‘The House divided’: the creation of a second division lobby for the Commons in 1836

The huge publicity given to recent parliamentary votes on Brexit has put the over-crowded division lobbies of the House of Commons in the spotlight as never before and prompted the introduction of proxy voting on a trial basis. While MPs now vote in two division lobbies, this has only been the case since 1836, as Dr. Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of our House of Commons, 1832-1945 project, explains.

The Aye lobby, House of Commons

On 22 February 1836 an historic vote took place in the House of Commons, when the second reading of the London and Brighton Railway Bill was defeated by 281 votes to 75. What made this division so significant was not the legislation involved, but the manner in which the vote took place. As the Commons Journal recorded, ‘The House divided: The Yeas to the old Lobby; The Noes to the new Lobby’. That new lobby, used for the first time in this division, had only recently been built. Before 1836, when a vote was taken, the presumed minority had gone out into the lobby, while the presumed majority had remained in the chamber to be counted. It was only from 1836 that the Commons used the system of two division lobbies which we know today.

What caused this major change in procedure? One key factor was the desire to publish an official record giving the names of MPs who had voted in each division. The official Votes and Proceedings, published by the Commons on a daily basis, did not provide full division lists. Before 1836, the publication of detailed division lists outlining how each MP had voted was due to the efforts of individual MPs, who collected this information and supplied it to the press. Radicals such as Joseph Hume were among those who took the time to gather such information but, despite their efforts, the lists published in newspapers such as The Times were often inaccurate. Key divisions, where MPs were particularly keen that their constituents should know how they had voted, were often followed by a flurry of letters from MPs to the press, correcting the record. But as The Times pointed out in March 1835,

‘we are not responsible for the accuracy of these lists. We shall be very glad when the house has discovered some plan for furnishing exact lists.’

The Commons was already considering the matter, which had been raised by Radical MPs soon after Parliament assembled for the first time after the 1832 Reform Act. Moving that the Commons should publish an official record of each division, ‘giving the name of each Member in the Majority and Minority’, the Radical Daniel Whittle Harvey declared that

‘In a Reformed Parliament he believed, that all hon. Members would be desirous that their constituents should know how they voted, and the part they took upon every occasion.’

This was particularly important for radical MPs keen to show their constituents that they were diligent representatives who were redeeming their election pledges by voting for reforms such as the ballot and reductions in taxation. It was also part of a wider move to give greater publicity to the activities of the Commons. Other MPs, however, raised concerns that it would be impossible to produce accurate division lists without causing ‘great delay’ to Commons business. Harvey’s motion was defeated, but the following year the Commons agreed to the suggestion of another Radical MP, Henry Ward, to appoint a select committee on the issue.

This committee’s preferred option was to use separate lobbies for the Ayes and the Noes, but it had to bear in mind the limited space within which the Commons operated. It therefore suggested instead that the usual tellers in divisions should be accompanied by two clerks – one would call aloud MPs’ names while the tellers counted them, and the other would write the names down. The presumed majority who stayed in the House would be dealt with first, bench by bench, and those who went out into the lobby would be recorded as they returned into the chamber. Despite some opposition – including from the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel – in July 1834 the Commons voted by 76 to 32 to implement the committee’s recommendations that session.

The system was swiftly abandoned after a discouraging first attempt at taking three divisions using the new procedure on 17 July 1834. Some Members appear to have resisted the change, behaving in an ‘offensive’ manner towards Joseph Hume when he tried to record their names. In addition, although the largest of these divisions involved only 105 MPs, the new system failed to produce a completely accurate division list – the name of one MP who voted on the first division was omitted. It was agreed the following day to abandon the experiment. Hume himself argued that reform in this area was impossible without changes to the fabric of the House.

The destruction of much of the old Palace of Westminster during the devastating fire of October 1834 gave MPs the opportunity to make such changes. The Commons moved into the chamber previously used by the House of Lords (the former Court of Requests), and in March 1835 a fresh select committee was appointed to consider the question. Its report in May unanimously endorsed the two lobby system, and the building committee overseeing the temporary accommodation of the Commons agreed that there should be two lobbies. The architect, Sir Robert Smirke, estimated that an additional lobby could be constructed within a fortnight at a cost of £600.

Commons Journal, 22 Feb. 1836

The building of this second lobby took place during the parliamentary recess. In October 1835 the Morning Post reported that ‘surveyors are daily employed measuring the grounds and preparing their plans for the intended new buildings’, which included ‘the square boarded temporary erections, intended to communicate with the House of Commons, and form a division lobby’. This work appears to have been completed before the Commons reassembled on 4 February 1836. Two weeks later, MPs adopted the resolutions needed to implement the new arrangements. Peel complained that the extra clerks required would cause expense, but had ‘no objection to try the experiment’, which could always be reversed. Fittingly, Henry Ward and Joseph Hume, who had been such keen advocates of the second lobby, were the tellers for the Noes in the first division under the new system. An attempt in March 1836 by the Conservative MP James Barlow Hoy to reverse this reform gained no support. A second division lobby became integral to the Commons, and was one of the areas of Charles Barry’s new Palace which MPs inspected carefully when they tested their new chamber for the first time in May 1850.

