London: volume 2
XXX.-The House of Commons--No. 1.
XXX.-The House of Commons--No. 1.
Of the associations connected with the , some attach themselves to the old building or apartment in which the representatives of the people had held their meetings for nearly centuries previous to its destruction in , but many also derive their interest from passages in the history of this branch of the legislature, or peculiarities of its forms and usages, which have little or nothing to do with any particular locality. And even for the former class, the walls at least are still standing, and will be preserved, that echoed the eloquence of the senates of other days, and the spot which their long occupation has consecrated is to be kept separate, and unappropriated to any meaner use, for the imagination to re-erect on it at will the whole structure of that narrow, dingy room Which, to an unaccustomed eye, looked more like the prison than the palace of the
| genius of our English legislation. A strange, underground, cavernous air it had, indeed, with its great table occupying half the penurious floor, and its tiers of horseshoe benches carried back to the wainscoted walls, and round about so economically into every angle and coigne of vantage, and the strips of gallery running over-head along each side and at the end, and the chandeliers hung, not high near the ceiling, but low down in mid air, as if there had been some ground-haze, or other palpable murkiness, floating about and filling the place, which would have otherwise intercepted the light. The scene, truly, was apt to awaken the most awkward fancies. A mind disordered, or thrown off its balance, by the shock of the sudden, harsh, and complete of all its previous impressions of the dignity and splendour of parliaments, might have been excused, looking down from that end gallery, for mistaking at the . glance the assembled wisdom, speaker's wig and all, for some den of thieves, or a crew of midnight conspirators. Yet, on better acquaintance, the contracted, unadorned, well-packed apartment revealed a character that was not inappropriate--an earnest, business, workshop character; so that, at last, 's fancy wandered neither to the dungeon and doleful shades of Milton's devils, nor to the or Invisible Tribunals of medieval Germany, nor even to Gil Blas feeling as if he were caught like a rat in a rat-trap when he found himself shut up with the robbers in their subterranean retreat, but rather to Virgil's description of the hollow cave under Etna where the fabricators of the thunderbolts plied their labours:--
And, indeed, to say that it is composed of fire, flatulence, and fog, seems about as proper a description of parliamentary as of any other thunder.
Remembering that Hall stands nearly due north and south, or parallel to the course of the river at this place, the reader will understand exactly the position of the old when we state that the House and the Lobby together formed an oblong building placed at right angles to the Hall, and attached to it at its south-east angle. Of course it extended from that angle towards the river, from which its eastern end was divided by a portion of the Speaker's Garden. The garden extended along the river-bank almost as far as to a point opposite to the northern wall of the Hall, where is the great entrance from : the corner between the Hall and the was occupied by the Speaker's house and the buildings connected with it, which were arranged round a court, and formed an irregular square mass, stretching up to about the middle of the eastern wall of the Hall. The stables, indeed, which were divided from the Hall by Court,
|extended considerably farther to the north. The entire length of the and the Lobby together was about half that of the Hall, and their breadth was also about half that of the Hall; so that their entire area was about a of the area of that building. But of this space the Lobby occupied considerably more than a ; leaving the length of the not quite equal to the breadth of Hall, and room upon the ample floor of the latter for at least half a dozen of the former. The , indeed, was a mere closet compared to the other.|
The room which in later times served for the meetings of the Commons was, as every reader knows, originally a chapel, founded by King Stephen, by whom it was dedicated to the saint of his own name, and rebuilt by Edward III., who made it a collegiate church, with an establishment of a dean, secular canons, vicars, clerks, choristers, a verger, and a chapel-keeper. The restoration of Chapel by Edward III. was a work of great cost and labour; it was not finished till the year , although it appears to have been begun at least years before; and the extraordinary magnificence of decoration lavished upon it was attested by the richness and beauty of the numerous paintings in oil with which the walls were found to be covered when the wainscoting of the was taken down in to enlarge the apartment for the admission of the Irish members. In the fury of the Reformation, when Chapel, with all the other monastic foundations in the kingdom, was suppressed, all this splendour was recklessly sacrificed; indeed, it was no doubt held in contempt and abhorrence by the austere and violent spirit now abroad; and the paintings might have had a worse fate than that of being merely boarded up, or even being covered over with whitewash, as, we believe, those in some adjoining apartments were found to be. What was more disgraceful than the treatment they received in the excitement of such a crisis as that of the Reformation, when men's minds, occupied and wrapt by subjects far transcending any concerns of time, might well be excused for an indifference to whatever did not appertain to the great business in hand, and an impatience of whatever seemed to interfere with it, was the disregard with which these curious works of ancient art were treated on their accidental discovery in our own day, when they were no sooner brought to light than they were destroyed, and it was left to the taste and zeal of a private individual to preserve and communicate to the public such copies of them as he could manage to snatch with hurried pencil while the workmen were actually tearing them down and the noise and dust of their operations filled the place; To this gentleman, however, Mr. J. T. Smith, who accidentally heard of what was going forward, we are indebted for engravings, coloured after the originals, of between and of these pictures, which adorned the old Chapel of and the other buildings of the Palace of which it formed a part, and not of which, we believe, now remains, except in the record of them thus preserved in his
It is stated that when they were brought to light, the colours, then centuries and a half old, appeared as fresh as if they had been newly laid on.
