MPs as law enforcers in Late Medieval England

In today’s guest blog, from Dr Gordon McKelvie from the University of Winchester discusses whether the MPs who passed legislation in medieval England were actually that keen on enforcing them…

A common debate about criminality is the reliability of criminal statistics – i.e. do changes in such statistics reveal actual changes in levels of crime or simply changes in the recording of crimes. Most historians of crime and the law have noted that our records for criminality normally tell us more about the nature of enforcement than levels of criminal activity per se. This tension between perceived of levels of crime and violence and the prosecution of criminals has a long tradition in parliamentary history.

In earlier times, the sort of men who sat as MPs in parliament were frequently appointed as justices of the peace. As such, they would be responsible for ensuring that the king’s laws, that is the laws that they themselves helped to pass, were enforced. Yet, it seems that many MPs were somewhat lackadaisical about enforcing new laws that they themselves were involved in passing, so much so that by the Elizabethan period MPs needed reminding of their responsibilities when they returned home. For instance, the Lord Keeper’s speech at the close of parliament in 1559 reminded MPs that he should not need to remind them ‘how small purpose good lawes doe serve being not daylie and diligently executed.’ For the medieval period we do not have records of such speeches. Yet, surviving sources such as parliamentary petitions and the large corpus of judicial records give us some a means of considering the effectiveness of new laws passed by parliament.

One such crime that local justices seem to have been unenthusiastic about enforcing was a set of laws dealing with the distribution of noble liveries (the badges and insignia of specific lords). During the fourteenth century, the practice of nobles giving their personal insignia to a large body of family, servants and general well-wishers as a means of displaying their standing and prestige began to attract criticism from several quarters, including the MPs, or at least some MPs, in parliament. A feeling had emerged that the wearing of such liveries encouraged acts of violence and petty crimes which would go unpunished because local justices and juries would be apprehensive of prosecuting those who wore the livery of a powerful lord. Moves were therefore made to have laws either limiting or banning the practice which seems to have caused some dispute between the two houses. In 1384 the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, reportedly responded to complaints from the Commons by saying that he could discipline his own men and a new law was not needed. Yet, by 1390 enough pressure had been exerted that Richard II passed a law that limited the categories of servants to whom nobles could give their livery.

Despite this apparent victory, repeated petitions were presented to parliament over the next several decades complaining that the law was being wilfully ignored. Indeed, the first large cluster of cases did not arise until a generation after the initial act of parliament, when Henry V prosecuted 21 such cases in Staffordshire in 1414 as part of a more general law enforcement drive before launching an invasion of France which culminated in his victory at Agincourt the following year. The lack of cases is somewhat paradoxical as those people responsible for enforcing the law were drawn from the exact same class of men who sat as MPs for the shire: the county gentry. Later prosecutions were predominantly targeted against members of the gentry (those holding the rank of knight, esquire or gentleman) as opposed to those lords who received an individual summons to parliament and sat in the House of Lords. In many ways the gentry were law-makers, law-breakers and law-enforcers.

One could take the view that such complaints were ultimately meaningless or a cynical attempt to appear tough on a problem no one really wanted to solve. However, it seems to have been difficult to get a new law enforced with any great vigour in late medieval England. The enforcement of another new law followed a similar pattern. In 1401, parliament passed the act De Hertico Comburendo [Of the burning of a heretic] which proscribed the death penalty, by burning, for lapsed heretics. Heresy had long been a crime in England by this point and heretics were burned in previous centuries. The passing of this act may therefore suggest a new religious zeal to stamp out heresy from England. However, between 1401 and 1414 only two men were executed for heresy: William Sawtre on 2 March 1401 (curiously, before the act itself was passed in parliament) and John Badby, in 1410. There was apparently no great religious fervour for a heretic-hunt. Indeed, the first mass execution of heretics was in 1414 in the wake of a Lollard Rebellion against Henry V. Here, their main crime was treason, not their religious beliefs and practices.

In all, the only new law that seems to have been enforced almost immediately were the labour laws that were passed in aftermath of the Black Death with the expressed intent of keeping wages low by setting them at pre-Black Death levels when wages were much lower. This attempt at wage capping offered tangible benefits to MPs who employed waged labour for a variety of tasks and the law seems to have been enforced with great enthusiasm. In Essex 7,556 people were fined for taking excess wages in 1352. The fact that so many were fined may indicate that the laws were not effective as people seemingly continued to accept higher wages with the potential fines offering no meaningful deterrent. Although the effectiveness in changing employment practice is doubtful, it is rather curious that the one law that seems to have been enforced straight away was the one law that was most likely to be of personal benefit to local justices, many of whom also sat, at one point or another, as MPs.


