How long is a Parliament?

In this blog for the ‘Named Parliaments’ series, Dr Paul Hunneyball, Associate Editor of the House of Lords 1604-29 project, explores the length of parliaments, paying particular attention to the Short and Long parliaments of the 1640s and 1650s…

Down the centuries, the length of parliaments has varied enormously, from a few days to a decade or more. That being the case, it’s perhaps surprising that the Short and Long parliaments, both of which opened in 1640, are almost unique in being named according to their respective durations.  (Barebone’s Parliament of 1653 is sometimes referred to as the Little Parliament, but strictly speaking it was a nominated assembly, and can therefore be set to one side.) In part the explanation lies in the events of these two parliaments, rather than their simple longevity – or lack of it – but in order to make sense of all that, it’s necessary first to provide some context.

Since 2011, and the advent of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, the duration of the Westminster legislature’s meetings has for the first time become entirely predictable. While provision remains for early elections to be called, as happened in 2017, we know for certain that the next general election will be held on Thursday 5 May 2022 unless Parliament itself decides otherwise. This legislation ended the centuries-old tradition that the decision to dissolve a Parliament was a prerogative power of the monarch, latterly exercised on the advice of the prime minister. That power is the single most important factor in explaining the contrasting lengths of previous parliaments. With one exception (of which more later), all previous parliaments ended when the crown or the government chose, the only constraints being the 1694 Triennial Act, the 1716 Septennial Act, and the 1911 Parliament Act, which decreed that fresh elections must be held at least every three, seven or five years respectively. The five-year rule was suspended during the two World Wars, but has otherwise been respected for more than a century.

Prior to the seventeenth century, the monarch alone decided how long each Parliament should sit. The precise length of the earliest assemblies is uncertain. Although historians know the dates on which each one first met, only approximate dissolution dates are available until 1365, and a complete sequence of definite start and finish dates begins surprisingly late, in 1510. Historians tend to calculate the length of parliaments from their state opening to their dissolution, though the results of this approach can be misleading. Another watershed moment came in Richard II’s reign, when the 1381-2 Parliament met over the course of two separate sessions. Where previously a pattern of several short parliaments in a single year had been the norm, a new system gradually evolved of much longer, multi-session parliaments. Thus the longest English medieval Parliament, that of 1472-5, comprised no fewer than seven sessions. This approach allowed for the possibility of parliaments that, on paper, lasted for much longer periods than the sum of their individual sessions. Elizabeth I’s fourth Parliament opened in May 1572, and was not dissolved until April 1583, but during that period of nearly 11 years the Lords and Commons actually met for approximately five months. An even more extreme example is the Cavalier Parliament of 1661-1678, officially the longest ever English Parliament. Although 18 sessions took place during those 17½ years, that amounted to only just over six years of formal meetings – and if the many lengthy mid-session adjournments are factored in, that figure drops to just under three years.

So, in the light of this context, how do the Short and Long Parliaments shape up? In a sense, the critical issue with the Short Parliament is not its statistical length, barely three weeks from 13 April to 5 May 1640, but its historical timing. There had been many shorter medieval parliaments and, barely four decades later, the Exclusion Parliament of March 1681 ran for just eight days from start to finish. However, Charles I’s fourth assembly was the shortest for more than a century. Even the abortive sessions of 1614 and 1625 (each roughly two months long, excluding adjournments) had lasted longer. The Short Parliament brought to a close the king’s 11-year period of ‘personal rule’, i.e. government without recourse to parliaments, and in the face of the on-going Scottish crisis and the crown’s virtual bankruptcy, the House of Commons reconvened with an ambitious reform agenda. When Charles, unable to impose his own will on the assembled Members, moved so quickly to dissolve the session, he generated considerable anger in the country, and a profound sense that the Parliament had been cut short. The final consideration behind the name is the obvious comparison with the next session.

Long Parliament in session

 The Scottish military successes of mid-1640 forced Charles to summon a fresh Parliament that November, and the new assembly was determined not to go the way of its predecessor. The first step was the Triennial Act of February 1641, designed to ensure that henceforth Parliament would meet for at least 50 days every three years. However, three months later, in a yet more revolutionary move, the king was pushed into assenting to ‘An Act to prevent inconveniences which may happen by the untimely adjourning, proroguing, or dissolving this present Parliament’ – otherwise known to historians as the ‘Act against dissolving the Long Parliament without its own consent’. For the very first time, a Parliament’s fate lay in its own hands. Once Charles lost control of London, and England descended into civil war, even the option of ending the Long Parliament by force disappeared, at least for the time being. The session ran on, virtually without a break, from November 1640 to April 1653, when it was finally terminated by Oliver Cromwell. During those 12½ years the House of Lords had been abolished, and the Commons had been purged, leaving a body generally known as the Rump Parliament.  Indeed, a number of scholars have treated the Rump as a separate body which effectively replaced the Long Parliament in December 1648.  As fresh elections were not called at that juncture, this is a debatable judgment which will be ignored for present purposes. The fact remains that no single session in British parliamentary history has lasted so long. And there was an epilogue, since the Rump reconvened in May 1659, before being forcibly closed down and then restored later that year. In February 1660 many of the Members expelled in 1648 were readmitted, effectively reconstituting the Long Parliament proper, which then, finally, dissolved itself in the following month, in accordance with the 1641 Act. When that latter phase of approximately eight months is added to the previous term, the total length of the Long Parliament extends to 13 years and two months. Given the long-standing modern preference for five-year parliaments, it is highly unlikely that this record will ever be surpassed.

PMH

Material for this discussion has been assembled from a wide variety of sources, including the History of Parliament’s own publications and files, the parliament.uk website, the Handbook of British Chronology ed. E.B. Fryde et al. (London, 1986), and Parliamentarians at Law ed. H. Kleineke (Parliamentary History: Texts and Studies ii, 2008).

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