This blog by Professor John Morrill FBA, Chair of the Editorial Board of the History, celebrates the Director’s appointment to a Wolfson Professorship that will take him away from direct responsibility for managing the History for three years and suggests what an exciting time his ‘relief’ can expect to have…
While running the History of Parliament for sixteen years, our Director, Paul Seaward, has remained a scholar with interests including the career and writings of Thomas Hobbes and the First Earl of Clarendon. But not unnaturally he has also become particularly concerned with charting the history of Parliament in its broadest sense. And he has now, with the blessing of the Trustees, been awarded a British Academy/Wolfson Research Professorship for the next three years, the only historian in this round, to work on a major thematically-structured history of the post-medieval Parliament.
The project will be a new venture for the Trust, and will offer us new ways of thinking about what we do and how we do it. The association with the Academy and the Wolfson is prestigious and welcome. But the History will need someone able and willing to take over from Paul and to take on the challenge of running the project at an important moment in the history of the History.
I have always been lost in admiration for the masons who laid the foundation stones of the great Romanesque Cathedrals. As they began work on the biggest structures in the known world they knew one thing for sure: they would never live to complete the building that was laid out in their minds. And yet they devoted their lives to realising part of a vision. I suppose the founders of the History of Parliament Trust were in the same condition. They set out to produce accounts of the public lives of everyone who has sat in the House of Commons and of the selection/election histories of every constituency. As Chairman of the Editorial Board (since 2010) I am at the other end of the process: I will not be present at the topping out ceremony, but it is perfectly possible that I will live to see the 22,151 lives already in print and online advance to around 30,000. More importantly, by the time I retire we should have published MPs’ lives and constituency reports complete from 1386 to 1832, with the sole exception of 1461-1504, which will be advancing rapidly. And a further section taking the story from the Great Reform Bill to the Second Reform Bill will also be well advanced. A History of Parliament: the House of Commons for over a five hundred period will be within touching distance. Excellent!
Just as my medieval builders will not have known what changes would be made by their successors to the grand design in their heads, so the founding fathers of the History of Parliament cannot have known how the third and fourth generation would extend and elaborate their grand design. Parallel volumes on the House of the Lords are now well underway, with the first volumes covering 1660-1714 out, with the 1604-29 volumes nearing completion and the 1640-60 volumes more than a glint in the eye and there is some prospect of taking the story back into the Tudor and on into the Georgian century. With the advantages of new technology and online databases available, new and faster ways of working are already in place and new ways of disseminating the results of our research are constantly inviting us forward. And this in turn is creating opportunities for the History to reach out to wider publics in all kinds of ways. We have many followers on our website, Facebook pages and twitter feeds; we have competitions (and prizes) for students at all ages who write on parliamentary themes; we have experimented with projects involving local communities in studying the particular political history of their own areas; we are looking to find new ways of engaging with our core academic communities, but we also want to find ways of engaging and enthusing other audiences everywhere with the past, present and future of our parliamentary democracy. So this is to inform our many friends that we are committed to maintaining our core business while broadening out what we do and how we make what we do accessible; and to encourage some if you to consider whether these could be three very dynamic years for you as we want to be for the History of Parliament.