First steps in the chamber: making a maiden speech

For the one hundred or so new MPs who were elected in June, many have already achieved one of the major milestones of their Commons’ careers: the maiden speech. Here we share some of our oral history project interviewees’ memories of the first time they spoke in the Chamber…

We always ask our Oral History Project interviewees about their maiden speech. It is one of the most important ‘firsts’ for any new MP, and over the years very specific traditions have emerged for it. According to a House of Commons Library briefing,

By tradition, a new MP is called ahead of other MPs who may have indicated their wish to speak in the same debate. A maiden speech is usually uncontroversial, fairly brief and includes a tribute to the MP’s predecessor in the seat, irrespective of party, and favourable remarks about the constituency. [Read report here]

Many former MPs describe speeches to us that very much kept to this tradition in content and style. They also noted the other traditions that surround the conduct of the speech. For example, it is conventional for other MPs not to interrupt a maiden speech, and to congratulate the new MP in debate afterwards. Labour MP Ken Weetch described his reception as “all very polite” with a kind response from an opposing member. When our interviewer commented that it must have been well-received, however, he responded “Oh no, when I spoke it was largely empty… it’s always courteously received.” The Social Democrat MP Rosie Barnes also remembered a polite response to her maiden speech, which helped put her at ease about speaking in the Chamber. This lasted until her second speech, when Conservative Norman Tebbit “really savaged me”. The welcome in the Commons chamber is very brief.

One major difference between the experience of MPs now and their predecessors (most of our interviewees entered the Commons before 1997) is how quickly maiden speeches were made. A quick google search shows at least forty new MPs have already spoken in this Parliament, and in 2015 143 of the 177 newly-elected MPs spoke before the end of June (Parliament was opened on 27 May). Yet many of our interviewees took their time to make a maiden speech, doing so early was even considered a little presumptuous. Conservative MP David Madel described waiting from June until October to give his, stating that MPs who gave their maiden speeches early were expected to be “always jumping up and down and bumptious.” He went on to mention a colleague who had made three speeches in the Commons when “most of us hadn’t even started.”

Most of our interviewees planned their maiden speeches very carefully, whenever they chose to do it. Often they can clearly remember the debate and how they felt, with many admitting to nerves. Labour’s Denis Healey described his speech as “bloody awful” but that he was pleased to be complemented on it. In response the question whether he could remember his maiden speech, Conservative Sir Robert Hicks responded:

Yet on the other hand, Labour’s Ted Graham described the speech as something that “had to be done.” He was sure that he would have followed conventions, but that the memory “makes no real impression on my mind.”

Of course, a maiden is a chance for a new MP to be noticed. Conservative Ken Baker told us how his speech led to a connection with Ian Macleod, who treated him as something of a “protégé”.  In 2015 the ‘baby of the House’ Mhairi Black’s gave a very well-received speech, and this year Laura Pidcock, the new Labour MP for North West Durham, has caused a stir on social media with her unconventional attack on both a Parliament that “reeks of the establishment” and the Conservative government. In our archive, some of our interviewees tried to use their speeches to cause a stir, for example Labour’s Nigel Griffiths in the early 1990s:


For Labour’s Ivor Richard, however, speaking for the first time in the 1960s, remembered how his planned conventional speech went out of the window in response to the debate:


As this year’s new MPs battle to make their mark, and to get their speeches in before the summer recess, they might take heart from Conservative MP and later Deputy Speaker Janet Fookes’s experience, after waiting a year to make her debut:


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Always the same, but always different…

This blog by Professor John Morrill FBA, Chair of the Editorial Board of the History, celebrates the Director’s appointment to a Wolfson Professorship that will take him away from direct responsibility for managing the History for three years and suggests what an exciting time his ‘relief’ can expect to have…

While running the History of Parliament for sixteen years, our Director, Paul Seaward, has remained a scholar with interests including the career and writings of Thomas Hobbes and the First Earl of Clarendon. But not unnaturally he has also become particularly concerned with charting the history of Parliament in its broadest sense. And he has now, with the blessing of the Trustees, been awarded a British Academy/Wolfson Research Professorship for the next three years, the only historian in this round, to work on a major thematically-structured history of the post-medieval Parliament.

