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




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The Speaker and the same question: a view from the Victorian Commons

In today’s blog Dr Philip Salmon, editor of the 1832-1945 House of Commons project, explores some of the historical background behind recent Parliamentary rulings relating to Brexit.

The rules governing UK parliamentary procedure, not surprisingly, don’t often get much public attention. However, some of the recent decisions by Speaker Bercow serve as an important reminder that the practices of the past can have an important bearing on modern politics. In the absence of a written constitution, political history continues on occasion to have a special relevance in British public life.

One striking example of this is the convention that the same question cannot be put again and again within a parliamentary session. The origin of this might seem obscure, stemming as it does from the early 17th century power struggles between the Crown and the Commons. By the Victorian era, however, it had evolved into an underlying principle of the British parliamentary system, shaping political strategies and enabling the Commons to deal with an ever-increasing amount of business. So much of what the Victorian Commons achieved – from overseeing the creation of Britain’s modern infrastructure to major constitutional and democratic reforms – would not have been possible without this key convention in place. Perhaps more controversially, a great deal of political manoeuvring that took place during this period often involved tactical use of this rule to block the plans of opponents.

Thomas Erskine May (1815-86)

Significantly, when Thomas Erskine May (1815-86) published the first of his famous series of books on parliamentary procedure in 1844, he devoted an entire chapter to this regulation. The rule is ‘necessary’, he explained, ‘in order to avoid contradictory decisions’ and ‘afford proper opportunities for determining’ questions. ‘If the same question could be proposed again and again’, he declared, ‘it would be resolved first in the affirmative, and then in the negative, according to the accidents or the tricks to which all voting is liable’. (Click here to see the original 1844 chapter)

Because the convention was so widely understood, it rarely warranted commentary from the Speaker. When it did, however, the message was unequivocal. A typical incident occurred in 1840, when John Easthope MP, the Liberal owner of the Morning Chronicle newspaper, tried to bring in a bill to exempt Dissenters from being forced to pay local church rates. This was a highly charged issue, touching on the constitutional relationship between the Established Church and the British state. Easthope’s plan involved Dissenters making a declaration of their faith. However, it was ruled out of order by the Speaker, Charles Shaw Lefevre, on the grounds that six months earlier another bill had proposed giving Dissenters exception certificates. The details may have been different but in the Speaker’s view the ends amounted to the same thing. As he explained:

It appears to me, that these two questions are substantially the same; and as the House is aware, that according to the rules, the same question cannot be twice entertained in the same session, I apprehend that they will be of opinion, that I cannot now put this question.

As Erskine May later noted, ‘a mere alteration of the words of a question, without any substantial change in its object, will not be sufficient to evade this rule’.

Bypassing the same question rule, however, has always been possible. In 1845 a series of related motions on the surveillance activities of the Post Office were allowed by the Speaker, because their form varied ‘sufficiently’ for them to ‘constitute a new question’. This ruling helped to confirm the discretionary powers of the increasingly important institution of the Speakership on these and other procedural matters in the Victorian period. It has also always been the case that the Commons can vote to lay aside or modify the rule for a particular issue. In more recent times, for example, this tactic was used to facilitate the proceedings on reforming the House of Lords.

Ultimately there is the option of starting a new session by proroguing Parliament. This has not been resorted to often, and usually only during moments of constitutional crisis. It was famously deployed to break the political deadlock over the Whig ministry’s ‘Great’ Reform Act, after the Lords defeated the second reform bill in October 1831.  In this case the prorogation lasted for seven weeks. In theory, however, a prorogation can be far shorter. In 1721, for example, Parliament was prorogued for just two days in order to enable bills relating to the South Sea Company to be introduced.


For more on Speakers of the House of Commons throughout parliamentary history see:

Taking control: Speaker William Lenthall, precedent and the Long Parliament

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

The murder of Speaker Tresham

Votes for Women and the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916-17

The ‘Election’ of the Speaker in Fifteenth-Century Parliaments

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Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington: a Restoration Politician

Our last Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the IHR was given by Alan Marshall from Bath Spa University, and considered the political role of the important Restoration politician and key member of the CABAL ministry, Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington

This paper dealt with aspects of the political life of Sir Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington, who has been frequently criticized as a statesman. It sought to investigate his political objectives, why he was involved in the world of politics and what his political methods were. It also examined how he undertook his form of politics: both at court and in the way he managed his supporters in Parliament. This was through the ideas behind some of the most significant props of his political thought and action: his attitude to power in the Restoration political world and his use of political rhetoric as part of his attitude to Parliament as well as the creation, shaping, and use of a distinctive public identity.

