Welcome to the History of Parliament blog!

Here we share posts about our current research projects, wider parliamentary history, highlights from our events, seminars and conferences, and future publications.

The History of Parliament’s core work lies in researching and writing series of volumes depicting Parliamentary life and proceedings throughout the past 700 years. These academically rigorous works contain detailed biographies of parliamentarians, studies of constituencies and introductory surveys. The Sections currently underway are: Commons 1422-1504, Commons 1640-1660, Commons 1832-1868, Lords 1604-29 and Lords 1715-1790. Follow the links for further information about the History of Parliament and our latest research.

All current published Commons volumes can be found in the research section at historyofparliament.org

Currently four of our Sections post independently as well as  part of the main blog: the Victorian Commons is managed by the Commons 1832-68, the Georgian Lords is managed by the Lords 1715-1790, and James I to Restoration is managed by the Lords 1604-1629 and the Commons 1640-1660.

Find us on Twitter at @HistParl

@TheVictCommons

@GeorgianLords

 

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A Speaker-Elect Makes a Quick Escape from the Parliamentary Turmoil caused by England’s Precipitous Exit from Europe

In light of the recent controversy surrounding the current Speaker of the House of Commons and his position on Brexit, Dr Linda Clark, Editor of the House of Commons 1422-1504 Section discusses how Agincourt veteran, Sir John Popham narrowly escaped assuming the daunting task of Speaker nearing the turbulent end of the Hundred Years’ War…

A chronicler laconically remarked of 1449 that ‘This yere the kynge helde his Parlement … and was all Normandy loste’. When Parliament assembled on 6 November it was promptly moved to Blackfriars away from the ‘infected air’ at Westminster, but the miasma did not all stem from the plague. Quantities of hot air were directed against Henry VI’s government as news reached the MPs that Charles VII had reopened the war in France, and that the depleted English garrisons in Normandy were ignominiously succumbing to his armies. The capital at Rouen had surrendered on 29 October, and the only possibility of avoiding total expulsion from northern France was for a substantial force to be immediately dispatched across the Channel; that required swift grants of subsidies by the Commons.  On 8 November they presented as their Speaker Sir John Popham, one of the Members from Hampshire, whose long and distinguished military career amply qualified him to frame a response to the crisis.

Knighted on the field at Agincourt 34 years earlier, since 1415 Popham had served as a commander of castles, chancellor of Normandy, chamberlain and councillor to the regent and lieutenant of France, and diplomatic envoy to negotiate truces with the French. As the lord of estates in Normandy he could style himself ‘seigneur et baron de Thorigny’, and he had a personal stake in the continuation of the close and long-held ties between duchy and kingdom.  Thought to have been one of just three veterans of the 1415 campaign present in the Parliament, none of his companions knew at first hand as much as he did about the French conquest and the hard struggle to maintain it under Henry V and since that king’s death. His nomination may thus have been intended as a symbolic gesture to signal the Commons’ disgust at how the government had handled French affairs of late, compared with the ‘glory days’ of the past.

It was common form for the Speaker-elect to refer modestly to his own inadequacy and request to be passed over, so it is not surprising that Popham formally declined the office, ostensibly on the grounds of old age and debilitation owing to the hardships of war –expressly ‘debilitate sui corporis guerrarum fremitibus, ipsius Domini Regis et Patris sui obsequiis, ac diversarum infirmitatum vexationibus, necnon senii gravitate multipliciter depressi, considerata’. In fact, he was in his mid to late fifties, and survived for 13 years more. His real reason may have been an all too clear awareness of the daunting nature of the task of Speaker, given the parlous situation in Normandy. For the first recorded time, and uniquely in a medieval Parliament, the nominee’s expressed wish to be excused was respected:  Popham was allowed to stand down. He thus escaped the responsibility of leading the Commons in a turbulent three sessions marked by the assassination of the keeper of the privy seal, the impeachment and murder of the King’s chief minister, the duke of Suffolk, and finally, in June 1450 the collapse of order in the southern counties as defeated and mutinous soldiers fled across the Channel demanding recompense for the loss of their property and livelihoods. 

The catastrophic beginning of the end of the Hundred Years’ War fomented civil war at home.

LC

Further reading:

Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, xii. 82.

J.S. Roskell, ‘Sir John Popham, knight banneret of Charford’, Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club, lii (1959), 43-55.

A full biography of Popham will appear in the forthcoming volumes of The Commons 1422-61.