The project will be a new venture for the Trust, and will offer us new ways of thinking about what we do and how we do it. The association with the Academy and the Wolfson is prestigious and welcome. But the History will need someone able and willing to take over from Paul and to take on the challenge of running the project at an important moment in the history of the History.

I have always been lost in admiration for the masons who laid the foundation stones of the great Romanesque Cathedrals. As they began work on the biggest structures in the known world they knew one thing for sure: they would never live to complete the building that was laid out in their minds. And yet they devoted their lives to realising part of a vision. I suppose the founders of the History of Parliament Trust were in the same condition. They set out to produce accounts of the public lives of everyone who has sat in the House of Commons and of the selection/election histories of every constituency. As Chairman of the Editorial Board (since 2010) I am at the other end of the process: I will not be present at the topping out ceremony, but it is perfectly possible that I will live to see the 22,151 lives already in print and online advance to around 30,000. More importantly, by the time I retire we should have published MPs’ lives and constituency reports complete from 1386 to 1832, with the sole exception of 1461-1504, which will be advancing rapidly. And a further section taking the story from the Great Reform Bill to the Second Reform Bill will also be well advanced. A History of Parliament: the House of Commons for over a five hundred period will be within touching distance. Excellent!

Just as my medieval builders will not have known what changes would be made by their successors to the grand design in their heads, so the founding fathers of the History of Parliament cannot have known how the third and fourth generation would extend and elaborate their grand design. Parallel volumes on the House of the Lords are now well underway, with the first volumes covering 1660-1714 out, with the 1604-29 volumes nearing completion and the 1640-60 volumes more than a glint in the eye and there is some prospect of taking the story back into the Tudor and on into the Georgian century. With the advantages of new technology and online databases available, new and faster ways of working are already in place and new ways of disseminating the results of our research are constantly inviting us forward. And this in turn is creating opportunities for the History to reach out to wider publics in all kinds of ways. We have many followers on our website, Facebook pages and twitter feeds; we have competitions (and prizes) for students at all ages who write on parliamentary themes; we have experimented with projects involving local communities in studying the particular political history of their own areas; we are looking to find new ways of engaging with our core academic communities, but we also want to find ways of engaging and enthusing other audiences everywhere with the past, present and future of our parliamentary democracy. So this is to inform our many friends that we are committed to maintaining our core business while broadening out what we do and how we make what we do accessible; and to encourage some if you to consider whether these could be three very dynamic years for you as we want to be for the History of Parliament.


Information about the appointment of a Director for the calendar years 2018-20 can be found on the History’s news pages, and at


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A Turning Point? The Declaration of Independence and the House of Lords

The latest Georgian Lords blog by Dr Charles Littleton, Senior Research Fellow of the Lords 1715-90 Section, considers the origins and use of the two manuscript copies of the Declaration of Independence to be found in the United Kingdom.

The Declaration of Independence has iconic status in the United States of America as one of the country’s foundation documents and the 4th of July, the date in 1776 on which it was formally approved by the Continental Congress, is of course a national holiday in that country. Harvard University’s Declaration of Independence Resource Project, which is compiling a comprehensive list of all known contemporary copies of the Declaration dating from the 18th century, has recently reported an important discovery,  a manuscript version of the Declaration written on parchment dating from the 1780s. This was found not in some repository in the USA but in the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester. This ‘Sussex Declaration’, as the Harvard project has dubbed it, is one of only two manuscript copies of the Declaration still to be found in the United Kingdom. The other is in the Parliamentary Archives, and can be seen on Parliament’s own website.  There may even be a connection between these two rare ‘British’ versions of this very American document.

The copy of the Declaration of Independence was produced for the House of Lords as a result of the fierce partisan battles which convulsed Parliament at the time of the War of American Independence. The ministry led by Frederick North, Lord North, faced an opposition consisting of the group centred around Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd marquess of Rockingham, and their increasingly uncomfortable allies, the followers of William Pitt, earl of Chatham. On 2 December 1777, in the early days of the parliamentary session of 1777-8, Charles Lennox, 3rd duke of Richmond, a leading (if maverick) light among the Rockinghamites, successfully moved that a large number of papers concerning the war effort in the American colonies be laid before the House. These included the papers and correspondence of the two principal military commanders in America, Admiral Richard Howe, Viscount Howe in the Irish peerage (later created Viscount Howe in the British peerage in 1782 and then Earl Howe in 1788) and his brother General William Howe. Besides their military roles, these brothers had also been commissioned with powers to conduct peace negotiations with the colonists.

