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date: 27 November 2021

Lords appellantfree

(act. 1387–1388)

Lords appellantfree

(act. 1387–1388)
  • Anthony Tuck

Lords appellant (act. 1387–1388), bringers of trial proceedings against royal favourites, numbered five nobles who came together in the autumn of 1387. Their aim was to compel Richard II to agree to the trial of five of his favourites in the parliament that assembled in February 1388, and which is known as the Merciless Parliament. They were Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester (1355–1397), Richard (III) Fitzalan, fourth earl of Arundel and ninth earl of Surrey (1346–1397), Thomas Beauchamp, twelfth earl of Warwick (1337x9–1401), Henry, earl of Derby, son of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster [see Henry IV (1367–1413)], and Thomas (I) Mowbray, first earl of Nottingham (1366–1399). The accusations that they made against the king's favourites were contained in a document called an appeal of treason, a device borrowed from civil law, and the five lords were thus known as the lords appellant.

The origins of the appellants' coalition probably go back no further than the so-called Wonderful Parliament of October 1386. The three lords who were then prominent in opposition to the crown—Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick—were not close blood relatives, and although they had all taken part in Richard II's expedition to Scotland in the previous year, they had not served together on military campaigns earlier in the reign. Arundel and Warwick had been members of the commission to reform the royal household in 1381, but otherwise the lords had not worked together in government. Each had his own reasons for hostility to the king and his favourites, but in 1386 they were united by a common wish to call some of his favourites to account. Both Gloucester and Arundel were forceful, not to say overbearing, personalities; Warwick was perhaps a milder man, though not as pathetic and malleable as he tried to portray himself when on trial for his life in 1397. All three, however, had the wealth to command substantial retinues, and extensive influence in those parts of the country where their main estates lay.

Although Gloucester had acquired by marriage the Bohun lands in Essex and elsewhere, he depended for part of his income on exchequer annuities, and he watched with concern as Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, and Michael de la Pole, first earl of Suffolk, used royal favour to enhance their standing in East Anglia. Arundel's criticism of the king had earlier taken the form of a generalized attack on 'evil counsellors', but both he and Gloucester had misgivings about the king's pacific policy towards France. Warwick is more of an enigma: he had not expressed open hostility to those round the king, or criticized policy towards France, but presumably he had silently sympathized with Gloucester and Arundel. He was also, perhaps, unhappy about the rise in influence at court of a member of a cadet branch of his family, John Beauchamp of Holt, who used his favour with the king to aggrandize himself in the west midlands.

When parliament met in October 1386, John of Gaunt was absent in Castile, and the Commons were in hostile mood. The three lords now saw their opportunity to make their will prevail. They argued, according to the author of the continuation of the Eulogium, that parliament should deal first with enemies within the realm rather than the threat of invasion from France. By enemies within the realm they probably meant the chancellor, Michael de la Pole, and Robert de Vere, now duke of Ireland: it is possible that the three lords initially had de Vere rather than de la Pole in their sights, but turned their attention to de la Pole when the Commons made it clear that their priority was his dismissal. Gloucester and Arundel's brother, the bishop of Ely, took the lead in pressing the king to agree to the removal and impeachment of de la Pole, while at this stage Warwick was perhaps less forthright in his views. After de la Pole's removal from office Gloucester and Arundel (though not Warwick) were appointed to the commission that was to control the government of the country for one year from 19 November 1386.

Richard II's response to the imposition upon him of the commission was to ask his judges whether it had been lawful, and they replied that those who had coerced him into agreeing to the commission should be punished 'as traitors'. The judges' answers were a threat to the lives and inheritances of Gloucester and Arundel, and they, together with Warwick, determined on a pre-emptive strike against the king and his favourites. Gloucester and Warwick were probably the first of the five lords to take up arms. They assembled their retinues at Harringay, north of London, in mid-November; on 13 November Arundel joined them, and on the following day the three marched to Waltham Cross, where they formally submitted their appeal of treason against de la Pole, de Vere, Alexander Neville, archbishop of York, Nicholas Brembre, mayor of London, and Robert Tresilian, chief justice of the king's bench. Three days later they came into the presence of the king at Westminster and repeated their appeal. The king took both sides under his protection and agreed that the appeal should be heard in the parliament that was due to open on 3 February.

De Vere, however, raised an army in Cheshire to resist the appellants by force. The three original appellants were now joined by the earls of Derby and Nottingham. Both were younger men, who had played no part in the events of the Wonderful Parliament, but who were probably motivated mainly by hostility to de Vere. Nottingham in particular may have thought that de Vere had usurped his own place in Richard II's favour. The five lords marched from London to Huntingdon, and on 12 December moved westwards to intercept de Vere on his march southwards from Cheshire. At Radcot Bridge on 20 December the appellants routed de Vere's army. De Vere himself fled overseas, and the five appellants marched to London, where they confronted Richard in the Tower on 27 December.

Tensions between the appellant lords now revealed themselves. Most sources suggest that the appellants criticized Richard's misgovernment, and insisted on the imprisonment of those appellees who had not fled overseas. Richard, these sources say, eventually agreed under threat of deposition. The Whalley Abbey chronicle, however, suggests that Richard was actually deposed for a few days, and then reinstated: a story that is given further credence by a statement in Gloucester's confession in 1397 that the king had been deposed for two or three days. The story may well be true, and the Whalley chronicler maintains that Richard was reinstated because the appellants could not agree among themselves about who should reign in Richard's place. The earl of Derby (who would eventually become king as Henry IV) seems to have resisted Gloucester's designs on the crown, not least because he and his father had a superior claim as Richard's nearest male heirs.

