House of Lords Reform: A History

Volume 1. The Origins to 1937: Proposals Deferred- Book One: The Origins to 1911- Book Two: 1911–1937

by Peter Raina (Author)
Monographs XXXVIII, 1227 Pages


One of the peculiarities of British history is the development of a constitution headed by the Crown and the two Houses of Parliament. This system emerged to become a balance of democracy, efficiency and moderation that became the admiration of the world.
The contribution of the House of Lords to this balance is all too often overlooked. In this richly documented two-volume work, the author offers a detailed examination of the Lords’ constitutional position and the predicament they faced as the Commons increasingly championed popular rule. With a landowning membership based on the hereditary principle, the Lords struggled to adapt. Yet, valiant attempts were made. The author gives us the first thorough, full-length history of the Lords’ ambiguous responses to the new democracy and the stream of arguments, proposals and bills raised for reform of their House.
Drawing on speeches, letters, reports and memoranda of the times (some never previously published), the book brings to life the inner wranglings and arresting personalities, the hopes and anxieties and the sheer frustrations of a House divided between entrenched interests and idealism, and often threatened by progressives outside.
The two books in Volume One cover the period from the medieval origins of the House of Lords and proceed, through many tumultuous events, to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Book 1
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • The creation of an Establishment
  • Attempts at reform before the twentieth century
  • The Parliament Act of 1911
  • Continued skirmishing
  • Source material
  • The cardinal question
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Illustrations
  • Chapter 1: The Evolution of the House of Lords: The origins to the Restoration
  • The House of Lords: the roots
  • The composition of the House
  • The House of Commons: the roots (1)
  • The medieval English parliament
  • The House of Commons: the roots (2)
  • Two separate Houses of parliament
  • The lords temporal and spiritual
  • The exclusion of bishops from the House of Lords
  • A demand for the abolition of hereditary authority
  • The House of Lords abolished
  • The ‘Other House’
  • The House of Lords re-established
  • Chapter 2: Eighteenth Century Reforms: New peers
  • Representative peers of Scotland, 1707
  • Creation of hereditary peers to secure the Treaty of Utrecht
  • The Duke of Buckingham’s Peerage Bill, 1719
  • The Duke of Richmond’s bill, 1780: manhood suffrage
  • Chapter 3: The ‘New Nobility’ in the House of Lords: William Pitt
  • Chapter 4: The Reform Bill of 1832: The Lords’ opposition
  • Representative peers of Ireland
  • The Lords’ veto on the Reform Bill
  • Chapter 5: The Exclusion of Bishops from the House of Lords: 1834–1837
  • The debate in the House of Commons, 1834
  • The debate in the House of Commons, 1836.
  • The debate in the House of Commons, 1837
  • Chapter 6: Peerages for Life: The Wensleydale case, 1856
  • Chapter 7: The Appellate Jurisdiction (House of Lords) Bill: 1856
  • Chapter 8: The Life Peerages Bill: Earl Russell, 1869
  • Chapter 9: The Spiritual Bill: 1870
  • Chapter 10: Bankruptcy Disqualification: 1871
  • Chapter 11: Efficiency of the House of Lords: The Earl of Rosebery, 1884
  • Motion for a select committee, 20 June 1884
  • Chapter 12: Representative Government Resolution: Henry Labouchere, 1886
  • Chapter 13: A Select Committee to Inquire into the Lords’ Constitution: The Earl of Rosebery, 1888
  • Chapter 14: An Inquiry into the Efficiency of the House: Lord Stratheden and Campbell, 1888
  • Chapter 15: The Constitution Bill: The Earl of Dunraven, 1888
  • Chapter 16: The Life Peerage Bill: The Marquess of Salisbury, 1888
  • Chapter 17: The Purgation of the ‘Black Sheep’ from the House: The Earl of Carnarvon, 1889
  • Chapter 18: Peers Disabilities Removal Bill: 1893
  • Chapter 19: The Victoria-Rosebery Controversy: 1894
  • Chapter 20: Relations between the Two Houses of Parliament: The Liberal plan
  • Chapter 21: Lord Newton’s Reform Bill: 1907
  • The bill before the House of Lords (6 May 1907)
  • Chapter 22: The Power of the Other House to be Restricted by Law: Ilbert and Campbell-Bannerman, 1907
  • Chapter 23: The House of Lords’ Select Committee: 1908
  • Chapter 24: The Beginning of the Turmoil: 1908–1910
  • Chapter 25: Lord Rosebery Again: 1910
  • Chapter 26: A Memorandum by Lord Salisbury: 1910
  • Chapter 27: The Failure of the Constitutional Conference: 1910
  • Chapter 28: Resolutions for a Strong and Efficient Second Chamber: Lord Rosebery, 1910
  • Chapter 29: On the Relations of the Two Houses: The debate of 1910
  • Chapter 30: The Prime Minister’s Parliament Bill: Asquith, 1910
  • Book 2
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Chapter 31: A House of Lords Reconstitution Bill: The Marquess of Lansdowne, 1911
  • Chapter 32: Ditchers versus Hedgers: 1911
  • Chapter 33: Reconstitution of the Second Chamber: The Liberal party proposals, 1913
  • Chapter 34: The Termination of Hereditary Titles: 1914
  • Chapter 35: Report of the Second Chamber Conference: Viscount Bryce, 1918
  • Chapter 36: Further Resolutions: The Coalition Government, 1921–1922
  • Chapter 37: Labour Lords: Arthur Ponsonby and others, 1923
  • Chapter 38: Lord Cave’s Memorandum: 1925
  • Chapter 39: The Duke of Sutherland’s Motion: 1925
  • Chapter 40: A Second Chamber Committee?: Unionist party proposals, 1924
  • Chapter 41: A Cabinet Committee: Baldwin, 1925
  • Chapter 42: The Unionist Second Chamber Committee: 1926
  • Chapter 43: Cabinet Committee Recommendations: 1927
  • Chapter 44: Viscount FitzAlan’s Motion: 1927
  • Chapter 45: The Earl of Clarendon’s Motion: 1928
  • Chapter 46: The Life Peers Bill: Viscount Elibank, 1929
  • Chapter 47: Labour Proposals: 1931
  • Chapter 48: Lord Linlithgow’s Committee Scheme: 1931
  • Chapter 49: Report of the Joint Committee: Peers and members of the House of Commons, 1932
  • Chapter 50: The Marquess of Salisbury’s Bill: 1934
  • Chapter 51: Proposals from the National Government: 1933–1934
  • Chapter 52: The Life Peerage Bill: Lord Rockley, 1935
  • Chapter 53: Parliament Act (1911) Amendment Bill: Lord Rankeillour, 1935
  • Chapter 54: Parliament Act (1911) Amendment: 1937
  • Chapter 55: The Peerage Law Declaration Bill: Lord Strickland, 1937
  • Bibliography
  • I. Archival Sources
  • II. Published and Unpublished Works
  • Index

