Searching the History of Parliament Online

There’s a thoughtful and comprehensive review by Jason Peacey of the Online version of the History at the Reviews in History website, with a response attached. The review especially explores the search function on the website, showing how one might use the History of Parliament Online for many different research projects:  Jason’s examples include ‘riots’ (433 articles contain the word), ‘divorce’ (174) and ‘duel’.  Searches can be refined rather more closely than suggested in the review: the search page enables you first to filter by article type (so you can limit your search to just biographies, just constituency articles, and so on) and then you can further filter the results by limiting them to one of the periods covered by the History (for example 1386-1421 or 1715-54). Within our biographies you can also limit your search to just one or more of the elements of the biography, so you can exclude, for example, all of the parts of the biography apart from the ‘family and education’ paragraph if you want only to find MPs who attended a particular school, university, or college (in this way, for example, you can find 106 MPs who studied at Leyden University).

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The first budget? Walpole’s bag of tricks and the origins of the chancellor’s great secret

The word is often said to be derived from the old french word for a little bag or purse. But there is more to it than that. As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the phrase ‘to open one’s budget’ was being used in the sixteenth century to mean that someone was revealing something which was secret, perhaps even dubious. It meant something like bringing out a box of tricks. The phrase seems to have been first applied to a statement of government revenue and expenditure during the Excise Crisis in 1733. The crisis was the result of Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s plans to shift the burden of taxation from landed wealth (which fell heavily on the country gentry who dominated the House of Commons) to consumption (which would have a much greater impact on the poor). Whipped up by the highly vocal opposition to Walpole, there had been rumours for months before the opening of Parliament in mid January 1733 that he would announce the introduction of excise taxes on various goods. The excise was regarded with intense dislike because it was associated with interference by bureaucrats in people’s property and daily lives. Walpole finally revealed his proposals amid intense popular and parliamentary excitement on 14th March, and explained and defended them in a pamphlet, A letter from a member of Parliament to his friends in the country, concerning the duties on wine and tobacco. A reply was published by one of the most virulent leaders of the opposition to Walpole, William Pulteney, later Earl of Bath (Pulteney’s career before 1715, when he was a close associate of Walpole, is dealt with in a separate article, here). Called The budget opened. Or, An answer to a pamphlet. Intitled, a letter from a member of Parliament to his friends in the country, concerning the duties on wine and tobacco, it attacked and mocked the proposals as typically Walpolean trickery, like the fraudulent remedies of a quack doctor:

‘At length, the Mountain is deliver’d. The grand Mystery, which was long deemed too sacred for the unhallow’d Eyes of the People, is reveal’d. What is reveal’d? Nothing, but what has been known, confuted and exploded long before it was publickly acknowledg’d’. ‘The budget is opened; and our State Emperick hath dispensed his Packets by his Zany Couriers through all Parts of the Kingdom. For my self, I do not pretend to understand this Art of political Legerdemain; nor can I find out the Difference between a new Tax, and a new Method of collecting an old Tax, which will bring in a Sum, equivalent to a new one.’

The ensuing storm about a general excise eventually forced Walpole to drop the scheme, although it was another nine years before the combined effort of his opponents managed to prise Walpole from power. The word does not appear in print frequently after that, so it may have been some time before it caught on: in 1743 the MP and satirist, and loyal follower of Walpole, Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, penned a bitter little poem called S—y’s Budget; or Drink and be d___d, aimed at one of those who had helped Pulteney to oust Walpole, the current chancellor of the exchequerSamuel Sandys, and his apparent adoption of most of Walpole’s policies as soon as he was safely in office.

It isn’t known exactly when the practice of an annual event at which the chancellor of the exchequer gave an account of the state of national finances was initiated. Peter Thomas in his Eighteenth Century House of Commons tracked down the first use of the phrase ‘opening the budget’ in this sense in 1753.  By 1764, at least, it seems to have been well established. That year George Grenville‘s  budget speech of 9 March (of 2 and three quarter hours) which introduced stamp duties on the colonies provoked a response, The Budget: inscribed to the man who thinks himself a minister, and a counter-response, An Answer to The Budget which took the trouble to explain what it meant (for the benefit of ‘ignoramuses’, it said):

‘When the House of Commons have voted the Supplies, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, towards the latter end of the Sessions, opens to the House, in a Speech, what are to be the Ways and Means for raising the Money granted by the Supplies’.

