A ‘Glorious’ Revolution?

This week the BBC’s new series ‘British History’s Biggest fibs’ tackles some of the myths surrounding the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-1689. Dr Robin Eagles casts a glance over some aspects of the revolution’s commemoration…

In July 1789 the House of Lords considered a motion introduced by Earl Stanhope for a day of national commemoration to be instituted marking the anniversary of the Glorious Revolution. A similar measure was introduced to the Commons by Henry Beaufoy. Arguing against Stanhope’s proposal, the bishop of Bangor objected that a day of commemoration already existed as 5 November was taken to mark both the discovery of the Gunpowder plot and William of Orange’s arrival at Torbay. Following a few more speeches, Stanhope’s motion was voted down in a fairly empty House by six to 13. Stanhope’s failure to convince the Lords apparently confirmed his original concern that not enough attention was being paid to a moment of such significance in Whig mythology. While notices in the contemporary press make it clear that the centenary at least was observed with considerable gusto, Stanhope’s concern is supported in part by John Wilkes’s disappointment when he visited William’s landing place at Brixham in the summer of 1772 ‘ready to fall on my knees on the sacred spot’ only to find little evidence of commemoration there either.

The Glorious Revolution has always had a contested historiography and its memorialization helps to underline a number of reasons why that might be the case. At the very outset, William of Orange had been just as unimpressed by the very modest number of those willing to invite him to England – and then by the rather slow response to his invasion from those whom he had expected to rally to his cause. The so-called ‘Immortal Seven’, who put their names to the letter of invitation, also appeared to emphasize the underwhelming appeal on which he was depending for his legitimacy. However, while their numbers may have been slight, it should not be forgotten that each promised influence over an important constituency and had greater symbolic appeal than a mere seven signatures might otherwise suggest.

Two were top-rank politicians, Henry Compton, bishop of London – who thereby brought with him a degree of support from the Church of England – and Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby, former principal minister of Charles II and a powerful figure in the north of England. Charles Talbot, 12th earl of Shrewsbury, was famous for a number of reasons – not least as a convert from Catholicism to Anglicanism – and Henry Sidney was well-known as brother of the martyred Algernon (executed in the wake of the 1683 Rye House Plot). Lord Lumley (another convert) was relatively junior but brought with him impressive influence in the north-east of England and a number of army connexions. William Cavendish, 4th earl of Devonshire, brought with him greater experience as well as a similar level of prestige in the midlands. Finally, like Sidney, Edward Russell represented another great noble family who had suffered at the hands of the Stuarts, and who could also offer significant influence in the Navy. Besides, in addition to the ‘Seven’, there was an array of colourful hangers-on who helped drive the plot forward: men like the alarmingly unpredictable Lord Lovelace or the rakish duellist, Thomas Wharton. Lovelace was a former friend of the dissolute poet earl of Rochester, and said never to have been sober since his days as a student at Wadham College, Oxford. His house at Ladye Place was used for at least some of their plotting and retained its mystique as one of the hideaways of the revolutionaries long afterwards. Wharton, composer (or rather librettist) of ‘Lilliburlero’ later liked to boast of having sung James II out of three kingdoms, and his role in the Glorious Revolution was made much of during his later career as lord lieutenant of Ireland.

Ladye Place.

If William’s level of support in England has been questioned, the very phrase ‘Glorious Revolution’ has also been the cause of dispute, partly because for some it is a distasteful epithet for a period that involved lengthy and bloody civil war. However, there is good evidence for it having been in use very soon after William’s successful invasion, so it can at least claim a certain contemporaneity. The man generally reputed to have coined the phrase was John Hampden, while speaking in a parliamentary committee in November 1689. He was not, though, the only one attempting to fashion the proceedings of the previous autumn into a manageable ‘sound-bite’. The following month Sir Henry Capel dubbed it ‘this great Revolution’ and Sir William Leveson Gower ‘this happy Revolution’: though neither caught on in quite the same way. Painting William’s triumph as ‘glorious’, however, was in no way original. The term called to mind past events – after all this was a revolution, a turning of the wheel, and thus as much a restoration as an innovation. A work of 1680 had, significantly, referred to Charles II’s return to the throne in 1660 as a ‘Glorious Revolution’; perhaps more obscurely another of 1653 had made the same claim of the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. Whether or not Hampden was conscious of these allusions, what is clear is that the phrase was current long before November 1689 and it is a mark of the special place of the 1688 Revolution that it is to this rather than to those earlier examples that the title has stuck.