← i. x | i. xi → Preface

To many, the British House of Lords may seem a strange and antiquated institution. It is an integral part of the British constitution, a second chamber or ‘Upper House’ working hand in hand with the monarch and the far more visible House of Commons. It originated in medieval times. Over the past two centuries many clever minds have tried to find a way of bringing the House of Lords up to date. Individual members of the House of Lords and of the House of Commons, select committees and cabinets have all searched for some means of reform and, at various times, there has been considerable public interest in the issue. Approaches to this long, laborious and complicated problem are the subject of the present study. We present a comprehensive coverage of the many measures and plans that have been put forward over the years. Though many of these have been seriously conceived, with good attention to detail, there have always been groups who resisted them or found them inadequate. For this reason an effective settlement has never been reached and the problem has been deferred from one session of parliament to another.

The creation of an Establishment

We begin with a brief chapter on the origins of the House of Lords. Although these origins are fairly well known, we restate them because a clear understanding of the roots of the English (later, British) constitutional arrangement will help readers appreciate attitudes their lordships came to adopt towards change.

The constitutional arrangement is complex and this complexity begins with the foundation of the King’s Court or Council, the Curia Regis of Norman times. This council gathered together the principal persons of ← i. xi | i. xii → the realm, lay and ecclesiastical – the men who later came to be called the lords temporal and spiritual and who, as such, claimed an absolute right to serve the king and defend the country. The lords temporal were particularly insistent on this right: they asserted that it was hereditary and the king recognized this claim. In time, the King’s Council developed into the magnum concilium, the ‘council of magnates’ which eventually became the House of Lords.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century. the crown began to summon representatives from the English boroughs and shires (usually knights), gathering them in a national assembly. This was so the king could hear the views of the communitas, the community of the realm, in order to bolster the implementation of just rule. This loose group eventually became the House of Commons. If, earlier, the crown and the King’s Council made the decisions on state policies, by this arrangement unanimous consent was needed between the crown, the prelates and earls, and also the community. Here then we have the three ‘estates of the realm’ – Crown, House of Lords and House of Commons. It was not possible to reform or change any one of these estates without the mutual agreement of all three. Only Cromwell’s revolution – lasting a mere eleven years – disrupted this state of affairs.

