Memories of Thatcher’s fall

25 years ago this week the Conservative Party were in the process of electing a new leader after Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister for over 11 years, stood down. The story of Thatcher’s resignation has long been a controversial one within the Conservative Party, seen by some as an ‘assassination’ and by many as high political drama. This is reflected in many of our oral history project interviews with former MPs. Thatcher’s premiership is mentioned by almost all of those who were MPs at the time, but in this post we’ll concentrate on some of the reactions to the downfall of Britain’s only female Prime Minister to date.

Thatcher remains a controversial figure in British politics, and this is no less true in our interviews with former Conservative MPs. Whilst many were great admirers, a number remember that by 1990 they had become alienated by her policies (in particular the attempts to introduce the Community Charge, better known as the poll tax) and what they felt was an increasingly arrogant leadership style. For example, Sir Philip Goodhart, MP for Beckenham, remembers that he was ‘violently opposed’ to the poll tax, and Michael Irvine, Ipswich MP between 1987 and 1992, felt that he had been ‘correct’ in opposing the policy and had the support of his local Conservative party in doing so. For David Nicholson, MP for Taunton, his decision to vote against Thatcher combined misgivings about the poll tax, the government’s growing unpopularity and her leadership style, as he explains in this clip:

The mechanics of Thatcher’s downfall have been well recorded. Commentators have generally agreed that the crisis began with Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation from the cabinet and his speech in the Commons attacking the Prime Minister; in particular his call for others to act:  ‘The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.’ In his interview with us, Howe stated he was ‘sad’ to have made the speech, but felt he had ‘no alternative’. This then led to a leadership challenge by Michael Heseltine.

For several of our interviewees, Thatcher’s actions during this period only made matters worse. She has since been criticised for not taking the challenge seriously and for deciding to attend a European Summit as normal on the day of the vote. For David Mudd, MP Falmouth and Camborne, who admitted it was a ‘relief’ when Thatcher was challenged, he was still surprised at the manner of the change:

It came as no particular shock to me that Margaret was ousted, I was surprised though, that it happened the way that it did. The fact that here was the government, or here was the Prime Minister, facing a crisis, and she swans off to Paris. It just didn’t make sense.

Thatcher’s failure to win enough support in this first ballot to end the contest meant that on her return to London cabinet support for her leadership collapsed. On 22 November she announced that she would step down, and John Major subsequently won the leadership election.

Even amongst our interviewees who had wanted Thatcher to step down, many felt that the process itself was – in the worlds of the Cornish MP Sir Robert Hicks – ‘a very sad reflection on what she had achieved’. Dame Marion Roe, MP for Broxbourne, described the period as ‘very emotional’, whilst the MP for Batley and Spen Elizabeth Peacock was full of admiration for Thatcher as she returned to the Commons the week after her resignation, as she explains in this clip:


For more on our oral history project, see our website or our oral history blogposts.

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History of Parliament’s Dissertation Competition, 2014 and 2015

Every year the History of Parliament Trust holds a competition for the best undergraduate dissertation on British or Irish politics. 2014’s winner was Stuart Clark of Edinburgh University, with ‘“An Old Tory Dodge”, or “a Large and Liberal Project of Practical Benevolence”? The Congested Districts Board, Politics and the Press in Ireland, 1890-1914’. Our editors and editorial board judged the work to be interesting, well-written and tackling a complex topic with some sophisticated analysis. Before announcing this year’s winner, Stuart discusses his work…

My dissertation examined the place that the Congested Districts Board occupied within the discourse of Irish politics by examining the national and regional press in Ireland. The Congested Districts Board (CDB) was founded as part of the 1891 Land Act to provide material assistance to those areas of Ireland deemed ‘congested’. Congested areas were defined by a complex relationship between land rates, land area, and population: those areas with too many people living on too little land of poor quality were deemed congested. Gradually the role of the CDB developed from its original purpose of providing finance and resources for improving land to being responsible for government backed land purchase and redistribution over seven whole Irish counties and large parts of two more by the time of the 1909 Land Act.