Chapel was a portion of the original, afterwards distinguished as the Old, royal palace of , the memory of which is still preserved in
|the name of given to the open space on the south-west side of this mass of buildings. The Old Palace of was founded by the Confessor.|
| When Hall was built by William Rufus, that portion of the pile appears to have received the name of the New Palace, and the open space adjacent to it that of , which it still retains. But properly the entire mass of building was the at . This palace, however, was deserted as a royal residence in , when a great part of it was burnt down; |
From this date the Palace at appears to have been usually styled the Old Palace. In the act of parliament passed in , by which, as stated in a former number,[n.68.1] the limits of the Palace were extended so as to comprehend , now called , the Old Palace is described as
and it is stated then to be, and of long time to have been,
After mentioning the King's new buildings at , and the Parks thereunto adjoining,
which he had also recently made--the present St. James's Park--the act goes on to declare that
[n.69.1] In Scotland, so long as that country possessed a separate legislature, the Lords and Commons assembled in parliament sat together, forming only House; and it has been sometimes assumed that this was also originally the case in England. But we know that in France, in Sweden, and in other countries in which parliaments anciently existed, the different orders of which they were composed deliberated separately from each other; and in England, too, this was most probably the mode from the .
|In early times parliaments used to be held in many other places as well as in London or ; but from the latter part of the century has been the place at which they have commonly assembled: it is reckoned that since the commencement of the reign of Richard II. the whole number held elsewhere has been only . The Chapter House in the Abbey appears to have been originally the usual place of meeting for the Commons; but after the suppression of the monastic establishments, the old Chapel of was appropriated to their use, being fitted for the purpose by having its painted walls boarded over in the manner that has been already described, and its dimensions also in another direction considerably|
| contracted by the insertion of a new floor above, and a new roof under the old . This arrangement is said to have been made in the reign of Edward VI.; it probably took place before , in which year, as Strype informs us in his |
Sir John Gates, a minion of the Duke of Northumberland, obtained, among much more of the same kind of spoil,
From this time Chapel continued to be the place in which the Commons held their meetings down to the destruction of the building in , except only on or occasions, when both Houses were assembled at , twice in the reign of Charles I., when the parliament was withdrawn to Oxford, and during the making of some alterations in the room in the year , for the accommodation of the members added to their number by the Union with Ireland, when they removed for a short time to the apartment called the Painted Chamber, the same in which the Lords have sat since the fire. It used to be the place in which the conferences between the Houses were held, and stands parallel to Chapel, extending towards the river from the southern extremity, as Chapel did from the northern extremity of the former , which is now appropriated to the meetings of the Commons. This last-mentioned apartment, however, had only served for the accommodation of the Lords since the year ; till then their Lordships met in a room adjoining to the Painted Chamber on the south, over the cellar in which Guy Fawkes and his associates stowed their gunpowder; and what was lately the , and is now the , was then an unoccupied apartment, known by the name of the Court of Requests. Pennant describes it as in his day,
It is supposed, indeed, to be the most ancient part of the Palace of now remaining, and to have served as the banqueting-room of the Old Palace before the erection of the present Great Hall by Rufus.
These various changes require to be kept in view in assigning a local habitation to any of the great incidents in the history of parliament.