Dr McKelvie is Lecturer in Late Medieval History at the University of Winchester.

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Schools: competition prize day!

Last month we welcomed our 2016 Key Stage Three Schools competition winner to Westminster…

Slightly later than we hoped, thanks to this year’s snap election, the HPT welcomed our KS3 competition winner, Layla Barwell, and her family to Parliament. Layla attends Dartford Grammar School for girls, and was 13 when she wrote her excellent competition entry.

We asked students to write newspaper reports on either the Reformation or the 1832 Reform Act (you can find out more here). Both competitions were based on our specially-developed resources for KS3 schools, which you can find here.

Layla chose to write a newspaper piece attacking the 1832 Act, with the headline: ‘The Reform Bill could lead to the Downfall of the British Empire’.  The judges, who included HPT staff members and members of our Trustees, felt that she was the clear winner despite a very high standard of entries. They noted that Layla ‘has clearly really thought about how one might present an argument against change in the best possible light. It’s well written and full of context.’ (On meeting Layla, we were assured that she did not in fact want to repeal the Reform Act, but saw it as a good challenge to write against the bill…!)

Layla and her family arrived for a tour of the Palace of Westminster, kindly arranged by Parliament’s Education Service.

We then moved to Speaker’s House for Layla’s prize giving, presented by the Speaker, John Bercow, and our Chair of Trustees, Gordon Marsden MP. Layla also received a book token worth £75.

It was lovely to meet Layla and her family, although sadly her history teacher was unable to join us as he was away on a school trip.

This year we have decided to review our education materials, so we are not holding a KS3 competition. If you have any suggestions for our review, please do get in touch. We are however running our A Level essay competition as normal. The prize will be awarded for the best essay on a subject of the candidate’s own choice related to the parliamentary or political history of Britain and Ireland. Students should be under 19, and the closing date is 29 September (full details are available here).

Many congratulations again to Layla and best of luck to this year’s competition entrants!


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“Void of all faith and honour?” The fall(s) and rise of Viscount Bolingbroke

In this latest blog post from the Georgian Lords, Dr Robin Eagles considers the instability of the early years of George I’s reign and the changing fortunes of former secretary of state, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke

The Hanoverian succession may have passed off peacefully in 1714, but within a year of George I ascending the throne the new regime was faced with rioting in a number of towns in England and threatened by rebellion in Scotland. At the same time the ascendant Whigs were intent on revenging themselves on their political enemies by bringing to book a number of former ministers from the previous reign. As early as September 1714 coffee house gossip suggested that certain individuals were likely to be impeached for treason. Among the men aimed at were the former lord treasurer, Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, and the flamboyant former secretary of state, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Also marked out were the duke of Ormond and earl of Strafford, though in the latter case the charges faced were the lesser ones of high crimes and misdemeanours.

Impeachment was a judicial mechanism first used in the late 14th century. It enabled the Commons to petition the Lords to consider charges against usually high profile individuals where a criminal trial was not appropriate. If the Lords concurred and convicted the subject on the articles presented, the Commons might then petition the Lords to proceed to judgement. In the case of treason this meant a sentence of death and as Thomas Bateman commented at the end of March 1715 it was expected that in this case heads were indeed ‘to be the sacrifice’ [BL, Add. MS 72502, f.40]. By June Jonathan Swift was able to suggest to a correspondent that he did not believe the Whigs intended ‘to cut off Lord Oxford’s head but that they will certainly attaint poor L[or]d Bolingbroke’.  On 4 August Robert Walpole, the future prime minister, presented the Commons with six articles accusing Bolingbroke of treason and two days later Bolingbroke was formally impeached before the Lords. The articles detailing Bolingbroke’s alleged crimes accused him among other things of entering into ‘a most treacherous confederacy with the ministers and emissaries of France’ while engaged in negotiating the treaty of Utrecht (1713). After the six articles were read orders were given for the offending former minister to be arrested and brought before the House. Bolingbroke had, though, long anticipated this moment and towards the end of March that year had fled the country, disguising himself by blackening his eyebrows and adopting a different wig. Bateman condemned his behaviour as mean-spirited and likely to make things worse for those remaining to face the music. The Lords were well aware that Bolingbroke was no longer in the country, and as some peers quit the chamber they were heard waggishly wishing Black Rod, the officer responsible for securing his arrest, a good voyage.