Whilst there has been some attention given to the economic and social impact of the Board and its activities, the place of the board within the charged atmosphere of Irish politics has received little attention. Whilst there was initial suspicion in the nationalist press of the CDB as an attempt ‘to affect the Tory conquest of Ireland’, this soon gave way to recognition that the Board’s work was having a positive impact upon some of the poorest communities in Ireland, and soon Irish nationalism was praising the board as ‘the one board ever established by England in Ireland which commands the confidence of the people.’ The bitterly partisan politics of Ireland found consensus that the CDB was a good idea and a successful organisation, but that could not stop this consensus being used and exploited for partisan purposes. Ultimately political arguments over the CDB concerned themselves less with the Board’s activities but rather how those activities could be used to justify competing nationalist and unionist worldviews.

Debates over the Board’s membership, which had been by government appointment, frequently saw nationalists and unionists alike posing as defenders of the Board and its theoretical independence from party politics. Nationalists claimed that the CDB’s independence was threatened because a Unionist government would pack it with pro-union members, whilst unionists opposed proposals to give the Board a representative element on the grounds that it would become dominated by nationalist politicians. Both sides sought to talk-up the principle of the Board’s independence from politics, but in reality both merely sought to gain or deny control of the Board’s growing legal and financial muscle to their opponents.

Likewise the recurring political debate over each subsequent Irish Land Act and whether compulsory purchase powers were necessary to solve the problems of Irish land saw the agreed success of the Board used for diverging purposes. For nationalists the success of the Board in improving and redistributing land acquired by voluntary purchase showed the potential for what compulsory purchase powers could achieve. Unionists argued that the CDB’s operations pointed to the opposite conclusion, that compulsory purchase powers, and the concomitant erosion of property rights, was unnecessary.

The Board and its activities also demonstrated the localism, centred on county loyalties, which still permeated Irish politics. People in Kerry might complain that Donegal received more than its fair share of funding from the Board, Donegal would argue that too much money was spent in Mayo, Cork complained that it was ignored in favour of everyone else. The common formula for complaint was demonstrated by Cork-based paper the Southern Star:

Although locally we have not much evidence of the administration of the funds of the Congested Districts Board, it must be admitted that elsewhere they are doing good work…we may hope that sometime in the future we in the South may obtain a share of the attention and beneficence that is bestowed on other localities.

Again, specific criticism of the Board was voiced within the context of praising its work in general.

Finally, the fate of the Board within a future Home Rule Ireland was contested. Nationalists argued that only under Home Rule would the CDB be given enough power and resources to finally tackle the problem of congestion in Ireland, if you supported the work of the CDB then you should support Home Rule. Nationalist MP John Fitzgibbon even somewhat naively sought to use the Board as evidence of how a united Home Rule Ireland could emerge ‘composed of Nationalists, Unionists, Protestants, Catholics… The Board was doing great and good work, and they were a happy family, truly indicative of the future Irish Parliament.’ On the other side Irish unionists maintained that Home Rule Ireland would lack the resources to maintain current levels of funding and the good work of the Board would be cut short.

Debates rarely concerned the principles behind the Board’s work or how well the Board was conducting that work. Irish nationalism overcame its initial scepticism once it realised that the Board was popular among the people it helped, and it became the accepted political wisdom that the Board was doing a good job. The experience of the CDB in Ireland reminds us that an institution or idea does not cease to have political value once it has achieved a popular consensus of support. In one sense, the Board seemed apolitical: there was very little disagreement, after initial nationalist suspicion, that the Board was a beneficial institution. For both unionist and nationalist the Board’s political value, as a cause to be associated with, grew out of this popular consensus on its merits, but this should not obscure its continuing political role. The Board remained firmly within the discourse of Irish politics as because competing political groups felt they could exploit the Board’s popularity to support starkly contrasting political viewpoints.


Stuart has subsequently completed his MSc by Research at Edinburgh and has now begun working towards a PhD.

