Clarendon’s impeachment

Impeachment is a procedure rarely used in the British Parliament these days, but it is a procedure of historic importance, as discussed in our Director’s Blog here and in our post on its use in the early 17th century here. In today’s post our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses the impeachment of the earl of Clarendon, 350 years ago…

The impeachment of the earl of Clarendon in 1667 is little remembered these days; but it was an enormously significant moment both in the history of impeachment, and in Restoration politics. Sacked from the lord chancellorship at the end of August in the aftermath of the naval debacle at Chatham and the hasty conclusion of a peace with the Dutch, Clarendon was clearly in danger of more serious retribution from political enemies who had waited a long time for their revenge, and from former colleagues for whom he could become a convenient scapegoat for military failure. Even the king, whose principal minister Clarendon had been for so long, and who had dithered over his dismissal, was now increasingly irritated by a man whose undoubted talents had always come with an enormous self-assurance bordering on arrogance. Clarendon may have been vulnerable, but he also possessed a still-powerful ally: the king’s brother and heir, James, duke of York, who, infatuated, had married Clarendon’s daughter secretly in 1660.

The events of the autumn of 1667 exemplified several themes that would become familiar in later Restoration politics. One of them was a widespread hostility to York and a desire to ensure that he would never succeed to the throne. It was early on rumoured that the moves against Clarendon were linked to a plan by the king to legitimise his bastard son, the duke of Monmouth, who would then become the heir apparent. Another was the French invasion of the Spanish-held territories in the Netherlands. Spanish and French ambassadors were involved in intrigues on the one side to seek English help in resisting the incursion; on the other to prevent it.

An impeachment had been widely talked of in advance of the opening of the parliamentary session on 10 October, though it was never clear whether it was ever intended to actually carry a prosecution through, or whether it was designed merely to frighten his allies, including York, into quiescence. An address to the king thanking him for Clarendon’s removal, voted by both Houses, was the first indication of action against the former chancellor. On 23 October there were motions in both Houses testing the ground: surprisingly, that in the Commons was unsuccessful, an early indication that Clarendon would not be unsupported. For some time the issue hung in the balance in the lower House. On the one hand, a group of powerful courtiers led a determined campaign to present a case for impeachment to the Lords, with a demand that Clarendon be arrested and imprisoned immediately. On the other, a coalition of defenders including York’s friends, pointed out that no evidence had been produced of an impeachable offence. The impasse developed into a crisis, as Clarendon’s opponents put increasing pressure on his allies, and the word grew that York was the man who was really targeted.

At this point, however, York was laid low with smallpox, a crucial blow to his capacity to fight Clarendon’s corner, and the king may have taken the opportunity to make his hostility to his former servant more explicit, encouraging MPs to support the prosecution. On 8 November the Commons resolved that there was sufficient evidence to proceed to examine a series of accusations, though they were still having trouble with making them appear to be treason. On the 9th, the earl’s supporters struck back, defeating the claim that his alleged advice that the rule of law be suspended during the crisis of the summer had amounted to treason. But on the following day, the House agreed that another claim – that he had betrayed secrets to the king’s enemies – was treason. The rather preposterous allegation– based on a hint from the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor, anxious to back the side that appeared, at the moment, to be anti-French – had yet to be proved.  But it was enough to enable an impeachment for ‘treasons and other high crimes and misdemeanours’ to proceed, and to be presented to the Lords.

The struggle moved to the upper House, where Clarendon had plenty of defenders. They were soon at loggerheads with the Commons, over the Lords’ refusal to send Clarendon to the Tower. The charges, the peers told MPs, were insufficiently specific to warrant immediate imprisonment.

The impeachment was rapidly developing into a political crisis, with deadlock and procedural wrangling between the two Houses, and the king becoming increasingly infuriated that Clarendon had not just disappeared. Broad hints were dropped that he should leave the country, a step that the earl was deeply unwilling to take, reluctant to appear to admit guilt. It may have been York himself who finally persuaded him to take a boat for France on the evening of Saturday 30th November, leaving behind him a ‘petition’ to the House of Lords which was more of a vindication of his conduct and which when read (though ‘admired for the style’) was regarded as a ‘almost as full of impudent lies as of lines’. Despite his attempt to justify himself, Clarendon’s departure was indeed seen as an admission of guilt, though it seemed at the time the only way to prevent the escalation of a nasty political crisis. Clarendon would never return to England, settling in southern France, most of the time in Montpellier (‘going to Montpellier’ would become a euphemism for the consequences of political failure). He died in 1674.

