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.

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Women behind the polls: the electoral patronage of Anne St John, countess of Rochester

Earlier this month the History of Parliament Trust with partners UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project and the Schools of Humanities at the University of Westminster held a conference to mark the centenary of the passing of the 1918 legislation that formally accorded women the right to sit in Parliament. It is in this context, and as a follow-up to her previous blog on female voters in the 17th century, Women at the polls, Dr Vivienne Larminie of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section looks at Anne St John. She exemplifies how, in the early modern period, a well-connected and determined woman of property might exert influence over elections...

In late February 1660 there was excitement among those who now saw the restoration of the monarchy as an imminent and welcome possibility, at the prospect that the Long Parliament would finally be terminated and a new ‘free’ Parliament called. Elections were expected for a Convention to commence sitting that April. Among those who scrambled to exert influence at the polls to promote the return of the king was Anne, dowager countess of Rochester. In her person she illustrates several of the usually hidden ways in which women of high social status might exercise power before the age of fashionable political hostesses.

Anne St John (1614-1696) was one of those early modern women who, through a combination of their own longevity and the gender imbalance in susceptibility to prevailing epidemics, found themselves outliving their husbands and sons, gaining control of extensive estates during the minorities of their children and grandchildren, and deploying the patronage that went with it. Among the elder surviving children of Sir John St John of Lydiard Tregoze in north east Wiltshire, in October 1632 she married 16-year-old Sir Francis Henry Lee, 2nd bt., of Quarrendon, Buckinghamshire, and Ditchley, Oxfordshire. When Lee died suddenly from smallpox in July 1639, Anne was left as guardian of their 18-month-old son Sir Henry Lee, 3rd bt., and his even younger brother Francis (later Francis Henry), and as custodian of extensive but encumbered estates. In her mid-20s, and fighting to secure her sons’ inheritance, she could still engage with politics. In November 1640 she confidently informed Edward Hyde, a sitting MP and the future earl of Clarendon, that the king’s need for money would ensure the continuance of the recently-assembled Long Parliament. Enquiring whether William Pleydell, her sister’s stepson and MP for the St Johns’ pocket borough of Wootton Bassett, had yet made any learned speeches, she claimed he would have been a good choice as Speaker of the Commons.

When the civil war broke out, unlike their kinsmen the St Johns of Bletsoe [see for example, Sir Oliver St John I], the St Johns of Lydiard Tregoze became royalists. Anne married as her second husband Henry Wilmot, who had been expelled from the Long Parliament in 1641 for his involvement in the ‘Army Plot’ and who went on to become a controversial commander of royalist forces. Defeat drove the couple into exile on the continent, where Wilmot was created earl of Rochester by Charles Stuart, the future Charles II. Having been involved in royalist insurrection, he eventually died at Ghent in 1658. Meanwhile, his widow, already returned to England with their young son, John Wilmot, 2nd earl of Rochester, the future poet and libertine, continued the struggle by other means.

In 1655 Anne arranged the marriage of her eldest son, Sir Henry Lee, to one of the two daughters and co-heirs of the very recently deceased Sir John Danvers, a regicide who had covertly given succour to royalists. Not only did she vigorously assert her daughter-in-law’s claims to the Danvers estates in Wiltshire, but – as effective lord of the manor – in the elections of December 1658 she prevailed on the 13 voters of Malmesbury to choose her son for the parliamentary seat once held by Sir John. Sir Henry Lee joined Danvers’ other son-in-law, Robert Villiers alias Danvers, and his uncles (Anne’s younger brothers) Sir Walter St John and Henry St John (MP for Wootton Bassett) among a sizeable number of covert royalists in the Parliament of Richard Cromwell. However, partisan hopes were dashed when Lee also succombed to smallpox, and died in March 1659, aged only 21, leaving two daughters, one as yet unborn.

By the spring of 1660 Anne, countess of Rochester, controlled as executor or guardian the Danvers inheritance of her granddaughters, the Lee inheritance of her younger son Sir Francis Henry Lee, 4th bt., only just coming of age, and the Wilmot inheritance of her youngest son the earl of Rochester. This potentially conferred wide electoral patronage. Staying in London, she enlisted the help of Thomas Yate, an executor of Sir John Danvers who was to be an important figure in Restoration Oxford, to secure seats for her relations and friends in several boroughs in north Wiltshire and elsewhere which were open to her influence. Her priority was to get places for her son Francis Henry and for Sir Ralph Verney, ‘whose own merits is such, as it will bee a happinesse to the place and they will have cause to give us thanks for him’, but who, as she explained to Yate, ‘obliges me to doe him any service hee shall command’ because of his support to her, as a Lee family executor, over ‘the children’s business’. Indeed, ‘if my brother St John be not chosen, I shall rather have him disappointed than Sir Ralph Verney’ [M. M. Verney, Memoirs of the Verney Family (1894), iii. 465].

