British Parliamentary History, 1102-1803 - Description

British Parliamentary History; an Introduction


1. Introduction »

2. Parliamentary Reporting »

3. King-in-Parliament: Parliament become king-maker »

4. 'As From the Throne of Heaven': Governing an Empire »



Writing in the 1840s, the Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, established the importance of Parliamentary records to the functioning of British political society: '[Edmund] Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all'. Such reporting, Carlyle declared, gave power and authority to those assembled in Parliament: 'whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority'. The reports which gave life to the nation's political discussions were still relatively new to the process of standardisation: Hansard had taken over the responsibility for printing debates at the start of the 1800s, and the process was a private, unregulated enterprise until 1909. Indeed, before the 1770s the majority opinion in the political sphere ? as reflected in legal protection ? was that the words of Members of Parliament ought to be protected from the public, and the process of securing and printing debates was fraught with legal dangers.

Despite such legal barriers, there exist several large collections of Parliamentary reports for the period before Hansard. These recordings exist in a variety of non-standardised formats and were collected by a number of politicians, diarists and reporters. This collection offers access to a wide ranging selection of some of the most important and detailed collections of Parliamentary reports. The very significant strength of the collection here lies in its breadth of coverage: Parliamentary history from the twelfth to the early nineteenth century details the growth of governance through Parliament, the Civil Wars and the creation of Britain's modern system of Cabinet government. In the history of Parliament we can see the creation of England and Britain; we can experience the history of this 'sceptred isle' through its legislative assembly.

For the historian, this collection provides an excellent insight into the history of Parliament and British politics. With excellence in both breadth and depth, the content here assembled provides some of the most significant resources available in British political history. To have coverage of the central political body in English, and British, history from the twelfth century through to the early nineteenth century is of great worth and significance to the student, researcher and historian. We see in these records events which shaped the politics of the British Isles and the lives of the various British peoples. The diaries of Anchitell Grey, as recorded in his Debates of the House of Commons from the year 1667 to the year 1694, are one of the key resources for any discussion on the Exclusion Crisis and Revolution of the late 1680s, while the records of John Almon and William 'Memory' Woodfall provide some of the strongest collections of Parliamentary records for the latter eighteenth century. To have these, and many more, collected into one place will allow the researcher and student an unparalleled access, and insight, to the political history of the British Isles.

Throughout the period covered here, we can see a wide range of history unfold. The breadth of detailed coverage allows us to see the first steps towards the creation of Parliament through Magna Carta, the expansion of the Parliamentary body to include Wales (and, briefly, Ireland and Scotland during Cromwell's Commonwealth), the development of Parliamentary supremacy after the Civil Wars and Restoration of the monarchy, the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain after the Act of Union (1707), the slow - but influential - birth of the concept of Cabinet government and the development of the role of Prime Minister under Robert Walpole (who governed from the 1720s to the 1740s), the creation and collapse of the first British Empire in North America, the British reaction to the French Revolution, and an age of great thinkers (including Thomas Hobbes, Jonathan Swift, John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and more).

The discussion below aims not to provide an exhaustive detail of any event; rather, it seeks to explore the development of Parliamentary reporting as a significant step in British politics and uses two separate crises of Parliamentary sovereignty as a lens through which to see, and in order to highlight, the rich detail recorded about the discussions in the Palace of Westminster.

Parliamentary Reporting

Information from the early Parliaments of England in the medieval period is difficult to come across: the first volume of the House of Lords Journal (which is still printed today) dates from 21 January 1510. These older texts tended to be printed in Latin, but English became the increasingly dominant language throughout the medieval period. The creation, and continuation, of an English Parliament was largely the result of the need for money (especially for England to fund the fighting against the Scots to the north). Magna Carta ensured that kings had to ask for money from their barons; and, by 1265, Simon de Montfort had secured Parliament's position whilst also expanding the franchise to include elected, commoner representatives. The model of representation was established (de Montfort was a rebel, and his Parliaments were not called by the authority of the king) by 1295. By the thirteenth century, Scotland and Ireland had both also created their own, independent parliaments (and the Irish Parliament in 1542 decided that whoever held the English throne should also hold the Irish throne).

