Time and the Commons

Our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, explores the development of the late night culture at the House of Commons…

'The House Wot Keeps Bad Hours', John Doyle, 18 July 1831 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The House Wot Keeps Bad Hours’, John Doyle, 18 July 1831 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The above John Doyle print of July 1831, ‘The House wot keeps bad hours’, shows the House of Commons in session with the clock showing seven o’clock in the morning. Members are crowded on the benches, asleep or half asleep; the clerk, barely conscious, is supporting his head with one hand. They are all being harangued, angrily, by the ultra Tory Sir Charles Wetherell, who with a group of allies had to the mounting irritation of the government majority, been conducting a rearguard action against the Reform bill by moving successive motions to adjourn the House.

The title might have been used at any time since then, for the Commons’ reputation for sitting longer and later than any other in the world has remained unchallenged. In the 1850s the journalist George Augustus Sala described a debate in the House of Commons at 2am, commenting

at the first blush, there seems no earthly reason why the legislative business of the nation should not be got over during the day, or, at the outside, before the night were spent. The French Deputies, Conventionalists, or Representatives in the national Assembly, in their stormiest and most prolonged debates, seldom heard the chimes at midnight; and, ardent parliamentarians as are the Americans, it is only towards the immediate close of the session that Congress keeps for two or three days and nights a sort of Saturnalia of untimely sittings [Twice around the clock p. 358]

It was not just a matter of long days. The House of Commons also became known as the legislative chamber that sat for a greater part of each year than just about any other in the world.

Why did the House of Commons become so addicted to late sittings? The story of the House’s use of time from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth is one of a continuous drift towards sitting later and later in the day. In the sixteenth century the House would normally meet at 8am and sit until 11, dealing at first with private business for an hour or so before moving on to the public business by around 9. Dinner, the main meal of the day, would take place around 11 or later, and the afternoon would be reserved for the meetings of Committees. The drift to a later time of sitting is first evident in the mid-seventeenth century, and becomes more marked over the next fifty years. From the early eighteenth century the great majority of debates began in the early afternoon, between midday and 2pm. By the end of the century the normal beginning of public business had become as late as 5pm. With the House beginning so late, it was bound to rise very late as well. Sittings after midnight became increasingly common.

This may have been due to the pressure on ministerial time, and underlying this point must be the growth of the House’s business. The increase in the range and quantity of matters dealt with by the House of Commons in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century included colonial affairs, especially after the effective nationalisation of the East India Company in the 1780s, and Irish business after Union in 1800. There were plenty of procedural reasons to explain the extended sittings of the House. The House’s procedures were, it has been said, those of an opposition, which made it easy to put obstacles in the way of the House coming to a decision on anything. The most obvious of these was the capacity of Members to move the adjournment of the House, as Charles Wetherell was doing in 1831.

But the House of Commons’ peculiar sitting hours is also symptomatic of more fundamental institutional roles and cultures, and their relationship to the national social and cultural landscape. Parliament created a strange sort of artificial community composed of a rich mixture of cultures from across a kingdom. It was natural that there should have been different pressures on the use of time when at Westminster: country gentlemen were anxious to use their time in London for personal business of various kinds, including the an intense period of shopping and socialising that would eventually become the London season; lawyers, merchants and manufacturers would carry on their practice or businesses at the same time; government officials and senior politicians were more anxious to extract decisions from the House of Commons. But by the early eighteenth century the gentry elite – from which an increasing amount of the Members of the House were drawn – had become very late risers during their stays in London, with social events continuing well into the night. In the 1730s the Speaker blamed the late start of the House on officers of state coming late to the House, but he said that members accepted it ‘as suiting their late hours of pleasures, exercise, or other private avocations’. More than a century later the journalist Sala suggested that

We are altogether a sitting-up late people. The continental theatres are all closed by eleven. We dismiss our audiences sometimes at midnight, oftener at half-past, or a quarter to one in the morning. Our fashionable balls commence when those of other nations are terminating. We may not dine so late, but then we sup heavily, hours afterwards. Night life in London does not commence till the “small hours”, yet in dissipated Paris, you may count the cafes and supper rooms on your fingers whose portals are open at one o’clock in the morning.

Sala drew a contrast between the salaried French senator who ‘drives down to the Luxembourg in his brougham, about three in the afternoon, dozes for a couple of hours on a well-stuffed bench, goes home to dine, drink coffee, play tric-trac, read the Gazette de France, or receive a select circle of pensioned fogies like himself’, with the English Member of Parliament, who ‘receives nothing a year’, and works hard responding to constituents, studying for debates and attending meetings.