The countess soon found her power a mixed blessing and was led to scale down her aspirations. She told Verney she had been ‘soe trobeled with solicitors, for those [burgesses’] places in the children’s estate’, that she had had to ‘put them all off with telling them that I am alredy promised as far as my interest goes’. The places for Verney and Sir Francis Henry Lee ‘will bee as many as wee can compass’. Malmesbury corporation informed Lee that ‘if he would come in person they did hope to chuse him’, despite there being a dozen other candidates; probably because he obliged ‘for fear of the worst’ they duly elected him, as they did again in 1661 [ibid. 467]. But at Great Bedwyn, where the countess nominated both Verney and her brother Sir Walter St John, despite an initial undertaking by electors to ‘do their duty to their Country and their young lande ladyes to serve Sir Ralph therein’ [ibid. 464], after a double return neither of her candidates succeeded in securing their seats.

However, this was by no means Anne’s final opportunity to influence the polls, or indeed wider society. Later in 1660 she petitioned the Commons over the Lee estate and submitted ‘a very effectual letter’, read in Parliament, advocating mercy for John Hutchinson, former MP for Nottingham and a regicide, in return for the help he had previously given her [Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson (1863), 412]. Surviving her sons Francis Henry Lee (d.1667) and John Wilmot, 2nd earl of Rochester (d.1680), and her grandson Charles Wilmot, 3rd earl of Rochester (d.1681), she lived to raise her grandson Edward Henry Lee (1st earl of Lichfield) and marry him to an illegitimate daughter of Charles II, and to preside over the upbringing, estates and attendant patronage of her Wilmot granddaughters as she had over those of their Danvers-Lee cousins.


Additional reading:

  • Elsie Corbett, A History of Spelsbury (1962)
  •  Journal of the House of Commons, viii. 185b
  • Among MPs mentioned here, the House of Commons 1640-1660 section are preparing for publication biographies of Sir John Danvers, Robert Danvers alias Villiers, John Hutchinson, Edward Hyde, Sir Henry Lee, William Pleydell, Henry St John, Sir Walter St John, Sir Ralph Verney and  Henry Wilmot.
  • History of Parliament: The House of Lords 1660-1715 has already published in print biographies of John Wilmot, 2nd earl of Rochester, Charles Wilmot, 3rd earl of Rochester, and Edward Henry Lee, 1st earl of Lichfield.
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‘He chose the forefront of the battle’: Lord Alexander George Thynne (1873-1918)


Lord Alexander Thynne

Here’s the next instalment from Dr Kathryn Rix (Assistant Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 project) in her series commemorating those MPs who died during the First World War. You can see the rest of the series here

On 14 September 1918 Lord Alexander Thynne became the final serving Member of Parliament to be killed in action during the First World War. A Conservative, he had sat since January 1910 for Bath, the city which gave its name to his family’s title. Thynne was the third and youngest son of the fourth Marquess of Bath, of Longleat House, Wiltshire. One of his brothers, Lord John, died in 1887, but the oldest son, Thomas Henry, Viscount Weymouth – who was Conservative MP for Frome, 1886-92 and 1895-6 – succeeded their father as the fifth Marquess in 1896.

The Thynne family had a long tradition of parliamentary service, and his brother’s accession to the House of Lords provided Thynne, who was educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, with his first opportunity to try to win a parliamentary seat. He stood in his brother’s place as the Conservative candidate for Frome, but lost to a Liberal at the by-election in June 1896. It would be almost ten years before he made another attempt to enter the Commons.

In the meantime, he spent several years in South Africa. He had joined the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry as a second lieutenant in April 1897, and was subsequently seconded for service with the 1st battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry during the Boer War. He was involved in ‘a great deal of fighting’ in South Africa and was awarded two medals. After the war ended, he served as private secretary to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Orange River Colony. In 1903-4 he accompanied the Somaliland Field Force as a special correspondent for Reuter’s news agency.

Having returned home, Thynne stood at Bath at the 1906 general election, but was among the many Conservative candidates defeated in the Liberal landslide. He was more successful as a candidate for the London County Council (LCC). He had represented the City of London from 1899-1900, and in 1907 was elected as a councillor for Greenwich. In 1910 he changed seats again, becoming a councillor for East Marylebone. He chaired the LCC’s Improvements Committee from 1909 until 1912. This fuelled his interest in social reforms, a question he also spoke on after his election to the Commons.

Thynne topped the poll at Bath at the general elections of January and December 1910. He asked several questions of ministers in his first Parliament, but it was not until 2 March 1911 that he made his maiden speech, which ‘created a very favourable impression’. He denied that the general election result had given Asquith’s ministry a mandate to reform the House of Lords, arguing that

at the last election we saw an expression of gratitude, and of a profound gratitude, [from voters] for the old age pensions which they had received from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That was coupled with the desire for another helping from the same dish.