It also grumbled:

‘It seems to be the evil genius of this country, that every Man is a Politician: Every ignorant City Shop-keeper and Cobler is to be at Liberty to watch the State, scrutinize the Conduct of Ministers, call Names, &c. … Unless some Method is taken that shall put a Stop to this increasing licentious Practice, it will be next to impossible to carry on the public Business.’

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MPs and brawls

Following the fracas in the Strangers’ Bar in the House of Commons last week, the Financial Times referred to a number of other incidents of violence among MPs. The handful described all come from the period after 1970, with the sole exception of the celebrated (and non-fatal) duel between ministers George Canning and Viscount Castlereagh in 1809. The History of Parliament Online, though, can supply many more instances across several centuries.

The life of James Clifford, MP for Gloucestershire in 1404, was punctuated by brawling (as well as by extortion and bullying), including an incident in 1396 which took place in a courtroom. Thomas Waltham, who had served as Mayor and MP for Hull, is said to have confronted the Archbishop of York in 1382 during a protracted battle over the development of part of the port, and wrested the crozier from the prelate’s hands, sparking a full-scale fight. The the participants were apparently summoned to London to answer charges, although there’s no evidence of Waltham getting into serious trouble over the affair. Sir Henry Pierrepoint‘s feud with the Foljambe family in Chesterfield produced one of the most dramatic encounters. Irritated in 1433 by Pierrepont’s obtaining the right to put on a fair in the town, Thomas Foljambe rode into the town with a band of armed men, disrupted the fair, and terrorized Sir Henry’s agents; when legal proceedings were begun against him, Foljambe on New Year’s Day 1434 marched with a body of supporters into Chesterfield parish church, where they cut off the thumb and fingers of Sir Henry’s right hand and murdered two of his companions, one of whom was his kinsman, Henry Longford. Another MP, Richard Brown, subsequently acted to help Foljambe escape from legal retribution over the case.

Lord Henry Paulet, who was returned to the 1626 Parliament for Andover, seven miles from the family property of Nether Wallop, was seriously injured in a brawl with Sir William Stourton, a few days after attending Charles I’s Coronation. The affair, which may have been occasioned by rumours that Paulet was keeping a mistress, was hushed up, but Paulet may never have taken his seat in Parliament or left Hampshire again. Seventeenth century cases often involved alcohol. Thomas Danby, an MP briefly in 1661, was killed in a brawl in a London pub in 1667. Walter Vincent, a barrister who served for St Ives in 1689 and Grampound in the 1690s, killed the son of another MP, Sir Peter Killigrew, in Penryn in 1688. Probably the worst case ever involving MPs was the fight which followed the acquittal of one MP, Edward Nosworthy II in a politically inspired trial in 1684.Henry St. John, MP for Wootton Bassett and Wiltshire on various occasions in the 1670s, 1680s and 1690s, was the principal figure. The jury repaired to the Globe Inn in Fleet Street; an altercation broke out between St. John and another former Wiltshire MP,  Francis Stonehouse, apparently following ‘a discourse arose about leaping horses’. The fight resulted in the death of the foreman of the jury, a third MP, Sir William Estcourt, who was run through by both St. John and a fourth MP, Edmund Webb. Both men were found guilty of murder, and condemned to death. The record of the trial can be read at Old Bailey Online. Both men were pardoned, though. St. John’s mother obtained a pardon for him at the reported price of £16,000. Webb may have been helped by his good political record — the infamous Judge Jeffreys, in passing sentence, passed comment on Webb’s signal loyalty ‘in turbulent and staggering times’ — and by his position as a member of the household of Prince George (recently married to the younger daughter of James, duke of York, the later James II), ‘who could ask [for Webb’s pardon] the boldlier as it being the first request he ever had made unto his Majesty’.

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The House of Lords and financial privilege in the 1670s

Recent debates in the House of Lords concerning the Welfare Reform Bill have turned especially on the extent to which the Lords might make amendments to bills which involve increased public expenditure. The modern procedure and practice on the issue is dealt with in a note by the Clerk of the House of Commons and the Clerk of Legislation on the Parliament website. In the Lords’ debates on the reasons given by the Commons for rejecting a number of the Lords’ amendments to the bill reference was made to the two Commons resolutions of the 1670s which are treated as the foundation of the Commons’ insistence that the Lords should not amend bills relating to taxation or expenditure.