Add that the English Member of Parliament has to be, over and above all this, a man of business or pleasure: with a wife and family very often, with a turn for literature, or art, or science, or natural history. He is a merchant or banker, and must drudge in his counting-house, like the meanest of his clerks, … he is a celebrity of the fashionable world: he must pay his morning visits, ride in the Park, show himself at the ‘Corner’, lounge through his clubs, drop in the opera at night, and pervading it like a nightmare, there is the real business of his life – the House.

PS

 

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Parliaments Politics and People seminar: Jennifer Wells, Crafting empire: republican imperialism and parliamentary policy 1647-60’

Our ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar is back for a new term. Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section reports back from Jennifer Wells’ opening paper…

Jennifer Wells’ paper opened with an image of the frontispiece to Sir Anthony Weldon’s tract ‘A Cat May Look Upon a King’ (published in 1652 after Weldon’s death), which detailed the careers of several kings of England, and in particular concentrated on the perceived scandalous shortcomings of James I. By exposing the folly of kingship Weldon’s tract argued in favour of the establishment of a republic. The result, so the tract suggested, would be a marked increase in shipping and trade. During the 1650s various other authors, notably James Harrington in Oceana, also considered the theme of empire, monarchy and the benefits and problems associated with republics. What Wells’ paper proposed was that at the heart of the imperial expansion of the period following the death of Charles I was a programme closely mapped onto the precedent of the republican Roman past. She thus set out to consider how such classical republicanism served to justify English expansion in Ireland and Scotland and how the Roman model offered the new English state a template for managing their new colonies and subjugated territories.

In the course of the paper Wells employed the examples of Sallust, Tacitus and other classical authors to demonstrate how their conceptions of the Roman state were re-employed by the state-builders of the English republic. In so doing, they also followed the example of Machiavelli who in his Discourses, having rejected the models of the ancient Etruscans, and Spartans and Athenians, turned to the Roman model as the most suitable analogy for modern imperial expansionism. For the English of the 1650s the Roman republican state, built in the aftermath of the overthrow of a tyrant monarch (Tarquinius Superbus), also served as a template for their new experiment.

Wells considered how the Roman example was apposite not just in terms of the English need to acquire new territories but also in its management of subjugated areas. Thus the programme of transportation of elite families, colonization in Ireland, and imposition of a lingua franca (in this case English rather than Latin) on Scots Highlanders and Irish speakers whose first languages were differing forms of Gaelic, might also point to an emulation of the way in which the Romans sought to suppress and homogenize those within the imperial bounds.

Wells closed with a brief consideration of some of the central personalities of the period: George Monck (the future duke of Albemarle), Sir Henry Vane, Algernon Sidney and Bulstrode Whitelocke. All in differing ways exercised their influence towards the establishment of English trading or colonial ventures that also drew on classical precedents.

This was a thought-provoking opening to the term and the question and answer session was consequently both lively and lengthy. At the outset Wells had particularly invited comments on her thesis and there were a number of observations made about some of the conceptual problems she had raised; for example, the difficulties of proving that there was any particularly ‘Roman’ model in evidence, beyond the frequent employment of classical rhetoric that was all too common in a classically educated elite. It was also difficult to disentangle to what extent employment of classical models served merely to legitimize an unplanned and ad hoc series of developments rather than being the template for a particular programme. The role of Cromwell himself was raised and the all too complex realities of political society between the fall of Charles I and collapse of the regime. Many of those initially influential (like Algernon Sidney) had after all fallen from grace by the time that Cromwell had taken on the quasi-monarchical position of his later years. Perhaps most of all the various contributions pointed to the difficulties of attempting to observe in the 1650s a concept of empire distinct from both earlier (for example Tudor political rhetoric) and later (the experience of the 1670s and beyond) interpretations of state and imperial developments. The session closed with a warm invitation to the speaker to return at the end of her research and present her eventual conclusions.

RDEE

Join us next week for a rather different ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ topic. Harm Kaal (Nijmegen) will speak on ‘Popular politics: the friendly match between sport and politics in the Netherlands, c.1960-1980s’.  Full details here.

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Defection, by-elections and Europe…in the 1970s.