In contrast, Thynne argued,

these questions of procedure, these subtleties of constitutional reform, this adjustment of electoral machinery, which are of so much interest in this House, leave the man in the street comparatively cold.

As well as being an able speaker, Thynne was noted for his good looks. One newspaper report observed that

if you were to ask any M.P. who was the handsomest man in the House he would tell you that (after himself) Lord Alexander Thynne was an easy first.

He was said to have inherited ‘much of the sober sense and business ability of his late father’, together with ‘a certain brilliance’, prompting suggestions in 1916 that he would be a useful addition to the government.

Thynne was, however, already actively engaged on military service. When the war began, he was training with the Wiltshire Yeomanry, holding the rank of major. He then went to France as second in command of a battalion of the Worcester regiment, before being transferred to command a battalion of the Gloucestershire regiment. On 30 July 1916 he was seriously wounded during the battle of the Somme. Having been shot in the chest, he took several months to recover, but returned to France at the end of the year, taking command of a battalion of the Wiltshire regiment.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, making him one of the most highly decorated MPs to serve. He also received the Croix de Guerre and was mentioned in despatches several times. He was wounded again in April 1918, this time in the arm, but was soon back in France. Sir Donald Maclean, one of his Liberal opponents at Bath, wrote that

it would have been easy and honourable for him to have taken in these later years of the war a post in the Army where his life would not be constantly at hazard. But he chose the forefront of the battle.

On 14 September 1918 Thynne, by then a lieutenant-colonel, was killed at Béthune in northern France when a shell exploded as he and other officers were on their way to take over fresh headquarters. He was buried at Béthune town cemetery. His death marked a second blow for his brother, whose heir, Viscount Weymouth, had been killed in action in 1916, aged just twenty.


Although Thynne was the last sitting MP to die while serving in the forces during the First World War, this does not mark the end of our blog series, as we will be commemorating the death of a former MP, Charles Lyell, next month.

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15th-century MP of the month: Robert Hill (c.1391-1444) of Shilston, Devon.

Today’s blog is the second installment from our new series ‘Medieval MP of the Month’ – the precursor to the History of Parliament’s forthcoming set of volumes relating to the reign of Henry VI that will be published in 2019. In this post we hear from Senior Research Fellow Dr Hannes Kleineke  about landed gentleman Robert Hill…

While clashes over fishing stocks in the Seine estuary have of late made the news, this month’s sneak preview of the History’s forthcoming fifteenth-century volumes serves as a reminder that fish has always formed an important part of our diet, all the more so in the period before the Reformation when the Church forbade the consumption of meat during substantial parts of the year.

Robert Hill came from a family of important men-of-law of Devon origins. Both his father, Sir Robert (d.1425), and his maternal grandfather, Sir John Wadham (d.1412) were justices of the court of common pleas, in the middle ages one of the two principal royal law courts based in Westminster Hall. Robert himself did not actively practise the law, but was instead able to use the wealth he had inherited from his father to live the life of a landed gentleman. He cut his military teeth in the French wars in 1423, serving under Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter, and went on to hold office as sheriff of his county for a term of 15 months in 1428-30, before representing Devon in the Commons in 1442.

Not long before taking his seat, Hill had become embroiled in an acrimonious quarrel over fishing rights in the river Erme between Ugborough and Ermington. Another legal acquaintance, the future Chief Justice John Fortescue, had acquired a 20-year-lease of these rights, and had sub-let them to Hill. Their monopoly was not, however, recognised by one of the most powerful landowners in the vicinity, Sir William Bonville. By custom, the proprietors (or lessees)  of the fishery were entitled to access it across the landholdings of the tenants of the manors on either side of the river, but on 23 November 1440 Hill found his access blocked by a party of Bonville men, headed by Walter Raleigh, (an ancestor of the better-known Elizabethan seafarer) who claimed to be protecting their master’s property, and had helped themselves to Hill’s fish, said to have included 100 salmon, 200 bass, 200 trout and 200 other fish. Their exchange grew heated, but Hill and his men retained the upper hand, succeeded in disarming Raleigh and his followers, and – to add insult to injury – unceremoniously pitched Raleigh head-first into the river. The dispute exercised the royal law courts for a number of years, but it is likely that Hill sought election to his only Parliament precisely with the intention of seeking an outcome there.

Eventually, the matter was put to arbitration, but it is possible that from prior experience Hill had mixed feelings about this way forward. A few years earlier, in 1435, he himself had been asked to arbitrate in a dispute between two of his neighbours, but on this occasion the agreement of the parties to submit to his verdict had carried the curious stipulation that should no other evidence be forthcoming, the arbiter should examine a certain soothsayer over the matter. This soothsayer would be brought to Shilston for this purpose, and in such a way as to prevent the parties from influencing him beforehand. If there had ever been any notion of involving similar practitioners over the question of the Ermington fishery, it came to nothing, since Hill died apparently suddenly in the spring of 1444, and aged not much over 50.