The English Parliament's continued existence came from the legitimacy it gave monarchs, especially in raising revenue for wars (notably against the Scottish, Welsh and French). The expansion of the franchise was stopped in 1430; there was a fear that the body might be over-run by commoners and those who were low-born, and so a property qualification was established (such qualifications were not removed from the male suffrage until 1918 and the female suffrage until 1928).

Parliament grew increasingly bold throughout this period of development. The House of Commons in particular challenged the monarchy: Crown ministers were attacked and impeached by the Commons, and direct criticism was made of royal policy. In the medieval and early modern periods, such protests and criticisms were often met with arrest and imprisonment. The power and role of Parliament at this time relied very much on the authority commanded by the monarch: a strong king would result in a weakened Parliament, while a weak monarch would see the growth of Parliament's authority and power.

Many of the traditions and practices still involved in Parliament's day-to-day business, as well as its seat in the Palace of Westminster, come from this time (the tradition of bowing to the Chair of the Speaker comes, for example, from the fact that the chair had been placed in front of the altar in the chapel used to seat the first Commons). The records included here provide us with an excellent insight into these early workings of Parliament; they provide information, oftentimes quite detailed in nature, on the earliest workings of Parliamentary governance in England, and they inform us of the ways in which the country was governed and would come to be governed.

The majority of the information available herein, however, relates to the latter seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; this focus is in a large part owing to the fact that it was at this time that attitudes towards reporting and the press began to change. While the process of Parliamentary reporting remained a dangerous and difficult one throughout the period before Hansard, the long eighteenth century saw significant change in attitudes towards the press and political class. With the abolition of the Star Chamber in 1641, journalism was able to practice a greater ? though still very restricted ? freedom of reporting. This increase in freedom came alongside the increasingly central constitutional and governmental role played by Parliament in the run-up to, and during, the English Civil Wars in the 1640s. The crucial significance of Parliament in this conflict ignited in Britons a thirst for knowledge regarding the happenings in Westminster. Whilst the freedoms were short-lived (censorship was re-established in 1643), publishers and politicians had begun the process of exposing the details of Parliamentary discussions. Parliament, however, continued to protect its privilege: as a show of the severity of the issue, a sitting MP, Sir Edward Dering, was expelled from the chamber and imprisoned by the House in 1641 for printing copies of his own speeches.

After the Restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s, Parliament again tightened the rules regarding the publication of accounts of its debates. On 25 June 1660, Parliament resolved that 'no person whatsoever do presume at his peril to print any votes of proceedings of this House without special leave and order of this House'. When the Licensing Act lapsed in 1695, British journalism was rekindled and revived, but Parliament remained vigilant in the protection of its privilege: as reports began to appear in various publications, Parliament decreed the publishers 'scandalous and malicious' and believed that the publication promoted 'sedition in the kingdom'. Reports were, nonetheless, provided to the interested public through a variety of means: summaries of debates recorded from memory were available in a variety of formats, including recordings by Richard Chandler and Grey's diary (all of which are included herein). These pioneers of Parliamentary reporting continued to push the issue by boldly refusing Parliament's demands to stop printing.

Despite further attempts throughout the early eighteenth century to control the press (Parliament, for example, continued to try publishers, and it enacted a tax upon newspapers in 1712 and doubled it in 1757) reports became increasingly easy to find, professional in standard and widely distributed. Edward Cave began the publication of the Gentleman's Magazine in 1731 and this saw the beginning of reporting on a far grander scale. Cave used good relations with MPs and the Speaker of the House of Commons to ensure his reports were as accurate as possible: he is said to have sent proofs to various Members for editing and correction (this was a model similarly adopted by The Times newspaper in the 1890s when it published a short-lived but ultimately unsuccessful rival to Hansard and invited Members to edit and correct their passages before publication). The issue of reporting was raised in debate as a result of the success of the Gentleman's Magazine and other reports in 1738; Parliament again established that its deliberations were not to be reported in a far firmer resolution than had been passed previously. This resolution temporarily stunted the growth of Parliamentary reporting and journalism: the loophole of publishing the records of the debates through the Parliamentary recesses was removed, and Parliamentarians became less willing to aid the reporters. The reports continued, however, in the guise of details from fictitious senates with little consequence (and, at least in this period, little public interest).