In tomorrow’s by-election in Clacton, former Conservative MP Douglas Carswell will contest his previous seat after defection to UKIP. Carswell’s strong difference of opinion with his party over the issue of Europe has echoes of a different by-election – Lincoln in 1973 – but the parties and positions were reversed.

When Britain was applying to join the then European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1960s and 1970s it was the Labour party who were divided on the issue and had a significant minority opposed to membership. In 1971 the Conservative leader Ted Heath put the question of entry to the EEC to the Commons, and Labour MPs were instructed to vote against. This caused real issues for a number of Labour MPs, mostly on the right of the party, who were pro-European. Amongst these were some of the MPs who later formed to the Social Democrat Party in the 1980s.

Dick Taverne, MP for Lincoln, would later join the SDP, but he left the Labour party much earlier. As a committed pro-European he rebelled against the party leadership and voted for joining the EEC, and in doing so lost the support of his constituency party. In his recent interview for our oral history project, he discussed how he left the Labour party and forced a by-election, standing as an independent social democrat candidate:

And my local party was absolutely clear about it and they said: ‘If you vote for entry against the three line whip we will withdraw support’. So I did. And they did. A big battle ensued, in fact it became a national battle, because there was a Granada World in Action programme which televised a debate in which I confronted the leader of my local party, Leo Beckett, and some of his followers. In which they said ‘Didn’t we support you? Weren’t we on the door step with you?’ and I said ‘Yes you were and of course I take note of your opinions but I am not a puppet. I don’t vote as I am instructed by my party masters and I am going to vote for entry’. (You can listen to this clip, and more, on our website)

The 1973 Lincoln by-election put both local party activists and Taverne’s fellow-MPs who sympathised with his stand, but did not want to force the issue with the party, in a difficult position. He remembered that “one third of my local party joined me, which was very brave because they worked for the party all their lives, they were due to be expelled.” However, support from fellow-MPs, even quietly, was very difficult: “I got nudges of support, they’d hope I do well. I mean Roy was absolutely delighted when I won – Roy Jenkins – but he couldn’t possibly.”

Despite winning the by-election, Taverne continued to face difficulties on his return to the House of Commons. In the following extract, he remembers being viewed as a ‘traitor’ to his party, and losing that support:

Taverne won the following general election but lost his seat in October 1974. He wrote a book calling for a third, centrist party in British politics and when the SDP was formed in the 1980s he joined, now sitting in the Lords as a Liberal Democrat peer. Whilst the Clacton by-election is in very different circumstances, the vexed issue of British membership of Europe remains.

EP

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Putting aside party controversy: party organisers and the First World War

One hundred years ago this month, the main British political parties decided to prioritise war in Europe over electoral battles. Dr Kathryn Rix, of the Victorian Commons, tells us more…

In October 1914 the Conservative Agents’ Journal urged party organisers in the constituencies that the outbreak of war made it necessary to put aside ‘party controversy and acrimony’, and ‘Keep the Flag Flying’. A similarly patriotic note was struck by the editor of the Liberal Agent, who wrote that

the complete cessation of Party strife, conceived at Westminster and loyally observed in the constituencies throughout the length and breadth of the land, receives the assent of every Liberal Agent, for in this life and death struggle, all must be for the State.

At the end of August 1914, the Chief Whips of the Liberal, Conservative and Labour parties had signed an electoral truce, agreeing that any by-elections held before January 1915 (or the end of the war, should that come sooner) would not be contested, allowing the party which previously held the seat to retain it. This agreement was subsequently extended, and greatly diminished the number of contested by-elections held between 1914 and 1918. It did not, however, eradicate electoral warfare completely. There was, for example, a contest at Merthyr Tydfil in November 1915 between rival Labour candidates. Moreover, as Martin Pugh points out, this formal truce between the parties masked their continued antagonism: when matters such as the shape of the post-war electoral franchise were raised, the rival parties still ‘manoeuvred for advantage’.

The political ceasefire prompted by the outbreak of war had other effects, such as the granting of an amnesty to suffragettes who had been imprisoned, and the suspension of militant activity by the Women’s Social and Political Union. The curtailing of party hostilities extended to municipal level also. The Conservative Agents’ Journal reported in October 1914 that in several towns, including Manchester, Rochdale, Salford and Bury, the three main parties had agreed to discourage contests for local council seats.