Full biographies of Hill and Raleigh will appear in 2019 in The History of Parliament: The Commons 1422-61 ed. L.S. Clark.

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“The Cause of Decency against Indecency”: Lady Chatham and the 1788 Westminster election

The latest post from the Georgian Lords features a guest blog by Dr Jacqueline Reiter, biographer of the 2nd earl of Chatham, on the role of the countess of Chatham in the notorious Westminster by-election held in the summer of 1788.

On 12 July 1788, the London Gazette announced the appointment of Vice-Admiral Samuel, Lord Hood, to the Admiralty Board. Members of Parliament who accepted a government position had to stand for re-election, but in 1784 Hood had come top of the poll in the notoriously open borough of Westminster, where every male householder had the right to vote. After a bitter campaign and a lengthy scrutiny, the second Westminster seat had gone to Charles James Fox, leader of the parliamentary opposition and a man who would jump at the chance to replace Hood with a more congenial running-mate. Although Hood’s appointment had been planned for two months, therefore, its revelation was carefully timed to catch the opposition by surprise.

Hood’s presence on the Admiralty Board was a vital part of Pitt the Younger’s scheme to elevate his brother, Lord Chatham, to the post of First Lord of the Admiralty. Chatham was 32, a landsman, and had never served politically; placing Hood on the Board was necessary to reassure any government supporters who felt the new First Lord needed hand-holding. But the possibility that Hood might lose his by-election increased when the opposition, despite the short notice, put up Lord John Townshend as an alternative candidate. Although Pitt dismissed the prospect of Hood’s losing Westminster as of “comparatively little consequence” [A.M. Wilberforce, Private Papers of William Wilberforce (1897), p. 22], it would nevertheless be highly embarrassing, whereas Hood’s victory might damage Fox’s future chances of re-election.

The government did its best to characterise the contest as one of military manliness (Hood) against degeneracy (Townshend) – “the cause of Decency against Indecency” [World, 25 July 1788]. Hood’s female supporters boosted this moral message. The activities of aristocratic women at Westminster was nothing new; in 1784, Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, had campaigned for Charles James Fox, and (as Elaine Chalus and Judith Lewis have argued) political canvassing was a well-established part of an 18th-century aristocratic woman’s role. But in 1784 the Duchess had made a palpable impact, and Pitt’s government had turned out a number of aristocratic female canvassers to counter it. They resorted to the same strategy in 1788, although this time the duchess of Devonshire did not take part.

Perhaps the most influential addition to the government side was Mary, countess of Chatham. Lady Chatham was married to the new First Lord of the Admiralty, which gave her a direct stake in the election’s outcome; she was also the prime minister’s sister-in-law. This was her first election, as in 1784 she had been too ill to undertake any canvassing, but she took to her role with gusto. The minute the poll opened, Lady Chatham rode about in her carriage, handing out navy blue cockades and persuading as many voters as possible to vote for Hood. “We were very successful indeed yesterday, and I hope shall be so today,” wrote Lady Chatham’s sister on 19 July [TNA, PRO 30/8/64, f. 186].

Lady Chatham’s role as a well-known, virtuous woman of fashion underscored the fact that élite female political involvement was openly tolerated – if it was respectable. Such respectability was badly needed in the cut-throat contest. The poll opened on 18 July 1788, and the ministerialist newspaper World immediately claimed “the Foxites … had got half Covent-Garden filled with Marrow-bones and cleavers. A party that preceded them had got thick bludgeons, to keep other people quiet”. On 21 July, riots led to two deaths and nearly 40 individuals being seriously injured, among them John Macnamara, one of the Members for Leicester and a member of Hood’s electoral committee. The tumult barely subsided for the duration of the poll, which closed on 4 August. Both sides were to blame, but the ministerialist press did not hesitate to use it as evidence that the election was a contest between good and evil.

The involvement of Lady Chatham and her female associates gave the government papers a weapon with which to assault Lord John Townshend. Hood’s supporters rapidly realised the gruff old admiral stood no chance against Townshend’s urbanity; the main recourse of Hood’s friends was to cast aspersion on Townshend’s moral laxity. Only a couple of years previously, Townshend had fought a duel over the wife of William Fawkener and married her after her divorce. One piece of pro-Hood propaganda had Townshend announcing to his electors “Pray recommend me to your wives and daughters!”; the Morning Post (then a Pittite organ) nicknamed him “the Libertine”; and the World even accused him of an indecent assault on the duchess of Rutland. Such rumours were almost certainly untrue, but Townshend’s history gave them credence.