The mythologizing of the Glorious Revolution is the less remarkable when one considers how other comparable events had been similarly incorporated into the nation’s ‘rich tapestry’.  But equally important too was the need to forget or at least quietly amend certain aspects of what had occurred. Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Viscount Say and Sele – prominent parliamentarian and known for his slippery politicking as ‘Old Subtlety’ – had had an inscription carved at his seat of Broughton Castle bearing the legend ‘Quod olim fuit, meminisse minime iuvat’ [There is no pleasure in the memory of the past]. After 1688 there was similar erasing of memory. James II’s former chief minister, the earl of Sunderland, wrote to William III from exile claiming boldly that the Revolution had been his doing all along – and how by his furthering James II’s unpopular policies he had ensured James’s rapid dismissal.

It is all too easy to dismiss such blatant repositioning for the fiction it was, and it is certainly true that many other false or misleading descriptions have attached to what happened in 1688/9. It was not, for example, in any way ‘bloodless’.  But for the people who risked their necks to bring over William, as well as for those who worked to oppose him, this was an historic moment – good or bad – and this is perhaps reflected in the way that it continues to resonate into modern times. Thus when in November 2008 the House of Commons debated the establishment of a ‘British Day’, Paul Holmes, the then Liberal Democrat MP for Chesterfield, when suggesting a number of events that might form the basis for commemoration included 1688 among them. Reflecting the complex nature of the event, though, he added the all-important qualification: ‘History is a bit more complicated than simple labels, such as “the Glorious Revolution”.’


Further reading:

  • Ulrich Niggemann, ‘Some remarks on the origin of the term “Glorious Revolution”’, The Seventeenth Century, xxvii (2012)
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Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Alan Macdonald, The Rhetoric of Representation: Scottish Parliamentary Commissions 1638-41

Our Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar returns tonight with a new term’s programme – so to bring you up to date, Dr Alan MacDonald (University of Dundee) reports back from his paper last year: ‘The Rhetoric of Representation: Scottish Parliamentary Commissions 1638-41’…

When the burgesses and lairds of Scotland gathered for parliamentary elections in 1639, they were participating in one of the most important elections not only in the history of Scotland but in the history of the whole of Britain and Ireland. Between 1639 and 1641, that parliament would effectively establish parliamentary sovereignty, an example followed by the opposition to Charles I in England and a crucial stage in the spread of revolution and war to the rest of Britain and Ireland.

Argyll commission 1639 (Crown copyright, NRS PA7/25/3/1)

Argyll commission 1639
(Crown copyright, NRS PA7/25/3/1)

Commissioners from 53 burghs and 29 shires carried with them their written mandates (‘commissions’) issued in the name of the electors (the councils in the burghs, the lairds in the shires). Their commissions were letters patent, recording who had been elected, granting the commissioners full powers to act on the electors’ behalf, and promising to ‘hold firm and stable without again-calling’ whatever they did in parliament.

These documents are significant for a number of reasons. They provide some evidence of how, when and by whom elections were carried out, which is rare in the Scottish context for this period. These commissions are also the first complete set to survive for most of those from before 1639 were lost. This was probably as a result of Cromwell’s removal of Scottish records in the early 1650s: they were returned at the Restoration but one of the two ships carrying them tragically sank. Finally, the commissions contain rhetorical language which provides hitherto unnoticed insights into the mood of the localities and their response to the unfolding revolution.

Most incorporate what I have termed a ‘purpose clause’, a statement of the principles that commissioners were to uphold and these statements were much more elaborate than those found in earlier commissions. It isn’t easy to characterise them all as ‘royalist’ or ‘covenanting’, for every covenanter acknowledged the legitimacy, even the divine sanction, of monarchy, while many opposing the covenant were careful to adopt at least some of the covenanters’ language. There are, however, some striking phrases suggesting a willingness to stand up and be counted.

Since statute allowed shire commissioners to be elected annually at Michaelmas, it was customary to commission them to attend all parliaments and similar meetings for the next twelvemonth. The shire of Argyll used this to assert the sovereignty of parliament by empowering its commissioners to attend all parliaments and conventions of estates along with the king or his commissioner (as was normal), but also to sit in ‘all other lawful meetings of the estates among themselves’. In other words, they might meet even if the king hadn’t summoned them. In 1641 Argyll required a replacement commissioner, and the new commission went further by empowering those elected to meet ‘in absence of his majesty or his highness’ commissioner’: in 1640, Charles I had attempted to prevent parliament from meeting by refusing to send a representative but the estates carried on regardless. In 1641, the electors of Argyll were asserting the legitimacy of that action.

