‘A name of an ill sound’: The Officers’ Parliament of 1690-95

Today we continue with our ‘Named Parliament’ series. Charles Littleton of the Lords 1660-1832 project discusses the Officers’ Parliament of 1690-95 and the enactment of legislation to regulate parliamentary sessions thereafter…

To many contemporaries the Parliament which first met in March 1690 later became vilified as ‘The Officers’ Parliament’. Bishop Gilbert Burnet, watching events from the House of Lords, described the origin of the term when the first Place Bill was introduced in December 1692:

When that party, that was set against the court, saw they could carry nothing in either house of parliament, then they turned their whole strength against the present Parliament, to force a dissolution; and in order to that, they first loaded it with a name of an ill sound …… they called this [Parliament] the Officers’ Parliament; because many that had commands in the army were of it; and the word, that they gave out among the people was, that we were to be governed by a standing army and a standing Parliament.

Tobias Smollett confirmed that the term was still in common use in the mid-18th century when he was writing his Complete History of England. Describing the Place Bill, he noted that:

It was intended to disable all members of parliament from enjoying places of trust and profit, and particularly levelled against the officers of the army and navy, who had insinuated themselves into the house in such numbers, that this was commonly called the Officers’ Parliament.

Admiral Edward Russell, 1st earl of Orford, a prominent officer in the Officers’ Parliament

The Place Bill was a favoured project of the ‘Country’ movement which became increasingly active in Parliament from the winter of 1692. The Country ideology was concerned by what it saw as the ability of the ‘Court’, represented by the king and his ministers, to corrupt MPs by offering them employment and pensions. Country members believed representatives should be independent both financially and politically, and the Place Bill sought to prohibit MPs from taking up Court places after election. The bill sailed through the lower house, but was rejected by only two votes in the House of Lords, after intense lobbying by the king and his ministers. A similar bill introduced in the following session passed through both houses, but was vetoed by William III, to general consternation. Clearly the Court was dead set against this limitation of the king’s prerogative to choose his own civil and military officers. This was the start of a long Country campaign which lasted throughout the 18th century. The Court emerged victorious, as any place legislation which did pass (usually as subsidiary clauses in other legislation) was rendered effectively toothless by the early 19th century. This has been pivotal in the formation of the modern British constitution. In many other political systems there is a clear separation between the executive and legislative branches of government. By contrast, the members of the executive in Britain and other states which have followed its Westminster system, are drawn from the legislature and continue to sit as constituency representatives.

Charles Talbot, 1st duke of Shrewsbury, introduced the first Triennial Bill in the House of Lords on 12 January 1693

Another feature of the Country programme was a desire for annual parliamentary sessions and frequent elections to renew the House of Commons, in order to keep the Court’s corrupting influence in check. In January 1693 a bill for frequent parliaments was introduced in the Lords. This first attempt at the legislation required annual sessions and a fixed term of three years for a parliament. William III saw this as an infringement of his prerogative and held out against this measure for as long as he could. The bill passed through both houses, only to fall at the king’s veto. At the second attempt of the bill in December 1693 die-hard Country members in the Commons helped to reject it because they could not agree to a wrecking amendment from the Lords which sought to redefine what would count as an annual session. By the time of its third appearance in late 1694 William III and Parliament were at a stand-off. The measure had such broad support in both houses that it was sure to reappear every year, and just as certainly William III would continue to veto it. To resolve the impasse, a deal was struck with some of the measure’s advocates among the Whigs, who at that point were gaining more influence in the ministry. In December 1694, through gritted teeth, the king gave his royal assent to the Triennial Act. This version of the Act was more palatable to William III as it contained no explicit requirement for annual sessions (although that had already become standard practice) nor any prohibition on snap dissolutions before the maximum term of three years.

Following the provisions of the Triennial Act, the Officers’ Parliament was dissolved in October 1695. The following Parliament has no name attached to it, and is just ‘the 1695 Parliament’. From this point the timing of parliaments became predictable, as it was legislated for by Parliament itself. Subsequent acts may have altered the maximum length of a parliament, to 7 years (1716), then 5 years (1911), and from 2011 a fixed-term of 5 years (which has already been bypassed for the general election of 2017). Yet the principle that parliament has its own conventions which determine the timing of its gatherings, and endings, has continued since 1694. It became the norm to have annual sessions in the winter months, to allow the military officers (it is not as if they suddenly disappeared with the dissolution of the Officers’ Parliament) to campaign on the continent in the summer. Politicians could structure their lives knowing when they would need to be in Westminster and, barring snap dissolutions before the legislated time limit, when to start organizing for general elections.  

From 1695, then, parliament was no longer primarily a temporary embodiment of the monarch’s will, but had its own existence. To borrow the terms of Conrad Russell, it was no longer an event, but an institution. Once it ceased to be a unique event, there was less reason to ascribe attributes to the parliament or its members. The Officers’ Parliament is the last in a series of named parliaments throughout the busy 17th century – Addled, Short, Long, Rump, Cavalier, Exclusion (three of them), Oxford, not to mention the two Conventions (and one Nominated Assembly). Few parliaments after 1695 have been given names as parliament became more frequent and predictable. It became a regular forum for the propertied elite to gather together to grind through supply bills and private legislation, rather than an arena for encounters between the monarch and the legislative body he decided sporadically to summon into existence.

CL

Further Reading:

  • Henry Horwitz, Parliament, Policy and Politics in the Reign of William III (1977)
  • David Hayton, ‘The “Country” interest and the party system, 1689-c.1720’, in C. Jones, ed., Party and Management in Parliament, 1660-1784 (1984), 37-85
  • Colin Brooks, ‘The Country Persuasion and Political Responsibility in England in the 1690s’, Parliaments, Estates and Representation, iv (1984), pp. 135-46

Be sure to look out for monthly installments from this series and catch up on previous blogs here.

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