The early Stuart judiciary – independent or subservient?

In the wake of recent events in America, Dr Paul Hunneyball of the Lords 1604-29 section considers the role of the judiciary in early Stuart political controversies…

Much of the recent storm surrounding the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh as a judge in the United States Supreme Court was generated by allegations of sexual misconduct in his earlier life. However, the political partisanship which marked the investigation into Kavanaugh’s record pointed to a deeper issue, the alarm among Democrats that President Trump had nominated a conservative lawyer with a reputation for challenging liberal values. Kavanaugh’s eventual confirmation shifted the balance on the Supreme Court decisively in a conservative direction, paving the way for potential challenges to existing US law on issues from abortion to climate change, and conceivably pitting the Court against the House of Representatives, which is now once again under Democrat control.

It is tempting to think that such a situation could not develop in Britain, where the judiciary is generally seen as politically impartial, and judges frequently state that the appropriate place for addressing controversial policy decisions is Parliament. However, the current situation in the States is in certain respects similar to England under the early Stuarts, where judges were handpicked by the monarch, and were expected to back him over controversial policies opposed by the House of Commons. Although the judges themselves maintained that their primary role was to interpret law, rather than to change it, the ongoing debate about the correct balance between the royal prerogative (the Crown’s right to unfettered action) and the liberties of the subject ensured that complete neutrality was rarely possible. During the first half of the 17th century, the judiciary thus found itself walking a tightrope between the displeasure of the monarch and the wrath of the Commons, either of which could be career-ending.

One early example of these dilemmas was Calvin’s Case in 1608, which established the principle that all Scots born since James VI of Scotland became James I of England were automatically naturalized south of the border, and entitled to own property there. This issue had been actively promoted by James in Parliament in 1604 and 1606-7, but firmly opposed by the Commons on both occasions. Ultimately this particular verdict went unchallenged. However, when the Crown’s finances were at stake the judges found themselves in a more difficult position. Both James and Charles I were permanently short of money, and never managed to secure parliamentary taxation on the scale that they required. Consequently, they did all they could to exploit their prerogative rights to increase their revenues from other sources, such as customs revenues and occasional, emergency levies. This did not suit Parliament, which knew that its power to grant taxation was its principal bargaining counter in obtaining the redress of grievances. The first major battle commenced in 1606, with Bates’s Case, in which the Exchequer Court upheld the king’s prerogative power to impose supplementary duties on foreign imports. Unsuccessful attempts by the House of Commons to reverse this development helped to wreck parliamentary sessions in both 1610 and 1614, though the judges themselves emerged unscathed.

More controversial still was Charles I’s arbitrary taxation in the 1620s and 1630s. After failing to secure a grant of parliamentary taxes in 1626 to fund his foreign wars, the king decided to boost his coffers through a supposedly voluntary collection, the so-called ‘Forced Loan’. Anxious to avoid resistance to this levy, Charles demanded that his senior judges formally affirm the Loan’s legality. When they unexpectedly demurred, the king tried to intimidate them by sacking the lord chief justice, Sir Ranulphe Crewe.

Sir Ranulphe Crewe (W. Hollar)

Sir Ranulphe Crewe (W. Hollar)

Despite this, the remaining judges gave the Loan only qualified backing. Similarly, in the famous Five Knights’ Case of 1627, the judges rejected a bail application from a group of men imprisoned by the Crown for refusing to pay the Loan, but declined to make a formal ruling that would have strengthened the king’s powers of arbitrary arrest. Nevertheless, this show of relative judicial independence was shortlived. In 1629 the Exchequer Court firmly backed the Crown’s right to collect the customs duties of tunnage and poundage, in the face of fierce opposition from the House of Commons. Again, in 1636 and 1637 – well into the 11-year period when Parliament was not summoned – Charles was able to obtain legal opinions from his senior judges in support of ship money, which he was controversially levying from inland counties in peacetime. When the collection of ship money was challenged in a 1638 test case by John Hampden, several senior judges, including the current lord chief justice, Sir John Bramston, and the chief baron of the Exchequer, Sir Humphrey Davenport, found in Hampden’s favour on a technicality, but only once it was clear that the majority verdict would go in the king’s favour.