On 20 January 1778, 24 documents from the Howe brothers were laid before the House, including the copy of the Declaration of Independence. This had been copied from a version of the Declaration, perhaps one of the printed ‘Dunlap broadsides’, which had originally been sent as an enclosure in a letter, dated 11 August 1776, from the commissioners to the secretary of state for the American department, Lord George Germain. Throughout February and March the House of Lords saw a large number of acrimonious debates on the state of the American war, when the lords present in the chamber convened themselves over successive days into a ‘Committee of the Whole House’. Unlike in regular debates, when the House sat as a Committee of the Whole lords could speak more than once, which could often lead to personal spats between opposing peers and long-winded attacks on individual ministers. One peer in particular took advantage of this procedural rule– the voluble duke of Richmond.

On 5 March Richmond argued in a Committee of the Whole in favour of a bill to enable the king to appoint commissioners to treat with the American colonists. Perhaps using the copy that had been laid before the House that January, Richmond:

read the declaration of American independence by the Congress; and after commenting on it paragraph by paragraph, appealed to ministers, whether they meant to concede the several points therein set forth, or subscribe to the general assertions therein contained? This declaration asserted, that the King was a tyrant; complained that troops had been sent and quartered among them without their consent; that the admiralty courts were a grievance; that acts suspending those of their respective assemblies had been passed in the British Parliament; that the King having acted tyrannically, they had justly withdrawn themselves from his allegiance; that the judges enjoying their offices during pleasure, were thereby rendered dependant on the crown, &c. …. After condemning that part of the Declaration, which branded the King as a tyrant, for whose virtues, he said, he entertained the highest opinion, his Grace proceeded to shew the reasons why so indecent and disrespectful a language was adopted by the Congress. ….. It was therefore the delusion and deceit of ministers, which the Congress in their declaration of independence, mistakenly imputed to the King. It was upon this ground that his Majesty was first dethroned from the dominion he held over their hearts and affections.

Richmond appears to have been convinced by the Lockean arguments found in the Declaration, as he reasoned that ‘in the present instance, as soon as the king made war upon the whole body of his subjects in America, they began to reason like the Whigs in England [i.e. during the Glorious Revolution of 1688]. They said, though unjustly, that he was a tyrant; that he had deserted the government, and forfeited his dominion over them as sovereign, and that of course they were at liberty to institute another in its stead’. Richmond’s opinion was also swayed by the seemingly hopeless military situation in the colonies, exacerbated by the humiliating surrender at Saratoga in October 1777 and the entry of France into the conflict, allied with the colonists, from February 1778. He concluded that ‘if his advice were taken, sooner than hazard a farther continuance of the war, he would recommend to declare America independent, because he feared we must consent to it at last’. [John  Almon, The Parliamentary Register, vol. 10 (1778), pp.  277-280]

This was a turning point, for now Rockingham Whigs like Richmond could envisage an independent America and even pressed for it. This stance however split the opposition. Chathamites such as William Petty, 2nd earl of Shelburne, stated forthrightly that he ‘would never consent that America should be independent’. [Almon, Parliamentary Register, vol. 10, p. 287] On 7 April Chatham himself, who had been so involved in keeping the North American colonies British during the Seven Years’ War, came to the House specifically to speak against Richmond’s later motion, made on 23 March, for the removal of British troops from America. Rising to rebut Richmond’s reply to his initial speech, he was suddenly seized by a fit, was rendered speechless and collapsed. In the resulting pandemonium, an event which merited a large historical painting by the Boston-born artist John Singleton Copley (which contains within it individual portraits of 55 members of the upper house), Chatham was carried out of the House by his peers. He died a few weeks later on 11 May 1778, ending one of the most significant political careers in 18th-century British, and indeed imperial, history.

The recently-discovered ‘Sussex Declaration’, the parchment manuscript copy of the Declaration, was found in the West Sussex Record Office, among papers that were deposited there in the nineteenth century by solicitors for the Lennox family, whose  residence is still Goodwood House in West Sussex. It appears highly likely that the duke of Richmond, the so-called ‘radical duke’, the most outspoken member of the House of Lords for the cause of the American colonists, is the link between these two rare manuscript copies of the Declaration of Independence still found on British soil.


