Members’ Memorial

G.R. Elton

  • The History of Parliament: The Commons 1558-1603 edited by P.W. Hasler
    HMSO, 1940 pp, £95.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 11 887501 9

Has there ever been a theme as much studied by English historians as the history of Parliament? At one time, indeed, it seemed almost to stand in for the history of the country itself: history equalled politics, and politics equalled Parliament. Stubbs structured the 14th and 15th centuries around what were, after all, intermittent and occasional meetings of this supposedly representative body; the Tudor century received blame for not having a true parliament, one worthy of the name, since the monarchs were supposedly allowed to do as they pleased with it; the origins, history and consequences of the Great Rebellion were seen to revolve around Parliament; and after 1660 everything became Parliament and parties, leading on to the zenith of their history in the 19th century. If this was whig history it affected tories in quite the same way. The layman may well wonder why work should still be done on the history of Parliament, that olive whose oil has surely long since been pressed from its desiccated flesh.

There have in fact been three distinguishable phases in modern historians’ treatment of the institution. For a long time, the discussion centred upon Parliament’s supposed political role – on Parliament as the instrument of control over monarchic despotism. The story of Parliament was the story of constitutional liberty, growing steadily over the ages until conflict resolved the rivalry in the 17th century. We heard a good deal about the rise of the House of Commons, the growth of privilege, the control of the purse, the redress of grievances – a whole bundle of achievements all leading to the ultimate victory of the representative institution (and all, incidentally, now much in doubt). The only laws made in Parliament that received attention were those which could be accommodated in this history of constitutionalist politics (the landmarks of freedom), and the only business dealt with at length illustrated the growing independence of elected members. Such outsiders as legal or economic historians might busy themselves with other parts of the vast legislative output, but historians of Parliament focused their lenses very much more narrowly.

This rather cosy story of politics and parties received a severe jolt in 1929 when Lewis Namier posed the question why men entered Parliament and answered that, at least in the middle of the 18th century, they mostly did so for reasons that had nothing to do with party or politics. This opened the psephological era of Parliamentary history – the age which put its trust in the analysis of multiple biographies. Members of the Lower House revealed the secrets of their personal and family lives to a growing army of researchers who concluded that the role of Parliament lay in its social structure: it formed a microcosmic embodiment of the macrocosm dubbed the political nation. The politics of Parliament, it came to be thought, had nothing to do with constitutionalism, liberty, or even party (at least before about 1800), and everything to do with personal advancement and fortune: Westminster contained and reflected the realities of shire and family. Convictions and principles took a bad beating from which they are only now slowly recovering. Even those few acts of Parliament that the constitutionalists had emphasised tended to disappear from the discussion; what actually went on in Parliament seemed to matter so little that Namier could decide to ignore the Journal of the House of Commons, the official record of the institution supposedly studied, in his work on the Parliaments of George III.

These two very different forms of the history of Parliament shared some preconceptions. Though one treated Parliament as the bearer of constitutional advance and the other studied it as a mirror of the governing order, neither was interested in the laws there made – a topic usually left to lawyers whose history too often justified the neglect bestowed upon it by the guardians of the shrine. And both sets of historians really equated Parliament with the House of Commons, overlooking the crown’s membership of the institution and relegating the Lords to obscurity. These preconceptions came to offend two very different sets of historians. Students of social structure began to ask why the aristocracy, so dominant in the localities, so manifest at court, and incidentally so respected by the Namierites when it managed elections to the Commons, should cease to matter as soon as it became corporately visible in the House of Peers. On the other hand, students of the actual working of government ventured to inquire why only so small a selection from the many bills and acts which, to judge by the record, filled the days of Parliamentary meetings should be worthy of investigation. Between them, and with the assistance of scholars generally in revolt against the inherited ways, they opened up the next phase in Parliamentary history.

This new approach, which may be called functional as against the political and social mainlines of its predecessors, has already undermined the traditional interpretations of Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian Parliaments, but it is still new, and a great deal of work remains to be done. In doing it, these so-called revisionists will do well to remember the fate of their ancestors. Stubbsian and Namierite interpretations rose because they accurately discerned certain aspects of the story; they fell because they turned these partial understandings into imaginary pictures of the whole. If today we want to know what Parliament did rather than was talked of as doing, if today we mean by Parliament the trinity of king and Lords and Commons, and if today we wish to take our beginning from the Parliamentary record properly so called, we should not forget that political struggles, variously motivated, did take place and that the social composition of the House did affect the purposes and fortunes of the assembly. Recognising that Parliament normally achieved its ends by general co-operation does not mean denying the occasional occurrence of conflict; recognising the role of the Lords does not mean turning the Commons into nonentities.