If the first crack in the appellant coalition appeared during these last days of December 1387, the five put on a ceremonial show of unity at the opening of parliament on 3 February 1388, when the five lords entered the White Hall at Westminster arm in arm and dressed in cloth of gold. The appeal of treason was then read. In essence, the charges against the five favourites alleged that they had accroached royal power and used their influence over the king to persuade him to adhere to their unwise counsel and to procure favours for themselves. The appeal itself was a device fraught with procedural difficulties. It had not been used hitherto as a means of initiating prosecutions in parliament, and in any case it was doubtful whether the charges against the favourites amounted to treason under the statute of 1352. That statute, however, allowed the king in parliament to decide whether acts that were not specifically defined as treasonable under the statute were in fact treason, and the appellants argued that 'in so high a crime as is claimed in this appeal, which touches the person of our … lord the king and the estate of the whole realm, perpetrated by persons who are peers of the realm, with others', the trial should take place in parliament and according to the law and course of parliament (RotP, 3.236). The lords agreed, and parliament proceeded to hear the appeal.

De la Pole, de Vere, and Neville had fled overseas; they were found guilty in their absence, and de la Pole and de Vere were sentenced to death and forfeiture of their lands and possessions; Neville was sentenced to loss of his temporalities. Tresilian, who had sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, was also sentenced to death and forfeiture: he was later dragged out of sanctuary and executed. Brembre was the only appellee who could be tried in person, and the appellants found difficulty in procuring his conviction. He sought, but was denied, trial by battle, and in the end the appellants resorted to the device of asking the mayor and aldermen of London whether he was guilty. They replied that he probably was, and this was sufficient for the appellants to have him executed. Thus far the appellants had met little resistance; but when they turned to the impeachment of other royal officials and chamber knights, the strains within the group began to show once again. There was little disagreement over the fate of the judges and three chamber knights, Sir John Beauchamp of Holt, Sir James Berners, and Sir John Salisbury. All were sentenced to death, though the death sentence on the judges was later commuted to exile in Ireland. A bitter argument broke out, however, over the fate of the third chamber knight to be impeached, Sir Simon Burley. He was found guilty of offences which amounted to exercising undue influence over the king and was sentenced to death; but Derby and Nottingham, together with the duke of York, tried to win a reprieve for him, perhaps out of respect for his age and his status as a member of the Order of the Garter, and perhaps also because he was apparently in poor health. York and Gloucester publicly called each other a liar, and both Richard and the queen interceded on Burley's behalf, but to no avail and he was executed on 5 May.

At the end of the parliament all five appellant lords renewed their oath of homage to the king in another show of unity. They had tried to give the impression that they were acting for the benefit of king and kingdom in bringing the king's evil counsellors to justice; but in reality they were united by little more than hostility to de la Pole, de Vere, and to a lesser extent Neville, Tresilian, and the other judges, Brembre, and some of the chamber knights. The dispute over Burley's fate was the defining moment for the appellants: it exposed even more than Derby's resistance to Gloucester's ambitions in December the fragility of the coalition, and Richard II never forgave Gloucester and Arundel for their insistence that Burley should die.

Gloucester and Arundel, together perhaps with Warwick, retained some responsibility for the supervision of government and for initiatives in foreign policy after the end of the Merciless Parliament, but with the destruction of the favourites their real work was done. Derby and Nottingham appear to have gone their own way after the end of the parliament, and although the period of appellant rule formally came to an end on 3 May 1389, when Richard resumed personal control of government and dismissed Gloucester and Arundel from the council, the five lords did not again act as a group after parliament was dissolved on 4 June 1388. Even when Richard brought those who had opposed him in 1387 and 1388 to justice in parliament in 1397, only Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick were tried and convicted. Burley's fate still rankled with Richard in 1397, and the part that Gloucester and Arundel had played in it was held against them at the time of their arrest and trial. Derby and Nottingham, however, escaped punishment for their lesser part in the appellant coalition.


  • RotP, vol. 3
  • L. C. Hector and B. F. Harvey, eds. and trans., The Westminster chronicle, 1381–1394, OMT (1982)
  • Knighton's chronicle, 1337–1396, ed. and trans. G. H. Martin, OMT (1995) [Lat. orig., Chronica de eventibus Angliae a tempore regis Edgari usque mortem regis Ricardi Secundi, with parallel Eng. text]
  • M. McKisack, ed., ‘Historia siue narracio de modo et forma mirabilis parliamenti apud Westmonasterium’, Camden miscellany, XIV, CS, 3rd ser., 37 (1926)
  • F. S. Haydon, ed., Eulogium historiarum sive temporis, 3 vols., Rolls Series, 9 (1858–63)
  • M. V. Clarke, Fourteenth century studies, ed. L. S. Sutherland and M. McKisack (1937)
  • N. Saul, Richard II (1997)
  • A. Goodman, The loyal conspiracy: the lords appellant under Richard II (1971)
  • A. Tuck, Richard II and the English nobility (1973)
  • A. Rogers, ‘Parliamentary appeals of treason in the reign of Richard II’, American Journal of Legal History, 8 (1964), 95–124
  • C. Given-Wilson, The royal household and the king's affinity: service, politics and finance in England, 1360–1413 (1986)
  • J. G. Bellamy, The law of treason in England in the later middle ages (1970)
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Oxford Medieval Texts
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J. Strachey, ed., , 6 vols. (1767–77)