For constituency agents, September and October were usually busy months, when the annual registration courts took place. These revised the lists of voters drawn up by the local overseers. The political parties played an important part in this process, collecting information to ensure that as many of their supporters were registered as possible, and objecting to the claims of political opponents. Much of the preparatory work was done over the summer, and in many constituencies, agents carried out their duties in the registration courts in autumn 1914 as before, working on the assumption that a general election would take place in 1915 as planned. In some constituencies, a more conciliatory note was struck, and rival agents made agreements not to lodge objections to political opponents, ‘as evidence of patriotic feeling’.

The danger that men who were fighting for their country might lose their votes (the franchise being based in part on twelve months’ residence) had already prompted the government to act swiftly to pass the Electoral Disabilities (Removal) Act soon after the outbreak of war. Based on a similar measure passed in 1900 during the Boer War, it provided that ‘members of the Reserve, Militia, Yeomanry, and Territorial Forces’ should not be excluded from the electoral register ‘by reason of absence on the Naval or Military service of the Crown’.

In July 1915 the situation changed significantly for party organisers when a measure was passed to postpone the next general election and suspend work on the parliamentary electoral registers. Speaking in favour of this bill, the Glasgow MP Thomas McKinnon Wood informed the Commons that Scottish Liberal agents had told him that ‘We are all engaged in recruiting work or thrift work, and we do not want to make a useless register this year’. However, although registration work was curtailed, party organisers were keen that political activity in the constituencies should not cease entirely. The professional party agents were naturally concerned to prevent the winding down of party organisation and the consequent loss of their salaries. Later that year, the Liberal Whips sent a circular to the chairmen of local Liberal associations urging them

as far as possible to keep the organisation alive by the retention of your Agent, who has many duties in the working of the constituency beyond registration, and who, during war time, is called upon to undertake much unpaid public work.

From the very beginning of the war, agents had set aside their political duties to help the war effort. The Liberal Agent in January 1915 printed a ‘Roll of Honour’ of agents who had enlisted. Among those who saw active service were Major Charles Tippett, formerly Conservative agent for Sudbury in Suffolk, who was killed at Gallipoli in August 1915. Major Thomas Bagley, another Conservative agent, who had been secretary to the Tariff Reform League, died of dysentery on his way home from Salonika, and was buried in Greece in November 1915. Serving at Ypres, Sergeant-Major J.C. Nicholson, a former bank clerk who was Conservative agent for Doncaster, 1904-8, and then for North-West Staffordshire, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in March 1916,

For conspicuous gallantry on all occasions, especially when in charge of wire parties. He has also performed excellent work in repairing parapets under heavy fire, and has invariably shown a marked devotion to duty.

Other agents contributed through work for bodies such as the Red Cross and in the recruiting campaign. The chief Liberal agent, Sir Robert Hudson, led the way, overseeing the collection and administration of almost £17 million for the British Red Cross Society. In July 1915, Sir Harry Samuel praised the ‘splendid’ endeavours of Liberal, Conservative and Labour agents in the recruiting campaign, for which their organisational skills and local knowledge of their constituencies were clearly useful. At national level, the chief professional organisers of the parties became joint secretaries of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, deploying the machinery of party organisation, such as offices, clerical staff and canvassers, to undertake this crucial work. While the party truce may have curtailed the need for the usual work of electioneering and registration, party organisation was by no means redundant. And with the appointment in 1916 of the Speaker’s Conference to discuss post-war registration and electoral reform, party organisers began to think about a new political landscape in which their electoral battles, in abeyance for the duration of the war, would resume.

KR

Recommended reading:

Martin Pugh, Electoral reform in war and peace, 1906-18 (1978)

John Ramsden, The Age of Balfour and Baldwin 1902-1940 (1978)

 

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Magna Carta in Coventry

The wonderful Public Catalogue Foundation website discussion strand, Art Detective, has been hosting a discussion about this picture at St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry. There’s documentary evidence about when the picture was painted, though it is rather confusing: an entry in the city’s accounts for 1626 says ‘Payd for making of the pictures of King James & King Charles for the hall £6.’ There is also a reference to a picture of the (or a) king in the city’s accounts in 1661:

Laid out for the city in London, for the kings arms in oil and gold, and the frame £3; for ditto., in water colours, eight feet large25s; for the two kings’ pictures with the frames £5 10s; for three cases to bring them all down in, 12s 10d.

This is confusing, as it may or may not refer to the same two pictures as the 1626 entry, and may refer to a new picture or an old one being restored (and framed).