The retention by the Commons of the little unpretending room in which they continued to be cooped up from the middle of the till nearly the middle of the century, presents an interesting contrast to the wonderful expansion their power and authority received in that space of time. For a long course of years after they were summoned by the Crown to exercise the privilege, or rather, as it was then esteemed, to share the burthen, of legislation, his Majesty's poor Commons,
And even after the Lower House had acquired more strength and importance by the union of the borough and county members, it was long before they were either allowed, or even evinced any inclination, to assume a general power of legislation. Down even to the beginning of the century they were regarded as having only the right of petitioning the King and the Lords. Henry IV. on occasion distinctly told them that such was all the function that belonged to them. In the parliament which met in , the year of Edward III.. the Commons, after a debate of days, came to the conclusion that they were not able to give the King any advice about. the question of going to war with France, as to which their opinion had been asked; and they therefore desired that his Majesty would, in regard to that point, be advised by his nobles and council, and whatever should by them be determined, they (the Commons) would consent unto, confirm, and establish. So perplexed were the popular representatives by the novelty of being called upon to consider so high a matter. They further represented that they had been detained for a long time in parliament, to their great cost and damage, and begged that they might have a speedy answer to their petitions, in order that they might soon get back to their own homes. The usual practice for some time after this was for the Commons, when their advice was demanded upon any state question, to entreat that some lords and prelates might be sent to assist their consultations, as being incapable by themselves of judging aright as to such matters. It is unnecessary to add that in those days no measure could originate with the Commons, at least in any other way than by being made matter of petition from them to the King and the Lords, to whom alone it was held that all judgment appertained. But even at a much later date, long after the Commons had begun to be themselves petitioned to, which appears to have been not till about the beginning of the century, and when they had come to be theoretically regarded as a branch of the legislature generally co-ordinate with the other House, they still continued to be treated by the Crown with the height of arrogance, and as far as possible to be kept muzzled and in the leash. The course of events in the and centuries, which so greatly broke the ancient power of the nobility, had favoured the rise of the Commons to a general legislative equality with the Lords; but the same causes which had depressed the aristocracy had strengthened the royal authority, and the battle with prerogative had to be fought after that with the rest of feudalism had been in great part over and won. Much was done when the conceived the-notion, and manifested the desire, of being something more in the state than a mere sponge in the hands of the Crown--the contrivance it made use of for facilitating the process of extracting a revenue from the pockets of the people; and this commencing movement may be said to have been made in the
|favourable and encouraging circumstances produced by the elevation of the House of Lancaster to the throne, and their precarious tenure of it on a disputed title. The instinct of ascent was thus awakened, and the habit acquired; and after this every propitious crisis or influence was as sure to be taken advantage of, and to aid the progress of the new power, as a ship at sea with its sails spread is sure to be carried forward on its course whenever the right wind springs up. But as we have said, there was a succession of obstacles to be surmounted before the popular power could establish its ascendancy in the constitution. The common theory of the constitutional position and rights of the was nearly the same as it is at this day when the House took possession of Chapel about the middle of the century; but its actual position for years after this date was as different from what it is now as that of a menial servant is from that of his master.|
Elizabeth in particular, from the beginning to the end of her reign, kept her faithful Commons in as thorough order and subjection as ever pedagogue did a crew of well-whipped schoolboys. When immediately after her accession they ventured to address her in very humble terms on the subject of contracting a marriage, that the throne might not be left without an heir, although, being at the moment in good humour, she took what she called their petition in good part, because, as she said, it was simple, and contained no limitation of place or person, she at the same time told the Speaker, by whom it was delivered, that if it had been otherwise she must needs have misliked it very much,
And she ended by telling them that while she thanked them it was more for their zeal and good meaning than for their petition--as she again took care to designate what they themselves had termed a
years after, when this same question of her Majesty's marriage was once more moved, Elizabeth twice sent down to the House her express prohibition against proceeding any further in that affair; although, with the policy which she rarely forgot even in her most violent fits of temper, or at least always remembered as soon as the fit was over, she sent down a message after the lapse of a fortnight to the effect
which act of grace, according to the Journal,
member, nevertheless, Paul Wentworth, Esq., had before this had the boldness to start the question, whether the Queen's commands and inhibition were not against the liberties and privileges of the House; and this motion gave rise to a debate which lasted from in the morning, of a November day, till in the afternoon. What determination the House came to is not stated.[n.72.1] Another subject in regard to which Elizabeth would at no time permit the interference of parliament was that of the established religion. She
| kept her post at the head of the Church with the tenacity of a mastiff. In a Mr. Strickland, having ventured to bring in a Bill for the Reformation of the Book of Common Prayer, was immediately called before the council, and commanded to forbear going to the House till her Majesty's pleasure should be further signified to him; and, although, upon the matter being taken up somewhat warmly by the House, their member was restored to them after about a week, no acknowledgment was ever made by the Crown of the illegality of so gross an outrage. In the course of the debate to which the affair gave rise, Mr. Treasurer stated that Strickland was not detained |
The royal prerogative, which was thus not to be touched, meant in those days anything the Crown might call by that name, any right or authority it chose to lay claim to. On another occasion, in this same session, a Mr. Bell, having taken the liberty to deliver his opinion against monopolies, or licences granted by her Majesty to various individuals of the exclusive trade in certain commodities, was held, the Journal states, to have spoken against the prerogative, and in consequence of what had fallen from him the Speaker informed the House that he had received a command from her Majesty to caution the members to spend less time in motions, and to avoid long speeches.
