The Election of a Speaker

The first Speaker?

The remarkable account in the Anonimalle Chronicle of the so-called ‘Good Parliament’ of 1376 provides what is generally taken to be the first reference to a ‘Speaker’ of the Commons, Sir Peter de la Mare. The account is extraordinarily detailed and circumstantial – so unusual for an account of any event in the fourteenth century, let alone a Parliament, that many have been tempted to call it an eyewitness account, though it’s impossible to tell. (The Chronicle is available in digitised form from the University of Leeds website here: the account of the Good Parliament starts about f. 313; you can get at an edited version of some of the original Norman French text here, from p. 83; and there is a translation of the bit relating to the Good Parliament available on the California State University website .) The Chronicle describes how once the Commons had assembled in Westminster Abbey Chapter House to discuss the agenda set out by the king’s chancellor for Parliament’s meeting, various of the elected representatives of the counties, the knights, started to complain about heavy taxation and the way the king’s revenues were being diverted by the king’s courtiers. Their complaints were summed up so effectively and eloquently by one of them, de la Mare, that they asked him to take the lead in presenting them to the Lords:

In these deliberations and this council by common consent because the said Sir Peter de la Mare had spoken so well and had so wisely rehearsed the matters and the purpose of his companions, formulating them more clearly than they themselves could do, they asked that he should take charge on their account, and have the power to state their wishes in the great parliament before the said Lords, how they [the Commons] were advised to act and to speak in discharge of their conscience. And the said Sir Peter for the reverence of God, and his worthy colleagues, and for the profit of the kingdom undertook this responsibility.

The choice of De la Mare can’t really be equated to that of a modern Speaker: his role was that of a spokesman, rather than a Chairman. The Commons are known to have chosen spokesmen before 1376 to represent their corporate view on particular matters to the Lords and the King – there is a reference to this happening in 1343 – though these were not necessarily members; and they were as likely to do so by means of a deputation as through an individual. And well after 1376 the Commons did continue to use other people, apart from their designated Speaker, and both members and non-members, to communicate with the Lords and the monarch.

It’s possible, therefore, that we can be misled by the quality of the 1376 source into assuming that something new was happening, when it wasn’t; or that these events were more significant than they really were. It may, though, be significant that in the very next Parliament, the so-called ‘Bad Parliament’ of 1377 in which the government led by Edward III’s son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, reimposed royal control over Parliament and reversed the reforms of its predecessor, the official record of the Parliament, the ‘Rolls of Parliament’, identifies a man, Sir Thomas Hungerford, as someone who ‘avoit les paroles pur les communes d’Engleterre en cest parlement’ (‘spoke on behalf of the Commons of England in this Parliament’ [item 87]). For just about every Parliament afterwards it is possible to identify someone designated to undertake this role – whatever it was. But it is a long time before the Parliament rolls record the choice of a Speaker with any consistency. Sir John Gildsburgh is described in 1380 as having been ‘eslit par la Commune d’avoir pur eulx les paroles’ (chosen by the Commons to speak on their behalf); and at the beginning of the Parliament of April 1384 the Commons were told to go away and ‘tretassent de al persone qi auroit les paroles en cest Parlement pur la commune au fin qe pur l’eleccioun de tielle persone le parlement ny fuist tariez come ad este devant ore’ (discuss the person who would speak on behalf of the Commons in this Parliament so that the Parliament would not be delayed by the election of such a person as had happened before [item 1]). The instruction to the Commons to go away and elect a spokesman becomes a routine item in the Parliament rolls from 1401.


The election of the Speaker, like many parliamentary processes, has always been subject to considerable official discussion beforehand. All governments, from the middle ages to today, have gone into speakership elections with a clear idea of who they wanted to be the Speaker, and an assumption that they should get their way. But a theme of Speakership elections from the middle ages to the present day has been a sense that such an assumption, however true in practice, is in principle arrogant and objectionable; and from time to time there has been a rebellion against the dictation of the leadership.