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Samuel Peploe: scourge of the Jacobites?

In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Stuart Handley, examines the career of the fierce anti-Jacobite clergyman, Samuel Peploe, whose tub-thumping sermons against the rebels in 1715 helped gain him promotion in the early Georgian church.

Samuel Peploe was baptized in 1667, and after attending Oxford University, he was ordained a priest in 1692. In 1700 he was named as vicar of Preston in Lancashire, an area well-known for religious disaffection with its high number of Roman Catholics, non-jurors and Protestant dissenters.

Peploe came to the attention of government ministers for his brave denunciation of the Jacobite rebels during the 1715 Rebellion, when it was alleged that he had mounted the pulpit to exhort his parishioners to abjure the Pretender and remain loyal to the Hanoverian Succession. This led to various officials recommending him for promotion and in 1718 he was named to succeed Ricard Wroe as the warden of Manchester Collegiate Church (see https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2018/06/05/when-is-a-degree-not-a-degree/). However, it is possible that his most singular feat of bravery was not undertaken when the town was occupied by Jacobite forces, before the battle of Preston in November 1715. It seems that Peploe’s bravery was of a more long-standing and persistent nature and less foolhardy than has been previously portrayed. It seems that the particular denunciation marked by historians was probably delivered during the Jacobite protests which were endemic in the period before the battle of Preston when the peace was regularly disturbed by rioting and disorder. Further, it seems likely that Peploe was not actually in the town when it was occupied by Jacobite forces, as the military units and loyal townsmen withdrew from the town as the enemy approached, and joined up with the government forces commanded by Generals George Carpenter and Charles Wills. These eventually gave battle to the Jacobite forces and re-took the town. Whether present or absent, Peploe suffered severe damage to his property as his house was plundered, his horses stolen and his barn destroyed, and this cannot have made him any more charitable to the Jacobites he had regularly denounced.

Peploe, though, was able to take his revenge, in a more measured fashion, through his use of the pulpit. When the rebels were brought to trial, the government chose the most loyal venue available in Lancashire, Liverpool. When a commission of Oyer and Terminer opened there in January 1716, the Reverend Peploe was on hand to open proceedings with a sermon, published as Steadfast Affection to the Protestant Religion and the Happy Government of His Majesty King George in Opposition to the Wicked Designs of the Present Rebellion (London, 1716). He followed this up, when the routine legal courts resumed with the Spring assizes, in preaching a sermon published as God’s peculiar care in the preservation of our religion and liberties: a sermon preached at Lancaster Assizes, the 24th day of March 1716, before Judge Dormer, one of the justices of the King’s Bench at Westminster (London, 1716).

Peploe’s concern for the government and abhorrence of sedition saw him nominated bishop of Chester in 1725. During his tenure of the bishopric, he never dropped his guard over the dangers of sedition in his diocese, especially in Manchester, and remained keenly critical of Roman Catholics and non-jurors, as well as opponents among his local clergy. In November 1740 he denounced to the duke of Newcastle the poisonous nature of the news dispersed by the press. Printing presses in Manchester, Leeds and Chester were deemed the culprits, and among the remedies suggested a hike in taxation to make them more expensive.

The last Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 saw Peploe take to the pulpit once again. His address was published as Popish Idolatry a strong reason why all Protestants should zealously oppose the present rebellion: a sermon preached in the cathedral church of Chester on Sunday the 13th of October 1745, the mayor and corporation being present (London, 1745). In its aftermath, Peploe urged ministers to make some examples from Manchester to deter further opposition to the government. However, he did appeal for clemency for his son-in-law’s cousin, one James Bradshaw, requesting that his capital sentence be commuted to transportation, because Bradshaw had a ‘disorder in his head incident to his family’. Never one to relax his concerns, his last extant letter to the duke of Newcastle in February 1751, bemoaned the ‘spirit of disaffection in and about the town of Manchester’, which had been prevalent for over 40 years.

Peploe died on 21 February 1752 having prospered by his loyalty to the Hanoverian regime. His three daughters married well, while his son succeeded him as warden of Manchester and inherited an estate at Garneston in Herefordshire.