In a subsequent parliament, in , after bills respecting rites and ceremonies in the church had been read for the time, the Speaker announced to the House the Queen's pleasure that from henceforth no bills concerning religion should be brought forward or received by the House unless the same should have been considered and approved by the clergy. At her Majesty's desire, also, the bills were immediately sent up for her inspection, the House accompanying them with a humble request most humbly to beseech her Highness not to conceive an ill opinion of the House, if so it were that her Majesty should not like well of the said bills, or of the parties that preferred them. The next day the Treasurer of the Household reported
and he further intimated her
that the measure should not take effect: upon which it appears to have been at once laid aside. A few days after this, her Majesty sent down a message to the House commanding them to refrain from all further speeches or arguments touching the business of the Queen of Scots and the Duke of Norfolk, upon which there had for some time been considerable debate. On the day of the next session this interference was made the subject of a long harangue by Peter Wentworth, Esq., member for Tregony--the brother of Paul--some of whose expressions or doctrines so frightened the House, that, according to the Journal, they,
And, it is added,
The result of the examination, which took place in the Star Chamber, was that the unlucky orator was by order of the House committed close prisoner to the Tower; where after he had lain for above a month her Majesty sent to acquaint the House that
and to consent that the offender should be released;
we are told,
the subservient spirit of which was at the same time soothed and gratified by a declamation from the Chancellor of in infinite laudation of her Majesty's clemency and goodness.
concluded the right honourable member,
After this there was no meeting of the legislature for years; but at last the same parliament was called together again in , after no fewer than prorogations. The Wentworths however were still at their post; and now Paul got up and moved, on a Saturday forenoon, that Sunday se'nnight should be kept by the whole House as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, in the Temple Church, and also that the members should every morning by way of preparation for business assemble at o'clock to hear a sermon. The motion gave rise to a long and warm debate, but in the end it was carried by a majority of a to a . No sooner, however, was her Majesty acquainted with what had been resolved upon than she sent down her vice-chamberlain, Sir Christopher Hatton, with a message,
upon which, struck with consternation, the members, refusing in their hurry and terror even to hear or of their number who professed a desire to speak for their rights and liberties, hastened to agree to a motion
It is strange to see how prone they were to fall into such blunders, or to rush into such perils, with so little pluck as they showed whenever they heard their mistress's threatening growl, or perceived her finger lifted at them. In , in another parliament, of the Wentworths, it is not stated which, was, for merely submitting some questions to the chair touching the right of the House to liberty of speech, sent a prisoner to the Tower by her Majesty's order; and other members, who had spoken in favour of a bill lately brought in for an alteration of the liturgy, were the next day sent after him to the same place. The utmost length that the boldest of those left behind ventured upon this occasion was to move
But even this was thought too much: Mr. Vice-Chamberlain, we are told, answered, that if the gentlemen were committed for matter within the compass of the privilege of the House, there might
| be room for a petition; |
So the members remained in durance till her Majesty's vengeance was satisfied, or she deemed they had had a lesson they would sufficiently remember. At the opening of the parliament which met in , the Lord Keeper, in replying to the usual demand or petition of the Speaker for liberty of speech to the members of the Lower House, said, in the name of the Queen,
