Today Parliament returns, and the new assembly’s first job is to elect a new Speaker. Dr Simon Payling, Senior Fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 section, explores how medieval parliaments ‘chose’ their Speakers…
The practice of electing the Speaker can be traced back almost to the origins of the office in the 1370s, but there is almost nothing to show the form taken by these elections or even if it was common for the speakership to be contested. The official record, the rolls of parliament, simply record that the Commons were, at the outset of each Parliament, charged to elect a Speaker and that their nominee was then formally presented to the King.
There are only two breaks in the silence of the sources. The record of a report made by a Bishop’s Lynn MP to his constituency on his return from the brief Parliament of December 1420 notes an election at the beginning of the assembly in which Roger Hunte narrowly defeated John Russell by four ‘voices’. The only other surviving reference to a medieval Speaker’s election employs the same term. A diary written by the Colchester MPs in the Parliament of 1485, preserved in the borough’s memorandum book, records that Thomas Lovell was elected by ‘voyse’, but here there is no indication of a contest. The probability is that, as is known to have happened in the sixteenth century, the Speaker was generally acclaimed, unanimously and without contention, at the outset of the Parliament.
The election of 1420 was probably a rarity, and a study of the personnel of the speakership in the fifteenth century provides the reason why this should have been so. The Speaker, as he was routinely to be in the sixteenth century, was generally a royal nominee. Usually the Crown chose, as it did with Lovell in 1485, a senior lawyer in its service. No doubt the Commons were generally ready to accept such a nomination, for a capable lawyer or administrator, trusted by the Crown, was likely to prove an effective conduit of communication between the House and the executive.
None the less, on occasion, matters did not run smoothly, particularly when the executive was weak. The Parliament which met at Westminster on 6 November 1449 provides a striking example. It met in an atmosphere of acute crisis. The events of the previous summer had shown, beyond doubt, that Normandy would be lost to the resurgent French, and Rouen itself had fallen only days before Parliament assembled. The Commons were inclined to attribute these reverses to the Crown’s mismanagement, and they elected as their Speaker not a lawyer but an old soldier, Sir John Popham, a veteran of the battle of Agincourt. It is hard to imagine that Popham would have been the Crown’s choice, and it seems reasonable to infer that he was elected against a royal nominee. Yet, almost immediately, Popham pleaded that physical infirmity prevented him exercising the speakership, and the Commons elected William Tresham, a royal official who had been Speaker in three previous Parliaments. It is likely that Tresham was the Crown’s original choice; that, as a protest, the Commons elected Popham against him; and that the government then pressured Popham to stand down. The Commons were thus obliged reluctantly to revert to the accustomed practice of accepting the government’s nomination.
The election of another soldier Sir William Oldhall as Speaker in the Parliament of November 1450 confirms what Popham’s election only implies, namely that, in exceptional circumstances, royal nominations could be defeated. Oldhall, a prominent servant of the government’s principal opponent, Richard, duke of York, was probably the last person in the House that the Crown would have chosen. But what happened when the boot was, so to speak, on the other foot, when the government won the election of its man, but an opposition sought his removal?
This happened in the next Parliament. By the time it met on 6 March 1453, York’s political fortunes, after his failed rising of the previous year, were at a low ebb, and the Commons elected a senior Exchequer official, Thomas Thorpe, a committed supporter of the government, as their Speaker. He was, no doubt, the royal nominee. In the following summer, however, while Parliament was in recess, Henry VI fell into a state of mental prostration, and the political climate changed once more. The duke of York now contrived Thorpe’s removal. He sued him for illegally seizing some of his goods; had him condemned in heavy damages; and, on Thorpe’s failure to pay a sum beyond his capacity to pay, had him committed to the prison of the Fleet. When the next parliamentary session opened on 14 February 1454 the Commons could only ineffectually complain that their Speaker’s imprisonment contradicted the parliamentary privilege of freedom from arrest. They then chose a Speaker more acceptable to the duke.
These dramatic events can hardly be said to be typical of the history of the speakership. From the late 1440s England was descending into civil war and the normal rules of politics were put in suspension. Yet, even in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when nominations were routinely made by the Crown and accepted by the Commons, there remained a tension between this practice of nomination and the idea, already seemingly present from the earliest years of the office, that the Speaker should be the free choice of those for whom he spoke. That tension was eventually resolved in favour of the latter, and the Crown made no attempt to impose its nominee after 1679.
J.S. Roskell, The Commons and their Speakers in English Parliaments, 1376-1523 (Manchester, 1965)
A. Curry, ‘Speakers at War in the late 14th and 15th Centuries’, and A. Hawkyard, ‘The Tudor Speakers 1485-1601, Parliamentary History, xxix (2010), pp. 8-48.