Examples of royalist sentiments are also to be found. Nairnshire described Charles I as ‘his sacred majesty our dread sovereign’, while the burgh of Selkirk’s commissioners were told that they ought to promote ‘God’s glory, our sovereign lord King Charles by the grace of God king of Great Britain, France and Ireland and defender of the faith, his majesty’s sacred will and pleasure’. Seven commissions gave prominence to ‘obedience’ to the king, although the electors of Peeblesshire must have debated what word was appropriate to place before ‘of our sovereign lord’: the commission was drafted with a blank space and ‘obedience’ was added later in a different hand.

Unsurprisingly, given the significance of the issue, religion is prominent in most purpose clauses, with almost every one asserting ‘the glory of God’ as the prime directive. Thirty-nine commissions contain augmented references to religion, suggesting deliberate emphasis on the issue, using phrases such as ‘the preservation of religion’, ‘the advancement of the kingdom of Christ’ and ‘the purity of religion within this kingdom’.

So why did the authors of the commissions choose to include rhetorical language in these documents and who did they think they were addressing. That most of them were letters patent and all but one were written in Scots (the other being in Latin), provides a good basis for believing that they were read out loud. One imagines the commissioners arriving to present them to the clerks of parliament and reading them out to the other burgh and shire commissioners, officers of state and peers in Parliament Hall, providing all who were present with some flavour of the mood of the localities.

They would have heard rhetorical vocabulary selected from a common pool of traditional and innovative language, revealing the variety of responses of the burghs and shires to the revolution. Some asserted firm support for the revolution, others defiantly proclaimed their loyalty to the king, while others hedged their bets, by combining references to ‘free parliaments’ and ‘his majesty’s honour’.

Commissions are superficially formulaic documents but closer analysis reveals a much richer source than one might have expected. Finally, while Scottish commissions are less formulaic than English election indentures and were issued by the electors and carried by the representatives, rather than being issued by the sheriff and returned to Westminster, perhaps a closer examination of them might also lead to hitherto unrealised insights into English local opinion.


And join us tonight for our first Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of 2017, another with a Civil War theme. Alan Marshall (Bath Spa University) will speak on: ‘The political ideas and parliamentary career of Thomas Scot, regicide, 1645-1660’. Full details here.

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Votes for Women and the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916-17

January 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916-17, which first sat in October 1916 and reported on 27 January 1917.  Dr Mari Takayanagi, Joint Project Manager for the Vote 100 Exhibition Project, discusses the significance of the Conference for women’s suffrage.

The Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916-17 was the brainchild of Walter Long MP, President of the Local Government Board. By mid-1916, the House of Commons had been considering electoral reform for some time, without agreement. It was clear that some kind of franchise reform was necessary in order to allow men on military or naval service to vote at the next election. Many MPs were keen that men working in other militarily-useful industries should also be able to vote, and given the importance of women’s contribution to the war effort, it became necessary to at least consider whether some women should be included too. But the Commons could not agree, and Long suggested a cross-party, cross-House body to make recommendations. The Speaker was asked to chair it, which he agreed to with some reluctance, writing to Prime Minister H. H. Asquith,

I cannot pretend that I look forward to it with enthusiasm. I fear that the number and complexity of the issues, which will be raised as we proceed, will overwhelm us and it will be almost impossible to obtain anything approaching unanimity upon the more important topics which will come up for discussion. [Quoted in Rolf, p43]

Despite the Speaker’s misgivings, the Conference went on to meet successfully over 26 sittings throughout Parliament’s recess and through a change of government in December 1916. It was made up of 32 MPs and Peers, chosen by the Speaker to ensure party balance and also a balance of opinion on controversial issues such as women’s suffrage and proportional representation. As well as franchise reform, the Conference was asked to make recommendations on redistribution of seats, electoral registration, and method and cost of elections. Women’s suffrage campaigners including Millicent Fawcett lobbied the Conference members throughout, to ensure their cause was given proper consideration.

