Writing Parliamentary Biography, the Commons 1640-1660. Part 1: Methods

In the first of a four-part series, Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section, discusses the History’s research method and how his section approaches writing hundreds of biographies of Civil War Parliamentarians…

There must be more than one way of writing the biographies of MPs but in this Section of the History of Parliament, as in others, the life of every MP is subject to the same research and writing process. In an earlier period of the History’s existence, ‘prosopography’, the quasi-scientific study of collective biography, was fashionable among the leading champions of the project like Sir Lewis Namier (1888-1960). Few would now share the confidence of the Namierites about the potential of prosopography to answer all the questions about political groups in history. Even so, to subject the life of each of our MPs to the same process of investigation is to ensure a consistency of approach across the project. It also contributes to securing a standard of accuracy and quality. In the parliaments that met between 1640 and 1660, counting the so-called Short Parliament of April 1640 as the first, and the parliament of Richard Cromwell in 1659 as the last, there were 1,801 MPs elected to either the House of Commons or its equivalent during the commonwealth and protectorate, a single chamber Parliament. This also includes the Nominated Assembly of 1653, sometimes called the Barebones Parliament, to which members were summoned by Oliver Cromwell, not elected. In addition, we will publish biographies of a very small number of individuals who sat in Oliver Cromwell’s version of the House of Lords, the ‘Other House’, but who had never been elected or summoned to the Commons or its equivalent.

Many sources, in print and in manuscript, are trawled for every one of the 1,801 MPs. Given the diversity of personal background and the varying public profiles among them, ranging from those who led the Commons to those who rarely attended, or sat mutely when they did, this is sometimes a short and sometimes a very long procedure, in which serendipity plays a part. But common to every research exercise for a biography are three avenues of inquiry, leading us from the private to the parliamentary life. The first is to establish the life-facts common to humanity: the facts of ancestry and birth, marriage, parenthood, death and burial. For nearly all our MPs, at least some of these facts are known; only for a very small number are we completely unable with any confidence to pin anything down about their identity.

The second of these common processes is to produce a profile of our subject’s public life as a whole, as the great majority of MPs had been active in some public field before election. Even those in the civil war period who had risen socially ‘without trace’ to enter the House were or had been army officers or committeemen or traders; and those with no public profile at all before arriving in the Commons were likely to be the sons of county gentry, educated privately and in the shadow of their fathers before they embarked on a parliamentary career, aged 21 or in some rare cases (and in defiance of precedent) younger. We can often trace the progress of an individual through office in, for example, an urban corporation, or a City of London livery company; or through commissions in the officer corps of the parliamentarian army, or in county government. What these milestones in an individual’s career tell us of him sometimes becomes clear in the context of the completed biography, but as often as not we are left to speculate whether they are evidence of determination, energy, sociability, manipulativeness, mere good fortune or some blend of these.

The third common exercise is the systematic study of the Commons Journals. The first in the series of Commons Journals runs from 1547 to 1629, and in its printed version extends to 932 pages. For the period between April 1640 and the restoration of Charles II in 1660 there are seven volumes in printed form, and the coverage of sittings between April 1640 and mid-March 1643 alone runs to 1,0004 pages. This is the first age of the full record of proceedings, stimulated chiefly by the sheer volume and complexity of business. The historian can identify every entry for an individual MP in the Journals, and weigh its significance or insignificance, and it becomes possible, if not advisable, to write an account of a parliamentary career entirely on the basis of appearances in the Journal. The more entries, the more active an MP can be judged to be. Unfortunately, in most cases, to create a coherent and plausible account from notes of committee appointments, tellerships and reports is to construct a misleading and factitious biography, essential though the Journals are as primary evidence.

Armed with life facts, evidence about a public career at large and about a parliamentary profile in particular, a historian can begin to construct a life. But most subjects present challenges to the would-be biographer. In future blogs I will discuss these in the cases of three well-known figures from this period: the antiquary and parliamentary diarist, Sir Simonds D’Ewes; the workaholic leader of the opposition to the king in the Commons, John Pym; and Oliver Cromwell, the backbencher who rose to become the first Commons-man to become English head of state (the only other to gain that honour was his son, Richard).


Watch out for the next in this series, coming soon…

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