Legislature meets library: Parliament at Oxford in 1625

As part of our Parliament away from Westminster series, Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 section explores the factors which led to England’s oldest university hosting Parliament for the first time since 1258…

In July 1625 Charles I faced the first crisis of his reign. England was currently at war with Spain, and the king urgently needed money to fund a fresh campaign. Parliament was meeting at Westminster to address this issue, but the House of Commons, which by tradition initiated grants of taxation, had just voted a much smaller sum than the government actually required. Meanwhile, a major outbreak of plague was sweeping through London, and the MPs, satisfied that they’d done their duty, were now anxious to get away from the capital.

By longstanding custom, monarchs requested parliamentary taxation only once per session, but on 7 July Charles controversially decided to address the financial shortfall by seeking a supplementary grant. However, it was clear that if Parliament’s deliberations were to be prolonged, then adjournment to a safer location than Westminster was unavoidable. The question was, what other suitable venues were available? Since 1548 both the Commons and the Lords had been firmly ensconced at the Palace of Westminster, where they now occupied not just their own chambers, but also a growing number of subsidiary spaces which were employed for committee meetings, conferences and assorted back-room functions. It was one thing to adjourn Parliament to a new site, but unless an equivalent array of facilities was available, its business would be severely disrupted.

The king’s solution was announced four days later, when Parliament was adjourned to Oxford. And remarkably, the session was scheduled to resume in just 20 days, on 1 August. What made this timetable feasible was the existence of what is now known as the Old Bodleian Library. The oldest section, dating from the fifteenth century, comprised just two rooms, the ground-floor Divinity School, and above it Duke Humfrey’s Library. But since 1610 work had been underway to construct a spacious, three-storey quadrangle alongside the original wing, the project finally being completed in 1624. And this brand new complex offered all the spaces that Parliament required, on a single, compact site. Not only was the Divinity School approximately the same size as St Stephen’s chapel, the Westminster home of the House of Commons, but the top floor of the new quadrangle contained broad galleries which could easily be adapted for use by the House of Lords.  In addition, the quadrangle’s lower storeys boasted a number of smaller lecture halls which effectively duplicated the Palace of Westminster’s committee rooms.

The Bodleian Library in the late 17th century (CC. Wellcome Library, London)

The other vital consideration, of course, was accommodation for the peers and MPs. Within hours of Parliament’s adjournment, the Privy Council wrote to the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, peremptorily instructing him to empty the colleges of students, so that their lodgings could instead be used by the members of both Houses. Shortly afterwards, workmen were dispatched to the Bodleian to prepare the spaces which would be needed there. In the Divinity School, the existing seating was ripped out, and replaced with ‘five degrees or ranks of seats … in manner of a cockpit’, imitating the normal layout of St Stephen’s chapel [Proceedings in Parliament 1625 ed. Jansson and Bidwell, 661]. The actual benches used by the MPs at Westminster were loaded onto barges, and brought up the Thames to their temporary new home. To complete the picture, a chair for the Speaker was constructed towards the west end of the room, with a gallery above the entrance for additional seating. Preparations for the Lords were a little simpler. On the top floor of the Bodleian quadrangle, the north gallery was partitioned to recreate the Lords’ chamber and entrance lobby. At the east end of the chamber, a ‘chair of state’ was installed for the king’s use, again replicating the Westminster arrangements, while the adjacent room in the east wing was fitted out as the monarch’s privy chamber. The south gallery was designated as a conference space, for meetings of both Houses – effectively a substitute for Westminster’s Painted Chamber – while the various lecture halls on the lower floors were assigned as committee rooms, or as accommodation for parliamentary officials. The total bill for this refit came to around £155 (roughly £40,000 in modern money), including materials, workmanship, and the craftsmen’s wages and living expenses.

Bodleian Library: the Divinity School

One of the largest colleges, Christ Church, was designated as a temporary home for the Privy Council and members of the royal household, effectively standing in for Whitehall Palace. George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, and James Ley, the lord treasurer, lodged nearby at Merton College, while the attorney general, Sir Thomas Coventry, based himself next door, in Corpus Christi College, requisitioning the president’s rooms. Other peers, bishops and MPs spread themselves out around the remaining colleges. In practice there was probably no shortage of space, since continuing concerns about the threat from plague encouraged absenteeism; just over half of the bishops and peers stayed away, while the attendance rate for the Commons was possibly even worse. The king sensibly avoided the Oxford crowds, and took up temporary residence at Woodstock Palace, a royal retreat six miles north of the city.

From a logistical perspective, Parliament’s relocation was a great success (the absenteeism aside), despite some inevitable teething troubles. When a joint meeting of both Houses was called for 8 August in the Bodleian’s south gallery, this venue was vetoed by the Commons, since the MPs doubted whether the floor was strong enough to support so many people. The nearby church of St Mary the Virgin was considered as an alternative, before the meeting went ahead in Christ Church hall. However, in general the new facilities seem to have served their intended purposes well, albeit briefly. In political terms, the adjournment to Oxford was a disaster. The Commons reacted badly to the king’s demand for additional taxation, and launched an attack on Charles’s favourite, the 1st duke of Buckingham. Recognizing that in this heated atmosphere there was no real chance of further military funding being agreed, the king dissolved Parliament on 12 August, less than a fortnight after the first Oxford sitting. The whole exercise had been an expensive mistake. Nevertheless, the city’s potential as a substitute for Westminster had been demonstrated, and further assemblies would meet there in 1644-5, 1665, and 1681.

PMH

Further reading:

Proceedings in Parliament 1625 ed. M. Jansson and W.B. Bidwell (1987)

G. Tyack, Oxford: An Architectural Guide (1998)

Biographies or further biographies of Charles I as prince of Wales, George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, James Ley, 1st earl of Marlborough, Thomas Coventry, 1st Lord Coventry and George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, appear in our recent volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021).

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