In general, then, the early Stuart judiciary proved a mostly reliable, if occasionally reluctant, ally of the Crown. Those few judges who became actively obstructive were removed from office – Sir Edward Coke in 1616, Sir John Walter in 1629 – and this served to keep the rest in line. Consequently, when the Long Parliament began attacking the key defenders of the Caroline regime in 1640, the judges were among the House of Commons’ earliest targets. Many of those who had publicly backed ship money were impeached, including Bramston and Davenport. As rival political camps began to form on the eve of the civil wars, token gestures of impartiality no longer offered any protection.


Further reading: 

J.S. Hart, The Rule of Law, 1603-1660: Crowns, Courts and Judges (2003) 

C.W. Brooks, Law, Politics and Society in Early Modern England (2008)

An additional biography of John Hampden is being prepared for publication by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.

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Revisiting the origins of the Kindertransport on its 80th anniversary

Today is the 80th anniversary of what is now known as the Kindertransport debate in the House of Commons. Ahead of our conference to commemorate the life of the History of Parliament Trust’s founder, and determined campaigner in support of the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe, Josiah C. Wedgwood, Dr Jennifer Craig-Norton (Honorary Fellow of the Parkes Institute at the University of Southampton) discusses the debate and what the initiative actually meant for Jewish child refugees…

London, Ankunft jüdische Flüchtlinge

Kindertransportees from Poland disembark the Warszawa, February 14, 1939, London. © Bundesarchiv, used with permission

Sometime after 9:30 PM on 21 November, 1938, towards the end of a two and a half hour House of Commons debate on ‘Racial, Religious and Political Minorities’, the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, announced the Government’s willingness to admit an unspecified number of unaccompanied Jewish and ‘non-Aryan’ children into the UK declaring, ‘here is the chance of taking the young generation of a great people; here is a chance of mitigating to some extent the terrible sufferings of their parents and their friends’ (‘Racial Religious and Political Minorities’, Hansard, HC 21 Nov 1938, Col 1464). In a mere 500 words, Hoare set in motion what would become the most celebrated and mythologised refugee movement in modern British history, the Kindertransport.

The debate that night began with a long speech by a tireless defender of refugees, Philip Noel Baker, who pleaded passionately for the British government to alleviate the suffering of Jews and others who were being persecuted in the Third Reich. This theme was taken up by Samuel Hammersley, who argued that the British Empire was uniquely positioned to absorb the majority of those who were desperate to get out of Germany and advised that Parliament ought to ‘look upon this problem of 500,000 refugees in Germany as just another practical problem which British statesmanship is called upon to consider and to solve.’ Geoffrey Mander spoke next, asking that the Home Secretary look into establishing temporary camps in Britain to receive large numbers of refugees, and proposing that the Aliens Act be amended, for ‘It was never intended to exclude political exiles’. He believed that there was ‘a case for making it very much easier for refugees…to come to this country…by a relaxation of the rules’.

One after another, for over two hours, members of Parliament stood up and expressed their unanimous sympathy and support for these refugees, offering various suggestions for receiving and housing them in the UK and abroad; yet, at the end of the debate, the only concrete policy shift the Home Secretary had been willing to concede was the admittance of a bloc of unaccompanied minor children—the only group of refugees to be granted a waiver from the restrictions of the Aliens Act and the visa procedures that had been imposed in early 1938. Hoare made it clear that though he was opposed to setting quotas of any kind, there was to be no large movement of refugees to the United Kingdom, Palestine or the Dominions, and that applications for asylum would continue to be dealt with on a case by case basis, despite the huge backlog that such a policy had created. Only unaccompanied children could be dealt with ‘in large numbers, provided they were sponsored by responsible bodies and responsible individuals’.