In the course of its history, the House of Commons has successfully managed to carry out several important reforms – notably extensions of the electorate and adjustments to the return of constituency representatives. Standing for established interests, the lords, in their House, have consistently tried to block or defy such action, feeling it a threat to their landed estates and to their dominance in the counties and boroughs. In the face of this defiance, reforming governments have not been in a position to abolish the House of Lords – something they could only do if the crown and the lords themselves consented – but have had one single, constitutionally acceptable tactic in their armoury: they could warn the Lords that they would ask the crown to exercise its prerogative of creating peers and would ask for sufficient new peers to be made with political leanings that would ensure the passage through their Lordships’ House of legislation initiated in the Commons.

In essence, the lords have shown little inclination to reform their House. Their hereditary privileges go back to those of the medieval King’s ← i. xii | i. xiii → Council and ever since they have been unwilling to acquiesce in the loss of any of these privileges. Their aim, in the words of the historian A.S. Turberville, has been ‘not innovation but preservation’.

However, there have been some significant exceptions to this rule. To recount these and make them known is the chief purpose of the present study.

Attempts at reform before the twentieth century

Reviewing attempts to change the status quo, we start with the ‘proxy reform’. The scheme of proxy was connected with the privilege of making ‘proxies’, whereby a lord of parliament, when hindered from attendance in the House ‘upon evident and manifest necessity’, could appoint a proxy to represent him. This practice was abused, some peers having multiple proxy votes. The Lords moved to create a committee to investigate the ancient rights of the baronage. This led to the first set of permanent standing orders for the House. A proxy reform took place in 1626, which limited a peer to a proxy of two votes. The use of proxies was finally discontinued by a standing order of the House in March 1868.

We have mentioned the temporary break in tradition during the Cromwell years. In 1640 an act of parliament excluded bishops from the House of Lords, and in January 1649 Cromwell abolished both the monarchy and the Upper House. However, by May 1661 there was a restored king and the House of Lords returned to the form it had lost in 1649.

The Act of Union joining the kingdoms of England and Scotland took place in 1707 and brought a major change in the composition of the House of Lords by providing for the election of Scottish peers to the new parliament of Great Britain. The compostion of the Upper House was again increased when Queen Anne created twelve new Tory hereditary peers to assure acceptance of the Treaty of Utrecht. Their lordships disliked this proceedure but could not obstruct the Queen’s move.

← i. xiii | i. xiv → The first major scheme for real reform of the Lords was a Peerage Bill presented to the House by the Duke of Buckingham in 1719. Then, after a pause of sixty years, the Duke of Richmond came up with a bill on manhood suffrage reform. The bill was intended to diminish the power of the aristocracy and the influence of rich magnates in the country as a whole. These schemes did not gain acceptance.

When William Pitt became prime minister in December 1783, he increased the size of the House of Lords immensely by rewarding his supporters with peerages. When he took office, the Lords was a comparatively small chamber consisting of 238 peers, twenty-six of them not landowners but bishops. The existing lords temporal belonged to the old aristocratic families. During his seventeen years in power, Pitt created 114 new hereditary peers. The social structure of the House suffered a disastrous change, since the new ‘plebeian aristocracy’ (Disraeli’s term) lacked the sense of noblesse oblige shown by the former ‘patrician oligarchy’ as well as their understanding of communities. The Lords became a staunch organ of Toryism for over a century.

The 1801 Act of Union with Ireland extended the representative character of the Upper House. The English peers tolerated this but ferociously opposed the admission of true Irish representatives.

Although the Reform Bill of 1831–32 confined change to the composition of the House of Commons, an obstructive House of Lords at first barred the passing of the required legislation. It submitted to agreement only after it became clear that the King would assent to the government’s request and swamp the Lords with sufficient new peers to pass the bill in that House. In G.M. Trevelyan’s words, the bill was ‘carried in the teeth of the resistance’ of the peers. This had lasting effects on how the public regarded the Lords and spurred calls for changes in its powers and composition.

An attempt to effect some change was initiated in the House of Commons in 1834. A bill was introduced ‘for relieving the Archbishops and Bishops of the Established Church from Legislative and Judicial Duties in the House of Peers’. However, the Commons themselves rejected the bill after debate, as they did similar motions in 1836 and 1837.