The 13 April 1671 Resolution (which can be seen in the House of Commons Journal in the British History Online website) states ‘That, in all Aids given to the King, by the Commons, the Rate or Tax ought not to be altered by the Lords’. It was provoked by amendments made in the Lords to the Foreign Commodities Bill. The bill was one of a series designed to meet the request for finance to meet King Charles II’s debts and carry out his obligations under the 1668 Triple Alliance with the Netherlands and Spain (a request set out at the beginning of the session in October 1670 not long after the King had secretly agreed to abandon the alliance in favour of a Treaty with France, the old enemy of his allies). The bill was designed to raise around £160,000 through increased duties on imports of sugar and tobacco. It fell foul of a concerted lobby by the Barbados plantation owners (and, of course, slave owners), to reduce the duties charged on imported refined sugar – which would make it more profitable for them to refine their own sugar, as opposed to simply exporting unrefined sugar which was then refined in England. The lobby persuaded a number of peers and ministers – the Duke of Buckingham (a key favourite of the King), Lord Ashley (then Chancellor of the Exchequer), the Earl of Sandwich and others to accept their case, in order to bolster the financial viability of the planters. The relevant amendment was made in the Lords and justified by a statement later presented to the Commons. According to the Earl of Sandwich, who was principally responsible for ensuring that the amendment was made in the Lords, opposition to it in the Commons was aroused by another minister, the secretary of state the Earl of Arlington, who was engaged in a struggle for the King’s favour with Buckingham. In the debates in the Commons on the amendment to their bill Members who were associated with Arlington — Sir Thomas Clifford, Sir Robert Carr — certainly professed to be outraged by the Lords’ interference in matters they thought their own business, but the concern for the Lords’ encroachment appears to have been more general than can be explained simply by the machinations of factions at court. The Lords, in response, asserted their own right to amend ‘money bills’, claiming on 17 April:

“That the Power exercised by the House of Peers, in making the Amendments and Abatements in the Bill, intituled, “An Act for an additional Imposition on several Foreign Commodities, and for the Encouragement of several Commodities and Manufactures of this Kingdom,” both as to the Matter, Measure, and Time, concerning the Rates and Impositions on Merchandize, is a fundamental, inherent, and undoubted Right of the House of Peers, from which they cannot depart.”

They expanded on the point in further conferences between the two Houses, before the King abandoned the session altogether, proroguing Parliament on 22 April. One Member of the House of Lords, the veteran parliamentarian Lord Holles (who as plain Mr Denzil Holles had been one of the five Members whom Charles I had tried to arrest in early 1642) subsequently published a tract arguing that

“The Lords easily apprehended the ill consequence of such a Maxim, how it did shake the very foundation of Parliament, and utterly over-throw the Being of their House, rendring it altogether uselesse to the general good of the Nation: Because it could then contribute nothing to what is of so great consequence to it, as is the carrying on of Trade, and the just bal|lancing of it, if so be any slip or mistake, or error should happen to have been in what had passed to that purpose in the House of Commons, (as no Society of men but may erre) And therein consists the excellency of the constitution of our Government, that every Law hath first in each House of Parliament three Examens, like so many passings through the fire, to refine and purifie it. And that done in one House, then the other House takes it, and examines it over again in like manner three several times: And if any dross remain, or any thing be yet wanting to make it better and fitter to pass, care is there taken to do all that is further needful; so one House is both a Check and a help to the other, which is the great security of the Kingdom. This the Lords saw must inevitably cease. And therefore they judged it, to be of absolute present necessity, in the first place to make that sure, and assert a Priviledg so undoubtedly theirs, and indispensably necessary for the good of the Publick, of King, People and Parliament; which they did by a Vote. That the power exercised by the House of Peers in making the Amendments and Abatements in that Bill, was a Fundamental, inherent and undoubted right of the House of Peers, from which they could not depart.” [The case stated of the jurisdiction of the House of Lords in the point of Impositions (1676), 4.]

The 3 July 1678 Resolution (in the House of Commons Journal on British History Online as well) stated

“That all Aids and Supplies, and Aids to his Majesty in Parliament, are the sole Gift of the Commons: And all Bills for the Granting of any such Aids and Supplies ought to begin with the Commons: And that it is the undoubted and sole Right of the Commons, to direct, limit, and appoint, in such Bills, the Ends, Purposes, Considerations, Conditions, Limitations, and Qualifications of such Grants; which ought not to be changed, or altered by the House of Lords.”

