History of Parliament

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[00:15] AH: I’d like to start off our conversation with asking you, what is the History of Parliament?
Stephen Roberts: The History of Parliament is a longstanding academic project, and it has as its aim to produce biographies of every Member of Parliament that has ever sat in the House of Commons, and recently, we’ve taken on also the project of producing biographies of peers, those who sat in the House of Lords. It really has as its aim to produce biographies of MPs from Parliaments from the earliest times, but we’ve not actually achieved that in either direction.
[01:18] It was established initially before the Second World War, by the initiative of a notable historian and politician, called Colonel Josiah Wedgewood, who was one of the famous pottery family from Staffordshire, and he had the idea of producing biographies of every MP, and promoted the project quite energetically before the Second World War. A couple of volumes under his auspices were produced, but then nothing happened during the Second World War, and in 1951, it was re-established on its present terms and conditions, with a grant from Parliament. It is funded entirely by both Houses of Parliament.
[02:18] AH: So what is the History of Parliament’s relationship with the current Parliament? Does it have MPs among its patrons, for instance, or maybe a Parliamentary Committee?
Stephen Roberts: It has a Board of Trustees, it’s set up as a charitable trust, that’s why it’s called the Trust, and on the Board, there are MPs and peers, in equal measure, so most of them are serving members of the House of Commons or House of Lords, with occasionally some people who sit on the Board by virtue of special qualification or interest or something. There is also an Editorial Board of scholars that support it, they’re all imminent scholars in their field who comment on the quality of the work and act as a kind of quality control mechanism.
[02:42] AH: And how long have you been involved with the History of Parliament?
Stephen Roberts: I’ve been involved for 25 years, I went to the History first in 1997, after a career in adult education, and have been there ever since, mainly as Editor of the House of Commons 1640 – 1660 section, but also for a three-year period as Director of the Project as a whole.
[07:42] AH:  Which Parliaments will be covered then, by the 1640 – 1660 section?
Stephen Roberts:       Eight Parliaments in total, if you consider the rival Oxford Parliament of Charles I at Oxford to be a proper Parliament, certainly the King did, though the Westminster Parliament didn’t, of course, so we have two Parliaments that met in 1640, in April and again in November that year. We consider the ‘Rump Parliament”, which sat between late 1648 and ’53 to be a Parliament, in the way we treat it. There’s a Parliament in 1653, two under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in 1654 and 1656. And the final one, 1659, was the Parliament of Richard Cromwell, so if my maths is correct, that’s a total of eight Parliaments, in terms of our consideration.
[08:40] From what I’ve just been saying, it’ll be obvious that this is a very complicated period of Parliamentary history, in fact there isn’t a more complicated one, and that does partly reflect the length and scale of the project, it’s extremely complicated, even for professionals to get their head around.
[09:17] AH: And of course, for the first time in history you have MPs representing Scotland and Ireland in the 1650s Protectorate Parliaments. How many of those will there be?
Stephen Roberts: Well actually, the first time that Scottish and Irish MPs sat in Parliament was before the ones you mentioned. There were members representing Scotland and Ireland in the 1653 Parliament, the Nominated Assembly, often called “Barebone’s Parliament”. But in 1654, 1656 and 1659 Parliaments there were 30 Scottish MPs and 30 Irish MPs, so as you say, that’s another unique aspect of this period, that for the first time places in the constituent nations of what we call Great Britain, or the UK, or whatever you want to call it, were represented in Parliament other than just England and Wales.
[16:52] AH: What was the traditional role of Parliament then, by the early 17th Century? How exactly had it evolved up to the Civil War?