Notwithstanding this hint, days after, the incorrigible Mr. Peter Wentworth and Sir Henry are found presenting a petition, from the Commons apparently, to the Lord Keeper,
The consequence was that by the Queen's orders the members were on the next day, which chanced to be Sunday, called before the council, by whom they were informed
and Wentworth was accordingly forthwith sent back to his old quarters in the Tower, and , together with other members, Stephens and Welch, who also appeared to be concerned in the business, to the Fleet. No notice was taken of the matter till more than a fortnight after, when at last a Mr. Wroth, while the House was discussing a subsidy bill, ventured to move,
But Mr. Wroth's gentle words and insinuating metaphors wholly failed to charm the adder: all the privy counsellors in the House, we are told, joined in answering,
Hatsell, who labours hard to put the best face upon the pusillanimity of the Commons throughout this reign, is reluctantly obliged to add in conclusion that
[n.75.1] We have no doubt, nevertheless, that Wentworth and his friends were set at large
|again after a little while; Elizabeth never allowed passion to carry her farther on these occasions than was necessary for attaining her end, which in this instance was to keep the Commons in proper discipline, and that was completely effected by the quiescent submission with which they had taken her exertion of authority, kissing, indeed, we may say, the rod that had chastised them.|
Only days, however, after the committal of Wentworth and the other members, her Majesty found herself again called upon to make her hand felt.--A Mr. Morrice had brought in bills touching the abuses of the ecclesiastical courts; the bills, it appears, though introduced by a speech from the mover, were not read, but only delivered to the Speaker for his private perusal; but Elizabeth upon hearing of what had been done immediately sent for that functionary; and the next morning, as soon as the House met, he gave his brethren an account of his interview with her Majesty, in a solemn oration.
He then told how greatly he had been alarmed when, upon finding himself in the royal presence, he saw none of those honourable persons who had been in the House when the matter was discussed; but much to his relief some of them ere long made their appearance. He seems to have dreaded above all things confronting the lioness alone in her den. Her Majesty charged him to deliver to the House a message, which is too long to be quoted in full; but the material part of it consisted in reminding the Commons of the declaration of her Majesty's pleasure, made by the Lord Keeper at the opening of the Parliament, that they
said the Speaker,
But this was not all; the mere injunction laid upon the Speaker not to suffer the reading of any objectionable bill would not have prevented the matter being brought before the House in speeches and motions; wherefore the same day Morrice, the mover of the present bill, was summoned to Court, and was committed to the custody of the Chancellor of the Exchequer-rather an odd selection of a gaoler. But we see from this case what was Elizabeth's doctrine as to the proper functions and rights of parliament: she held that the Commons had nothing to do with any matters of either Church or State, or rather, indeed--for to that some of her expressions amount--that it belonged to the sovereign alone, when calling or opening the parliament, to say what business it should occupy itself about, and that it could take up no other question whatever except such as were laid out for it. And we see also how uniformly, notwithstanding the opposition of a few individuals, and sometimes, it may be, a little general restiveness at , after another throughout her reign acquiesced in the end in this view of the constitution, and submitted to trot quietly along with the bit in its mouth and the saddle on its back.