The discussion contains much speculation about what the picture is based on. It doesn’t seem to me much to resemble the usual Van Dyck portraits of Charles I, in fact. It seems more closely to resemble this print, though there are plenty of differences too:

Portrait of Charles I enthroned, engraving © Trustees of the British Museum

Portrait of Charles I enthroned, engraving © Trustees of the British Museum

But the really interesting thing is the existence of the Magna Carta scroll. Given that Sir Edward Coke, the great popularizer of Magna Carta, was recorder of Coventry from 1614 until his death in 1634 and also the town’s MP in 1624 and 1625 (though in the latter year he finally sat for Norfolk) this seems very significant. It may well be linked to arguments surrounding the Petition of Right in 1628, and to the king’s more emollient answer to the Petition on 7 June than on previous occasions. But it’s also possible that it is linked to the complex dispute over Coventry’s parliamentary election in March 1628, which is heard in the House of Commons on 9 April, with Coke, as the town’s recorder, supporting the case of the opponents of the corporation (who were also opponents of the Forced Loan of 1626, a key element of the dispute which led to the Petition of Right and much citation of Magna Carta). Full details and discussion of this dispute can be found in our article on Coventry in this period.

PS

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Back to the future: Scottish parliaments in context

In the last of our series of blogposts on Anglo-Scottish relations, Dr Alastair Mann, Senior Lecturer at the University of Stirling, describes the Scottish Parliament project…

As we approach the momentousness of the 2014 referendum for Scottish independence the past seems to collide with the future in the oddest of ways. Seven years ago, in 2007/8, the Scottish Parliament Project, based at St Andrews University, launched the Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, (RPS)  a vast online resource that traces the records of Scotland’s old parliament from before Wallace and Bruce to the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707. A great watershed in the History of Scotland and the British Isles, the merging of two sovereign parliaments such that the states of Scotland and England ceased to exist and embraced a marriage of political, economic and religious convenience, was now marked by a digitised edifice. This monument to the past, of 500 years and of 16 million words of surviving legislation and minutes, is a vital source for students and researchers; it is free to use. It is the most detailed cross-section of the lives and concerns of medieval and early modern people of Scotland. The National Records of Scotland (Edinburgh) now host the website.

2007 saw RPS launched at the end of a ten year project which began when Michael Forsyth, Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, agreed to fund the research following an approach made by the project director, Professor Keith Brown, in June 1996. Only four weeks later John Major, then Prime Minster, announced in the House of Commons that the project would be funded. The context was that the Labour opposition, under Tony Blair’s leadership, was committed to establishing a devolved parliament in Edinburgh if they won the election the following year, and Conservative ministers, opposed to devolution, were keener to support Scottish cultural initiatives. Indeed, the announcement to support the project was made the day after it was also announced that the ancient Stone of Scone, the inauguration stone of the kings of Scots, would be returned to Scotland from its then resting place in London’s Westminster Abbey. When Tony Blair won his landslide victory in 1997 it was with the promise to hold referendums for a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, theorising at the time that devolution would be the weapon to defeat nationalism. In the Scottish referendum that followed in September that year, 75% of those who voted approved the creation of the new Scottish parliament, and the first elections and first session took place in 1999. So, to invert what the last Chancellor of Scotland, James Ogilvy, earl of Seafield, said when he adjourned the old parliament in March 1707 – it was the beginning of a new, not ‘the end of an auld song’. Subsequently, in cultural and also some political unanimity, MSPs from all political parties, and presiding officers David Steel (Liberal Democrat), George Reid (Scottish National Party) and Alex Fergusson (Conservative), offered support, and additional funding was forthcoming through three first ministers (all Labour) and the then (all-party) Scottish Executive.

RPS is a record worth studying: made in Scotland and made for everyone. Easy to use with its parallel translation of all the entries and acts (from old Scots and Latin to computer searchable English), carefully checked against the old registers written out by early scribes; it brings the past to the eyes of the present. Place and personal names are easily located along with countless themes from hunting, witchcraft, football and environment, to taxation, warfare, marriages and family law. As much as any modern assembly, the old parliament was a microcosm of the nation. Through its judicial, economic, social, security, foreign and (so central to pre-modern life) religious policy, it was everywhere or more accurately where it sought to go. Clearly, though, the political system before 1707 was not about indirect rule sanctioned by the majority of a universal electorate, but on the other hand it was not entirely unrepresentative. Nobles and clergy attended the single-chamber parliament by right of summons and officers of state as crown nominees. The burgh (town) and shire (county) commissioners (MPs) were elected, and there was much competition for seats. The members in the Scottish Parliament ‘represented’ their localities, shires, burghs, regional earldoms and landed estates. The link with parliament was always land or property, certainly. Land was in a ‘best worst’ position to represent the interests of the tenant farmers, craftsmen, fishermen and general populace. When a Fifeshire laird sought to use parliament to protect his interests in coal and salt he indirectly represented the interests of his coal and salt workers. This was no democracy and yet it was a system attuned to the needs of pre-modern society.