Stephen Roberts:

Well, the Parliament was entirely in the gift of the King, there was not an institution called Parliament that was obliged to meet. The King called the Parliament when he wanted money, basically, because we had evolved in this country into a situation where taxation was grated by Parliament, direct taxation, so the King would call, or the Queen would call, a Parliament if he or she required money, and the usual need for money by a Government in those days was of course to fight wars, that was the primary purpose of a Parliament of parliamentary taxation, to fund the Monarch’s adventures abroad, very often. There was certainly no spending on social services of any kind in those days.
 ut in return for granting taxation, those who assembled in Parliament were entitled to bring their grievances to the King, and we had a situation in Tudor times onwards where Parliament’s grievances became more and more voluby expressed, and so this led to a conflict between King and Parliament, where the King was insisting on financial grants from MPs, and the MPs themselves were insisting on the redress of their grievances. And in those kinds of conflict lay the disputes between the Stuart Kings and their Parliaments.
Things got difficult under James I and even more difficult under Charles I, and in the end, in exasperation, Charles I decided to dispense with Parliament altogether, so between 1629 – which was the year when Parliament was ended very violently with a situation where there was disorder in the House, where the MPs were trying to make the Speaker stay seated while the King’s Government was trying to shut the Parliament down – after that disruption, there was then an 11-year period of no Parliament.

[20:01] So 1640 was quite a key date, because Parliament met again after an interval of 11 years, so the period of parliamentary history before 1640, to sum up, is one of rocky conflict between the Monarch and Parliament, and it seemed at one stage, that parliaments would disappear altogether from the way this country was governed.
[20:28] AH:  In what ways were the Parliaments of the 1640s and then the 1650s different from their predecessors?
Stephen Roberts: Well, I suppose the key difference was that although they met initially, the Parliaments, the two Parliaments that met in 1640 were at the behest of the King. The Long Parliament got into such a conflict with Charles that it eventually challenged the King, and the Civil War was the consequence, and as soon as the Civil War broke out then Parliament was effectively ruling by its own authority. That was quite unprecedented in English history, there was never a time before when Parliament could rule on its own authority like that and recruit to itself in by-elections, as parliament did. And although the Parliaments of the 1650s were called at the behest of the Lord Protector, for example, in the later 1650s – the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell – the result of the Long Parliament’s challenge to the King in the Civil War meant that Parliaments were therefore, well, henceforth centre stage, and couldn’t easily be dispensed with. They were written into Constitution, so the Parliaments of the 1640s and ‘50s were much more solid and secure than any Parliament had ever been before, and this did a lot for the culture of Parliament. It enabled MPs to conduct their business much more self-confidently knowing that they weren’t going to be turned out by the King at his behest at any moment, and it led to the development really, if you like, quite centrally, of the modern parliamentary culture that we’ve got.
[22:09] AH: So what kinds of people became the MPs?
Stephen Roberts: If you had to single out one particular social class as being dominant in the Parliaments, all Parliaments really in the period we’re talking about, it would have to be the gentry. Those are the people who had wealth and position, and social prestige in their communities, people with a long family history behind them, people with, people of substance, so they were the most important single class but there was also a very substantial class of merchants, particularly from the City of London, who were crucial, really, to the financing of the parliamentary war effort, for example, in the 1640s. And in the Parliaments we’re talking about, the merchant class would be the second most important group. And we shouldn’t forget either, the lawyers who were an important class – most of the, all the Speakers, for example, in the House of Commons in the period, were lawyers of one kind or another, they were quite dominant. The only other class, I suppose, that you could say became important during the 1640s and ‘50s were the very lesser gentry, the people who’d acquired some substance through serving as army officers in the Army, who were given their status and authority by virtue of military service. So that gives you the general Composition of the Parliaments and the difference between the Parliaments of the 1640s and ‘50s and the earlier ones, was that there was a greater mix of people and social classes in the ‘40s and ‘50s compared to earlier where the gentry really were absolutely dominant.
[24:02] AH: And so how much did the size of the membership in the House of Commons fluctuate over this period?
Stephen Roberts: In the 1640 and ‘50s, it fluctuated quite a lot for various reasons. In April 1640, there were 493 MPs sitting for 259 constituencies in England and Wales alone. That figure rose during the Long Parliament, because new constituencies were created, mainly because Parliament wanted to increase its weight and heft, as it were, against the King, and so it created constituencies to bring in new MPs who would help the parliamentary cause.