Additional Reading:

Olson, Alison,  The Radical Duke: The Career and Correspondence of Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond (Oxford University Press, 1961)


Georgian lords 2

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A tribute to Peter William Hasler, 1926-2017

Peter Hasler, by Jane Brown

Peter Hasler, General Editor and Secretary to the Editorial Board of the History of Parliament between 1978 and 1991, died on 30 April. The following account of Peter’s life and career owes much to his widow, Christine Restall, and his sister, Joan Hasler, who herself worked for the History briefly during the 1950s.

Peter was associated with the History of Parliament for 33 years. He joined as the first sub-editor in 1958, becoming Deputy Editor in 1970 before being made General Editor on the retirement of Eddie Mullins, who had been Secretary to the Board since the revival of the History of Parliament project in 1951. Over the thirteen years that he was General Editor, four sections of the History were published: 1509-58, under the editorship of S.T. Bindoff; 1558-1603, published under his own editorship; 1660-90, edited by B.D. Henning; and 1790-1820, edited by Roland Thorne. A fifth set of volumes (1386-1421) was ready for publication the year after he retired. Peter became editor of the Elizabethan section after the original editor, Sir John Neale, resigned from the editorship in 1974, due to his failing health. Peter contributed the introductory survey and wrote almost 400 articles; he was also responsible for the revision of many more, and created a complex analysis of the data on Members, undertaken using punch cards before personal computers made such a task much easier.

Peter Hasler was born in London, although the family soon moved to Essex. He was the eldest of three children, his father having seen service in the 1914-18 war, notably in the RFC. He attended Brentwood School until 1943 when he joined the Royal Navy, seeing active service till the end of the war. After the war he took a history degree at Reading University and then his MA under Lady Stenton while also working for the BBC Monitoring Service. In 1955, having married a South African, he drove overland from England to Durban. He taught there for a while and returned to the UK, again by car, in 1958, when he came to work at the History.

He went on a sabbatical from the History in 1969 to go to Yale University as a visiting fellow, where he worked on the English Parliamentary diaries held by the Yale Center for Parliamentary History. He made many firm friendships there and also travelled widely in the USA. Peter was interviewed for an article in the Observer in 1986, photographed in his shirtsleeves poring over what looks like one of the volumes. Talking of Namier’s working practice, he told the interviewer that

He came in in the morning, put his head down and got on with it. That’s the secret. It requires devotion. You must do something every single day.

He was, wrote the Observer,

A cheerful, patient man, who is as devoted to his staff as they are to their research… he can be glum about the jealousies and rivalries that shame English historians, but he has the satisfaction of knowing that the history he presides over is an essential tool for anyone working on the nation’s past.

Peter’s first marriage broke down in the late 1950s. His second partner, whom he married in 1975, was Christine Restall, a market researcher and marketing consultant. With her he shared many interests in common, particularly sailing, music (especially opera – they met at Covent Garden), and art, and a long and happy retirement.


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The State Opening of Parliament: When dissident acts become established acts

Today, the new Parliament will be officially opened. In his guest blog Steven Franklin (Royal Holloway, University of London) discusses the origins and development of the pageantry involved…

In 1863 Queen Victoria refused to open parliament, citing her ‘total inability…to perform these functions of her high position which are accompanied by state ceremonials, and which necessitate the appearance in full dress in public’.  Fortunately, the only comparison that can be made with today’s State Opening was the absence of the Imperial Crown and its associated regalia – the ‘full dress’ to which Victoria referred. Today’s ‘dressed down’ ceremony will lack much of the grandeur of previous state openings, a result of the snap election. This is the first time in 43 years that the normal ceremonial programme will be altered, the last, ironically, also a result of an unexpected general election. For, as wonderful as it is to witness the spectacle and splendour of a full State Opening, the event is a well-oiled machine: reliant on the seamless interaction of all those involved, managed only through meticulous planning and relentless rehearsals. With the State Opening falling days after Trooping the Colour it was deemed logistically impossible to accommodate both ceremonies of state.