There is plenty of evidence of considerable discussion in government circles before the day of the election. In a document of around 1572 an unknown adviser gave his views to a privy counsellor on the appropriate qualities required in a Speaker: recommended that the council would do best not to arrogate to themselves the right of nomination, but should leave the House ‘to their full liberty, wherein their greatest liberty will be most frankly obsequious’. (The Queen was rarely able to achieve such sublety, telling Speakers in no uncertain terms that they held their positions by her decision.) Sir Edward Coke recorded the Queen’s choice of himself as Speaker in 1593, in a Privy Council meeting at Hampton Court. Eighty years later, in 1672, a minute records discussions the discussions in a Privy Council committee, when Sir Edward Turnor stepped down. A number of names were bandied about: the king (Charles II) objected to one, Sir Thomas Meres, on the grounds that ‘he loves his own opinion’. The response from an exchequer official who was attending the committee was laconic – ‘he’ll be of yours’, he said.

As parties became the dominant organizing principle of parliamentary politics, the choice of the Speaker became a matter for party decision. Following the election of 1705, John Smith’s candidacy for the chair for the Whigs was announced to a party meeting in July, three months in advance of the sitting of Parliament in October when he was eventually elected; and it was usual in the eighteenth century for the choice of the party leadership to be publicised at the regular pre-sessional meeting of its members. By the nineteenth century though, it had became normal for the political parties to negotiate and seek to agree on a nomination to avoid a contest, and elections were much rarer. Occasionally the process would break down. The contested election of William Court Gully in 1895 reflected Conservative annoyance that a fag-end Liberal government was putting forward a new Speaker just before an election which they were expected to lose; and that Gully would be the sixth Liberal Speaker in a row. But more common than the front-benches falling out was back-benchers resenting the practice of the usual channels to make a decision between themselves and taking their assent for granted. Backbench conservatives complained bitterly in 1921 when Lloyd George, the Liberal prime minister in the majority conservative coalition government was said to have ‘offered the Speakership’ to John Henry Whitley, a Liberal. The Labour party leadership in 1951 had been prepared to accept the Conservative nomination of William Morrison, but a revolt in the Parliamentary Labour Party meant that his election was contested, the first vote on a speakership. The Labour party objected again at the election of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster in October 1959, since there had already been three Conservative Speakers in a row: the Conservative party had been willing to concede a Labour Speaker, provided that it was one they chose, a stipulation that the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, rejected.  In 1971 there was a backbench revolt over a process apparently cooked up between the two front-benches and announced to the press to nominate Selwyn Lloyd, the former conservative Leader of the House, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Betty Boothroyd’s election in 1992 likewise indicated backbench unhappiness with the government’s attempt to fix the process. The 1992 election perhaps marked a watershed in attitudes to the election: seen as a victory for backbenchers over the government, it led the way to a subsequent election in which there were twelve candidates and, seemingly, no very clear leadership from the government; and then to the alteration of the process to a ballot, with potentially much less predictable and controllable results.

Nomination and election

Since there was no-one in the Chair at the election of a new Speaker, the procedure only worked well if it was a straightforward business — when the person proposed by the government is accepted without demur. Things could get complicated if there was opposition, and more than one candidate was presented, and it would be easy for the debate to lapse into incoherence. There is evidence from 1566 of the House looking to the clerk to put any questions required, if there was to be a division; and it became expected that the clerk would preside, pointing to a member to give him the floor (no doubt, by prior arrangement with the government). There was for long some debate about whether it was practicable for a clerk, without the full powers of the Speaker, to preside over the debate; but it was not until 1972, after considerable dissatisfaction with the process for the election of Selwyn Lloyd the previous year, that the House accepted the recommendations of the procedure committee and put the most senior Member in the chair instead.