The shortest, or the smallest Parliament, in terms of absolute numbers, was the Parliament of 1653, which was also unusual in not being elected, it was nominated, it’s called the “Nominated Assembly” very often. There were only 144 MPs in that, although the first time there were small numbers sitting for Scotland and Ireland – five for Scotland and six for Ireland.
Then the numbers started to recover again in the Parliaments of the Cromwellian Protectorate, reaching a total in 1659 of 568 MPs, including 30 for Scotland and 30 for Ireland, and that was the largest House of Commons that had ever sat in English history at that point.
[25:41] AH: Do you have any sense of what attendance was like and how crowded the House of Commons Chamber was, and where did they actually meet?
Stephen Roberts: Taking the last question first, they actually met in the House of Commons, not the House of Commons we know today, which was recreated, rebuilt completely after the Great Fire of 1837 destroyed the Parliamentary buildings, but they met in a chamber that ran on a kind of east-west axis, more or less where the House of Commons is now, or at least, not far from there. The Speaker was at one end of the Chamber with his back to the River Thames and it was a chamber about 90 feet by 26 feet, in fact, with benches that MPs crowded into, but the attendances varied a lot – as they do today, as we see from watching proceedings on parliamentary television, you’ll see that sometimes the Chamber is empty, practically – and it was the same in the period we’re talking about, people crowded in for particular occasions and sometimes it was sparsely attended. The problem with knowing how many were there is one of evidence, where we get our evidence from, so we don’t know on a daily basis how many sat in the Chamber, we have to interpret bits of evidence to put together a picture.
[27:14] AH: So in important moments the Chamber could well have been very crowded indeed.
Stephen Roberts: Very crowded, in those key moments, just as today there are iconic moments in Parliament, and there were episodes, similarly in the 17th Century, when every MP wanted to be there, but there was never a sense that people couldn’t get into the Chamber. People would crowd in, and there was a little gallery in the Chamber as well at that time that people could sit in and speak from, so there was never a problem of not enough space. One important point to make about the seating arrangements in the Hose of Commons in the period was that there appears not to have been what we would call today a “front bench”, when we look at where MPs were sitting. Today, of course, they are all bunched together in the very front bench if they are on the Government side and the principal Leaders of the Opposition are on the opposite bench. We don’t get a sense that was the case in the 1640 – 1660. People were Government supporters and their opponents were rather more scattered than that and it doesn’t seem to be defined. Support and opposition to the Government doesn’t seem to be defined in terms of the seating plan, which I think is quite a significant difference from modern day.
[03:24] AH: That gives us a really good sense of the visual scene of what the House of Commons looked like. Do you have any idea what the acoustics would have been like?
Stephen Roberts: One thing we can say about that is that people seem not to have had problems hearing each other. With all the evidence of speeches and diaries and so forth, I don’t recall ever coming across an example of an MP saying they could not hear what was being said. I don’t think that was an issue at all. I think, given the physical nature of the Chamber and the fact that there was matting of some kind on the floor, and, you know, it wasn’t a huge, echoey chamber. I think most people could have heard what was going on. It is very different, of course, in churches, and we do have examples of sermons being given across the road from the Palace of Westminster in St. Margaret’s, Westminster, which was the MPs church where Sir Simonds d’Ewes says he couldn’t hear the preacher because he was mumbling. I don’t recall any examples of that being recorded for the proceedings in the Chamber.
[04:37] AH: During the debates, was there a lot of coming and going, as people came in and left?
Stephen Roberts: Yes. As now, you could come and go. There was a lot of coming and going in the Chamber and, indeed, a lot of coming and going into Parliament itself because the Commons Chamber was adjacent to the Law Courts and Westminster Hall was where the Law Courts were. So there were people coming and going through the entire parliamentary estate, as we would call it today, and the palace of Westminster as it was called then. There were a lot of comings and goings with very little attention to security, except that, on the most heightened moments of crisis politically, the Speaker would call, or MPs would call for the Commons Chamber doors to be locked if there was an issue about security or an issue about public access being an issue. So they could make the place more secure but, otherwise, there was a lot of coming and going.