Today’s ceremony was delayed further, after it emerged on the 12th June that the Queen’s Speech, printed on goatskin paper, would take days to dry, thus pushing the original date of the 19th back to the 21st June. It made for a great story, sadly, the image of a piece of paper more akin to medieval velum than our more common A4 plain white sheet, was wrong. The name instead referring to a special archival paper, said to last 500 years, which due to its thickness does take longer for print to dry. Whilst it captured the public’s imagination, it merely served as a cover for the broader issue: a Queen’s Speech hadn’t been written because the terms of the confidence and supply agreement, between the Conservatives and the DUP, were unconfirmed.

The State Opening of Parliament – an occasion steeped in tradition, ritual and ceremony, but sadly lacking in any paper made from goatskin – is one of the only occasions within the political calendar where the three parts of the parliamentary Trinity (Queen, Lords and Commons) come together, and for this reason, it remains a unique occasion. The pomp and circumstance accompanies the day often obscures the event’s main purpose: to hear the Queen’s Speech and hear the Government’s aspirations for this parliamentary term.

Parliaments have, broadly speaking, been opened in the same way since 1852, when the new Palace of Westminster was completed. The choreographed manner in which history, ceremony, ritual, and drama are seamlessly blended is, therefore, an invention of the Victorians. At a time when the future of the monarchy was uncertain a systematic programme of rejuvenating the ceremonial of state was undertaken in order to increase the broader appeal of royalty (expertly explored in David Cannadine’s essay listed below). Victoria, it is said, felt uncomfortable with the performative elements of monarchy that were being thrust upon her. Prominent ministers, such as Gladstone, realised the greater social importance for both the wellbeing of the country and stability of the throne. When possible, he would remind her of the ‘vast importance’ of the ‘social and visible functions of the monarchy’. In many ways, the ceremonial duties that the monarch undertakes today fulfil the same social function. State occasions serve as moments that induce patriotic fervour, uniting members of the public whilst, at the same time, confirming the hierarchal foundations of the establishment.

The current composition of the state opening can be dated back to 1852, but many of its elements have much older origins. Acts of pageantry and state theatre predate the Victorians. Charles Farris has traced the robes worn by peers, along with the robes of the monarch, back to the medieval period. The involvement of Black Rod dates back to the Civil War and the famous five members’ case. Lastly, Jason Peacey has demonstrated that the act of royal procession, in the context of The State Opening of Parliament, has seventeenth-century roots.

The State Opening of Parliament, therefore, serves as a good example of the manner in which history can be appropriated and repurposed within a ceremonial context. Acts of ritual do not need to draw from the same historical moments. In fact, it could be argued that this is one of their virtues: the ability to piece unconnected moments of history together in such a way to engender a sense of patriotic nostalgia. However, within this context, the history that the State Opening of Parliament evokes and re-enacts, is less of the establishment, but rather of dissidence and protest.

Much of the parliamentary proceedings of the State Opening revolve around Black Rod making his way from the Lord’s chamber to the Commons. As he approaches the Commons’ chamber, he is greeted by having its doors firmly slammed in his face. Using the rod, he deliberately knocks three times on the door (a physical indentation is left from this tradition), before it is opened. The office of Black Rod dates back to medieval times. However, the important ceremonial function that Black Rod undertakes during the state opening of parliament, dates back to January, 1642, and the attempted arrest of the Five Members. Set within the context of the Long Parliament and wider parliamentary struggles – that would ultimately lead to Civil War – Charles I, accompanied by armed soldiers, burst into the House of Commons and attempted to arrest five MPs. The King was ultimately unsuccessful. Realising his error Charles fled to Oxford. His actions were considered to be an abuse of his monarchical authority and proved to be the catalyst for the first Civil War.

The act of slamming the door in Black Rod’s face is used to signify the independence of the House of Commons from that of the Lords and Crown. Black Rod, in this context the monarch’s representative, can only enter the Commons’ chamber because they have been granted access. The Five Members case, and the tradition of Black Rod that has emerged from it, is, in its simplest form, an act of dissidence. The Commons visibly demonstrate both their independence from, and rejection of, the authority of the monarch within their chamber.