The nomination of the Speaker in the House was commonly made in the  later sixteenth century by a senior official of the royal household, usually the Treasurer of the Household, sometimes the Comptroller, sometimes in partnership with another royal official, perhaps the secretary, such as William Cecil (Hawkyard, ‘Tudor Speakers’, pp. 25-6, n. 24.) The practice changed at the end of the seventeenth century. Sir John Trevor was proposed by the vice-chamberlain of the Household, Sir John Lowther, in 1695; but it may have been the election of Paul Foley in 1695 – in part an expression of general unhappiness with ministerial influence – that provoked a tendency over the next fifty years or so for government officials to withdraw from the process. In the early eighteenth century, nomination was normally done by strong party Members but non-office holders (such as John Smith in 1705 by the Marquess of Granby and Robert Walpole). But by the middle of the century, nomination had reverted to government hands, normally those of the leader of the House, the person charged with government management in the Commons – who was sometimes identical with the prime minister. Cust was nominated in 1761 by George Grenville, and Norton in 1770 by Lord North. But in 1789 the clerk of the House, John Hatsell, suggested to Pitt that he should not undertake the nomination, as the Speaker should appear to be chosen by the House rather than the administration. Since then, while it has been customary for the announcement of the vacancy through the resignation or death of the Speaker to be made by a minister, it is normal for a backbencher to do the nominating: for example by Lord Harry Vane in 1857 ; Samuel Whitbread in 1895   Manny Shinwell in 1965 ; Dame Irene Ward in 1971 ; and George Strauss in 1976

The modern practice of the election dates from the new Standing Orders of 2001 creating a system of voting by ballot: the change was provoked by the interminable process in October 2000, when twelve candidates stood for election, a process that took from half-past two in the afternoon to a quarter to ten at night — followed by a one and a half hour wait for the approval of the Crown to be signified.

The show of reluctance

Once the Speaker has been elected, he or she is famously expected to be dragged to the Chair. What happens today is a simplification of a bit of theatre that was probably already old when it was first described in a note of the proceedings of the 1485 Parliament by the members for Colchester. They wrote that ‘the knights that there [were] present’ stood from their seats and went to ‘that place where as the Speaker stood and set him in his seat’ (Pronay and Taylor, p. 187). The first reference to a claim of unwillingness to comes from the Commons Journal on 12 January 1563, where Thomas Williams is described as ‘reverently disabling himself’; three years later, on 2 April 1566, Christopher Wray is said to be ‘placed in the Chair, notwithstanding his Allegations of disabling himself, and humble Request for their proceeding to a new Election’. Edward Seymour in 1679 was said to have ‘hung back, and acted his reluctance very well’; but William Williams , when elected in October 1680, didn’t bother:

it were vanity in me by arguments from weakness and unfitness to disable myself for this service in this chair at this time. The unanimous voice of the House calling me to this place precludes and leaves me without excuse. Whom the Commons have elected for this trust, is to be supposed worthy and fit for it; wherefore I must acquiesce in your commands.

Williams may have been reflecting the fact that there had been an enormous effort to prevent Seymour taking up the Speakership the year before. Seymour, very much a court candidate when he had been first elected in 1672, had been actively working with the court’s opponents by 1678 over the impeachment of his former patron, Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby, and the government had suppressed his nomination as Speaker in a new Parliament in 1679. Williams, like Seymour, was the nominee of the government’s opponents: he may well have suspected that any indication of unwillingness would have been taken by the court as an excuse to withhold its approval of him.

The performance is probably a combination of medieval enactments of the approval of the whole community (an attempt to demonstrate physically that the Speaker is supported by the whole House), and of the conventional claim of inadequacy for office (the ‘nolo episcopari’ idea – the supposed disclaimer by bishops of the desire for election — must have similar roots). By the eighteenth century, many participants viewed the whole performance as tired and pointless.  Robert Harley’s used his disabling speech in 1701 as an opportunity to put forward a manifesto for what he intended to do in the chair. Arthur Onslow in 1741 (when elected for the third time) omitted the disabling speech entirely and in 1747 abandoned the resistance to being led to the Chair as well. Sir John Cust revived them on both occasions when he was elected, but in 1770 Sir Fletcher Norton made no attempt to to do either, telling the House that ‘I shall not make an apology out of form, though agreeable to precedent. There is a ceremonial in that matter, in my opinion, which has disgraced the House’ (Thomas, p. 332-3). Neither did his successor, Charles Cornwall, make the old disclaimer, though according to one witness, ‘the self-denying farce was very faintly acted’ when he took the Chair. This – the pantomime of being dragged to the Chair by the proposer and seconder, but no disabling speech, remains the current practice.


