The History of Parliament Trust and the Centre for Early Modern British and Irish History at Oxford University joined forces last Saturday to host a colloquium at Jesus College. The title was ‘Writing the History of Parliament in Early Modern England’. The colloquium explored the ways in which contemporaries conceived of parliamentary history between 1509 and 1642.
At the beginning of this period, Paul Cavill argued, the antiquity of parliament was an inert assumption. Polydore Vergil’s eccentric decision to date the first parliament to 1116, Dr Cavill showed, was nevertheless widely accepted. Alexandra Gajda then explained how the need to defend the Reformation magnified the ancient status of parliament as bulwark of a mixed polity. Dr Gajda established how the position of the Commons mattered to MPs seeking to intervene in church reform. In Edward Hall’s account of the Reformation Parliament, Scott Lucas showed, this parliamentarian interpretation was already established. Hall’s account, Prof. Lucas revealed, presented a forceful Commons imposing its preferences on an ingenuous Henry VIII.
In the second session, Paulina Kewes argued that the unresolved question of the succession to Elizabeth also contributed to growing interest in the historical basis of the English constitution. Dr Kewes suggested how medieval precedents for elective monarchy were floated alongside principles of hereditary right. In a reappraisal of Annabel Patterson’s thesis, Ian Archer examined the place of parliament in Holinshed’s chronicles. Dr Archer found that, while the importance of parliament in political events was acknowledged, major moments in its history – such as the first impeachment in 1376 – were overlooked, while others – such as the ‘mad parliament’ of 1258 – were treated critically.
After lunch, the colloquium moved to the early seventeenth century. Andy Boyle examined the prose history of England by Samuel Daniel. Dr Boyle analysed annotations by seventeenth-century readers that suggested the relevance of parliamentary history to current concerns. Simon Healy addressed the role of precedent in the parliamentary controversies of the 1620s. Mr Healy suggested that precedents permitted oblique criticism of the prerogative, but that their multiplicity led to political ineffectiveness. Noah Millstone focused on a different sort of historical writing: the ‘politic history’. Dr Millstone showed how different interpretations of the dissolution of the 1629 parliament drew on the idea of public-versus-hidden transcripts.
In the fourth session, Jason Peacey examined the resonance of medieval history in the months before the outbreak of civil war in 1642. Dr Peacey showed how earlier texts, such as John Hayward’s Life of Henry IV, were recirculating with newly radicalized interpretations. Paul Seaward then re-directed attention towards MPs’ sense of themselves as custodians of parliament’s institutional memory and as its eyewitness historians. Dr Seaward explored how the practices of ritual and remembering – ranging from seating plans, to the mace, to note-taking – turned parliament into the best-recorded of English institutions.
Lastly, Blair Worden reflected on the day’s proceedings. Prof. Worden asked how far contemporaries might have registered that parliament’s powers had changed over time, and, in particular, whether they might have felt that medieval parliaments had been more powerful than the present ones. As the colloquium had not touched on representation in other European countries, Prof. Worden pointed out that perceptions of the status of Continental assemblies conditioned English responses to their own institution.
In sum, the day proved a lively and exciting demonstration of the many different ways in which the study of parliament continues to illuminate the political, religious, intellectual, and literary history of early modern England. The organizers would like to thank everyone who took part, as speakers, chairs of sessions, and members of the audience.