To break a long gap in posts in this blog, J is for Journal, the essential record of what has been decided in either House of Parliament (not what is said: the official report of the debates is an entirely different matter).

The Journals of the House of Commons and the House of Lords are irreplaceable, though often underappreciated, documents for any historian of Parliament, or indeed of British history before the nineteenth century. For the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we would know very little of the activities of either House if it were not for the journals; for the period before they exist it is impossible to construct any real narrative of what happened in Parliament. The journals represented in the sixteenth century, as they do today, an often terse record of decisions, rather than a summary of the debates (although there have been times when clerks went beyond this, to the dismay of Members). How they came to be compiled is a complex and much vexed question, one which was the subject of controversy even in the sixteenth century, and one whose complexity this blog, and this historian, can only gesture towards. A list of some of the more important and more recent discussions is included below: to all of them this summary owes a great deal.

It’s worth, to start with, to refer to the Rolls of Parliament, a series of documents beginning in the thirteenth century, which provide the ‘official’ record of the meeting of Parliament. By the middle of the fourteenth century, these have settled roughly into a standard format: they record, usually in reasonable detail, the proceedings at the beginning of each Parliament to do with the ‘charge’, or the speech usually of the lord chancellor setting out the purpose for which Parliament was called; the appointment of a group of men who were responsible for sifting the petitions that were sent to Parliament (the ‘receivers and triers of petitions’); and the presentation by the Commons of the Speaker they had elected. The remainder of the Parliament is set out much more sketchily, with less attention to the dates at which anything happened, and a more summary account of outcomes, and the ‘common petitions’ – the laws enacted as a result of requests by the whole assembly, rather than those on behalf of private individuals – included in full. The roll was, in other words, produced by officials from a collection of other memoranda and papers, shortly after the session was concluded.

The Lords Journals must have been a development of one of those elements, perhaps a running record of the activities of that chamber that was discarded after the Roll was completed. The great series of Lords Journals bound as a series preserved in the Parliamentary Archives seems to begin in 1510. It is clear, though, that the practice of keeping a Journal is much older than this. A few pages (albeit probably a later copy) exist of a very similar record kept for the Parliament of 1461, the so-called ‘Fane Fragment’. The similarity of these to the journals we have after 1510 (mainly a register of attendance, with a brief record of decisions made) is overwhelming. Other scraps exist, probably, from earlier journals, though these are all partial, and most of them relate to the Parliament of 1449, for reasons that are still not evident. The more systematic preservation of the Lords Journals from 1510 (although there are some major gaps in the series) suggests a new attitude to record-keeping, therefore, rather than to record-making. A note by the late seventeenth century clerk of the Parliaments, John Browne, bound into the first Journal passes on the Parliament Office’s memory that ‘in H. 8 tyme by the power of Cardinall Woolsey, many Journalls, and Acts were taken away; and untill Sir Tho: Smyth tyme, who was clerk of the Parliament, all the records lay in a confused manner but he put them into that order in which they now are’. Smith, who had been a Member of the Commons in two previous Parliaments, was clerk from 1597 to 1609, had a very distinguished administrative career, including time as clerk to the privy council, a post he held for a while alongside his clerkship of the Parliaments, and might have been just the person to bring the Journals into some sort of order. Whether he was responsible for the slightly eccentric presentation of some of the early journals (which include a genealogy of the Anglo-Saxon and later kings of England), or whether this happened when they were all collected together and bound in 1717 is unknown.

There is another issue concerning these early Lords journals. The format used in the 1461 fragment is similar to the Journals preserved in the Parliamentary Archives for 1515 onwards. But the papers bound with them for the 1510 and 1512 Parliament are different, in particular omitting the lists of Lords which indicate their presence or absence. It seems that there were already two different documents being compiled, one scrappy version in the chamber, and a second, cleaner and edited version for permanent preservation: whether this was something new, or an older practice is again something about which we can’t be sure. Certainly the practice of keeping notes in the chamber which were afterwards worked up into a more formal record, ‘the journal’, became normal.