Arlington learnt his political trade by holding high governmental and court office: first as an ambassador in Spain, then as keeper of the privy purse, next as secretary of state in Whitehall, and finally as lord chamberlain from 1674 until his death in July 1685. Given such offices, and the fluid nature of court life, he demonstrated a remarkable degree of success in managing his position in Restoration political life. This was in spite of coming from what was generally considered to be an inopportune background (the younger son of a middling gentleman) and being saddled with a rather timorous disposition. It was argued that Arlington was a ‘politician’, at least in the sense that the Restoration polity understood the meaning of the word, and, unlike many of those who stood out for their ‘political values’ in the reign, and who consequently tended to fall by the wayside as a result, he remained a notable example of the ‘political survivor’ in the era.

Unlike a number of other key figures of the Caroline regime, Arlington has been rather overlooked by subsequent historians. This may in part be because during his own lifetime he was eclipsed by men like the earl of Danby, and by some of his own ‘creatures’, notably Thomas Clifford. He was the subject of a book-length study before the First World War by Violet Barbour, but since then has tended to be dealt with only in passing. Even Barbour seemed somewhat embarrassed by Arlington’s lack of political principle and Alan’s paper emphasized that above all Arlington was guided by expediency. In many ways this helps explain his longevity at Charles II’s court as it was a mode of operation that tuned in well with the king’s own way of behaving.

Courtliness could be both an important advantage and a problem for Arlington. When he was summoned before the House of Commons threatened with impeachment, his demeanour and careful rhetoric helped win over a potentially hostile assembly. However, when he tried the same tactic with William of Orange when sent on a diplomatic mission to the United Provinces, he failed significantly.

Alan’s paper emphasized the richness of Arlington’s character and above all the skill with which he managed the tricky by-ways of Restoration politics. Unlike many of his peers, he was still in office when he died. If Arlington has always prompted as many questions as answers, it is plain that he is a character well worth re-appraising.


Further Reading

Violet Barbour, Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington, secretary of state to Charles II (1913)


Posted in 17th Century history, Conferences/seminars, diplomatic history, Early modern history, House of Lords 1660-1715, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MP of the Month: Geoffrey Paynell, accusations of incest and the fall of the house of Paynell

For March’s medieval MP of the month we hear about Geoffrey Paynell and accusations of incest amid the family’s land dispute in fifteenth century Lincolnshire, brought to you by Senior Research Fellow, Dr Simon Payling of the House of Commons 1422-1504 project. Be sure to keep your eye on our Twitter page for information of the Section’s forthcoming publication…

The human stories behind the lives of medieval MPs are generally hidden, unrevealed in the dryness and formality of the surviving records. This limitation endows with a particular interest the echoes of real events preserved in family ‘myth’, The Tudor antiquary, John Leland, narrated several of these traditions in his Itinerary, written in the 1530s.  Most related to accounts of family origins, some plausible, some manifestly not so, but others have a more unusual air, and one of these relates to Geoffrey Paynell, MP for Rutland in the Parliament of March 1416 and for Lincolnshire in 1432.  In many ways he was an MP of a common type.  A younger son of a knightly family, he had a long administrative career in the service of the great, most notably in that of Henry IV’s queen, Joan of Navarre. The interest of his career, however, lies in his involvement in a remarkable family quarrel. Leland gives a highly coloured account of its circumstances. He describes the Paynells as ‘welle conservid’ until about the time of Henry V when,

John Paynelle the farther and John his sunne, booth knighttes and great lechers, began to decline; for John the father began to selle, and John the sunne begot abhominably a doughter of his owne doughter: and John the father apon this sold al the lande, and John the sunne dyid afore the father, and yong John’s daughter fled to other partes of England for shame, and at the last maried one Dines, a wever, by whom she had childern … Olde Sir John Paynelle had a secunde sunne caullid Geffrey, servant to the Quene of England, and yn good estimation. Wherapon thinkking his broder doughter dede, he made so importune sute, that at the laste he founde meanes by the king, that the Duk of Bedford was content that Geffrey should by of hym al such landes as Sir John Paynelle the father had sold onto hym, the which was the beste peace of the lande. But aboute the tyme that Geffrey had payid for the lande cam Dyne’s wife, doughter to yong Sir John Panelle, [and claimed the lands which ‘at the last’ by ‘composition’ were divided between them].