← i. xiv | i. xv → The year 1856 had more importance. In what became known as the Wensleydale case, the government of the day proposed the creation of a ‘life peer’, thus putting into question the Lords’ cherished ‘hereditary principle’. The plan caused anger and uproar in the Upper House. The government claimed that the crown had a prerogative to create life peers; while their lordships – at least the majority of them – rejected this claim. The lords of the House, they alleged, must themselves decide who should sit and vote amongst their number. They threw out the motion. But, not very long afterwards, they relented and passed the Appelate Jurisdication Bill, enabling the crown to confer a very limited number of peerages for life upon distinguished lawyers to discharge judicial duties in their House. This time, the bill was rejected by the Commons.

The matter of life peerages slumbered for thirteen years, until it was ‘agitated’ anew by Earl Russell in 1869. At first encouraging words were bestowed upon the earl in the House. An infusion of fresh blood there was ‘one of the mainstays’ of the constitution, for it gave, so Lord Derby said, ‘strength and influence’ to the Lords. But then a cold shower descended. If the bill were passed, the peer continued, their lordships would increase the power of the crown, and thus of the ministry close to it and so of the House of Commons too. It would also establish a non-hereditary peerage such as had ‘never existed from the foundation of the Constitution’. The bill was thereupon committed to a committee of the whole House and failed to pass its third reading.

One can see how the Commons could find the Lords exasperating. One thing that rankled especially with both the Commons and the general public was how, almost as a body, the bishops of the Established Church had opposed the great Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867. An attempt to weaken their strength was made in the Lower House in 1870. A bill to ‘relieve Lords Spiritual from attendance in Parliament’ was debated but ran short of a majority when it went to the vote. A spark of hope in Lords’ reform appeared when, in 1871, the peers resolved to pass the Bankruptcy Disqualification Bill for the preservation of their ‘dignity and independence’.

In this long narrative of events, one name emerges with great distinction – that of the Earl of Rosebery, a peer who assiduously urged reform. There is hardly any other person who displayed so strong and persistent a ← i. xv | i. xvi → championing of it. He made his first attempt at promoting change in June 1884, when he begged their lordships to appoint a select committee to consider means of increasing the ‘efficiency’ of their House. After a ‘warm’ debate the House rejected the motion.

In 1886, disappointed at the recalcitrancy of their lordships, a leading radical MP, Henry Labouchere, introduced a resolution in the Commons that it was ‘inconsistent with the principles of Representative Government, that any Member of either House of the Legislature should derive his title to legislate by virtue of hereditary descent’. Gladstone, the prime minister, disapproved of the resolution but the Commons voted for it with a majority of 36 votes. This was an indication of popular feeling.

In response to this feeling, there were several attempts to improve matters instigated by certain lords themselves. All attempts foundered. In March 1888 the Earl of Rosebery rose again, this time to request that a select committee should be appointed to inquire into the constitution of the Upper House. The Lords would have none of it. Only a month later, Lord Stratheden brought before their lordships a motion that an ‘humble Address’ be presented to Queen Victoria asking for a commission to inquire into, and report upon, the revision of standing orders in the House of Lords and other changes that might be made to improve on efficiency. The Lords rejected this too. In April 1888 the Earl of Dunraven introduced a bill with a wide range of proposals to reform the constitution of their Lordships’ House. This roused the lords to anger and ‘by leave of the House’, the bill was withdrawn.

The issue of life peerages was another matter where progress had long been stalled. In June 1888, the then prime minister, the Marquess of Salisbury, submitted his own bill to make provisions for the appointment of peers for life. Predictably, the bill invited much criticism from their lordships and had to be withdrawn.

A year later, in February 1889, the Earl of Carnarvon pursued another line, asking in the House whether it was the government’s intention to submit to parliament any measure for restraining ‘unworthy Members’ from taking part in the Lords’ proceedings and from voting. Such a measure, their lordships thought, was unnecessary.

← i. xvi | i. xvii → The Earl of Rosebery, whose zeal for reform has already been noted, became prime minister in 1894. He at once announced his intentions of reforming the Upper House, but it was now the Queen herself who aired her dissatisfaction. (We refer to this controversy in detail.)

The Parliament Act of 1911

With the dawn of the twentieth century, a new stage begins in this long, frustrating story. The Liberal government, returned in 1905, wished to bring through a raft of radical social reforms. The Lords were obstructive, but the Liberals were determined to persevere nonetheless and their leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, appointed a cabinet committee to work out proposals that could counter the Lords’ obstruction. The committee came up with the idea of a suspensory veto – the Lords’ veto would, by law, be limited to a minimum period. It was left to the remarkable skill of Campbell-Bannerman’s successor, Herbert Asquith, finally to clip the wings of the Lords.

