One of the most influential members of the northern gentry in the late 14th century, Sir James came from a family of Westmorland property owners, whose land lay, for the most part, in and around the manor of Killington and the town of Kendal. Given that his involvement in Yorkshire society came somewhat later, it seems quite likely that he acquired his estates there through marriage. These holdings were located near Selby and at Ellerton; and, as will be seen, he also obtained a grant of land at Thorganby from the Crown.
His career began inauspiciously in 1354, when a royal commission of oyer and terminer was set up to investigate charges of poaching levelled against him and Sir John Haryngton of Farleton by one of their neighbours. The death in rapid succession of Sir John [Haryngton] and his two elder sons meant that by 1361 the wardship of the Haryngton estates in Westmorland had passed to Pickering as feudal overlord. He had by then received a knighthood, and, being already a figure of some consequence, managed to secure from Edward III a formal grant of the marriage and custody of the next heir, (Sir) Nicholas*, who had previously been in the custody of the King’s son, John of Gaunt.
His first return to Parliament, as Member for Westmorland in October 1362, gave him the opportunity to negotiate at the Exchequer for a lease of the Haryngtons’ other property at Winmarleigh in Lancashire. This was, indeed, granted to him for a lump sum of 100 marks, payment being guaranteed by his colleague, John Preston of Kendall. At about this time, Sir James also offered securities of £200 to the executors of Henry, duke of Lancaster, probably with regard to his tenancy of these estates. He none the less encountered considerable difficulties in enforcing his rights; and in November 1364, as a result of an inquiry by the escheator of Lancashire, the terms of his lease were at last confirmed.
There can be little doubt that Sir James was responsible for the abduction, in July 1360, of Sir Thomas Haryngton’s widow, who was kidnapped by one of his servants and detained at Bubwith near Selby. But he dispatched the offender to safety in Ireland in the service of his friend, Sir William Windsor, the deputy lieutenant, who used his influence at Court to have him pardoned four years later.
It is possible that Sir James may by then himself have spent a few months in Ireland as one of the senior legal staff retained by Sir William, the owner of a neighbouring estate at Heversham in Westmorland. Such were the administrative demands made upon him in the north, however, that he had little opportunity to travel overseas, and for a large part of the later 1360s he was busily occupied as deputy to Roger, Lord Clifford, the hereditary sheriff of Westmorland. In 1368 he paid a fine of £5 for royal letters patent authorizing a grant to him by Clifford of ten marks p.a. from the manor of Langton-in-Bongate, evidently as a reward for services rendered. Three years later, Clifford guaranteed Sir James’s ability to hand over a farm of £40 at the Exchequer for the wardship and marriage of the young (Sir) Christopher Moresby*, so their relationship evidently remained a close one. Sir James almost certainly sat on Clifford’s council, since although it sometimes proved to be morally questionable his advice was always valued highly.
Meanwhile, problems with the Dublin border clans had led the government to strengthen its hand there, with the result that, despite his initial disinclination, he himself became inexorably and disastrously caught up in Irish affairs. In December 1368 men were recruited for an expedition under Sir William Windsor, who succeeded the late duke of Clarence as lieutenant of Ireland in the following March. Sir James helped to levy troops in Westmorland and, together with his former ward, Sir Nicholas Haryngton, sued out letters of protection preparatory to their departure with the army. On arriving at Dublin in June 1369, they faced a tense and potentially explosive situation. To cover their escalating military expenses Sir William and his advisors, among whom Sir James played a particularly important and confidential role, had recourse to some dubious financial methods, which they almost certainly exploited for their own benefit.
According to a series of charges levelled against him by the Irish parliament in 1373, Sir James, as chief justice of Ireland and head of Sir William’s secretum consilium, had not only been instrumental in planning and enforcing various extortionate policies, but had also taken sizeable bribes, had pocketed a percentage of the harsh new taxes, had confiscated and sold native property for his own use and had openly perverted the course of the law. The truth of these allegations is now, of course, open to debate, although the English government was obliged to take them seriously, not least because they provided ammunition for an increasingly vocal and determined opposition in the House of Commons itself.
