As we continue our recent blog series exploring the careers of notable people to occupy the role of Speaker, here History of Parliament director Dr Paul Seaward examines the debates behind appointing this influential job in the 17th century and a Speaker often forgotten about…
Speakers of the Commons in the seventeenth century were, though notionally elected by the House, effectively government appointees. At the beginning of a new Parliament, or whenever a vacancy arose through the speaker’s death, or his appointment to a different office (usually as a judge, for they were generally prominent lawyers), it was always a senior government official who was expected to propose the new speaker. Sometimes there would be some opposition, or at least a feeling of distaste for its choice, but it was rare that there was much of a dispute. The speaker was usually regarded as the king, or the queen’s man, who would do what they could to advance government business. They would always need to temper that, though, with the need to maintain the broad confidence of the House. A House that distrusted the speaker could become impossible to manage.
It is rare to find a document that records the discussion within government of who should be nominated. It’s the sort of discussion of personalities and tactics that is usually conducted in person, rather than by correspondence, and rarely minuted. But there is a note of a discussion held in 1672 by the inner circle of the king’s advisers, with the king present, in which they chewed over the question of who should take over the speakership of the Commons following the appointment of the previous speaker, Sir Edward Turnor, as a senior judge. Turnor had been speaker since 1661, in the Parliament which had been elected that year.
The parliament had already been in existence for longer than any other apart from the Long Parliament – the body that had fought and defeated Charles I in the Civil War. Elected about a year after the Restoration of the monarchy, it was thought of as still full of the royalist enthusiasm of that time; certainly Charles was reluctant to dissolve it, on the assumption that any new parliament was likely to reflect the huge decline in the popularity of the government that had taken place since then. Its members, though, were also regarded as keen supporters of the Church of England, and hostile to the quite large numbers of dissenters who wanted to be able to worship in their own chapels and meeting-houses, outside a religious framework that they regarded as ‘Popish’: the king himself was less committed to the Church, and even found the idea of greater religious freedom quite attractive – at least if it enabled him to give Catholics the same freedom. The king’s dilemma was worsened by his decision to wage war against the Dutch republic, in concert with King Louis XIV of France. He had tried to neutralise the discontent of those who felt that the Dutch – a strongly Protestant country – should be an ally, not an enemy by conceding in the 1672 Declaration of Indulgence a measure of toleration for dissenters. But that was unlikely to go down well in the House of Commons. And the Commons’ attitude towards the war was untested. The war had been started – deliberately – while parliament was adjourned; but sooner or later it was almost inevitable that the king would need to ask it for money, if he was to be able to continue fighting for long.
In these circumstances, every aspect of the management of a forthcoming session of parliament was going to be crucial. In November 1672, about three months before the meeting was expected, the inner circle – the so-called ‘Foreign Affairs Committee’ – met to consider the options. The meeting was minuted by the under-secretary of state, Sir Joseph Williamson, in his scrappy and barely legible handwriting. All agreed to start with that the best option was Robert Milward. A senior lawyer, a member of the Commons who had served in the chair in the committees of ways and means and supply, he was throroughly experienced and a safe pair of hands. He was already a key manager for the government in the House. The only problem was he didn’t want to do it. Milward was at the meeting, and he hastily told everyone that ‘by reasons of his indispositions of body’ he couldn’t do it. The speakership was a notoriously punishing job: he had to spend long periods in the chair, without being able to leave at all, even to answer ‘the usual calls of nature’ as a newspaper put it reporting a discussion on the provision of a deputy speaker a hundred years later. In the eighteenth century the problem was far worse, as the House was increasingly sitting far into the night. But it was bad enough in the 1670s.
The meeting in November 1672 struggled to find an alternative to Milward. Various of those present tried to persuade him, including both Thomas Osborne, the future earl of Danby, and the lord chancellor, the earl of Shaftesbury (an unusual pairing). Milward vehemently insisted that he could not do it: ‘before God by his great infirmities he cannot serve in that place’. One of the two secretaries of state, Lord Arlington, suggested that he might occupy the chair on a purely temorary basis. Milward, sensibly, was having none of it. They considered, and dismissed, several other options – Edward Thurland, Sir Thomas Meres, Sir John Maynard, and Edward Seymour. There was much to recommend all of them. But Meres and Seymour were not practising lawyers: both were powerful personalities, who might easily get out of hand. Meres, a great supporter of the Church, might ‘boggle the Declaration’, the king thought: he ‘loves his own opinion’. One official present responded that that was not a problem – ‘he’ll be of yours’. But those present at the meeting kept returning to what was probably the most obvious choice, Sir Job Charlton. Like Milward, Charlton was a Welsh judge, very experienced in the chair, having chaired the committee of privileges and elections and also the committee of ways and means. But there was a problem with Charlton: he was one of the strongest advocates of the Church of England in the Commons. He was unlikely to be much enamoured of the king’s latest policy on toleration of dissenters and the Declaration of Indulgence. Shaftesbury fretted about Charlton’s ‘zeal’ and ‘his own opinion against the king’s measures’; others weighed in complaining about Charlton’s ferocious temper. The other secretary of state, Henry Coventry, a friend and ally of Charlton’s, responded that Charlton would ‘submit to the king in this great conjuncture’.
It took another meeting to decide finally on Charlton; and Charlton, rather to everyone’s surprise, accepted. But Charlton’s encounter with the House when it finally met in February 1673 was a real baptism of fire. Before any other business was entered into, he had to deal with a torrent of complaints against the action of the lord chancellor in issuing writs for new elections before the House had met – generally regarded as a blatant attempt to manipulate the membership. Within ten days the speaker declared himself indisposed, and shortly after a letter of resignation of the office was read by the Clerk to the House. Did Charlton jump or was he pushed? Charlton’s illness was probably genuine, and his acceptance of the post probably a mistake. But it was widely assumed that he had been given some sort of payment for quitting. If so, it suggests that the king at least decided that the appointment had been a mistake too; though given the subsequent history of the session, in which the government spent weeks trying to defend the Declaration before abandoning it, it might have been better to have used Charlton to effect a more graceful climbdown than the one it eventually managed.