Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar: Philip Baker, ‘But private notes for my owne memory’? Parliamentary diaries in seventeenth-century England

Philip Baker writes about his ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar paper last week, ‘‘But private notes for my owne memory’? Parliamentary diaries in seventeenth-century England.’

In an age before the open reporting of parliamentary proceedings, when even the official journals of the houses normally contain no record of debate, we are fortunate for certain periods to have surviving parliamentary diaries. Written by members themselves and often containing lengthy accounts of their colleagues’ speeches, there are around 150 such documents describing events at Westminster across the seventeenth century. There has been some, not entirely constructive, debate over the reliability of these sources and whether historians should even quote directly from them, but the purpose of my paper was somewhat different in that it focused on how and why these diaries were kept.

Not all of these documents are ‘diaries’ in a technical sense. A number are compilations of contemporary material such as copies of speeches, while others are reflective narratives written up some years after the events they describe, though perhaps based on notes made at the time, like those of John Pym. Precisely how such notes and fuller diaries were recorded in parliament remains something of a mystery, however. Writing in often overcrowded chambers with insufficient light and poor auditory conditions, and without the benefit of a table, some members, like Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke, seemingly did so in small notebooks in their laps, which may explain the often appalling handwriting. Perhaps others availed themselves of writing boxes, while others still may have used special erasable paper. But the logistical problems involved probably means that far fewer diaries were written in the chambers than is often supposed.

Another reason for suspecting this is that there appears to have been relatively little use of shorthand by diarists, although as many accounts survive only as ‘fair’ copies, how they were recorded originally remains unknown. A number of members, including Sir Nathaniel Rich, employed ‘speed writing’ techniques – a combination of shorthand symbols and longhand – but gaps and omissions in their diaries suggest that even users of these systems were unable to capture speech verbatim. What we have, instead, is a selective account of parliamentary proceedings normally recorded in the diarists’ own words, rather than in those that were actually spoken.

Although there was no explicit prohibition on taking notes in either chamber, some members vehemently opposed the practice and diarists could, as in the case of Thomas Burton, be confronted for so doing. This raises the question of why they did it, and here one or more reasons may apply. Some probably did so for the benefit of a patron, others in order to report back to their constituencies, while others still, like Sir William Spring, were involved in providing information for newsletter networks – somewhat undermining Spring’s claim that his diary was ‘but private notes for my owne memory’. The number of first-time members who kept a diary is highly suggestive, and Salwey Winnington is among those who may have done so in order to gain an understanding of parliamentary procedure. Some clearly took notes with an eye to posterity, as in the case of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, for whom keeping parliamentary diaries himself and editing those of others was part of a larger project to ‘restore to Great Britain its true history’. Finally, some may have done so for no other reason than the purpose of recording information itself during a century regarded as the classic age of the English diary. In spite of that, the most significant trend across the seventeenth century is the dramatic rise and fall in the number of extant diaries, which peaked in the 1620s but fell away sharply after the Restoration, and in concluding the paper I discussed some of the likely reasons for this.

In the wide-ranging discussion that followed, members of the seminar discussed the earlier precedents for diary-keeping among MPs; how diaries were used when reporting to patrons; the reasons why diarists may have stopped writing; and how first-time members used diaries as reference works.


For more on parliamentary diaries and the recording of debates, see the earlier blogs by Vivienne Larminie and Philip Baker (‘Confusion in the Commons‘ and ‘Recording speech in Early Modern England‘), and our earlier seminar report on a paper by Jonathan Fitzgibbons. See also the page on our 1624 parliamentary diaries project.

‘Parliaments, politics and people’ returns next Tuesday for our last seminar this term. Tom Crewe (Pembroke College, Cambridge) will speak on: ‘The Politics of Image and the Image of Politics: Visual Representations of Politicians in Portraiture and the Press, c. 1840-1906Full details here. Hope you can join us!

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