SNH

Georgian lords 2

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Delivering justice: the sovereignty of the people, God’s judgement and the trial of Charles I

As twists and turns in the Brexit debates at Westminster continue, in the third in our series on the momentous events of the winter of 1648-1649 Dr Vivienne Larminie of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section looks at the contentious background to the setting up of judicial proceedings against Charles I, including a unilateral assertion of sovereignty by the Commons

On 8 January 1649, in the Painted Chamber at Westminster, a high court of justice with a purpose unseen previously convened for the first time.  Its brief that day was to devise procedures for the trial in Westminster Hall of Charles I, then imprisoned at Windsor Castle.  There were precedents for incarcerating monarchs and for ensuring they would never trouble their subjects again, but there was no exact precedent for the judicial process that was contemplated – the public trial of a reigning monarch for his ‘treasonable offences’ against his own people.

The trial of Charles I, Westminster Hall, 1649

The court was the product of manoeuvring inside and outside Parliament in the month after Pride’s Purge on 6 December.  Although a trial had been advocated by army agitators and civilian radicals for some time, and indeed had been behind the purge, delivery of their agenda proved fraught with difficulty, even with a House of Commons denuded of their most obvious opponents.  The route ahead had been signalled on 20 December, when, as a condition of continuing to sit, MPs had been required to ‘take the dissent’ from [i.e. formally declare their rejection of] the vote of 5 December to continue negotiations with Charles.  On 23 December 38 MPs had been named to a committee ‘to consider how to proceed in a way of Justice against the King, and other capital Offenders’ and to ‘present their opinions thereupon to the House with all convenient speed’ [Journal of the House of Commons, vi. 102-3], but some were recognised moderates, and not all nominees turned up.  Notable among absentees were lawyers Bulstrode Whitelocke and Sir Thomas Widdrington, custodians of the great seal (which authenticated all official legislation and documentation), but they did participate in ‘a sharp debate’ in the Commons chamber, where ‘the fierce party’ identified Charles as ‘the greatest delinquent, and to be proceeded against in justice’, while others

insisted … that he was not capable of being brought to justice by his subjects, but by God alone; and that having subdued him and his party, there was no need of any thing further, but to secure the Parliament from their enemies rising against them any more: and that might be done without bringing the king to any judicial trial, a thing not read of in any history.          [Bulstrode Whitelocke, Memorials of the English Affairs (1732), 363]

In a further frank exchange of views at the Speaker’s house, ‘we consulted about settling the kingdom by the Parliament, and not to leave all to the sword’.  Here some

were wholly against any King at all, others were against having the present King, or his eldest, or second son, to be King; others were for the third son the Duke of Gloucester (who was among them [i.e. in their custody], and might be educated as they should appoint) to be made King.

Perhaps predictably, ‘they came after a long debate to no resolution at all’ [Whitelocke, Memorials, 364].  Two days later a visit from the clerk to the 23 December committee demanding their advice sent Whitelocke and Widdrington hot-foot ‘out of town purposely to avoid this business’ [Whitelocke, Memorials, 365].

Bulstroke Whitelocke (NPG)

Exactly what alternative options were on the table over this period, apart from the uncompromising package of trial, conviction, and ‘condign [i.e. deserved] punishment’ or payment in blood offered by the militants, has been debated by historians.  So have the actions and motivations of numerous MPs and peers who appeared in the Journals of Commons’ and Lords’ proceedings, and captured the attention of newspaper writers.  Surviving evidence is often ambiguous or contradictory or heavily doctored later; many participants prudently avoided leaving a paper trail.  We know, for instance, that peers including Philip Herbert, 4th earl of Pembroke, and Basil Feilding, 2nd earl of Denbigh, fruitlessly sought a deal with the king, but not precisely what the deal was, or how far it was pursued.  It has been suggested that some, perhaps most, politicians still at Westminster anticipated that Charles would recognise his weakness and accept strict limitations on his rule, and thus that a trial would simply be an exercise in brinkmanship, stopping short of handing out the death penalty.  But it is impossible to know for certain how many seriously contemplated this, or for how long.

What is beyond dispute is that the ordinance for the trial of the king passed by the Commons on 1 January 1649 was rejected by the Lords.  Or that, on 4 January, the Commons passed the ordinance with amendments, and then asserted their right to take such unilateral action.  ‘The People are, under God, the Original of all just Power’, they declared, and ‘the Commons of England, in Parliament assembled, being chosen by, and representing the People, have the Supreme Power in this Nation’.  Therefore, ‘whatsoever is enacted, or declared for Law, by the Commons, in Parliament assembled, hath the Force of Law; and all the People of this Nation are concluded thereby, although the Consent and Concurrence of King, or House of Peers, be not had thereunto’ [Journal of the House of Commons vi. 111].  On 6 January the act establishing a court of justice proclaimed it to be

notorious, That Charles Stuart, the now King of England, not content with those many Encroachments which his Predecessors had made upon the People in their Rights and Freedoms, hath had a wicked Design totally to Subvert the Ancient and Fundamental Laws and Liberties of this Nation, and in their place to introduce an Arbitrary and Tyrannical Government.

