The Sacred Sofa

E.S. Turner

  • The House of Lords: From Saxon Wargods to a Modern Senate by John Wells
    Hodder, 298 pp, £20.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 340 64928 3

Those who have visited the House of Lords as tourists may remember a notice entreating them not to sit on the Woolsack. Nobody at all will remember a light novel of thirty years ago in which the hero, detained in the Palace of Westminster for contempt of Parliament, was found on the Woolsack passionately entwined with his girlfriend. Reader, I wrote it. I well recall that a film producer of modest fame expressed an interest and asked me whether I thought the House of Lords would lend the chamber and the Woolsack for filming. Eager though I was to sell the film rights, I had to say I thought this unlikely. Not long afterwards the producer died suddenly and that was that.

The scarlet Woolsack, described by John Wells as ‘a sofa sacred to the law’, plays a sit-on part throughout this book. Though periodically restuffed with Commonwealth wool, it retains all the ‘ritual magic’ of medieval days. During the Gordon Riots of 1780 it was the holy refuge on which Lord Mansfield, deputising for the Lord Chancellor, at last subsided after being manhandled by the mob in ‘a sudden flare-up of the old Eurosceptic anti-Catholic mania’. There he sat, the Lord Chief Justice, spectacles broken, ‘quivering like an aspen’ according to Horace Walpole, while his fellow peers, who had been torn from their chariots and chased over roofs, arrived ‘dis-wigged’ and debris-spattered; one had been relieved of his watch and a bishop had had his lawn sleeves ripped off. There, too, I would have thought, were the makings of a good film, with a spectacular bonus in the sight, up the road in Holborn, of frenzied Eurosceptics turning into pillars of fire as they tried to drink flaming spirits flowing from the newly sacked distilleries.

John Wells’s The House of Lords is not one of those histories in which the text is infested with tiny numerals, like greenfly, and padded out with fifty pages of notes (there are no notes). Its approach, described as anecdotal, is informal to the point of perverseness, but the man is obviously happy in his work and only the costive academic will grind his teeth. We open with the mystery of how Lord Milford came to be the Lords’ only Communist peer (‘D’you know, after I’d spoken, not one of them would buy me a drink? None of them. Not anything at all’). The next chapter describes the theatre of a state opening of Parliament, featuring such kenspeckle figures as ‘Sir David Frost arriving to exchange a word with his father-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk and Earl Marshal’, and the Earl Marshal pointing out the patriotic wall paintings to his French guests and saying: ‘Vous voyez? Agincourt. Autre victoire pour nous. Victoire des Anglais contre les Français.’ Only in the next chapter does Wells think of investigating the Saxon origins of the Lords, but we do not spend too long with the witanagemot; somehow the chapter drifts into an examination of heraldic whimsy, with a mention of Harry Secombe’s motto ‘Go on’, which can be read as ‘Goon’. Wells wondered whether jokes like that irritated Garter King-at-Arms. Not at all, Garter said, ‘I happen to think that’s rather nice.’ The next chapter sees Mrs Thatcher being led into the Lords for ennoblement, with Garter commanding ‘Sit!’ at the appropriate moment (‘I was amazed. She sat’). Then, bravely, back to ancient days.

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