Clarendon’s fall and exile marked a new phase in Restoration politics, in which the concerns over the character and ideas of the king’s heir grew more explicit and increasingly destructive. 1667 had been the first serious skirmish in a political struggle that would become more serious with the realisation that the duke of York (as well as his wife, Clarendon’s daughter – to Clarendon’s own horror) had converted to Catholicism. It would climax first in the battles over the exclusion of the duke of York from the throne in 1678-81, and then in the crisis of James’s reign and toppling from power in the Revolution of 1688-9.


You can read more about Clarendon’s fall from grace in Paul Seaward’s earlier blogs: Chatham and the failure of English Politics and The Dismissal of Clarendon.

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Voices from our oral history project: Sir Teddy Taylor

Last month we were sad to hear the news of campaigning backbencher Sir Teddy Taylor’s death. In this blog we look back on his life with extracts from our oral history project  interview with him in January 2012…

Sir Teddy Taylor was one of the first former MPs to be interviewed for our oral history project. Following his death last month, obituaries remembered him as a staunch and committed Eurosceptic, whose views kept him firmly on the back benches. His list of rebellions and resignations is long: he resigned from a junior post in Ted Heath’s government in 1971, then rebelled in 1985, 1986, 1990, all over Europe, before becoming one of the leading Maastricht rebels who had the party whip taken away during John Major’s premiership. This aspect of his political life was certainly a feature of our interview with him; but the interivew also revealed a courteous and authentic politician.

Born in Glasgow in 1937 to Minnie and Edward, a stockbroker’s clerk, the young Taylor was a grammar school boy from a happy working class home. It was shattered when Edward tried to rescue his failing firm and went bankrupt himself. Forced to sell the family home, Edward died of a heart attack soon after, leaving Minnie to return to work to support the family. Taylor remembered his mother ‘worked like a slave’ and how he contributed to a new home with wages from his first job.

Political convictions appeared early in Taylor’s childhood, as he remembered: “I felt strongly about things, I always did.” Despite his working class background he was drawn to the Conservative party and had little time for socialism. At Glasgow University these views, and a desire to defend Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden from a Marxist interpretation of his actions, led to him switching from a degree in history to one in politics:

Taylor’s first seat was in the working class area of Cathcart, Glasgow, a marginal seat he fought hard to win in 1964. He entered the Commons as the baby of the House aged just 27. He was firmly on the right of the Conservatives, a member of the Monday club, pro-capital and corporal punishment, against abortion and liberalisation of laws on homosexuality. Despite his backing many failing causes, few doubted the strength of his convictions. In our interview he described his ‘tough’ battle to win in Cathcart. He insisted on canvassing the entire constituency, not just the more Conservative areas, against the wishes of his local party. He described the campaign as a ‘crusade’ to change the Conservatives from a class-based party to one with policies for everyone. His strong support for grammar schools and Margaret Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ policies typified his views.

He briefly served in Thatcher’s shadow cabinet as shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. His party’s stance on devolution cost him his seat in Cathcart in 1979, and with it the dream that he would enter the cabinet. He returned to Parliament in 1980 following a by-election in Southend, and remained in the seat until 2005, but he had lost his place in cabinet. In this clip he reveals his support for Thatcher, but shows he was well aware why he never again joined her cabinet:

On his return to the backbenches he continued his campaign against EU membership, admitting to our interviewer that he was ‘very angry’ when he left Parliament at most of his colleagues’ views. A diligent constituency MP, whose local party strongly supported him during his rebellions, his work for many of his constituents left him, he told us, with mixed feelings:

Of course, this was all before the 2016 Referendum. Taylor, in the end, won this battle.

Throughout his interview he emerged as a charming but intensely committed politician, who, although he did not admit to having any doubts himself, engagingly conceded: “It’s also possible that I might be mad, you’ve got to appreciate this and please don’t leave this out of your considerations. All the views I have on things that I feel so strongly about – I could be mad.”


You can now listen to the whole of our interview with Sir Teddy Taylor on the British Library website.

