What did the Elizabethan House of Lords look like?

This might seem like a simple question but, as Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 project explains, the answer is anything but straightforward…

In 21st-century Britain, we take it for granted that we know what our parliamentary chambers look like. At Westminster, both the House of Commons and House of Lords are open to visitors, and parliamentary debates are recorded on television and illustrated in the press. These are very familiar spaces. However, 450 years ago the situation was quite different. There are no known 16th-century views showing the internal appearance of either building, and the general public was excluded from both Houses when Parliament was in session. Even between Parliaments, access was limited. The Commons chamber, located close to Westminster Hall, was starting to become a tourist attraction, but the Lords’ chamber was more off the beaten track, and was also reserved for other government functions. Consequently, there are few written descriptions of the Lords from this period, and they are generally rather uninformative.

What we do know about in great detail is the peers’ seating arrangements. In marked contrast to the House of Commons, where no one except the Speaker and clerks had designated seats, the Lords was governed by strict rules of social and political precedence. In 1539 an Act of Parliament was even passed to ensure that these rules were followed correctly, setting out not just the order in which people sat, but also which sector of the Lords chamber they should occupy – the bishops along the east side, the lay peers to the west, and legal assistants in the centre, with the most important individuals closest to the royal throne at the south end. This was in fact essentially the same pattern that had already been followed for several centuries. Oversight of these protocols lay with the royal heralds, who were consulted about the ceremonies accompanying the state opening of each Parliament. Not surprisingly, our earliest visual representations of the Lords’ meetings are found in the heralds’ records, such as this example from the middle of Henry VIII’s reign – effectively a picture-diagram to illustrate the written conventions.

Henry VIII in the House of Lords (Wriothesley garter book, c.1530)

This image shows Henry opening Parliament in 1523, and follows somewhat medieval artistic conventions, with the king, the two archbishops, and a couple of other senior ministers drawn on a larger scale than the other figures. As such, it’s not physically realistic, and apart from the depiction of the floor-surfaces and furniture there are no topographical details – but it does accurately explain the seating system at the state opening (which was the whole point).

The earliest-known published depiction of the House of Lords follows very much in that tradition. Indeed, despite the attempt at more realistic perspective, three of the MPs shown in the foreground are disproportionately tall, while Elizabeth I, seated on her throne, similarly dwarfs the figures closest to her!

Elizabeth I in the House of Lords (R. Elstrack, c.1608)

This image, attributed to the artist Renold Elstrack, was commissioned to accompany a written description of the state opening of Parliament in 1584, helping the reader to understand the seating arrangements just as in one of the heralds’ manuscripts. The author of the treatise in question, Nobilitas Politica vel Civilis [Political or Civil Nobility], was in fact an Elizabethan herald, Robert Glover, who would doubtless have recognised the parallels. The book was published posthumously in 1608, five years after the queen’s death, by Glover’s nephew, Thomas Milles, who presumably supplied Elstrack with a template for this picture. By the early 17th century it was no longer acceptable simply to show the human figures in a vacuum, and Elstrack added an architectural framework for greater realism. However, the proportions of this room bear little relation to what we know of the actual House of Lords, and it is questionable whether any of the stylistic details, such as the windows or ceiling, are topographically accurate.

The House of Lords in 1644 (W. Hollar, c.1646)

The first reasonably reliable view of the Lords’ chamber was published nearly four decades later, by the famous engraver Wenceslaus Hollar. It shows the room being used for the trial of William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1644.

Hollar’s design gives a good sense of the tall, narrow proportions of the room, which was 70 feet long, but only around 25 feet wide [21.3×7.6m]. Unfortunately, the chamber had by this date been significantly remodelled, with a new, classical-style ceiling (designed in 1623 by Inigo Jones) and the introduction of a famous set of tapestries showing England’s victory over the 1588 Spanish Armada. The latter covered over the original fenestration, while the ceiling design, with its lofty dormer windows, offers no clues about the roof that preceded it.

The best-known image of Queen Elizabeth in the House of Lords didn’t appear until 1682, nearly eight decades after her death. By an unknown artist, it forms the frontispiece to The Journals of all the Parliaments during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, an important scholarly edition by the former MP Sir Simonds D’Ewes.

Elizabeth I in the House of Lords (anon. artist, c.1682)

D’Ewes himself must have had first-hand knowledge of the Lords’ chamber, but he died in 1650, making the Journals another posthumous publication. The anonymous artist had clearly seen at least one other representation of a state opening, which he used as a model for his own design, and the image gives a fair sense of how cramped the room must have felt on such an occasion. However, there’s no reason to think that the topographical details otherwise tell us anything useful about the chamber’s 16th-century appearance.

So where does that leave us? The Elizabethan House of Lords was a tall, relatively narrow room (as shown by Hollar), which at the start of each Parliament filled up with bishops and lay peers much as in Elstrack’s image – thereby creating an atmosphere captured well by the artist in the D’Ewes frontispiece. We know that there were five doorways, two flanking the throne, the other three at the opposite end of the room. The long east wall boasted a large fireplace, the chamber’s only permanent heat source. Archaeological and antiquarian evidence suggests that the roof was probably medieval in character, and that there may still have been windows in the west-facing wall. Pending a major research breakthrough, most other details are mere speculation. These images collectively offer a tantalizing sense of what might have once existed – but as with any other 400-year-old document, they should be handled with care.


Further reading:

The Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture ed. C. Riding and J. Riding (2000)

The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021), volume 1 (especially chapter 3)

A biography of William Laud appears in the History of Parliament’s new volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush. A biography of Sir Simonds D’Ewes is in preparation for our House of Commons 1640-60 project.

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