The winner of the 2015 dissertation competition was announced at our annual lecture on November 4th. This year Christopher Rowe, of Cambridge University, won with ‘The Liberal Party, Free Trade and the 1841 election.’ Our judges praised his work as ‘extraordinary’ with ‘striking conclusions’ about a complex topic. Hopefully we will hear from Christopher on this blog soon!

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Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Victoria Anker, ‘Parliament Ordinances and Remonstrances: legislative attacks on executive authority in the early 1640s’

At the second ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of the term Victoria Anker, from the University of Edinburgh, spoke on ‘Parliament Ordinances and Remonstrances: legislative attacks on executive authority in the early 1640s.’ Here she gives us an overview of her paper…

Whilst the language and rhetoric of speakers in the House of Commons in the Short Parliament demonstrated a level of continuity with Charles I’s parliaments of 1620s, the forms used by speakers in the House of Commons (and occasionally in the House of Lords) in the Long Parliament broke that continuity, becoming increasingly hostile towards the crown. The use of declarations, propositions, protestations, remonstrances, and resolutions, enabled parliament (as a collective agency) to challenge and erode royal authority in order to protect the Church of England from idolatry and broaden the structure of the Caroline government.

This manipulation of words and genres did not exist in isolation – it had clear precedents in the actions of the Scottish Covenanters in the late 1630s and early 1640s. The Covenanters, in resisting Charles’s enforcement of the English Book of Common Prayer, provided a four-fold model of defiance. The construction of a language of the righteous (the bishops were ‘pretended’, their power ‘usurped’ from the Kirk); the concept of untouchable parliamentary liberties (enshrined in the Triennial Act); the manipulation of public petitions (which Charles resolutely ignored); and the language of submission (the Covenanters were fulfilling Charles’s desire for ‘a perfect and solide peace’) offered English politicians an example in utilising the ritualised language of government to respectfully address the king, even as the words themselves signalled rebellion against royal policy.

In repeating phrases such as ‘the true Religion, the Laws and Liberties of this Kingdom’, ‘peace and safety’, and ‘privileges of Parliament’, the reformers at Westminster presented parliament as a central player – through its role as a conciliar institution – in England’s government. In issuing declarations, the Commons mimicked royal proclamations; and whilst declarations lacked the force of law, the use of legal and constitutional terms gave them the appearance of authority. Observers noted that these forms ‘sound very plausible in the ears of the people here, and they do not faile to arouse feelings prejudicial to the interests of His Majesty’. The circulation of declarations, alongside vindications and resolutions – which sought to justify the Commons’ actions – the Protestation Oath and the Grand Remonstrance, prepared the political ground both within Westminster and among the public for the Militia Ordinance. This ordinance was parliament’s most important act in marginalising Charles’s authority – it now held the royal prerogative to make war. Whilst Charles remained de jure sovereign, parliament had established itself as de facto sovereign.

The discussion which followed the presentation of this paper was lively and constructive. Stephen Roberts, in the chair, questioned the extent to which members of the Long Parliament were deliberately planning or manipulating speeches to engender farsighted reform or whether they were motivated by more short term changes. Paul Hunneyball reminded the members of the seminar of James I/VI’s Scottish progress in 1617, when English courtiers were shocked by the Scots’ defiant attitude toward the crown. The discussion also touched upon speeches within parliament to consider the move from the printing and reprinting of the ‘big set pieces’ of the Short Parliament and early months of the Long Parliament, to the tendency to report on and briefly summarise (but not print in full) these speeches in newsbooks with the outbreak of war.


More updates will follow shortly from our ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, including Jonathan Moss and Gerry Stoker (Southampton University) on their paper: ‘Popular Understandings of Politics: Perspectives from Mass Observation, 1945-1951.’ For the full seminar programme, which returns in a fortnight, see the IHR website.


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The ‘Story of Parliament’: Civil War leaders

Earlier this year the History published ‘The Story of Parliament: Celebrating 750 years of parliament in Britain’ to mark the anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s parliament in 1265. The book is a brief introduction to the full 750 years of parliamentary history, aimed at the general reader, and available to purchase from the Houses of Parliament bookshop.