Further reading:

  • K. Rix, ‘“Whatever passed in Parliament ought to be communicated to the public”: reporting the proceedings of the reformed Commons, 1833-50’, Parliamentary History, 33:3 (2014), 453-74.
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Execution of Charles I – ‘King-killer’: the Making of a Regicide

In the fourth in our series on the tumultuous events of the winter of 1648-9, and following on from the trial of Charles I, we turn now to the consequence of a guilty verdict.  Dr Patrick Little of the House of Commons 1640-1660 considers the process whereby one MP became a signatory to the death warrant for Charles I, executed at Whitehall on this day 370 years ago, 30 January 1649…

King Charles I’s death warrant was signed on 29 January 1649 by 59 men; no doubt there were 59 individual reasons for doing so.  One might mention the army radicals, such as Oliver Cromwell, committed republicans, including Henry Marten, or religious zealots, like Sir John Bourchier, or Edmund Ludlowe, whose rationale for ‘Delivering justice’ was quoted in the previous post in this series.  But rather than attempt to provide a group portrait, this post concentrates on the experience of one man, Sir Hardress Waller.  How did a fairly unremarkable country gentleman become a king-killer?

Circled is the signature of Sir Hardress Waller on the death warrant of Charles I – courtesy of Wikimedia

Sir Hardress Waller’s background made him an unlikely revolutionary. Born in Kent in 1604, the son of a well-established gentry family, in 1629 he married the daughter of Sir John Dowdall, an Old English (but nevertheless Protestant) landowner from co. Limerick, and acquired an interest in extensive estates on the Shannon Estuary.  Waller soon became closely involved with his new Irish relatives and neighbours, and was elected to the Irish Parliament in 1634 and 1640.  He went on to join the attack on the unpopular lord lieutenant, the 1st earl of Strafford (Sir Thomas Wentworth), travelling to Westminster to assist the prosecution in 1641 – a move that was supported by all the different communities across Ireland, whether Catholic or Protestant.  This spirit of cooperation came to an abrupt end in the following October, when the Irish Catholics rebelled against the government.  Many of Waller’s former friends and allies among the Old English gentry joined the insurgents. His estate was robbed by the rebels in January 1642 and a few weeks later it fell into enemy hands, with Waller losing (by his own estimate) goods, livestock and lands worth over £11,000.

The trauma of rebellion, and the years of bitter warfare that followed, had a huge impact on Waller.  He was thrown into the thick of the fighting in Munster, first as a field officer and then as governor of the city of Cork.  He was a vigorous opponent of the king’s efforts to broker a ceasefire with the Irish rebels in the autumn of 1643, and joined the defection of the Munster Protestants to Parliament in July 1644.  Afterwards, he went to England as the agent of the Protestant commander of Munster, Murrough O’Brien, Lord Inchiquin. Waller received a warm reception – not least from his cousin, the parliamentarian general Sir William Waller – and when the New Model army was created in the spring of 1645 he was given command of a regiment of foot. He fought at the decisive victory of Naseby in June of the same year.

Service with the New Model seems to have had a profound impact on Waller, religiously as well as politically.  His zealous enthusiasm for Parliament’s cause was noted at the siege of the Catholic stronghold of Basing House, Hampshire, in October 1645, when he led his regiment againat the most heavily defended outworks and was wounded.  The change in Waller’s attitude is also apparent in a letter of 4 December 1645 written to his old Munster friend, Sir Philip Percivalle, in which he praised the rising star of the New Model: ‘tis certain our greatest hopes for Ireland is from this army, about which I have had many free and serious discourses with Lieutenant-General Cromwell, whose spirit leads much that way’ [HMC Egmont, i. 264-5].  Waller’s approval of Oliver Cromwell was a sign of things to come.  In October 1647 Waller was named to a committee of officers to consider the The Case of the Army Truly Stated  – the political manifesto tendered by radical agitators within its regiments – and played a key role in the ‘Putney Debates’ that followed.  Interestingly, by this stage he was advocating use of the threat of force to bargain with the king or the Parliament, advising the army ‘to let them know that these are our rights, and if we have them not, we must get them the best way we can’ [The Clarke Papers ed. C.H. Firth, Camden Society (1857-1936), i. 344]. Waller was also involved in the purge of the Commons in December 1648, when he joined Colonels John Hewson and Thomas Pride in arresting ‘malignant’ MPs as they entered the House.  William Prynne, a particular enemy of the army, protested, and was treated roughly on the steps of the Commons:

Colonel Pride thrusting him down before, Sir Hardress Waller and others laying hands on, and pulling him down forcibly behind, to the court of requests’ great door.  Mr Prynne thereupon demanded by what authority and commission and for what cause they did thus violently seize on, and pull him down from the House.  To which Pride and Waller, showing him their armed soldiers standing round about him with their swords, muskets, and matches lighted, told him, that there was their commission.