In the Commons, the possibility that the Journal may be a sixteenth century innovation is stronger, particularly because no even fragmentary record before 1547 has turned up, and because the first pages of the Journal seem so very basic, a mere list of bills passed on each day. Nevertheless, the pre-1547 clerks must have been doing something, and there are occasional indications of written records, though what they are is still mysterious. There is a reference in a 1485 account of the Commons meetings of that year to an ‘order’ previously passed concerning the election of the Speaker, which some have taken to imply the existence of a written set of orders. The most solid piece of evidence is a reference in an Act of 1515 to ‘the book of the clerk’, in which licences for individual Members to be absent should be entered. This may have been a series that were also referred to as the ‘libri parlamenti’ – a list of all the members elected to Parliament prepared in chancery – as was once argued by Sir John Neale. But the fact that licences to be absent are entered in the post-1547 Journal, with the first occurring under 21 February 1549 may suggest that the Journal is identical with the ‘book of the clerk’, and therefore did already exist in 1515, or it may mean some post-1549 consolidation. It’s impossible, ultimately, to say.

There are two volumes of sixteenth century Commons journals. They became known as

The early bindings of early volumes of the Journals: the second volume of the Commons Journal, ‘Onslowe’, on the left; and the first volume of the Lords Journal on the right.

‘Seymour’ and ‘Onslow’ from the names of the two clerks whose periods of office they cover: John Seymour, from 1547 to 1567 (who also served as a member of the Commons) and Fulk Onslow, who was appointed in 1570 and served until his death in 1602: the volume with his name on it covers the period 1571 to 1581. They have a rather different character: ‘Seymour’ is a much rougher production, suggesting sheets written in the chamber; Onslow is in general tidier, suggesting a fair copy. Both volumes were already bound and known by the names of their respective clerks in 1633, when a list of papers held in the House of Commons was compiled. No journals survive for the period between 1581 and the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Some material from them survives in the compilation of sources for the reign created in the 1620s and 1630s by the antiquarian Simonds D’Ewes; he borrowed them in 1629-30, but they were apparently back in the custody of the clerk by the time the 1633 list was drawn up.

If in the early seventeenth century antiquarian scholars, as well as nervous politicians, were beginning to discover the value of the Journals, they would eventually come to be treated with something like veneration. By then, the Lords had started to write out their fair copies on parchment, presumably to recognise their status as the key document of the court of record that the House was now thought to be. The Commons’ Journal remained on paper, but the seventeenth century bindings suggested that its custodians were beginning to regard the early journals as a precious relic: there was increasing concern about the conditions in which they were held and the effects of regular consultation. Eventually it would lead to the project to print them in the 1740s, the first state-sponsored project of historical editing in England, a scheme that made them vastly more accessible and ultimately made possible digitisation, albeit in a variety of different formats and on a variety of different platforms. Much used as they have been, they still have much to yield.

Further reading:

J.E. Neale, ‘The Commons Journals of the Tudor Period’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 1920, pp. 136-70

A.F. Pollard, ‘Queen Elizabeth’s under-clerks and their Commons’ Journals’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research xvii (1939-40), 1-12.

A.F. Pollard, ‘The Authenticity of the Lords Journals in the sixteenth century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 1914, pp. 17-39.

Sheila Lambert, ‘The Clerks and Records of the House of Commons, 1600-1640’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research xliii (1970), 215-31.

G.R. Elton, ‘The early Journals of the House of Lords’, The English Historical Review (1974), pp. 481–512.

David Menhennet, The Journal of the House of Commons: a Bibliographical and Historical Guide (1971)

Linda Clark, ed. Parchment and People in Medieval Parliaments (published as Parliamentary History vol. 23 (1)

Alasdair Hawkyard, ‘The Journals, the Clerks of the Parliaments and the Under-Clerks, 1485-1601’, Parliamentary History, 2014, pp. 389-421

Martyn Atkins, ‘Persuading the House: the Use of the Commons Journals as a Source of Precedent’, in Essays on the History of Parliamentary Procedure, ed. Paul Evans (2017)


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