Three days after exhibiting the articles against Bolingbroke the Commons demanded that he appear within a limited time to answer the charges. In default of this Bolingbroke would be subject to a bill of attainder – stripping him of his title, estates and common rights. On 14 September Black Rod informed the Lords that neither Bolingbroke nor the duke of Ormond (who had also fled the country) had appeared in answer to the summons opening the way for both men to be attainted. Orders were given for their titles to be razed from the list of peers and for each man to be formally degraded. Ormond was downgraded to the rank of a mere yeoman and his coat of arms on display in St George’s chapel Windsor was ordered to be taken down and broken up; Bolingbroke endured an even more humiliating descent as he was from thence to be referred to as Henry St John, labourer. The fact that as part of their punishment Ormond and Bolingbroke were both allocated new ranks in society – the one as a yeoman the other as a common labourer – reminds one that although England was largely unencumbered by sumptuary laws delineating a person’s position, this was still a highly stratified society and that rank mattered.

While socially humiliating, the real effect of his ceremonial degradation for the now exiled Bolingbroke was marginal. Although his property was forfeit to the crown, he had taken care before leaving the country to sell off some of his estates. And while he was no longer considered a peer in England, at the Jacobite court where he found refuge he was warmly welcomed and granted an earldom. Besides, as time passed the Whigs’ assault on the former ministers lost momentum as other matters came to predominate and the Whigs themselves became distracted by fighting between their own factions. In the summer of 1717 Oxford, imprisoned in the Tower since July 1715, took the opportunity of his opponents’ disarray to force the issue of his as yet unsettled trial, and was subsequently acquitted. By this point, Bolingbroke too was eager to be rehabilitated in England. His flirtation with the Jacobite court had not lasted long and mutual distrust between him and other Jacobite commanders quickly became apparent. Bolingbroke thus launched a campaign to secure his return home. In a letter to his disciple Sir William Wyndham, whom he urged to keep clear of Jacobite plotting, he published an essay expatiating on, among other things, the nature of the House of Commons, of which he had been a member until his elevation in 1712:

‘You know the nature of that assembly – they grow like hounds, fond of the man who shows them game, and by whose halloo they are used to be encouraged’.

What seemed increasingly plain was that by this point the game had moved on from pursuit of Bolingbroke and his colleagues as the Commons grappled with the split in the Whig ranks, divisions at court, and the more immediate threats posed by further Jacobite incursions. Besides, the fall of Walpole and his brother-in-law Viscount Townshend in the ‘Whig Split’ had removed from the ministry the most vehement of Bolingbroke’s critics. It was in this changed atmosphere that the following December reports circulated that Bolingbroke was set for a return and of his attainder being reversed.

In the event, politics intervened once again to stymie Bolingbroke’s immediate restoration. Early drafts of a bill restoring him to his titles in March 1721 failed to take effect and it was not until 1725 that he was at last given back his peerage. Walpole, however, by then once again in the ascendant, had no intention of allowing a man whom he considered ‘void of all faith and honour’ and – more to the point – a potentially significant rival back into Parliament. Thus, although restored to his title of viscount, Bolingbroke was stripped off his right of attending the House of Lords. It was thus a significantly diminished figure who was forced to carve out for himself an alternative role as philosopher-in-chief to a new opposition faction comprising an amalgam of old Tories and dissident Whigs. By 1742, nearly a decade before his eventual demise, he seems to have been a sorry figure indeed, apparently viewed by one commentator as ‘an object of pity’ and ‘the most miserable wretch in the world’ [BL, Add. MS 61478, ff.88-9].



Georgian lords 2

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50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, 1957

On 12 July we brought together parliamentarians, activists and historians to mark 50 years since the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. Here we report back from the event…

We were delighted when the Speaker accepted our suggestion of to organise an event in his official apartments to mark the anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. As many LGBT+ issues emerge in our oral history project interviews, we decided to assemble panels of Parliamentarians past and present to reflect both on their personal experiences as LGBT members of Parliament, and how the institution has changed in its attitude to homosexuality since the Act was passed. Two prestigious panels or speakers led to a wide-ranging discussion, which you can still see on BBC iplayer.