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“A foreigner is therefore the most likely man to give an impartial account”?: French observers of the early eighteenth-century British Parliament

Published this week and edited by our own Dr Vivienne Larminie, Huguenot Networks, 1560–1780 The Interactions and Impact of a Protestant Minority in Europe includes new research on the Huguenot community and Parliament. In today’s blog, Dr Charles Littleton discusses the phenomenon of the Huguenot Parliamentary reporter…

Three hundred years ago a short political pamphlet was published in London with a French title, Dissertation sur les Whigs et les Torys. Under its English sub-title of An Historical Dissertation upon Whig and Tory, this was a translation of a work originally published at The Hague by Paul de Rapin de Thoyras. Rapin was a French Protestant, a Huguenot, who had fled his homeland shortly after Louis XIV’s Revocation of Edict of Nantes in 1685. He was with William of Orange’s army at in England and Ireland throughout 1688-92, and it was during this time that Rapin set himself the task of writing the history of England, perhaps so that he himself could understand this country with which he was now so closely bound.

Rapin lived abroad, first in The Hague and then in Cleves, for the more than twenty years that he worked on his studies, which only added to the sense that he was an external, ‘impartial’ (as his translator claimed), observer trying to make sense of this strange polity. In both the work which first shot him to fame as an interpreter of English affairs to a European audience, the Dissertation, and his later ten-volume Histoire d’Angleterre, he emphasised the importance of Parliament. Rapin gave the first authoritative Whig version of English history to a foreign audience, stressing the antiquity of Parliament, formed as he saw it “in the forests” of pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon England, and its long struggle against arbitrary monarchy, first supposedly brought in by the Normans and revived intermittently throughout the country’s history. This account of English parliamentary history also struck a chord in England itself. Rapin’s Whiggish slant became the most popular view of English history.

Rapin, however, was not the first or the only Huguenot observer of the British Parliament. As a number of articles in the recently-published volume on Huguenot Networks make clear, much of our knowledge of the daily workings of Parliament from the early eighteenth century comes directly from the writings of Huguenot immigrants living in England.

Abel Boyer came from the same area of France, Castres, as Rapin and even studied in the same Protestant academy, Puylaurens, before the Revocation. Roughly contemporary, they took different routes in their exile, Boyer going first to the Netherlands before making his way to England in the summer of 1689 after William of Orange was had been proclaimed king. Boyer also turned to writing, but as a journalist and pamphleteer. His writing shows a special interest in Parliament, as is evident from his first major serial The History of the Reign of Queen Anne Digested into Annals, a summary of each year’s political events published annually between 1703 and 1713. From January 1711 to just shortly before his death in November 1729 he also compiled a monthly periodical, The Political State of Great Britain. This provided a register of occurrences across Britain and Europe, abstracted pamphlets and books, offered observations on trade and public finance, and carried, as the first publication in England to do so, reports of parliamentary debates made public while Parliament was actually sitting.

This last point is especially significant because in this era Parliament still rigorously enforced its privilege of secrecy which ensured that its proceedings should not be known to ‘strangers’ during the session. Consequently in most cases Boyer was restricted in the material for his accounts, which are generally summaries culled from the official sources produced by Parliament itself. These were the printed Votes published by the Commons, which provided a bare summary of that chamber’s resolutions, and the Journal of the House of Lords, which was still only kept in manuscript, though copies would have been easily available in the environs of Westminster. Through these sources Boyer provided minimal information on just about every address or vote or piece of legislation which was passing through the houses, often with copious transcriptions.

Occasionally, though, Boyer was able to give details of the actual content and speakers in a debate, such as that in the Lords on 9-12 January 1711, in which the previous Whig ministry was attacked for its disastrous mismanagement of the Iberian campaign in the War of the Spanish Succession. On this occasion the House unusually allowed ‘strangers’ to sit in the gallery in the north end of the Lords’ chamber during the debate. Boyer charitably supposed that “one of the Reasons why the Lords admitted so many Strangers into their House, was, that all the World might know with what Candour they proceeded in so important an Affair”.

In that he was wrong, as the Lords quickly regretted their latitude once they saw that Boyer had made public the details of speeches in the House. On 5 March 1711 the House ordered that Boyer be taken into custody and that the lord chamberlain oversee the destruction of the gallery which had caused so much trouble. Similarly on 18 March 1714 Boyer was presumably one of those targeted when the Commons, about to debate whether the Whig polemicist and MP Sir Richard Steele should be expelled from the chamber, ordered the Serjeant-at-Arms to take into custody all strangers who refused to withdraw from the Commons’ own galleries or from the Speaker’s Chamber. Deprived of access in both chambers, in subsequent years Boyer frequently made a point of condemning in his writing both houses’ continued secrecy and privilege.

