Picturing the Parliament of 1523

What did a meeting of the English Parliament look like 500 years ago? The earliest-known image of a state opening offers important clues, but also requires careful interpretation, as Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 section explains…

The picture shown below is the oldest near-contemporary image of an English Parliament that we know of. As such it has almost iconic status, and has been reproduced in numerous publications on Parliament and the Palace of Westminster.  The latter point is somewhat ironic, since the picture shows the opening stages of the 1523 Parliament, which initially met not at Westminster but in the priory of Blackfriars, on the western edge of the city of London.

Henry VIII is enthroned in the middle, with three earls in front of him bearing the Sword of State. To the King's left are Garter King of Arms and officers of the Royal Household. To the King's right are three bishops. The arms of Wolsey and Warham are also shown. Below these, to the King's right, sit the Lords Spiritual, nine bishops with seventeen abbots behind; to his left and on the cross-bench sit the Lords Temporal, two coroneted dukes, seven earls, sixteen barons, and the Prior of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. The four woolsacks in the middle accommodate two Chief Justices, eight judges, and four Serjeants of the law, behind whom kneel two clerks with their quills and inkpots. Behind the cross-bench at the bottom of the page stands Sir Thomas More, Speaker of the House of Commons, with thirteen Members of Parliament behind him.
The Parliament of 1523, The Wriothesley Garter book.
Royal Collection Trust.

What we have here isn’t a naturalistic depiction of events, of the kind that we expect today. The rules of perspective, though understood by this date, have not been applied. Indeed, in keeping with medieval tradition, the size of the individual figures varies according to their importance, with the king, a young Henry VIII, shown two or three times larger than the other people present. And despite the eye-catching green and white floor tiles, there’s no attempt to recreate the architectural setting in which this gathering took place.

However, this apparent absence of realism doesn’t mean that the image is entirely inaccurate. To understand what we’re looking at, we need to consider why the picture was produced. The source is a manuscript called the Wriothesley Garter Book, created in or shortly after 1523 for Sir Thomas Wriothesley, who at that time was Garter King of Arms, the most senior royal herald. This is important. The heralds were responsible for overseeing parliamentary ceremonial, including the seating plan in the House of Lords, and that is what this picture shows. In effect, it’s a visual guide to how a state opening should be organized at this date. And comparison with other documents of the period, such as an account of the Blackfriars state opening in Edward Hall’s Chronicle (1548), and a 1539 Act of Parliament governing seating in the Lords, indicates that the details in Wriothesley’s picture are broadly correct.

What then does this image show us? At the top, presiding over the whole event, is the king on his throne. Seated on Henry’s right are the archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, and the cardinal archbishop of York, Thomas Wolsey, their identities confirmed by the coats of arms above their heads. A third prelate standing behind them is almost certainly Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London, who delivered the keynote speech at this state opening. The remaining bishops, all in red robes and mitres, sit on the long bench which stretches down the room in front of Archbishop Warham.  And on the bench behind them, dressed in black, we see the so-called ‘mitred abbots’, those monastic heads entitled to attend the Lords, a visual reminder that this is a pre-Reformation seating plan.

Facing the bishops, along another long bench on the king’s left, are the senior lay peers, their precise rank indicated by the number of white fur bars on their red robes – four for a duke, three for an earl. (The dukes also wear coronets rather than caps.) The minor lay peers, the barons, who have just two bars, are seated on a cross-bench at the lower end of the room, facing the throne, and also on a bench behind the dukes and earls. The one anomalous figure in this group is the man in black at the right-hand end of the cross-bench; this is William Weston, prior of the military Order of St John of Jerusalem, who was classed as a lay peer despite presiding over a monastery, and took precedence over the barons.

In the centre of the room, seated on four padded ‘woolsacks’, are senior judges and other lawyers, there to advise the Lords on legal matters. At the lower end of the woolsacks, two clerks kneel on the floor, recording proceedings. Between the woolsacks and the throne stand three more earls, who had earlier that day helped to escort the king to Parliament. Two, whose identities we don’t know, are holding symbols of royal power, the sword of state (borne aloft on Henry’s left) and the cap of maintenance (carried on a short stick on the monarch’s right). The third man, who holds a long white staff, is most likely the lord great chamberlain, the 14th earl of Oxford; the same badge of office pertained to a more junior official, the lord chamberlain, but he seems to have been less prominent at state openings around this time. By tradition these three peers should have been joined by a fourth, the earl marshal. However, the current holder of this office, the 2nd duke of Norfolk, was quite elderly by 1523, and is instead shown seated at the top end of the dukes’ and earls’ bench, holding his baton. A short distance from Norfolk we find Sir Thomas Wriothesley himself, resplendent in the Garter King’s heraldic tabard, and behind him is an anonymous group of onlookers, perhaps the eldest sons of peers, or visiting foreign dignitaries.

Finally, at the very bottom of the picture, almost erased by wear and tear, we see a row of MPs, completing the parliamentary trinity of king, Lords and Commons. In the centre of this line, one man stands taller than the rest. He is generally thought to be the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Thomas More, the future lord chancellor and Catholic martyr. However, it should be noted that while King Henry opened this Parliament on 15 April, the formal presentation of the Speaker took place three days later, in which case we’re looking at a composite image which records two separate events.

It seems clear, then, that this image is both a general guide to the disposition of the various people involved in the state opening of Parliament, and a record of some specific details peculiar to the 1523 session, as witnessed by Wriothesley. We can also be certain that this picture was not intended for general consumption.  No copies are known, and the manuscript long remained the property of the College of Arms, before finally entering the Royal Collection.

Engraving with hand colouring of Elizabeth I, Queen of England. Scene of the Queen, seated in Parliament. Figure of Elizabeth I at the head of the room, whole length with curled hair, crown, closed ruff, embroidered gown, and ermine robes, enthroned under a canopy, attended by members of the House of Commons. With Latin inscription.
Elizabeth I seated at Parliament c.1608. Royal Collection Trust.

However, Wriothesley’s picture-diagram did have an afterlife of sorts. In 1608 Thomas Milles published a Latin treatise on the monarchies and noble families of the British Isles, entitled Nobilitas Politica Vel Civilis.  This work was based on materials prepared by Milles’ late uncle, Robert Glover, one of the more junior Elizabethan heralds, and Milles himself consulted the College of Arms prior to publication. And this comes across very clearly in his illustration of Elizabeth I opening the 1584-5 Parliament. This engraving, attributed to the artist Renold Elstrack, does have perspective, more believable human figures, and a realistic (if inaccurate) architectural setting. Various details have also been updated to take account of post-Reformation changes, such as the disappearance from the Lords of the mitred abbots. Nevertheless, Elstrack’s view is essentially an updated and improved version of Wriothesley’s visual template, which in this revised form became the standard image of the House of Lords throughout the 17th century.


Further reading:

Hall’s Chronicle (1809 edn.)

The Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture ed. C. Riding and J. Riding (2000)

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