Mr Speaker introducing our first panel

After some introductory words from Mr Speaker and our Chair, Gordon Marsden, the historian Michael McManus, author of Tory Pride and Prejudice, began by noting how the 1957 Wolfenden report, which first advised decriminalisation, only had the support of 48% of the population when it was published. In writing his book he found that the Conservative party had struggled with LGBT+ rights issues (as indeed every party had), but had moved very rapidly once public opinion began to change.

There followed some very personal memories from Chris Smith and Angela Eagle, two of the first MPs who chose to come out themselves in the 1980s and 1990s. Smith remembered that although 1967 was in many ways an “inadequate” act, it did mean he was able to publicly announce his sexuality years later. Doing so meant that debates on legislation, such as the controversial ‘Section 28’ ban on the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, had to be conducted with respect as he stood in the chamber alongside other parliamentarians, as you can hear in this clip:

Angela Eagle discussed how the experience of Maureen Colquhoun, the lesbian who was outed by the press in the 1970s (which led to deselection by her local party), influenced Eagle’s own decision to come out. Having made up her mind to do so after joining the government in 1997, she consulted Chris Smith over dinner and also made sure she informed her superior Minister, John Prescott. She was surprised by his response: “Tell me something I didn’t know already love”. She said that she had felt “if it cost me my seat, that’s what it would have to do”. You can listen to Eagle here:

Gordon Marsden also remembered his decision to publicly announce his sexuality before the debate on equal age of consent, something he felt was necessary in order to contribute honestly.

Lord Michael Cashman, one of the first founders of Stonewall and now a Labour peer, shared his memories of marching with police protection at Pride rallies given the hostility of the crowds. He spoke powerfully on the courage of parliamentarians and others who came out to give leadership to the gay rights movement. Remembering the 1980s and 1990s, he described it as “a mixed bag” for the LGBT+ movement: with a mixture of repressive (e.g. Section 28) and more liberal (e.g. ending the ban on gay men serving in the armed forces) legislation. However, Cashman reflected attitudes had changed and called on politicians to “have the courage to lead public opinion”. Questions from the floor led to recognition that the issue had divided parties, with opponents and supporters on all sides. For example the Conservative Edwina Currie was mentioned by several speakers as one of the strongest supporters of the movement, as well alliances with the miners during the 1984 miner strike. The conversation touched on the role of religion and conscience in debates, with Angela Eagle replying: “why should another’s conscience affect my human rights?”

Our second panel of the evening reflected how far parliament had changed since 1967. The Conservative MP Stuart Andrew described the difference by reference to the 2013 debates on same-sex marriage in contrast to his early years as a gay politician in North Wales. From his point of view however the Conservative party was extremely liberal: “the Conservative party conference was one big gay party to me coming from Anglesey”. Lord Norton of Louth discussed how the Lords had changed since 1967 – describing an institution which was largely in favour of decriminalisation in 1967, to one very opposed to LGBT+ rights in the 1980s and 1990s, only to change again to pass same-sex marriage legislation with a greater majority than the Commons. The change from the 1980s onwards was easy to explain as public opinion moved in the same way, but the initial move against gay rights was a more complicated story.

Angela Mason, the former head of Stonewall and director of the government’s Women and Equalities unit between 2003 and 2007, believed that victories for LGBT+ rights were a combination of circumstances: some socially progressive governments (both Labour and Conservative), the importance of parliament and activism, and the courage of those who came out. She reflected that these circumstances may now be different, and the movement had to work hard to keep the gains they had made. Paul Twocock, the current Director of Campaigns, Policy and Research for Stonewall, concluded with a call to ensure that rights won were kept in place despite possible political difficulties ahead, and called on Parliament and activists to keep the spotlight on these issues both in the UK and worldwide. In this he echoed many thoughts of other panellists.

Overall there were a number of powerful speeches from our two panels, and serious reflection on how much attitudes have changed since 1967 – when, as Gordon Marsden remembered, even those who supported the bill used language in the Commons such as this from Roy Jenkins: “Those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of loneliness, guilt and shame.” Many thanks to all our panellists, both for their scholarly analysis and their personal reflections on the Act’s 50th anniversary.


You can watch the event on BBC iplayer until 21 August 2017.