We know that Sir James remained in Ireland until the spring of 1370, if not later, returning home at least nine months before Windsor was recalled, under a cloud, in March 1372; and that he did not accompany him when he embarked on a second, equally catastrophic term of office two years later. By the time he finally left Ireland, in June 1376, Sir William found himself in serious trouble, made worse because of his recent marriage to Alice Perrers, the unpopular mistress of Edward III. During the course of the Good Parliament, which sat from April to July, Alice was actually banished and her goods declared forfeit, although a revival in the fortunes of the court party, with which both Windsor and Sir James were now intimately associated, protected her from the full force of the sentence.
The Commons was more successful in its demands for changes in the membership of the royal council, which were brought into effect while the session was still in progress. This newly constituted body must have given some attention to the charges of malpractice previously levelled against Sir James in Ireland, and he was, in all probability, summoned to Westminster to give evidence. His appearance at this time among the mainpernors of Sir Hugh Dacre, who was then being held in the Tower on the suspicion of murdering his brother, certainly bears out such an assumption.Dacre had, reputedly, been assisted by none other than Sir Nicholas Haryngton, which would explain Sir James’s interest in the case.
In the event, however, changing political circumstances worked to Sir James’s advantage, and although his prospects appeared bleak in the summer of 1376, the critics of the government were unable to maintain their offensive. Furthermore, since his proven administrative ability and professional expertise made him invaluable as an agent of local government, his career in this quarter remained unaffected. In November 1376, he took a seat on the Yorkshire bench; and a few months later a royal pardon, presumably with respect to his conduct in Ireland, was issued to him.5 Nor did his popularity with the local electors suffer as a result of his temporary reversal. Indeed, he was returned to Parliament for Westmorland on three consecutive occasions during the late 1370s, and was the only Member for that county to be made Speaker of the House of Commons in the Middle Ages. His assumption of office, at Gloucester in October 1378, is also notable for the first recorded ‘protestation’ or apology by a medieval Speaker, lest any of his remarks should cause offence to either the King or the Lords and put him personally at risk. The restive and defiant mood of the Lower House no doubt prompted Sir James to make such a request, for during the stormy four weeks’ session he had many unpalatable reports to deliver. Besides demanding an account of how the double subsidy voted by the previous Parliament had been spent, the Commons were also extremely critical of the government’s foreign policy, and refused point blank to grant any further taxes. There was, moreover, considerable resentment over the royal council’s recent abuse of rights of sanctuary, while a bitter quarrel between John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and the citizens of London provided yet another bone of contention.
The threat of further disorder in the City had, in fact, led the government to summon Parliament to meet at Gloucester, although even here tempers ran high. The election of a Speaker so closely implicated in the dealings of the court party may at first sight seem surprising, although it is important to remember that, besides being an experienced parliamentarian, Sir James was also a lawyer of note. He had, furthermore, a personal interest in backing the firm stance which the Commons proposed to take with regard to the enforcement of law and order.6 Having recently escaped two ambushes laid for him outside Kendal by Sir Thomas Roos and a force of armed men, somewhat implausibly estimated at over 300 strong, Sir James was naturally disposed to throw his full support behind efforts to prevent the spread of lawlessness. His protests to the royal council had already, in April 1378, resulted in the setting up of a royal commission of inquiry, which included his former ward, Sir Nicholas Haryngton, and his friend, Lord Clifford, to investigate these attempts on his life; and he probably took advantage of his position to make further demands for redress.
