Four hundred years ago this month, in an unprecedented move forced on it by circumstances, Parliament adjourned for more than five months. As Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 section explains, this seemingly innocuous procedural move had unfortunate and unintended consequences…
The 1621 Parliament is now chiefly remembered for its sustained attacks on corruption in high places. The lord chancellor, Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban was disgraced for accepting bribes, while assorted monopolists, such as Sir Giles Mompesson, who had enriched themselves by abusing powers granted to them by the Crown, were also severely punished. However, alongside this impressive narrative is another, much less well-known one, in which members of both the Commons and the Lords exploited parliamentary privilege for personal gain, thereby causing a public outcry and undermining Parliament’s moral authority.
When we talk about parliamentary privilege today, the key issue is the right of MPs and peers to discuss controversial business in their respective chambers without fear of legal repercussions. In the early seventeenth century, there were several other important strands to privilege, including protection from prosecution in civil lawsuits while Parliament was in session. By 1621 claims of privilege were routinely approved not just for MPs and peers themselves, but also for their servants, the latter term being interpreted loosely enough to encompass even tenants and some business associates. Moreover, it had become common practice for letters of protection to be issued by MPs and peers to those dependants whom they wished to enjoy the benefits of parliamentary privilege.
Since this use of privilege effectively suspended the normal operation of the law, there were strict time limits imposed to ensure that the system was not abused. Privilege applied only while Parliament was actually in session, with a few days either side also allowed, so that Members were protected while travelling to and from Westminster. But in 1621 that all changed.
The normal pattern of parliamentary business in the early Stuart period centred on a basic political transaction. Almost invariably the monarch requested a grant of taxation, but in return he was expected to approve legislation which addressed perceived grievances, so that Members could demonstrate to their constituents that they were receiving some benefits in return for their money. However, in 1621, in the face of a military emergency on the Continent, Parliament agreed a tax grant early in the session, without first securing any concessions from James I. The Commons then got completely side-tracked by its anti-corruption drive, leaving its legislative agenda in tatters. By June, Parliament had been sitting for four-and-a-half months, and the king was agitating to wrap up the session, but no bills had yet completed their passage through both Houses. James was willing to offer a further session, creating extra time for this legislation, but if Parliament was prorogued at this juncture all those unfinished bills would be lost. Members would be sent home more or less empty-handed, and would have to start all over again in the next session.
To avoid this scenario, a compromise was eventually agreed. Instead of the session being formally ended by prorogation, Parliament was merely adjourned for five months, leaving existing business in limbo until November. Such a long adjournment was unprecedented, and while it got around the immediate political impasse, it raised another awkward question. It was accepted that when Parliament was prorogued, Members’ privilege expired a few days after the end of the session. But during adjournments, privilege remained in force. What then should happen in an adjournment that suspended Parliament for as long as a typical prorogation? After further debate, it was decided that privilege would continue to apply for the next five months.
The consequences of this novel move were entirely predictable. As early as March there had been complaints in the Commons of parliamentary privilege being claimed by people who were not properly entitled to its protection, in order to avoid arrest or prosecution. The lower House even agreed a resolution against letters of protection being issued by MPs, all to no avail. Once the long summer recess got underway, a complete free-for-all developed, and when Parliament reassembled in November, it had a full-blown scandal on its hands. As the newsletter-writer John Chamberlain recorded: ‘protections … were grown to great excesse, so that marchants, tradesmen, and … debtors walked securely under sombodies name during the Parlement, which was generally misliked, and thought a grosse error that they who take upon them to set all straight shold geve way to such an abuse’ [Letters of John Chamberlain ed. N.E. McClure, ii. 409].
This was not simply a case of protections being handed out to friends and relatives. Money was also changing hands. According to Chamberlain, Edward Stafford, 4th Lord Stafford sold more than 300 letters of protection, for around five shillings each (roughly five days’ wages for a skilled artisan). This behaviour seems to have generated little surprise in the Lords. Stafford was notoriously impoverished, and had reportedly even sold the leadwork off the roof of his main home, Stafford Castle, in order to pay his debts. Unabashed at these allegations, Stafford went on the attack, claiming that ‘divers lewd persons’ had issued protection letters in his name, but without his knowledge [Journal of the House of Lords, iii. 170]. Since at least two of the alleged culprits subsequently confessed to fraud, Stafford himself was cleared. However, the evidence suggests that the baron was well aware of what was happening, and was certainly to some extent abusing the system.
A handful of the fraudsters were sentenced to a spell in the pillory, after which the Lords called a halt to its inquiry. Similarly, the Commons condemned this ‘abuse of priviledge, which had raysed an universall complaynt in the city and country’ [Commons Debates 1621 ed. W. Notestein, F.H. Relf and H. Simpson, iv. 420], but then settled merely for a tightening of the rules, to prevent a repeat of this episode. No one disputed the basic facts, but no MP or peer was actually held to account. Some small-scale abuse of protection letters emerged during the 1624 Parliament, but the issue did not again get so out of hand. Probably Members had learnt to exercise greater caution – but the perfect storm of 1621 also depended heavily on that five-month adjournment, which was not repeated either, substantially reducing the temptation. Henceforth, abuses of parliamentary privilege would take other forms.
Paul M. Hunneyball, ‘The Development of Parliamentary Privilege, 1604-29’, Parliamentary History, xxxiv. pt. 1, pp. 111-128
Robert Zaller, The Parliament of 1621 (1971)
Biographies of Viscount St Alban and the 4th Lord Stafford appear in our new volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021).