Old Parliamentary History, xviii. 448-9

Pride’s Purge of the Commons was followed by further debates by the army as to the next move.  In mid-December Waller was involved in the army’s discussion of a new constitution, the Agreement of the People.  As before, he was impatient that a far-reaching solution should be reached, for ‘if there be not need of an agreement now, there never was since the sons of men were upon earth’ [Clarke Papers. ii. 180-1].  In the meantime, there was one outstanding item of business of the political agenda: the trial of the king.  In early January 1649 Waller was selected as a commissioner for the high court of justice.  He attended the trial proceedings 21 times – as many as Hewson or Cromwell – and he was present on 27 January, when sentence was passed.  On 29 January Waller signed Charles I’s death warrant, and the king was brought to the block a day later.

The Execution of Charles I, artist unknown

Waller’s support for the regicide marked the end of a long process of radicalisation.  In less than a decade he had shifted his position many times: initially a conservative Anglo-Irish landowner with strong connections with the Catholic population, he became a commander of Irish Protestant forces locked in an existential battle against the Catholic insurgents; thereafter he was a zealous New Model officer and supporter of Oliver Cromwell, eventually becoming an out-and-out revolutionary, willing not only to purge Parliament but also to pass the death sentence against his king.  Even contemporaries recognised there was something unusual about the metamorphosis of Sir Hardress Waller.  As one hostile witness put it, he was ‘sometimes [a] Cavalier, then a violent Presbyterian, and now a tyrannical Independent’ [Clement Walker, Anarchia Anglicana (1661), 30 (BL, E.1052.2)].

The regicide caste a long shadow over Waller’s later career.  Although he enjoyed considerable influence in Ireland in the 1650s, and was elected as MP for cos. Limerick, Kerry and Clare in the three Union Parliaments, when the Cromwellian state collapsed he was treated with increasing suspicion by others within the Irish Protestant community.  Faced with the certainty of the Restoration of the monarchy in early 1660, Waller mounted desperate coup attempt, briefly capturing Dublin Castle, but he was soon ousted by his former allies.  Waller escaped to the continent but returned to faced trial, and was himself sentenced to death, commuted to life imprisonment.  He died, disillusioned and disappointed, in Mont Orgueil Castle, Jersey, in 1666.

Meanwhile, the republic to which the regicide had given birth had been short-lived.  This will be the subject of our final blog in the series, to appear on 7 February.


Further Reading:

The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I, ed. Jason Peacey (2001)

Biographies of the following MPs are being researched and written by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section: Sir John Bourchier, Oliver Cromwell, John Hewson, Edmund Ludlowe, Henry Marten, Sir Philip Percivalle, Thomas Pride, William Prynne, Clement Walker, Sir Hardress Waller, Sir William Waller.

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Taking control: Speaker William Lenthall, precedent and the Long Parliament

In the midst of extraordinary times at Westminster, Dr Vivienne Larminie of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section looks at the response of a pioneering Speaker to the unprecedented challenges of the mid-seventeenth century...

On 4 January 1642, in one of the most dramatic and iconic moments in the history of Parliament, Charles I arrived at Westminster with an armed guard.  Having entered the Commons chamber, he either occupied the Speaker’s chair or stood in front of it – accounts differ – and enquired as to the whereabouts of John Pym and Denzil Holles, two of the five MPs he intended to arrest because of their opposition to his policies.  At first, said diarist Sir Simonds D’Ewes, ‘nobody answered him’, whereupon Charles ‘pressed the Speaker to tell him’.  Warned of the king’s approach, William Lenthall had crafted a courteous but evasive reply: ‘kneeling down’ he ‘did very wisely desire his majesty to pardon him, saying that he could neither see nor speak but by command of the House’ [Private Journals, i. 9-10, 13].  Charles, registering with his own eyes that ‘all the birds are flown’, had little option but to beat a humiliating retreat.

attempted arrest of the five members (c. w. cope)
Attempted Arrest of the Five Members (C. W. Cope, mural in Palace of Westminster)

The Commons chamber was supposed to be one place where dissenting views could be voiced safely, but in the past the rare personal presence of the monarch had been sufficient to silence them.  With Charles’s departure, tension doubtless eased, although leaving apprehension and perplexity as to what would happen next.  Speaker Lenthall’s handling of a potentially dangerous situation won praise from MPs.   However, his diplomatic words masked the extent to which, a year or so into his job, complex and unusual circumstances had already led him to exercise his own initiative.  That initiative was sometimes controversial among his colleagues.

Ironically, Lenthall had been the king’s choice for Speaker, albeit from a limited pool of available candidates.  Charles could not have anticipated, however, that Lenthall’s tenure of the speakership would be long-lasting and involve many momentous judgements.  Previous Parliaments had often been brief, and, when opposition to crown policies threatened to get out of control, they had been terminated.  Charles himself had managed without Parliament for eleven years after March 1629 and the Parliament which met in April 1640 lasted only three weeks.  But from the autumn of 1640 the cumulative effects of rebellion in his three different kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland made him financially dependent on Parliament, prolonged its life, and allowed its Members to flex their muscles.