Significantly the monthly issues of The Political State are couched in the form of a newsletter explaining British affairs to a curious reader on the continent. Much of what we know about Parliament in this important period thus comes from foreigners like the journalist Boyer and the historian Rapin. Part of their impetus to write so much about this institution may have been to make sense of it for their many Protestant co-religionists in the extensive Huguenot diaspora. Nor does this begin to exhaust the number of Huguenot observers of the post-1688 Parliament. An article by Michael Schaich in the same volume on Huguenot Networks reveals the impressive number of Huguenot exiles employed by German courts to act as diplomatic agents in England, who regularly reported copiously on parliamentary affairs.

On this note, perhaps the last word should go to a Frenchman living in England who was not a Protestant. Explaining the impetus for his own work, Boyer quoted approvingly the celebrated, and largely areligious, French émigré soldier and writer Charles de St Evremond, who apparently advised him early in his career “that he who sets about to write the History of England, must write the History of Parliaments”.


You can buy Huguenot Networks, 1560–1780 The Interactions and Impact of a Protestant Minority in Europe from Routledge here.

You can read more about the Huguenots and Parliament here in Vivienne Larminie’s earlier blogpost.

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Waiting to Succeed: Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales (1707-1751)

Last month the Prince of Wales became the longest-serving holder of that title. The role of Prince of Wales was politically very different in the Georgian period and none of the four princes who held the title during the 18th century came close to the 59 years Prince Charles has served. In this month’s blog, Dr Robin Eagles considers one of them, Prince Frederick. Frederick was Prince of Wales for over 22 years, and is best remembered for failing ever to make it to the throne, but he proved influential as well as controversial during his tenure.


History has not been kind to Prince Frederick. He is best known (if known at all) by a couple of examples of wretched doggerel. The first, appropriately enough, referred to one of his dogs – a gift of Alexander Pope, who was said to have had inscribed on its collar: ‘I am His Highness’ Dog at Kew; Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?’ The second, popularized in the days following the prince’s early death in 1751 ran:

Here lies poor Fred

Who was alive and is dead:

Had it been his father,

I had  much rather;

Had it been his brother,

Still better than another;

Had it been his sister,

No one would have missed her;

Had it been the whole generation,

Still better for the nation

But since ‘tis only Fred

Who was alive and is dead

There’s no more to be said

The truth of the matter is, of course, rather less clear-cut than the ditty suggests. At the time of the Hanoverian Accession (1714), a decision had been made to leave Frederick behind in Hanover, when his grandfather, George I, father and mother, Prince George and Princess Caroline, and other members of the family made the journey to England. Frederick was to remain at the Electoral court at Hanover as a symbol of George I’s continuing commitment to his original dominions. This is not to say that the people in England had no conception about the young prince. Numerous English courtiers visited Hanover, especially on the occasions when George I travelled back to oversee affairs in person, where they had an opportunity to meet and assess the heir but one to the throne of England. Comments were usually, perhaps unsurprisingly, positive. He was thought to have a particular gift for informality, alongside of a keen intelligence and good memory for those he met.

Such optimistic appraisals were shared by the king, but could not have been at greater variance with the opinion of Frederick’s mother, Caroline, who by all accounts could not bear her eldest son. Quite why she adopted this aversion is the subject of debate – as is the true extent of her dislike. Many of her more spiteful pronouncements were recorded by John Hervey, Lord Hervey, who had his own axe to grind, but it seems reasonable to conclude that the princess found her eldest son difficult and that experience of his activities once he came to England compounded her initial concerns about his character.

Historians too have tended to be wary of Frederick. At best he has been considered something of a lightweight – a man led by stronger personalities. These included Hervey, with whom he was intimate before a falling out; the irrepressible George Bubb Dodington (future Baron Melcombe); Lord Baltimore and Viscount Bolingbroke.

Such assessments, however, tend to overlook the real achievements of Prince Frederick and his associates. It was not until the winter of 1728 – aged 21 – that Frederick was finally brought to England. His father had succeeded as George II the previous year and it was only the joint pressures of the political nation questioning loudly why Frederick was not resident in England, and the prince’s increasing tendency to exert himself over policy matters in Hanover that finally persuaded the king to give way and call him to court. There Frederick kicked against the restraints of life at St James’s, where, as the lord chamberlain’s warrants for September 1730 demonstrate, his bedchamber was refurbished with an eye to parsimony typical of Frederick’s father the king. Thus although he was treated to a ‘new bed of yellow Genoa damask with four posts’ and other furniture upholstered to match, in his drawing room his arm chair and six stools were upholstered with old curtain material. Frustrated by the limitations of his predicament, Frederick looked for other ways to fill his time.