Before this happened, the House of Lords had the opportunity to discuss various reform proposals of its own. In May 1907, the highly conscientious Lord Newton proposed a change in the composition of the Upper House to make it more representative and more answerable to the needs of contemporary society. Although the Lords agreed, through an amendment, that a select committee should be appointed to consider efficiency in matters affecting legislation, the Newton Bill was effectively thrown out. When, in June, the Commons resolved that they intended to restrict the voting power of the Lords by law, fear gripped their lordships. They then agreed to establish a select committee under the chairmanship of Lord Salisbury. This would recommend necessary reforms of the House – but very little more was heard of it. In 1908 Lord Rosebery together with Lord Curzon put forward further suggestions for reform. The lords refused to take them up. Again, in 1910, the Earl of Rosebery moved that ← i. xvii | i. xviii → the House of Lords ‘do resolve itself into a Committee to consider the best means of reforming its existing organisation’. Now in a corner, their lordships debated the motion for four days. At the end of the debate they overwhelmingly resolved the motion in the affirmative. But no pratical steps followed. Also in 1910, the fourth Marquess of Salisbury circulated a valuable memorandum on Lords’ reform among his colleagues but to no avail: there is no record of the fate of this paper.

The crisis of relations between the two Houses had to be resolved. In June 1910 the prime minister (Herbert Asquith) and the leader of the opposition (Arthur Balfour) agreed that an inter-party conference would be worth holding in an attempt to find a settlement. This ‘Constitutional Conference’ went on for twenty-two sittings, lasting from 17 July to 10 November 1910; but the deliberations produced no results. On 17 November, immediately after the failure to resolve the issue was announced, Lord Rosebery begged his fellow peers to reconsider his resolutions for reform. To his great satisfaction, the lords passed the resolutions. However, what the lords had agreed on was of little use to the government now. It was keen to pursue its own line of legislation.

Asquith prepared his blow. On 21 February 1911, in the Commons, he asked for leave to introduce a bill ‘to make provisions with respect to the powers of the House of Lords in relation to those of the House of Commons, and to limit the duration of Parliament’. The bill was vehemently opposed by Balfour, but it passed its second reading by a majority of 125 votes. It was sent to committee to be debated until 3 May and scheduled to come before the House of Commons for the third reading on 15 May.

In order to delay – or even obstruct – the third reading, Lord Lansdowne introduced his own bill in the Lords on 8 May proposing to amend the constitution of the Upper House. He argued that no lasting solution to the problems existing between the two Houses could be possible except with a reconstituted second chamber. A reform of the Lords, the marquess asserted, must precede reform of the relations between the two Houses. The Lansdowne Bill provoked a vigorous debate which lasted five days. The Lords then directed the bill to committee.

The drama of how the Parliament Act of 1911 eventually came to be passed in the House of Lords has been the subject of extensive historical ← i. xviii | i. xix → research. This present study contributes to an understanding of the drama by presenting some valuable and previously unpublished source material. Throughout the negotiations, in our view, Asquith performed his services as first minister of the crown in a correct and extraordinarily competent manner. He acted constitutionally in securing an assurance from the King that, if necessary, the sovereign would exercise his prerogative of creating new peers. If the exercise of this prerogative later proved unnecessary, we owe it to the skill and sagaciousness with which the prime minister conducted the whole affair. The Parliament Act of 1911 is the outstanding measure of reform affecting the Upper House until we come to a period some time after the Second World War. In effect, the act caused, what David Cannadine so aptly describes as the virtual ‘emasculation’ of the House of Lords.

Continued skirmishing

The preamble of the Parliament Act 1911 had made it clear that, at some future stage, measures would be taken to reconstitute the House of Lords on a popular and not entirely hereditary basis. In 1913 the Liberal government did indeed set up a cabinet committee to make suggestions for a reconstituted second chamber. The cabinet considered the committee’s report. However, it left the issue unsettled. The chief reason for this indecision was that more important problems were crowding in on the government. These included the crisis of international relations that was to lead to the First World War. But this did not stop certain members of the House of Commons from introducing a bill for the termination of hereditary titles. This was in May 1914. After the debate (in June) the bill was committed to a standing committee of the House, which passed it in July of the same year, just before hostilities began.

Even before the war ended Lloyd George’s cabinet entertained new thoughts about the Lords. Lloyd George proposed the summoning of an ← i. xix | i. xx → inter-party assembly to discuss reforms and Bonar Law agreed to the idea. Thus, on the order of the prime minister, a ‘second chamber’ conference was appointed in August 1917 under the chairmanship of Viscount Bryce, the distinguished constitutional historian. The members of the conference included sixteen Conservatives, twelve Liberals, two Irish Nationalists, one representative from the Labour Party and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The conference held forty-eight sessions which took place at regular intervals between October 1917 and April 1918. The chairman’s report, known as the Bryce Report, was submitted to the prime minister on 24 April 1918. The report outlines the deepest and most thorough-going scheme ever put forward to reform the House of Lords. We publish the complete minutes of some of the sessions in our survey, as well as the full text of the Bryce report. Unfortunately, the government – preoccupied with post-war social problems in the country and with the Irish issue – showed little enthusiasm for translating the report into legislation. There is evidence that, anyway, the House of Lords would have rejected the bill.