Under these circumstances, the involvement of Lady Chatham and women of her stamp was especially useful. Lady Chatham was above reproach; she and the duchess of Rutland were described as “the most virtuous and fashionable women about town”. They were contrasted with Townshend’s female supporters:

BON TON. – Yesterday the Duchess of Rutland … went in her carriage, on a Canvas against Lord John Townshend … Lady Chatham was on the same gracious purpose. …

MAUVAIS TON. – All the “Free and Easy” were cruising against Lord Hood! [World, 23 July 1788]

The Morning Post also accused Townshend of relying on courtesans and demireps to secure votes: “Among the ladies of fashion in that interest were Perdita [Mary Robinson, the Prince of Wales’s former flame], Mother Armistead [Elizabeth Armistead, Fox’s mistress], four Misses belonging to Mother Western, and the same number belonging to Mother Windsor.”

Beyond this, Lady Chatham’s involvement in the election was remarkable because she was the closest thing to Pitt or Chatham themselves interfering – something neither of them could have done, either as cabinet ministers or (in Chatham’s case) as a member of the House of Lords. This was a double-edged sword, as the opposition rapidly worked out. “We know that the bills of public houses opened on account of Lord Hood have recently been collected,” the oppositionist Morning Herald wrote. “By whom? Not, indeed by the Minister in person, nor the new naval Premier … but by the nearest relative of both, who could appear without fixing agency on either of them – by LADY CHATHAM.”

Tantalisingly, Lady Chatham left no record of her electioneering activities in 1788. Despite her best efforts and those of the government (which included deploying a £20,000 subscription and possibly several thousands in secret service funds), Townshend received 6,392 votes and Hood only 5,569. But given the desperate nature of the contest and the government’s efforts to secure a Hood victory, Lady Chatham may have done more than meets the eye. Without evidence, we will never know whether the respectable and virtuous Lady Chatham crossed the line in this battle between “decency” and “indecency”.



Further reading

Marc Baer, The Rise and Fall of Radical Westminster, 1780-1890 (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Elaine Chalus, Elite women in English political life, c1754-1790 (Oxford, 2005)

Judith S. Lewis, Sacred to Female Patriotism: gender, class, and politics in late Georgian Britain (London, Routledge, 2003)

Jacqueline Reiter, The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (Barnsley, Pen and Sword, 2017)

Jacqueline Reiter, “The Invisible Countess”, History Today July 2018, pp. 50-6


Georgian lords 2

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Violent times? MPs as victims of murder in the mid-fifteenth century

Today Dr Simon Payling of the 1422-1504 Section explores the murders of MPs in the mid-fifteenth century…

The completion of a set of History of Parliament volumes, in this case those for the reign of Henry VI (1422-61), provides an opportunity to answer some statistical questions.  How often, for example, did MPs fall victim to murder?  In the modern era, such murders, whether of sitting or former MPs, are mercifully rare: the tragic death of Jo Cox in 2016 was the first since the IRA’s assassination of Ian Gow in 1990.   In earlier more violent times, such murders were undoubtedly significantly more frequent.  A recent blog on this site (‘Wikidata, British Politicians and the History of Parliament Trust’) has, for example, cited instances, in 1603 and 1684, when one MP met his death at the hands of another.  Even so, it may be that this increase, as one moves back in parliamentary time, was not as profound as might have been expected.

The reign of Henry VI, was, at least in the 1450s, notorious for the level of violence among the political classes.  Yet, of the 2,844 recorded MPs for the reign, no sitting MP and only 23 former ones are known to have been murdered.   The statistic does, of course, need to be treated with caution.  It does not include deaths in battle or in the suppression of rebellion, which might be said to fall into another category of violent death (although the distinction is not always clear cut: Sir William Lucy fell on the Lancastrian side at the battle of Northampton on 10 July 1460 yet his was no typical death in battle for he was killed by the lover and future husband of his young wife: ‘The battle of Northampton and the strange death of Sir William Lucy’,).

There is also the obvious difficulty of the failure of evidence.   Even though legal records survive in abundance, some murders would have been recorded in records now lost; others in records not yet examined; and yet others would have escaped any record, either because murder was not suspected or no indictment was laid or appeal made.    Even so, although the figure of 23 is very much a minimum one, it implies a murder rate rather lower than suggested by the violent reputation of the times.   Further, these murders are not spread evenly chronologically.  As many as seven of the 23 occurred in the first three years of Edward IV’s reign, which seems to have been a period of exceptional disorder, and none are known between Henry VI’s accession in 1422 and 1435.