Lenthall presided over what became known as the Long Parliament from 3 November 1640 to the dissolution on 20 April 1653, and again when it returned between May 1659 and March 1660.  In that time, there was only one significant recess (8 September-20 October 1641) and two ‘interruptions’ in 1647 and 1659. Business regularly began at 8.00 a.m. (sometimes earlier) and often stretched well into the afternoon, by candlelight in winter.  By late 1641, against the backdrop of an escalating uprising in Ireland and unrest on the streets of London, Lenthall, who had no deputy, was feeling the strain.  On 20 November he complained that ‘he had sitten very late yesterday night, and that it was now past four [p.m.], and that he could not hold out to sit daily seven or eight hours’ [Journal of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, 172-3], while a fortnight later he later claimed – without too much exaggeration – that, in eleven months of proceedings, he had served ‘without intermission (scarce) of a day, nay an hour in that day to the hazard of life and fortune’ [The Speech of Master Speaker before his Majesty (1641) (BL, E.199.36)].

Sometimes he displayed irritation or frustration.  On 20 April 1642, most unusually arriving 45 minutes after the scheduled start of business, he incurred a one shilling fine.  Sir Henry Mildmay’s ‘insolent’ observation that ‘he did hope thereafter he would come on time’ apparently provoked the Speaker to ‘throw down 12d upon the table’ [Private Journals, ii. 190].  On another occasion, in an outburst ‘unworthy of himself and contrary to the duty of his place’, he ‘fell upon … with very sharp language’ the elderly MP William Jesson, who had been ‘harassed by hot spirits’ into a vote Lenthall thought ill-considered [Private Journals, iii. 295].  Sometimes there were heated exchanges, as when Lenthall and Sir Arthur Hesilrige (one of the MPs sought by the king in January 1642) clashed over when it was legitimate to interrupt speeches.  Sometimes D’Ewes, who habitually sat near the Speaker’s chair, found him susceptible to pressure from the ‘fiery spirits’ who drove more militant policies in the House.  On the whole, however, Lenthall appears to have been robust and restrained.

william lenthall (unknown artist)
William Lenthall (unknown artist)

He was certainly capable of seeking consensus.  In complex situations he was seen to consult about how to frame questions to be put to the vote. When debate stalled, as in February 1641 over a response to petitioning for the abolition of bishops, he ‘desired to divert the question, and seeing now what the general sense of the House was, he had drawn an order which he conceived would settle this business’ [Proceedings Long Parliament, ii. 400-1].  He requested firm decisions.  On 9 March ‘the Speaker stood up and desired that we might not run from one business to another but first determine somewhat’ [Proceedings Long Parliament, ii. 679].  When debate was protracted, as it was that April, during consideration of the ‘miseries’ in Yorkshire arising from the presence of a royal army to counter the Scottish incursion, he rebuked the many MPs leaving the chamber: they were ‘unworthy to sit in a Parliament that would so run forth for their dinners leaving businesses of such great weight’ [Proceedings Long Parliament, iv. 113].

But Lenthall could also influence the direction of debate and the progress of legislation, and, as novel situations occurred, set important precedents, gaining in confidence and skill the longer he occupied the chair.  In February 1642, as the Lords and Commons reacted to the king’s departure from London and the centre of government by discussing a Militia Ordinance which would assert parliamentary control of the army and of fortifications – thus encroaching on what had previously belonged to the royal prerogative – Lenthall deflected objections ‘that it were a dangerous move to pass this as an act of Parliament’ and hurried the bill on its way [Private Journals, i. 411].  He proposed the successful motion that suitable officers be nominated to the committee for the militia, and once the Lords had approved the Ordinance, blocked any re-reading – and possible unpicking – by the Commons.  This measure ensured Parliament’s ability to take to the field when civil war broke out the following August.

Since the early days of the Long Parliament there has been controversy over the extent to which Lenthall favoured different factions and accepted bribes to prioritise particular business.  His alleged corruption or pocketing of ‘cash for questions’ would occupy a post by itself.  In the meantime, there seems little doubt that the Speaker who professed himself to Charles I as a mere mouthpiece of the House, and who is a very shadowy presence in its official Journals, was judged by some contemporaries and is revealed by other evidence to have played a directional role in ‘all that time of wonderful distraction’ [W. Sanderson, A compleat history of the life and raigne of King Charles  (1658), 26].


Further reading:

 Proceedings in the Opening Session of the Long Parliament, ed. M. Jansson (7 vols. 2000-)

Private Journals of the Long Parliament ed. W. H. Coates et al. (3 vols. 1982-1992)

 The Journal of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, ed. W.H. Coates (1970)

The House of Commons 1640-1660 section is currently preparing biographies of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Denzil Holles, William Lenthall, Sir Henry Mildmay, John Pym and William Jesson.

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Keeping up appearances: make do and mend in the old Palace of Westminster

Ahead of the first Parliaments, Politics and People seminar of the New Year at the IHR this evening, Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the House of Lords 1715-1790 Section gives us a taster of his seminar paper from our last meeting before Christmas – interior design and the eighteenth century Palace of Westminster…

In October 1834 the old palace of Westminster suffered a devastating fire that gutted the House of Lords and severely damaged the Commons. The principal ‘ancient’ parts of the palace to survive the blaze were Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower and the old mediaeval cloister. For many, the fire was a convenient opportunity finally to put in hand the long-wished-for rebuilding of the crumbling mediaeval relic. Throughout the 18th century rather than agree to costly projects to redesign Parliament, officials had opted to patch, mend and alter as necessary. By the end of the century this had left the complex still more labyrinthine and, thanks to some fairly flimsy theatrical additions by James Wyatt, highly vulnerable to fire.