In the eighty years since that night, the Kindertransport, often mischaracterised as a government-sponsored scheme, has become enclosed within a simplified narrative of rescue and salvation, and a revisiting of the debate’s actual context and the limited terms of the Home Secretary’s concession can provide a corrective to such mythologizing. It is important to note that the Home Secretary confined his brief remarks announcing the child migration scheme to two subjects: the limitations of the government’s involvement and the parents of the children who would be allowed to come to the UK. In contrast to notions of a grand humanitarian gesture on the part of the government, Samuel Hoare made it absolutely clear that the children could only be accommodated if their maintenance was privately guaranteed ‘without any harm to our own population’ and that the Home Office would do nothing more than ‘to give the necessary visas and to facilitate their entry into this country’. He also made it clear that the children’s parents and families were not to receive similarly favourable treatment, but remain subject to the stringent immigration policies that various members of Parliament had that very evening begged the Home Secretary to amend.

Samuel Hoare was not unaware of the controversies that a policy of welcoming children but not their families entailed. It is notable that he used the phrase ‘to some extent’ when outlining how his children’s migration proposal might ‘mitigate…the terrible sufferings of their parents’, and he acknowledged what a ‘terrible dilemma it was to the Jewish parents in Germany to have to choose between sending their children to a foreign country, into the unknown, and continuing to live in the terrible conditions to which they are now reduced in Germany’. However, he told the assembled members, he had received assurances from a Quaker relief worker that German Jewish parents ‘were almost unanimously in favour of facing this parting with their children and taking the risks of their children going to a foreign country, rather than keeping them with them to face the unknown dangers with which they are faced in Germany’. Based upon such declarations, Hoare stated, ‘we shall put no obstacle in the way of children coming here’.

This Parliamentary debate and the subsequent fundraising and organising that resulted in the bringing over of 10,000 or so children over the next eleven months garnered widespread contemporary publicity, but the children’s movement was overtaken by the momentous realities of the Second World War and virtually forgotten in the years that followed. It was not until its ‘rediscovery’ in the late 1980s, amidst a wider emerging interest in the Holocaust, that the mass emigration of Jewish child refugees in the late in 1930s even became known as the Kindertransport. This re-awakening coincided with an embrace of oral and testimonial history more generally, and the resulting explosion of Kinder life-story telling has tended to dominate the historiography of the movement.

In the past few years a concentrated academic and scholarly interest has begun to focus on the Kindertransport, bringing with it a re-evaluation of its origins, operation and outcomes, and a critical examination of the distortions and mythologies that have grown up around its celebration, commemoration and re-telling. This reassessment has been brought into sharp focus by a revival of the idealised images of the Kindertransport in the context of recent debates on refugees and unaccompanied child migration. The eightieth anniversary of the debate that set the child migration movement in motion is a good time to revisit its context and terms, using it as a springboard for engaging in a more clear-eyed discussion of the both the Kindertransport and the wider immigration policies in which it was situated—policies that saved the lives of thousands of children but separated the majority of the children from their parents permanently.


Dr Jennifer Craig-Norton is an Honorary Fellow of the Parkes Institute, University of Southampton, UK. Her publications include the forthcoming book, The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory (Indiana University Press, 2019) and Migrant Histories and Historiographies: Essays in honour of Colin Holmes (Routledge Studies in Radical History and Politics, 2018), co-edited with Christhard Hoffman and Tony Kushner.

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The role and power of the House of Lords

The Victorian Commons

To mark Parliament Week 2018, our editor Dr Philip Salmon looks at a key element of Parliament which we don’t usually have much opportunity to reflect on in our work on Victorian MPs and constituencies: the House of Lords. Yet, as he explains below, the upper chamber played a vital role in many important 19th century reforms and continued to wield significant influence even after the 1911 Parliament Act.

The pre-1834 Lords (Court of Requests)

The House of Lords remains a rather neglected subject in modern British political history. One recent study has even suggested that ‘for the last half-century and more it has been largely ignored’ (but note the reading list below). Most studies constructed around the traditional theme of democratic development inevitably tend to downplay the significance of the ‘unelected’ chamber. The Lords, however, should not be under-estimated.

Over half the twenty prime ministers of the 19th century…

View original post 1,317 more words

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Peace at Last?

