When is a Parliament not a Parliament?

Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the House of Lords 1660-1832 project kicks off our new series, ‘Named Parliaments’. Here, whilst highlighting a number of Named Parliaments in the seventeenth century, he explores the debate of parliament versus convention or assembly in the early modern period…

Sir Thomas Richardson, Commons Speaker in 1621 Parliament

The question of what is and is not a Parliament might seem a simple one, but on two occasions during the reign of James I, efforts were made to reclassify unsatisfactory Parliaments as mere ‘conventions’. This was true of the 1614 ‘Addled Parliament’, as it had failed to pass any legislation, and James I also attempted to downgrade the 1621 Parliament, insisting it had not been one either. Doubt might also be expressed about the status of some of the experimental bodies that met during the turbulent years of Civil War and Interregnum, the ‘Nominated Assembly’ being an obvious example.

On two further occasions in the latter half of the 17th century, Lords and Commons gathered for what were acknowledged by their participants to have been Conventions rather than Parliaments, even though to the untrained eye they appeared to all intents and purposes to be no different. Lords and Members of the Commons attended and debated; legislation was passed and committee-work undertaken, yet in spite of this in both cases they were ‘irregular’ bodies.

In April 1660 a new ‘Parliament’ gathered as a successor to the ‘Long Parliament’ which had technically been in existence for almost 20 years. In the absence of the king, the new ‘irregularly assembled’ body was termed a Convention. Contemporaries were certainly more than aware that the ‘great Convention’ was unusual and the day before the first sitting (25 April) at least one commented on divisions among the Lords over whether they might take part ‘being not summoned parliamentarily’. It had been the original intention of the new order’s ‘godfather’, General George Monck, to exclude the House of Lords from the proceedings, but in the event the Lords took matters into their own hands and on the first day of the session a small number of peers ignored the ban and took their places in their former chamber. That afternoon more joined them, heralding the de facto restoration of the Upper Chamber.

From the end of April to the close of May the Convention sat and deliberated much as a Parliament might have been expected to do. The one feature lacking was the presence of a monarch but that small technicality was soon to be addressed. Charles II’s return at the end of May and appearance in the Lords two days later to give his consent to three bills was accompanied with the formal declaration by the Clerk of the Parliaments of ‘Le Roy le veult’ (the king wishes it). When the Convention was finally dissolved in December 1660, Charles suggested that the historic assembly was deserving of a name:

Many former Parliaments have had particular Denominations from what they have done. They have been stiled Learned, and Unlearned; and sometimes have had worse Epithets, I pray, let us all resolve that this be for ever called, “The Healing and the Blessed Parliament” [LJ xi. 236]

It did not catch on.

Twenty-nine years later another ‘irregularly assembled’ body gathered during the constitutional crisis of the ‘Glorious Revolution’. James II’s reluctance to summon Parliament was one of the key reasons for ‘The Immortal Seven’ penning a letter inviting James’s son-in-law, William of Orange, to intervene and arrange for full and free elections to be held for a new Parliament to address the nation’s concerns. Having mounted a successful invasion, William fulfilled his backers’ wishes by issuing writs for elections to a Convention: once again not deemed a Parliament as it had been summoned irregularly. The earl of Rochester (Laurence Hyde), describing affairs to Lord Dartmouth (George Legge), insisted that had King James remained in the country the Lords would have approached him first, ‘but what can the most loyal and dutiful body in the world do, without a head?’ Some proved unwilling to take part in such an irregular gathering. The duke of Newcastle, for one, informed Sir John Reresby ‘that he would not go or act in’ what he termed dismissively, ‘that assembly’.  

Ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College, detail of King William III and Queen Mary II Enthroned, by Sir James Thornhill,

The resulting Convention gathered in January 1689 and was initially preoccupied by the matter of settling the throne after James was judged to have abdicated. Moves were then made for regularizing the situation by transforming the ‘Convention’ into a full ‘Parliament’. On 13 February 1689 the, day William and Mary were proclaimed king and queen, the earl of Shrewsbury wrote to Henry Pollexfen and Sir Robert Atkyns summoning them to a meeting with the king ‘to have your opinion how this present convention may best be turned into a Parliament’. On 18 February the House of Lords gave a first reading to the bill ‘for removing and preventing all Questions and Disputes concerning the assembling and sitting of this present Parliament’. It passed the Lords the following day and on 23 February received the royal assent.

In spite of the speedy transformation of the Convention into a fully-fledged Parliament, members on both sides of the political divide remained touchy on the point. Early in the proceedings of the subsequent Parliament, an effort to confirm all of the acts of the Convention resulted in a written protest signed by ten Lords insisting that there was ‘no reason to doubt of the validity of the last Parliament’. A subsequent protest was then lodged in response to the bill passing signed by seventeen peers and bishops on the other side of the question, which argued:

that saying, (It is enacted by the Authority of the present Parliament, that all and singular the Acts made in the last Parliament were Laws) is neither good English nor good sense.

Perhaps what is most noticeable, however, is that contemporaries were clearly aware that a distinction was to be made between Parliaments and Conventions. In 1706 Samuel Blackwell wrote to Lord Rockingham following on from a conversation about whether or not ‘a Parliament or Convention’ had been held previously at Rockingham Castle. The event referred to had taken place in 1094 during the reign of William Rufus, long before any constitutional historian would admit to the existence of ‘parliaments’ in England. That the anomaly needed to be acknowledged was clearly reflected in Blackwell’s careful choice of terminology.


Further Reading:

  • Paul Seaward, The Cavalier Parliament and the reconstruction of the old regime, 1661-1667 (1988)
  • A Short History of Parliament, ed. Clyve Jones (2009)

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