It is only to be expected that Frederick might have proved a rallying point for those out of favour at court, but in his years as Prince of Wales he was able to do much more than that. In spite of being born and raised between the royal palace in Hanover and the retreat at Herrenhausen, Frederick was able to reinvent himself as a British prince in a way that George II was never able to do. He took as his inspiration King Arthur and mediaeval heroes such as Edward the Black Prince and Henry V, and established a vibrant alternative court based ultimately at Leicester House (on the edge of modern day Leicester Square). Perhaps most significant of all, he wielded his patronage as Prince of Wales to establish a meaningful bloc in both houses of Parliament. It was in part as a result of the agitations of the members of the prince’s circle that the great man, Sir Robert Walpole, was ultimately brought down. Towards the end of Frederick’s life, with the king’s health apparently failing, the prince worked in association with Dr Lee and Lord Egmont on preparing careful plans for his anticipated succession. Frederick’s influence, it can be argued, helped shape the development of the concept of ‘loyal opposition’ by proposing an alternative programme of government rather than simply a reversionary interest with no particular plan bar taking over when the old king died.

Such hopes were brought to a close by Frederick’s early death in the spring of 1751. The most likely culprit was a cricket injury, which ultimately led to his death from a ruptured abscess, though his autopsy revealed a number of other health issues as well. With the figurehead gone, many of the prince’s adherents made their peace with the government. Their decision to do so is indicative of Frederick’s crucial importance as a rallying point and the vacuum created by his loss, whatever the merits or demerits of his own contributions to politics in the period.



Further reading:

Robin Eagles, ‘ “No More to be Said?” Reactions to the death of Frederick Lewis, prince of Wales’, Historical Research, 80:209 (2007)

Frances Vivian (ed. Roger White), A Life of Frederick, Prince of Wales, 1707-1751: a connoisseur of the arts (Mellen, 2007)


Georgian lords 2

Posted in 18th Century history, Georgian Lords, Politics, Royal family, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Black Rod: the Early Centuries

Last week Parliament announced they are advertising for a new Black Rod. In today’s blog, as Dr Hannes Kleineke, Senior Research Fellow in our Commons 1422-1504 project, discusses the medieval origins of the post…

The current Black Rod, Lieutenant General David Leakey, at the 2016 State Opening © UK Parliament

To most people taking an interest in the work and procedures of the British Parliament, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (or ‘Black Rod’ as he is known in popular parlance) is an immediately recognisable figure from the part he plays in the ceremonial surrounding the annual State Opening. The ceremonial is, however, only a small part of the duties of the modern ‘Black Rod’, who has overall administrative charge of much of the palace of Westminster.

This was no forgone conclusion: the office of Black Rod was originally that of usher to the King of England’s principal order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, and for several centuries had no direct connection with Parliament. The Parliament Chamber, that is, in modern understanding, the House of Lords, was instead in the care of a different officer, the usher (or porter) of the Parliament Chamber. While the usher controlled access, and was thus able to command fees from intending suitors, his office also had a less glamorous side. The usher’s responsibilities included the preparation of the Parliament chamber and the maintenance of its furnishings, down to the provision of mundane items such as ‘canvas, corde, hamer, nailes, cordes, crochetes, worstede and other thinges’, as the account of John Frampton and William Welles, ushers in 1470, shows. The ushers had to think ahead, particularly when Parliament met away from Westminster: the items provided by Richard Baron and Simon Edward for the meeting of Parliament at Leicester in April 1450 included ‘a chair for the King to sit in’.

What the early Black Rod had in common with his modern counterpart was usually extensive administrative experience: indeed, it was their prior service to the Crown for which successive Black Rods were rewarded with the office which, in the light of the infrequent gatherings of the Order of the Garter, represented an effective sinecure. In the 15th and 16th centuries, their career path often included one or more spells in the House of Commons: the usher’s close connexion with the monarch was not yet deemed an obstacle, and it was frequently Crown patronage that secured him a seat. William Pope (Black Rod 1428-52, from 1438 jointly with Robert Manfeld) was MP for Winchelsea in 1433 and 1435. Manfeld (who after Pope’s death continued as sole Black Rod until 1459) for his part represented Buckinghamshire in 1439-40, 1442 and 1453-4. In the latter assembly he had probably encountered his future successor, John Penycoke, Black Rod from 1459 to 1461, and previously MP for Surrey in 1449 and 1453-4. A century later, Sir Philip Hoby (Black Rod 1543-54) represented the still new constituency of the Cardiff Boroughs in 1547, while his successor John Norris (Black Rod under Mary I and Elizabeth I from 1554 to 1577) was a Member for a succession of south-western boroughs in all but one of Mary’s five Parliaments. Norris’s son and successor William (Black Rod 1577-91) also possessed parliamentary experience: he – in view of his father’s office in the order of the Garter appropriately enough – represented New Windsor in November 1554 and 1555.

