Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Alan Macdonald, The Rhetoric of Representation: Scottish Parliamentary Commissions 1638-41

Our Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar returns tonight with a new term’s programme – so to bring you up to date, Dr Alan MacDonald (University of Dundee) reports back from his paper last year: ‘The Rhetoric of Representation: Scottish Parliamentary Commissions 1638-41’…

When the burgesses and lairds of Scotland gathered for parliamentary elections in 1639, they were participating in one of the most important elections not only in the history of Scotland but in the history of the whole of Britain and Ireland. Between 1639 and 1641, that parliament would effectively establish parliamentary sovereignty, an example followed by the opposition to Charles I in England and a crucial stage in the spread of revolution and war to the rest of Britain and Ireland.

Argyll commission 1639 (Crown copyright, NRS PA7/25/3/1)

Argyll commission 1639
(Crown copyright, NRS PA7/25/3/1)

Commissioners from 53 burghs and 29 shires carried with them their written mandates (‘commissions’) issued in the name of the electors (the councils in the burghs, the lairds in the shires). Their commissions were letters patent, recording who had been elected, granting the commissioners full powers to act on the electors’ behalf, and promising to ‘hold firm and stable without again-calling’ whatever they did in parliament.

These documents are significant for a number of reasons. They provide some evidence of how, when and by whom elections were carried out, which is rare in the Scottish context for this period. These commissions are also the first complete set to survive for most of those from before 1639 were lost. This was probably as a result of Cromwell’s removal of Scottish records in the early 1650s: they were returned at the Restoration but one of the two ships carrying them tragically sank. Finally, the commissions contain rhetorical language which provides hitherto unnoticed insights into the mood of the localities and their response to the unfolding revolution.

Most incorporate what I have termed a ‘purpose clause’, a statement of the principles that commissioners were to uphold and these statements were much more elaborate than those found in earlier commissions. It isn’t easy to characterise them all as ‘royalist’ or ‘covenanting’, for every covenanter acknowledged the legitimacy, even the divine sanction, of monarchy, while many opposing the covenant were careful to adopt at least some of the covenanters’ language. There are, however, some striking phrases suggesting a willingness to stand up and be counted.

Since statute allowed shire commissioners to be elected annually at Michaelmas, it was customary to commission them to attend all parliaments and similar meetings for the next twelvemonth. The shire of Argyll used this to assert the sovereignty of parliament by empowering its commissioners to attend all parliaments and conventions of estates along with the king or his commissioner (as was normal), but also to sit in ‘all other lawful meetings of the estates among themselves’. In other words, they might meet even if the king hadn’t summoned them. In 1641 Argyll required a replacement commissioner, and the new commission went further by empowering those elected to meet ‘in absence of his majesty or his highness’ commissioner’: in 1640, Charles I had attempted to prevent parliament from meeting by refusing to send a representative but the estates carried on regardless. In 1641, the electors of Argyll were asserting the legitimacy of that action.

Examples of royalist sentiments are also to be found. Nairnshire described Charles I as ‘his sacred majesty our dread sovereign’, while the burgh of Selkirk’s commissioners were told that they ought to promote ‘God’s glory, our sovereign lord King Charles by the grace of God king of Great Britain, France and Ireland and defender of the faith, his majesty’s sacred will and pleasure’. Seven commissions gave prominence to ‘obedience’ to the king, although the electors of Peeblesshire must have debated what word was appropriate to place before ‘of our sovereign lord’: the commission was drafted with a blank space and ‘obedience’ was added later in a different hand.

Unsurprisingly, given the significance of the issue, religion is prominent in most purpose clauses, with almost every one asserting ‘the glory of God’ as the prime directive. Thirty-nine commissions contain augmented references to religion, suggesting deliberate emphasis on the issue, using phrases such as ‘the preservation of religion’, ‘the advancement of the kingdom of Christ’ and ‘the purity of religion within this kingdom’.

So why did the authors of the commissions choose to include rhetorical language in these documents and who did they think they were addressing. That most of them were letters patent and all but one were written in Scots (the other being in Latin), provides a good basis for believing that they were read out loud. One imagines the commissioners arriving to present them to the clerks of parliament and reading them out to the other burgh and shire commissioners, officers of state and peers in Parliament Hall, providing all who were present with some flavour of the mood of the localities.

They would have heard rhetorical vocabulary selected from a common pool of traditional and innovative language, revealing the variety of responses of the burghs and shires to the revolution. Some asserted firm support for the revolution, others defiantly proclaimed their loyalty to the king, while others hedged their bets, by combining references to ‘free parliaments’ and ‘his majesty’s honour’.

Commissions are superficially formulaic documents but closer analysis reveals a much richer source than one might have expected. Finally, while Scottish commissions are less formulaic than English election indentures and were issued by the electors and carried by the representatives, rather than being issued by the sheriff and returned to Westminster, perhaps a closer examination of them might also lead to hitherto unrealised insights into English local opinion.


And join us tonight for our first Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of 2017, another with a Civil War theme. Alan Marshall (Bath Spa University) will speak on: ‘The political ideas and parliamentary career of Thomas Scot, regicide, 1645-1660’. Full details here.

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