And yet the will to reform was not wanting either during the Coalition Cabinet of Lloyd George or during Bonar Law’s Conservative cabinet of 1922. A government House of Lords reform committee continued to meet and drafted various schemes. Detailed proposals were prepared by Lord Curzon, by Winston Churchill and by H.A.L. Fisher. A revised draft resolution, agreed on by the cabinet committee, was submitted to the House of Lords on 18 July 1922. The tone of the ensuing debate in the House was not encouraging. It was decided to postpone the discussion until the autumn. Baldwin’s first Conservative cabinet of 1923 then deferred consideration of the issue indefinitely.

In May 1923 a number of Labour MPs led by Arthur Ponsonby begged leave to bring in a bill ‘to provide for the termination of hereditary titles among his Majesty’s subjects’. In its conferences of January and September 1918, the Labour party had confirmed its opposition to any form of second chamber and some of the radical members of the party had vowed to abolish the House of Lords. But circumstances were changing: Labour was achieving increasing support in the country, and it looked as if it might form the next government, which it indeed did in January 1924. This meant that any challenge to the authority of the House of Lords would only ← i. xx | i. xxi → complicate the work of the first Labour cabinet. No one knew this better than the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald. He thought the Ponsonby initiative was unwise, and discouraged Labour members of the Commons from following it up.

Moves now came from the right. The fear that a Labour government might subvert the social order haunted the Conservatives and National Unionists. This fear mounted once Labour had a majority in the Commons. The lords believed that the destruction of the Upper House was imminent – an eventuality opened up (to their way of thinking) by the Parliament Act of 1911. Such a move must be stopped from happening under all circumstances. The only course possible, they maintained, was to reconstruct the Upper House in such a way as to re-establish the power their lordships had lost in August 1911. So, when in the general election of 1924, the Conservatives won an outright victory, they were convinced that the time for action had come. During Baldwin’s second Conservative government, committees busily drafted schemes, memoranda and recommendations proposing changes in the power and composition of the House of Lords. There was not only the cabinet committe but a ‘second chamber’ committee of the Unionist party.

And yet, the Government refused to move any legislation. This irritated many of the peers. Some of them proceeded to put forward their own schemes in the House of Lords – the Duke of Sutherland’s in 1925, Viscount FitzAlan’s in 1927, the Earl of Clarendon’s in 1928, and Viscount Elibank’s in 1929.

Ramsay MacDonald headed the first National Government of 1931, brought into power by the slump in the world economy. He was keen to settle measures to reform the Upper House and designated Arthur Ponsonby (recently created a peer) to suggest proposals. This Ponsonby did. And so did a Conservative committee under Lord Linlithgow. Some (rather limited) use of these proposals was made by a joint committee of peers and members of the House of Commons established in 1932 under the chairmanship of the Marquess of Salisbury. This joint committee was charged with finding a reform solution that might be acceptable to both Houses. It came up with a report of unusual length in October 1932. But the report then disappeared from sight.

← i. xxi | i. xxii → The negligence with which the report was treated by the government seems to have frustrated Lord Salisbury immensely. This motivated the marquess to introduce a bill of his own to reform the constitution of the Lords in December 1933. What were his chief motives? He sensed, he said, danger from a future socialist government. ‘We should be insane,’ the marquess contended, ‘if we did not take some precaution to prevent the country, not knowing, not dreaming of the consequences which are going to happen, from being exposed to these perils by the advent of a Labour Government.’ The bill clearly stated what Lord Salisbury had in mind. It would change the composition of the Upper House no doubt, but would bestow extensive powers on the lords so they could put heavy obstacles in the way of changes the House of Commons might legislate. Realizing that the chief intention of the bill was to consolidate the dominance of the Conservative party yet further, the Labour leader in the House of Lords, Lord Ponsonby, moved an amendment to oppose the bill. The bill was debated in the Lords for three days in May 1934. The government declared that it had no intention of supporting it. All the Marquess of Salisbury could achieve – though perhaps more than his father had accomplished in 1888 – was to obtain a second reading. The bill then fell into oblivion.