Earlier this autumn saw the 80th anniversary of the Munich agreement, marked by a Peace for our Time’ blog from our assistant director, Dr Emma Peplow.  As the first of a series from the House of Commons 1640-1660 section looking at events over the winter of 1648-1649, Dr Vivienne Larminie examines another occasion on which lasting peace seemed within the grasp of politicians at Westminster.  Subsequent posts will trace how the hopes of peace-makers were dashed, and how a monarchy became a republic…

On 15 November 1648, after 11 years of civil war – first in Scotland, then in Ireland, and finally also in England and Wales – and several rounds of abortive negotiations between the various parties involved, it seemed to many that there was at last a real prospect of an acceptable political settlement and lasting peace.


Carisbrooke Castle

That day the House of Commons passed a critical set of resolutions in response to the latest proposals from Charles I, sent from his prison at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight.  It was decided that

‘from and immediately after the King shall have consented unto the Desires of the Two Houses, upon the Treaty, and ratified the same by Act or Acts of Parliament, all his Houses, Honours, Manors and Lands, with the growing Rents and Profits thereof, and all other legal Revenues of the Crown, shall be restored unto him’.

The only proviso was that such garrisons and magazines as Parliament considered vital for ‘the necessary defence of the kingdom’ would be retained in its hands.  In return for foregoing these and other ‘profits’, to be mutually agreed, the king would be compensated.  Charles was to ‘be settled in a Condition of Honour, Freedom, and Safety, agreeable to the Laws of the Land’ and there was to be an Act of Oblivion and Indemnity which would draw a line under accusations and counter-accusations of rebellion and war damage, subject to agreed limitations and exceptions [Journal of the House of Commons, vi. 76-7].


This was a remarkable turn-around by a House which on 3 January 1648 had passed a ‘Vote of No [Further] Addresses’ to the king.  That such resolutions passed was owing to the fact that they received support not only from the Presbyterians, who had long constituted a ‘peace party’, but also from some Independents led by men like William Pierrepont, Nathaniel Fiennes and Sir John Evelyn of Wiltshire, who had convinced NPG D7971,William Fiennes, 1st Viscount Saye and Sele,by Wenceslaus Hollarthemselves that the beleaguered Charles I now had no choice but to concede hard terms and could be bound to keep his word.   Later on 15 November the House of Lords voted to endorse the Commons’ resolutions, not least thanks to the presence of peers like Nathaniel’s father, William Fiennes, 1st viscount Saye and Sele, who had been an important negotiator at Carisbrooke.  Even the radical Levellers seemed to be on board: meetings with Independents produced a proposal for a fresh Parliament to be called under a new franchise, subject to ratification by ‘the present Parliament and the army.



Furthermore, on 15 November there was also a hopeful signal from the headquarters of the New Model army at St Albans.  In The Remonstrance of the Army sent to the Citizens of London, rapidly published, its general council expressed its ‘resolution to comply’ with the treaty.  Royalist insurgents of the previous summer, it asserted, had cast a ‘dark and dismal cloud throughout all the Nation for the making of the Army odious in the sight and judgement of all men’.  To vindicate the New Model from such calumny, it declared that ‘our hearts are free from the least thought or action for the subversion of Authority or Government’ [The Remonstrance of the Army (1648), 1-2 (E.472.13)].  As to

‘the present Treaty in hand between King and Parliament, we do declare that we shall not obstruct the same, nor meddle therein; provided, that we may be assured of security for the future, our arrears paid, the great burthen of the Kingdom removed and taken off, Religion setled, and the Subject freed from all tyranny and oppression either from Prince or Representatives’ [The Remonstrance of the Army, 3].


Most of the newspapers which, since shortly after the wars began, had issued weekly bulletins on the political and military situation, trumpeted all this as ‘joyful news’.  But one or two more radical publications struck a decidedly dissonant tone.  Mercurius Militaris referred contemptuously to Charles’s propositions as ‘the king’s pack of wares’ and mocked the craven attitude of MPs and peers. The Commons’ resolution was worthless because the king was ‘uncapable of honor’; the writer hoped that ‘the sword of justice … which is honorable in every stroke, will before [the conclusion of the treaty] be upon him for his murders and oppressions’. Talk of restitution disgusted him: ‘what a pretty cheat is his Majesties rights … when such a pack of his Apes agreed to any oppression and robbery of his, then it became a legal right of the Crown’ [Mercurius Militaris no. 5 (14-21 Nov. 1648), ‘28’, ‘39’ (E.473.8)].  Another journalist demanded rhetorically,

