The History of Parliament

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The History of Parliament is a project to write a complete history of the United Kingdom Parliament and its predecessors, the Parliament of Great Britain and the Parliament of England. The history will principally consist of a prosopography, in which the history of an institution is told through the individual biographies of its members. After various amateur efforts the project was formally launched in 1940 and since 1951 has been funded by the Treasury. As of 2010 the volumes covering the House of Commons in 1386-1421, 1509-1629, and 1660-1832 have been completed and published (in 41 separate volumes containing over 20 million words); research work on the remaining periods and on the House of Lords is ongoing. In 2011 the completed sections were republished on the internet.

History[edit]

The publication in 1878-9 of the 'Official Return of Members of Parliament', an incomplete list of the name of every Member elected to serve in lower Houses of Parliaments in the United Kingdom and predecessor states,[1] gave a useful source on which Victorian historians could build, and there were several publications which identified and gave some biographical and genealogical details of the Members of Parliament for certain constituencies.[2] Among those writing histories was Josiah Wedgwood, who was himself Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme from 1906. In 1918-22 Wedgwood published the "Staffordshire Parliamentary History".

In 1928, Wedgwood decided to take the subject further. Together with other MPs who were interested in the subject, he wrote a memorial to the Prime Minister urging him to appoint a Committee to prepare a complete record of the personnel of every Parliament since 1264. The memorial noted that the Official Return was incomplete and inaccurate, and contained no information beyond a list of names; it attempted to head off Treasury objections to the cost, by pointing to the fact that pledges of voluntary assistance had been obtained. Wedgwood quickly obtained the signatures of more than 200 MPs.[3] On 17 July 414 had signed, together with a number of members of the House of Lords, and a delegation saw Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin who was again wary of the cost; the delegation insisted that the question of publication need not be considered until the availability of material was assessed. Baldwin agreed to take the matter under consideration.[4] The result of the pressure was that Baldwin announced in December (by which time 512 MPs were on board) that the Government agreed to appoint a Select Committee to report on materials available to write such a history.[5]

The committee so formed in March 1929 included academics as well as politicians, and it soon became riven by ferocious differences about the nature of the project with Wedgwood's romanticism alienating most of the historians.[2][6] The interim report of the Committee, covering 1264 to 1832, was published in September 1932 in the run-up to the centenary of the Reform Act and gave a guide to the information available.[7] The project then ran into funding difficulties given the economic situation in the 1930s, and no future reports were issued by the Committee. Wedgwood then undertook fundraising and worked with a small group of assistants, completing in 1936 and 1938 two volumes entitled 'The History of Parliament 1439-1509'. He took advantage of the one remaining offer of Government help and the books were published by His Majesty's Stationery Office.[2]

In 1940, the History of Parliament Trust was established to foster future volumes and arrange for their publication. However, the war and Wedgwood's death in 1943 meant that the project went into abeyance. At the end of the war, strenuous lobbying by L.B. Namier who had been a member of the 1930s committee succeeded in getting agreement by the Treasury to provide funding for the History of Parliament Trust.[2] Namier was Professor of History at the University of Manchester. The initial grant was for not more than £17,000 a year, and for 20 years, during which it was hoped that the whole period could be completed. Sir Frank Stenton became the first chairman of the editorial board.[8]

Approach[edit]

The historian David Cannadine, in the History of Parliament Trust's 2006 annual lecture on 21 November 2006, noted that while Wedgwood and Namier are predominantly responsible for the foundation of the History, they were quite contrasting characters (Wedgwood a gregarious and high-spirited English aristocrat of advanced Liberal views, Namier a Polish Jew who was joyless and a strong Tory). Despite working together on the Committee on House of Commons Personnel and Politics, they had quite different inspirations to take up the subject of Parliamentary history. Wedgwood looked on the history of Parliament as a member of the classic Whig school of history: as a romantic story of the spread of freedom and liberty to people of all backgrounds. Namier regarded such views as fashionable nonsense and was especially interested in the personalities of Parliament; he obsessed over the single question of why its Members had decided to go into Parliament.[9]

Organisation[edit]

Once the History of Parliament Trust started looking into the scope of its work, it quite rapidly realised the enormity of the task before it. Namier was critical of the quality of Wedgwood's work and so his period of 1439-1509 was included to be rewritten from the start. The History was initially divided into 15 sections, but by 1956 even this was impossible and they were reduced to six. For a decade, Namier himself worked nine hours a day at the Institute of Historical Research to write biographies of eighteenth century Members of Parliament, with three paid assistants and other volunteers. Although Namier died in 1960, the first volumes of the History to be published in April 1964 carried his name along with that of his colleague John Brooke and covered the years 1754-1790.[9]

The format of the first three volume set established the standard for all others. It began with an introductory survey (written by Brooke) which explained the period and provided some statistical analysis of the Members as a whole. There followed articles about each constituency which gave the results of elections and explained the influences at work. Volumes two and three gave biographies of each of the 1,964 men who sat in Parliament at any point in the period; where the Members concerned had served before the period or continued serving after, the biographies covered solely their activities within the period; they also concentrated entirely on Parliamentary activity and mentioned the other lives of Members only briefly.[10]

Volumes published[edit]

The next volume to appear after 1754-1790 was the preceding period, 1715-1754, published in two volumes in 1970 edited by Romney Sedgwick. Although the twenty-year agreement with the Treasury expired in 1971, funding was continued, and work continued through the 1970s. The early eighties saw three sections completed. Peter Hasler had taken over the section dealing with 1559-1603 after the death of Professor J. E. Neale, and it was published in 1981. Professor S. T. Bindoff's section on 1509-1558 was published in 1982 shortly after his death in December 1980; Bindoff's death meant he was unable to write the usual introductory survey volume and the section appeared without it. In 1983, Basil Duke Henning's section on the History of Parliament in 1660-1690 was published.