By the 1760s, reporting was becoming an increasingly transparent affair. The (in)famous John Wilkes, in his publication of the North Britain, tested waters hitherto unknown. He published accounts of debates quoting Members directly and attacked the politics and politicians involved. After fleeing England because of his political manoeuvres and reporting, Wilkes returned in 1768 and was elected as Member for Middlesex. The political drama caused by Wilkes led to the arrest of publishers who had been involved in trying to bring to light the Parliamentary discussions. A political crisis followed when several of the printers took refuge in the City of London (which claimed the right to arrest within its own limits) and denied the House of Common's messengers entry to conduct the arrests. All throughout the crisis and despite the potential dangers, the printing of Parliamentary debates continued. Although several of the newspapers which had been involved in the publishing stopped or suspended the printing of reports, a number continued throughout the crisis or quickly resumed reporting. Parliament had failed to stop the reporting of debates and, although it continued to hold the power of privilege and at times cleared the gallery (to attempt to stop details of sensitive or important debates being recounted to the newspapers), it was from this point that reporting became an accepted and common practice in the British political world.

It was as a result of the political events of the latter 1760s and early 1770s that many of the most influential and most developed political reports came into being. Almon's contributions to the London Evening Post were, as he stated in his memoirs, a result of the desire to 'make the nation acquainted with the proceedings of Parliament'. 'Memory' Woodfall similarly began his reports in the Morning Chronicle from 1769. Reports continued to partially obscure names and provided details from supposedly fictitious assemblies, but this was increasingly realised to be unnecessary. Almon quickly established himself as one of the most capable reporters, and many of the other papers and magazines initially copied verbatim his reports.

As reporting became more accepted, competition (and therefore the accuracy and reliability) of reports improved. This was further driven by a genuine public interest; newspapers which had failed to include reports from Parliament saw their circulation numbers drop and received complaints from customers. The process was in no way standardised or professional: paper notes were not allowed to be taken in the House until 1783. Accounts taken before then relied on memory, conversation and interpretation, and the gallery was an uncomfortable place with little or no view of the floor of the chamber. Throughout the 1770s, a variety of Members expressed their displeasure at being misquoted. Alexander Wedderburn, for example, stated: 'Why, to be sure, there are in that report a few things which I did say, but many things which I am glad I did not say, and some things which I wish I could have said' while Thomas Townshend commented 'I have sometimes borrowed a paper to hear what I said myself, sometimes very much surprised by it'. Despite these complaints, the reports generally (although not always) matched many of the significant details of what had happened; this validity can be established through comparisons with, for example, the personal and extensive diaries of Henry Cavendish. There were certainly mistakes, omissions and transgressions, but it was not until the standardisation and professionalisation of reporting afforded in the years of Hansard that certainty could be established. It was, nonetheless, this period which saw the creation for the first time in British history of a reliable, detailed account of the deliberations of the country's legislative assembly. The collection available here provides an excellent account of this change through some of the sources most influential to its development.

King-in-Parliament: Parliament become king-maker

The seventeenth century saw some of the greatest constitutional and political upheavals in British history. A Scottish king, James VI and I, inherited the throne of England in 1603; his successor, Charles I, went to war against his Parliament and ultimately lost all (including his head) in 1649; England became a short-lived republic under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell; and after the collapse of the Cromwellian regime, the son of Charles I, Charles II, was invited to re-take his father's throne. At the heart of all these decisions and changes was Parliament: the Houses controlled the country's finances and had become an essential part of the functioning of the British state. Parliament continued to grow in confidence and strength throughout this period and, in the late 1680s, it took it upon itself to become a king-maker.