Among other means to achieve this, he had waged ‘cruel’ and destructive war on his people, during which ‘thousands’ were ‘murdered’.  For all his ‘high and treasonable Offences’ he ‘might long since justly have been brought to exemplary and condign Punishment’.  At first Parliament had hoped that ‘restraint and imprisonment of his person’ would suffice, but ‘sad experience’ had revealed that this had only encouraged ‘him and his Complices in the continuance of their evil practices, and in raising of new Commotions Rebellions and Invasions’.  To prevent ‘the like or greater inconveniences’, and ‘to the end no Chief Officer or Magistrate whatsoever may hereafter presume traiterously and maliciously to imagine or contrive the Enslaving or Destroying of the English Nation, and to expect Impunity for so doing’ a trial was necessary [Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, ed. C. H. Firth and R. S. Rait (1911), 1253-5].

Charles I at his trial, 1649 by Edward Bower

It is probable that this act differed in detail from the ordinance of 1 January, and that some of the commissioners for the trial mooted then had since been excluded, on the grounds that they would refuse or had refused to act.  Even then, however, of the 135 named on 6 January to preside, only 54 attended the planning meeting on 8 January, and of those, not all went on to participate in the trial itself, or even every day of its preliminaries.  Following his flight to the country (and subsequent return) Whitelocke was not named at all.  Philip Sydney, Viscount Lisle, a member of the 23 December committee, was appointed a commissioner, but apparently did not act, while his brother Algernon Sydney attended preliminaries in the Painted Chamber on 15 and 19 January, ‘but never in Westminster Hall’ [Sydney Papers, ed. R. W. Blencowe (1825), 54].  As he later explained, having listened ‘to what those would say, who had the directing of that business’, he ‘did positively oppose [Oliver] Cromwell, [John] Bradshawe, and others, who would have the trial go on’, concluding that ‘first the king could be tried by no court; secondly that no man could be tried by that court’ [Sydney Papers, ed. Blencowe, 237].  ‘Importuned’ by friends and hoping to ‘blunt the edge of … furious persons’ and do ‘a great deal of good’, as he later claimed, Robert Wallop attended two days of the trial itself, before giving up and leaving Cromwell ‘and the rest to themselves’ [TNA, SP29/49, f. 102].  Among ‘the rest’ was Edmund Ludlowe, who left a more conspicuous and consistent imprint than Cromwell on the records of these turbulent days at Westminster.  That self-described guardian of the public interest considered it his duty to bring ‘the author of so much blood the King to justice, as a tyrant, traytor, murderer, and enemy to the Comonwealth of England’ since ‘the Lord was pleased to strengthen the hands of all that acted therein, who thought it best that as he sinned openly, so he should be tryed, sentenced and executed in the face of the world, and not secretly made away’ [E. Ludlow, A Voyce from the Watch Tower, ed. A. B. Worden (1978), 131].

The upshot of judicial proceedings will be the subject of the next post in this series, due on 30 January.

VL

Further reading

  • C. V. Wedgwood, A King Condemned: The Trial and Execution of Charles I (new edn. With foreword by C. Holmes, 2011)
  • C. Holmes, Why was Charles I Executed? (2007)
  • S. Kelsey, ‘King Charls His Case : The Intended Prosecution of Charles I’ Journal of Legal History xxxix (2018)

Many contemporary publications relating to events surrounding the trial – both pamphlets and newspapers – are available via the subscription resource Early English Books Online.

Biographies of John Bradshawe, Oliver Cromwell, Philip Herbert, 4th earl of Pembroke, Edmund Ludlowe, Algernon Sydney, Philip Sydney, Viscount Lisle, Robert Wallop, Bulstrode Whitelocke, and Sir Thomas Widdrington are currently being prepared by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.

