Researching the House of Commons: Parliamentary Diaries

In our first blog on the methods our academics use for their research, Dr Vivienne Larminie discusses that great resource for political historians and journalists that can still cause a sensation today: The private diary.

Akin to contemporary minutes of meetings, the seventeenth century Commons’ and Lords’ Journals principally record decisions taken, committee appointments and the number of votes on either side in divisions.  Lacking Hansard or an equivalent, historians of parliaments in this period rely for the details of debates on the private diaries of MPs.  Not only is the survival of such diaries haphazard but, naturally enough, the coverage is uneven and the accuracy questionable.  Note-taking in the chamber had to be surreptitious, since technically it breached parliamentary privilege; note-making once at home risked imperfect recall of people and their pronouncements.  Both, of course, were subject to the bias and spin not absent from modern political memoirs.

‘The most complete of all the known private diaries’ kept in the 1628–1629 Parliament – the gathering which Charles I found so hostile that he avoided calling another for eleven years – belonged to John Newdigate.  A novice MP, short of 28 years old when the first session opened, Newdigate was none the less well-qualified as a reporter.  The chamber contained plenty of the kin and friends he and his family had assiduously cultivated since his childhood, so he had a good chance of identifying correctly speakers and their preoccupations.  He was a man of words and music: a keen lutenist, he was also a versifier and frequenter and composer of plays; catching nuance was within his grasp. Educated (if not exactly according to the formal curriculum) at Oxford and the Inner Temple, he was familiar with scholarly debate and legal procedure.  He had lived in London; his father-in-law, jeweller and investor Arnold Lulls, moved between the royal court and the City; when at home in the midlands, Lulls and others supplied him regularly with political gossip.  As sheriff of Warwickshire in 1625–1626 he had implemented unpopular taxation and less unpopular legislation against recusants (Catholics).  He was thus attuned to provincial grievances and to the difficulties of administering government policy.

Newdigate’s diary bears all the hallmarks of ‘hasty note-taking’ – blots, deletions, insertions and gaps left for supplying detail at leisure.  Yet such was the skill of a practised operator that he managed to get down some contributions to proceedings ‘near verbatim’.  There is no sign of ‘systematic bias’: Newdigate’s coverage was fairly comprehensive, although he lacked his father-in-law’s interest in commercial matters.  However, he showed himself ‘keenly aware of what was at stake’ in the major preoccupations of the 1628 session and ‘clearly shared’ the prevalent mood of discontent in the House.

The diary supplies a salutary corrective to historians’ over-reliance on the formal records of the House.  Although Newdigate noted in it the time and place of meeting of one of the mere two committees to which he was appointed in 1628, he did not attend it.  Instead, doubtless persuaded of its critical significance, he chose to sit through the whole of the main debate of the day (20 May), the grand committee addressing the controversial Petition of Right. Nor does the diary itself give the complete picture of his contribution to Commons’ business. Full notes of the proceedings of the other committee of which he was a member, addressing a dispute between William Nowell and Sir Edward Moseley, are found on the reverse of a letter from his wife Susanna, also preserved among the papers of the Newdigate family at Warwick Record Office.  Tantalisingly, accounts likewise among the papers reveal the expenses associated with his attendance at the 1629 session of the Parliament, but for this he left no surviving diary.  Here, as so often, the historian resorts to piecing together political perspectives, priorities and engagement from fragmentary evidence.


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4 Responses to Researching the House of Commons: Parliamentary Diaries

  1. Pingback: Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Jonathan Fitzgibbons (Cambridge) ‘Concord or Discord?: The Third Protectorate Parliament and the Pitfalls of J.T. Rutt’s edition of Thomas Burton’s Diary’ | The History of Parliament

  2. Pingback: Confusion in the commons – voting in 17th Century parliaments | The History of Parliament

  3. Pingback: Recording speech in early modern England: Parliament, preachers and the Putney debates | The History of Parliament

  4. Pingback: Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar: Philip Baker, ‘But private notes for my owne memory’? Parliamentary diaries in seventeenth-century England | The History of Parliament

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