The issue was Charles II's brother, the Duke of York (later, James VII and II) and his Catholic faith. The majority of the House of Commons and a strong minority in the House of Lords opposed a Catholic inheriting the throne of England; this was the age of religious war and the idea of having a Catholic sit as the head of the Protestant Church of England was too much for many Parliamentarians to stomach. Parliament and king fought each other: Parliament tried, unsuccessfully, to exclude the Duke of York from the line of succession. After the Duke became king, and with the seeming threat of a French, Catholic power overtaking England, Parliament invited James' daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, to take the throne in 1688-9. This revolution, coined the Glorious Revolution, altered permanently the relationship between Parliament and the Crown: Parliament became king breaker and maker, and the relationship would from then be one of governance by King-in-Parliament. During the debates, Parliament was informed that by maintaining his Catholic religion, James had 'broken the fundamental laws of the constitution'.

Grey's debates provide us with a central and crucial account of the debates in Parliament regarding the Exclusion Crisis and Revolution of 1689. In these records, we see, for example, the Parliamentary arguments regarding the role of king and Parliament: one MP, a Tory, stated: 'I have always taken it that the government had its original not from the people but from God' while another supported this argument claiming 'the kings of England rule [...] from God alone and that no power on earth ought to dispute it'. To counter this, it was suggested that 'the king's right to the crown,' came from 'common and statute law' and that 'he who says that the king's power is more than Parliament's have given him is little versed in [the] English story'.

With the failure of the Exclusion Parliaments in 1680 and 81 to block James VII and II from the throne, Parliament was forced to call a revolutionary Convention Parliament. This was a dangerous political move and reporting of meetings and votes was banned (although a significant number of details and broadsheets continued to report on the debates). The details in Grey's debates show us the ways in which Parliament deliberated on the constitutional and practical issues in front of them: orders to print votes were considered, in order to gather public support for the plan, correct the wrong and unauthorised reports circulating in the coffee houses of the capital, and to provide information to the constituents outside of London. The debate on the issue, as recorded in outstanding detail by Grey, shows the historian that Members of Parliament were concerned with the practical politics of king-making. We similarly see in these records a movement by a minority in Parliament to provide far greater quantities of information to the public and to widen the remit of the Convention Parliament to include a greater number of 'the people'. Such ideas were, however, not supported by the majority.

It was through a deal struck between William of Orange and Parliament that the new King was proclaimed. Those loyal to James or to ideas of divine succession had found it difficult to accept the replacement of their king, and William had grown tired of the political discussion. When he threatened to return home to Holland unless he was made king, Parliament decided to act: James VII and II, it was decided, had abdicated and the throne was therefore vacant. On Wednesday, 13 February 1689, the Declaration of the new monarchs was read in Parliament. Grey reported that:

The Lords and Commons agreed "That the Prince and Princess of Orange should be proclaimed King and Queen of England, France and Ireland, &c. to hold the Crown, &c. during their Lives, and the Life of the Survivor; the Regal Power to be exercised by the Prince; and after their Decease, the Crown to devolve to the Heirs of the Body of the Princess; in Default of such Issue, to the Princcss Anne, and the Heirs of her Body; and for Default of such Issue, to the Heirs of the Body of the said Prince of Orange." And they were accordingly proclaimed King and Queen the day after (the 14th) with great solemnity, both Houses of Parliament attending in the Procession.

Parliament further secured this Protestant succession through the Act of Settlement (1701) and the Act of Union with Scotland (1706-7).

'As From the Throne of Heaven': Governing an Empire

'Unhappily England,' commented a nobleman after the defeat of the British army to the American Revolutionary forces at Yorktown, Virginia, 'bankrupt in genius as well as other resources does not offer one man [?] capable of preserving the Empire. An exuberancy of declamatory eloquence is to be found in either House of Parliament. But an individual where experience, judgement, integrity, sound discretion unite is not the produce of this season'. As in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, Parliament was again at the centre of an argument over power. In 1689, Parliament had arguably won the battle and secured a far more central role in British governance; however, less than 100 years later and after the apparent settlement of the British constitution throughout the eighteenth century, Parliament's authority was to be directly (and successfully) challenged by the Americans in their War for Independence. The events of the period between the 1760s and 1790s are one of the golden ages of Parliamentary oratory, and we are exceptionally lucky to have such detailed collections of information regarding the events which created an independent America.