Did we elect Parliaments to redresse our grievances, take off our burthens, hold out our native freedoms and liberties against all pretended, Arbitrary, Tyrannicall, and destructive Kingly powers, and for our safety and well being?  ’  [The Moderate no. 19 (14-21 Nov. 1648), 153 (E.473.1)]

The correct answer was evidently yes, but that had not been the result.  ‘Instead’, this Parliament had done the opposite.  It had increased grievances by imposing ‘arbitrary taxes’, by joining ‘with our enemies to destroy our freedoms and liberties (which our predecessors have bought dear by their blood’) and maintaining ‘the Monarchicall and Arbitrary power of the King’, by inviting ‘in a foraign enemy to destroy us’ [i.e. the Scots], and by acting ‘our enemies design in a Treaty, under a specious pretence of concluding a safe and well grounded Peace for the Nation’ [The Moderate no. 19, 153].


Among the political nation this was probably a minority view, but in the army it was otherwise.  The apparently conciliatory tone of the Remonstrance was at variance with ‘the desires of the army’ annexed to it, which were themselves the product of simmering discontent and a conviction that peace negotiations were futile.  Among other things, the army requested that ‘speedy and impartial Justice may be enacted on all fomentors, contrivers and actors’ in the civil wars [The Remonstrance of the Army, 4].  The process by which that view prevailed at Westminster over the winter of 1648-1649, silencing contrary opinions, bringing the chief ‘actor’ Charles Stuart to account, and turning a monarchy into a republic, will be the subject of subsequent blog posts in this series.




Biographies of William Pierrepont, Nathaniel Fiennes and Sir John Evelyn are being prepared for publication by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.

Posted in 17th Century history, Early modern history, James I to Restoration, military history, Politics, Royal family, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘For our honour’s sake we dare not keep them out’: Josiah Wedgwood and the Jews in Nazi Europe



Col. Josiah Clement Wedgwood DSO MP, Mayor of Newcastle-under-Lyme, 1930; reproduced courtesy of the Brampton Museum and Art Gallery

Ahead of our conference and public lecture at Keele University on 22 November to mark the 75th anniversary of the death of History of Parliament founder, Josiah C. Wedgwood, and the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport debate, we hear from Lesley Urbach of the Remembering Eleanor Rathbone Group about Wedgwood’s role in assisting Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe…


Twenty-two days after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933, Josiah Wedgwood, Labour Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme, observed in a question to the Home Secretary that


our ancestors allowed the Huguenots to come into this country … without any damage to our country or our reputation. Will he be prepared to give an equally felicitous asylum to the persecuted victims of Nazi terrorism in Germany? (Hansard, 21 Feb. 1933)

On this occasion he asked on behalf of the German socialists who were being persecuted under the Nazi regime. He was told what became a stock answer to such requests, ‘that aliens are only allowed to come in for residence if their settlement here is consonant with the interests of this country’. Wedgwood disagreed strongly with this response, telling the House in July 1933, ‘what we must always put first is a principle based upon humanity and justice. If you put the State first, you can justify any crime in the past and any crime in the future’.

German socialists were not the only persecuted group in Nazi Germany about which Wedgwood addressed Parliament. He first raised the issue of persecuted Jews in early April 1933. He asked the Colonial Secretary to relax the restrictions on emigration to Palestine to provide refuge to persecuted German Jews. For the next ten years, he continued to assert that Palestine was a very suitable place of refuge for Jews from Nazi-controlled Europe, as well as suggesting the colonies as a possible place of emigration. His first contribution on the matter of Jewish refugees being allowed to settle in Britain came during the adjournment debate on 13 April 1933,

Let English people see whether they, too, cannot receive these people into their family to make a home here, and to show that whatever the Prussian Aryan may feel about the Jews, or the peace-mongers or even the Socialists, we in this country realise the value of brains and the duty of hospitality to the oppressed.

