Dr Andrew Thrush editor of the History of Parliament’s 1603-1660 House of Lords section recently addressed our ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar at the IHR. Dr Thrush gives us a summary of his paper: ‘The 1621 Parliament and the Origins of the Standing Orders of the House of Lords’.
Those familiar with how Parliament operates today will know that the Standing Orders – a body of permanent instructions, now much extended – still govern procedure in the upper House, but quite why they came into existence has long remained a mystery. My recent research suggests that those historians who have attempted to explain their inception have ended up barking up the wrong tree. Some have even confused the Standing Orders with a treatise on peers’ privileges penned on the instructions of the Lords during the course of the 1621 Parliament by the lawyer and antiquarian John Selden.
Instead, the Standing Orders were created at the very start of the 1621 Parliament by the newly formed committee for privileges. This committee, which had never before existed in the Lords (though the Commons had long possessed an equivalent body), was brought into existence at the behest of Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, who urged his colleagues to preserve the ancient orders of the House, many of which he claimed had fallen into disuse and were in danger of being lost. In all likelihood Arundel himself was mainly responsible for drafting the Standing Orders, being moved to do so by a number of complex factors. These included a change in the complexion of the House, as there was an abnormally large number of newcomers in the Lords in 1621 (brought about by the length of time between parliaments and a large number of new creations). There was also a complete absence of experience of the upper House among those who were expected to manage its business.
An additional, but key, factor in the creation of the Standing Orders was personal ambition, as Arundel, now the leading member of England’s oldest noble family, was desperate for high office. Though permitted to discharge the duties of the office of earl marshal for the duration of the 1621 Parliament, Arundel appears to have been determined to impress both his patron Buckingham and the king in the hope of receiving permanent appointment. To do this, he posed as a reformer, partly by reviving and enhancing the parliamentary duties associated with the office of earl marshal, but also by putting procedure in the Lords on a surer footing.
The discussion which followed the presentation of this paper was lively and constructive. Dr. Paul Hunneyball, in the chair, thought there might be some mileage in seeing the Standing Orders as the product of a House keen to establish for itself a more active role in parliamentary life; while Sir John Sainty agreed that Arundel was trying to breathe new life into the parliamentary duties of the earl marshal, pointing to a practice begun in 1621, whereby peers were invested with their titles in Parliament. The extent to which the House took the Standing Orders seriously after their creation was also debated, a subject upon which more work is needed.