Although no formal record was made of the Conference discussions, the Speaker explained in his memoirs that he took less controversial issues first on which it was easier to get consensus, and then moved to more controversial ones, including women’s suffrage. It is also noticeable that when certain Conference members resigned who were known to be anti-suffrage (Frederick Banbury, Lord Salisbury and Robert Finlay) he appointed pro-suffragists.

A few Conference members wrote accounts afterwards, which give a flavour of the proceedings. These included Alexander MacCallum Scott MP, who gave much credit to the Speaker for his approach:

He told the Conference plainly that it was not a Parliamentary Debating Society… the Government had asked us to find a way, and we had got to find a way… From that moment he took the Conference in hand. When the two sides sat and stared blankly at each other he took the initiative and put proposals for their discussions… He had no political axe of his own to grind… and he succeeded in dominating the Conference. He created the atmosphere of conciliation. [Quoted in Pugh, p76]

One of the most dedicated women’s suffrage supporters at the Conference was Willoughby Dickinson MP. Dickinson was the only one of the Conference members with a perfect record of both attending and voting in favour in Parliamentary divisions on women’s suffrage [listed in Fair, pp294-5]. Dickinson recorded that on 10 and 11 January 1917 the Conference agreed to consider the question of women suffrage by 18 votes to 4; agreed there should be some measure of women’s suffrage by 15 votes to 6; but a motion was lost that this should be on the same terms as men, by 10 votes to 12. From his scribbled notes it also appears that they voted on motions that women should have the franchise at age 25 (no figures given), 30 (11 for, 8 against); and age 35 (12 for, 3 against). Then, by his own account:

I made my proposition that vote should go to occupiers or wives of occupiers, and this carried 9 to 8. Thus by a majority of one, suffrage clause went forward! [‘A veteran recalls the passage of the Franchise Act’, Willoughby Dickinson papers, London Metropolitan Archives F/DCK/027/28 & 29]

The Speaker duly reported that the Conference decided by a majority to recommend that the franchise be conferred on all woman who were on the local government register, or whose husbands were, provided they had reached a specified age ‘of which 30 and 35 received most favour’ [Conference report].  William Bull MP later remembered how age 30, rather than 35, was inserted during the drafting of the Representation of the People Bill in 1917:

As Parliamentary Private Secretary to Mr. Walter Long (now Lord Long), who was President of the Local Government Board at the time, I attended the meeting of the Drafting Committee. Lord Long took the Chair, and there were also present the Home Secretary and the draftsman. When we came to the question of the age, Lord Long said, “This is rubbish,” and he struck out 35, and put in 30. The Committee agreed to that. [William Bull, House of Commons Debates, 29 Feb 1924]

There was still opposition in both the House of Commons and House of Lords to women’s suffrage, but the Bill passed on a free vote in both Houses.  The Act as passed gave the vote to all men aged 21 years or older and to men on military or naval service from the age of 19. Women aged 30 or older who qualified for the local government franchise, or whose husbands did, were also given the vote. It was thought during debate that this would give the vote to about six million women, although the eventual figure was approximately 8.4 million women.  The Speaker explained later in the House of Commons that:

It was thought desirable that women and men should be somewhere about on a parity and we took the age of thirty which was the nearest we could get to make the number of women voters equal to the number of men. [The Speaker, House of Commons Debates, 4 April 1919]

The accounts of the Conference and the debates during the passage of the Act make it clear that it was not possible for Parliament to agree equal franchise in 1918 – that had to wait another ten years, until the Equal Franchise Act 1928. But despite the age and property restrictions on women, the 1918 Act was a huge concession of principle. Gender alone was no longer a barrier to voting.  As we move towards celebrating the centenary of the vote for all men and some women in 2018, we should also remember the crucial role of the Speaker’s Conference of 1916/17, which is not well remembered today, but without which the Act could never have happened. In particular credit is due to Conference members such as Willoughby Dickinson MP, and to Speaker Lowther.