On 22 May, he received no answer to his question to the Home Secretary,

is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the position of the Jews in Germany is daily getting worse, and are we to understand that the British Government is going to do nothing to help the people who are being persecuted in Germany to escape from that country?

Two years later Wedgwood asked the Foreign Secretary what action was being considered by the government to deal with the increasing hardships of Jews in Germany.

Joshua Stein comments on Wedgwood’s ceaseless nature in the face of adversity when it came to campaigning on the behalf of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, which he continued to do until his death in July 1943. The nature of his pleas, however, changed from general requests to help Jews (and socialists) to asking for visas on behalf of individuals as the war drew nearer. His last appeal before the start of the war, for a visa for Frau Lasmann, who was destitute in Poland after being expelled from Germany, was rejected.  During the early part of the war he was one of the leaders of the campaign against the internment of refugees from Germany and Austria.

Wedgwood was never likely to succeed in his efforts to persuade the government to allow Jews and socialists refuge in Britain. Britain’s immigration policy, established by the 1905 Aliens Act and the 1919 Aliens Restrictions Amendment Act, ruled out the entry of aliens for permanent settlement and there was no legal obligation for the government to admit refugees. Post-1933, there were several conditions for the granting of refuge including: the applicant’s ability to sustain themselves without recourse to public funds; prospects for re-emigration; and Home Office discretion. The only people allowed permanent entry were those whose presence offered some benefit to the country or people with strong personal or compassionate grounds.

Entry did not become easier as persecution grew in Germany and spread to Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939. However, certain additional categories of people were allowed temporary asylum, such as unaccompanied children and those adults willing to be domestic servants. Britain’s national interests remained a priority ahead of humanitarianism. While Wedgwood believed that their principal duty … [was] to save Jews from the persecution in Germany’ (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27 Mar. 1939), it was not, and never became, a central preoccupation of the Government, however passionate his speeches were. The tenacity of Wedgwood’s campaigning for Jewish refugees reflects a dogged determination that is evident in all of his campaigning during his exceptionally active political career. Stein suggests that his persistence helped to establish a climate whereby it became more acceptable to help the Jews.

A Foreign Office official described Wedgwood as being hopelessly unbalanced on the subject of supporting the Jews, while the United Jewry Fellowship referred to him as ‘one of their greatest non-Jewish friends in the British Parliament’ (‘Honoured by Jews’ Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 7 Mar. 1935). His niece C. V. Wedgwood described him in The Last of the Radicals as ‘the man who will take all risks, the man who will never consider any other aspects of the question save that of justice is essential to society. In an old and cautious society such men are rare and precious’. But perhaps the last word should be left with Wedgwood from a letter to his daughter at the end of the 1930s, ‘I shall remain intolerant of cruelty, injustice and error … If the individual “resists not evil”, bows down to power and authority … then only tyrants prosper while civilisation and humanity decay’.


Further Reading:

  • Joshua Stein, Our Great Solicitor (1992)
  • C. V. Wedgwood, The Last of the Radicals (1951)
  • Louise London, Whitehall and the Jews 1933-1948 (2000)
  • Josiah C. Wedgwood, Memoirs of a Fighting Life (1941)
  • Wedgwood’s papers can be found at Keele University Library

exhibition at Newcastle Library

Join us at Keele Hall, Keele University on 22 November at 18.45 for our free public lecture (click link for info and free tickets), reception and private viewing of our touring exhibition. 

Here you can see the exhibition (funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and its players) at Newcastle-under-Lyme Library.




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Crucible of revolution: Parliament, Putney, and the politics of settlement in the Autumn of 1647

Ahead of tonight’s special edition of our IHR Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar in aid of UK Parliament Week (‘One person, multiple votes: university constituencies and the electoral system, 1868-1950’) we hear from Dr Sean Kelsey of the University of Buckingham who summarises his paper from our last meeting, which discussed the interplay between Parliament and the General Council of the army in 1647…

Whether by design or by default, events unfolding during the autumn of 1647 in the English Parliament at Westminster, and a few miles up-river, in the General Council of the army sitting at Putney, have generally been studied in more or less splendid isolation from one another. The aim of this paper is to trace key aspects of the interrelationship between them, and to posit some new ways of understanding the politics of the period.