Presentation and approval

The first reference in the Parliament rolls to the presentation of a Speaker to the monarch comes in 1394, when the Commons presented Sir John Bussy to Richard II; since Bussy was one of the King’s notorious henchmen, his approval was scarcely at issue. The roll for the January 1397 Parliament explicitly records the King’s approval when Bussy was elected again; from then onwards, the presentation to the monarch and the royal approval of the appointment is invariably noted. Evidently, from an early stage the Crown expected to be able to formally accept – and, presumably, reject – the appointment, however unlikely this was, since the nominee was normally someone close to himself, commonly one of his own officials.

One element of what became a standard ritual was the new Speaker’s request to the King to be excused from the post — a second chance for him to plead his inadequacy. This would come in the course of what could be an extensive oration, a chance for the new Speaker-elect to show off his considerable powers of rhetoric — that given before the Queen by Sir Richard Onslow in 1566 was said to have lasted for two hours. The request to be excused is evident from the earliest days of the Speakership. The Parliament roll refers to Sir Richard Waldegrave asking to be excused in 1381 – possibly for particular reasons connected with the political turbulence surrounding the Peasant’s Revolt of that year. It records in 1399 Sir John Cheyne’s similar request, though this came only on the day after the appointment had been formally approved by Henry IV, and almost certainly had something to do with the objections of the Archbishop of Canterbury, probably because of his links to the Lollard heresy. Sir John Tiptoft asked to be excused in 1406 ‘sibien par cause de sa juvente, et pur defaute de seen et discrecioun, come par plusours autres voies’ (both because of his youth, and his want of understanding and discretion, and for various other reasons [item 8])’; Thomas Chaucer did in 1407, though without being specific about why; and the request to be excused had by then probably became a completely routine process, only very occasionally meant to be taken seriously. (Sir John Popham’s request in 1449

that, considering the weakness of his body owing to the frenzy of war in the service of the lord king himself and his father, and the difficulties of various infirmities, and also that he is borne down in many ways by the slowness of old age, it might please the same royal highness to excuse John fully from the burden of the aforesaid position [item 6])

seems to have been genuine, and was accepted.)

While the request became a routine part of the process, two Speakers omitted it. One was Sir Edward Seymour, who seems to have done so at his presentation in 1679 in the belief that it might be accepted (the king in fact rejected Seymour’s nomination – Seymour is the only Speaker to have had royal assent withheld). William Williams is also said to have done so, for similar reasons, in October 1680. And by the mid-eighteenth century some Speakers seem to have felt that, like the attempt to decline in the Commons chamber, it was an unnecessary piece of flummery. Arthur Onslow made the customary disclaimer in 1728:

The Commons of Great Britain, in Parliament assembled, having received Your Majesty’s Commands to make Choice of One of their Members to be presented to Your Majesty for their Speaker, have, in Pursuance thereof, and according to their ancient Right, proceeded to an Election; and their Choice, Sir, is fallen on me, for that important Trust; but how proper a Choice, is now with Your Majesty to judge; and happy, Sir, is it for Your Commons, that Your Majesty’s Disapprobation will give them an Opportunity to re-consider what they have done, and to make another Election, more worthy of them, and of Your Majesty’s Approval: And that Your Majesty will be graciously pleased to shew this Indulgence to Your faithful Commons, am I, Sir, an humble Suitor to You, for their Sakes and my own, that their Debates, the Order, the Decorum, and the Dignity of their Assembly, and thereby the great Affairs of the Kingdom, may not suffer through my Inabilities; nor I sink under the Weight of so unequal a Burthen, but be left to perform my Duty to Your Majesty and the Public, in a Way more suited to my Capacity. But what, Sir, above all renders me most improper for this high Station, and creates the greatest Dread on my Mind, is my Unfitness to approach Your Sacred Person, and to represent Your Commons as they ought ever to appear before the Majesty of their Sovereign. It is, Sir, for these Reasons, that I once more crave Leave to implore Your Majesty’s Goodness, to command your Commons to do what they can very easily perform; to make Choice of another Person, more proper for them to present to Your Majesty on this great Occasion.”