On the other hand, if the number of murdered MPs was lower than might have been expected, the contexts in which the majority of them took place are none the less revealing of a society where the social constraints on the resort to extreme violence were much less developed than they subsequently became.  Only a few of the deaths occur in contexts which have a strong modern currency.   Two could be described as domestic murders.  Lucy’s death in 1460 falls into this category, as does that of Sir John Butler.  MP for Gloucestershire in 1439, he was killed in 1477 by perpetrators commissioned by his second wife, whom he had only recently married ( See our blog on the subject there: ‘Dangerous Liaisons in 15th Century England: Sir John Butler’).    Another MP may have met his death in a sexual encounter gone wrong.   On the night of 11 November 1446 Walter Rich, MP for Bath on as many as six occasions between 1414 and 1435, was making his way along ‘Chepestrete’, when he encountered a group of people led by Agnes Carpenter, a ‘wyfe’ of Bath.  Carpenter brought Rich to her house, where she suffocated him with a linen towel and strangled him with a leather belt, sitting on his chest to be doubly sure of his death.   This, however, is the only one of the 23 murders that might plausibly be said to have been the result of apparently casual violence.   Most of the others had a rational framework in that they occurred in the course of disputes, generally over land, and were often expressions of long-standing enmity.

William Tresham, Speaker of the Commons in four Parliaments and the most important of the murdered MPs, provides a clear example: in 1450 he was killed in an ambush, elaborately laid by Simon Norwich, whose inheritance he had illegally annexed (‘The murder of Speaker Tresham’ 27 October 2015).   Another MP, Sir Robert Harcourt, was killed in 1470 by the Staffords of Grafton in revenge for his part in the death of Richard Stafford more than 20 years before.   Such deaths reflect the failure of the law to provide an effective framework for the resolution of quarrels, with the weaker party sometimes driven to extreme measures for lack of a legal redress.   It was, for example, the control that the lawyer, Robert Crackenthorpe, exercised over the organs of local justice in the remote county of Westmorland, that led to his murder in 1438 at the hands of his wife’s family, the Lancasters, whom he had deprived of lands to which they had a moral if not a legal right.

These murders show that, at least in the context of disputes, the legal and social restraints against resort to violent self-help were weak.   Against this background one might have expected the murder of the officers of central and local government to have been significantly more common than it was.   It is true that as many as six former MPs met their deaths at the hand of the Cade rebels in the summer of 1450, with two of them, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, and his brother-in-law, William Cromer, executed as, in the eyes of the rebels, corrupt agents of the state.   Leaving this episode aside, however, only one of the 23 deaths falls into a similar category, and that came in the disturbed early years of Edward IV’s reign.   On 27 October 1463 John Doding, bailiff of Gloucester, sought to escape a mob of peasantry by taking refuge on the infirmary of Gloucester abbey, but they dragged him out and decapitated him at the high cross in the centre of the town before displaying his head over the west gate.  His offence, real or perceived against them, is unknown.


In 2019 the Commons 1422-1504 Section will publish their first set of volumes pertaining to the period 1422-1461. For more info see here.

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Before the vote was won: women and politics, 1868-1918

Dr Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 Section explains the relationship between women, Parliament and politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly focusing on their expanded role within local government in the prelude to the Representation of the People Act 1918. This post is based in part on Kathryn’s contribution to the book accompanying the ‘Voice and Vote’ exhibition currently running in Westminster Hall. For further details on the exhibition, see here.

This year marks the centenary of (some) women receiving the parliamentary franchise and the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act. However, as several of our previous posts – here and on our Victorian Commons site – have explored, women were involved with Parliament and politics in a variety of different ways long before their formal inclusion within the electoral system: as petitioners and campaigners; spectators at the hustings and in Parliament; political wives; electoral patrons; and even, occasionally, as voters in parliamentary elections.


G. Cruikshank, The rights of women, or the effects of female enfranchisement (1853)

Following on from a blog earlier this year about women’s political involvement between 1832 and 1868, this post looks at the period between 1868 and 1918. Women were becoming increasingly politically active, not least through the campaign for women’s suffrage. During the 1870s, petitions for women’s suffrage with over 2,200,000 signatures were presented to the Commons. Yet, at the same time, there were some areas where the opportunities for women to participate in politics had been curtailed. It is often forgotten that the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 was accompanied by the abolition of the hustings, where candidates had been nominated and explained their political views to crowds composed of electors and non-electors alike. Press reports routinely noted the presence of women as spectators. One account in 1857 observed:

Go down to any borough election, take your place upon the hustings, and look around. The space beneath is crammed [with] working men – electors and non-electors – not unmixed with wives and children. Look up, and every window … is fitted with fair faces, eager eyes, and delicate hands waving cambric handkerchiefs in token of their exultation. The wives, the daughters, and the infant children of the candidates are there.

In contrast, after 1872, candidates handed in their nomination papers privately and unceremoniously, removing this opportunity for non-electors – male and female alike – to take part in election proceedings.

Women did, however, have new opportunities to get involved in politics. One way of doing so was through the growing number of local organisations set up by the Liberal and Conservative parties as they tried to harness the support of the expanded (male) electorate enfranchised by the Third Reform Act of 1884-5. This reform, combined with the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act, which placed strict limits on the amounts which candidates could spend at parliamentary elections and what they could spend it on, meant that politicians increasingly relied on the support of volunteer activists to assist them in their election campaigning.