The paper argues that The Heads of the Proposals were far more divisive of opinion amongst the soldiers of the parliamentarian army, far sooner than is usually recognised, creating a rapidly deepening conflict within the General Council over the post-war settlement of the kingdom of England – a conflict that then spilled over into Parliament. These developments reinforce the case for seeing the quest for a post-war settlement in England as a constitutional crisis in its own right, and a struggle, ultimately, over sovereignty.

The defining feature of this struggle, or at least what made this phase of it reasonably novel, from an English parliamentarian perspective, seems to me to be the forthright expression of an agenda for constitutional change characterised, in a word, by kinglessness, or an acting, at any rate, ‘as if there were no such thing in the world’ as the king of England, as MPs were urged, in September 1647, to do.

By then, a number of Englishmen, many of them soldiers, had embarked, or at least had understood themselves to be embarked upon a bid to separate key elements of the kingdom’s constitutional arrangements (principally, those concerning legislative sovereignty) from the institution of personal monarchy – in a process that one feels almost impelled to call ‘Rexit’. By November 1647, it had become possible to articulate this agenda in terms of ‘justice’. Whatever else it achieved  (or however little, perhaps), the principles underpinning the first Agreement of the People had at least opened a door marked ‘jurisdiction’ to the re-establishment of English sovereignty, in a form consistent with justice, by means of a trial of Charles I – as urged by Colonel Thomas Harrison and others at the close of the Putney debates. It appears that, for many, what this would entail was a prosecution that – in the terms expressed by one of its advocates,  Commissary Nicholas Cowling at the very close of the Putney debates – would destroy the constitutional standing of the king, but leave his person alone.

In all of this, there’s something very striking – and I think potentially very illuminating – about just how many of the things that happened, fifteen or so months after the events described in this paper, were things that had not happened, that had been urged for the first time, but rejected, refused or deliberately obstructed, fifteen or so months earlier: a military purge of Parliament, imprisonment or exclusion of its delinquent members, imposition of a loyalty test on the remainder, a constitutional revolution in the name of the sovereign people of England, conclusion of an Agreement of the People, and a prosecution of Charles I, intended first and foremost as a means to effect the forcible relocation of legitimate authority, in subjugation of the office of king, and its demotion to the status of a chief magistrate. It seems eminently arguable that, in seeking to understand what happened in the winter of 1648-9, there may be quite a lot to be said for remembering exactly what had not happened, in the Autumn of 1647, and working out why.


See the full programme for our IHR seminar here. 

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MPs and the First World War

Since 2014 Dr. Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of our House of Commons, 1832-1868 project, has been writing blogs to mark the centenary of the death of each of the 24 MPs and former MPs who died on military service during the First World War. This blog looks back over that series, reflecting on this group of men who went from Westminster to war, but did not return.

Within three months of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, 126 Members of Parliament had volunteered for service in the armed forces. By January 1915, five months into the war, 184 MPs were on active service. Overall, 264 MPs – or 40% of the total membership of the House of Commons – served in some military capacity during the war. Twenty of those MPs, together with four former Members (one of whom, Charles William Reginald Duncombe, 2nd Earl of Feversham, was in the Lords by the time of his death), died on military service between 1914 and 1918.


Hon. Arthur O’Neill, the first MP killed in action in the First World War

The first MP to die was the Hon. Arthur Edward Bruce O’Neill, Unionist MP for Mid Antrim, who was killed in action near Ypres on 6 November 1914. He was remembered by his colleagues when the Commons reassembled for the start of the new parliamentary session five days later. He was the only MP to die on military service that year. Seven MPs or former MPs died in 1915 and six in 1916 – five of these were killed in September 1916, at the height of the Battle of the Somme, including two on the same day. Four died in 1917 and six in 1918. The last of these came less than a month before the end of the war, when the Hon. Charles Henry Lyell, a former MP, died from pneumonia in the United States, where he was an assistant military attaché.