This blogpost came from research for an article for a future edition of Parliamentary History, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 in February 2018; and in work done for a Vote 100 display, which can be viewed online here: www.parliament.uk/1917speakersconference

Further reading

  • Neal Blewitt, ‘The franchise in the United Kingdom, 1885-1918’, Past and Present, 32 (1965), 27-56
  • David Close, ‘The Collapse of Resistance to Democracy: Conservatives, Adult Suffrage and Second Chamber Reform, 1911-1928’, Historical Journal 20:4 (1977)
  • Conference on electoral reform: letter from Mr Speaker to the prime minister. Cd. 8463, 1917-1918
  • Hope Costley-White, Willoughby Hyett Dickinson 1859-1943: A Memoir (1956)
  • John D Fair, ‘The Political Aspects of Women’s Suffrage during the First World War,’ Albion, 8:3 (1976), 274-295
  • Millicent Garrett Fawcett, What I Remember (1924; reprinted 2004)
  • Nicoletta F. Gullace, “The Blood of our Sons”: Men, Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War (Basingstoke, 2002)
  • House of Commons Library, ‘Speaker’s Conferences’, Standard Note SN/PC/04426 (2009)
  • James William Lowther, A Speaker’s Commentaries (1925)
  • Homer Lawrence Morris, ‘Parliamentary Franchise Reform in England From 1885 to 1918’, no 2 vol XCVI in Studies in History, Economics and Public Law (New York, 1921), chapter ix
  • Martin Pugh, Electoral Reform in War and Peace 1906-18 (1978)
  • David Rolf, ‘Origins of Mr. Speaker’s Conference during the First World War’, History, 64:210, (1979) 36-46
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The election of debtors to the early Stuart House of Commons

Facing up to the consequences of Christmas spending is a common problem in January, but for some in serious financial straights the past, parliament provided a solution. Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the House of Lords 1603-60 section, tells us more about early 17th Century debtors in the Commons…

Not all of those who entered the Commons in the early seventeenth century did so from the noblest of motives.  While many were undoubtedly eager to enter St Stephen’s Chapel because they wished to serve the interests of their constituents, or to promote religious reformation, others were rather more self-serving.  Some, desirous of employment, hoped that conspicuous service in the Commons would bring them to the notice of the crown; others merely sought to continue the family tradition of sitting at Westminster.  Among the least edifying reasons for seeking election was the need to escape debtors’ prison.  In order to prevent the business of either House from being disrupted, all members of Parliament enjoyed immunity from arrest.  However, this necessary privilege created a perverse incentive for election among those who were unable or unwilling to pay off their debts.  In the Addled Parliament of 1614, at least eleven members gained seats so as to defeat their creditors.  They included such notable figures as Sir William Cavendish, returned as junior knight of the shire for Derbyshire.  Heir to the future earl of Devonshire, Cavendish racked up enormous debts because he declined to restrict his spending to his formal allowance.  Other conspicuous spendthrifts who sought refuge in the Commons that year included both representatives for Lancashire, Sir Cuthbert Halsall and Sir Thomas Gerrard, 1st bt.  In 1625 the Devon gentleman Arthur Bassett was actually languishing in debtors’ prison when he was elected to serve for the Cornish borough of Fowey.

In theory, it was illegal for those who had been outlawed for debt to serve in the Commons.  As early as the mid fifteenth century the judges had ruled ‘that matter of outlawry was a sufficient cause of dismission of any member out of the House’.  However, despite the risk of damage to its reputation, the Commons consistently refused to expel outlaws.  In 1559, for example, they declared that John Smith, though outlawed, ‘should still continue a member of the House’, while in 1593 they refused to unseat Thomas Fitzherbert, even though he had twenty-two judgments against him for debt.  During the early seventeenth century the only debtors to whom the Commons denied admittance were Sir William Cope, elected for Banbury in 1625 despite having been put in execution for debt, and Sir Thomas Monck, returned for Camelford in 1626 while in prison.

The Commons’ reluctance to root out those of its members who had been outlawed for debt was not entirely unreasonable, as the case of Ferdinand Huddleston, returned for Cumberland in 1624 despite there being twenty-four outlawries against him, demonstrates. During the debates on this case in the Commons’ committee for privileges, it was observed that outlawry ‘may happen to the best man in a county’. Most men of means needed credit at some time or another, if only to tide them over until the next quarterly rents were due. Under such circumstances, it was understandable if payments to creditors were sometimes late and court action ensued.  Members of the committee also observed that it was wrong to deprive the commonwealth of the services of those deemed most able by their electors to serve in Parliament for something as trivial as debt.  They also noted that ‘outlawries … are for the most part gotten behind men’s backs and without their privity’.  This fear, that members ambushed by their creditors might find themselves expelled from the Commons, was of long standing, for in 1604 a bill to prohibit ‘lurking and secret outlawries’ received two readings.

