Ongoing debates in British politics about Brexit have shone a light on the role of the Commons Speaker in managing often fractious debates by factions of MPs. The Speaker is the presiding officer of the House of Commons, responsible for organising the business of the House and for chairing its debates. The first Speaker, Peter de la Mare, was elected in 1376 during a constitutional crisis regarding the court and monarchy of Edward III.
As one of the highest-ranking political officials in the kingdom, the Speaker has often played a pivotal role in times of uncertainty and stress. Their role in organising the business of the Commons puts them at the forefront of managing contentious issues, and their reputation has often rested on their ability to exercise authority decisively and fairly.
Although the Speaker is today expected to be impartial, many previous officeholders were fiercely partisan, and until the mid-17th century they were often viewed as agents of the Crown. The turning point came in 1642 with Speaker William Lenthall’s famous riposte to Charles I (more on that anon).
A look at the history of the office demonstrates that the controversy that has faced the most recent Speaker John Bercow is not without precedent. Here are six of the most notable Speakers from history…
Peter de la Mare (1376; 1377)
The first named holder of the office of Speaker was Peter de la Mare, MP for Herefordshire during the reign of Edward III. De la Mare set the tone for the role of Speaker going forward: as a person who often had to negotiate fractious relationships between the Crown and parliament. He was linked with the king’s opponent, Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, and it is this connection which probably led to him taking the role of Speaker in the so-called ‘Good Parliament’ of April to July 1376.
The Commons were becoming increasingly uneasy at the corruption of Edward’s court and de la Mare acted as a spokesperson for the wide range of commercial, aristocratic and religious opponents to the king. He paid a high price for his actions – in November 1376 he was imprisoned in Nottingham Castle by the king’s son, John of Gaunt, and was only released after the death of Edward in June 1377. He was pardoned by the new king, Richard II, and in October 1377 was again elected Speaker for a further year.
William Lenthall (1640–7; 1647–53; 1654–5; 1659–60)
William Lenthall is perhaps the most famous Speaker in the history of Commons due to his defiance against Charles I when, in January 1642 the monarch entered the House to arrest five rebel MPs. Lenthall’s reply to the king’s questions about the whereabouts of the five has gone down in posterity as a symbol of parliament’s independence from the monarchy: “May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this is to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.” Lenthall thus defied the King by responding that in the House of Commons he owed his loyalty to Parliament and its members.
No monarch has set foot in the House of Commons since.
Lenthall continued to occupy the pivotal role of Speaker through the Civil War, and the Commonwealth and Protectorate [the republican governments between the reign of Charles I and Charles II]. Lenthall’s position was challenged again in April 1653 when the Rump Parliament [the small parliament that ruled following the purge of the Long Parliament] was forcibly dissolved by Oliver Cromwell and other leading army officers. Lenthall stated that he would not come down from the chair unless forced, though he did eventually back down – perhaps realising he had no other option. Although he was accused of personal weakness and of corruptly exploiting his office for financial gain, Lenthall’s determination to uphold parliamentary procedures during such a tumultuous era are creditable. He represented continuity in a period of immense political uncertainty and change.
Robert Harley (1701–5)
Robert Harley was a consummate parliamentary manager, career politician and one of the first parliamentarians to grasp the significance of the transfer of power from the monarchy to parliament after the Glorious Revolution in 1688.
Harley, maintained close relationships with both King William III and Queen Anne. With William, he finalised the conditions for the succession of the house of Hanover after Anne’s death and the expected end of the Stuart line. In 1701, following a general election, Harley accepted the court nomination to become Speaker and was elected over his Whig rival by 249 votes to 125. Harley was certainly not an impartial chair – he took a partisan role in affairs in the Commons, especially in committees of the whole house which allowed the Speaker to participate in debate.
This was a tempestuous period known as the ‘rage of party’, which saw frequent elections and divisions. There was a further election in 1701 and in the new session Harley retained the Speakership, this time as an independent, defeating the court nominee by four votes. Less than a year later, the death of William and accession of Anne triggered the third election in less than two years.
Harley, as a member of Anne’s inner circle of favourites, was again the inevitable choice for Speaker. He drafted the queen’s speech at the opening of parliament and was soon having regular meetings with leading politicians John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, and Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin, discussing matters to be decided by the cabinet; the three men became known as ‘the triumvirate’. Harley became both a minister (secretary of state for the north) and Speaker, managing parliamentary affairs expertly through fractious times. He eventually stood down as Speaker following the general election of 1705 but remained one of the most significant Tory politicians of the period.
Arthur Onslow (1728–61)
Arthur Onslow holds the record for the longest-serving Speaker; he was in office for an impressive 33 years. The third member of his family to hold the office, he was unanimously re-elected in 1735, 1741, 1747, and 1754.
Onslow is credited with modernising the office of Speaker and with recognising the importance of maintaining the independence and impartiality of the chair of the Commons chamber. He noted that he had “some regard shewn to me from many of every denomination and they had reason to believe, I should be respectful and impartial to all”. Onslow strongly believed that the procedures and processes of the Commons should protect members against the factions of parties or the interference of ministers. He introduced a series of important administrative reforms in the Commons, including the publication of the journals of the House.
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Charles Manners Sutton (1817–35)
Charles Manners Sutton was elected to the office of Speaker a record seven times, and he presided over some of the most turbulent debates in the 19th century, including: the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 (that allowed Catholics to vote and hold public office); the Great Reform Act of 1832 (the first major reform of the electoral system); and the fall of Robert Peel’s first ministry in 1835.
Although a staunch Tory who had been offered the leadership of the party during the reform crisis of 1832, Sutton had a reputation for impartiality. His obituary commended his “commanding presence, sonorous voice, and imperturbable temper”.
His second wife, Ellen, was the sister of the notorious socialite Countess Blessington, whose relationships with the romantic poet Lord Byron and the fashionable amateur artist Count D’Orsay were the subject of much gossip. Ellen presided over lively political salons and regularly visited the ‘Ventilator’ – a small attic space high above the Commons, where women were permitted to listen to debates.
Betty Boothroyd (1992–2000)
It was not until 1992 that a female Speaker was elected. Betty Boothroyd had been deputy Speaker to Bernard Weatherill [aka Lord Weatherill, Speaker from 1983 to 1992], during which time she proved she could evoke natural authority over the House. In 1992 she was voted in as Speaker with cross-party support by 372 votes to 238, asking the House “to elect me for what I am, not for what I was born”. She reformed the dress of the Speaker (she chose not to wear the traditional wig of the Speaker upon her election) and, with the aid of a televised Commons, quickly became a household name for her management of often unruly MPs.
Boothroyd’s period of office coincided with fierce debates about Britain’s role in the European Union. She had to use her casting vote on the issue of the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty [the international agreement between European states that established a European Union], although eventually it was discovered there had been a miscounting and the government had in fact won the motion without the need of her intervention.
Boothroyd also chaired Nelson Mandela’s speech to parliament in 1996. When she retired from office in 2000 she was hailed as one of the best Speakers in history, and not merely because she was the first (and to date, only) woman to take the chair. Tony Blair, for example, praised her as “a truly outstanding Speaker, who enhanced the reputation of the office”.
Sarah Richardson teaches on British electoral politics at the University of Warwick.