When Elizabeth was succeeded by James, it was as if the crown had passed not from a woman to a man, but from a man to a woman--as if the kingdom were , as the French say. But he too attempted to ride the Commons in very high style. It appears that, immediately after the rising of parliament in , several members had been committed to prison for their language or conduct in the House; the matter was taken up in the next parliament, which assembled in , but it was allowed to drop on a message being brought to the House from the King, stating that his Majesty granted them liberty of speech in as ample manner as any of his predecessors had ever done, and that if any should speak undutifully (as he hoped none would) he did not doubt that they themselves would be more forward to inflict punishment than he to require it, and expressing a wish that the House would rest satisfied with this assurance. Yet a few days after the adjournment of the House, in , Sir Edwyn Sandys was taken up and sent to prison for something he had said in a recent debate, which was construed as slander on his Majesty's government. When the House met again in November, Sir Edwyn being still absent, a member, Mr. Mallory, moved to know
and the debate that arose, and which was renewed days after, brought forward Mr. Secretary Calvert, who assured the House that he was not committed for anything said or done in parliament; ,
says the member by whom the debates of this parliament are reported,
In this feeling, on the it was ordered, that Sandys should be presently sent for to come and attend the service of the House if he were able, and if not, then to declare in writing whether he were examined or committed for any parliamentary business; and it was also resolved that a petition and remonstrance touching this and other grievances should be sent to his Majesty. But the petition had not yet been dispatched, when, on the , there arrived from James, who was then at Newmarket, a letter beginning in the following lofty strain:--
The letter went on to desire the Speaker to acquaint the House with his Majesty's pleasure that none therein should presume to meddle with anything concerning his Majesty's government or mysteries of state; and then, referring to the affair of Sandys, after affirming that he had not been committed for anything he had done or said in parliament, his Majesty proceeded:--
Upon this letter being read, orders were given to stay the messengers who were to carry the petition to the king; and a committee was appointed to draw up another petition and declaration, which was forwarded to his Majesty days after. It drew from James a very long reply, in which, after rating the petitioners roundly both for their foolish conduct and their bad logic, he concluded:--
There was, it must be confessed, some colour for the view thus announced by James; but the frankness of some of his expressions was rather startling, and honourable members were thrown into no little excitement. However, to wipe off the imputation of rashness, it was agreed that nothing should be done for a few days. On the another letter arrived from James, professing to explain the former; but he did not retract a tittle of the doctrine he had therein advanced:
reiterated his Majesty,
On the next day a select committee which had been appointed for the purpose presented to the House a protestation they had drawn up, which affirmed,
The House, whose customary sittings were then in the morning, had assembled at the unusual hour of in the afternoon to receive this paper; and, the Speaker being in the chair, it was now ordered to be entered on the Journal, there to remain as of record.
we are told,
The Protestation is a distinct and energetic statement of rights now universally admitted to belong to the Commons; and it does honour to Coke,
| supported; but the history of the affair is anything rather than a proof of the existence of the rights in question, either actually or legally, at the time they were thus claimed. The issue of the business is recorded in a Memorial, dated , the , which James caused to be immediately printed and dispersed over the country. It begins by stating that |
With the Protestation, it is then intimated, his Majesty was justly offended; and a long recapitulation of the circumstances is entered into to show why,
his Majesty thought it
Among other things it is affirmed that the Protestation,
was brought into the House at o'clock at night by candlelight;
And in conclusion it is said,--
Nor was this all: that day week the parliament was dissolved by a very long proclamation, in which his Majesty recounted, in his own way, the whole course of conduct on the part of the Commons which had forced him to that step, imputing the heats and distempers that had been raised in the House to certain
who, after daring
had persuaded the rest,
to conclude and enter a protestation for their liberties,
continues his Majesty,
and immediately after, Sir Edward Coke and Sir Robert Phelips, the most eminent of the
were committed to the Tower, and Mr. Selden, Mr. Pymm, and Mr. Mallory, were consigned to other prisons. Coke's chambers in London, and in the Temple, were also sealed up, and his papers seized; and Sir Thomas Crew, Sir Dudley Digges, and other members, who had distinguished themselves in the affair of the Protestation, were, by way of a lighter punishment, exiled, on pretence of being sent upon a commission of inquiry, to Ireland, and a member, Sir Peter Hayman, to the Palatinate. Crew in particular has obtained great renown for his patriotic exertions on this occasion; but we find him wonderfully mollified after getting home again from his Irish expedition: in the next parliament, which met in , he was chosen by the Commons to the office of their Speaker, and graciously confirmed therein by the King; upon which he commenced the customary address of thanks in the following strain:--
It does not seem very clear whether these words are to be understood as addressed to the Deify, or to James:--possibly the ambiguity was intentional. [To be continued in No. XXXI.]
[n.68.1] London, vol. i. p. 339.
[n.69.1] Stat. 28 Henry VIII. c. 12.
[n.72.1] See, besides the Journals of the House, Sir Symonds Dewes, Camden, and certain dispatches of the French ambassador, La Mothe Fenelon, published by Mr. D«lsraeli, Curiosities of Literature, pp. 236-239 (edition of 1839).
[n.75.1] Precedents, I. 106 (second edition).