We do not know whom the Commons of 1379 nominated as their Speaker, although Sir James may well have held office twice in succession. He represented Westmorland for the sixth and last time in the Parliament of October 1382, when he seized the opportunity to petition the Crown for a grant of land in Thorganby, claiming that his services to the late Edward III had still not received adequate compensation. King Richard handed his request personally to the chancellor with orders for the necessary letters patent to be drawn up; and just a week after the end of the session Pickering received the land in question. As we have seen, he had already begun to extend his sphere of influence into Yorkshire, which now appears to have become the centre of his activities. He was serving a second term as escheator there when the county electors returned him to the February Parliament of 1383, a short-lived assembly which sat for little more than a fortnight, but which none the less proved hostile towards John of Gaunt’s plans for an expedition to Spain. Once again Sir James occupied the Speakership, being no doubt an enthusiastic advocate of the popular view that Gaunt should stay in England to defend the Scottish border from attack (and thus, of course, safeguard his own private interests as a northern landowner). But whatever their differences on this point, the two men seem otherwise to have been growing closer.
Sir James had been at Carlisle in June 1381 to welcome the duke after his return from a self-imposed exile during the Peasants’ Revolt, and had even taken custody of a large consignment of cash on his behalf. We do not know precisely when Pickering began sitting on the duchy of Lancaster council in the north, although for the time being he had rather more pressing matters to deal with.
Despite all the vicissitudes of their service together in Ireland, Sir James had remained attached to his old friend, Sir William (now Lord) Windsor, who died in September 1383 after making him an executor of his will. The task, which he shared with Sir Walter Strickland*, Sir William Melton* and Windsor’s nephew, John, proved immensely difficult, partly because Windsor still had many accounts to settle at the Exchequer, but also as a result of Alice Perrers’s forfeiture and her determination to prevent John from succeeding to his uncle’s estate.
It is interesting to note that another member of the Windsor family, Sir Walter Strickland and Sir James, were all returned together to the November Parliament of 1384, while their associate, Sir William Melton, sat in the following year, each clearly intending to press their case in the Lower House. Yet even though they were pardoned certain arrearages by the Crown in 1385, the problem of sorting out the deceased’s complex finances as lieutenant of Ireland seemed no nearer a solution two years later, when Sir James made plans to visit Dublin in person. In the event he stayed at home, preoccupied with other business, such as the endowment of a perpetual chantry at Ellerton and the collection of evidence on behalf of Richard, Lord Scrope of Bolton, in his dispute with Sir Robert Grosvenor over the right to bear the same coat of arms.
His burden of official duties, too, was growing increasingly heavy, for in 1389 he began the first of three terms as sheriff of Yorkshire. These sacrifices were, however, recognized by the grant in February 1390 of an annuity of 40 marks a year payable to Sir James as a King’s knight, and the lease, one year later, of the Moresby estates in Cumberland and Westmorland. The sudden death, in 1391, of Sir James’s former ward and parliamentary colleague, Sir Christopher Moresby, gave him a welcome opportunity to regain possession of this property, for which he paid a rent of £16 p.a., over and above the (40 purchase price fixed for the marriage of the next heir, Christopher Pickering.
It was during this period that he and a small group of Lancashire knights, including Sir Nicholas Haryngton, Sir Richard Hoghton* and Sir Robert Urswyk*, who had for some time acted informally as councillors for John of Gaunt in the north, and had effectively managed his affinity there, assumed a quasi-official status under the direction of the duchy council in London. That Sir James occasionally abused his position (just as he had done in Ireland) is evident from allegations of embracery made against him during the course of a dispute over property in Ulverston. King Richard was none the less still prepared to reward his past services with letters of exemption excusing him from the demands of local office, but he worked on until the very last, and was actually serving as sheriff of Yorkshire when he died. This, his final major appointment, was made while Richard II and the court party were triumphant over their enemies: since he evidently predeceased John of Gaunt he was spared what might have proved an insuperable test of his loyalty once Henry of Bolingbroke returned to claim his inheritance in the summer of 1399.
Paradoxically, little is known about the private life of this busy public servant, although we can be reasonably sure that the Thomas Pickering who died in 1406 while in office as escheator of Yorkshire was his son and heir. A younger son, named William, entered the Church after receiving a rather costly education at his father’s expense. Towards the end of his life, Sir James asked Richard II to provide the boy with a benefice because he was causing such a strain on the family income.
Source: The History of Parliament, British Political, Social & Local History. HistoryofParliamentOnline.org