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Top tips for Christmas at the Jacobean court

As History of Parliament staff prepare for their Christmas break, Dr Paul Hunneyball of the Lords 1604-29 section ponders the pleasures and pitfalls that might have awaited a Jacobean courtier 400 years ago…

Tip 1: No partying on Christmas Day

In the early 17th century, unlike today, 25 December was primarily a time for solemn religious observance. The entire royal household was expected to attend church, and listen to lengthy sermons. For James I, who enjoyed a well-argued homily, this was no hardship. Indeed, he so enjoyed the Christmas sermon delivered in 1609 by his favourite preacher, Lancelot Andrewes, that he reputedly kept a copy of it under his pillow. However, even the king found all this gravity a bit much, and in 1607 suggested that he’d like to see a play as well – only to be told firmly by his councillors that this would not be appropriate.

Tip 2: Pace yourself

This sombre start was of course the prelude to 12 days of non-stop celebrations, culminating in Twelfth Night. Strictly speaking, Christmas was deemed to run right through to Candlemas, on 2 February, but the festivities were concentrated into this initial period, the high point of the Jacobean court’s social calendar. What then could people expect?

Tip 3: No surprise presents

The traditional time for exchanging gifts was not Christmas Day but New Year’s Day. And for bishops, peers and other leading courtiers, there were firm regulations about what they should give the king, namely a specific number of gold coins, according to their rank. In return, they received a piece of gold plate of equivalent value, which they were allowed to choose for themselves at the Jewel House. Records show that James was also regularly presented with perfumed gloves – apparently the Jacobean equivalent to the modern default gift of socks.

Tip 4: Nothing exceeds like excess

James’s court was notoriously extravagant, and the watchwords for Christmas food were superfluity and expense. The more costly the ingredients, and the larger the number and variety of dishes, the better. A feast given in 1618 by the royal favourite George Villiers (later 1st duke of Buckingham) included a pie containing 17 dozen pheasants and 12 partridges; the whole meal reportedly cost £600 (more like £79,000 in today’s money).

Tip 5: Know your place

Court life was governed by rigid rules of precedence, which decided the relative importance of each courtier. This affected which rooms people could enter at Whitehall Palace, and also where they sat during meals and entertainments. Arguments between courtiers of similar rank were common, and visiting foreign ambassadors were notoriously fussy, sometimes even boycotting events if they thought that an envoy from a rival state was getting better treatment.

Philip Herbert, earl of Montgomery (attrib. William Larkin, c.1615)

Philip Herbert, earl of Montgomery (attrib. William Larkin)

Tip 6: Turn on the style

Jacobean courtiers were nothing if not competitive, and Christmas was the perfect time to show off the latest fashions, the most expensive outfits, and any personal accomplishments. The festive calendar largely comprised opportunities to attract attention, from dancing and high-stakes gambling, to martial displays such as tilting, and running at the ring. Participants were assessed as much on their appearance as on their abilities, and handsome young courtiers like Philip Herbert, 1st earl of Montgomery used these occasions to burnish their reputation, generally running up heavy debts in the process.

Tip 7: Brush up your Shakespeare

Christmas at court invariably included the regular staging of plays, many of them by the king’s own company, which in the early years of the reign was managed by William Shakespeare. This was the perfect opportunity for the great playwright to showcase his own material, and the 1604-5 season included no less than four of his own works, ‘Measure for Measure’, ‘A Comedy of Errors’, ‘Love’s Labours Lost’, and ‘Henry the Fifth’.

Tip 8: Make your own entertainment

The theatrical highlight of most Jacobean Christmases was the masque performed on Twelfth Night. No expense was spared, with scripts generally penned by Ben Jonson, and ground-breaking costumes, scenery and special effects by Inigo Jones. However, the professional actors got a night off, as masques were an opportunity for the courtiers (sometimes even the queen and the prince of Wales) to strut their stuff. Think amateur dramatics on the most lavish scale. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what most observers remembered afterwards were the costumes, special effects etc., rather than the individual performances.

Thames frost fair, 1608 (Houghton, STC 11403)

Thames ‘frost fair’, 1608

Tip 9: Get your skates on?

Whitehall Palace stood on the north bank of the Thames. Twice in James’s reign, in 1607-8 and 1620-1, the river froze over, rendering it an alternative playground for adventurous courtiers. On the former occasion, there was bowling and dancing, and temporary booths sold food, beer and mulled wine, the latter heated in situ, since the ice was thick enough for fires to be lit on it. (There are no firm records this early of aristocrats skating on the Thames – the sport was then relatively new to Britain – but it’s a possibility; in 1609 Francis Norris, 2nd Lord Norreys amused himself ‘sliding’ on the frozen moat at his Oxfordshire house.)