Once Black Rod has invited the Commons to the House of Lords to hear the Queen’s speech, its members are in no rush to get to the other side of the palace. Although not widely talked about or acknowledged, members of the Commons take as long as possible to make their way to the Lords, sharing in jokes with each other along the way. This is once again an action of dissent. They do not hurry because they would like to demonstrate they are not members of the inferior house. This is an unspoken truth, mainly because of its potential political ramifications and a broader lack of respect towards the monarch. However, unspoken as it might be, it nonetheless forms an integral part of the ceremony.

It is easy to assume that state ceremonies merely support and reinforce the establishment. In many ways this is exactly what they are, and indeed do. As has been briefly demonstrated traditions and ceremonies of state, by very virtue of their invented and choreographed nature, can fold historical moments of dissent and protest into much broader narratives of the establishment. Magna Carta, and its sealing in 1215, serves as another poignant reminder of the state’s ability to appropriate an act of dissent to its advantage. In both instances these moments of dissent have been valued because ultimately they have been viewed as morally triumphant. Unspoken or not, moments such as these serve to remind us of an often uncomfortable relationship that exists between our democratic heritage and the institution of the monarchy.


Further Reading:

  • Peacey, J., ‘The Street Theatre of State: The Ceremonial Opening of Parliament, 1603-60’, Parliamentary History, 34: 1 (2015), pp. 155-172
  • Cannadine, David, ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the “Invention of Tradition”’, c.1820-1977) in Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition
  • BBC clip, ‘Black Rod’, available here
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Chatham and the failure of English Politics

400 years ago this week the British navy suffered a disaster after the Dutch Raid on the Medway. In this blog our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses the parliamentary background to one of the worst defeats in British naval history… 

On 12 June 1667, the leading ships of a Dutch fleet forced their way through the chain barring access to the Medway at Gillingham, and captured the Royal Charles, one of the greatest capital ships in the Royal Navy; on the following day the Dutch pushed further up river, burning more major ships,  before retreating triumphantly with the Royal Charles and another smaller vessel as prizes. The Dutch raid on the Medway is usually treated in England as a naval disaster. But it was even more a political disaster – a sorry tale of political overreach and mismanagement that ended with what was probably the most humiliating defeat inflicted on the navy.

The Raid on the Medway, by Dutch artist Willem van der Stoop, via Wikimedia Commons

The second Anglo-Dutch war was one of a series of conflicts between the English state and a Dutch republic which had emerged in 1648 from years of war with the Spanish crown, from whose control it had revolted in the sixteenth century, as an unlikely sea and colonial power: a collection of city states – dominated by Amsterdam – whose great trading companies were feeding the growing luxury markets of Europe with goods from the East Indies, Africa and the Americas. English attempts to protect its own fishing fleets and merchant shipping from Dutch competition had already been the main reason behind the first conflict between the two countries’ navies, under the English republic in 1652-4. But commerce was always complicated by politics. Though formally a republic, the Dutch state had its own aspirant royal family – the Princes of Orange, closely allied by marriage to the English and Scottish Stuarts. English conflict with the Dutch in the 1650s had a political edge as the English republic fought in part at least to combat the Orange interest in the Dutch republic. After 1660, the sweeping away of the English republic, and the Restoration of the monarchy, the English state had changed its colours, and was now a firm protector of the infant Prince of Orange against those in Dutch politics who wanted to keep monarchy firmly at bay.

The monarchical question introduced fresh tensions into the post-1660 Anglo-Dutch relationship. English royalists had imbibed a strong suspicion of the Dutch republic over the previous twenty years. Any republic, from a royalist point of view, was to be treated with extreme caution; moreover, though both states were Protestant, the Dutch willingness to tolerate just about any Protestant sect, including some of the radical groupings that had flourished during the civil war that royalists regarded as ‘fanatics’ and a threat to their own stability, eroded Protestant solidarity and poisoned  a series of negotiations between the two countries for a commercial treaty in the early 1660s. But were these issues, or the commercial rivalry – increasingly visible as it was across the world – enough, in themselves, to spark war?