[05:42] I suppose one comment really. One comment on the comings and goings would be the fact that in 1659, when there were a lot of new MPs in the 1659 Parliament – people who had never attended before – a man appeared there for several days, a complete imposter who had no business being in Parliament at all. It turns out that he was somebody who had a mental health issue, who should not have been there, but it took a lot of time for that to happen. You can’t imagine anything like that in Parliament today.
[06:48] AH:   How long could a daily session last”
Stephen Roberts: Well, the habitual, normal parliamentary day began at eight o’clock with prayers, which is still the case today. They always start the House of Commons proceedings every morning with prayers now, and they did then, and then they would adjourn for lunch. They didn’t use the word “lunch” – they would have called it dinner – but that was their midday meal. They might rise at about 12 o’clock, twelve until one, and then reassemble at about 2 o’clock and normally go on until about six or seven in the evening.
[07:27] AH:  And so, if the sessions went on into the evening, particularly during the winter, presumably they needed some sort of lighting arrangement?
Stephen Roberts:                               They did need lighting. What they would do on those occasions is to bring in candles, sconces of candles we would call them – you know, a large number of candles on one great candlestick or sconce. But we know when they required candles because it is recorded in the Commons’ Journals. And, of course, everything that happened in Parliament in those days could be used politically and so the call for candles would sometimes be an opportunity for MPs to regroup, because proceedings would stop for a minute and it would be a change to reset the nature of what was going on and for people to huddle and discuss tactics. So the call for candles became a political tool, just as the call to rise or the call for dinner could be. But they certainly needed lighting in the evenings because there were a couple of occasions when they had extremely late nights. Two occasions stand out. One was 22 December 1641, when they went on until two in the morning. Two occasions stand out for late-night sittings. One was 22 December 1641, when they went on until 2 o’clock in the morning and the record for these late night sittings was on 4 December 1648, when they went right through the night and did not rise until 8am the following morning. That was the most extreme case of all in the period but, normally, they would rise at about 7 o’clock or 8 o’clock in the evening.
[09:20] AH:  And how long could some of the parliamentary speeches go on for?
Stephen Roberts: I think for several hours, occasionally. John Pym was a great deliverer of long speeches. But the construction of speeches in the period is something we don’t know a great deal about because, if you think of the number of years and days that people sat, the number of records of speeches is actually quite small, so we tend to know about the extremes. We also get the problem of speeches being recorded in reported speech so that Sir Simonds d’Ewes, in his diary, talked about speeches he made, or was going to make, but we don’t get a sense of how long it would actually take him to make these interventions. That is something that is quite hazy really.
[11:02] AH: Thank you Stephen. That has really helped to set the scene for what the House of Commons would have looked like, and a sense of the hubbub and proceedings. Perhaps now we might move on and just reflect on how you think the 1640 to 1660 House of Commons section will advance our knowledge about the role of Parliament during the Civil Wars.
Stephen Roberts: Well, I think for one thing, it will establish in a way that has never been established before, the executive authority of Parliament during the Long Parliament in particular, where Parliament contributes quite centrally to the development of the English state. We will now know much more than we did before about how government operated under the Long Parliament, and, indeed, under the Parliaments of the 1650s because although, to some extent, the executive authority of Parliament receded somewhat during the 1650s, it was still quite an important aspect. Parliament was integrally bound up with government in a way that is had never been before, and I think that is probably the most important thing we have discovered and that we have been able to piece together in much more detail than ever before in a coherent way. So that is one thing. I think also it will tend to affect our understanding of parliamentary parties, because we now know about the factions and groups that operated in parliament at the time. Again, it is a novel period and we do not get anything like that in previous Parliaments – never the level of factionalism, although you could, it is till important to be said that most MPs weren’t belonging to a faction and there were plenty of what we would call politically non-aligned MPs. It wasn’t a period when everybody had to be fitted into a category. There has been a tendency in the past to try to do that among historians, who wanted to fit everybody in somewhere.
[27:56] AH: So nowadays we have Hansard to record the proceedings of Parliament, how do we know what went on then, what were your primary sources?
