The power of the Long Parliament’s Committees

Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of our Commons 1640-1660 section, shares some of the new research they are doing into the Long Parliament’s many committees, and what effect they had on Parliament’s relationship with the King…

The History of Parliament House of Commons 1640-1660 team have been looking at the powerful executive committees of the Long Parliament, which were established as a response to the crisis of 1641-2, and became the main agencies by which Parliament governed the country during and immediately after the civil war. Although the Commons was initially both hesitant and fastidious in claiming new executive powers, such as the authority to impose oaths on people it interrogated, within a short space of time it had moved into spheres of government undreamt of by earlier parliamentarians. The characteristic institution of this assumption of power was the committee, a group of MPs acting on the authority of the Commons but with powers in some cases to act with minimal reference to the parent body.

One of these was the Committee of Examinations, the subject of a paper I gave recently at the Institute of Historical Research. There could hardly have been a more protean body. It had begun life as an agency whose first chairman and exponent, ‘Justice’ Laurence Whitaker (click here for his 1604-29 section biography), had exercised authority mainly by virtue of previous experience as a metropolitan magistrate. The legislation governing its operations was minimal. Its powers expanded to include virtually unlimited powers of arrest with no territorial limits set to its authority to sentence and remit individuals to and from gaol. Born of a period of emergency and public alarm in 1642, it was soon operating along unpopular but routinized lines by which suspects were imprisoned for short periods on its warrants and to secure their freedom had to enter penal bonds which made a useful, and probably lucrative sideline for Westminster Hall attorneys and clerks.

Historians have remarked on the proliferation of these committees, and the mushroom-like way they sprang up and dwindled, and these characteristics were both a strength and a weakness. The flexibility and adaptability of the Committee of Examinations, which had no significant infra-structure, no fixed regional presence, no budget and no relationship to any particular administrative entity, account for both its effectiveness at the height of the civil war and the ease with which the Commons abolished it in 1646.

The most durable of the great executive committees of the Long Parliament had in common a number of structural features. The Committees of Compounding and Advance of Money were two great money-raising committees had premises in the City of London, not in Westminster, and built up an infra-structure of their own there. Other powerful committees, for example, the Committee for Sequestrations, were strengthened by satellite committees in the counties. Yet others, such as the Committee for Plundered Ministers, derived political heft by virtue of the authority they exercised over particular aspects of property, livelihoods and religious topicality. The Committees of the Army and of the Navy were immensely powerful bodies which built up the military presence on land and at sea to unprecedented levels.

The speed of these developments was of crucial importance in the development of what historians now call the ‘fiscal-military state’, and they took place through structures developed independently of the court and privy council of Charles I. Acts of parliament following on from the execution of the king on 30 January 1649 abolished the monarchy and the House of Lords, describing these institutions as ‘unnecessary’, ‘burdensome’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘useless’. In recent years, historians of high politics have concentrated on the ‘dangerous’ part of this formulation, focusing on the seemingly endless capacity of the king for political intrigue and alliances which threatened to keep his three kingdoms in a perpetual state of war. But it is beginning to look as if the ‘unnecessary’ and ‘useless’ dimensions might be worth studying closely, to consider whether the regicide was in fact not so much a revolutionary act as one of ex post facto rationalization.


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