The Norman manor house at Boothby Pagnell by Stefan Czapski
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

Since Leland’s informant was Geoffrey’s descendant, Richard Paynell of Boothby Pagnell, this improbable story, at least in some of its aspects, has to be treated seriously. Contemporary sources suggest that it is an inventive elaboration upon a curious hiatus in the family history. A case in the consistory court of Philip Repingdon, bishop of Lincoln, shows that the difficulties to which Leland inaccurately refers arose out of Sir John’s second marriage, when over 70 years old, to one Christine Ashby. This marriage was very unwelcome to his sons, and Geoffrey took measures to limit the damage it might inflict on the family. He attempted to bring about a divorce by accusing Christine of a prior sexual affair with his clerical brother, Master William Paynell, an allegation that may be the origin of Leland’s embellishment of an incestuous birth within the family. Whether Master William was a willing collaborator in this tactic does not appear, but, in any event, it failed. In January 1418 Bishop Repingdon accepted Christine’s declaration of innocence on this charge of fornication.

The narrative’s reference to the part of Henry V’s brother, John, duke of Bedford, in the dispute can be more directly demonstrated from the contemporary record, although again it did not take the form described by Leland.  In the early 1420s Sir John conveyed his entire estate to the duke, not as a purchaser but as a trustee for the protection of the life interest he intended to bestow on Christine.  On Sir John’s death in about 1424, Bedford took the trust seriously, and prevented Sir John’s grandson and heir, yet another John, recovering the lands against her. Geoffrey no doubt viewed these developments unhappily, frustrated that the widow had the best of her dispute with his nephew, but he was soon to acquire an interest that gave him a different perspective.

John died in the late 1420s to be succeeded by a son, Thomas, who died childless in about 1431. Thomas’s sister, Margaret, was now the common law heiress to the Paynell estates. By this date she was married to John Dene, whom Leland inaccurately describes as ‘one Dines, a wever’. His precise identity is unknown, but it is likely that he came from a minor gentry family. The lines of the dispute over the Paynell lands were now redrawn, for Geoffrey, now the family’s heir male, saw an opportunity to secure the lands against his great-niece. He cannot have believed her dead, as Leland romantically has it, for he appears with her in a transaction of 1432 unrelated to the disputed lands.  Rather he seems to have exploited Christine’s loss of a powerful protector with Bedford’s death in the autumn of 1435 to force an unfavourable settlement on both Christine and the heiress.  The later descent of the Paynell inheritance leaves no doubt that he established title to the manor of Boothby Paynell, Leland’s ‘the beste peace of the lande’.

Whatever the real story behind Geoffrey’s acquisition of Boothby Paynell, it is noteworthy that Leland’s informant should have believed, or professed to believe, that it came about in circumstances so discreditable to the family reputation.  Indeed, it is a curiosity of Leland’s family tales that his informants were keener to romanticize than to aggrandize their family’s past.


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When is a Parliament not a Parliament?

Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the House of Lords 1660-1832 project kicks off our new series, ‘Named Parliaments’. Here, whilst highlighting a number of Named Parliaments in the seventeenth century, he explores the debate of parliament versus convention or assembly in the early modern period…

Sir Thomas Richardson, Commons Speaker in 1621 Parliament

The question of what is and is not a Parliament might seem a simple one, but on two occasions during the reign of James I, efforts were made to reclassify unsatisfactory Parliaments as mere ‘conventions’. This was true of the 1614 ‘Addled Parliament’, as it had failed to pass any legislation, and James I also attempted to downgrade the 1621 Parliament, insisting it had not been one either. Doubt might also be expressed about the status of some of the experimental bodies that met during the turbulent years of Civil War and Interregnum, the ‘Nominated Assembly’ being an obvious example.

On two further occasions in the latter half of the 17th century, Lords and Commons gathered for what were acknowledged by their participants to have been Conventions rather than Parliaments, even though to the untrained eye they appeared to all intents and purposes to be no different. Lords and Members of the Commons attended and debated; legislation was passed and committee-work undertaken, yet in spite of this in both cases they were ‘irregular’ bodies.

In April 1660 a new ‘Parliament’ gathered as a successor to the ‘Long Parliament’ which had technically been in existence for almost 20 years. In the absence of the king, the new ‘irregularly assembled’ body was termed a Convention. Contemporaries were certainly more than aware that the ‘great Convention’ was unusual and the day before the first sitting (25 April) at least one commented on divisions among the Lords over whether they might take part ‘being not summoned parliamentarily’. It had been the original intention of the new order’s ‘godfather’, General George Monck, to exclude the House of Lords from the proceedings, but in the event the Lords took matters into their own hands and on the first day of the session a small number of peers ignored the ban and took their places in their former chamber. That afternoon more joined them, heralding the de facto restoration of the Upper Chamber.

