Silence and Laughter in the Cromwellian House of Commons

On our blog we have often heard about the origins of the many strange and enduring traditions that exist within Westminster. In today’s blog Dr Patrick Little from our Commons 1640-1660 project takes a look at the use of non-verbal reactions within the Cromwellian Commons Chamber

When trying to understand debates in early modern Parliaments, historians rely on diaries: the private journals kept by individual members, which in those pre-Hansard days give us a vivid account – sometimes verbatim – of speeches and other business conducted in the House of Commons. Yet the diarists rarely give us a good impression of what it was actually like to sit in the chamber. There is little indication of how speeches were received, still less of the bustle and busyness of the chamber, the noises-off, the unspoken mood of the Commons as a whole. The diaries of the protectorate Parliaments of the 1650s, as edited in 1828 by J.T. Rutt, are an exception, as they do occasionally take note of some of the times when the House reacted in non-verbal ways, in particular times of altum silentium and altum risum – high silence and high laughter.

Silence in the House was spontaneous, but it seems to have happened at particular times. The most common was a pause – like a collective drawing of breath – before debate started. The reading of orders for the day was followed by such a silence on 12 June 1657, 29 Jan., 28 Feb. and 4 Mar.1659. On 8 December 1656 the Speaker had to prompt MPs to start the debate, reminding them ‘you have heard the order’; and, even then, there was ‘silence a pretty long while’ (Burton’s Diary i. 66). In other cases there was a definite pause in proceedings, when difficulties arose, or MPs seemed unsure what to do. On 30 December 1656 a proposal to adjourn discussions on the fate of the notorious Quaker, James Naylor, was not voted on but by-passed, and debate only resumed ‘after altum silentium’ (Burton’s Diary i. 271). On 24 April 1657 silence ensued when there was no obvious solution to raising money without an unpopular land tax.

The House of Commons in 1656, as featured in Diary of Thomas Burton

The other use of silence seems to have been as a pressure-valve, a quick way of defusing tensions. Thus on 4 December 1656, in a debate on a private petition, ‘there was high language between Lord Lisle and Lord Whitelocke; but they both being wise men, and deeply concerned in the business, suppressed their passion with an altum silentium’ (Burton’s Diary i. 19). Likewise, on 23 April 1657, after hearing the report of a committee sent to attend Oliver Cromwell to answer his objections to kingship, the actions of the Speaker when managing business left the House ‘growing a little angry’, but the situation calmed down after ‘altum silentium for a while’ (Burton’s Diary, ii. 10).

Laughter was also unscripted. MPs in positions of authority were open to mockery. On 25 May 1657, as the discussion on presenting bills to the protector was in full swing, the scoutmaster-general, George Downing, told the House that Cromwell and his entourage were passing by in the street. ‘Some called out, “scout, scout!”, and altum risum’ (Burton’s Diary ii. 122). The chairman of the privileges committee, George Starkey, got into a muddle when managing the Colchester election dispute on 3 February 1659, ‘and was laughed at sufficiently for a quarter of an hour’ (Burton’s Diary iii. 63). New MPs were also deemed suitable victims. On 22 February 1659, Mr Buller (Anthony or Francis Buller II) read out his speech on the old peers sitting in the ‘Other House’ and was ‘laughed down’ by MPs, prompting Sir Henry Vane II to ask, in mock-civility, if they would let Buller finish, ‘seeing he is pleased to bestow his pains among us’ (Burton iii. 406). Another rookie, William Ross, assured MPs on 18 March 1659 that his fellow-Scots had not departed from the House: I believe none of them had the ingenuity to withdraw’ – a Scoticism that ‘caused altum risum’ (Burton’s Diary iv. 187).

The long-winded or pompous could also give rise to mirth. When John Sadler gave a long speech on the right of Scottish MPs to sit at Westminster on 19 March 1659, he finished by telling the House ‘I could speak of this till you were all weary’, a remark that caused ‘altum risum’ (Burton’s Diary iv. 201). On 24 June 1657, when the arrangements for Cromwell’s re-inauguration were discussed, William Lister suggested that the protector should be presented with a robe, but ‘some understood it a rope, and it caused altum risum’. Lister was not amused, insisting ‘he had spoken as plain as he could, a robe’ (Burton’s Diary ii. 303). The famously long-winded Sir Arthur Hesilrige fell into a similar trap on 8 March 1659, when he claimed in the debate about the ‘Other House’, ‘I have not spoken to the matter yet’. When this was met with laughter, he reacted with good grace: ‘I confess men have reason to laugh when I say I have not spoken to the matter; for I never speak to the matter’ (Burton’s Diary iv. 76).

Such incidents give us something of the atmosphere in the Commons, a glimpse of a common culture among MPs, a sense of what was humorous and what was grave; and it might be suggested that such shared, spontaneous reactions reinforced their own collective identity. These echoes of silence and laughter also serve as a caution to historians, reliant on surviving diaries: there is so much about early modern Westminster that we simply do not know.

P.L.

Further reading:

Diary of Thomas Burton, Esq. ed. J.T. Rutt (4 volumes, 1828).

Jason Peacey, ‘Disorderly Debates: noise and gesture in the seventeenth century House of Commons’, Parliamentary History xxxii (2013).

Jonathan Gibson, ‘“A Place to Speak One’s Conscience in”: disciplines of debate in the Protectorate Parliaments’, Parliamentary History xl (2021).

Biographies of all MPs mentioned will feature in our upcoming House of Commons 1640-1660 volumes.

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