Tip 10: Say hello to Father Christmas

Forget Santa Claus, a 19th-century rebranding of the medieval St Nicholas. The personification of the festive season is a Jacobean invention, and made his earliest-known appearance in Ben Jonson’s ‘Masque of Christmas’ in January 1617. Jonson described him as ‘attired in round hose, long stockings, a close doublet, a high-crowned hat, with a brooch, a long thin beard, a truncheon, little ruffs, white shoes, his scarfs and garters tied cross’ (Nichols, iii. 234 – full details below). Quite what the assembled courtiers made of this novel character is not recorded, but he’s been with us in some shape or form ever since.

 

PMH

 

Further reading: 

John Nichols, ‘The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities of King James the First’ (4 vols., 1828) [available online at https://archive.org/] 

Ronald Hutton, ‘The Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in Britain’ (1997) 

Ian Currie, ‘Frosts, Freezes and Fairs’ (1996) 

Biographies of Lancelot Andrewes, George Villiers, Philip Herbert and Francis Norris will appear in the History of Parliament’s forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-29.

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Medieval MP of the Month: Santa Claus in Parliament

Here’s a seasonal offering from Hannes Kleineke of the House of Commons 1422-1504 Section for our Medieval MP of Month

While much has rightly been made this year of the career and legacy of Col. Josiah Wedgwood, MP, the founder of the History of Parliament, his pioneering biographical volumes were not without their quirks, and, at times, a degree of involuntary humour. A seasonal example of this is provided by the entry for Nicholas Christmas, MP for Heytesbury in the Parliament of 1491.

Having failed to discover anything about the man, Wedgwood stated laconically:

‘This would almost seem to be a “fake” name – “Santa Claus”; and possibly, Heytesbury returned no real man.’

While Wedgwood’s conclusions might seem quirky, perhaps even quaint, they were not entirely without foundation. It was not unheard of for hard-pressed medieval administrators to insert fake names into official documentation, and Wiltshire was a particular hotbed of this practice. In the 1430s, the clerk of this county on more than one occasion not merely invented the names of the numerous sureties he was required to list in the parliamentary return, but literally exercised some poetic licence. So, in 1432, the clerk made the surnames he listed spell out ‘Robyn Hode Inne Grenewode Stode, Godeman Was Hee’, while a year later he indulged in an even more elaborate prayer for the electoral assembly.

At the same time, while men bearing the surname of Christmas (Crestmas, Crystmas, etc.) are documented in a number of parts of England, no Nicholas Christmas has to date been found at Heytesbury. Yet, where the connexion of the saintly Bishop Nicholas of Myra, whose feast day falls on December 6, with the Christmas season might have seemed as obvious to Wedgwood, as it does to us today, in the medieval period it was simply one of a number of Saints’ days that fell within Advent (rather than the Christmas season proper). Even the wide-spread Christmas-tide custom of having a ‘boy-bishop’ preside over the liturgy on a particular day was associated with Holy Innocents’ Day (28 December) rather than with St. Nicholas. It is thus likely that Nicholas Christmas was indeed a real, if obscure fellow, and for some festive thoughts we may have to look to the Wiltshire county clerk of 1433, perhaps a fore-bear of a certainly fictitious Tiny Tim:

‘God save alle this faire compayne,

Ande gyffe theym grace weel forto spede,

For fayn wold they been ryght mery.

They been ryght mery this too pray hyt hys nede.

Godde thatte alle this worlde ganne make,

Ande for usse dyed apon thee roode tree

Save usse alle.’

H.W.K.

The House of Commons volumes relating to the period 1422-1461, edited by Linda Clark, will be published in 2019 – stay turned on Twitter and our website for further information. 

Posted in Commemorating Josiah C. Wedgwood, medieval history, Medieval MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Reflections on the Vote 100 project and the Lady Astor Statue project #Astor100

The final installment for the Women and Parliament blog series in 2018 is rather appropriately written by Linda Gilroy, former MP for Plymouth Sutton (1997-2010). Linda tells us about an exciting project to raise a statue of the first woman to take her seat in Parliament, Lady Nancy Astor, which is part of the #Astor100 project that will be taking place throughout 2019…

LG MP wall.jpg

Linda Gilroy at the Voice & Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall, in front of the wall of women MP’s names

Celebrating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 with UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project (#Vote100) started for me just over a year ago in October 2017. Plymouth University hosted an event to mark the build-up to Vote 100 and to give some Plymouth school students the chance to explore what the project was all about. I was invited to be on a panel with other women and Plymouth Sutton’s current MP, Luke Pollard to share our experiences about life in parliament and reflections on the first woman in parliament, Lady Nancy Astor who represented the Plymouth Sutton constituency, 1919-1945.