Thanks to the growth in reporting and availability of information, the 'declamatory eloquence' of the Houses of Parliament was now open to the public in a way previously unimaginable. The reports and details collected by John Debrett and John Almon, amongst others, serve as our central point of reference for the details of Parliamentary discussion and debate. In these debates, we can see the firm establishment of a professional political class: Burke, the two Pitts (Elder and Younger), Fox, North and Barré are some of the greatest and most accomplished Parliamentarians in modern British history.

The central issue in the movement for American independence was the role Parliament played in the governance of the colonies: Parliament asserted its right to govern (and, importantly, tax) the Americans directly; the Americans believed their own colonial assemblies to be examples of Westminster-in-the-Wilderness, subject only to the Crown and capable of negotiation with the imperial parliament in Westminster. The records of these debates provide fascinating insight into the daily politics of Parliament. On the debate regarding the repeal of the Townshend Duties in March 1770, a prominent supporter of American rights, Barlow Trecothick, commented:

a few years ago, the genius of a minister [William Pitt], supported by your fleets and armies, set you at the head of the world. The East and West Indies were in your hands. Your infant hands were not able to grasp the world. Instead of that, you have been confining yourself to the lowest business, that of pursuing little, low criminals, instead of giving laws to the world. Like that emperor staying at home catching flies.

We see in the records some of the greatest constitutional debates and discussions of the eighteenth century. In response to the shifting situation in America, the British political class were constantly trying to re-define, re-determine or re-impose the British constitution and the role of Parliament for a now global empire. Edmund Burke in particular is a shining light of oratory excellence throughout these debates. Speaking in the debates after the Boston Tea Party, and during the passage of a package of Acts (known as the Coercive or Intolerable Acts) designed to subdue the Americans, Burke established his grand vision for a global empire ruled effectively and efficiently from Westminster:

The Parliament of Great Britain sits at the head of her extensive empire in two capacities: one as the local legislators of this island, providing for all things at home, immediately, and by no other instrument than executive power. The other, and I think her nobler capacity, is what I call her imperial character; in which, as from the throne of heaven, she superintends all the several inferior legislatures, and guides and controls them all, without annihilating any. As all these provincial legislatures are only co-ordinate to each other, they ought all to be subordinate to her [?] She is never to intrude into the place of the others, whilst they are equal to the common ends of their institution. I consider the power of taxing in Parliament as an instrument of empire, and not as a means of supply. Such, Sir, is my idea of the constitution of the British Empire, as distinguished from the constitution of Britain; and on these grounds I think subordination and liberty may be sufficiently reconciled through the whole.

In the records we have, therefore, a precise and detailed understanding of the exact political manoeuvres and positions taken by the leading politicians. When placed in the context of the wider Atlantic World, connecting Britain and America (and the Caribbean and West Africa), there is found a capable political and merchant class conducting informed political debate. The excellence of these records comes in their attention to detail: the historian is lucky to be able to see both the grand, important debates above as well as the more specific, less ground-breaking or constitutionally influential, minutiae of Parliamentary business. (In a debate in 1772, for example, Thomas Pownall asked questions of corn provision: 'Do you suppose, Sir, that the flour mixed would make as good bread as our own wheat? I mean, would be as wholesome?'.)

The ultimate loss of the American colonies damaged Parliament's authority only in the short-term: Britain continued throughout the nineteenth century to govern much of the globe from Westminster. The records here detail the beginnings of this rise to global prominence, and to the increasing professionalisation and standardisation of reporting as would be established by Hansard.

December 2014.


To cite this resource:

Andrew Struan (2014) Pre-Hansard parliamentary reports, 1102-1803: an introduction to the British Online Archives edition, Last updated: 11 December 2014.