This one emerged out of the deepening political crisis of the late 1670s which resulted a few months later in the beginnings of what is known as the ‘Exclusion Crisis’. Charles II’s alliance with France had been bitterly opposed from 1673 onwards by many in his Parliament, and eventually reversed. England joined an international coalition against France in 1678 just as its new partners were seeking peace, and just before a peace conference got under way in the Netherlands at Nijmegen. Charles raised troops to wage war against France; but as they were being raised it started to look as if they would not be needed. Many parliamentarians were suspicious that the new army, no longer needed on the continent, might be used to suppress dissent at home, and were keen to be rid of it as soon as possible. They agreed to taxation to pay off the troops, insisting that they should be disbanded by 30 June. But French brinkmanship at the peace conference made so fast a disbandment unwise, and while the supply bill was in the Lords, Charles received an appeal from the Dutch to delay it. He transmitted it to the Lords, who obliged by amending the dates given for disbandment to be achieved in the bill. The Commons to resist the amendments by raising the issue of privilege. Eventually a relatively smooth compromise was worked out in which the Commons merged the provisions of the disbandment bill with those of a completely new bill.

Some sources suggest that the controversy over the Lords Amendments was to some extent a synthetic one, designed to give the government time to see how the negotiations at Nijmegen would play out – something which would also explain why it was so easily resolved (unlike that of 1671, in which the bill was lost). The resolution of the issue might also suggest, though, that the Commons were keen to vindicate their own stand on the point of principle.

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Hats and Mrs Thatcher

A scene in the Meryl Streep film about Margaret Thatcher shows her addressing the House of Commons from the despatch box, wearing a small (pillbox?) hat. Should she be? Is it in order to wear a hat in the House of Commons? Was it in the 1970s?

As so often, Parliament’s procedural manual, Erskine May, is just about silent on the subject. But there’s a long history of hat wearing in the House of Commons. The few seventeenth century pictures of the House tend to show Members wearing hats: an example is the 1625 engraving in the British Museum published by Thomas Jenner. The 1710-ish painting by Peter Tillemans in the Palace of Westminster collection has Members almost universally wearing fashionable periwigs, but no hats; in another famous image only a couple of decades later, just about everyone except Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole is wearing a hat on top of a wig. In the Hickel painting of the House in 1793 there are a handful of hat-wearers, including Charles James Fox and the Speaker. In Hayter’s picture of the Reformed House in 1833, although many Members are carrying top hats, I can see only one man actually wearing a hat. In some nineteenth century pictures of the chamber hats are almost ubiquitous (for example the 1858 painting by Joseph Nash); in others, like this 1882 painting, they are relatively rare. However, Lord Winterton, speaking in 1951 about the period shortly after his election in 1904, recalled that:

‘It was solemnly impressed on me by my Whips when I first got into the House that it was the right and privilege of hon. Members of this House to wear a hat. Without it, they would get into trouble. The only place where they need not wear hats was in the dining room. Every hon. Member had to walk into the House with his hat in hand and put it on immediately he sat down. Some of us decided that it was out of date and fantastic and we decided to break it. People shouted when we came into the Chamber, “Hat, hat.”. ‘

Although hat wearing did seem to die out for men at least after the first World War, it may still have been expected for women when they first entered the House. When the fiery new Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson rose to ask a Question on 11 February 1925, a Conservative, Colonel Applin asked the Speaker whether she was in order addressing the Chair uncovered; the Speaker said that she was (Applin was taunted from the Labour side with shouts of ‘there’s a gentleman!’ and ‘what a snob!’). Nothing changed in terms of the rules of the House about hats. What did change was the likelihood that people would wear them, and hat wearing seems to have died out among women as well as men by the late 1970s. A colleague who worked in the House of Commons in the 1970s remembers Dame Irene Ward routinely wearing a hat in the chamber until leaving the House in 1974, but she may have been the last to do so regularly. When Luton MP Margaret Moran initiated an adjournment debate in the Commons in 1999 about the hat industry (with a series of appalling  hat-based puns), she had to check beforehand whether she was allowed to wear a hat. So Margaret Thatcher would have been allowed to wear a hat: but did she ever actually do so?.

