Commission impossible? Deciphering job titles in History of Parliament biographies (part 1)

In the first of an occasional series, Dr Paul Hunneyball of the Lords 1604-29 section considers some of the unlikely-sounding posts held by MPs in the early seventeenth century…

All published History of Parliament biographies, currently covering periods up to the nineteenth century, begin with a highly compressed digest of information about the life of the man in question. The first paragraph mostly contains genealogical information, such as life dates, parentage and marriages, along with details of education and personal honours. The abbreviations employed in this section are generally explained at the start of each volume (or in the relevant introductory survey, for those reading online).

However, the remaining material before we arrive at a biography’s main text can pose more of a challenge. For the most part this comprises summaries of offices held by an MP or peer. Some of the terms used, such as ‘j.p.’ (justice of the peace) are still current today, while others, like ‘commr.’ (commissioner – someone appointed, usually by central government, to perform a specific task) feature in the lists of abbreviations. But the tasks themselves are generally not abbreviated, so definitions are not provided – and some of these job titles can be tricky to understand. Certain roles are more or less what you’d expect – for example, a commissioner for swans was the distant ancestor of those modern officials who still perform the ritual of ‘swan upping’ on the Thames and elsewhere. But what about commissioners for aliens, or annoyances, or perambulations? All genuine job titles, but what did they involve? Here are a few pointers to a better understanding of early modern local government (and History of Parliament biographies).

Swan upping

Commissioner for gaol delivery. Nothing to do with the provision of new prisons. Rather, this was about the emptying of local gaols – literally the deliverance of their inmates. Four hundred years ago, few people other than debtors were incarcerated for long periods of time. Most suspected criminals were locked up in the nearest gaol only until they could be brought before a magistrate or, in more serious cases, put on trial at the six-monthly assizes, after which non-custodial sentences were handed down. Commissioners for gaol delivery were local j.p.s appointed to assist the itinerant judges sent out from London to hold the assizes. Senior magistrates might also serve during the assizes as commissioners for oyer and terminer (Old French for ‘hear and determine’), which empowered them to participate in trials for treason or felony. Another related role was the commissioner for nisi prius (Latin meaning literally ‘if not before’), who dealt with cases referred to the assizes by the central courts at Westminster so that supplementary evidence could be collected locally.

Commissioner for ecclesiastical causes. Another legal role, but this time involving the implementation of church law. (In this context ‘cause’ is simply the early modern word for ‘case’ or lawsuit.) The Church of England had extensive powers to discipline both clergy and laypeople for non-criminal offences, and special commissions for ecclesiastical causes were typically awarded to help tackle recusancy or nonconformity in a particular diocese. Further examples of local legal commissions to deal with a specific problem were commissions for admiralty causes or for piracy; in this case, the issues at stake were likely to be disputes over naval jurisdictions or confiscated cargoes, and the punishment of buccaneers.

Commissioner for aid. As you might expect, this is to do with money, but not modern-style overseas aid. Instead, the beneficiary was the monarch. Exercising one of his last remaining feudal rights, the king was entitled to financial assistance from his principal tenants to cover certain extraordinary expenses, such as his daughters’ marriages, or the creation of his eldest son as prince of Wales. In effect, these commissioners were tax collectors – except that they identified potential donors, then left someone else to do the actual collecting. A similar role was that of the commissioner for subsidy, which involved assessing people at local level for parliamentary taxation. Prior to the Civil War, the king was expected to fund central government through his ‘ordinary’ income, such as the money generated by the crown lands, and the customs levied on trade. Taxes granted by Parliament were considered ‘extraordinary’ income, effectively subsidizing the king’s ordinary revenues.

Commissioner for innovated offices. This was essentially the seventeenth-century equivalent of an official appointed to tackle problems of red tape. A commission of this kind would inquire into recently created posts which were deemed to impose unnecessary burdens on the local population. A very similar role was the commissioner for exacted fees, whose focus was on existing officials who were demanding new or increased payments for their services; while a related functionary was the commissioner for charitable uses, whose purpose was to check that charitable foundations were being managed correctly.

Commissioner for annoyances (or nuisances). While it’s tempting to imagine that this was about anti-social behaviour, it actually concerned the kind of nuisance that you wouldn’t want to step in. Seventeenth-century sanitation was fairly basic by modern standards, and ‘noisome’ waste generated by both people and animals tended to pile up in the streets. Commissioners for annoyances helped ensure that the problem didn’t get out of hand. Curiously, they should not be confused with commissioners for sewers, who at that time were more likely to be responsible for the drainage associated with reclamation of the fens.

Commissioner for perambulations. That’s the same root word that gave us the modern ‘pram’, and it’s about walking. The closest modern equivalent is the ceremony of ‘beating the bounds’ of a parish, which still happens in some parts of the country. Commissioners for perambulation were more likely to be checking on the boundaries of a forest, to ensure that the special laws pertaining to them were correctly applied.

And finally … commissioner for aliens. In the early seventeenth century, most people travelled only short distances during their lives, and language reflected this fact. Someone from the next town was a stranger, a visitor from another county a foreigner – and people from overseas were aliens. Unless they were naturalized, or became denizens, aliens lacked the benefits of normal citizenship, could be taxed more heavily, and were viewed with suspicion in times of emergency. Commissioners for aliens monitored them, so that the government had a clearer idea of numbers and locations, the early modern equivalent of visas and border control.


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