Primrose League badges

These election workers were recruited from local Liberal and Conservative associations and clubs, and from auxiliary organisations such as the Primrose League, set up in 1883 to support the Conservative cause. It became the largest mass political organisation of its day, encompassing men, women and children. By 1891 it had 500,000 female members. These ‘Primrose Dames’ were not only involved with the League’s social events – its garden fêtes and tea parties – but were also praised for their electioneering efforts. William Arnold Statham, who contested one of the Bethnal Green parliamentary seats in London in 1895, recorded that female volunteers had spoken at ‘open-air and turbulent meetings’, displaying their ‘unaffected, unassuming and convincing eloquence’. They had also ‘trudged up and down the steep stairs’ of working-class houses for ‘hours and hours’, delivering election leaflets, converting doubtful voters, tracing voters who had moved and ‘pursuing inquiries to check the register’.

Liberal women made similar efforts on behalf of their party’s candidates, although the issue of women’s suffrage proved a divisive one for the women’s Liberal organisations, with the anti-suffrage Women’s National Liberal Association splitting off from the pro-suffrage Women’s Liberal Federation in 1892. Despite this, their contribution was such that in autumn 1910 the Liberal Chief Whip warned the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, who opposed women’s suffrage, that

You cannot afford, on the eve of a General Election, to drive the whole Women’s Movement into the most bitter opposition nor to weaken and in many cases alienate the support of the most active Liberal women workers.

Two notable female Liberal activists were the first women to qualify as professional constituency agents, Bertha Fischer (in 1902) and Ellen Pocock (in 1908), a remarkable achievement in a period when women were excluded from the parliamentary vote.

Although they were denied the parliamentary franchise until 1918, women were able to participate as voters – and, in some cases, as candidates – in local government. In 1869 the Manchester MP Jacob Bright successfully altered the Municipal Franchise Act to allow women in England and Wales to vote at municipal elections on the same basis as men (a ratepayer franchise). Women in Scotland and Ireland had to wait longer for the municipal vote – until 1882 and 1898 respectively. A court ruling in 1872 decided that this franchise applied to single and widowed women only.

Dacre, Susan Isabel, 1844-1933; Lydia Becker

Lydia Becker, by Susan Isabel Dacre; image credit: Manchester Art Gallery via artuk.org

From 1870 women who held the requisite property qualification could vote for and be elected to School Boards, which oversaw the local administration of education. The small number of women elected to School Boards in 1870 included the suffragists Lydia Becker in Manchester and Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Davies in London. Wales’s first female School Board member was Rose Crawshay at Merthyr in 1871, while Jane Arthur at Paisley in 1873 was the first woman elected to a Scottish school board. The first woman elected to a Board of Guardians, which supervised administration of the poor law, was Martha Merrington at Kensington in 1875. By 1885 there were 50 female poor law guardians, mostly in urban areas.

Women could also vote for the new county councils created in 1888. Two women, Jane Cobden (daughter of the noted Radical Richard Cobden) and Margaret Sandhurst, were elected to the first London County Council in 1889, but following legal objections women were deemed ineligible to stand for county councils until the law changed in 1907. Despite this setback, women received fresh opportunities under the 1894 Local Government Act. They could now vote and stand for rural and urban district councils and parish councils, and it became easier to stand as poor law guardians, as the high property qualification was abolished. Most significantly, this reform allowed married women to become local government electors, provided they did not register for the same property as their husbands.

By the late 1890s there were 729,000 female voters in England and Wales, comprising 13.7% of the municipal electorate. In 1895 there were 128 female School Board members and 893 female poor law guardians. While it could be argued that the responsibilities of local bodies – for education, the poor and health – were an extension of women’s traditional domestic role, the local government arena was significant in giving women experience as voters and office-holders, long before the reforms of 1918 and 1928 included them within the parliamentary electorate.


Posted in 19th Century history, 20th century history, Women and Parliament | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Parliament and medicine in the early 17th century

Continuing the theme of health, medicine and Parliament, Dr Paul Hunneyball of the Lords 1604-29 Section considers how medical practices and language impacted on parliamentary proceedings under the early Stuarts…

History of Parliament biographies contain many incidental details about medicine in the early 17th century, though the picture that emerges is very different from the modern clinical experience. Although anatomical knowledge was improving, the human body was still generally believed to function according to the rules set out by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, which defined illness as an imbalance of four physical qualities, or ‘humours’. Accordingly, most treatments were designed to restore equilibrium, through blood-letting, purges, or the application of poultices (then known as ‘plasters’). While some tried-and-tested herbal remedies could be effective, many potions contained exotic ingredients which were either useless or actively harmful.