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Hats and procedure

Hats have many uses. Apart from being a means of keeping one’s head warm, and sometimes fashionable, they can be used to indicate status and deference; as a result they can be used to signal respect and roles. In the seventeenth century, the wearing of hats helped to signal the respect (or the limits to it) that Members of the Commons felt towards their social superiors in the House of Lords or individual Members of it. The earl of Kent was reported to have borne resentment towards Sir Edward Harley in 1693 because he did not remove his hat when he met him.

The Commons devoted considerable attention to the question of whether and when their Members should stand, bareheaded, when meeting members of the Lords at the cramped and inconvenient conferences which were required to resolve differences between the two Houses (for an example, see 14 March 1607 ). The Journal recorded precisely when a peer came to respond to questions in the House of Lords when the peer was ‘covered’ and when ‘uncovered’ (see Lord Torrington’s appearance in 1690, for example). When the Commons wished to interview one peer in 1667 whom they wanted to impeach, the Lords resisted the idea that he should face them without wearing a hat (see 31 January 1667). When an embassy from France attended the House of Commons in 1659, there was much removing and replacing of hats, all recorded carefully by the Clerk in the Journal (22 August 1659). The Quaker, James Naylor, when being examined by the House about allegations of blasphemy in 1656 insisted on wearing his hat: the House insisted on its removal (see 6 Dec. 1656).

In the Commons the only occasion on which MPs were actually required to be ‘uncovered’ was when a message was brought from the Crown. In 1690,  at the reading of the King’s Speech Henry Poley refused to remove his hat. ‘We were all uncovered’, one MP reported, ‘except three, viz. Sir Edward Seymour, Mr Paul Foley, and little Poley the lawyer, which everybody minded, though nobody took any public notice of it, since it seems we may by the rules of the House be covered, except in case of a message signed by the King. However, it was thought a peevish disrespect in the three “Hattons”.’ A few years later Sir William Brownlow apparently contradicted the rule when. during the reading of a message from the King, ‘all the House except the King of Bantam (Sir William Brownlow), sat uncovered, but he gave his brother audience with his hat on’. It’s not very clear what is meant by the nickname, or the latter comment, although his brother, Sir John, had also been a Member of the House until his suicide in 1697. During a row in a committee of the whole House in 1675, Speaker Sir Edward Seymour reasserted order by taking the Chair, displacing the Chairman of the Committee, and making everyone in the House stand without hats to show their submission to his authority.

How and exactly when hats became used within the House of Commons (until very recently) for making points of order during a division is obscure, though presumably it had something to do with the fact that it was the opposite to what they would do when speaking in the House (i.e., speak standing and uncovered). Women in fact were exempted from wearing a hat during a division (see a 1984 example in which Harold Walker pointed this out to Clare Short).

Hats could also be raised to indicate assent, or perhaps even to move a motion formally, as is suggested by the example of Lord Elcho in 1887 and Parnell’s speech on the closure in February 1881. The Irish party in the 1880s seem to have been particularly prone to using their hats to acknowledge a point, or to appear to withdraw a statement without actually doing so (for example Charles Parnell on 30 May 1881; Dr Tanner on 4 May 1887, or Timothy Healy on 28 July 1887).

There were less formal uses of hats too. Sir George Oxenden, when he moved the Address on 21 Jan. 1729, would have made more mistakes were it not for the fact that his neighbour ‘had his speech wrote out in his hat, and sat next him and prompted him’. William Gore‘s efforts in 1714 to do the same required a similar prop:

As soon as the Speaker had returned to the House with the Queen’s Speech and had read it to the House, Mr Gore rise up [sic] with a paper in his hat which he did not read well, to make the motion of thanks, and repeated the Queen’s Speech word for word, so that Sir Joseph Jekyll observed upon him that the spirit of prophecy was not ceased, for there was a gentleman that know [sic] the Queen’s Speech before she spoke it, for ’twas impossible to remember it upon the first reading.

The most controversial use of a hat, however, was to reserve a seat in the House – on which, perhaps, more later.

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The History of Parliament Online

The History of Parliament Online became publicly available last year. It contains the published text of all of the History of Parliament’s publications, although the most recent, 1604-29, is not as yet public. There are around 24,000 biographies and more than 2,000 constituency articles, covering periods from 1386 up to 1832. The search function allows searching within certain elements of the biography, for example the career or family and education summaries within the biographies. The conversion from various sources into the website was not perfect, and the data is still slowly being cleaned up. We welcome being alerted to any problems you find.

The website is accessible to everyone, free of charge.

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