This event also brought the unmissable chance to hear from international Astor scholar Dr Jacqui Turner, who is leading the Astor 100 project in 2019.  I had often wondered what it must have been like for Lady Astor to take on that undented bastion of male privilege, the 1919 House of Commons. Elected in a by-election in November 1919 after her husband was elevated to the House of Lords she was completely alone in facing this challenge. There was no hiding place for her in the hustle and bustle that follows a general election for a whole new parliament.

Dr Turner detailed how, once elected, Astor set about the task of being an MP with a mixture of common sense and humility as well as fearlessness in the wake of the First World War. As Nan Sloane says in her mini biography of Nancy in The Honourable Ladies Volume 1,

‘As the first woman MP in parliament people had massive expectations of her, as much in terms of failure as success … Sensibly she made it her business to build bridges and did so by asking women’s organisations to advise her, and engaging with a variety of groups and individuals.’

She regularly received 2000 letters a week – the resources that came with her privileged personal situation allowed her to ensure that each one received a reply at a time when there were no allowances to employ people to help with casework and other parliamentary duties, which was quite different by the time I became an MP.

Lady Astor also had years of experience gaining the attention of influential people at the

Nancy-Astor-001

Lady Astor

many receptions and dinner parties she had hosted with her husband, Viscount Astor. Once elected she set about using these skills to enable the voices of her constituents, of women and women’s organisations and other early women MPs to command the attention of government at the highest levels. Despite the sexist environment and the stubbornness she faced from many of her colleagues she championed legislation that changed the lives of women and children.

Although Nancy and I come from different political traditions there is much that I respect and admire in what she did. A Conservative MP, she worked on campaigns cross-party with Labour MPs and socialist women, as well as Liberals inside and outside parliament. She supported welfare reforms, equal voting rights and ensured her party passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Bill of 1928 which allowed women to vote on the same terms as men. She advocated on behalf of women nurses and civil servants and defended women’s place in the workforce. She cared deeply about children and families and introduced a private members bill – the first ever by a woman – concerning crucial legislation to protect young people under 18 from alcohol abuse, something which persists in law to this day.

Astor and Wintringham

‘the first two women to sit in parliament’ reproduced courtesy of The Box Plymouth

Nancy was a break from the old tradition and by the time she stood down 24 more women had taken their seat in the House of Commons. As Dr Turner points out before Nancy there was no female voice or point of view; she showed what was possible and opened the door. She showed that a woman could represent people just as well as her male colleagues, who until 1918 had alone in law been deemed fit for the task. Lady Astor on her last day in Westminster in 1945 she was told by a fellow member that the House would miss her. She replied,

‘I will miss the House; the House won’t miss me. It never misses anybody. I have seen ’em all go – Lloyd George, Asquith, Baldwin, Snowden, MacDonald – and not one of them is missed. The House is like a sea. MP’s are like little ships that sail across it and disappear over the horizon.  Some of ’em carry a light. Others don’t. That’s the only difference.’

Nancy Astor did not merely carry a light, she carried a blazing torch.

honorable ladiesA good start has been made to write early women MPs into the history books in the way that they deserve with the publication in October 2018 of mini biographies of the first 168 women to be elected to parliament – Volume 1 of The Honourable Ladies. There has been a flurry of other books and academic papers this year about suffragists and suffragettes, about early women candidates and MPs with more on the way! But we also have much to do to make this history visible to young women today and an excellent way to do this is by raising more statues of women pioneers. This is a big job as there are apparently currently more statues of goats than of women in the UK! But 2019 is an appropriate time to start redressing this deficit with a statue to mark the hundredth anniversary of the ground-breaking role of the first woman MP. The campaign to raise funds for a statue of Lady Astor has begun. The ‘Lady Astor Statue’ project, which is led by local women and supported by Luke Pollard MP, is based in Plymouth but we need help from far and wide to share and donate to ensure that we reach our fund raising goal.

LG

If you have enjoyed celebrating our feminist democratic and parliamentary history through #Vote100 and #VoiceandVote and would like to learn more about how we plan to carry that torch forward see:

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