From the end of April to the close of May the Convention sat and deliberated much as a Parliament might have been expected to do. The one feature lacking was the presence of a monarch but that small technicality was soon to be addressed. Charles II’s return at the end of May and appearance in the Lords two days later to give his consent to three bills was accompanied with the formal declaration by the Clerk of the Parliaments of ‘Le Roy le veult’ (the king wishes it). When the Convention was finally dissolved in December 1660, Charles suggested that the historic assembly was deserving of a name:

Many former Parliaments have had particular Denominations from what they have done. They have been stiled Learned, and Unlearned; and sometimes have had worse Epithets, I pray, let us all resolve that this be for ever called, “The Healing and the Blessed Parliament” [LJ xi. 236]

It did not catch on.

Twenty-nine years later another ‘irregularly assembled’ body gathered during the constitutional crisis of the ‘Glorious Revolution’. James II’s reluctance to summon Parliament was one of the key reasons for ‘The Immortal Seven’ penning a letter inviting James’s son-in-law, William of Orange, to intervene and arrange for full and free elections to be held for a new Parliament to address the nation’s concerns. Having mounted a successful invasion, William fulfilled his backers’ wishes by issuing writs for elections to a Convention: once again not deemed a Parliament as it had been summoned irregularly. The earl of Rochester (Laurence Hyde), describing affairs to Lord Dartmouth (George Legge), insisted that had King James remained in the country the Lords would have approached him first, ‘but what can the most loyal and dutiful body in the world do, without a head?’ Some proved unwilling to take part in such an irregular gathering. The duke of Newcastle, for one, informed Sir John Reresby ‘that he would not go or act in’ what he termed dismissively, ‘that assembly’.  

Ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College, detail of King William III and Queen Mary II Enthroned, by Sir James Thornhill,

The resulting Convention gathered in January 1689 and was initially preoccupied by the matter of settling the throne after James was judged to have abdicated. Moves were then made for regularizing the situation by transforming the ‘Convention’ into a full ‘Parliament’. On 13 February 1689 the, day William and Mary were proclaimed king and queen, the earl of Shrewsbury wrote to Henry Pollexfen and Sir Robert Atkyns summoning them to a meeting with the king ‘to have your opinion how this present convention may best be turned into a Parliament’. On 18 February the House of Lords gave a first reading to the bill ‘for removing and preventing all Questions and Disputes concerning the assembling and sitting of this present Parliament’. It passed the Lords the following day and on 23 February received the royal assent.

In spite of the speedy transformation of the Convention into a fully-fledged Parliament, members on both sides of the political divide remained touchy on the point. Early in the proceedings of the subsequent Parliament, an effort to confirm all of the acts of the Convention resulted in a written protest signed by ten Lords insisting that there was ‘no reason to doubt of the validity of the last Parliament’. A subsequent protest was then lodged in response to the bill passing signed by seventeen peers and bishops on the other side of the question, which argued:

that saying, (It is enacted by the Authority of the present Parliament, that all and singular the Acts made in the last Parliament were Laws) is neither good English nor good sense.

Perhaps what is most noticeable, however, is that contemporaries were clearly aware that a distinction was to be made between Parliaments and Conventions. In 1706 Samuel Blackwell wrote to Lord Rockingham following on from a conversation about whether or not ‘a Parliament or Convention’ had been held previously at Rockingham Castle. The event referred to had taken place in 1094 during the reign of William Rufus, long before any constitutional historian would admit to the existence of ‘parliaments’ in England. That the anomaly needed to be acknowledged was clearly reflected in Blackwell’s careful choice of terminology.


Further Reading:

  • Paul Seaward, The Cavalier Parliament and the reconstruction of the old regime, 1661-1667 (1988)
  • A Short History of Parliament, ed. Clyve Jones (2009)
Posted in 17th Century history, 18th Century history, Early modern history, James I to Restoration, Named Parliaments | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bolingbroke’s Reflections upon Exile

For our latest blog @GeorgianLords welcomes Dr Max Skjönsberg (St Andrews) offering some insights into the early philosophical writings of Viscount Bolingbroke, written during the period of his first exile from Britain and after his unhappy involvement with the Jacobite court.

Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751) was one of the most prominent public figures in Britain in the first half of the eighteenth century, being ubiquitous in both political and intellectual life between entering Parliament in 1701 and the posthumous publication of his collected Works in 1754. In July 1712, he was raised to the House of Lords, having been made a viscount (although he wanted to be an earl like his one-time ally and now rival Robert Harley, earl of Oxford). While Bolingbroke in many ways was an archetypal member of the British political class, he was also someone who managed to isolate himself politically on more than one occasion. During his career, he alternated between moving in the circles of power and influence, and periods of isolation and exile. The latter was partly imposed on him, and although he usually tried to escape his phases of seclusion, it was not a state he regretted entirely, at least not always. Bolingbroke had two prominent character traits. He was a man of action and a politician who was fond of power. At the same time, he was also a quintessential eighteenth-century man of letters, drawn to study and contemplation. As a political journalist in the opposition journal The Craftsman in the 1720s and 30s, he combined these two traits and talents. But Bolingbroke did not only write about politics and history, he also wrote poetry, philosophical fragments and, perhaps most notoriously, about religion.

Bolingbroke’s Reflections upon Exile was printed as the second piece in the first volume of his collected works in 1754, edited by his literary executor, the Scottish poet David Mallet. It had been published for the first time two years before together with the Letters on the Use and Study of History. Mallet’s edition dated the Reflections as 1716, but a letter to Jonathan Swift in January 1722, where Bolingbroke said that he had just completed his treatise on exile, suggests that it is a later production.

Whether it was written in 1716 or in the early 1720s, it remains one of Bolingbroke’s earliest writings and probably one of his first, if not his very first, philosophical text. Previously, he had written mainly occasional poetry and on politics. It was written in a period when Bolingbroke was in enforced exile in France. As a leading minister in Queen Anne’s Tory ministry between 1710 and 1714, Bolingbroke had negotiated the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 which ended Britain’s involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession. After the death of the queen and the accession of George I, who, as Elector of Hanover, viewed the Peace of Utrecht as a betrayal of Britain’s continental allies, the Tories, who were the peace party, were turned out and the Whigs returned to power. As a result of the Whigs’ vindictive behaviour (not unusual in eighteenth-century politics when ministries changed hands), Bolingbroke lost his nerve and went into exile in France. There he was approached by exiled Jacobites and not long after he accepted the position of Secretary of State to James Francis Edward Stuart, the Pretender, serving the Jacobites during the botched ‘Fifteen’ rebellion. Bolingbroke took much of the flak for the failed rising and was dismissed from the Stuart court in 1716. From then on, he would be mocked by the Whigs for having betrayed two kings in the space of one year.

Bolingbroke’s service at the Stuart court prevented him from returning to Britain. He spent several years writing letters to various people trying to engineer a return, which eventually happened about a decade later. In the meantime, Bolingbroke returned to his second great passion besides politics: his love of letters and study.

Bolingbroke was a towering if controversial political figure and a sharp opposition pen in his lifetime, but his philosophical works, published posthumously, cast a long shadow over his legacy. When Edmund Burke wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790): “Who now reads Bolingbroke, whoever read him through?”, he was indeed referring to Bolingbroke’s philosophical works, and in particular his anti-clerical ones, as Burke would have known that Bolingbroke’s political writings were still widely read and cited. Having previously engaged closely with Bolingbroke’s political journalism, David Hume was disparaging about Bolingbroke’s philosophical works when they appeared for the first time in the 1750s. On the other side of the spectrum, Samuel Johnson told James Boswell that Bolingbroke

was a scoundrel, and a coward: a scoundrel for charging a blunderbuss against religion and morality; a coward, because he had not resolution to fire it off himself, but left half a crown to a beggarly Scotchman [Mallet], to draw the trigger after his death!

In his Dictionary, published the year after Bolingbroke’s collected Works, he gave the example of irony that “Bolingbroke was a pious man.” Bolingbroke’s political career, and especially his Jacobite episode in 1715-16, gave him a great deal of notoriety, but it was actually his posthumous philosophical works which were most controversial in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Bolingbroke’s Reflections upon Exile have often been dismissed as simply an imitation of Seneca, who is frequently cited in the text (along with others). Much of the text is indeed borrowed from Seneca’s Consolation, which the Roman had written to his mother when he had been exiled by the Emperor Caligula. The thrust of Bolingbroke’s argument is the same as Seneca’s: one should not let one’s happiness be dependent on external events or one’s environment. It is our character and qualities which will determine how external events affect us, and they will have little impact indeed for the virtuous.