The MPs and former MPs who died on military service came from across the political spectrum. Of the 24, 14 were Conservatives and Unionists, 7 were Liberals and 3 were Irish Nationalists. The youngest MP to die was the Hon. Charles Thomas Mills, who was 28 years old when he was killed in action on 6 October 1915 during the Battle of Loos, an engagement which had already claimed the lives of two other MPs, the Hon. Thomas Agar-Robartes and Lord Ninian Crichton-Stuart. Mills had been the ‘Baby of the House’ when he was elected as Conservative MP for Uxbridge in January 1910.

The oldest MP to be killed in action was twice Mills’s age. William Hoey Kearney Redmond, younger brother of the leader of the Irish parliamentary party, was 56 years old when he died of wounds sustained during the Battle of Messines in Belgium. His age and poor health meant that he spent much of his time serving behind the front line, in staff jobs, but he persuaded his superiors to allow him to take part in the attack on Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917, when he died after being wounded by shell-fire.

Redmond was the longest serving MP to be killed, having sat in the Commons since 1883. In contrast with this 34 year parliamentary career, the shortest serving MP to be killed, Oswald Cawley, had been in the Commons for less than seven months when he was killed in action in France in August 1918. Tragically, also among this group of 24 MPs was Oswald’s older brother, Harold, who was killed in action at Gallipoli on 23 September 1915.

Although MPs served in all the major theatres of war, the majority of those killed died on the Western Front: 13 in France (which included one death in a car accident) and two in Belgium. Harold Cawley was the only MP to die at Gallipoli, but another was killed in Egypt and two in Palestine, while Charles Lyell’s death in Washington D.C. was the furthest from home. The remaining four in this group died on home soil, two – Duncan Campbell and the Hon. William Walrond – from injuries or illness sustained during service in France. The only MP who died who did not serve overseas at some point was John Esmonde, the Irish Nationalist MP for Tipperary North. The second oldest MP to die, aged 53, he was serving as a captain with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Tipperary when he died of pneumonia in April 1915.

The final MP to die at home was the Hon. Francis McLaren, killed in a flying accident off the Scottish coast on 30 August 1917 while training with the Royal Flying Corps. McLaren was the only one of these 24 parliamentarians to have served in the Royal Flying Corps, although his war service had begun in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Gerald Arbuthnot, who had served in the navy as a young man, also joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at the start of the war, spending 15 months on mine-sweeping duties in the North Sea, but transferred in 1916 to the Grenadier Guards and was killed during the Battle of the Somme. All the other MPs who died served in the army.

Around two-thirds of these 24 MPs had military experience prior to 1914, whether in the regular forces, the militia, the volunteer yeomanry or the territorial forces. At least six of them had served during the Boer War, five in South Africa and one, Michael Hicks-Beach, on the island of St. Helena. One MP who had military experience before the war was Valentine Fleming. A banker by profession, he had joined the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars in 1904, where his fellow officers included Winston Churchill. A framed copy of Churchill’s obituary of Fleming in The Times was one of the most cherished possessions of Fleming’s son Ian, best known as the creator of James Bond, who was eight when his father died.


William Glynne Charles Gladstone

Several of those MPs who died came from families with strong traditions of political service. The Hon. Neil Primrose, Liberal MP for North Cambridgeshire, who died of his wounds while serving in Palestine on 15 November 1917, was the second son of the former Liberal Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery. Another notable name among the Liberal MPs who died was that of William Glynne Charles Gladstone, grandson of another former Liberal Prime Minister. He was the second MP to be killed in action. After his death in France in April 1915, his family secured permission for his body to be returned home for burial at St. Deiniol’s church, Hawarden. His case prompted Major Fabian Ware (later the vice-chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission) to secure an order from the Adjutant-General banning future repatriations, believing that all classes should be equal in death.

Gladstone is the only MP other than those who died on home soil to be buried in the British Isles. Most of the rest were buried in military or local cemeteries close to where they fell, although four have no known grave. With the recent addition of the name of Gerald Arbuthnot, these 24 men are remembered together in Parliament, on the memorial in Westminster Hall.


Parliamentary War Memorial, Westminster Hall


This marks the conclusion of this First World War blog series. The rest of the series can be found here.

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