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First steps in the chamber: making a maiden speech

For the one hundred or so new MPs who were elected in June, many have already achieved one of the major milestones of their Commons’ careers: the maiden speech. Here we share some of our oral history project interviewees’ memories of the first time they spoke in the Chamber…

We always ask our Oral History Project interviewees about their maiden speech. It is one of the most important ‘firsts’ for any new MP, and over the years very specific traditions have emerged for it. According to a House of Commons Library briefing,

By tradition, a new MP is called ahead of other MPs who may have indicated their wish to speak in the same debate. A maiden speech is usually uncontroversial, fairly brief and includes a tribute to the MP’s predecessor in the seat, irrespective of party, and favourable remarks about the constituency. [Read report here]

Many former MPs describe speeches to us that very much kept to this tradition in content and style. They also noted the other traditions that surround the conduct of the speech. For example, it is conventional for other MPs not to interrupt a maiden speech, and to congratulate the new MP in debate afterwards. Labour MP Ken Weetch described his reception as “all very polite” with a kind response from an opposing member. When our interviewer commented that it must have been well-received, however, he responded “Oh no, when I spoke it was largely empty… it’s always courteously received.” The Social Democrat MP Rosie Barnes also remembered a polite response to her maiden speech, which helped put her at ease about speaking in the Chamber. This lasted until her second speech, when Conservative Norman Tebbit “really savaged me”. The welcome in the Commons chamber is very brief.

One major difference between the experience of MPs now and their predecessors (most of our interviewees entered the Commons before 1997) is how quickly maiden speeches were made. A quick google search shows at least forty new MPs have already spoken in this Parliament, and in 2015 143 of the 177 newly-elected MPs spoke before the end of June (Parliament was opened on 27 May). Yet many of our interviewees took their time to make a maiden speech, doing so early was even considered a little presumptuous. Conservative MP David Madel described waiting from June until October to give his, stating that MPs who gave their maiden speeches early were expected to be “always jumping up and down and bumptious.” He went on to mention a colleague who had made three speeches in the Commons when “most of us hadn’t even started.”

Most of our interviewees planned their maiden speeches very carefully, whenever they chose to do it. Often they can clearly remember the debate and how they felt, with many admitting to nerves. Labour’s Denis Healey described his speech as “bloody awful” but that he was pleased to be complemented on it. In response the question whether he could remember his maiden speech, Conservative Sir Robert Hicks responded:

Yet on the other hand, Labour’s Ted Graham described the speech as something that “had to be done.” He was sure that he would have followed conventions, but that the memory “makes no real impression on my mind.”

Of course, a maiden is a chance for a new MP to be noticed. Conservative Ken Baker told us how his speech led to a connection with Ian Macleod, who treated him as something of a “protégé”.  In 2015 the ‘baby of the House’ Mhairi Black’s gave a very well-received speech, and this year Laura Pidcock, the new Labour MP for North West Durham, has caused a stir on social media with her unconventional attack on both a Parliament that “reeks of the establishment” and the Conservative government. In our archive, some of our interviewees tried to use their speeches to cause a stir, for example Labour’s Nigel Griffiths in the early 1990s:


For Labour’s Ivor Richard, however, speaking for the first time in the 1960s, remembered how his planned conventional speech went out of the window in response to the debate:


As this year’s new MPs battle to make their mark, and to get their speeches in before the summer recess, they might take heart from Conservative MP and later Deputy Speaker Janet Fookes’s experience, after waiting a year to make her debut:


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Always the same, but always different…

This blog by Professor John Morrill FBA, Chair of the Editorial Board of the History, celebrates the Director’s appointment to a Wolfson Professorship that will take him away from direct responsibility for managing the History for three years and suggests what an exciting time his ‘relief’ can expect to have…

While running the History of Parliament for sixteen years, our Director, Paul Seaward, has remained a scholar with interests including the career and writings of Thomas Hobbes and the First Earl of Clarendon. But not unnaturally he has also become particularly concerned with charting the history of Parliament in its broadest sense. And he has now, with the blessing of the Trustees, been awarded a British Academy/Wolfson Research Professorship for the next three years, the only historian in this round, to work on a major thematically-structured history of the post-medieval Parliament.

The project will be a new venture for the Trust, and will offer us new ways of thinking about what we do and how we do it. The association with the Academy and the Wolfson is prestigious and welcome. But the History will need someone able and willing to take over from Paul and to take on the challenge of running the project at an important moment in the history of the History.