The story of frustrations and failures continues. In June 1934 the cabinet political committee invited and discussed reform proposals but took no decision towards putting them into effect. In 1935 two more bills were moved in the House of Lords. They were short and simple: one concerned life peerages (Lord Rockley), the other related to the Parliament Act 1911 (Lord Rankeillour). Though their lordships gave approval to the first bill, the second was, by leave, withdrawn by the mover. In February 1937, a bill to change the constitution of the Upper House was introduced in the House of Commons by the private member H.W. Williams and his associates. There was some debate, but the House agreed to put decisions off for six months – the customary way to kill a bill. In March the same year, Baron Strickland put forward a motion in the House of Lords to increase its membership by giving the Dominion prime ministers the right to sit and vote there. However, the lord chancellor declared that he had no authority from the government to ‘make any statement at the present moment about the House of Lords reform’ and this motion too was thereupon withdrawn.

← i. xxii | i. xxiii → After these attempts there was a very long pause in the story. This was most certainly due to the grave international crisis – the threat of impending war and then its outbreak. These contingencies swallowed up the energies of cabinet and parliament; and thoughts of Lords’ reform were left to one side. I therefore end the first volume of this work in 1937. Volume II will cover the period from after the end of the war to the present.

Source material

The materials used in the present work have been drawn entirely from original sources, most of which, I believe, are being made available to the general reader for the first time. Almost all the important bills, motions and resolutions concerning our subject are reproduced. Proposals, schemes and memoranda affecting the reform of the Lords have been included too. I have made full use of the minutes of cabinet committees. For a better understanding of the statesmen’s attitudes I have also felt it fundamentally important to quote parliamentary debates at length. It must have been such a delight to hear the eloquence, the logical argument and the wit with which people like Curzon, Dunraven, Gladstone, Grey, Granville, Labouchere, Ponsonby, Rosebery, the two Salisburys and the Duke of Sussex addressed parliament. These speeches are available in libraries, but are a largely unexplored territory. It gives great pleasure to read this elegant prose and cherish its grace. Not only that, the speeches impart the spirit of the times.

Styles of reporting in print have changed over the years, so, in following these speeches and documents, the reader will have to allow for words capitalized in one place, not capitalized in another; also for the rather quaint forms of address used by their lordships and the more technical terms describing how parliamentary bills are introduced, debated and voted on. Even these details convey a period flavour the reader could not gain from a mere second-hand account.

← i. xxiii | i. xxiv → The cardinal question

What can one conclude from the story? The cardinal question to be asked is: why was it that, for so many decades, whatever proposals for reform were put forward, they were thrown out by one or other of the two Houses, or directed to select committees (where they slumbered), or were simply deferred? The following study, it is hoped, may answer the question. If the reforms failed, it was because the parties involved would not relinquish the power they possessed, would not give up their privileges, would not surrender the dignities they owned. Agreement was never reached either on the composition or on the powers a reformed upper chamber should have. Discord frequently arose from differences in opinion over the ‘hereditary principle’ and whether it should be retained, and over the nomination and election (direct or indirect) of peers. When, increasingly, the power and prestige of the hereditary peers was challenged by the House of Commons, they became ever more solicitous to preserve their hereditary rights. They even felt indignant at having to associate with life peers. Life membership, they alleged, diminished the moral excellence peculiar to heredity, and such ‘extravagant’ appointments should be prevented. Equally incompatible with the historical tradition of the House of Lords, they believed, would be the election of peers by county councils. Such a change, argued one from an ancient family, would be ‘too severe a dose of democracy’. These stubborn attitudes were the chief reasons why there was no reform of the House of Lords, and why all schemes were put off.

Only after 1945 did the basic disposition of the people undergo radical change. New social forces came into being, and with them a new vision of society and new political sentiments. A process of change has since seemed inevitable and, even within the most traditionalist areas of the constitution, change has taken place. The long road to reform seems at last to be leading somewhere. The study of this process will be the purpose of our next volume.

— Peter Raina
Hilary Term 2011,
Jowett Walk, Oxford

← i. xxiv | i. xxv → Acknowledgements

I gratefully acknowledge help from, and record my obligations to, the following persons and institutions:

Her Majesty the Queen for her gracious permission to use the Royal Archives at Windsor (Registrar, Pamella Clark).

House of Lords Record Office. The Parliamentary Archives, London (Mari Takayanagi).

The National Archives, London (Tim Padfield, Marcus Wheatley).

The National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Conservative Campaign Headquarters, London (Adrian Harris).

The Controller of HMSO (Parliamentary Debates).