The refusal to grasp the nettle and design a new ‘fitting’ structure was in some ways at odds with the spirit of the age. During the 18th century significant areas of London were developed, notably by some of the great aristocratic families who increasingly opted to reside in substantial town-houses when in London in preference to making do with temporary lodgings. By contrast, some commentators were pointedly dismissive of the unimpressive, ramshackle palace of Westminster, which they felt did not adequately reflect the image of an increasingly confident imperial Britain. Samuel Molyneux found both Lords and Commons underwhelming, observing that their chambers were ‘handsome enough but have nothing remarkable’. Only the galleries in the Commons, erected by Sir Christopher Wren attracted much in the way of praise. However, in spite of occasional reports in the press that a new palace was to be erected no such plan came to fruition.

Cost and the complexities of negotiating with any number of vested interests in order to acquire the necessary permissions to demolish the old structure and create a new one, were no doubt the main reasons why Parliament was not rebuilt in the 18th century. But it is possible, too, that the regular round of refurbishment and provision of new fabrics and furnishings also helped to disguise the extent of the palace’s problems. Details of the materials ordered in at the beginning of each session offer an insight into the practicalities of maintaining Parliament within a crumbling mediaeval edifice.

In advance of most sessions, and sometimes in the midst of them, orders were despatched to the royal office of the removing wardrobe for a variety of ‘necessaries’ for the chambers and associated offices located within the palace. These ranged from large quantities of fabric for re-upholstering the benches, curtain material and wall hangings, to more mundane (but no less important) items like candlesticks, fire-tongs and bellows. In 1661 two chairs were commissioned for the House of Lords, one of them for use by the duke of York (the future James II), which were to be covered with crimson velvet, picked out with gold parchment lace, and secured with gold gilt nails. More prosaically, their lordships were also to be given six close stools (with twelve pans) and six chamber pots.

There was clear colour-coding apparent within the palace, which continues to be a feature to this day, but there were far more varieties on display than just greens and reds. The lord great chamberlain was granted 30 yards of ‘striped stuff’ for curtains in his apartments while the stool room (otherwise known as the bog house) was equipped with a yellow ground carpet. Chairs were upholstered in elaborate ‘Turkey-work’. The kinds of fabric employed were often lush and expensive: gold ‘galloone’ lace for royal furniture in the Lords and velvet for the Lords. More hard-wearing fabrics like baize, canvas, say and serge were employed for covering benches and providing hangings. These all demonstrate clearly that this was a colourful world, somewhat removed from the sombre monochrome hues suggested by film representations of Parliament such as that depicted in The Favourite.

If a grand scheme for rebuilding the palace was never realized, and problems masked with constant refreshment of soft furnishings, frequent alterations made Westminster an increasingly eccentric complex as the years passed. Galleries were erected in the Commons in the 1690s, but similar attempts to increase the seating capacity of the old House of Lords were less successful and lasted for just a few years before being torn down. Temporary offices were erected and removed and the interior layout of the palace adapted when necessary. In 1703 the staircase leading to the Prince’s Chamber was refashioned so that the chronically unwell (and by that point barely mobile) Queen Anne could more easily be manoeuvred up it in her sedan chair. Five years later, a wall had to be broken down by the stone stairs in Old Palace Yard so that the cortege of the queen’s consort, Prince George of Denmark, could be squeezed out on its way to Westminster Abbey for his funeral.

Towards the end of the 18th century more substantial alterations were made to the exterior of the palace, largely overseen by James Wyatt, who erected the much-mocked castellated additions to the House of Lords. These were then followed up over the next few years by more durable additions by John Soane. One of Soane’s most significant changes was the destruction of the by then thoroughly decrepit old House of Lords (the Lords having earlier decamped to the former Court of Requests). A few years later the great fire offered the modernizers an unrivalled opportunity to do more than patch, mend and adapt, and at last to replace the amorphous mediaeval palace with a purpose-built home for Parliament.


Further Reading:

The National Archives, LC5 (Lord Chamberlain’s papers)

History of the King’s Works, ed. Howard Colvin (6 vols.)

Caroline Shenton, The Day Parliament Burned Down

Posted in 18th Century history, Conferences/seminars, Early modern history, Royal family | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Speaker-Elect Makes a Quick Escape from the Parliamentary Turmoil caused by England’s Precipitous Exit from Europe

In light of the recent controversy surrounding the current Speaker of the House of Commons and his position on Brexit, Dr Linda Clark, Editor of the House of Commons 1422-1504 Section discusses how Agincourt veteran, Sir John Popham narrowly escaped assuming the daunting task of Speaker nearing the turbulent end of the Hundred Years’ War…

A chronicler laconically remarked of 1449 that ‘This yere the kynge helde his Parlement … and was all Normandy loste’. When Parliament assembled on 6 November it was promptly moved to Blackfriars away from the ‘infected air’ at Westminster, but the miasma did not all stem from the plague. Quantities of hot air were directed against Henry VI’s government as news reached the MPs that Charles VII had reopened the war in France, and that the depleted English garrisons in Normandy were ignominiously succumbing to his armies. The capital at Rouen had surrendered on 29 October, and the only possibility of avoiding total expulsion from northern France was for a substantial force to be immediately dispatched across the Channel; that required swift grants of subsidies by the Commons.  On 8 November they presented as their Speaker Sir John Popham, one of the Members from Hampshire, whose long and distinguished military career amply qualified him to frame a response to the crisis.