I have always been lost in admiration for the masons who laid the foundation stones of the great Romanesque Cathedrals. As they began work on the biggest structures in the known world they knew one thing for sure: they would never live to complete the building that was laid out in their minds. And yet they devoted their lives to realising part of a vision. I suppose the founders of the History of Parliament Trust were in the same condition. They set out to produce accounts of the public lives of everyone who has sat in the House of Commons and of the selection/election histories of every constituency. As Chairman of the Editorial Board (since 2010) I am at the other end of the process: I will not be present at the topping out ceremony, but it is perfectly possible that I will live to see the 22,151 lives already in print and online advance to around 30,000. More importantly, by the time I retire we should have published MPs’ lives and constituency reports complete from 1386 to 1832, with the sole exception of 1461-1504, which will be advancing rapidly. And a further section taking the story from the Great Reform Bill to the Second Reform Bill will also be well advanced. A History of Parliament: the House of Commons for over a five hundred period will be within touching distance. Excellent!

Just as my medieval builders will not have known what changes would be made by their successors to the grand design in their heads, so the founding fathers of the History of Parliament cannot have known how the third and fourth generation would extend and elaborate their grand design. Parallel volumes on the House of the Lords are now well underway, with the first volumes covering 1660-1714 out, with the 1604-29 volumes nearing completion and the 1640-60 volumes more than a glint in the eye and there is some prospect of taking the story back into the Tudor and on into the Georgian century. With the advantages of new technology and online databases available, new and faster ways of working are already in place and new ways of disseminating the results of our research are constantly inviting us forward. And this in turn is creating opportunities for the History to reach out to wider publics in all kinds of ways. We have many followers on our website, Facebook pages and twitter feeds; we have competitions (and prizes) for students at all ages who write on parliamentary themes; we have experimented with projects involving local communities in studying the particular political history of their own areas; we are looking to find new ways of engaging with our core academic communities, but we also want to find ways of engaging and enthusing other audiences everywhere with the past, present and future of our parliamentary democracy. So this is to inform our many friends that we are committed to maintaining our core business while broadening out what we do and how we make what we do accessible; and to encourage some if you to consider whether these could be three very dynamic years for you as we want to be for the History of Parliament.


Information about the appointment of a Director for the calendar years 2018-20 can be found on the History’s news pages, and at


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A Turning Point? The Declaration of Independence and the House of Lords

The latest Georgian Lords blog by Dr Charles Littleton, Senior Research Fellow of the Lords 1715-90 Section, considers the origins and use of the two manuscript copies of the Declaration of Independence to be found in the United Kingdom.

The Declaration of Independence has iconic status in the United States of America as one of the country’s foundation documents and the 4th of July, the date in 1776 on which it was formally approved by the Continental Congress, is of course a national holiday in that country. Harvard University’s Declaration of Independence Resource Project, which is compiling a comprehensive list of all known contemporary copies of the Declaration dating from the 18th century, has recently reported an important discovery,  a manuscript version of the Declaration written on parchment dating from the 1780s. This was found not in some repository in the USA but in the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester. This ‘Sussex Declaration’, as the Harvard project has dubbed it, is one of only two manuscript copies of the Declaration still to be found in the United Kingdom. The other is in the Parliamentary Archives, and can be seen on Parliament’s own website.  There may even be a connection between these two rare ‘British’ versions of this very American document.

The copy of the Declaration of Independence was produced for the House of Lords as a result of the fierce partisan battles which convulsed Parliament at the time of the War of American Independence. The ministry led by Frederick North, Lord North, faced an opposition consisting of the group centred around Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd marquess of Rockingham, and their increasingly uncomfortable allies, the followers of William Pitt, earl of Chatham. On 2 December 1777, in the early days of the parliamentary session of 1777-8, Charles Lennox, 3rd duke of Richmond, a leading (if maverick) light among the Rockinghamites, successfully moved that a large number of papers concerning the war effort in the American colonies be laid before the House. These included the papers and correspondence of the two principal military commanders in America, Admiral Richard Howe, Viscount Howe in the Irish peerage (later created Viscount Howe in the British peerage in 1782 and then Earl Howe in 1788) and his brother General William Howe. Besides their military roles, these brothers had also been commissioned with powers to conduct peace negotiations with the colonists.

