Levelling the Lords

In the inaugural blog of our Revolutionary Stuart Parliaments series, the editor of our new House of Lords 1640-60 section Dr David Scott, and Dr Sarah Mortimer of Christ Church, Oxford, consider the politics behind the abolition of the House of Lords in 1649…

In November 1648, after a summer and autumn of hard-fought victories against royalist insurgents and Scottish invaders, the New Model Army presented a Remonstrance to the Commons, demanding justice against the author of this second civil war – King Charles I. Ending peace talks with ‘that man of blood’ and putting him on trial were the Remonstrance’s main demands. But MPs suspected that the soldiers had another target in mind besides the king. ‘I believe they will level the Lords House to the other’ was one MP’s reaction to the Remonstrance – meaning that the army was now intent on abolishing the Lords and vesting sovereignty in the Commons (British Library, Verney mss, M636/9: Sir Roger Burgoyne to Sir Ralph Verney, 20 Nov. 1648).

A print from a book/newspaper depicting the early 17th century House of Lords Chamber which is a long room with high ceilings. In this print there are multiple people most of which their faces are not on show. It is titled: The manner and form of the Arch-Bishops Trial in the House of Peers.
Trial of Archbishop Laud (showing the early 17th c. House of Lords Chamber)
Wenceslaus Hollar, c.1640s
via Wikimedia Commons

Levelling the Lords was not a novel idea – it had been touted for several years by the civil-war era’s most high-profile movement for constitutional reform, the Levellers. In siding with the forces of political and religious reaction after the upheaval of the first civil war (1642-6), the dominant group in the Lords earned the Levellers’ anger and mistrust – and this quickly escalated into an attack upon the House’s very existence. In pamphlet after pamphlet, radical polemicists denounced the Lords for its ‘insolent usurpations of the common liberties and rights of this nation’. The peers, they argued, owed their power and privileges not to personal merit but to ‘the common ways your ancestors gained it for you…by adhering to kings…by pleasing their lusts, malice, revenge or covetousness…’ (An Alarum to the House of Lords (1646), frontispiece and p. 4). Moreover, while the people’s elected representatives in the Commons spoke for the entire nation, ‘…every baron in Parliament doth represent but his own person and speaketh in behalf of himself alone…’ (A Defiance against all Arbitrary Usurpations (1646), 16). The Lords fined and imprisoned its radical detractors, but the printed attacks kept on coming.

The army’s grievances against the Lords developed later than those of the Levellers and for different reasons. A number of parliamentarian peers had been instrumental in creating the New Model in 1645, and they had stuck by the soldiers in 1647 when their enemies in Parliament had tried to disband them or pack them off to Ireland. But any goodwill the soldiers felt towards the Lords evaporated in the summer of 1648; for even as they battled against the king’s forces, the peers voted with the Commons to re-open peace talks with him, and a group of crypto-royalist lords refused to declare the invading Scots enemies of the kingdom. Once the army had won the second civil war, seized the king and (on 6 December 1648) purged the Commons of its opponents, the way seemed clear for a swift reckoning not only with Charles but also the ‘useless and dangerous’ House of Lords (Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-60 ed. C.H. Firth, R.S. Rait, vol. ii, p. 24).

And yet at this point the revolution stalled. Instead of proceeding rapidly against king and Lords, the army and the ‘Rump’ of MPs who had survived the purge took almost two months to execute the king, and it was not until February 1649 that legislation was initiated for abolishing the Lords. This deferred death of the upper House puzzled contemporaries; and – although little remarked upon – it poses a challenge for modern historians. For the consensus has long been that the Lords by the late 1640s was an irrelevance. Thinly attended (usually by less than 20 peers), bullied by the Commons, its constitutional legitimacy blasted by radical critique, the upper House was simply waiting for the coup de grâce.

Or at least this has been the assumption – the facts tell a different story however. Although the Levellers might ridicule the Lords’ claim to be the nation’s ‘supreme judicature’, the number of litigants and petitioners seeking redress through the House increased hugely in the years 1646-8 – precisely the period when it was supposedly in terminal decline. Politically, too, the peers remained a force to be reckoned with. Almost half of the ten most active men on Parliament’s main executive during 1648, the Derby House Committee, were peers. And they and their fellow noblemen played a leading role in Parliament’s last-ditch attempt to negotiate a settlement with the king during the second half of 1648. 

But it was not the continued vitality of the Lords that delayed its demise after December 1648; it was more the fact that several of those driving the revolution that winter had no wish to abolish it. The army’s two most powerful figures, Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton, shared the landed class’s respect for the institution of the Lords even if they despised all but a handful of the peers themselves. The Lords, said Cromwell, ‘had as true a right to their legislative and jurisdictive power as he had to the coat on his back’ (The Antient Land-mark Skreen (1659), 12). Ireton, the author of the army’s November Remonstrance, had inserted a clause in it that ‘…the House of Peers are a court sitting and [are] to be consulted with…’, at least where its own interests were concerned (Lambeth Palace Library, Ms 679, p. 177). This concession had been too much for his Leveller allies, and he had removed it in order to preserve radical unity against a sell-out peace with Charles. Even so, it is telling that whereas the army purged and, in some cases, imprisoned those MPs who had voted for a peace deal, it allowed the peers who had done so to continue sitting unmolested.

An oil portrait painting of Henry Ireton who is stood in front of a backdrop of military tents with his arm, with the gauntlet removed, resting on a table in which a helmet sits. Ireton is wearing armour including a gauntlet on his right hand. He has brown hair and a neat beard and moustache.
Henry Ireton
copy attributed to Robert Walker, after Samuel Cooper, and Sir Anthony van Dyck c.1650
NPG 3301
© National Portrait Gallery, London

What would ultimately doom the Lords was not its inability to adapt to the supposedly egalitarian environment in which it found itself from the mid-1640s, but rather a series of political miscalculations on its part early in 1649 – above all, in blocking legislation for trying the king – that allowed those MPs fearful of its continuing influence to get the better of its friends. And even then the Commons’ vote in February to abolish the Lords passed by a narrow margin – just 15 votes in a House of 73.

The Levellers had little reason to celebrate this victory, for within months of abolishing the Lords, its foremost defenders, Cromwell and Ireton, led the political and military campaign that consigned the Leveller movement to oblivion. The Lords, by contrast, would make a triumphal return with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.


The authors will return to this subject in a subsequent blog for this series that will look more closely at contemporary arguments in defence of the Lords against its radical opponents.

Further Reading:

J. Adamson, ‘The frighted junto: perceptions of Ireland and the last attempts at settlement with Charles I’, in The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I ed. J. Peacey (2001)

The English Levellers ed. A. Sharp (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, 1998)

E. R. Foster, The House of Lords, 1603-1649 (1983)

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