Knighted on the field at Agincourt 34 years earlier, since 1415 Popham had served as a commander of castles, chancellor of Normandy, chamberlain and councillor to the regent and lieutenant of France, and diplomatic envoy to negotiate truces with the French. As the lord of estates in Normandy he could style himself ‘seigneur et baron de Thorigny’, and he had a personal stake in the continuation of the close and long-held ties between duchy and kingdom.  Thought to have been one of just three veterans of the 1415 campaign present in the Parliament, none of his companions knew at first hand as much as he did about the French conquest and the hard struggle to maintain it under Henry V and since that king’s death. His nomination may thus have been intended as a symbolic gesture to signal the Commons’ disgust at how the government had handled French affairs of late, compared with the ‘glory days’ of the past.

It was common form for the Speaker-elect to refer modestly to his own inadequacy and request to be passed over, so it is not surprising that Popham formally declined the office, ostensibly on the grounds of old age and debilitation owing to the hardships of war –expressly ‘debilitate sui corporis guerrarum fremitibus, ipsius Domini Regis et Patris sui obsequiis, ac diversarum infirmitatum vexationibus, necnon senii gravitate multipliciter depressi, considerata’. In fact, he was in his mid to late fifties, and survived for 13 years more. His real reason may have been an all too clear awareness of the daunting nature of the task of Speaker, given the parlous situation in Normandy. For the first recorded time, and uniquely in a medieval Parliament, the nominee’s expressed wish to be excused was respected:  Popham was allowed to stand down. He thus escaped the responsibility of leading the Commons in a turbulent three sessions marked by the assassination of the keeper of the privy seal, the impeachment and murder of the King’s chief minister, the duke of Suffolk, and finally, in June 1450 the collapse of order in the southern counties as defeated and mutinous soldiers fled across the Channel demanding recompense for the loss of their property and livelihoods. 

The catastrophic beginning of the end of the Hundred Years’ War fomented civil war at home.


Further reading:

Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, xii. 82.

J.S. Roskell, ‘Sir John Popham, knight banneret of Charford’, Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club, lii (1959), 43-55.

A full biography of Popham will appear in the forthcoming volumes of The Commons 1422-61.

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Samuel Peploe: scourge of the Jacobites?

In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Stuart Handley, examines the career of the fierce anti-Jacobite clergyman, Samuel Peploe, whose tub-thumping sermons against the rebels in 1715 helped gain him promotion in the early Georgian church.

Samuel Peploe was baptized in 1667, and after attending Oxford University, he was ordained a priest in 1692. In 1700 he was named as vicar of Preston in Lancashire, an area well-known for religious disaffection with its high number of Roman Catholics, non-jurors and Protestant dissenters.

Peploe came to the attention of government ministers for his brave denunciation of the Jacobite rebels during the 1715 Rebellion, when it was alleged that he had mounted the pulpit to exhort his parishioners to abjure the Pretender and remain loyal to the Hanoverian Succession. This led to various officials recommending him for promotion and in 1718 he was named to succeed Ricard Wroe as the warden of Manchester Collegiate Church (see https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2018/06/05/when-is-a-degree-not-a-degree/). However, it is possible that his most singular feat of bravery was not undertaken when the town was occupied by Jacobite forces, before the battle of Preston in November 1715. It seems that Peploe’s bravery was of a more long-standing and persistent nature and less foolhardy than has been previously portrayed. It seems that the particular denunciation marked by historians was probably delivered during the Jacobite protests which were endemic in the period before the battle of Preston when the peace was regularly disturbed by rioting and disorder. Further, it seems likely that Peploe was not actually in the town when it was occupied by Jacobite forces, as the military units and loyal townsmen withdrew from the town as the enemy approached, and joined up with the government forces commanded by Generals George Carpenter and Charles Wills. These eventually gave battle to the Jacobite forces and re-took the town. Whether present or absent, Peploe suffered severe damage to his property as his house was plundered, his horses stolen and his barn destroyed, and this cannot have made him any more charitable to the Jacobites he had regularly denounced.

Peploe, though, was able to take his revenge, in a more measured fashion, through his use of the pulpit. When the rebels were brought to trial, the government chose the most loyal venue available in Lancashire, Liverpool. When a commission of Oyer and Terminer opened there in January 1716, the Reverend Peploe was on hand to open proceedings with a sermon, published as Steadfast Affection to the Protestant Religion and the Happy Government of His Majesty King George in Opposition to the Wicked Designs of the Present Rebellion (London, 1716). He followed this up, when the routine legal courts resumed with the Spring assizes, in preaching a sermon published as God’s peculiar care in the preservation of our religion and liberties: a sermon preached at Lancaster Assizes, the 24th day of March 1716, before Judge Dormer, one of the justices of the King’s Bench at Westminster (London, 1716).