But Onslow abandoned it on subsequent re-elections in 1747 and 1754. His successor revived it; but there’s no mention of the claim of incapacity in the Lords Journal on 23 January 1770, when Sir Fletcher Norton was approved as Speaker, nor on his re-election in 1774. But Norton’s successor, Cornwall revived it on 1 Nov. 1780, and subsequent Speakers have preserved it.


The Protestation and the Prayer for Privilege

There are two separate requests, or groups of requests, customarily made by the new Speaker of the Crown after he or she has been elected. On 14 June 2017, following the formal approval of the Crown for his election, John Bercow, addressing the Lords Commissioners whose role it is to convey the Queen’s approval, said:

My Lords, I submit myself with all humility and gratitude to Her Majesty’s gracious Commands. It is now my duty, in the name of and on behalf of the Commons of the United Kingdom, to lay claim, by humble petition to Her Majesty, to all their ancient and undoubted rights and privileges, especially to freedom of speech in debate, to freedom from arrest, and to free access to Her Majesty whenever occasion shall arise, and that the most favourable construction shall be put upon all their proceedings. With regard to myself, I pray that, if in the discharge of my duties I shall inadvertently fall into any error, it may be imputed to myself alone, and not to Her Majesty’s most faithful Commons.

There are two elements here: a claim for the confirmation of the House’s rights and privileges and an acceptance of personal responsibility for any error in carrying out his functions – that it be not imputed to the House. The claim for confirmation of the House’s privileges is only made when the Speaker is elected at the beginning of a Parliament, not if the election takes place during the course of one.

The second element, the ‘protestation’, is recognisably the same as that made in October 1378:

Sir James Pickering, knight, who was to speak on behalf of the commons, made his protestation on behalf of himself and also on behalf of all the commons of England there assembled: and primarily for the said commons, that if it should happen that he should say anything which smacked of prejudice, malice, slander or evil intent against our lord the king or his crown, or lessened the honour and estate of the great lords of the kingdom, that this should not be lent credence by the king and the lords, but held at naught, and considered unsaid: just as if the commons desired nothing else than that the honour and status of our lord the king and the rights of his crown be maintained and protected in every respect, and that reverence for other lords be duly preserved in all ways.

Pickering accompanied it with a statement underlining the fact that he was the servant of the House, and his statements were open to correction by it:

And on behalf of himself, he protested that if through a lack of discretion, or in any other way, he should say anything which had not been given the common consent of his companions, or in case he should wander from the point, that he might be supported and corrected by them, immediately before their departure or afterwards as suited them. [16]

Similar statements are frequently recorded in the Parliament rolls throughout the fifteenth century, and in the Journal thereafter. The other requests are not recorded so early. The request for the privilege of free speech is not known before 1523, when it is preserved in a draft of the speech of Sir Thomas More when Speaker; the form used today is similar to that used by Sir John Finch on 19 March 1628 , when he

humbly petitioned, That the House of Commons might enjoy their ancient Privileges: That themselves and their Servants might be free, in their Persons and their Goods, from all Trouble of Arrests: That they may enjoy their Freedom and Liberty of Speech, and Access unto His Majesty’s Person, in all Occasions of (fn. 1) And that His Majesty would graciously accept of all their Proceedings, and for a general and free Pardon for himself.

But the subject is getting into the whole complex subject of privilege; which is more than one blog by itself.


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