On 20 January 1778, 24 documents from the Howe brothers were laid before the House, including the copy of the Declaration of Independence. This had been copied from a version of the Declaration, perhaps one of the printed ‘Dunlap broadsides’, which had originally been sent as an enclosure in a letter, dated 11 August 1776, from the commissioners to the secretary of state for the American department, Lord George Germain. Throughout February and March the House of Lords saw a large number of acrimonious debates on the state of the American war, when the lords present in the chamber convened themselves over successive days into a ‘Committee of the Whole House’. Unlike in regular debates, when the House sat as a Committee of the Whole lords could speak more than once, which could often lead to personal spats between opposing peers and long-winded attacks on individual ministers. One peer in particular took advantage of this procedural rule– the voluble duke of Richmond.

On 5 March Richmond argued in a Committee of the Whole in favour of a bill to enable the king to appoint commissioners to treat with the American colonists. Perhaps using the copy that had been laid before the House that January, Richmond:

read the declaration of American independence by the Congress; and after commenting on it paragraph by paragraph, appealed to ministers, whether they meant to concede the several points therein set forth, or subscribe to the general assertions therein contained? This declaration asserted, that the King was a tyrant; complained that troops had been sent and quartered among them without their consent; that the admiralty courts were a grievance; that acts suspending those of their respective assemblies had been passed in the British Parliament; that the King having acted tyrannically, they had justly withdrawn themselves from his allegiance; that the judges enjoying their offices during pleasure, were thereby rendered dependant on the crown, &c. …. After condemning that part of the Declaration, which branded the King as a tyrant, for whose virtues, he said, he entertained the highest opinion, his Grace proceeded to shew the reasons why so indecent and disrespectful a language was adopted by the Congress. ….. It was therefore the delusion and deceit of ministers, which the Congress in their declaration of independence, mistakenly imputed to the King. It was upon this ground that his Majesty was first dethroned from the dominion he held over their hearts and affections.

Richmond appears to have been convinced by the Lockean arguments found in the Declaration, as he reasoned that ‘in the present instance, as soon as the king made war upon the whole body of his subjects in America, they began to reason like the Whigs in England [i.e. during the Glorious Revolution of 1688]. They said, though unjustly, that he was a tyrant; that he had deserted the government, and forfeited his dominion over them as sovereign, and that of course they were at liberty to institute another in its stead’. Richmond’s opinion was also swayed by the seemingly hopeless military situation in the colonies, exacerbated by the humiliating surrender at Saratoga in October 1777 and the entry of France into the conflict, allied with the colonists, from February 1778. He concluded that ‘if his advice were taken, sooner than hazard a farther continuance of the war, he would recommend to declare America independent, because he feared we must consent to it at last’. [John  Almon, The Parliamentary Register, vol. 10 (1778), pp.  277-280]

This was a turning point, for now Rockingham Whigs like Richmond could envisage an independent America and even pressed for it. This stance however split the opposition. Chathamites such as William Petty, 2nd earl of Shelburne, stated forthrightly that he ‘would never consent that America should be independent’. [Almon, Parliamentary Register, vol. 10, p. 287] On 7 April Chatham himself, who had been so involved in keeping the North American colonies British during the Seven Years’ War, came to the House specifically to speak against Richmond’s later motion, made on 23 March, for the removal of British troops from America. Rising to rebut Richmond’s reply to his initial speech, he was suddenly seized by a fit, was rendered speechless and collapsed. In the resulting pandemonium, an event which merited a large historical painting by the Boston-born artist John Singleton Copley (which contains within it individual portraits of 55 members of the upper house), Chatham was carried out of the House by his peers. He died a few weeks later on 11 May 1778, ending one of the most significant political careers in 18th-century British, and indeed imperial, history.

The recently-discovered ‘Sussex Declaration’, the parchment manuscript copy of the Declaration, was found in the West Sussex Record Office, among papers that were deposited there in the nineteenth century by solicitors for the Lennox family, whose  residence is still Goodwood House in West Sussex. It appears highly likely that the duke of Richmond, the so-called ‘radical duke’, the most outspoken member of the House of Lords for the cause of the American colonists, is the link between these two rare manuscript copies of the Declaration of Independence still found on British soil.


Additional Reading:

Olson, Alison,  The Radical Duke: The Career and Correspondence of Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond (Oxford University Press, 1961)


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