The House of Commons’ resolution of April 21, 1664 appeared, on the face of it, to indicate determined parliamentary backing for a vigorous confrontation with the Dutch. Supposedly based on evidence from various economic interest groups about the economic problems facing the country, it declared that

‘the wrongs, dishonours, and indignities, done to his Majesty by the subjects of the United Provinces, by invading of his rights in India, Africa, and elsewhere, and the damages, affronts and injuries done by them to our merchants, are the greatest obstruction of our Foreign Trade: And that the same be humbly and speedily presented to his Majesty: And that he be most humbly moved to take some speedy and effectual Course for Redress thereof, and all other of the like Nature, and for the Prevention of the like in future: And, in prosecution thereof, they will, with their Lives and Fortunes, assist his Majesty against all Oppositions whatsoever’.

It was greeted universally as a sign of general enthusiasm for war with a country that was aggressively seeking to hoover up the world’s trade and to become a hegemonic power. But the truth was more complicated. There is plenty to indicate that the ground for the resolution had been assiduously prepared by the government itself, and that those who spoke for a new company, The Company of Royal Adventurers trading into Africa, were given undue prominence. Voices that might have emphasised the harm that war might do to the economy were not heard. There are perhaps two ways of looking at the government’s evident attempt to secure the April 1664 resolution. One is that it was intended as a tactic in a difficult series of bilateral negotiation: an attempt to show the Dutch that the English state was very capable of going to war if negotiations on a treaty broke down. Certainly the English ambassador in the republic, Sir George Downing, had urged such a course of action. The other is that it was a deliberate attempt by some within the government to create the background that might justify a war, with the most belligerent figure James, Duke of York, the king’s brother, and the future James II. James was certainly aggressive, keen on military action and national glory. He was actively and deeply involved in the affairs of the Royal Adventurers’, and encouraged global challenges to Dutch trading interests.

Whichever of these is more true, it’s undeniable that the 1664 resolution helped to ensure that there would be a war, surprising those sceptical of parliamentary backing for the war with the vehemence of its support, and acting as the platform from which the government, that autumn, made an argument for a grant of £2.5 million pounds – a huge and unprecedented sum – in order to prepare the navy for conflict with a formidable opponent. Financial and political backing for the war would continue throughout 1665 and into 1666, but after two years’ gruelling campaigning, in which the fleets slugged it out in a series of bloody but ultimately indecisive battles, interest in and support for it were probably already failing. The plague that broke out in the summer of 1665 had some impact, but the fire of London in September 1666 probably had the more devastating effect in terms of England’s ability to fight the war.

Parliament’s session of 1666-7 was summoned to obtain finance for a third year of fighting against the Dutch. Although the House of Commons quickly voted another huge sum of money – £1.8 million – to sustain the war effort, the question of how the money should be raised proved vastly more controversial. It is difficult to disentangle the reasons for this. It may have been because the government overreached itself in a bid to secure the money through the unpopular device of an extension to excise taxation (the struggle against this proposal was immortalised by Andrew Marvell in his Last Instructions to a Painter, possibly the only verse about a parliamentary debate ever written by a known poet). It was possibly because members had very real concerns over the state of the economy in the wake of two years’ of war – though their economic concerns in this session were largely concerned with the cattle trade with Ireland, which had rather little to do with the war. It may have been because while members were unwilling to be seen directly opposing the grant of money, they were less reluctant to be seen protecting the interests of their constituents by wrangling over how it should be raised. Or it could have been because the Duke of Buckingham, a favourite of Charles II, but an erratic politician increasingly hostile to the Duke of York, was active stirring up trouble among members of Parliament on various issues throughout the session.

The government got their grant of money by the end of the session. But it seems to have been little help in preparing for war. It isn’t completely clear why, but it is likely that the government was used to raising credit on the basis of parliamentary supply – the money could take years to actually be collected – and there was simply no credit to be had. The government had little choice but to cross fingers and hope that peace (negotiations were already well under way) would be agreed before the beginning of the summer campaigning season, and that no fleet would be required. The hope proved misplaced.

The 1664-7 war was a completely unnecessary one, and there is more than a suspicion that it was inspired by the imperial and military ambitions of the king’s brother, and the manipulation of Parliament to achieve his ends. The failure to raise money in 1667 to combat the Dutch for a third year was perhaps as much a financial, as a political, failure;  but undoubtedly, the political management that made it possible to secure the April 1664 resolution was severely lacking by 1666-7. Having tried so hard to engineer Parliament’s backing for a misconceived war in 1664, the government found it impossible to ensure it was still behind it when the going became really tough in 1666.