Not that we are in much danger of forgetting these things, for the slanted and insufficient views of the past still have determined defenders. The demolition of that famous early-Stuart Parliamentary conflict in which ‘the Commons’ triumphed over the crown has not yet persuaded everybody: in the United States, especially, powerful and combative personalities preside over the protection of a cause which is linked for them to the events of 1776. And as the volumes here under review demonstrate at length and with weight, Namierism is far from exhausted. Up to a point, admittedly, this last phenomenon can deceive. The crowning achievement of the Namierite phase of Parliamentary history was the setting up of a great scheme of collaborative research called the History of Parliament Trust, charged with the task of collecting biographies of all members that ever sat in the Commons down to about 1800, and with explaining the history of the peculiar institution from an analysis of the mass of details so assembled. The work started in 1951, at the height of Namier’s ascendancy, when such other Parliamentary historians as J. E. Neale, Wallace Notestein and W. O. Aydelotte wished humbly to import Namierism into further periods of their preoccupation’s history. (Medievalists, such as K. B. McFarlane, though naturally unwilling to admit to being Namier’s pupils, used much the same methods to serve much the same ends.) These present volumes, originally presided over by Neale, have taken some thirty years to come before us, well after the beginning of the next phase of Parliamentary studies, so that they look a bit like survivors from a previous age, woken from their sleep, rubbing their eyes, and gazing with some bewilderment upon bystanders who in turn regard them with a mixture of disbelief and a due respect for age. The list of contributors has an elegiac quality – a roll-call of names many of whom have long since parted company with the enterprise and have made respected reputations in very different fields of inquiry. Who would have thought to find here the historians of Elizabethan Puritanism, of the 13th-century eyre, of the Elizabethan Chancery, of the massacre of St Bartholomew? Too many of the team did not live to see their work in print. Most strange, however, is the virtual absence of Sir John Neale himself, explained (if that is the word) in a prefatory note by the present chairman of the Editorial Board. Criticism must be muted by these solemn signs of human evanescence. Vita brevis, labor longus: is it not almost indecent to question the value of work that has occupied so many good men and women for so long, with so little hope of fame or fortune?

Yet if that work is not to be slighted it calls for assessment, and assessment which does not evade the duty to criticise. If I am right about the successive phases of Parliamentary history, the first question that must come to mind concerns the usefulness of an exercise belonging to an earlier fashion. Indeed, these volumes contain also remnants of the first, political phase. Sir John Neale may not in the end have contributed much specific work to them (as that preface explains), but they nevertheless stand firmly in the tradition of his own convictions. Not only do they subscribe to his belief that the history of Parliament is best studied through the Commons’ membership, but they also accept his view that that analysis demonstrates the growing political ascendancy of the Lower House. Dr Hasler’s introductory survey adds a great many tables on a great many social questions to those upon which Neale in 1949 based his description of the House – tables on family status, local connection, education, religious affiliation, and so forth; the most splendid of them informs us that only 2 per cent of the peerage (i.e. sons and younger sons of peers) married a third time, whereas 74 per cent of the gentry did so. However, all this information adds very little to the picture familiar since Neale’s book came out. To take an example: where Neale told us that 29 per cent of members had been to a university and 37 to the Inns of Court, Dr Hasler’s fuller information corrects the figures to 30 and 39. On the other hand, these calculations occasionally refute a statement of Neale’s: thus the 1563 Act against Catholics had a much more drastic effect upon their presence in the House than Neale supposed. However, the general description is little changed. The tables are organised by ‘occupation-groups’, and there will always be arguments about such categories: still, so far as the social analysis of the House goes, they provide full and at times interesting information. A note of warning: before this information is used in relation to Elizabethan England as a whole we need to be satisfied that the membership of the House constitutes a good statistical sample, a point not yet proved and manifestly not true for the peerage.