But even if much of the content of the Reflections was heavily inspired by and in part an imitation of Seneca’s Stoicism, Bolingbroke added his own gloss by concluding that

in truth there is not so much difference between stoicism reduced to intelligible terms, and genuine orthodox epicureanism, as is imagined.

It was simply ‘rivalship’ which exaggerated the difference between the two ‘sects’. The reason why they, in practice, amounted to the same thing was that living a virtuous life was the highest form of pleasure, and no one could ignore the pleasures of the body. Bolingbroke hails Aristotle for having taken ‘a middle way… and placed happiness in the joint advantages of the mind, of the body, and of fortune’, although Bolingbroke stressed that the last was not equal to the other two. Thus exile, although it had taken Bolingbroke’s title and estate away from him, was not a disaster because he could still enjoy the advantages of the mind and the body.

This argument about the harmony between Stoicism and Epicureanism is very important for eighteenth-century thought. Its depiction as a clash between Stoicism and Epicureanism has been dominant in recent work on the history of eighteenth-century political philosophy, but much of this debate has been a red herring. The problem with this historical metanarrative is that there are very few open espousals of either Stoicism and Epicureanism in the eighteenth century, and the latter in particular was primarily used as an insult.

Bolingbroke’s Reflections upon Exile was in this respect highly representative of eighteenth-century thought, which in general had very little interest in reviving ancient philosophical sects. What Bolingbroke had in common with other eighteenth-century thinkers, including David Hume and Adam Smith, was that he actively sought to go beyond these ancient schools. If there was any philosophical insight he wanted to revive from ancient Greece, it was probably Aristotle’s middle way, and the refusal of choosing between the happiness of the mind and that of the body. In order for us to see this rather simple insight clearly, Bolingbroke’s Reflections upon Exile is an appropriate place to start.


Georgian lords 2


Posted in 18th Century history, diplomatic history, Georgian Lords, Politics, religious history, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Towards a sonic history of Chartism: Music, sound and politics in mid-nineteenth-century Britain

Ahead of tonight’s Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, we hear from Dr David Kennerley, a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. He spoke at our previous session on 19 February about his research into the sound of Chartism…

A noisy political future? George Cruikshank’s derisive and prejudiced vision of a Chartist House of Commons set in the distant future of 1943. ‘The Charter – A Commons Scene’, Comic Almanack (February, 1843), Google Books, Creative Commons

For many decades, historians haven’t really thought about sound. It’s easy to see why, since unlike text, visual images or material objects, past sounds have, quite simply, passed out of existence. Of course, the situation is different for scholars working on periods since the invention of sound recording, but for those of us who study earlier epochs, contemplating sound can seem an impossible task. And yet, for most human beings our thoughts, feelings and actions are as much influenced by information that arrives through our ears as through our eyes. Understanding all of the dynamics of past societies must surely, then, involve some way of accounting for sonic experience.

The parliamentary borough of Leicester, 1832-68 PP 1831-2 (141), xxxviii

In recent years, historians have begun to address this problem. Influenced by sound studies and historical musicology, their efforts have formed part of a broader focus on bodily and sensory experience within historical studies. My Leverhulme postdoctoral project represents another contribution to this endeavour. It explores the role of sound and music within the Chartist movement and, more generally, sonic aspects of political culture in mid-nineteenth-century Britain.

In my ‘work-in-progress’ paper for the Parliament, Politics and People seminar, I introduced my project through a case study of Leicester, exploring in microcosm some of the wider themes that I’m pursuing on a national level. Leicester was ideal in this regard, as the town’s Chartists, especially under the leadership of Thomas Cooper in the early 1840s, engaged in a remarkable flurry of cultural activity, including poetry, music and theatre alongside their political agitation.

How did Chartism respond to the sound of the workhouse? C. J. Grant, Interior of an English workhouse under the new Poor Law Act, Political Drama, 57 (c.1834) © National Archives

My paper presented four major lines of inquiry, while a fifth came up in the subsequent questions. The first addressed the changing soundscape of the mid-nineteenth-century urban environment and Chartist listening experiences. Soundscapes are far from neutral entities and listening practices—in contrast to the biological process of hearing—are shaped by culture. Consequently, exploring Chartist responses to the sounds around them can tell us much about the identity and ideology of the movement. In dialogue with the debate sparked decades ago by Gareth Stedman Jones’s ‘Rethinking Chartism’, the response of Chartists to steam-powered machinery or workhouse bells, for instance, can offer new insights into their relationship to class, the economy and the state.

