‘Parliaments, politics and people’ returned for the summer term with Gwilym Dodd’s paper on petitions in medieval parliaments. Dr Paul Hunneyball, Senior Research Fellow on the Lords 1603-1660 section, reports back…
For its first session of the 2015 summer term, the Parliaments, Politics and People seminar welcomed Gwilym Dodd, of the University of Nottingham. His paper was entitled ‘Common petitions; Commons’ petitions; whose petitions? The supplicatory discourse of parliaments, c.1340-1450’; and the intriguing wordplay of those opening phrases proved to be an accurate introduction to his argument. In a sensitive analysis of late medieval parliamentary language and procedures, Gwilym explored the changing function and status of ‘common petitions’, or rather, to use the contemporary terminology, ‘petitions of the Commons’. Broadly speaking, these were petitions from the House of Commons to the Crown, requesting concessions or reforms in matters of ‘common’ interest, and were thus distinct from the private petitions submitted to Parliament via the traditional mechanism of receivers and triers. However, the detailed picture is considerably more complex. Some of these ‘common’ petitions were not the work of the Commons, but were merely adopted by the lower House. Others addressed issues which were not strictly of ‘common interest’. Ordinarily, the petitions were dealt with by the king during Parliament, and if they met with his approval they paved the way for legislation, which was then entered on the Parliament roll. Nevertheless, the monarch might equally choose to reserve judgement to another time. Moreover, even petitions processed during Parliament were not invariably enrolled.
In seeking to make sense of these issues, Gwilym argued that the petitions, and the processes surrounding them, reflect the House of Commons’ efforts from the 1370s to assert its status as the representative of the wider population. In real terms, this meant not the common people, but rather the active political community, or the middling estate. The issues typically presented as being of common interest, such as law and order, trade, and good governance, tended to uphold the status quo, rather than benefiting the poorest sectors of society. It was in the context of these shared objectives that the Commons began to act not simply as the author of petitions, but also as the sponsor of petitions submitted to it from outside Parliament. This was an important development. By tradition, external petitions were addressed to the king or the Lords, not to the Commons. By adopting this function itself, the lower House reinforced its role as intermediary between the wider community and the Crown, and Members came to see their endorsement as a critical factor in determining what constituted a ‘common’ petition. However, while successive kings made no effort to reverse this trend, they did reserve the right to ignore it when they saw fit, treating some petitions as matters of private grievance, choosing whether to deal with petitions during or after a Parliament, and in practice retaining the final say on what would count as a common petition. This was not a sign of constitutional conflict between Crown and Commons, but rather a pragmatic response to a new scenario which the lower House did not always handle appropriately. Although by the early 15th century Members were starting to complain if the Parliament rolls omitted business which they considered to be of ‘common interest’, the evidence suggests that in fact some measures were weeded out by the clerk of Parliament because they were impractical or unacceptable to the Crown, and that the Commons broadly acquiesced in this process.
Gwilym’s paper prompted a number of searching questions about the composition of the Parliament rolls, some details of which remain a matter of speculation, given the ambiguities of the evidence. There was also further discussion about the blurring of distinctions between private and common petitions, Gwilym suggesting that the Commons sometimes deliberately framed private concerns as common matters in order to guarantee that the issues received a hearing. It was observed that processes were also changing in the House of Lords, which began to deal with common petitions in addition to private ones. Also, during the course of the 15th century, the actual form of petitions began to change, some of them being presented instead as draft bills, a sign of things to come.
Our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar takes place tonight, when Henry Miller (formerly of the History of Parliament but now a lecturer at the University of Manchester) will speak on ‘Popular politics before democracy: the culture of petitioning in Manchester, 1780-1914′. Hope you can join us!