9 things you didn’t know about the history of parliament
Dr Paul Seaward and Dr Emma Peplow from the History of Parliament Trust reveal nine things you probably didn't know about the houses of parliament – from England's 'first parliament' to the first Commons Speaker and the topic of MPs' pay and expenses…
Being Speaker has sometimes been a dangerous job…
The first person we know to have held the position of Speaker was Sir Peter de la Mare in 1376. The Speaker was literally the Speaker – the spokesperson for the House of Commons, whose job it was to tell the king and the lords (the most powerful people after the king) what the Commons thought of them and their proposals.
It’s not surprising, then, that some of them got into hot water: de la Mare was imprisoned as a result of his work. The powerful soon tried to make sure that their preferred candidate was elected Speaker. However, as a result, many of the men elected over the next 150 years were close to one great faction or another, and met grisly ends during their titanic struggles for power. Seven Speakers between 1394 and 1535 were executed, killed in battle, or murdered.
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…though you didn’t always need to be a saint
Things became a bit less violent after 1535, though the job could still be uncomfortable. The death of one 18th-century Speaker, Sir John Cust, was said to have been brought on by the fact that he couldn’t leave the chair while the house was sitting, even for “the usual calls of nature”.
Though the Speaker has deputies these days, so doesn’t have to remain in the chair all the time the house is sitting, it’s still a challenging job to preside over a constant battle between party politicians. It might try the patience of a saint, but only one Speaker actually was a saint – Sir Thomas More, Speaker in 1523, who was executed in 1535 for refusing to swear the oath declaring Henry VIII to be the head of the church.
No one can really say when the ‘first parliament’ met
It depends what you mean by a parliament. Kings have, since time immemorial, brought together the most powerful people in the country to advise them and to discuss difficult problems.
Many historians used to say that the first real parliaments – things that we might recognise today as such, with representatives of local communities – happened in the 13th century, and liked to draw attention to the important parliaments of 1265 called by Simon de Montfort, or 1295, called by Edward I. But these parliaments didn’t seem at the time all that different to assemblies called before or afterwards, and some historians now argue that the tradition of national assemblies with a central role in politics and government goes back in England to the beginning of the 10th century.
MPs’ pay and expenses have always been a hot topic
The rates were fixed in 1327 – 2 shillings (10p) per day for MPs from cities and towns, and 4 shillings (20p) a day for those who were sent by the counties. It may not sound a lot, but it was in the Middle Ages.
The local communities that sent them were responsible for finding ways to pay the rates, and they didn’t like it one bit – there were a number of legal disputes between MPs and towns and counties about getting hold of the money. In the 16th and 17th centuries it became more common for very rich men to be elected, especially if they told their constituencies that they wouldn’t insist on their wages.
The practice died out, and it was only in 1911 that MPs started to get paid again. By this time, a much more democratic electorate was sending men to parliament who could not afford to go without some sort of salary. But even then, there was so much opposition from within parliament that the government tried to claim that MPs would only receive an ‘allowance’ for expenses, rather than a salary.
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Parliament hasn’t always met at Westminster
In the Middle Ages, parliament would usually be summoned to come to where the king expected to be – which wasn’t always at his big palace at Westminster. It was quite common in the 14th century, for example, for it to meet in the north – often at York, but also in Carlisle or Nottingham, or other places. It was frequently because the king needed to be in the north to deal with a crisis in England’s relationship with Scotland, or with unruly barons on the country’s northern border.
Until around 1547 the House of Commons had no permanent meeting place. Even then, parliament has sometimes been forced out of Westminster by various emergencies. In 1625 and 1665 it met in Oxford because of outbreaks of the plague in London. In 1681 it went there again because of fears of political unrest in the capital. During the Second World War, even before the House of Commons chamber was partly destroyed by bombing in 1941, it sometimes met a short distance away, in Church House, which was thought less likely to be targeted.
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The House of Commons’ first dedicated home was an old chapel…
St Stephen’s Hall, which housed the House of Commons in Westminster from 1547 onwards, began life as a private royal chapel. Edward I began work on the chapel to rival Louis IX's Sainte Chapelle in Paris, but it took 70 years to complete. The total cost was around £9,000, which paid for the Purbeck marble and lavish painted roof and walls.
After the royal family left the Palace of Westminster during the reign of Henry VIII, his son Edward transformed it into a meeting place for the Commons. The walls were whitewashed, and the MPs sat on pews facing one another – leading to the adversarial chamber we still have today. As the Commons grew in numbers and importance over the centuries, the size of the hall became a distinct problem for MPs.
…until the Great Fire of 1834
By the 19th century it was clear that the medieval and early modern buildings at Westminster were not fit for purpose, but MPs could not agree on a solution. The decision was taken out of their hands on 16 October 1834: an unsupervised fire of old ‘tally sticks’ – a form of medieval accounts – led to a huge fireball that exploded at around 6.30pm, and engulfed the whole complex.
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Thousands gathered to watch the spectacle, and volunteers manned the pumps all night to try to bring the fire under control. Firefighters soon realised they had to prioritise their efforts. In the words of Viscount Althorp, then chancellor of the Exchequer: “Damn the House of Commons… but save, o save [Westminster] Hall.” The hall indeed survived, but the rest of the complex lay in ruins the next morning, ready for Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin to create the new Palace of Westminster.
The public have not always known what went on in parliament
Today we have a very full record of parliamentary proceedings, yet this was not always the case. We only have patchy sources for medieval and early modern parliaments. Sometimes chronicles or diaries were kept by individual MPs, but there are problems with these (what if the diarist was away, or simply could not hear?). MPs occasionally published versions of their own speeches, though they weren’t really supposed to: parliament prosecuted publishers of debates until John Wilkes [English radical, journalist, and politician] successfully protected them in the 18th century.
In 1802, William Cobbett began publishing Parliamentary Debates, compiled from printed sources, which was later taken over by Thomas Hansard. Although not complete, it was seen as impartial, and reflected growing interest in parliamentary proceedings after the 1832 Reform Act. Hansard was eventually taken over by parliament itself in 1909. It became a virtually verbatim record of the debates, and was renamed Official Report, yet most still know it by its old name.
The House of Lords has often been controversial
Calls for reform of the House of Lords are by no means a modern phenomenon. The Lords’ opposition to the decision of the ‘rump’ Commons to put Charles I on trial in 1649 led to the abolition of the house as “useless and dangerous”. In 1657 Oliver Cromwell reinstated an ‘Other House’, but the Lords did not return in full until the restoration of Charles II.
The Lords came under attack again in the early 20th century, thanks to opposition by Conservative peers to the 1906 Liberal government’s reforms. The matter came to a head when the Lords, against parliamentary convention, vetoed the ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909. Following two elections in 1910 and George V’s agreement to create hundreds of new Liberal peers, the Lords were forced to agree to both the budget and the 1911 Parliament Act.
David Lloyd George’s “ordinary men chosen at random from the unemployed” could no longer veto money bills or laws passed by the Commons in three successive sessions. The preamble to the act hinted at further reform of the house, but it was only in 1999 that most of the hereditary peers were removed, and for many, the reform of the Lords is unfinished business.
Dr Paul Seaward is director of the History of Parliament Trust, and Dr Emma Peplow is communications and outreach officer.
This article was first published by History Extra in March 2015
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