 On this blog we are publishing some tasters of ‘The Story of Parliament’ from a number of the academics who contributed to the book. Our second post concentrates on two of Parliament’s leaders in the conflict with Charles II, John Pym and Oliver Cromwell. These men both emerged from relatively humble beginnings to become two of the most important political figures of the Civil War period.

 This article was originally written by Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section.

John Pym (1584-1643), was the unofficial leaders of the Commons in the first part of the Civil War, despite the fact he was not wealthy (he owned a very modest amount of land in Somerset) and never held high office. By April 1640, when he took a leading part in voicing opposition to Charles I, he was a veteran of five parliaments. In each of them he sat by courtesy of aristocratic patrons. In the assemblies of the 1620s he criticised the king but was never subsequently singled out for retribution. He spent the 11 years when parliament did not meet in the 1630s in advancing the various economic and puritan colonial ventures. When parliament was again summoned, in 1640, his skilful and persuasive oratory made him a natural leader of opposition in the Commons. From November that year he spearheaded attacks on almost every aspect of the 11 years’ royal rule until an exasperated king attempted to arrest him and four other MPs in January 1642. Thereafter, Pym’s aim was to set secure limits to the king’s power.

After the outbreak of civil war, which Pym blamed on the king, he led the creation of a parliamentarian war effort, developing a range of administrative and fiscal measures, notably the excise tax (1643). Until his death he was pre-eminent in the committee of safety, the main executive committee devised by parliament to oversee this work. From 1641 he was lampooned as “King Pym” because of his dominance of politics. Recently, historians have questioned his independence of judgement and action, but he occupied an unrivalled position as a manager of parliamentary business because of his tireless capacity to work and his authority among fellow-parliamentarians.

Conversely, few politicians have sustained such a complex and ambivalent relationship with parliament as Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). He was both its champion and its destroyer.

Born in Huntingdon, he was typical of the lesser East Anglian gentry. He played a party in the local government of his native town from 1624, accounting for his election there in 1628. He contributed little to the proceedings of the 1628-29 Parliament, and little is known about his activities in the 1630s: there was nothing to suggest he was then actively hostile to the government of Charles I. Even his opposition to a project of major landowners to drain the East Anglian fens did not amount to much.

But around 1638 Cromwell underwent a religious conversion, and this puritan faith drove his career in the Long Parliament (1640-1660), in which he represented Cambridge. He intervened early and effectively in that assembly, despite his relative inexperience. On the outbreak of civil war he combined sporadic but purposeful attendance in parliament with outstanding military leadership. He engineered the army reforms of 1644-45 and reached the high command of the New Model Army. In 1648, he tacitly supported the expulsion of MPs who sought compromise with the king, and led those who signed Charles’ death warrant. His own growing radicalism was not matched by the Rump Parliament (1648-53). In 1653, he used the army to topple it from power.

As head of state (1653-58) with the title of Lord Protector, he ruled under England’s first and only written constitution. He planned for parliaments to continue to play a part, but with radicals and conservatives alike opposed to his new form of kingship, he struggled to create a government that was not based on military power. These intractable problems of state security and legitimacy persisted after his death.


‘The Story of Parliament’ is available at the Parliamentary bookshop for £14.99. You can purchase it here.

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Two battles and a siege: Sheriffmuir and Preston, 12-14 November 1715

300 years ago the battles of Sheriffmuir and Preston signalled the effective end of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, tells us more…

The 1745 rebellion, replete with romantic tales of derring-do, may be the most famous of the various Jacobite insurrections but it was far from being the most likely to succeed. In the late summer of 1715, almost exactly a year since the death of Queen Anne and the succession to the throne of Great Britain of George Ludwig of Hanover, the discontented Scots magnate, John Erskine, 22nd earl of Mar, raised the standard of the exiled Stuarts at Braemar, thereby sparking what was to prove to be the Jacobites’ last best chance at overturning the revolutionary settlement. Although George I had assumed the throne peacefully, by the middle of 1715 the steady alienation of Tories from the administration and the judicial proceedings against three former ministers (Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, and James Butler, 2nd duke of Ormond) added to the impression that the new regime was not one safe for any associated with the last years of Anne. Mar, who had been a staunch backer of Union, and had until the dissolution of Anne’s last Parliament sat in the Lords as a representative peer, felt snubbed by the new king and retreated to his estates in Scotland to overturn the settlement he had been so closely involved with devising.

