Today, parliamentarians are often accused of shouting and ‘braying’ during debates. In this, little has changed since the 17th century, as Philip Baker tells us…
James I held a low opinion of the House of Commons, asserting in 1614 that it ‘voted without order, nothing being heard but cries, shouts and confusion’. Certainly, the procedure, still in use today, by which the relative volume of noise produced by the ‘yeas’ and ‘noes’ is first used to determine the answer to a question is far from tranquil. By contrast, the division, which also survives today and sees members for and against a motion counted by tellers, appears rather more orderly. But an incident uncovered by the 1624 Parliamentary diaries project suggests that here, too, James’s views may warrant some credence.
On 9 March 1624, a bill to prevent the abuse of methods by which legal cases could be suspended or terminated received its second reading. A number of the journals and diaries covering the Parliament note that the House divided over this bill, but, somewhat surprisingly, give contrasting accounts of the question asked and its outcome. Both versions of the Commons Journal, the official record of the House, state that the division took place over a question for commitment and was carried by the yeas. But three of the diary accounts record that the question was for engrossment and was carried by the negative and these, rather than the official journals, appear to be correct.
There seem to have been a number of reasons for the confusion over this division. Although no member seems to have opposed the bill, there was debate concerning its geographical coverage and this led to uncertainty as to whether the yeas or noes should leave the chamber to be counted during the division. But, as Sir William Spring recorded in his parliamentary diary:
answer was made that in case of the passing a new law, all that were for it must go out as it were to bring it in, but here both parties being willing with the law, only the difference of the manner, the negative must go, and they did.
The uncertainty over this point may also have been a consequence of the relative infrequency of divisions – a sharp contrast with more modern times. The division on 9 March was the first of only two during the entire 1624 Parliament, and the lack of divisions was a general characteristic of the 1620s.
Meanwhile, some members were seemingly even more confused about the proceedings than the clerks who mis-recorded them in the Commons Journals. The division must have occurred around eleven o’clock, when the house usually rose for a midday meal, as according to Spring:
many gentlemen, not marking the question but supposing they had risen to go to dinner, went out, and some that meant to have gone away being without, but the outward door being shut, they were forced to return, and by that means the negative, which were to have the bill committed to put in the other counties, prevailed.
One member, Sir Baptist Hicks, even saw fit to attempt a pun on this episode, with John Holles noting in his diary that ‘Hicks complained they held out their noes so long as gave them a great advantage of the yeas’.
While all this certainly lends some support to the damning verdict of James I, the more important message is just how vital and revealing it can be for our understanding of the workings of Parliament to compare and contrast its official records with the diaries of the men who sat there.
For more on parliamentary diaries, see also Vivienne Larminie’s earlier blog – Researching the House of Commons: Parliamentary Diaries.