Elizabethan costume in the House of Commons

Expanding on the hat theme, coming across a reference from the parliamentary journal of Hayward Townshend at the beginning of the sixteenth century provoked a search through the History of Parliament Online for accounts of how people dressed in Parliament. The reference is from the end of his Journal of the 1601 Parliament, when he noted down

“Memorandum: that over the seats in the Parliament House are certain holes, some two inches square, in the walls, in which were placed posts to uphold a scaffold round about the House for them to sit on which used the wearing of great breeches stuffed with hair, like greate woolsacks; which fashion beinge left, in the parliament holden VIII Elizabeth the scaffolds were thus pulled down, and never since set up, neither was the fashion ever since used. Thus all the old Parliament men affirmed, talking one day together in the House before the Speaker came.” (Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, ed. T. E. Hartley, III (1593-1601), 493).

The Parliament of 8 Elizabeth presumably means the second session of the second Parliament of Elizabeth I, i.e, 1567. There are several interesting things about this passage. The first is the creation of the first (if temporary) gallery in the House of Commons chamber in St Stephen’s Chapel: the building had only been occupied by the Commons for around twenty years by 1567. The second is the way in which Townshend describes an institutional memory of Parliament being passed down from older members to newer ones while the House was otherwise unoccupied – a fascinating glimpse of the less formal ways in which an institution is being built. And the third is the extraordinary impact of a fleeting fashion on the provision of seating in the House. What does Townshend mean by stuffed breeches, exactly? Perhaps the hose seen in this portrait of  Sir Richard Grenville/Greville (MP for Cornwall in 1571) or this one, of Sir Philip Sidney; but these images come from the 1570s, after the time at which Townshend suggests the fashion had died out. Any suggestions welcomed.

About The History of Parliament

The History of Parliament is a major academic project to create a scholarly reference work describing the members, constituencies and activities of the Parliament of England and the United Kingdom. The volumes either published or in preparation cover the House of Commons from 1386 to 1868 and the House of Lords from 1603 to 1832. They are widely regarded as an unparalleled source for British political, social and local history.
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