Initially, Mar was very successful. At one point he may have had under arms as many as 20,000 men and was in control of significant tracts of the country. At the same time there were risings in the north and west of England, which added to the sense that the Hanoverian regime was genuinely in trouble. The government was, however, quick to respond. John Campbell, duke of Argyll, was hurried north to deal with Mar, several other Jacobite noblemen were taken up and the city of Oxford was threatened with martial law as a regiment of dragoons attempted to track down 13 suspected rebels hiding there. Twelve were arrested, but the thirteenth made good his escape over the walls of Magdalen.

At the same time that Mar was successfully rallying a number of clans to the Stuarts’ colours in Scotland, a small cadre of English gentlemen tried with far less aplomb to emulate him in Northumberland. On 9 October the Pretender was proclaimed king at Warkworth, after which the rebels, led by a local MP, Thomas Forster, and by James Radclyffe, 3rd earl of Derwentwater, attempted to persuade the city of Newcastle to open its gates to them. They were rebuffed. Thwarted there, they linked up with a neighbouring rebellion in the Scottish borders led by a handful of Scots nobles, among them William Gordon, 6th Viscount Kenmure, and proceeded to make their way across country into Lancashire, arriving eventually at Preston in November, where they prepared themselves for assault.

In Scotland, Argyll had established himself at Stirling Castle, thereby effectively blocking Mar’s route south. Mar dithered before finally being convinced to march down and confront Argyll. The duke, although outnumbered, responded to the challenge and sallied out to cut off the Jacobite army. A seasoned commander, Argyll selected favourable ground at Sheriffmuir near Dunblane, and prepared to beat the Jacobites back. By 13th November the two armies were in sight of each other and ready for battle.

By the time Mar and Argyll were preparing to fight, the Jacobite army in Preston had already been forced to beat off a besieging government army led by General Charles Wills. Even though they enjoyed some initial success, inflicting heavy casualties on Wills’s troops in the first day’s fighting, by the morning of the 13th, the Jacobites in Preston had fallen prey to mutual recrimination and violent disagreements about how best to proceed. Believing their case to be hopeless, Forster was the foremost among them in arguing for negotiating for terms, while the more headstrong Derwentwater argued for making a stand. Another peer, William Widdrington, 4th Baron Widdrington, who had spent most of the time bed-ridden, also backed Forster in arguing for surrender. On the morning of the 14th the government forces advanced into Preston and took almost 1,500 rebels prisoner, among them Derwentwater and Kenmure. Their capitulation brought to the end the English phase of the rebellion, and the action at Preston proved to be the last battle fought on English soil.

The day before the English Jacobites were compelled to lay down their arms, the Scots rebellion had effectively been brought to a halt by an otherwise inconclusive battle fought at Sheriffmuir. In spite of his numerical disadvantage, Argyll was able to turn one of Mar’s flanks before one of his own was overwhelmed by the Jacobites’ greater numbers. And yet, Mar proved as hesitant on the field as he had been previously, and failed to make the most of his advantage. Argyll’s forces were able to retreat in good order, but rather than follow Mar too wheeled around and marched back the way he had come. In effect, he had been denied the road south and by the time the Pretender finally arrived in Scotland the following month, the rebellion had all but fizzled out.

Though somewhat inglorious, the battles of Perth and Sheriffmuir, fought consecutively during a few days in mid-November 1715, contained a roll call of over 20 MPs, peers and Scots noblemen ranged on either side of the battlefield. One of Mar’s commanders was another former representative peer, James Livingston, 5th earl of Linlithgow; Hon. John Sinclair, previously a member of the Commons, was also present in Mar’s ranks – and later criticized for his conduct on the day – while George Hamilton had served as one of Mar’s advisers. On the government side, the left wing had been commanded by Thomas Whetham, later member for Barnstaple, and James Stuart, future member for Ayr Burghs had acted as Argyll’s aide-de-camp. The heir to the earldom of Haddington, Charles Hamilton, Lord Binning, future member for St Germans, had also served with Argyll as a volunteer, while Edward Montagu, later member for Northampton, commanded the 11th Regiment of Foot. Robert Urquhart, the former MP for Elginshire, proved both the viciousness of the encounter and his own resilience. He was wounded in the stomach, ‘so as his puddings hang out’, but survived both that and being taken prisoner by the rebel army. He lived on until within a few years of the next major uprising.


Further reading:

  •  Bruce Lenman, The Jacobite Cause (1986)
  • Daniel Szechi, 1715: the great Jacobite rebellion (2006)
  • Jonathan Oates, The Last Battle on English Soil, Preston 1715 (2015).


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The History of Parliament Annual Lecture 2015: Dr John Maddicott, ‘Parliament and the People in Medieval England’

Lecture 2015

Dr Maddicott answering questions after his lecture in Portcullis House

Last week we had a large audience for our annual lecture in Portcullis House, Westminster. Dr John Maddicott FBA gave a fascinating talk on Parliament’s relationship with ordinary people between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries.

Dr Maddicott began by defining both ‘parliament’ and ‘the people.’ In doing so he traced the development of parliament from a group of the monarch’s close advisors to a body which resembles more closely our own idea of Parliament: two houses, the Lords, and what we know now as the ‘Commons’, formed of knights of the shires and burgesses elected by townspeople. The inclusion of the ‘Commons’ in the thirteenth century in itself changed parliament’s relationship with ‘the people’, previously the ‘Lords’ were said to represent the views of the common people of the country to the King without any direct election.

The large number of factors which led to the creation of the Commons – consultation over taxes, the need for the crown to consult local government figures, and the extra legitimacy given by the inclusion of knights and burgesses – was part of a change in how Parliament was seen by local people. Although not democratic in the way we would understand it today, representation of ‘the people’ was increased by the fact that some elections took place. This marked a change from Parliament as a body which simply impacted upon people’s lives to one which had more claim to represent ordinary people.

Dr Maddicott argued that the clearest way in which this change could be seen was in petitioning. Edward I began the practice in 1275 by encouraging parliamentarians to present the grievances of ordinary people to him. Petitions soon had a clear formula: they were written in vernacular French, brought attention to a governmental abuse and asked for this to be remedied. This offered ordinary people the possibility of direct redress of grievances through a method that simply hadn’t been there previously, and there is evidence that all sorts of people took this opportunity. For example, petitions survive from women, from villeins (or serfs, people who were legally tied to the service of their Lord) or others from the wider peasant class, such as a petition from a group of masons working on Norwich Castle who had not been paid in two years. On occasion petitions, especially when grievances were gathered together in large ‘Common petitions’, led to reforming statutes. Dr Maddicott argued that this was largely due to a moral duty for parliamentarians to improve the lives of the poor.

The relationship changed, however, after the Black Death. The huge social changes – for example the shortage of labour which led to the end of the system which tied villeins to their Lord, and a rapid increase of wages – put the rich gentry in Parliament at odds with the interests of the ordinary working person. Instead of offering petitions to relieve their grievances, parliament instead passed laws trying to limit wages and restrict movement of labour. However, Dr Maddicott argued that it is too crude to see this new relationship as purely confrontational. For those who have survived the Black Death, their lives and status had improved considerably, so there was less need to petition the king. Furthermore, there were occasions when the House of Commons would support grievances, particularly against abuse of power by magnates. Participation in elections, especially for the knights of the shire, also rose as living standards increased. While we of course do not know how much influence those who were relatively poor had on these elections, it was enough for parliament to legislate for the famous ’40 shilling’ franchise in 1430 to try and limit the numbers participating. This figure was, even at the time, set comparatively low, so those well under the ranks of gentry could still have a say in elections (for more, see ‘County Elections before 1504’).