The changing sound of political culture? Charles Dickens’s experience of electoral noise in 1836, is discussed in an earlier blog on the Victorian Commons, ‘The Election at Eatanswill’ by Phiz, (1836)

The second theme explored the role of sound and noise within political and especially electoral culture in the mid-nineteenth century. The increasing quietness of Victorian politics, and its association with reason, seriousness and sincerity, has been debated by James Vernon, Jon Lawrence and others, as part of a wider discussion about the emergence of a liberal political culture. My aim is to dig more deeply into the role of Chartism in this process. Examining the changing politics of ‘noisiness’ within Chartism offers another means of assessing how far, and with what consequences, the Chartists accommodated themselves within the liberal modes of behaviour that were coming to dominate the practice of politics in Victorian Britain.

Drawing on recent work by Mark Philp, my third approach examines Chartist musical culture as a response to the role of music at religious, civic and social events—and the pleasurable bodily and emotional states it could generate—as a way of subtly, and perhaps subconsciously, bolstering support for the existing social and political order. As recent Chartist scholarship has shown, the movement was notable as much for its cultural as its political output, and this might profitably be seen as an attempt to disrupt these connections between music, positive bodily and emotional sensations, and a conservative outlook. Through their inversions of religious and civic ceremonial and their attempts to foster working-class poetic and musical activity, the Chartists were seeking to generate an all-encompassing radical counter-culture that might insulate its adherents from the conservative tendencies of much existing musical culture, and use music’s emotive potential instead in the cause of the Charter. Herein may lie an important reason for the movement’s success in persuading so many of the need for radical change.

The sound of the Charter? Anon, ‘Procession Attending the Great National Petition of 3,317,702, to the House of Commons’ (1842) © British Museum, Creative Commons

The fourth aim of my project is to explore the dynamics of Chartist musical culture and its relationship to, and differentiation from, other facets of Chartist cultural activity. I am particularly interested, for instance, in the ways in which figures like Cooper drew distinctions between the political and cultural functions of poetry and song and the kinds of events and moods that they associated with music. Furthermore, a recent discovery of a Chartist manuscript musical composition has opened up the possibility that the movement fostered the development of working-class composers, alongside the better-known poets, permitting a deeper understanding of Chartist musical aesthetics.

These are four of the major lines of investigation I’m pursuing. A fifth—regional and national variations within Chartist musical and sonic culture—came up in the seminar discussion. My intention is to compare my case study of Leicester with Chartist localities in places like Scotland, South Wales, the northern textile towns or London, with an ear towards understanding to what extent Chartism acted to foster an emerging nationwide working-class musical culture, or whether it provided an umbrella under which many distinctive regional musical traditions continued. As with my other themes, these thoughts are very much provisional and much work still remains to be done, as I continue to work towards a sonic history of Chartism.


Our next seminar takes place at the IHR on 5 March at 17:15 in N202, when Professor Alan Marshall, Bath Spa University, will be speaking on Henry Bennet Earl of Arlington, A Restoration Politician and Parliament

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St David’s Day: The First Welsh Republican

For those of you who have been waiting with bated breath for another blog from our resident Welshman and History of Parliament Trust Director, Dr Stephen Roberts, the wait is over. Last March for St David’s Day, Stephen explored the development of the relationship between Parliament and the Welsh language (Part One and Part Two). Today he explains the journey of the first Welsh republican, from his humble beginnings in the countryside of north Wales to his execution at Charing Cross for Regicide…

From the coastal nature reserve of Morfa Dyffryn, a few miles south of the  brooding promontory of Harlech castle in north Wales, a minor road runs eastwards up into the mountains. The sinuous way follows the course of Nantcol, the name given to both river and valley which in centuries past offered a more attractive prospect for farming than the overlooking bleak, rocky mountainsides. If you travel up the valley, eventually you reach the farmstead of Maesygarnedd, set in some of the most spectacular scenery of the Snowdonia National Park. Maesygarnedd is a working farm today, as it was around 1600, when it was the birthplace of Siôn ap Tomos ap Siôn ap Ieuan ap Huw, or Siôn ap Tomos as he may have been known to the monoglot Welsh speakers who formed the sparse local populace.