Two Gentlemen Ushers at the funeral procession of Elizabeth I (By Unknown – Marks, Richard, and Anne Payne, eds.:British Heraldry, from its origins to c. 1800, British Museum Publications, 1978, via Wikimedia

Black Rod’s connection with Parliament was a development of the later 16th century, from which date the office of usher of the parliament chamber was normally granted to one of the senior gentlemen ushers of the royal household, who was also appointed to the post of Black Rod as an additional sinecure. This arrangement was not, however, formalised until 1631, some years after the death of Richard Coningsby who in 1617 had added the position of usher of the Parliament chamber to that of Black Rod which by that date he had held for several years.

It is not clear, at what exact point Black Rod’s knocking on the Commons’ doors became ritualised, or, indeed, associated in public perception with Charles I’s failed attempt to arrest the Five Members. There was, however, a long tradition that the royal messenger gained access to the Commons’ chamber through the large principal doors, which were otherwise only used to admit the most portly of Members, and announced his arrival by a knock on these doors.

Controversy arose not so much over Black Rod’s part in the opening of Parliament, but his related role in the prorogation, that often caught the Commons by surprise, curtailed their business, and even cut off Members in mid-speech. On at least one notable occasion in March 1629 did restive Members delay a prorogation by holding the Speaker down in his chair and keeping the doors of the house locked while they finished their business, leaving Black Rod fuming outside the door.

More recently, the Commons have also objected to having their business interrupted by the arrival of Black Rod. James Prior remembers a particular occasion in October 1962 when questions taken by Prime Minister Harold MacMillan on a special statement on the deteriorating situation in Cuba were brought to an end by the arrival of Black Rod to summon the Commons to the Lords for the Prorogation:

When Parliament reassembled a week later, a number of Members questioned the Commons’ obligation to admit Black Rod and were only assuaged by a ruling from Mr Speaker Hylton-Foster, and a subsequent agreement by the Leader of the House, Iain McLeod, that the normal time for the Commons to attend upon a Royal Commission in the Lords should be ‘at six o’clock, if possible on a quiet Parliamentary day, to meet the convenience of the House’.

By the reign of Charles II, the ceremonial observed by Black Rod in summoning the lower house into the monarch’s presence was recognisably that familiar in the present day. In 1679, Thomas Duppa, deputising as Black Rod for Sir Edward Carteret (whom he would succeed a few years later), received the following instructions as to the procedure for summoning the Commons into the King’s presence:

When the King is sett, either he or my Lord Great Chamberlain gives you Order to call the House of Commons. Then you goe immediately, and when you come there, you knock with the End of your Rod four or five times, and when the Doores are open, and come in as high as the Barr you make a Congee, and then going three steps further another, and then advancing further another And then holding up your Black Rod in your hand you say Mr Speaker, The King commands this Honourable House to Attend him immediately in the House of Peers. […] Then you goe out making your Three Leggs, and stay for the Speaker in the Painted Chamber and going in, and standing at his Right hand, not suffering any Body to stand betwixt him and you, you make three Congees, and goe and stand with him at the Barr holding you Black Rod in your hand. [Duppa’s Commonplace Book, 19-20)]


Further Reading:

  • Maurice Bond and Danvid Beamish, The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (1976).
  • Sir Thomas Duppa’s Commonplace Book ed. by Alasdair Hawkyard and J.C. Sainty (Parliamentary History Texts & Studies 11, 2015)
  • I.H.C. Fraser, ‘The Agitation in the Commons, 2 Mar. 1629, and the Interrogation of the Leaders of the Anti-Court Group’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, xxx (1957), 86-95.


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Parliament & World War I

In partnership with the Parliamentary Archives alongside their current exhibition on Parliament and the First World War, we recently held events in Parliament exploring the institution during the war years…

Parliament and the First World War exhibition, Westminster Hall

The Parliamentary Archives exhibition on Parliament and the First World War, still open in Westminster Hall, proved an excellent opportunity for us to gather together historians and discuss the impact of the First World War on Parliament.