Stephen Roberts: Well, Hansard as we know, it is really a 19th Century creation, and although speeches were recorded in some places before Hansard, our main source for the project has been the Journals of the House of Commons, which are immensely detailed in terms of procedure. We know exactly what motions were put to Parliament and what the voting figures were, but we don’t have any particularly authoritative record of speeches that was official. We rely for speeches largely on diarists. We have a handful of unofficial diarists who kept the record of Parliament, and if it wasn’t for their endeavours, we would know very little of the speeches that were made, except for those that were printed. And the problem with printed speeches, published speeches, is that they were often printed and published for a particular purpose, and were crafted for the audience, so the parliamentary diarists who sat informally taking the record of what they were hearing are our best and most reliable source really, because they weren’t motivated by a particular desire to put across a particular slant on what was going on, because they were writing privately, not intended for publication at all.
[15:05] AH:  So, a slightly more diverse body of people made up the MPs in the 1640s than was normally the case. How did they divide into Royalist and Parliamentarian at the outbreak of Civil War?
Stephen Roberts:  We should say that one problem, while we talk about people, is that we are always talking about men, of course, which is an important point to make – there is very little female influence over anything that is going on in Parliament. But as to how it divides in terms of Royalist and Parliamentarian, you could say that the Royalist Party, because that is what we should call it, grew rather slowly and incrementally, really. You couldn’t immediately say, for example, in 1640, that there were Royalist and Parliamentarians; these groups tended to be forced into being by particular crisis points. So, for example, in 1641, the Attainder, and trial and execution of the Earl of Strafford, who was one of Charles I’s chief ministers, was an important point at which opinion divided in a kind of party way, with 50-some odd MPs declaring themselves as “Straffordians” – people who were prepared to support Strafford against the parliamentary opposition. And there are similar subsequent crunch-points where opinion would be forced to divide.
[17:43] AH: And what relationship did the House of Commons have with the House of Lords in the Long Parliament?
Stephen Roberts:  In the Long Parliament, it was an integral aspect of parliamentary government. There were constant communications between the two Houses and you find MPs in the House of Commons being specialist at taking messages to the Lords, which isn’t just carrying out the message, it was involving discussions in the Lords and being a liaison officer, if you like, between the two Houses. That was quite an important aspect of parliamentary government. It is important to fit the House of Lords into this, this history. We have written the history of the House of Commons in this period but the Lords get a mention on every page practically , as far as the Long Parliament is concerned. So Commons – Lords’ relations are something that we have been able to cast a lot of light on and it is a crucial aspect of the parliamentary history of the period.
[19:54] AH:  Who were the Speakers, and how did their role differ from that of today?
Stephen Roberts: The Speakers today can be just popular MPs, elected by their fellows, and anyone can be a Speaker today if he or she commands enough support from the House of Commons. But in the period 1640 to 1660, they were all lawyers, lawyers of different kinds. Most of them were barristers but you could just have a legal training and be a credible Speaker. You had to have then, though, still have the support of your colleagues and that is what brought all of the Speakers to the chair. We have a custom today where the Speaker is brought to the chair unwillingly. A modern Speaker is elected in that way, they have to pretend that they don’t want the job, and this was true also of the period 1640 to 1660. It was an established custom even before 1640 that a Speaker had to be, declare themselves unwilling to do it. This is partly a kind of expression of unworthiness, that they aren’t fit for the task in hand but, in some cases, it was probably a genuine expression of unwillingness, because it was a very difficult job in the 17th Century to command the respect of your fellows in turbulent times. The average age of the Speakers fell in the period we are talking about. I think Speaker Lenthall was about 47 when he became Speaker.
[34:43] AH: There are many different names for the Parliaments that met between 1640 and 1660. One of them stands out as particularly different from the others – the Barebone’s or Nominated Assembly. Could you explain how that was different?