One is bound to be less happy about the tables illustrating the share taken by various categories of members in the work of the House – tables, by the way, for which that occupational substructure is really quite meaningless. Here the analysis suffers from two serious weaknesses which were taken over from Neale’s work. They assume that from at least 1571 we have pretty full information on such things as membership of committees and speeches made. On the former, we are well enough instructed, but since men were often appointed to committees in order to compensate for the notorious reluctance of members to attend, or simply because their constituencies were concerned, the value of such calculations remains minimal. As for speeches, what is the point of tabulating the percentage of categorised members who spoke on this or that topic when all we have is a very incomplete record of debates? Here the failure to criticise and evaluate the sources – their purpose, bias and coverage – becomes very damaging. Secondly, the slant of the tables and their interpretation are gravely affected by the fact that Dr Hasler wrote before it became evident that Neale had seriously overstated the independence of the House and especially had dreamed up an organised Puritan opposition which never existed. Adherence to those views also affects the biographies, a good case in point being provided by that very active Parliament-man, Thomas Norton. Now known to have been one of the Privy Council’s most active managers in the House, he was typed by Neale as a leader of the Puritan opposition. His biographer still reads him in Neale’s way, so that some reasonably transparent official manoeuvres have to be called ‘strange’ and Norton is associated with equally non-existent fellow radicals. Seen aright, the patchy record of debate, of committees and of procedural change throughout emphasises the managerial success of the official element – not invariable, but distinctly prevalent. The people whom diarists note as speaking most frequently turn out to be the Privy Councillors and their band of reliable supporters: whether they sat for boroughs or counties, were gentlemen or merchants or lawyers, is by comparison of singularly little significance. Like Neale, the compilers of these volumes and tables, influenced by notions of contest, conscience and conflict, misunderstood the normal working of the House, its primary concern with bills, and the quiet dominance of the official element in what were very often thinly attended sittings.

However, in the main this is a biographical dictionary and as such it retains much usefulness. To have sorted out over two thousand of those who belonged to the higher reaches of Elizabethan society, a sorting made difficult by the recurrence of names and the frequent failure of the record to make plain which Mr Smith might be meant, constitutes a notable and praiseworthy achievement. The awesome labours that dug out these mountains of personal detail deserve respect. It may be supposed without offence that inaccuracies have slipped in (some have already been drawn to my attention), but anyone familiar with the difficulties involved in pursuing often obscure men through the records of the age will at most mingle occasional regret with a general gratitude for the information supplied. It might be a good idea for the office of the Trust to keep a record of errata as they are discovered which could be made available to inquirers.

More problematic are certain principles characteristic of the whole ‘History of Parliament Trust’ enterprise which do seem to diminish the usefulness that all this effort might have produced. The biographies concentrate explicitly on men as members of the Commons, so that details of their lives not thought to be relevant are left out. Since people’s judgment in such matters differs, the quality of the biographies differs too – as it did in the old DNB. Every mention of a name as it occurs in the haphazard Parliamentary record is duly noted at length, which assists the mistaken impression that speechifying on so-called major occasions was the chief purpose of membership, and the effective ignoring of most bills and acts hides much of the reality so far as members’ interests are concerned. The problems of testing the soundness of the work are aggravated by the practice of grouping source references by paragraphs, and it is impossibly difficult to check most of the statements made in these hundreds of pages. The range of sources searched was limited by the inadequate understanding prevalent among Neale and his generation of certain major manuscript categories: thus such potentially valuable materials as feet of fines, Chancery or Star Chamber bills, or Exchequer warrants, have at best been employed patchily. Most dubious was the decision, already apparent in the earlier volumes produced for the 18th century, to present the biographies in the form of rounded essays, literary decorativeness being preferred to the accessiblity of the collected detail. It may be agreeable to get in consequence not only a fair measure of tedious but necessary stuff but also some colourful and entertaining bits and pieces, but is a directory of names the right place for ‘many amusing stories’ (I, 83), especially when these are repeated without attempts to assess their reliability? This leisurely and supposedly sophisticated method of presenting the results of research is responsible for the vast size (and terrifying price) of the volumes: I regard it as mistaken for this reason as well as in itself. At the least we might now ask, on the model of the DNB, for a Concise version as a proper tool for research.

The editor supplies some useful additional information on individual sessions, though this, too, is infested with doubt arising from his liking for percentages derived from markedly incomplete totals. Like those biographical essays, the figures gathered together and sprinkled around hide a touch of gentlemanly unprofessionalism in the enterprise. Hard-luck stories are accepted at face value (e.g. I, 17-18), and the risky operations of a teller of the Exchequer are said, in words again reminiscent of Neale, to ‘condemn the contemporary system of handling public funds’ (I, 19) – disapproval based on lack of comprehension. The remark that in 1978 the Commons Journal was available only in the old printed version (I, 68) is odd: as I have proved to my own satisfaction, it is quite easy to mark up a copy from the original manuscript and thus remedy the minor defects of the 18th-century print. And the mention of that date of 1978 makes one wonder how the editor could have missed the official role of Sir Robert Wroth in the Parliament of 1604 (I,38) when all was explained by Dr Nicholas Tyacke in 1977. The Neale-Notestein ‘paradigm’ – the story of a powerful and independent House of Commons – broods over these volumes, emphasising that they belong to eras in Parliamentary history which now lie in the past. However, that past has things to teach that must not be forgotten: for this, and for those massive biographies, we must be grateful.