Firstly, Dr Mari Takayanagi (Vote 100) spoke on ‘The Girl Porters and the Court Twins: Women Staff in Parliament in the First World War.’ Dr Takayanagi’s research had uncovered several women who had, because of the shortage of labour, had the opportunity to work in occupations within Parliament that had previously been closed to them because of their gender. She spoke of two examples: firstly the ‘girl porters’ who took messages around the estate, of which four – Elsie and Mabel Clark, Vera Goldsmith and Dorothy Hart – were employed between April 1917 and May 1919. Secondly, the women who joined the House of Lords accountancy department; one (May Court) eventually became head of the Accounts and Copying department in the Lords. Despite the difference in status in these positions they did share common experiences: firstly, the women involved appeared to get the job through family links, sometimes because their direct relations had left to fight in the war; and secondly, they were employed with great reluctance by parliament but proved themselves to their bosses, either keeping their positions after the war or earning excellent references.

Dr Kathryn Rix at Parliament’s WWI memorial

Secondly, our own Dr Kathryn Rix gave an overview of MPs who died fighting in the First World War, drawn from her excellent and very popular series on this blog. She noted that 40% of MPs served in some form during the First World War on many fronts, at home and abroad. Those who died were from across the political spectrum. In her talk she highlighted the youngest MP to die, Charles Thomas Mills at 28, and the oldest, Willie Redmond, brother of Irish nationalist leader John. She discussed two MP brothers to die – Harold Cawley at Gallipoli and his brother Oswald in 1918. Their father, Sir Frederick Cawley (1850-1937) who was also Liberal MP for Prestwich, sat on the Dardanelles commission. Dr Rix finished by focussing on Francis McLaren. McLaren was a close friend of Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the History of Parliament and subject of a later talk, as well as the early wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. You can read all of Dr Rix’s series about the MPs who died fighting in the First World War to date here.

Thirdly, Chloe Bowerbank spoke on her thesis research: ‘No Treating: the state management of public houses during world war one’. She described how, under the auspices of the Defence of the Realm Act [DORA], the government took a much greater interest in the drinking habits of the workforce and particularly the management of pubs. Whilst across the country this led to changes in opening hours and bans on buying rounds, in certain areas the government simply took over the pubs themselves. She focused on the largest area – Carlisle – where industrial workers from the town and its surroundings were known to indulge at the end of the day: 4-500 glasses of whisky were waiting in certain pubs at the end of shifts! Bowerbank discussed the motivations for this policy, which ranged from the practical (an attempt to increase production), moral (the Liberal agenda to reduce drinking) and financial (the pubs were extremely profitable, and they remained in public ownership until the 1970s). This was one of the lesser-known legacies of DORA.

Finally, our own Priscilla Baines discussed the History of Parliament’s founder, Josiah Wedgwood, and his ‘memorial for fallen parliamentarians’. A campaigning Liberal, and then Labour MP, Wedgwood had previous military experience in the Boer war and volunteered in 1914. He returned to Parliament at the end of 1916, and after the war he embarked on a dictionary of parliamentary biography that was to become the History of Parliament. This was, in his words, in part to record ‘how well parliament shone’ during the war years. Wedgwood invited members of the wartime parliament to respond to a questionnaire about their political experiences, and pestered the war office to gather the service records of all MPs who fought. However, these records contained little information about the war, and Baines concluded most of Wedgwood’s draft biographies that included war service must have been constructed from other sources. You can read more about Wedgwood’s questionnaires in these blogs written by Baines and of course see the ongoing results of Wedgwood’s project over on our website!


We hope a recording will be available on the parliamentary website shortly. If it is so we will add it here.

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When every vote counted: what minority government in the 1970s meant for MPs

With Parliament back and Theresa May’s government trying to pass controversial legislation, Emmeline Ledgerwood, one of our oral history project volunteers and PhD student at the British Library/University of Leicester, blogs on the periods of minority government during the 1970s, using excerpts from our oral history project archive…

As Westminster returns to work after the summer recess, MPs must become accustomed to an environment which few living parliamentarians have experienced—a House of Commons with a minority government.

There have been limited instances of minority government in the UK Parliament since WWII. When John Major lost his majority in 1997 he only had three months to survive until it was time to fight a general election.