Dr Maddicott concluded by cautioning that this was not a story of a Whiggish progression where ordinary people increasingly took power from the magnates. It is worth remembering that those classed as ‘villeins’ had little or no say in parliament, and that rights were won as well as lost. In this period, however, it appears that many ordinary people would have had an opinion on parliament and an interest in its proceedings. Petitions offered a genuine route to protest against abuses of power, and relatively large numbers cared enough to participate in elections. There was a ‘positive response by people to the opportunities Parliament offered’, as well as the acceptance of the burdens it imposed.


Dr Maddicott is Emeritus Fellow in History at Exeter College, Oxford. He is the author of ‘The Origins of the English Parliament: 924-1327‘ (2010) and has recently published ‘Founders and Fellowship: The Early History of Exeter College, Oxford, 1314-1592‘ (2014).

For more, see our ‘Explore: Medieval’ webpages and blog series on the legacies of Magna Carta and the Simon de Montfort Parliament.

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Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Patrick Little, ‘The dressing of a cucumber‘: the Scottish Union Bill of 1656-7

The ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar has returned for the new academic year. To start things off, the History of Parliament’s own Dr Patrick Little, Senior Research Fellow in the Commons 1640-60 section, reports back on his paper ‘‘The dressing of a cucumber’: the Scottish Union Bill of 1656-7’…

The constitutional relationship between England and Scotland was as topical in the mid-seventeenth century as it is today. The Cromwellian conquest of Scotland in 1651-2 was followed by various attempts to unite the two nations, with a union ordinance being passed by the protectoral council in April 1654. It is usually assumed that the bill debated in the second protectorate parliament in the winter of 1656-7 was merely a rubber-stamping exercise, upgrading the existing ordinance into an act, but a careful examination of the sources – including Burton’s diary and the Clarke Papers and, crucially a sheet of amendments in the Laing manuscripts at Edinburgh University – shows that it involved major additions that fundamentally changed the nature of the union. Under the amended bill, the Scots would retain their own law system with its traditional courts, the privileges of the burghs would be confirmed, the customs union would be extended to include the lucrative import/export trade, and guarantees given that taxation would only be with parliamentary consent. Such were the concessions that English MPs complained that the union bill put them at a disadvantage.

While the first part of this paper examined the nature of the proposed bill, the second looked at who was driving these changes. The crucial amendments do not seem to have originated with the Scots themselves. Although they engaged with the regime, and had their own ideas for reform, the various Scottish factions and interest groups had rather different agendas than that which lay behind the union bill. Nor was the amended bill the brainchild of the English council, whose Scottish committee, dominated by John Lambert, was opposed to giving more rights to the Scots. Rather, the changes seem to have come from the Scottish council at Edinburgh, guided by its president, Lord Broghill. The Scottish councillors had been pressing for similar concessions in previous years and they were prominent in the debates on the bill in parliament. They were also opposed to the military-based rule advocated by Lambert and his friends and seen most clearly in England in the major-generals’ scheme. Broghill and other councillors took part in the attack on the militia bill in January 1657, and went on to support the offer of the crown to Cromwell in February and March. Both of these measures reflected the opposition to military rule across the three nations.

The union bill was not discussed in parliament after mid-January 1657: the other more pressing political and constitutional debates had superseded it. In April the old union ordinance of 1654 was instead passed as an act without further discussion. By taking the easy path MPs were perhaps acknowledging that reformulating the union was fraught with complications, both constitutional and political. As today, the result was often frustration and lack of trust and ultimately stalemate. As the Cromwellian councillor, Philip Jones, complained on 4 December 1656: ‘I compare this to the dressing of a cucumber. First pare, and order, and dress it, and throw it out of the window’.

Join us tonight for our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar. Victoria Anker of Edinburgh University will speak on ‘Parliament ordinances and remonstrances: legislative attacks on executive authority, 1642-46.’ Hope to see you there!

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