The publication in January this year of The House of Lords, 1604-29 represents the culmination of ten years of writing and research by a dedicated team of four scholars led by Dr Andrew Thrush. Comprising two volumes of biographies extending in length to more than 1,600,000 words, and a separate Introductory Survey, this latest addition to the History of Parliament series complements and enhances the six-volume set on the early Stuart House of Commons and its members published in 2010.
At the heart of the History of Parliament’s latest volumes are the biographies of 277 peers who were entitled to sit in the House of Lords between 1604 and 1629. (A further nine biographies of peers who were incapable of sitting before 1629 and who died before another Parliament assembled, in 1640, appear in two appendices.)
The greatest amount of space is naturally devoted to leading political figures of the period, including Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury, who tried in vain to solve the crown’s financial problems with the aid of Parliament; George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, the parvenu whose domination of English politics as favourite and chief minister to two successive kings enraged members of the ‘ancient nobility’ and led to his impeachment in 1626; George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, who assisted Buckingham in his rise to power and lived to regret it; and Thomas Howard, 21st earl of Arundel, the leading member of the ‘ancient nobility’, who initially counted himself among Buckingham’s chief allies. Much that is new will be found in these individual studies. For instance, in the lengthy entry on Prince Charles – the future Charles I – who sat in the Lords as Prince of Wales in both 1621 and 1624 it is claimed that Charles’s famous stutter was the result not of psychological trauma but an enlarged tongue, a condition known as macroglossia, which made public speaking difficult.
The biography volumes are not exclusively populated by towering figures like Charles and Buckingham, or Salisbury and Arundel, but also include many lay peers who, for reasons of poverty or minor political importance, have escaped inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: men like the Hampshire peer, William, 3rd Lord Sandys and the Anglo-Irish nobleman, George Tuchet, 11th Lord Audley and 1st earl of Castlehaven.
However, these smaller fry are treated just as fully as their more illustrious brethren. Alongside each man’s career in the House of Lords (assuming that he sat, of course), readers will find details of his political career, financial affairs, religious persuasion, cultural interests, general character and sexual mores. Indeed, these volumes are richly coloured in their detail. We learn, for instance, that Buckingham returned from Spain in 1623 with gonorrhoea and that his younger brother Christopher Villiers, 1st earl of Anglesey, was a lecherous drunk; that Basil Feilding, Lord Newnham Paddockes, was an anti-Calvinist in his youth rather than the convinced Calvinist we had all thought; and that Henry Clinton, 2nd earl of Lincoln, was of such a violent disposition that James I opined that he was governed by the influence of the underworld. We also discover that William Paulet, 4th marquess of Winchester was reputedly so dim that on his wedding night he evidently did ‘not know at which end to begin’; that Thomas, 4th Lord Cromwell, was partial to Dublin shop girls; and that Henry, 7th Lord Berkeley was so dominated by his wife that his own steward bestowed upon him the nickname ‘Henry the Harmless’. Non-parliamentary historians will find just as much of interest in these volumes as parliamentary scholars.
Supplementing the two volumes of biographies is a 400-page monograph on the House of Lords itself. Divided into six large chapters, it views the Lords through a broader lens than did Elizabeth Read Foster in her 1983 study of the upper House. Whereas Foster drew almost exclusively on the parliamentary sources, this new study looks beyond Parliament to examine developments in the Lords. Several key findings emerge. Among the most important is that the Lords experienced something of a renaissance during the 1620s. Prior to that date the House was increasingly eclipsed by the Commons, whose members alone controlled the parliamentary purse-strings.
However, beginning in 1621, new life was breathed into the Lords. In part this was due to the sudden revival of the Lords’ long forgotten judicial powers, most notably the power to conduct impeachment trials, which placed the House at centre-stage and aroused the envy of the Commons. However, it was also attributable to fears among the nobility that their privileges were being undermined. Led by the earl of Arundel, the Lords established their first ever committee for privileges, thereby turning themselves into a sort of trade union for the nobility. Another factor in the revival of the Lords’ fortunes was the growth of factionalism, which spilled over into Parliament. Before the 1620s, the Lords had viewed their main role as defending the interests of the king. The rise of Buckingham, and the sale of aristocratic titles, changed all that. It led to the emergence of what one might term ‘opposition’ politics in the Lords. In the popular mind, many members of the upper House, like the earls of Essex and Warwick, and Viscount Saye and Sele, came to be seen not as subservient to the crown but as champions of the common weal. By the end of the 1620s, no one could have predicted that twenty years later the upper House, like the monarchy, would be abolished.
The House of Lords 1604-29 is now available to purchase via Cambridge University Press. Click here for more information.