It was during the period 1974-79 that the tensions and challenges posed by the lack of a governing majority became routine for those MPs who belonged to the House of Commons at that time.

Heath failed to form a coalition after the election in February 1974, leaving Labour to snatch their opportunity to take power, albeit by forming a minority government. Harold Wilson then called a second election in October 1974 which returned a majority of three.

However by April 1976—shortly after Callaghan had replaced Wilson as Labour party leader—any minimal advantage had slipped out of Labour’s grasp through a combination of by-election defeats and the defection of backbenchers to other parties.

Callaghan’s government survived due to the failure of opposition parties to unite against them, and the formation of a Lib-Lab pact in March 1977 that effectively saw off a vote of no confidence and lasted until speculation in mid-1978 suggested that a general election would soon be called.

A recent report from the Hansard Society outlines how our current Parliament may operate in the context of a minority government.

  • Bills may be presented in skeleton form, leaving the details to be filled in through delegated or secondary legislation which is barely scrutinised by Parliament.
  • The conduct and character of Select Committees in this situation is uncharted territory, as the system only developed after 1979.
  • The usual channels may come under increasing strain and the business managers—particularly the Chief Whip—will be key figures in the government, needing to take greater account of the needs and demands of the smaller parties upon whose votes they may need to rely.

That was exactly the case in 1974-79. When the margins are tight, every vote on every side counts and securing those votes is the job of the whips.

Ann Taylor by Emmeline Ledgerwood

MPs who served in the 1974-79 Parliament and have been interviewed for our oral history project remember it as a testing yet exciting period, giving an indication of what minority government could mean for our current crop of parliamentarians.

Ann Taylor (Labour) relished the challenges of her job at that time in the Government’s Whips’ Office, describing the atmosphere as tense, exhilarating and one of great camaraderie.

Fred Silvester by Emmeline Ledgerwood

Fred Silvester (Conservative) was an Opposition Whip and relates how his office kept track of information about MPs that they might need to use when persuading MPs to vote.

It was when the pairing system broke down in May 1976 that life became very difficult for the Whips and MPs. Helene Hayman (Labour) recalls what sparked the crisis.

The night before Whitsun recess was that much disputed vote when the Labour Whips were accused—this is all in This House—of fiddling the vote and Michael Heseltine was so enraged that he picked up the mace and swung it round and all hell broke out.

What it meant for MPs was that they were tied to the House unless there were exceptional circumstances such as when Hayman, six months pregnant at the time, was paired with Margaret Thatcher to the great displeasure of the whips (as reflected in the language used in this clip!)

Roger Sims (Conservative) recounts how as a new MP he was introduced to the whipping system by the Chief Whip and what happened when he missed a vote by a matter of seconds.

Robert Hughes (Labour) remembers staying ridiculously late into the early hours, at a time when all-night sittings were not unusual and tiredness made him operate on autopilot:

We lived in Hampstead, and I always had to take the dog for a walk when I came home, and I came home about half past three one morning, took the dog for a walk, got back and my wife said “Where the hell have you been?” I said, “walking the dog”. She said: “you walked the dog’s lead, you left the dog at home!”

MPs were also constrained from voting how they wished, as Labour’s Ken Weetch described:

When we won in October ‘74, I mean it was very, very thin indeed, I’ve forgot the actual number but I know we weren’t at all safe. We were very shaky […] you had to have tight discipline and there were things that I should have done which I didn’t do. For example we passed docks legislation and we gave the dockers’ trade unions a monopoly of dock work. I should have resisted that because it was a bad piece of legislation – but we were told we either supported it or we fell. You know I mean it was literally that.

Their role as an MP became reduced to their ability to pass through the division lobby, as Bruce Grocott (Labour) found.

Halfway through that Parliament I got peritonitis and was sort of whipped into hospital in the middle of the night and never has the media shown, prior or since, remotely comparable levels of interest in my health or my availability to turn up in Parliament. I mean that was the main thing, I mean I was a vote that couldn’t take place.

Frank White (Labour), an Opposition Whip, describes Callaghan’s decision in 1979 not to call the critically-ill Doc Broughton to Westminster, resulting in the loss of the vote of no confidence which forced the general election.

In the subsequent election defeat Frank Judd (Labour) lost his ministerial office and his constituency yet his immediate reaction among friends was one of joy. “They all looked at me with their jaws open [because] I started singing. And I sang and sang and sang. And what was this? It was somehow a feeling of relief that an impossible situation had gone.”


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