Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Victoria Anker, ‘Parliament Ordinances and Remonstrances: legislative attacks on executive authority in the early 1640s’

At the second ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of the term Victoria Anker, from the University of Edinburgh, spoke on ‘Parliament Ordinances and Remonstrances: legislative attacks on executive authority in the early 1640s.’ Here she gives us an overview of her paper…

Whilst the language and rhetoric of speakers in the House of Commons in the Short Parliament demonstrated a level of continuity with Charles I’s parliaments of 1620s, the forms used by speakers in the House of Commons (and occasionally in the House of Lords) in the Long Parliament broke that continuity, becoming increasingly hostile towards the crown. The use of declarations, propositions, protestations, remonstrances, and resolutions, enabled parliament (as a collective agency) to challenge and erode royal authority in order to protect the Church of England from idolatry and broaden the structure of the Caroline government.

This manipulation of words and genres did not exist in isolation – it had clear precedents in the actions of the Scottish Covenanters in the late 1630s and early 1640s. The Covenanters, in resisting Charles’s enforcement of the English Book of Common Prayer, provided a four-fold model of defiance. The construction of a language of the righteous (the bishops were ‘pretended’, their power ‘usurped’ from the Kirk); the concept of untouchable parliamentary liberties (enshrined in the Triennial Act); the manipulation of public petitions (which Charles resolutely ignored); and the language of submission (the Covenanters were fulfilling Charles’s desire for ‘a perfect and solide peace’) offered English politicians an example in utilising the ritualised language of government to respectfully address the king, even as the words themselves signalled rebellion against royal policy.

In repeating phrases such as ‘the true Religion, the Laws and Liberties of this Kingdom’, ‘peace and safety’, and ‘privileges of Parliament’, the reformers at Westminster presented parliament as a central player – through its role as a conciliar institution – in England’s government. In issuing declarations, the Commons mimicked royal proclamations; and whilst declarations lacked the force of law, the use of legal and constitutional terms gave them the appearance of authority. Observers noted that these forms ‘sound very plausible in the ears of the people here, and they do not faile to arouse feelings prejudicial to the interests of His Majesty’. The circulation of declarations, alongside vindications and resolutions – which sought to justify the Commons’ actions – the Protestation Oath and the Grand Remonstrance, prepared the political ground both within Westminster and among the public for the Militia Ordinance. This ordinance was parliament’s most important act in marginalising Charles’s authority – it now held the royal prerogative to make war. Whilst Charles remained de jure sovereign, parliament had established itself as de facto sovereign.

The discussion which followed the presentation of this paper was lively and constructive. Stephen Roberts, in the chair, questioned the extent to which members of the Long Parliament were deliberately planning or manipulating speeches to engender farsighted reform or whether they were motivated by more short term changes. Paul Hunneyball reminded the members of the seminar of James I/VI’s Scottish progress in 1617, when English courtiers were shocked by the Scots’ defiant attitude toward the crown. The discussion also touched upon speeches within parliament to consider the move from the printing and reprinting of the ‘big set pieces’ of the Short Parliament and early months of the Long Parliament, to the tendency to report on and briefly summarise (but not print in full) these speeches in newsbooks with the outbreak of war.


More updates will follow shortly from our ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, including Jonathan Moss and Gerry Stoker (Southampton University) on their paper: ‘Popular Understandings of Politics: Perspectives from Mass Observation, 1945-1951.’ For the full seminar programme, which returns in a fortnight, see the IHR website.


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