Peploe’s concern for the government and abhorrence of sedition saw him nominated bishop of Chester in 1725. During his tenure of the bishopric, he never dropped his guard over the dangers of sedition in his diocese, especially in Manchester, and remained keenly critical of Roman Catholics and non-jurors, as well as opponents among his local clergy. In November 1740 he denounced to the duke of Newcastle the poisonous nature of the news dispersed by the press. Printing presses in Manchester, Leeds and Chester were deemed the culprits, and among the remedies suggested a hike in taxation to make them more expensive.

The last Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 saw Peploe take to the pulpit once again. His address was published as Popish Idolatry a strong reason why all Protestants should zealously oppose the present rebellion: a sermon preached in the cathedral church of Chester on Sunday the 13th of October 1745, the mayor and corporation being present (London, 1745). In its aftermath, Peploe urged ministers to make some examples from Manchester to deter further opposition to the government. However, he did appeal for clemency for his son-in-law’s cousin, one James Bradshaw, requesting that his capital sentence be commuted to transportation, because Bradshaw had a ‘disorder in his head incident to his family’. Never one to relax his concerns, his last extant letter to the duke of Newcastle in February 1751, bemoaned the ‘spirit of disaffection in and about the town of Manchester’, which had been prevalent for over 40 years.

Peploe died on 21 February 1752 having prospered by his loyalty to the Hanoverian regime. His three daughters married well, while his son succeeded him as warden of Manchester and inherited an estate at Garneston in Herefordshire.


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Posted in 18th Century history, Georgian Lords, military history, religious history, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Delivering justice: the sovereignty of the people, God’s judgement and the trial of Charles I

As twists and turns in the Brexit debates at Westminster continue, in the third in our series on the momentous events of the winter of 1648-1649 Dr Vivienne Larminie of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section looks at the contentious background to the setting up of judicial proceedings against Charles I, including a unilateral assertion of sovereignty by the Commons

On 8 January 1649, in the Painted Chamber at Westminster, a high court of justice with a purpose unseen previously convened for the first time.  Its brief that day was to devise procedures for the trial in Westminster Hall of Charles I, then imprisoned at Windsor Castle.  There were precedents for incarcerating monarchs and for ensuring they would never trouble their subjects again, but there was no exact precedent for the judicial process that was contemplated – the public trial of a reigning monarch for his ‘treasonable offences’ against his own people.

The trial of Charles I, Westminster Hall, 1649

The court was the product of manoeuvring inside and outside Parliament in the month after Pride’s Purge on 6 December.  Although a trial had been advocated by army agitators and civilian radicals for some time, and indeed had been behind the purge, delivery of their agenda proved fraught with difficulty, even with a House of Commons denuded of their most obvious opponents.  The route ahead had been signalled on 20 December, when, as a condition of continuing to sit, MPs had been required to ‘take the dissent’ from [i.e. formally declare their rejection of] the vote of 5 December to continue negotiations with Charles.  On 23 December 38 MPs had been named to a committee ‘to consider how to proceed in a way of Justice against the King, and other capital Offenders’ and to ‘present their opinions thereupon to the House with all convenient speed’ [Journal of the House of Commons, vi. 102-3], but some were recognised moderates, and not all nominees turned up.  Notable among absentees were lawyers Bulstrode Whitelocke and Sir Thomas Widdrington, custodians of the great seal (which authenticated all official legislation and documentation), but they did participate in ‘a sharp debate’ in the Commons chamber, where ‘the fierce party’ identified Charles as ‘the greatest delinquent, and to be proceeded against in justice’, while others

insisted … that he was not capable of being brought to justice by his subjects, but by God alone; and that having subdued him and his party, there was no need of any thing further, but to secure the Parliament from their enemies rising against them any more: and that might be done without bringing the king to any judicial trial, a thing not read of in any history.          [Bulstrode Whitelocke, Memorials of the English Affairs (1732), 363]

In a further frank exchange of views at the Speaker’s house, ‘we consulted about settling the kingdom by the Parliament, and not to leave all to the sword’.  Here some

were wholly against any King at all, others were against having the present King, or his eldest, or second son, to be King; others were for the third son the Duke of Gloucester (who was among them [i.e. in their custody], and might be educated as they should appoint) to be made King.

Perhaps predictably, ‘they came after a long debate to no resolution at all’ [Whitelocke, Memorials, 364].  Two days later a visit from the clerk to the 23 December committee demanding their advice sent Whitelocke and Widdrington hot-foot ‘out of town purposely to avoid this business’ [Whitelocke, Memorials, 365].

Bulstroke Whitelocke (NPG)

Exactly what alternative options were on the table over this period, apart from the uncompromising package of trial, conviction, and ‘condign [i.e. deserved] punishment’ or payment in blood offered by the militants, has been debated by historians.  So have the actions and motivations of numerous MPs and peers who appeared in the Journals of Commons’ and Lords’ proceedings, and captured the attention of newspaper writers.  Surviving evidence is often ambiguous or contradictory or heavily doctored later; many participants prudently avoided leaving a paper trail.  We know, for instance, that peers including Philip Herbert, 4th earl of Pembroke, and Basil Feilding, 2nd earl of Denbigh, fruitlessly sought a deal with the king, but not precisely what the deal was, or how far it was pursued.  It has been suggested that some, perhaps most, politicians still at Westminster anticipated that Charles would recognise his weakness and accept strict limitations on his rule, and thus that a trial would simply be an exercise in brinkmanship, stopping short of handing out the death penalty.  But it is impossible to know for certain how many seriously contemplated this, or for how long.

