‘As in your wisdom you shall think meet’: Remote working in Parliament in the early modern period

In this special collaborative blog, members of the History of Parliament’s two House of Lords sections, Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the Elizabethan Lords, and Dr Stuart Handley, senior research fellow for the Lords 1715-90, consider ways in which the upper House established ways of remote working in the days before Zoom…

Contrary to what one might suppose, ‘remote working’ is nothing new in parliamentary politics. For hundreds of years, members of the House of Lords had the right to apply to the monarch for leave of absence, and to appoint at least one other member of the upper House to act as their proctor, who would, whenever the House considered it to be appropriate, vote on their behalf. In practice, it was normally only the bishops who appointed more than one proctor. This was probably because bishops were also members of Convocation, the representative body of the Church, which sat at the same time as Parliament. When a bishop distributed his proxy to several of his fellow prelates he necessarily increased the likelihood that at least one of his proctors would be sitting in the Lords when a vote was held.

But why were the lords permitted to appoint proctors when MPs were not? One reason is that lords, unlike MPs, were unelected. They enjoyed right of membership by virtue of social rank (in the case of noblemen) or office (in the case of bishops), irrespective of their physical fitness or state of health. Men who were ill or infirm were unlikely to seek election to the Commons, whereas peers might be afflicted with ailments that made personal service either difficult or impossible.

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham
Daniel Mytens, National Maritime Museum

Before 1628 there was no limit placed on the number of proxies an individual peer might hold. As a result, the Crown’s leading officials amassed large numbers in their hands. In 1626, for instance, the year in which it was decided to restrict in future the number of proxies to no more than two per person, the king’s chief minister, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, held no fewer than thirteen. Acquiring a large number of proxies was obviously beneficial to the Crown and its ministers, particularly if absentees were willing to bestow their proxies without any strings attached. ‘For my voice in Parliament’, wrote the 6th earl of Derby to the king’s chief minister, Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury in 1606, ‘I entreat you to deliver it for me in my absence as in your wisdom you shall think meet’. Just occasionally, the votes of absent peers, wielded by crown ministers, might prove decisive. In 1621 Sir Edward Richardson informed the absentee Viscount Mansfield, whose proxy was held by Buckingham, that Lord Chancellor St Alban, stripped of office by the Lords on charges of corruption, had come close to losing all his titles of honour, ‘but keepeth them with thanks to your lordship’s absence’.

Not all peers were willing to give their proctors carte blanche of course. In 1624, for instance, the elderly and infirm 11th Lord Zouche, lord warden of the Cinque Ports, requested that his proctor, the 3rd earl of Pembroke, be directed by Zouche’s servant in London should any matter arise in Parliament concerning the welfare of the Cinque Ports. Instructions along such lines help to explain why in 1610 the 7th earl of Shrewsbury cast his own vote against committing a bill while simultaneously casting the vote of the 6th earl of Kent, for whom he was proctor, in favour.  However, it seems unlikely that absentee peers often felt it necessary to issue such guidance. Generally they chose as proctors those who shared their views. As the Catholic 9th earl of Shrewsbury remarked in 1625 to his proxy-holder, the crypto-Catholic 21st earl of Arundel, ‘in matters concerning religion, and conscience, I make no doubt, but that your lordship will be as careful, and honourable in bestowing it according to my intention as heretofore’. 

The Restoration of the Lords in 1660 also saw the restoration of the proxy system, though as the period progressed there was one important change. After the Test Act of 1678, members of the House of Lords had to take the oaths in each Parliament to qualify for voting by proxy. Aged, but diligent, members would organize matters so that they were in London at the beginning of each Parliament (the capital also being an excellent place from which to obtain medical advice), attend, take the oaths and sign a proxy. Thus, Edward Fowler, bishop of Gloucester, who was born in 1632, attended the 1708, 1710 and 1713 Parliaments for only one day in order to register a proxy. One of the most extreme examples of this was the mentally unstable Gilbert Vane, 2nd Baron Barnard, who attended Parliament on five occasions in his entire career, once in each Parliament.

George Hooper, bishop of Bath and Wells, born in 1640, last attended the Lords on 1 July 1717, but subsequently bestowed a proxy for the following five sessions of Parliament. Charles Seymour, 6th duke of Somerset (1662-1748) last attended on 4 Mar. 1735, but he subsequently signed proxies covering 1737-41. John Poulett, Earl Poulett (1675-1743) did the same, attending for the last time on 13 Mar. 1735, but leaving proxies covering 1737-41. He next attended for a couple of days in December 1741, thus qualifying to vote by proxy in the ensuing Parliament. Proxies could, of course, be used as short term measures, for ill-health or temporary absences. Whig grandees, for example, were loath to miss the racing at Newmarket, and took the precaution of signing a proxy rather than risk a peremptory recall from the managers.

Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle
William Hoare, Parliamentary Art Collection

The most diligent members could provide proxies for a single day. However, the most diligent attendees were usually the recipients of proxies. Thus Peter King, Baron King, who served as lord chancellor for most of his time in the House, received nine proxies during that time; he only signed one himself, towards the end of his life when ill-health had taken its toll. The archetypal Lords’ manager, Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle, received 171 proxies during his career in the Lords, signing only nine himself; another stalwart of the Court, John West, 7th Baron and Earl de la War received 65 proxies and only gave four.

Party managers were adept at soliciting proxies to bolster the vote in the Lords, and would often remind members to send proxies. Many were enticed into signing “blank” proxies for the name of the recipient to be filled in at a later date, enabling party managers to juggle proxies between those present (each member being restricted to holding two proxies at one time). Many peers chose relatives to act as proxies, and some felt bound to reciprocate in holding and giving proxies (Daniel Finch, 2nd earl of Nottingham exchanged proxies with his brother, Heneage, earl of Aylesford on seven occasions, 1716-21). Both brothers shared the same political affiliation, but many peers preferred to entrust their proxy with a party manager. An even safer option was to give one’s proxy to the monarch. Charles Lennox, duke of Richmond did this in 1713, leaving it to Queen Anne to see to his vote being disposed into reliable hands.


For more blogs from our House of Lords researchers, head to the Elizabethan Lords and Georgian Lords sections of our site. Follow Georgian Lords on twitter to keep up to date with their research.

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