Last week our Parliaments, Politics and People seminar returned for the summer term, with the HOP’s own Simon Healy. His paper, ‘The Significance (and Insignificance) of Precedent in Early Stuart Parliaments’ was a longer version of one presented at April’s ‘Writing the History of Early Modern Parliament’ colloquium in Oxford.
Healy took a number of examples of conflicts between parliament and the crown during this period – over the levels of custom duties, over James I’s proposed union with Scotland and the impeachment of major court figures, such as Sir Francis Bacon – and discussed the role that precedents played in these debates, both on the side of the monarchy and on the side of parliament. Healy argued that whilst precedents were extremely important to these debates, and the great figures of the day such as Sir Edward Coke spent hours looking for ‘killer’ precedents that would absolutely decide the case in their favour, what made a good precedent remained highly debatable. Both sides would attempt to undermine their opponents’ precedents; they could be ‘too new’ or ‘too old’ to count. Furthermore, Healy suggested that these debates over technicalities were ways of hiding opposition to the King that could not be openly stated, for example the fact that most English parliamentarians strongly opposed James’ proposed union with Scotland.
In discussion afterwards, the notion of ‘precedent’ came further into focus. Dr Paul Hunneyball argued that how precedents were treated depended on what they were precedents for; points of law, for example, were different to parliamentary procedure. Discussion further explored the wisdom of parliament using precedents to establish their power in relation to the throne, which many parliamentarians at the time realised would be extremely difficult to sustain when there were so many precedents that demonstrated royal power!
Our next seminar is next week, Tuesday 28th May, when Dr Nigel Aston will be speaking on Lord Landsdowne and opposition politics in the 1790s. Further details are here.