Parliaments and kings govern people as well as territory and so before 1707 they became involved in the social fabric: education at school and university, morality private and public, policies over the poor and idle, and legislation that protected minors, inherited wealth, rights of way and supported town authorities in a variety of initiatives to re-build urban areas, harbours and bridges after war, fire and flood, came on thick and fast. More generally, however, this also confirms the existence of a proud parliamentary culture and one that is as old as that of England.

Today the ‘Yes’ and ‘Better Together’ referendum campaigns both claim they are acting as ‘Scottish patriots’, and why not. Over the Anglo-Scottish parliamentary Union of 1707 this label could have been given to those who voted for and against the union, with both sides looking for the best means to secure Scotland’s economy, security and national religion. Some on both sides sold out but many others were men of principle. The choices in 1706/7 before the over 200 members of parliament who voted on the treaty of union were just as troubling, contradictory and divisive as those before us in 2014. The final vote that took place in January 1707 was also closer than it appears: while 110 members voted for union and 67 voted against it, some 46 abstained or absented themselves: thus 110 were in favour while 113 were not in favour. Well might modern pollsters have had fun with such a close race, and a fascinating one at that. If the roots of a divorce are found in the courtship and marriage that came before it, let me recommend the Records of the Parliament of Scotland as a means to understand the long history of England and Scotland – brothers, rivals, enemies, comrades, friends and neighbours.

AM

Alastair Mann is co-editor of the Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 and they can be found at http://www.rps.ac.uk/.

For a longer summary and comparisons between the old and new Scottish parliaments see his article ‘A Brief History of an Ancient Institution: The Scottish Parliament’.

See here for the other blogposts in our series on Anglo-Scottish relations

Posted in diplomatic history, Early modern history, England and Scotland, medieval history, Politics, social history | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Agincourt, Dick Whittington and trials with Latin: a summer placement at the History of Parliament

From time to time student volunteers join sections of the History for short placements. This summer, the 1422-1504 section played host to David Whitehorn, a second-year history undergraduate from Royal Holloway, University of London. David writes of his experience:

I have to admit I didn’t really know anything about the History of Parliament before I applied for the placement, but over my time here I have come to realise what a valuable resource it is for both historians and the general public. One thing that struck was the amount of time and effort that goes into producing the series: the section I’ve been working on (1422-1504) has been in production since before I was born. It is only with this expenditure of time that such detailed and meticulously researched work can be produced. An office full of boxes of envelopes of research notes was testament to the depth and scale of the series as well as the fact that it started before the use of computers had really taken off. It is with that in mind that I write my reflections on the brief period that I have spent with the History of Parliament.

One of my tasks while I have been here has been to look at the role of customs officials, some of whom went on to become MPs. One of these customs officials was none other than Richard Whityngton, the man who inspired the well-known story of Dick Whittington. In between several stints as mayor of London, Whityngton also served as a customs official collecting customs on ‘wools, hides and woolfells’ in the ports of London. There was, however, no mention of a cat. Another highlight of my time here was traveling to the National Archives at Kew to work with some original documents. I photographed some documents that had been written by the very customs officials that I had been researching in the days before. The old parchment documents stretch for several metres and are packed with almost indecipherable writing. Thankfully, I was only photographing the documents, rather than having to understand them as my Latin is less than fantastic and medieval handwriting is very different from modern writing. However, I would concede that I think fifteenth-century writers would have similar trouble dealing with my scrawl. I also spent some time doing some research into the MPs who fought at the Battle of Agincourt, for which the 600-year anniversary is coming up next year. I was surprised by how many there were who had fought at Agincourt, demonstrating how the composition of Parliament has changed over the years, as I can’t imagine many of their modern day counterparts doing likewise.

All in all, it has been an interesting insight into what it is like to work on a major historical research project and I have learnt a lot about how much work goes into projects like this as well as learning some interesting facts about Parliament in the fifteenth century.

DW

For more on Parliament and Agincourt, see our blogpost ‘The legend of Agincourt in Parliament

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