What is beyond dispute is that the ordinance for the trial of the king passed by the Commons on 1 January 1649 was rejected by the Lords.  Or that, on 4 January, the Commons passed the ordinance with amendments, and then asserted their right to take such unilateral action.  ‘The People are, under God, the Original of all just Power’, they declared, and ‘the Commons of England, in Parliament assembled, being chosen by, and representing the People, have the Supreme Power in this Nation’.  Therefore, ‘whatsoever is enacted, or declared for Law, by the Commons, in Parliament assembled, hath the Force of Law; and all the People of this Nation are concluded thereby, although the Consent and Concurrence of King, or House of Peers, be not had thereunto’ [Journal of the House of Commons vi. 111].  On 6 January the act establishing a court of justice proclaimed it to be

notorious, That Charles Stuart, the now King of England, not content with those many Encroachments which his Predecessors had made upon the People in their Rights and Freedoms, hath had a wicked Design totally to Subvert the Ancient and Fundamental Laws and Liberties of this Nation, and in their place to introduce an Arbitrary and Tyrannical Government.

Among other means to achieve this, he had waged ‘cruel’ and destructive war on his people, during which ‘thousands’ were ‘murdered’.  For all his ‘high and treasonable Offences’ he ‘might long since justly have been brought to exemplary and condign Punishment’.  At first Parliament had hoped that ‘restraint and imprisonment of his person’ would suffice, but ‘sad experience’ had revealed that this had only encouraged ‘him and his Complices in the continuance of their evil practices, and in raising of new Commotions Rebellions and Invasions’.  To prevent ‘the like or greater inconveniences’, and ‘to the end no Chief Officer or Magistrate whatsoever may hereafter presume traiterously and maliciously to imagine or contrive the Enslaving or Destroying of the English Nation, and to expect Impunity for so doing’ a trial was necessary [Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, ed. C. H. Firth and R. S. Rait (1911), 1253-5].

Charles I at his trial, 1649 by Edward Bower

It is probable that this act differed in detail from the ordinance of 1 January, and that some of the commissioners for the trial mooted then had since been excluded, on the grounds that they would refuse or had refused to act.  Even then, however, of the 135 named on 6 January to preside, only 54 attended the planning meeting on 8 January, and of those, not all went on to participate in the trial itself, or even every day of its preliminaries.  Following his flight to the country (and subsequent return) Whitelocke was not named at all.  Philip Sydney, Viscount Lisle, a member of the 23 December committee, was appointed a commissioner, but apparently did not act, while his brother Algernon Sydney attended preliminaries in the Painted Chamber on 15 and 19 January, ‘but never in Westminster Hall’ [Sydney Papers, ed. R. W. Blencowe (1825), 54].  As he later explained, having listened ‘to what those would say, who had the directing of that business’, he ‘did positively oppose [Oliver] Cromwell, [John] Bradshawe, and others, who would have the trial go on’, concluding that ‘first the king could be tried by no court; secondly that no man could be tried by that court’ [Sydney Papers, ed. Blencowe, 237].  ‘Importuned’ by friends and hoping to ‘blunt the edge of … furious persons’ and do ‘a great deal of good’, as he later claimed, Robert Wallop attended two days of the trial itself, before giving up and leaving Cromwell ‘and the rest to themselves’ [TNA, SP29/49, f. 102].  Among ‘the rest’ was Edmund Ludlowe, who left a more conspicuous and consistent imprint than Cromwell on the records of these turbulent days at Westminster.  That self-described guardian of the public interest considered it his duty to bring ‘the author of so much blood the King to justice, as a tyrant, traytor, murderer, and enemy to the Comonwealth of England’ since ‘the Lord was pleased to strengthen the hands of all that acted therein, who thought it best that as he sinned openly, so he should be tryed, sentenced and executed in the face of the world, and not secretly made away’ [E. Ludlow, A Voyce from the Watch Tower, ed. A. B. Worden (1978), 131].

The upshot of judicial proceedings will be the subject of the next post in this series, due on 30 January.


Further reading

  • C. V. Wedgwood, A King Condemned: The Trial and Execution of Charles I (new edn. With foreword by C. Holmes, 2011)
  • C. Holmes, Why was Charles I Executed? (2007)
  • S. Kelsey, ‘King Charls His Case : The Intended Prosecution of Charles I’ Journal of Legal History xxxix (2018)

Many contemporary publications relating to events surrounding the trial – both pamphlets and newspapers – are available via the subscription resource Early English Books Online.

Biographies of John Bradshawe, Oliver Cromwell, Philip Herbert, 4th earl of Pembroke, Edmund Ludlowe, Algernon Sydney, Philip Sydney, Viscount Lisle, Robert Wallop, Bulstrode Whitelocke, and Sir Thomas Widdrington are currently being prepared by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.

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