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Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Kathryn Rix, The professionalisation of electoral politics: the Liberal and Conservative party agents, 1880-1910

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ seminar, Dr. Kathryn Rix, assistant editor of our Victorian Commons project, spoke on ‘The professionalisation of electoral politics: the Liberal and Conservative party agents, 1880-1910’. The professional party agents are the subject of her recent book, Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910, recently published by Boydell and Brewer in the Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History series. Here she shares some of the key themes of her work…

BookcoverParties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910 is the first major study of the professional constituency agents during a key transitional period in British politics. Following the electoral reforms of 1883-5 – which extended the franchise, redrew the electoral map and introduced more stringent corrupt practices legislation – the Liberal and Conservative parties faced the challenge of harnessing the support of a mass electorate. The expansion of local government, with county councils from 1888 and parish and district councils from 1894, created another potential arena for partisan effort. The solicitor agents who had typically undertaken the work of registration and electioneering on a part-time basis prior to 1880 were increasingly replaced by a new breed of full-time professional organisers, who handled the work of registration, electioneering and the day-to-day political, educational and social activities of local parties in the constituencies. These professional agents performed a vital role as intermediaries between politics at Westminster and at grass-roots level, bridging the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, and between politicians and those they sought to represent. The relationship between central party organisation and the localities is one of the underlying themes of this book.


James Henry Linforth, Liberal agent

My research considers the agents not only as political figures, but also as men (and occasionally women) determined to establish their status as professionals, placing them within the broader socio-economic context of late nineteenth-century professionalisation. It analyses the agents’ social and occupational backgrounds, drawing on a collective biographical study of almost 200 agents. Significantly for a group who often served as local figureheads for their party, agents came to a surprising extent from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds. My seminar paper looked in particular at two of these working-class agents, James Linforth, a former joiner and cabinet-maker, who served in turn as Liberal agent for Lichfield, Nottingham and Leeds, and James Bottomley, a former factory worker and bank clerk from Oldham, who became Conservative agent for Doncaster and Lancaster.


James Henry Bottomley, Conservative agent

In exploring the agents’ efforts to improve their position by means of professional associations (established on a national basis by the Liberal agents in 1882 and 1893, and by the Conservatives in 1891), I am particularly interested in the impact which this had on political culture. In particular, my book analyses how far the professionalisation of party organisation can be equated with the ‘modernisation’ or ‘nationalisation’ of politics. It argues that while the agents’ professional networks and their high levels of geographical mobility contributed to a growing uniformity in certain aspects of party organisation, such as registration and canvassing, local forces continued to play a vital role in British political life. The balance of local, regional and national factors is explored particularly in relation to three key aspects of the election campaign: the selection of candidates; the ‘platform’ campaign of speeches by leading party figures, MPs, candidates and other activists; and the vast provision of election literature by local, regional and central party bodies.

One of the major questions which has occupied historians in assessing Liberal and Conservative party activity in the later Victorian period is how the ideals and beliefs espoused by each party’s members were reflected not only in the policies they presented to the electorate, but also in the organisational structures and methods through which they sought to cultivate their political appeal. The Liberal approach to politics has been characterised as a more rational, sober and serious-minded one, while the Conservatives have been seen as more proficient at creating a social appeal and defending the ‘pleasures of the people’, such as sport and the public house. Viewing these issues from the agents’ perspective sheds new light on these important debates about party identity and suggests that the cultural differences between the parties were less clear-cut than might be supposed. Many Liberal agents, for example, were keen to overcome the impression that Liberalism was the creed of dull, temperance-abiding killjoys, and made efforts to develop the social side of party organisation in their constituencies. Although the main focus of my research is the two established political parties, the role of professional organisation within the embryonic Labour party is also considered.

Overall, my work highlights the transformation of the function and standing of the political agent between 1880 and 1910, and the impact which the presence in the constituencies of this professional cadre of party organisers had on political and electoral culture.


And join us tonight for the last Parliaments, politics and people seminar of the academic year. Elliot Vernon will speak on ‘Religious policy and faction in the Second Protectorate Parliament, 1656-8.’ Full details here.

For more on Kathryn’s new book, Parties, Agents and Electoral Culture in England, 1880-1910, read her Victorian Commons blogpost here.

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