Taking control: Speaker William Lenthall, precedent and the Long Parliament

In the midst of extraordinary times at Westminster, Dr Vivienne Larminie of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section looks at the response of a pioneering Speaker to the unprecedented challenges of the mid-seventeenth century...

On 4 January 1642, in one of the most dramatic and iconic moments in the history of Parliament, Charles I arrived at Westminster with an armed guard.  Having entered the Commons chamber, he either occupied the Speaker’s chair or stood in front of it – accounts differ – and enquired as to the whereabouts of John Pym and Denzil Holles, two of the five MPs he intended to arrest because of their opposition to his policies.  At first, said diarist Sir Simonds D’Ewes, ‘nobody answered him’, whereupon Charles ‘pressed the Speaker to tell him’.  Warned of the king’s approach, William Lenthall had crafted a courteous but evasive reply: ‘kneeling down’ he ‘did very wisely desire his majesty to pardon him, saying that he could neither see nor speak but by command of the House’ [Private Journals, i. 9-10, 13].  Charles, registering with his own eyes that ‘all the birds are flown’, had little option but to beat a humiliating retreat.

attempted arrest of the five members (c. w. cope)
Attempted Arrest of the Five Members (C. W. Cope, mural in Palace of Westminster)

The Commons chamber was supposed to be one place where dissenting views could be voiced safely, but in the past the rare personal presence of the monarch had been sufficient to silence them.  With Charles’s departure, tension doubtless eased, although leaving apprehension and perplexity as to what would happen next.  Speaker Lenthall’s handling of a potentially dangerous situation won praise from MPs.   However, his diplomatic words masked the extent to which, a year or so into his job, complex and unusual circumstances had already led him to exercise his own initiative.  That initiative was sometimes controversial among his colleagues.

Ironically, Lenthall had been the king’s choice for Speaker, albeit from a limited pool of available candidates.  Charles could not have anticipated, however, that Lenthall’s tenure of the speakership would be long-lasting and involve many momentous judgements.  Previous Parliaments had often been brief, and, when opposition to crown policies threatened to get out of control, they had been terminated.  Charles himself had managed without Parliament for eleven years after March 1629 and the Parliament which met in April 1640 lasted only three weeks.  But from the autumn of 1640 the cumulative effects of rebellion in his three different kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland made him financially dependent on Parliament, prolonged its life, and allowed its Members to flex their muscles.

Lenthall presided over what became known as the Long Parliament from 3 November 1640 to the dissolution on 20 April 1653, and again when it returned between May 1659 and March 1660.  In that time, there was only one significant recess (8 September-20 October 1641) and two ‘interruptions’ in 1647 and 1659. Business regularly began at 8.00 a.m. (sometimes earlier) and often stretched well into the afternoon, by candlelight in winter.  By late 1641, against the backdrop of an escalating uprising in Ireland and unrest on the streets of London, Lenthall, who had no deputy, was feeling the strain.  On 20 November he complained that ‘he had sitten very late yesterday night, and that it was now past four [p.m.], and that he could not hold out to sit daily seven or eight hours’ [Journal of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, 172-3], while a fortnight later he later claimed – without too much exaggeration – that, in eleven months of proceedings, he had served ‘without intermission (scarce) of a day, nay an hour in that day to the hazard of life and fortune’ [The Speech of Master Speaker before his Majesty (1641) (BL, E.199.36)].

Sometimes he displayed irritation or frustration.  On 20 April 1642, most unusually arriving 45 minutes after the scheduled start of business, he incurred a one shilling fine.  Sir Henry Mildmay’s ‘insolent’ observation that ‘he did hope thereafter he would come on time’ apparently provoked the Speaker to ‘throw down 12d upon the table’ [Private Journals, ii. 190].  On another occasion, in an outburst ‘unworthy of himself and contrary to the duty of his place’, he ‘fell upon … with very sharp language’ the elderly MP William Jesson, who had been ‘harassed by hot spirits’ into a vote Lenthall thought ill-considered [Private Journals, iii. 295].  Sometimes there were heated exchanges, as when Lenthall and Sir Arthur Hesilrige (one of the MPs sought by the king in January 1642) clashed over when it was legitimate to interrupt speeches.  Sometimes D’Ewes, who habitually sat near the Speaker’s chair, found him susceptible to pressure from the ‘fiery spirits’ who drove more militant policies in the House.  On the whole, however, Lenthall appears to have been robust and restrained.

william lenthall (unknown artist)
William Lenthall (unknown artist)

He was certainly capable of seeking consensus.  In complex situations he was seen to consult about how to frame questions to be put to the vote. When debate stalled, as in February 1641 over a response to petitioning for the abolition of bishops, he ‘desired to divert the question, and seeing now what the general sense of the House was, he had drawn an order which he conceived would settle this business’ [Proceedings Long Parliament, ii. 400-1].  He requested firm decisions.  On 9 March ‘the Speaker stood up and desired that we might not run from one business to another but first determine somewhat’ [Proceedings Long Parliament, ii. 679].  When debate was protracted, as it was that April, during consideration of the ‘miseries’ in Yorkshire arising from the presence of a royal army to counter the Scottish incursion, he rebuked the many MPs leaving the chamber: they were ‘unworthy to sit in a Parliament that would so run forth for their dinners leaving businesses of such great weight’ [Proceedings Long Parliament, iv. 113].

But Lenthall could also influence the direction of debate and the progress of legislation, and, as novel situations occurred, set important precedents, gaining in confidence and skill the longer he occupied the chair.  In February 1642, as the Lords and Commons reacted to the king’s departure from London and the centre of government by discussing a Militia Ordinance which would assert parliamentary control of the army and of fortifications – thus encroaching on what had previously belonged to the royal prerogative – Lenthall deflected objections ‘that it were a dangerous move to pass this as an act of Parliament’ and hurried the bill on its way [Private Journals, i. 411].  He proposed the successful motion that suitable officers be nominated to the committee for the militia, and once the Lords had approved the Ordinance, blocked any re-reading – and possible unpicking – by the Commons.  This measure ensured Parliament’s ability to take to the field when civil war broke out the following August.

Since the early days of the Long Parliament there has been controversy over the extent to which Lenthall favoured different factions and accepted bribes to prioritise particular business.  His alleged corruption or pocketing of ‘cash for questions’ would occupy a post by itself.  In the meantime, there seems little doubt that the Speaker who professed himself to Charles I as a mere mouthpiece of the House, and who is a very shadowy presence in its official Journals, was judged by some contemporaries and is revealed by other evidence to have played a directional role in ‘all that time of wonderful distraction’ [W. Sanderson, A compleat history of the life and raigne of King Charles  (1658), 26].


Further reading:

 Proceedings in the Opening Session of the Long Parliament, ed. M. Jansson (7 vols. 2000-)

Private Journals of the Long Parliament ed. W. H. Coates et al. (3 vols. 1982-1992)

 The Journal of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, ed. W.H. Coates (1970)

The House of Commons 1640-1660 section is currently preparing biographies of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Denzil Holles, William Lenthall, Sir Henry Mildmay, John Pym and William Jesson.

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