Dr Robin Eagles reports back on the latest ‘parliaments, politics and people’ seminar
Following on from Caroline Shenton’s presentation a fortnight ago, the Parliaments seminar returned to the early seventeenth century this week with a paper by Keith Stapylton examining the problem of privilege in early Stuart parliaments.
Some will be familiar with the concept of parliamentary privilege; many more may have come across examples of MPs and peers abusing the privileges accorded to them. Such issues are hardly new. Some areas relating to the privilege of Members of Parliament were truly ancient and arose from the fundamental problem of ensuring that sufficient numbers of those summoned were able to attend Parliament at a time of the monarch’s choosing. From this grew the concept of a period before and after the meeting of Parliament during which members should expect not to be distracted from their business in the House. In the early Tudor period this had been 40 days, by the 1620s this had been reduced to sixteen. Keith’s paper considered the way in which the concept of privilege continued to develop under James I and Charles I and the problems this created.
Keith’s paper was confined to the Commons but he explained the breadth of issues encompassed by their claims to privilege such as freedom of speech; freedom to regulate elections; freedom from being subject to subpoenas; and from arrest in civil suits. The only areas where members were unable to claim privilege were in relation to serious felonies such as treason and murder. Moreover, it was not only the members who could claim such protection but also an ill-defined number of ‘necessary servants’ and relatives who might come under the broad umbrella of privilege. Over time the Commons developed a number of ways of treating those whom they considered had infringed these hallowed areas. Two unfortunate transgressors were condemned to be bound back to back on a horse with a placard around their necks outlining their fault and led from Westminster to the Exchange.
The focus of Keith’s paper was a case that occupied much of the House’s time in 1604 over the arrest for debt of the notorious MP Sir Thomas Shirley. Shirley was a former knight of the shire for Sussex who had been declared bankrupt in 1597 and subsequently accepted effective demotion by standing for the less illustrious seat of Steyning instead. In 1604 he was arrested for debt once more, this time at the suit of a goldsmith, Giles Simpson. Simpson’s action precipitated an appeal to the House by Shirley for his privilege to be upheld but went on to raise a series of other problems, not least over the question of who was liable to satisfy creditors when a debtor proved unwilling or unable to pay his debts. The affair also brought to light certain problems relating to the limitations of the Commons’ authority. When the Warden of the Fleet prison refused a Commons order for Shirley to be released, the Warden was himself imprisoned in the Tower and ‘terrified’ by the threat of being thrown into a dungeon that measured just 4 foot by 4 foot. The Warden’s treatment failed to terrify the Warden’s wife, though, who still refused to deliver Shirley up and held out successfully against the officers’ efforts to force her to comply.
Shirley was eventually released after spending two months in prison. His case proved to be just the first of a series of actions that occupied the Commons over the coming years. One of the reasons for the growing number of suits was the greater frequency of parliaments. Keith’s conclusion, though, was that the phenomenon was one of evolution rather than revolution. The question of privilege and who was to be embraced within its provisions: members, their staff and families, continued to be a problem until the close of the century and beyond. Debtors were still being imprisoned in the 1920s and, one might conclude, the issues of privilege remain a current one today.