Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Luke Blaxill, ‘Big data’ and the analysis of parliamentary and platform speeches, 1880-present

In the first ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ Seminar of 2016, Dr Luke Blaxill (Hertford College, Oxford) spoke on ‘‘Big data’ and the analysis of parliamentary and platform speeches, 1880-present’. Here he discusses his paper…

My paper made the argument that almost all modern historians – and perhaps especially political historians – are increasingly surrounded by huge digitised textual collections which are too large to read, let alone analyse, in entirety. Given this, it is increasingly important that we explore the potential of computerised textual analysis methodologies which allow us to escape our present scholarly confinement only to what can be selectively read and quoted. One such methodology is utilising ‘text mining’ (often also called ‘distant reading’) on huge collections of texts (known as ‘corpora’) with the aim of answering linguistic research questions.

In this paper, I showed two sets of examples of text mining in action on corpora I myself assembled, or ones which are publically available. Rather than simply showing ‘cool’ things which could be done with text mining, or delivering a sermon on ‘revolutionary’ digital methods,  I wanted to try to show text mining in action, and connect these examples to existing historiographical debates, and demonstrate how text mining could advance them.

My first set of examples were taken from several corpora of election platform speeches, 1880-1910, which I digitised myself from press archives, or took from the British Newspaper Archive. I began my analysis with the issue of Ireland in election platform speeches. This was very simple, and simply involved tracking the keyword ‘Ireland’. However, even this basic counting provided interesting insights into synergies and divergences between the Liberal and Conservative parties, and between platform language in a case study region (East Anglia) and national frontbench speakers. It also suggested that, outside of 1886 and 1892, Ireland was not a consistently central issue in elections in this period. My second example was more sophisticated, and investigated the language of imperialism in electoral politics. At this point, I reflected a little more on how issues are modelled and tracked with keywords, and introduced topic modelling and seed words as empirical mechanisms by which could be accomplished. Using a five word taxonomy of imperialism, I showed that it was mentioned by Conservatives twice as often as Liberals, but was not a particularly central issue outside of the elections of 1886, 1900, and 1906. Particularly surprising was the limited impact empire appeared to make on 1895, an election often caricatured as being similar to 1900- a Conservative landslide carried by imperialism. I also showed some examples of how text mining could also connect keywords to arguments, which demonstrated the more emotionally charged context of Conservative as opposed to Liberal mentions of empire.

My second set of examples showcased some work from the Digging into Linked Parliamentary Data project (Dilipad) on which I am a research associate. The Dilipad project has digitally enriched the existing publically available Hansard corpus to allow a historian to search MP’s speeches by gender and (for most of the Twentieth Century) party. This has transformed the ability of researchers to interrogate this source via text mining. My case study here was on women In Parliament since 1945. The degree to which women MPs utilised a distinctly female parliamentary language – and thereby contributed to the ‘substantive representation’ of women – has been much debated by both political scientists and historians.  I showed that women parliamentarians spoke about women around five times as often as male colleagues, and demonstrated a list of strong gender markers which showed vocabulary women used consistently more often than men. Many of these concerned topics such as health and welfare. Perhaps more interestingly, I then demonstrated that this ‘gender gap’ has in fact been reduced by the entry of women into Parliament in large numbers since the 1997 election, and that since this historic contest (where 120 women MPs were elected) women’s parliamentary language has in fact become more similar to men’s. This challenges the influential ‘critical mass’ theory, which suggested that the emergence of large female parliamentary presence would create a stronger cross-party women’s lobby where gender differences could be more sharply articulated.

In addition to these practical examples, I also made some general theoretical arguments about the utility of corpora for historians. In particular, on the ability of computers to overcome the fallibility of human scholarly intuition and estimations of importance, their ability to communicate quantity with greater precision and verifiability, and the opportunity they afford to work more empirically.

I concluded by reiterating the historic opportunity which today’s scholars now possess with these resources at their fingertips, and encouraged  historians to boldly experiment with these (and other) techniques, while at the same time not discarding traditional historian’s skills of close reading.


Our next ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar will take place later today when Dr Coleman Dennehy (University College, Dublin) will give a paper on ‘Dublin, Westminster, and appellate jurisdiction in early modern Ireland’.  Full details available here. We hope you can join us!

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‘Very grievous and unconstitutional’? The repeal of the (American) Stamp Act (1766)

250 years ago this month Parliament was debating the fate of the Stamp Act – the law which proved dangerously unpopular in Britain’s American colonies. In the first of two blogs on the issue, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the Act’s history and the debates over its repeal…

January 1766 ought in many ways to have been a moment of particular optimism for George III and his government. On New Year’s day, the Old Pretender (James Francis Edward Stuart) died and as no Catholic leader of any weight chose to recognize his heir, Charles Edward (Bonnie Prince Charlie) as ‘Charles III’ of England, the demise of the Pretender effectively brought to a close a chapter in the struggle between the Hanoverians and Stuarts for legitimacy. However, if matters had been settled neatly in the old world, pressures were mounting in the new.

In the early months of 1766, following pressure from both the American colonies and British merchants, the administration of the marquess of Rockingham presided over the repeal of the Stamp Act, which had been introduced only a year before under the previous administration headed by George Grenville. The duty, raised as part of an effort to recoup the huge expenditure of the Seven Years War (1756-63), which according to some estimates amounted to as much as £70 million, extended the principle of paying duty on certain products already familiar in Britain to the colonies. Thus the law required a stamp to be paid for certain items including licences for retailing wine (£4), for retailing wine and spirits (£3), letters of probate (10 shillings) and for each pack of playing cards (1 shilling). In addition, the stamp had to be paid for in British rather than colonial currency. It proved extremely unpopular in America, provoking riots in a number of places. It was also resented by some British merchants who feared loss of income as a result of American traders boycotting British goods.

Grenville’s decision to turn to the colonies had been prompted largely by the unpopularity of the 1763 Cider Tax but it can be argued that there was also a philosophical angle to the move. As Grenville was later to insist ‘Protection and obedience are reciprocal. Great Britain protects America; America is bound to yield obedience.’ [cited in B. Simms, Three Victories and a Defeat, 536]. By insisting that the American colonists pay their share towards the upkeep of British troops, Grenville hoped to help defray the costs of the war without imposing further on the over-taxed and war-weary British population; but he also wished to emphasize the changing nature of the relationship between Britain and its developing empire.

As just one of a number of measures levied around the same time, the Stamp Act passed with little comment at Westminster, but unfortunately for Grenville, the Americans proved far less easy to convince and were quick to object to the new imposition. Why should they be taxed to maintain an army that they did not believe played any role in protecting them, and (perhaps more importantly) without having been properly consulted about the measure? The levy gave rise to the well-known slogan of ‘no taxation without representation’, harking back to one of the most famous tenets of Magna Carta, that no taxation might be raised without the consent of the monarch’s tenants in chief. For the Americans, that meant that property-holders in the states ought to have had a say in agreeing to such a new tax. The Virginia Assembly meeting in May 1765 was the first to condemn it and a meeting of freeholders in Boston in September 1765 (following on from rioting of the previous month) reflected similar views by dubbing the measure ‘very grievous, and we apprehend unconstitutional’. In October the ‘Stamp Act Congress’ convened in New York, at which representatives of many of the ’13 Colonies’ gathered to express their dissatisfaction with the Stamp Act and other levies.

Not all of the colonies chose to oppose the measure. Newspapers reported that Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and the Grenadines, as well as Halifax in Canada had acceded to the tax. However, by the beginning of 1766 the Rockingham ministry, which had replaced Grenville’s in July 1765, had resolved on repealing the Stamp Act. The ministry’s stance was attacked by ‘the King’s Friends’ headed by the former prime minister, the earl of Bute, but attracted high profile support from William Pitt the Elder, who proved a particularly vocal advocate of repeal in the House of Commons (overcoming indisposition with gout to attend the session). Pitt also assisted the ministry in finding a way of saving face. The Stamp Act was to be repealed but at the same time a Declaratory Act would be put on the statute books, confirming the right of the ministry to tax the colonists where appropriate (for more on this watch this space in March).

Unsurprisingly, not everyone agreed with the ministry’s handling of the crisis. Grenville voiced his opposition to the scheme and his views were echoed in a letter to the London Chronicle of 4-6 February 1766 by Rev. James Scott (a noted supporter of the Stamp Act who wrote under the pen-name ‘Anti-Sejanus’), attacking the ministry but in particular the role of Pitt in arriving at what he saw as the present unhappy compromise:

The plan which the M—y now intend to pursue, is, if possible, ten times more absurd and ridiculous, than that on which they originally set out. It carries with it a flat contradiction in terms, and implies an absolute impossibility. Attend and marvel O indignant reader! They propose to repeal the Act, and yet to enforce the power of parliament over the colonies. Now light and darkness, fire and water, are not more diametrically opposite and repugnant, than these two propositions.

‘Absurd’ or ‘repugnant’ they may have been, but following careful management and a noteworthy debut in Parliament by the newly-elected Edmund Burke, in February the ministry carried it for repeal and the following month both repeal of the Stamp Act and the passage of the Declaratory Act received the royal assent.


We’ll return to this subject later this year with more on the Declaratory Act – watch this space!

Further Reading:

  • Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Great Melody: a thematic biography of Edmund Burke (1992)
  • Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (1989)
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Parliament and the Gulf War in 1991

In today’s guest blog, Teemu Hakkinen (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland), who has researched the royal prerogative in decisions to go to war in the UK, looks back on the debates about the First Gulf War twenty-five years ago this month…

Naturally, the 2003 Iraq War has received an enormous amount of attention because of its impact on so many areas, from life in, and the politics of, the Middle East, to the domestic politics of Britain and other western countries. The UK’s involvement was authorized by the House of Commons in a tense and dramatic vote on 18 March 2003. Those events have perhaps obscured the events twelve years before – and twenty-five years ago this month – when the Commons had similarly debated the decision to go to war against Iraq as a response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In 1991 Parliament had been less directly responsible for the decision: nevertheless the vote had seen an important discussion which would influence the move towards more parliamentary involvement in the future.

Britain had taken a special role in the 1991 intervention: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been closely involved in building the strong international consensus over the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait: she and her Cabinet in August 1990 embarked on the deployment of British troops to the Middle East in order to create barrier for any further Iraqi aggression. The clear support of the United Nations Security Council and the fact that Iraq had clearly violated international agreements helped to convince many MPs to support the military operation. As the deadline set in UN Security Council resolution 678 calling for Iraqi withdrawal – 15 January 1991 – passed, there was much concern within parts of the Labour Party about the possibility of military action. Yet the party leadership backed supporting the Security Council’s resolution with force, and opposition within the Labour Party had relatively little impact.

Parliament’s role in the build-up to the war had reflected the traditional assumption that foreign policy issues, and even the decision to go for war, were largely for the executive to decide, with Parliament to approve retrospectively. There had been an emergency recall of Parliament in summer 1990 (September 6 and 7) in order to debate the Iraqi invasion; there was broad and more or less coherent support for the government’s action, though a very vocal antiwar opposition; some MPs even traveled to Iraq in an attempt to negotiate with Saddam Hussein. But the government was in control, reporting its actions to the Commons in statements such as that on 24 October. The use of force was preceded by a vote, on 15 January 1991, the same day as the deadline to the Iraqi withdrawal ended; but crucially, it was on a motion for the adjournment, rather than on a specific motion authorizing the war. Only 57 MPs voted against the adjournment. Parliamentarians were not given a chance to vote on war on a substantive motion until the troops were in combat, on 21 January 1991.

Nevertheless, the debate on 15 January saw a demand for an enhanced role for Parliament. The deployment of troops on combat operations authorized by the royal prerogative and without prior parliamentary consent was described by Tony Benn as an “old feudal anachronism … wheeled out to bypass the House.” Benn had demanded a vote with a substantive motion prior to the use of force. Closely linked to a broader discussion on what were regarded especially on the left as the outdated aspects of British constitutional arrangements, the argument, though at the time it attracted few supporters beyond the left-wing of the Labour party, was important: by the next significant military conflict that involved Britain, the NATO operation in Kosovo in 1999, Benn’s demand that Parliament should not be left on the sideline in terms of approving military action had become more typical. The tense and dramatic vote on 18 March 2003 on the Iraq war, and subsequent votes on war in Libya and Syria can be traced back to the debates in 1990 and 1991.


Teemu Hakkinen’s doctorate on the royal prerogative in decisions to go to war in the United Kingdom was completed at the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, in 2014. He is currently doing postdoctoral research on the establishment of the Council of Europe.

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Restored, Renewed, Relocated: Parliament and its buildings

Before Christmas Rebekah Moore, holder of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the History of Parliament and Institute of Historical Research, organised a seminar in Westminster to discuss Parliament’s accomodation. Here she reports back…

In December, Mark Egan (the HPT’s former Secretary) and I organised a seminar at Westminster Hall. The aims of the seminar were to think about how parliament was housed in temporary accommodation and rebuilt. How did this take place and how did this change according to the historical context? The seminar was aimed at those who were working on the restoration and renewal project for the Palace of Westminster and was conceived as a means of explaining how parliament adapted to unfamiliar surroundings and the ideas influencing changes to parliamentary spaces.

Dr Vivienne Larminie, myself and Professor Gavin Stamp explained how parliament’s accommodation had changed in the seventeenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, providing historical context and precedents for the current discussions about restorations to the Palace of Westminster

First to speak was Vivienne Larminie, who spoke about parliament’s temporary relocation to Oxford. On two occasions (1625, 1665) parliament aimed to avoid the plague spreading through London. In 1644, Charles I gathered his supporters and hoped to persuade MPs and Peers to end the Civil War. The final occasion was in 1681 during the ‘Exclusion Crisis’ parliament hoped the escape from the lobbying factions and newspaper press.

Bodleian Courtyard © Vivienne Larminie

Bodleian Courtyard © Vivienne Larminie

Oxford was chosen due to its relatively central location. Oxford also contained numerous meeting spaces suitable for the use of parliament. Convocation House under Duke Humfrey’s library, was occupied in 1625 and 1644–5 by the House of Lords and in 1665 and 1681 by the House of Commons. The Divinity School, at right angles to this and with a directly connecting-door, was occupied by the Commons in 1625 and 1644–5. In 1665 and 1681 the Lords used the Geometry School on the first floor of the Bodleian Library quadrangle.

Despite this, there were numerous challenges to meeting in Oxford throughout the century. Members were reluctant to leave London as their presence in parliament would be more visible to both the King and the public. Also there was increased difficulties managing proceedings in an unfamiliar environment, for example finding suitable committee rooms and accommodation for the Peers, MPs and the King.

Next was myself, discussing the temporary Houses of Parliament following the fire of 1834. This paper focused on the temporary House of Commons, and the way that the Commons adapted to the reduced accommodation of the temporary chamber.

R. W. Billings, ‘The Temporary House of Commons as fitted up in 1835’, (c) Palace of Westminster, WOA 15.

R. W. Billings, ‘The Temporary House of Commons as fitted up in 1835’, © Palace of Westminster, WOA 15.

Firstly, the paper discussed how the temporary accommodation was constructed from the damaged Palace of Westminster. The Commons were housed in the Court of Requests, the former House of Lords, and the Lords made do with the Painted Chamber. The temporary House of Commons was longer than St Stephen’s Chapel, and capable of seating around 70 additional members on the floor and in the galleries than St Stephen’s Chapel.

The temporary accommodation also provided an opportunity for innovation and experimentation within the House of Commons. A designated reporters’ gallery was added and a second division lobby was completed in 1836. However, despite greater space within the chamber, there was increasing pressure on committee rooms and Commons offices whilst the New Palace of Westminster was completed. Temporary committee rooms were constructed in 1845 to ease the pressure on committee rooms, but there was still insufficient rooms. This increased the pressure on parliamentary business, already increased due to the railway boom of 1845-47.

Finally, Gavin Stamp spoke about the rebuilding of the House of Commons following the bomb damage sustained during the Blitz. Following the Luftwaffe attack on the Palace of Westminster, which took place on the night of 10 to 11 May 1941, the House of Commons suffered serious damage. Giles Gilbert Scott was commissioned with rebuilding the House of Commons, having demonstrated his skill with Gothic architecture in a number of churches and other public buildings.

Unknown, ‘Key for the Line Engraving of the House of Commons Chamber 1941' © Palace of Westminster

Unknown, ‘Key for the Line Engraving of the House of Commons Chamber 1941′ © Palace of Westminster

Whilst the building work was taking place, the Commons were housed in the Lords chamber, and the Lords used St Stephen’s Hall. The Select Committee of 1943 agreed that the House of Commons should retain its original style and features. Gilbert Scott’s design was not an exact replica, and was designed to make improvements to the previous Commons chamber. At gallery level, the chamber was slightly widened, and considerably lengthened, from eighty-four feet to one hundred and three feet, allowing for increased accommodation for the press and strangers. The gothic tracery within the chamber was simplified to provide a more modern effect. The arch in the central lobby, later known as Churchill’s Arch, was left in its damaged state as a reminder of the damage sustained to the Palace of Westminster. The new House of Commons was opened on 26 October 1950.

Giles Gilbert Scott’s rebuilding of the House of Commons was the last time that a significant restoration of parliament was attempted. As parliament currently requires significant repairs and improvement, there is continuous debate in both parliament and the press as to how this should be achieved.


Further reading:

Christine Riding and Jacqueline Riding (eds) The Houses of Parliament: History, Art Architecture (London: Merrell, 2000)

You can read more on Rebekah’s research in her blog report on her ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar paper last year.

The programme for our ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research has been announced for this term: see here for full details and watch this space for updates on the papers.

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‘The Story of Parliament’: The office of Prime Minister in the 18th Century

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 fourth post looks at the origins of the Prime Minister’s office in the 18th century, now of course the most important political post in the country.

This article was originally written by Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section.

Rober Walpole

Robert Walpole by John Michael Rysbrack, terracotta bust, 1738 © National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 2126.

One of the most significant political developments of the 18th century was the emergence of the office of prime minister. Sir Robert Walpole (1722-42) is normally credited with being the first effective holder of the office, though Walpole never styled himself as such. He owed his position to holding in combination the offices of the first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer, as well as being the principal government spokesman in the Commons. It was the first of these offices that was to become synonymous with the premiership. Walpole was notorious for presiding over a system based on corruption, but his significance was not so much the extent of his authority – it could be argued that the Earl of Godolphin (Lord High Treasurer from 1702-10) or Robert Harley (Lord High Treasurer from 1711-14) had wielded more extensive control over appointments – but his ability to maintain his position from the House of Commons for such a lengthy period. After Walpole’s fall and following the short-lived ministry of the Earl of Wilmington, the effective inheritor of Walpole’s mantle was Henry Pelham (1743-54), who again presided over the ministry from the Commons.

Government in the 18th century, though, remained a collaborative affair with the king at times a very active partner. During the remainder of the century, only three prime ministers managed the government from the lower house: George Grenville (1763-65), Lord North (1770-80) and William Pitt (1783-1801, 1804-06). The other eight were all senior figures in the House of Lords, though the Duke of Portland (1783) for one was merely a figurehead presiding over the so-called Fox-North coalition. Even in the nineteenth century many prime ministers led the government from the Lords: only in the twentieth century did it become the firm convention for the position to be held by an MP.


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

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Review of the year 2015

2015 has been a very busy year here at the History of Parliament Trust!

Of course much of this has been due to the important political anniversaries we’ve been marking this year. These began in January, when Parliament launched their year of celebrations with the ‘Beginnings of that Freedome’ exhibition in Westminster Hall on the anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s 1265 Parliament. We were delighted to have prepared the text for this exhibition, and to be a part of many of the ‘Parliament in the Making’ 2015 celebrations. These included the 600 year anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, which we marked in October with our ‘Band of Brothers’ booklet investigating the Parliamentarians involved in Agincourt.

For us, the biggest events came in the summer to mark the 800-year anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. We were delighted to host the annual conference of the International Commission for the History of Parliamentary and Representative Institutions. Following the themes of the Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort anniversaries, ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments: Constructing Representative Institutions, 1000-2000’ explored the origins and developments of parliaments across the world in venues at King’s College, London, Royal Holloway, University of London and in Portcullis House, UK Parliament. Nearly 150 speakers from Europe, the US and Latin America gave papers on their specialist research in what turned out to be a fantastic conference. We’re hoping to repeat this success next year with our jointly-organised conference on ‘Speaking in Parliament: history, politics, rhetoric,’ which will take place over 6-7 April 2016 at Queen Mary, University of London (more details here).

Also during the summer we published our commemorative book: ‘The Story of Parliament: Celebrating 750 years of Parliament in Britain’, published in collaboration with St James’s House. The book explores the history of the British Parliament from its medieval origins (including the role of Magna Carta) until the present day, with sections written by leading historians of political and parliamentary history – including of course many of our research fellows! It aims to bring together the extraordinary story of Parliament’s development, and its involvement in all aspects of life: society, the economy, culture and belief. You can read extracts from our book in our ‘Story of Parliament’ series on this blog and purchase the book from the House of Commons bookshop here.

This was not our only publication this year, as in the spring we released the Proceedings in Parliament 1624: The House of Commons digitally, hosted by British History Online. This gives researchers free online access to the Commons’ debates during the final Parliament of the reign of James I (more details here). We also released new online educational materials in January, perfect for KS3 school history teachers, following the progress of 19th Century electoral reform. There were prize-days for our 2014 education competition winners and the winner of our 2015 undergraduate dissertation competition winner has already been announced. Watch this space for an announcement on the 2015 schools competition winner early in the New Year.

Our oral history projects have continued to thrive this year. Our ‘From the Grassroots’ project in Devon finished a great success. We interviewed over 70 grassroots activists from the county and sharing some of the insights from this fantastic new archive in our travelling exhibition (launched with the help of some of Exeter’s important political figures) and adding plenty of new material to the ‘From the Grassroots’ website this summer. Our project interviewing former MPs continues, with over 100 recordings now available in the British Library and plenty of material from the project available on this blog.

Of course the main work of the History of Parliament has continued throughout the year, with our fellows researching and revising biographies. Some of their insights into modern day events we’ve shared with you all on here – such as our series on historic elections in the run-up to May’s General Election; our Director’s definitive article on young MPs after Mhari Black’s surprise election and some historic perspectives on the migration crisis in the medieval period and the 18th century. We’ve heard from all of our sections, including ‘The battle of Northampton and the strange death of Sir William Lucy MP’ from the Commons 1422-1504 section; ‘The boy who saved a Kingfrom the House of Lords 1603-1660 section and ‘The uses of a parliamentary diary in the making of a royalist: the case of Henry Townshend of Worcestershire’ from the Commons 1640-60 section. The Victorian Commons have of course been keeping you up-to-date on their own blog, but Kathryn Rix has also been publishing our series on MPs who died in WWI throughout the year – and to continue in 2016.

And we’ve been very busy preparing for our major event in spring 2016: the publication of our long-awaited first volumes on the House of Lords, covering the period 1660-1715. Watch this space for more on that!