In essence, the House of Commons believed that its composition should be decided by electors rather than by private moneylenders.  However, the crown took a starkly different view.  In 1604 the new king, James I, issued a proclamation forbidding the election of outlaws to the forthcoming Parliament, ‘for wee may well foresee, how ill effects the bad choice of unfit men may produce, if the House should bee supplied with Bankrupts and necessitous persons that may desire long parliaments for their private protections’.  James was almost certainly encouraged to issue this proclamation by the lord chancellor, Lord Ellesmere, who believed that outlaws were unfit to be lawmakers and that it was the role of Chancery, not the Commons, to determine who was eligible to sit at Westminster.  During the course of the ensuing parliamentary elections, Sir Francis Goodwin was returned for Buckinghamshire, only to be disqualified by the attorney general on the (mistaken) grounds that he was an outlaw and replaced by the privy councillor Sir John Fortescue.  However, in the ensuing struggle between the Commons on the one hand and the king and the privy council on the other, it was the latter who came off worse.  The Commons, horrified that ‘a chancellor may call a Parliament of what persons he will, by this course’, declined to turn their attention to the king’s plan to unite the kingdoms of England and Scotland until their claim to jurisdiction was upheld. Faced with the prospect of unwelcome opposition to his pet project, an alarmed James was forced to concede that the lower House, as well as Chancery, was entitled to validate returns.  In so doing, he effectively handed victory to the Commons, whose right to determine the outcome of elections was never again challenged by Chancery.  The Commons thereupon quietly abandoned their promise to pass legislation that would prohibit outlaws from sitting in future.  To have done otherwise would have been tantamount to making a rod for their own backs.


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Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Philip Aylett, ‘The political origins and impact of Commons select committees: some 20th century case studies’

Dr Philip Aylett (House of Commons/Queen Mary, University of London) reports back from his ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar paper last year: ‘The political origins and impact of Commons select committees: some 20th century case studies’…

In a paper delivered to the seminar on 29 November I talked about the role of committees in Parliament, and especially in the House of Commons. I said that, in particular, select committees – cross-party groups of MPs or peers, often asked by the Commons or Lords to inquire into and report on specific questions or issues, often in relation to government policy and administration –  had been a fundamental and often highly active part of life in both Houses since the early days of Parliament.  The Victorian era had then seen a great flowering of committee activity on both private and public matters.

In the last century or so select committees have been largely or exclusively composed of backbench MPs, giving these Members scope to influence events and policy. That was important, I argued, because it had implications for the relationship between government and Parliament.

I went on to trace the 20th century history of investigatory select committees, and to ask why they almost disappeared from view between the First World War and 1960. This remained something of a mystery, but the popularity of party committees of MPs on specific policy areas may have had something to do with it.  The paper argued that, by the late 1950s, some of the key functions of Parliament, including the task of holding Ministers to detailed account for their performance in office through select committee scrutiny, had become weakened.

Then I concluded by contending that since the mid-1960s select committees had grown gradually stronger and more effective, in ways that made them, today, politically and even constitutionally important. Along the way I picked out political events that helped select committees to grow in significance, turning up some unlikely and perhaps unintentional heroes of parliamentary reform, including Harold Wilson and Edward Heath.

Along with others, these party leaders of the mid-60s developed a realistic and workable model of select committees that would be attractive to the modern MP; this would concentrate on scrutiny through inquiry and report and would avoid the burdensome tasks of legislative drafting and budget setting and financial monitoring.  I also suggested that the revival of select committees after 1966 or so had been encouraged by the influx of a more highly-educated cadre of MPs, especially on the Labour side; these Members might be considered better equipped than previous cohorts to take on analysis of policy and administration.

The discussion was lively. Dr Philip Salmon of the History of Parliament thought that I had been too kind to many of the 19th century committees and had conflated ‘modern’ investigatory committees with earlier Commons bodies with different and not always commendable roles. Dr Paul Hunneyball made similar points in relation to the 17th century.  Professor George Jones suggested that the modern committees were too fond of grandstanding and could be seen as unconstitutional, inflating the role of the MP and undermining the proper function of government. Committees should avoid second-guessing Ministers on policy issues, he felt, because most MPs had been elected to support the governing party and its policies.


Watch this space for next term’s ‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ seminar schedule!