One Dr Antoine, who treated Adolphus Carey for smallpox in 1609 was subsequently prosecuted for hastening his end with ‘unknown medicines’. External factors were also considered relevant. Fashionable doctors such as Richard Napier were both physicians and astrologers. Diseases which defied diagnosis, such as the ‘languishing sickness’ endured by Emanuel Scrope, 1st earl of Sunderland, might well be blamed on witchcraft. The same factor was frequently invoked to explain mental illness; the estranged wife of John Villiers, Viscount Purbeck, was tried in 1625 on a charge of bewitching him with charms obtained from the notorious astrologer John Lambe. Alternatively, the epileptic Tobie Matthew was accused by his own father of ‘hypocritical dissimulations’ of illness. And of course, health and well-being were still widely regarded as evidence of divine favour. Francis Rous’s 1622 treatise, Diseases of the Time, Attended by their Remedies, was not a medical manual, but a fervent plea for national repentance to avert God’s wrath, which he discerned in a range of factors including plague epidemics. Indeed, when the 1625 Parliament was first postponed and then relocated to Oxford due to a plague outbreak in London, the House of Commons’ response was to call for a public fast in a bid to placate the Almighty.

Sir William Paddy (Marcus Gheeraerts II)

Sir William Paddy (Marcus Gheeraerts II)

Given the uncertainty surrounding medical treatment, and the presumption that health was influenced by divine providence, it’s not surprising that many lay people acquired a working knowledge of basic remedies. In a small way, this was reflected in Parliament. The early Stuart House of Commons included in its membership four actual doctors: John Bond, a former schoolmaster with a thriving West Country medical practice; Samuel Turner, a sometime physician to Anne of Denmark; John Gostlin, a future Regius professor of medicine at Cambridge; and Sir William Paddy, who was retained by three successive monarchs, and twice served as president of the Royal College of Physicians.

However, at least four other MPs are known to have taken a keen amateur interest in medicine, namely Nicholas Ferrar, William Whiteway II, Sir Gervase Clifton, and Sir Edward Conway jr. (later 2nd Viscount Conway). Another possible member of the latter group was Sir Robert Killigrew, who in 1613 supplied a purgative powder that may or may not have been used in the notorious poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury by the countess of Somerset. The polymath Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban, published on medical issues, his readership conceivably including William Paget, 5th Lord Paget, who collected books on medicine. At a more practical level, Dudley North, 3rd Lord North, reputedly discovered the healing springs of Tunbridge Wells, Kent after noting their similarity to the waters at Spa, in modern Belgium, which he had already sampled. (Mineral waters were a popular cure-all when other remedies had failed, with the famous Roman pools at Bath the pre-eminent English destination; a number of peers and MPs are known to have ‘taken the waters’ there, including Francis Norris, 2nd Lord Norreys, Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury, and, appropriately, William Bourchier, 3rd earl of Bath.)

Predictably, some of these men used medical imagery to enliven their political utterances. In 1606 Bond compared the impact on the crown’s finances of James I’s extravagance to a ‘body wasted with a continual burning fever’. During the same session, Paddy warned that ‘a just king must not take unjust courses; the head must not exhaust the vital spirits’. Six years later, Bacon tried persuading a reluctant James to re-summon Parliament, arguing that some medicines, which ‘in over-great quantity were little better than poisons, … [if] mixed and broken and in just quantity are full of virtue’.

However, by far the most significant of these interventions came in 1626, when Dr Turner spearheaded the Commons’ attack on the royal favourite, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham. Asserting that ‘a good physician must consider the disease and the causes’, Turner diagnosed the nation’s ills as stemming from the duke’s malign political influence. Of all the resultant impeachment charges, the most controversial stated that Buckingham had interfered in James I’s medical treatment during the king’s final illness, potentially bringing about his death. Although the monarch already had a committee of doctors attending him, the duke encouraged him to try two additional treatments, a potion and a plaster. Such was the state of the profession that when the physicians were examined in Parliament, they were unable to say whether these concoctions had been harmful or beneficial, let alone what they contained. Nevertheless, Buckingham had gone behind the backs of the official medics, consulting a country physician with whom they were unfamiliar, and trying remedies which they hadn’t sanctioned. With the Commons intent on blackening the duke’s name in whatever way they could, these facts were sufficient to convince MPs that he had been up to no good. And although the impeachment charge failed to stick, the allegation that Buckingham poisoned James continues to circulate even today, despite the flimsy nature of the evidence.


Further reading:

  • Alastair Bellany and Thomas Cogswell, The Murder of King James I (New Haven, 2015)
  • Biographies of the peers listed above will appear in the History of Parliament’s volumes on the House of Lords 1604-1629 (forthcoming 2019).
Posted in 17th Century history, Early modern history, Health and Medicine, James I to Restoration, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment