Housing Scotland’s Parliaments in the Reign of James I.
Professor Richard Oram.
When we talk of parliament buildings, most folk nowadays would have a mental image of something akin to the Palace of Westminster in which the British Houses of Parliament meet, or the Capitol Building in Washington DC or the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Such vast buildings are designed to hold hundreds, if not thousands of people and the bureaucratic machinery that allows them to function as democratic representatives for their constituents and are themselves highly visual symbols of the power of the political establishment in a state. They are usually purpose-built and, like the Holyrood Parliament Building that is home to Scotland’s devolved legislature, give substance to the identity of ‘the body politic’ of the nation. It has, however, not always been so.
In my last post, I highlighted how James I summoned 17 of his 23 parliaments and general councils held between May 1424 and February 1437 to gather at Perth. Despite the regularity with which he called political assemblies in the burgh, however, there was no purpose-built or even fixed venue in the town in which they always gathered. Until its demolition in 1818, there was in Perth a building long known as ‘The Old Parliament House’ standing in a close off the north side of the High Street (on the site now occupied by the Marks & Spencer’s store). But this was a post-medieval house which was possibly used in 1597 for one meeting of a convention of the Scottish parliament. Although said in the late eighteenth century to have first been built in the twelfth century, excavation of its site in the 1970s confirmed that it was a sixteenth-century residence whose first-floor chamber was apparently big enough to hold the members of the convention.
Where, then, did James’s parliaments and councils meet? I have previously mentioned the assemblies held in the church of the Dominican friary, adjacent to the royal residence of the King’s House on the northern edge of the burgh. This, though, was not the only place in and around Perth where they were held. We do not know for sure where James’s first ‘Perth’ parliament, which commenced on 26 May 1424, was held. The chronicler Walter Bower is explicit that it was not held at Scone Abbey, where James had been crowned on 21 May and which had been a venue for parliaments and councils throughout the previous century. Although Scone was the location of the great open-air assembly-place of the Moot Hill, immediately adjacent to the abbey’s north side, where we know that parliaments were still gathering as late as March 1391, most parliaments and councils at Scone probably met in the King’s Hall within the suite of accommodation that had been developed by Scottish kings, probably in the abbey’s guest-house. The parliamentary record for 1424, however, confirms Bower’s statement that proceedings moved south and across the river to Perth rather than remaining at Scone.
When James returned to Perth for a second parliament in March 1425, it gathered in the burgh’s tolbooth at the northern end of the High Street. The last elements of this building were demolished in the early nineteenth century as part of the opening-up of the High Street to the new Tay Street that ran along the river edge.
The Old Perth Council Chamber and Tolbooth
On the walls of the tolbooth were these words:
This house loves peace, hates knaves, crimes punisheth, preserves the laws, and good men honoureth.
The tolbooth, which was a multi-purpose building that functioned as a physical symbol of the burgh’s self-governing status, where its ruling council met, payments of tolls due on goods brought to the burgh market were received, debtors and criminals tried in the burgh’s courts held in cells, and the burgh’s parchment records kept, had the advantage of having a large, hall-like room in which the parliament could assemble.
Burgh tolbooths did function as the most common meeting-place for political gatherings through the later fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, with Edinburgh’s tolbooth becoming the most frequent meeting-place down to its replacement in the 1630s by the purpose-built Parliament Hall just a hundred or so metres to its south. Edinburgh’s tolbooth had been rebuilt in a programme of work that started in 1386, occupying a prominent site in the middle of the High Street immediately west of St Giles’ Kirk. Later known as the ‘Heart of Midlothian’, the outline of the building is marked in the paving west of the church, together with the stone ‘heart’ setting.
The Old Edinburgh Tolbooth
View from the north-side
Although enlarged and much-altered over the centuries down to its demolition in 1817, engravings show that it retained elements of its medieval grandeur to the end, principally the canopied niches that had once held statues at first-floor level on its north side, embellishing the storey on which the main meeting-room was located.
Perth’s tolbooth was nowhere near as grand, which is one reason why Edinburgh’s secured its grip as a parliamentary venue in the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The Old Edinburgh Tolbooth
View from the south-west
We do not know where in Stirling James held the May 1425 parliament in which the Albany Stewarts were condemned, or the September 1426 meeting that again convened in Perth. Frustratingly, all of the five gatherings at Perth from 1427 until 1429 are given no more specific venue, with the last event, convened on 26 April 1429, simply being described as gathering ‘in the customary place’! Given that the only venue identified in any previous account was the tolbooth, are we to assume that it was that ‘customary place’? On the basis of the parliamentary record we might be led to assume so, for when James II returned to Perth for parliament in June 1445 it met in the tolbooth, as happened for the remaining handful of Perth parliaments before the near-permanent fixing of meetings in Edinburgh, but Walter Bower again gives us detail in his chronicle that raises alternatives. On October 1433, he tells us that James called a general council meeting in Perth to discuss the question of a settlement of a lasting peace treaty with England rather than renewal of Scotland’s alliance with France. Bower recounts that:
In the presence of the king, who sat in front of the high altar in the choir of the friars preachers of Perth [the Dominicans’ friary church], a clear reply was given by the prelates of the greater churches and by the magnates of the realm to the effect that they were united in aspiring after peace only as far as they were free to act.
The abbot does not suggest that a gathering in the church at Blackfriars was in any way unusual and his description suggests quite a gathering of the kingdom’s political elite. It was, of course, immediately adjacent to his residence in the King’s House and had been previously the venue for great gatherings of state as far back as 1266 at least. Indeed, it was there in March 1416 that Robert, duke of Albany, is known to have convened one of his Perth general councils. We can just as easily assume that the Blackfriars’ church was ‘the customary place’ for assemblies as the tolbooth.
Churches were by no means unusual as meeting-places for lay political assemblies. During the Wars of Independence, King Robert I had held great councils and parliaments in various monasteries around his kingdom, including the cathedral-priory at St Andrews and the abbeys at Cambuskenneth, Holyrood and Newbattle. The assemblies were not necessarily convened in the churches there, although as the largest available space that was a possibility, but it is more likely that a smaller room in the complex was used. In England, the chapterhouse of Westminster Abbey was the early meeting-place of the Commons. We must bear in mind that these were not huge assemblies, with members numbering in tens rather than hundreds, so in the Scottish context the chapterhouses of the monasteries, refectories, abbot’s halls or guest-halls would probably have been more convenient. But, as the 1433 Perth case shows, churches too served a lay meeting-places. In April 1335, for example, during the second Wars of Independence, the Scottish leadership had held a parliament in the parish church at Dairsie in Fife (not the nearby castle, as sometimes claimed, which was not built until the sixteenth century). More (in)famously, in June 1342, Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, sheriff of Teviotdale, was holding his sheriff court inside the parish church of St Mary at Hawick when he was attacked and abducted by his political and territorial rival, Sir William Douglas of Liddesdale. In 1416, in addition to its customary use as the meeting place for exchequer audits, the chapel of St Mary beside Perth’s bridge at the northern end of the High Street was where the chancellor of Scotland, Bishop Gilbert Greenlaw of Aberdeen, held a tribunal to inspect legal documents. It may have been unusual to occupy the sanctuary area, as James I did in 1433 at the Blackfriars, but it was certainly far from unusual to use churches as law-court and assembly venues.
What ‘the customary place’ at Perth might have evolved into is one of the many ‘what-ifs’ of the violent end to James’s reign. James’s death in his residence adjacent to the Blackfriars may have been one reason why his son chose not to hold his parliaments within that building on the occasions he returned to the burgh. But had Perth retained its place as the favoured meeting ground for the kingdom’s political assemblies, something that the sudden and premature death of James II in 1460 prevented it from re-establishing, it is likely that somewhere other than the friary might have become the usual venue. As at Edinburgh, it is quite likely that the tolbooth would have been that place. It is an intriguing possibility to imagine that in the 1630s it could have been in Perth rather than Edinburgh that the kingdom’s first purpose-built parliament hall was eventually erected.