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Review of the year 2016

It’s been yet another busy year here at the History of Parliament Trust. By far the most exciting event was the publication in July of our very first volumes focussing on the Upper House. The House of Lords 1660-1715, published in five volumes, features the biographies of nearly 700 spiritual and temporal peers, along with an introductory survey. The volumes are now available through Cambridge University Press and you can read some tasters in our ongoing blog series.

Organisationally, there was a big change for us this year as Patrick, Lord Cormack, our Chair of Trustees for fifteen years, stood down. Our new Chairman, Gordon Marsden MP, paid tribute to Lord Cormack’s chairmanship, stating that he has left the Trust ‘far more prominent today both within Parliament and outside it’. We look forward to a new era under Gordon Marsden, who has been MP for Blackpool South since 1997, is the co-Chair of Parliament’s All-Party Arts and Heritage Group and a former Editor of the magazine History Today.

We’ve held some great events this year, beginning in April with our conference, ‘Speaking in Parliament: History, politics, rhetoric’ in collaboration with Professor Christopher Reid (Queen Mary, University of London). The conference was dedicated to the art and history of parliamentary rhetoric, and we held a taster session in Parliament the following month.  In November, our own Dr Robin Eagles co-organised a successful day-long workshop with King’s College, London, on ‘Henry Bennet: the earl of Arlington and his world’.

Also this year we’ve had a highly enjoyable programme at our ‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ seminar over at the Institute of Historical Research, including two papers from our Director, Paul Seaward, and our annual lecture, from Professor the Lord Morgan, celebrated the anniversary (to the very minute!) of David Lloyd George becoming Prime Minister in 1916. To celebrate this year’s Parliament Week we held two virtual events: a popular blog series on ‘Unlikely Parliamentarians’ throughout the years, and our first ever live Twitter Q&A on parliamentary history. There will be plenty of opportunity to come along to a History of Parliament event in 2017, with a conference planned in November on Popular Sovereignty to mark the anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, and a number of talks and lectures planned in parliament. Watch this space for more!

We celebrated more achievements from students, at school and university. Our 2015 A level competition winner was treated to a tour of Westminster before receiving his prize in April, and 2016’s joint dissertation competition winners were presented with their prizes at our annual lecture this month. More news on this year’s schools competitions soon, and we’re delighted that so many of you are using our KS3 resources.  There’s also still plenty of time to enter submissions as well for Parliamentary History’s 2017 prize for early career academics.

Aside from all of this our sections have been continuing with their research, revisions and preparing for publication, but our researchers have still been able to update you on their findings and give some historical insights into what has been a dramatic year in politics. We discussed 17th Century impeachment in the light of Brazil’s politics, reflected on by-elections and many aspects of the European Referendum and aftermath through insights from our oral history project; a series on party splits; medieval relations with Europe and some reflections on precedents used in the High Court’s recent ruling. We’ve celebrated different anniversaries, from the First Gulf War, the Suez Crisis and the Repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. Stephen Roberts, editor of the 1640-60 section, wrote a series on the trials of ‘Writing Parliamentary Biographies’, and Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons has continued her look at MPs who died fighting the First World War.

We’ve now interviewed over 150 MPs for our national oral history project, and 139 of these have been deposited at the British Library. A great big thank you to all of our volunteers helping us with our sound archive.

Happy New Year to you all, and here’s to another great year in 2017!


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‘A good preparation for Christmas’: Revolution and Augustan Yuletides

Christmas cheer at times came a distant second to political intrigue for those featured in our recently published volumes, The House of Lords 1660-1715. Dr Robin Eagles and Dr Charles Littleton tell us more…

Christmas was not always a time of mirth and celebration at the English royal court in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Christmas of 1688 was marked by a severe political crisis, as in the two weeks leading up to the day itself the Catholic king James II lost his nerve, and ultimately his kingdom, in the face of William of Orange’s invasion and march on the capital. James’s first attempt at flight had failed when he was recognized at Faversham and brought back to London on 16 December to an (ironically) enthusiastic public reception. William responded by sending a detachment of his troops into the capital to secure the royal palaces, and a delegation of English peers to persuade James to leave the palace, ostensibly ‘for his own safety’. James had little choice but to agree and travelled to Rochester under Dutch escort. In the early hours of 23 December he slipped away and was this time able to make his way to France, with the tacit encouragement of William, who wanted him out of the country.

