New Project: The House of Lords 1640-1660

In exciting news for the History of Parliament, 2022 sees the winding down of our long-running House of Commons 1640-1660 project and with it the launch of a new section: the House of Lords 1640-1660. Here the section leader, Dr David Scott, introduces the project and the status of Peers in the mid-17th century…

In April of this year the History of Parliament launched the latest in its long series of biography-based research projects, the House of Lords 1640-1660. Recent sections of the History have brought out studies of the membership of the Upper House in the Parliaments of 1604-29 and of 1660-1715, and work is currently underway on the Elizabethan and Georgian Lords. But addressing the mid-seventeenth century gap in our coverage has had to wait until the completion of the House of Commons 1640-1660 project, whose volumes are due to be published next year. The new Lords section will build on the achievements of its Commons predecessor but will be smaller in scale, not least because few of the 255 individuals eligible to sit during the period had substantial parliamentary careers – the bishops were legally excluded from the House in 1642, royalist peers had abandoned their seats by the outbreak of civil war that August, and the Lords itself was abolished by the Commons in 1649 (not to be restored for another eleven years).

The demise of the Lords in 1649 had been seen as symbolic of the decline in wealth and influence that the English aristocracy had supposedly suffered since the sixteenth century. Inflationary pressure on landed income, the rising cost of lordly living (particularly at court) and a seeming erosion of peers’ military capabilities were thought to have weakened the nobility relative to both the monarchy and the gentry. But work since the 1980s has challenged this view of an aristocracy in crisis; and it is now appreciated just how well most of the titled elite adapted to the economic, political and cultural forces that were re-shaping Tudor and early Stuart society.

Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick
Daniel Mytens
National Maritime Museum via ArtUK

The nobility’s continuing authority and preeminence within that society were revealed in dramatic fashion during the early years of the civil war, when most of the forces raised by Parliament and the king were commanded by peers. Parliament’s fleet of revolted royal ships would scarcely have materialised without the leadership and reputation of England’s foremost buccaneer, the earl of Warwick. And until his removal in 1645 as Parliament’s commander-in-chief and would-be dictator, Warwick’s cousin, the earl of Essex, was widely seen on both sides as ‘the leader and the personification of the parliamentarian cause’. Indeed, Charles I can be forgiven for his belief that he faced what amounted to a baronial revolt under Essex as the archetypal over-mighty subject.

Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex
by Unknown artist
circa 1620
Private collection; on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London

Leading peers across the British Isles undoubtedly exercised greater dominion, both political and military, than any noblemen since the Wars of the Roses. It was these quasi-warlords whom the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes had in mind when he wrote of ‘Popular ambitious’ subjects and ‘potent men breaking through the Cob-web Lawes of their Country’. The only way to quell these ‘children of pride’ and restore order to Charles’s fractured realm, Hobbes insisted, was to instate an all-powerful sovereign – what he termed Leviathan.

If the civil-war nobility successfully reprised its traditional role as military leaders, it was also able to move into, and dominate, new and more politic fields of public activity. Peers featured prominently in the bicameral factions that took centre-stage at Westminster after 1640 and that constituted England’s first ever national political parties. As royal counsellors and party politicians they helped master-mind policy and reform by both king and Parliament; and they were intimately involved in trying to reach a settlement within Charles’s war-torn kingdoms. Perhaps most striking of all was their high-profile participation in the modern (by contemporary standards) ‘fiscal-military’ state that Parliament constructed to defeat the king.

The Lords sat more or less continuously during the period 1640-8 and its business expanded considerably, becoming more politically-charged and controversial as the decade progressed. There was a marked growth in the House’s legal and petitionary business, and this, along with peers’ integral role in Parliament’s burgeoning – and highly authoritarian – war-state, provoked a powerful reaction among radicals against the peerage and its constitutional role.

A republican urge to abolish the Lords is now considered a defining feature of radical parliamentarianism. Civil-war radicalism, on this reading, was almost exclusively a sectarian-led movement for egalitarian reform which, in the case of the Levellers, provoked demands to defund the state. Yet no less radical in its implications was the programme of state-building that parliamentarian grandees pursued from the early 1640s in a concerted effort to destroy personal monarchy and to strengthen English power in the fight against international ‘popery’. Parliamentarian peers and their allies in the Commons were at the very forefront of this process – most notably in championing the formation in 1644-5 of a British wartime executive (the Committee of Both Kingdoms) and of that most hallowed of radical organisations, the New Model Army.

Recent research on the peerage in the later 1640s suggests that the Lords’ abolition in 1649 was largely the result of the peers’ own political miscalculation; it certainly did not reflect any long-term diminution in the business before the House or in aristocratic influence. The MP and legal adviser to several peers, Bulstrode Whitelocke, was voicing a commonly-held view when he claimed late in 1648 that the greatest noblemen ‘might carry a dozen or twenty of them [Commons-men] to vote as they list without any sense or reason’.

Charting the shifting nature and perceptions of aristocratic power during the civil-war era is just one of the many challenges facing the Lords 1640-1660 project. Another key issue it will have to address is the extent to which party strife and new ideological commitments to king and ‘commonwealth’ overrode peers’ institutional loyalty to the Lords and even to the nobility itself. More fundamental still is the question of how partisan politics affected peers’ relations with their regional powerbases and with their friends and clients in the Commons? Answering these and related questions will take the new section to the heart of popular as well as parliamentary politics in the English Revolution.

D.S.


Endnotes

Bodl. Clarendon 34, f. 73v.

J. Adamson, ‘The baronial context of the English Civil War’, TRHS, xl. (1990), 94.

T. Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. N. Malcolm (Oxford, 2012), ii. 458, 544.

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