Siôn ap Tomos was put to service with the Myddelton family of Chirk Castle, and was evidently thought to be able, since he rose to be steward of the Myddeltons’ household in London. We don’t know whether Siôn ap Tomos left Maesygarnedd for England as a youth through the romantic mountain pass of Drws Ardudwy (The Door of Ardudwy) between the two mountains of Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach. If he did, it would have been by packhorse or on foot. Perhaps more prosaically he travelled to London by picking up the Holyhead-London coach, via Chester. However he got to London he was successful there, and in the process anglicised his name: henceforth he was known to his contemporaries and to posterity as plain John Jones.  

The Myddeltons were pious, their puritanism cautious and conformist. Relations between them and their household steward were evidently cordial: they sponsored Jones for minor honours in the City of London and in Denbigh.  Sir Thomas Myddelton sat for Denbighshire in the Long Parliament from 1640, and when civil war broke out in 1642 took Parliament’s side, like many Londoners with business interests. After Chirk Castle was captured in his absence by the king’s forces, he pushed his way to prominence as the patron and commander of an army, recruited from London and south-east England and designed to re-take Wales for Parliament. Myddelton’s properties in London became the HQ, and John Jones was transformed from civilian steward to captain and recruiting officer. Jones left London for military service, and was promoted to colonel by the end of 1645. After playing an active part in securing the victory of Parliament in north Wales, he fought off hostile propaganda by his enemies to get himself elected for Merioneth, his native county, in October 1647.   

Between 1647 and 1649, Jones left behind the orthodox puritanism that had shaped his life until then, and became radicalized. He came into the orbit of Morgan Llwyd, the eloquent radical puritan minister of Wrexham, and like many in the army, he was traumatised by the re-opening of the civil wars in 1648. There was a widespread belief among the officers and soldiers that the return to violence in the name of King Charles deserved severe punishment. Jones was fully in sympathy with the petition to Parliament from Denbighshire in December 1648, calling for “the impartial punishment of mad men (who are still thirsty, though already drunk with the blood of multitudes of our dear brethren)”.  It was in this spirit of requiring justice for the sufferers, and visiting punishment on the principal perpetrator (as they saw it) of the wars, that Jones took his place as one of the king’s judges, and attended his trial regularly. On the eve of the king’s execution on 30 January 1649, Jones signed the death warrant. (See our blog on another ‘King-killer’, Sir Hardress Waller)

Death warrant of Charles I

He was evidently an enthusiast of the new Commonwealth. He became one of the most diligent members of its governing body, the council of state. His view that politics and religious devotion were bound together, that a godly minority, of which he was one, were pursuing God’s will in establishing the Commonwealth, was bolstered through a new friendship – with the charismatic Col. Thomas Harrison, in command of the army in Wales in 1649. Harrison and Jones often worked together in Parliament, and in 1650 they saw the fruit of their collaboration, in the celebrated Acts for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales. Jones worked on a range of measures for improving the lives of the poor, and for re-distributing the confiscated property of enemies of the state. All in all, he was one of the most radical members of the so-called Rump Parliament (click here for more on England’s transition to a republic).

Jones was certainly more radical than the lord general, Oliver Cromwell. Jones consistently embraced social change and believed in the Rump Parliament as having been called by God, where Cromwell was cautious on social policy and soon came to criticise the Rump as a flawed expedient. Some thought this was why Cromwell despatched Jones to Ireland at the end of 1650, thus ridding himself of a potential nuisance. In Dublin, Jones’s undoubted administrative talents were put to good use, but he shared the prejudices of so many propertied English people that the Irish were “an accursed people” to be conquered: in sharp contrast to his view of the Scots as deserving political and economic concessions to win them over. Although he was now marginalised, his main interest remained the creation of a godly Commonwealth in England and Wales, and from Ireland he sent back encouraging messages to the radical architects of it. He may have remained unaware that one of the complaints to Parliament about the Act for Propagating the Gospel in Wales came from Myddelton, his former employer.   

Some suspicion on the part of Cromwell towards Jones persisted until the mid-1650s, but when Jones married Cromwell’s sister, he began to be rehabilitated. In the second half of the decade, he was a reliable but unremarkable supporter of the Cromwellian protectorate, his optimism about the prospects for a godly commonwealth now muted. In 1660 he paid the ultimate penalty for having signed the death warrant ten years earlier, and was barbarously executed at Charing Cross. As John Jones Maesygarnedd (the house where he was born but never owned or even occupied as an adult), his name is associated more than that of any other Welsh activist with this brief  moment of anti-monarchical sentiment powered by a religious vision of a new Britain.      


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