For James’s own brother-in-law, Henry Hyde, 2nd earl of Clarendon, Christmas Eve was hardly a day of festivity.  After learning of the king’s flight, he lamented in his diary ‘Good God! What will become of this poor, distracted and distempered nation? … It is like an earthquake’. He was one of the peers and bishops of the realm that had been meeting at William’s request since James’s departure. The session of 24 December was particularly long, lasting from the morning until half past five in the evening, and it became hot-tempered as the discussion quickly turned to the circumstances of James’s escape and whether it constituted a voluntary abdication of the throne. ‘A good preparation for Christmas’, commented Clarendon wearily. The Lords met again on Christmas Day, but their proceedings were mercifully briefer, as the main business was to present William with addresses requesting him to summon a Convention to settle the nation and to take over the administration of the realm.

James II undoubtedly endured a miserable Christmas, abandoned by his own daughter Anne, humiliated and put under restraint by his nephew (and son-in-law) William of Orange and compelled to flee his own kingdom and seek refuge with his cousin Louis XIV of France. Meanwhile, the usually morose William could allow himself a small celebration at the thought that he might soon govern both England (and Scotland) and be able to bring their resources into play in his campaign against Louis. Sure enough, on 13 February the Convention Parliament formally offered William and his wife, Mary, the crown of England.

Dour from the beginning, towards the end of his reign William III became if anything more withdrawn. A newsletter of 27 December 1701 noted that for the Christmas service two days before, the bishop of Salisbury (Gilbert Burnet) had preached before the king at Kensington, but had been requested ‘to be short in his discourse by reason of the coldness of the season’, with which the asthmatic king struggled to cope. William may not have revelled at yuletide but the accession of Queen Anne early the following year did not necessarily mean much increased jollification at court (or elsewhere) either. By the time of her accession, Anne was in poor health and her reign was characterized by vigorous politicking between the parties from which the festive season offered no respite. In the December 1705 debates on the regency bill, following ‘much blustering in the House of Commons’ and ‘the foulest Billingsgate language’ Robert Harley claimed ever to have heard, one Tory MP, Charles Caesar, was committed to the Tower. He remained there over Christmas and for the remainder of the session. There was equal dissent on the Whig side with the radical Whig organ, The Observator, complaining of a gradually worsening state of affairs. In the issue for 26-29 December 1705 ‘Countryman’ griped:

if I can’t keep a good Christmas I can do nothing; Christmas comes but once a Year; and in the Days of Yore they us’d to say It brought good Chear along with it; but now the case is alter’d, unless it be here and there; Our Country Gentry can’t afford to keep as good Houses as their fore-fathers did.

It was not just the country gentry who struggled to identify reason for good cheer. Personal tragedy also stalked the queen and in October 1708 the death of her consort, Prince George of Denmark, plunged her further into introspection. Her bedchamber was fitted out with bedding in appropriately sombre purple and it was not until the onset of the Christmas season that the onerous requirements of mourning were partially scaled back. In mid-December the theatres reopened but New Year festivities were muted and it was not until March 1709 that the queen at last gave way to petitions on behalf of silk manufacturers to allow her ordinary subjects out of their sombre black clothes for the sake of the economy. She, herself (and thus the court) remained in mourning until Christmas 1710.

All this is not to say that the Augustan age was without wassail. The duke of Bedford’s accounts noted him doling out Christmas boxes and New Year gifts to a variety of people, ranging from the king’s trumpeters (10 shillings) to the doorkeepers of the House of Lords (£1) and the drummers and marshals of two regiments (£2 for each set). If the king of Prussia was noted as giving his queen and daughter fairly traditional gifts of diamond rings for Christmas, Lord Gower may have won the prize for one of the odder presents when he offered to his kinsman, Rutland, ‘a Brace of Trentham oxen’. Robert Harley, meanwhile (by then earl of Oxford) as a way of averting catastrophe for his administration went one better by doling out a dozen peerages during the Christmas recess of 1711/12.


Further Reading:

  • Beddard, ed. A Kingdom without a King (1988)
  • S.W. Singer, ed. The Correspondence of Henry Hyde, earl of Clarendon, and his brother Laurence Hyde, earl of Rochester: with the diary of Lord Clarendon from 1687 to 1690 (1828)
  • Anderson Wynn, Queen Anne: patroness of arts (2014)

The History of Parliament has recently published our first set of volumes focusing on the House of Lords. Covering the period 1660-1715, this five-volume work is available from Cambridge University Press.

Click here for other blogposts inspired by our House of Lords 1660-1715 volumes.

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