After such a busy year, all that is left is to thank you all for your continued interest and support, and wish you the very best for another great year in 2016.



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Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Sarah Ward, ‘I am nothing discuraged to present you with the Parliament newse’: parliamentary news, personal interest and political action in north-east Wales, 1640-88

Our final ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of the year took place last week, as Sarah Ward of Oxford University, gave a paper on ‘I am nothing discuraged to present you with the Parliament newse’: parliamentary news, personal interest and political action in north-east Wales, 1640-88. Here Sarah reports back on her paper…

This paper delivered the preliminary findings of an examination of the news and political culture of North-East Wales. This paper aimed to build on the work of historians such as Jason Peacey in exploring the political impact of news, and the importance of news media in shaping opinion. Lloyd Bowen’s recent Past & Present article provided an extremely valuable starting point for those exploring Welsh news and communications more generally, but this paper particularly focused on the impact of parliamentary news. This is a new direction in Welsh historical study, and provides the beginnings of an important regional case study of the consumption and impact of news. While it was not claimed that such a news culture was specifically Welsh, it was argued that parliamentary news confirmed or hardened political opinions amongst the gentry of North-East Wales, and that it prompted those gentlemen to make political decisions. Private correspondence was of particular importance as it allowed recipients to evaluate the stream of news which they received. As Lindsay O’Neill has argued, there were relationships of trust and honour involved in the provision of private letters of news, and correspondents had much at stake in terms of their reputation should they provide ‘false news’. This made such letters particularly useful for an assessment of the reliability of the information provided. Furthermore, it allowed for the expression of more forthright opinion and the personalisation of information.

The Welsh gentry participated fully in news networks of a kind explored in depth in England. In North-East Wales, even the smallest collections show evidence of a deep interest in news. Some families demonstrate that news truly was an obsession, obtaining all different forms of news, whether printed, scribal copies, or letters of news. Individuals such as Captain Thomas Davies, Thomas Mostyn, and Sir Richard Wynn acted as conduits for news, using their superior connections or spending power to funnel information into North-East Wales. Political news was at the core of such collections, and out of the sampled letters written while Parliament sat, nearly eighty per cent contained Parliament news. Core themes within those letters included the treatment of the King’s servants, religion, and local affairs in Parliament.

Letters reveal, perhaps unsurprisingly, a conservative attitude towards contemporary events. In the Long Parliament correspondents wrote with concern that the Earl of Strafford was unlikely to ‘save himselfe’, and expressed anxiety about the treatment of Archbishop Laud and the episcopacy in general. They described opponents of the bishops as that ‘Anty Bushops faction’. While discussions of Catholicism were remarkably pragmatic, post-Restoration nonconformists were responded to in a much less complex way, portrayed as ‘phanaticks’, and a danger to the state. Local affairs in Parliament were frequently discussed. The Irish Cattle Bill, for example, was viewed as a boost for the Welsh economy, and the participation of Welsh MPs as demonstrating love for their country.

The preliminary findings within this survey show that political actions could result from news consumption. These included the promotion of the political interests of particular families, via electioneering, focusing especially on the actions of the Mostyns from 1676 onwards. News was used to boost the status and authority of individual gentlemen, enabling them to present themselves as ‘a man of intelligence’, worthy of representing their region in Parliament. Finally, news consumption could lead to significant decisions, such as Sir Thomas Salusbury’s resolution to go to York to declare for the King in June 1642. He compared the recent ‘inconveniences’ to events in the Low Countries and Germany, predicting that war against the King would bring long-lasting war and distemper. He ascribed the ‘multitude of schismes’ and political disagreements within the kingdom to the actions of Parliament. This tallies perfectly with the content and tone of the private letters sent to him, and the news from London, therefore, was instrumental in shaping his decision to join the King. Any further ideas, comments, or queries about the paper would be welcome.


Parliaments, politics and people’ will return next term, watch this space for the programme.

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