Stephen Roberts: The key is the name, “Nominated Assembly”. It was different because the members were nominated by Oliver Cromwell and his council, rather than elected by the people. In fact, there is some debate as to whether the 1653 Parliament should be called a parliament at all, in the sense that it was not elected. But we have treated it as a parliament in our project, and when the Nominated Assembly first assembled in July 1653, within a couple of days it has started calling itself, declared itself to be a parliament. And we have called it that in our project because to remove it, as it were, from consideration simply because the members were nominated and not elected would do violence, really, to understanding the parliamentary history of the period. It’s called “Barebone’s Parliament” by some, after one of the members whose surname was Barbon or Barebon, but, of course, it also implies a kind of contemptuous phrase, or a contemptuous term – Barebones meaning kind of “not a full parliament”. So it is a handy term of opprobrium really, for an assembly for those who opposed it at the time and subsequently. I think the most interesting aspect of the Nominated Assembly or Barebone’s Parliament, is its radicalism. It is certainly the most radical of the assemblies that we have been considering in these volumes. It came up with all kinds of ideas for law reform, for social reform, for changing the laws on deBt and on agriculture, and all kinds of social topics that most parliaments rather recoiled from legislating about. But, unfortunately, the divisions within the Parliament between the radicals and the conservatives eventually got the better of it and it had to eventually dissolve itself in December 1653.
[37:18] AH:  Of course, the Nominated Assembly was replaced by the Protectorate Parliament – and there were three Protectorate Parliaments. To what extent do you feel they provided stable Government during the 1650s?
Stephen Roberts:  The two Parliaments of Oliver Cromwell were summoned by means of Britain’s first written constitution, called the Instrument of Government, so to that extent these Parliaments were brought into being as part of a genuine attempt to establish stability – pollical stability – in the country. And for the first time, these Parliaments were convened under a constitution rather than just being called by the sovereign at the time. Unfortunately again, the Parliaments of the 1650s had a rocky parliamentary time of it. The 1654 Parliament only met for a matter of months and was dissolved by Oliver Cromwell in exasperation without any single piece of legislation having been passed. The 1658 Parliament was rather more successful, but it did contribute to political stability in the Country in the sense that there was representation of the country in Parliament. But I think by the mid-1650s, the political divisions in the country were becoming so severe really, and so divisive, that it was very hard to establish a parliament without political division being a dominant theme within it.
[39:02] AH:  Given that the Rump Parliament abolished the House of Lords in 1649, why did Cromwell bring into being an Upper House in 1658?
Stephen Roberts: The so-called “Other House” – they were careful not to call it the House of Lords when it came back into being in the late 1650s – was another attempt to achieve pollical stability, not least because it was an expression, a manifestation really, by elements of Cromwell’s earlier Parliaments who wanted a return to previous modes of government. But Cromwell’s Other House wasn’t the same as the House of Lords in 1649, the one that had been abolished. It has no hereditary aspect to it. It was simply another body that was wholly reliant on Lord Protector Cromwell, so to that extent it was a way of propping up the regime and to make more coherent the support for the government. It was a way really, I suppose, of bolstering the Cromwellian establishment against its Republican critics.
[42:34] AH: So to round things off, Stephen, I’d like to ask what you feel are the key consequences and legacies of the parliamentary history of this revolutionary period for understanding our Parliament today?
Stephen Roberts:  For those who are interested in the technicalities of Parliament, the 1640 – 1660 period has lots of aspects, such as the divisions and so forth that taken in Parliament, that take place in Parliament, that are visible today. There are certain aspects of continuity that we can see procedurally. But I think the most important legacy really is the institutional one of showing that in 1640 to 1660, Parliament became an institution that could not be dispensed with for the first time. After 1660, no monarch could ignore Parliament. Even those who hated Parliament as a result of the Civil War could not wish it away and instead of being simply an event that took place from time to time at the King’s behest, Parliament forced itself into the political landscape of the UK to become an indispensable part of government. And 1640 to 1660 shows, in all detail, how that took place. So that is probably the most important legacy of the period, and probably, the most important lesson that one can learn from studying these volumes.
[44:15] AH: Well, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from this conversation Stephen, so on behalf of our listeners, I’d like to give you a big thank you.
Stephen Roberts: Thank you Andy. It’s been a great pleasure.