found guilty of treason, and sentenced to be dragged at a horse's tail through Shrewsbury, hanged, cut down whilst still conscious, disembowelled, and his body cut into quarters and fed to the dogs. Such a savage and degrading punishment had never before been visited on someone of such high rank: as the chroniclers noted, with a touch of unease, it was "in previous times unknown".

   A few days after disposing of Dafydd, King and Parliament decamped to the home of Edward's Chancellor, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Robert Burnell, in a village a few miles outside Shrewsbury, which is still called Acton Burnell. Victorian constitutional historians believed that this was the first occasion when the Lords and Commons met separately, with the knights of the shires taking the momentous decision to place themselves alongside the town burgesses in the Commons; but there seems to be no certainty about this.
    Burnell, a career cleric, had been a member of Edward's household since the 1250s, and was now one of his most trusted advisors. Amongst other things,he drew up the Statute of Westminster, regulating how future Parliaments should be conducted. Edward tried several times to have him made Archbishop of Canterbury, only to have the appointment vetoed by the Pope, who, justifiably, objected to Burnell's immoral personal life (he had fathered five illegitimate children!) and the way he had accumulated vast personal wealth by blatant simony. He died in 1293.

These are some pictures of the surviving mediaeval buildings at Acton Burnell. In 1284 Bishop Burnell was given a "licence to crenellate" his house; that is, to build battlements; but it isn't really a castle. (In this way it is comparable with the contemporary Shropshire "castle" at Stokesay, which was built by another of Edward's friends: the wool-merchant Lawrence of Ludlow). What Burnell built for himself was a refined and sophisticated mansion, whose very lack of defensibility showed how the country was becoming more peaceful.

Nearby is the church of St. Mary, built at the same time; but little remains of the large stone barn where the Parliament is supposed to have met.

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