The next section to appear was that for 1790-1820, which had originally been the work of Professor Arthur Aspinall before his death in 1972, and had been taken over by R. G. Thorne afterwards up to publication in 1986. Six years passed before the next section appeared, being the first volumes covering Parliament in the Middle Ages. Professor J. S. Roskell, Linda Clark and Carole Rawcliffe were jointly responsible for the section covering 1386-1421. By the mid-1990s many libraries and users of the History were struggling to cope with the 23 large volumes, and there had been new historical discoveries leading to revisions in the biographies of some Members included in previous volumes. In 1998 the History arranged for the republication, with corrections and revisions and some additional images, of all previous sections on a single CD-ROM.

In the 21st century there were two sections published: David Hayton, Eveline Cruickshanks and Stuart Handley completed their work on the period 1690-1715 in 2002, and the seven-volume History of Parliament 1820-1832 was published in December 2009.[11]

Volumes in preparation[edit]

The History of Parliament Trust currently estimates that the 1640-1660 edition edited by Dr Stephen Roberts will be published in 2016. It is expected that the period 1422-1504, under the direction of Dr Linda Clark, will be published in two sections, split in 1461. Work on the period since 1832 began only in January 2009, under the direction of Dr Philip Salmon.

House of Lords[edit]

The History had not originally looked at the House of Lords, but in April 1999 launched a project under Dr Ruth Paley to produce a comprehensive account of its history. It is concentrating on the period 1660-1832, and intends to start with three volumes of biographies to be published in 2013, 2018 and 2027. It will also produce a two volume study of the House of Lords as an institution in 2013 and 2019.

Reception[edit]

The first appearance of the History in 1964 occasioned many reviews. The Times Literary Supplement review (anonymous but by J. P. Carswell) described the books as "magnificent", but some reviewers were animated by their own feuds with Namier and felt that the books had been limited by their determination to profile MPs individually rather than collectively. A. J. P. Taylor was the most quoted critic, writing in The Observer that the books were not a history but undigested raw material for one, and that many of the MPs profiled were of no importance in their own day. Later volumes attracted different criticism: the 1715-1754 section had been rushed into print and is relatively short, being criticised for giving undue weight to the few Jacobite MPs. The introductory surveys to the 1558-1603 and 1660-1690 sections were criticised for being too brief. However, the more recent publications of 1790-1820, 1386-1421 and 1690-1715 (which have been longer) have been widely praised.[9]

Other work associated with the history[edit]

The primary source material for Parliament's activities were needed for the History and in the 21st century the History has been keen to digitise them for its own use and for access by others. The History of Parliament has a joint project with the Institute of Historical Research, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to digitise the early Journals of the House of Commons and House of Lords, together with other material relating to British history. An 'electronic history of the House of Lords' is an integral part of the research into its history.

The History of Parliament also sponsors an annual lecture given on a topic relating to its work by an academic historian.

List of publications[edit]

Additionally, the Trust has produced the following book, taking a different format to the above volumes:

  • eds. Ruth Paley and Paul Seaward, Honour, Interest & Power: An Illustrated History of the House of Lords, 1660-1715 (Boydell & Brewer, London, 2010)

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Members of Parliament. Return to two orders of the Honourable The House of Commons dated 4 May 1876 and 9 March 1877." Two parts, each plus associated index.
  2. ^ a b c d Paul Seaward. "The History of Parliament". Institute of Historical Research. 
  3. ^ "Political Notes", The Times, 19 May 1928, p. 14.
  4. ^ "A Record Of Parliament", The Times, 18 July 1928, p. 8.
  5. ^ "Parliament", The Times, 19 December 1928, p. 6.
  6. ^ See D.W. Hayton, Colonel Wedgwood and the historians, Historical Research Vol 84 Issue 224, pp 328–355, May 2011.
  7. ^ "Interim Report of the Committee on House of Commons Personnel and Politics, 1264-1832", Cmd. 4130.
  8. ^ "History Of Parliament Editorial Board", The Times, 14 July 1951, p. 4.
  9. ^ a b c David Cannadine, "The History of Parliament: Past, Present - and Future?", Parliamentary History, Vol 26, 2007, pp. 366-386.
  10. ^ Sir Lewis Namier, John Brooke, "The History of Parliament 1754-1790", 3 vols, Secker & Warburg, ISBN 0-436-30420-1.
  11. ^ "The Commons 1820-1832". History of Parliament Trust. Retrieved 11 December 2009. 
  12. ^ As printed on title page

External links[edit]