Bodleian Library, Oxford (Conservative Research Department: Jeremy Mcllwaine; Western Manuscripts: Ponsonby MSS; Dawson MSS; Selborne MSS: Colin Harris).

Sir John Gilmour (Gilmour MSS).

The present Earl of Selborne (Selborne Papers).

The present Marquess of Salisbury (politcal papers of the 4th Marquess of Salisbury) and his archivist (Robin Harcourt Williams).

The Hon. Edward Adeane, CVO (Lord Stamfordham Papers).

← i. xxv | i. xxvi → The present Viscount Knollys (Viscount Francis Knollys Papers).

The History Faculty Board, University of Oxford (for according me the status of Visiting Research Scholar, 2010–2011).

The Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford (for electing me to Honorary Membership of the High Table and to Associate Membership of the Common Room, 2009–2010).

The Governing Body of Peterhouse, Cambridge (for granting me High Table privileges, 2009–2010).

Dr P.A. Brand., FBA, Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford; Prof. Robert Evans, FBA, Regius Professor of Modern History, Oxford University; Lord Lloyd of Berwick and Lord Plant of Highfield (for overall moral encouragement).

Mr Jon Ashby for an excellent job of copy-editing.

← i. xxvi | i. xxvii → List of Illustrations

Image of the bust of Lord Lyndhurst by W. Behnes
Reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge

The Earl of Dunraven by an unknown artist
Reproduced by permission of the present Countess of Dunraven

The Earl of Rosebery by H. Weigall
Reproduced by permission of the Dean and Students of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Archivist Judith Curthoys

The 3rd Marquess of Salisbury by an unknown artist
Reproduced by permission of the present Marquess of Salisbury

The Rt Hon. Henry Labouchere by an unknown artist
Reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge

Lord Newton by an unknown artist
Reproduced by permission of the present Lord Newton

The Earl of Asquith and Oxford by an unknown artist
Reproduced by permission of the present Earl of Asquith and Oxford

Lord Stamfordham by an unknown artist
Reproduced by permission of the Hon. Edward Adeane, CVO

While every effort has been made to trace copyright holders, if any have been inadvertently overlooked the author will be happy to acknowledge them in future editions.← i. xxvii | i. xxviii →

← i. xxviii | i. 1 → CHAPTER ONE

The Evolution of the House of Lords: The origins to the Restoration

The House of Lords: the roots

We must go to the dawn of English political history to look for the roots of the House of Lords. The early English kings, presumably from the beginning of the seventh century on, ruled with the assistance of witan, the ‘wise men’. This group of ‘wise men’ assembled together in what was called the witenagemot.1 The members of this assembly were the king’s favourites, and therefore could hardly be called representative.

We learn, again from history, that about 695 the witan took a leading part in drafting the Dooms of King Withred of Kent (about 695). And about two hundred years later King Alfred (871–900) approved some of the laws observed by his predecessors, but ‘annulled’ those he did not approve of on ‘the advice of my witan’, ordering these laws ‘to be observed in a different fashion’. But then, Alfred alleges, that ‘I, Alfred, King of the West Saxons, have shown these to all my witan, and they have declared that it met with the approval of all that they should be observed.’

Not all English kings resorted to the advice of the witan. King Edgar (959–75) disregarded them, as did Ethelred II (978–1016). We note witenagemot mentioned seven times during the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042–66), but reference is equally made to about ten meetings of the concillium, a group that should be understood as the king’s councillors.

← i. 1 | i. 2 → We must now ask, who these councillors were, and what the composition of the witenagemot was like. Our chief source of information here is the list of witnesses ‘generally appended to charters issued at times when the witenagemot was meeting, to record grants of lands and privileges by the king’. The lists are headed with the king’s own name, followed immediately by the Queen’s (then in certain cases by those of the royal princes). After the royal family appear the names of the archbishops of Canterbury and York, followed by a limited number of bishops and abbots (the number tends to vary according to the wishes of the king). There is evidence that ‘forty-six per cent of all non-royal attestations on the surviving genuine charters of the time of the Confessor, eighteen royal and eight private, are those of ecclesiastics’.2 The dominance of churchmen in royal councils had become necessary not only because their sacred station had to be recognized, but also because they were the main educated class in society.

The Church hierarchy had developed since the arrival in England of Augustine and his missionaries from Rome (597) and the subsequent spread of Christianity. The episcopus, the bishop, was originally an overseer, a parish officer charged with missionary duties; and the title ‘abbot’ had its origin in the Syriac abba (father), later Latinized to abbas.3 The early bishoprics came into existence with the successive conversion to Christianity of the petty chieftains or primas, who ruled over the small kingdoms within the island. In these kingdoms the bishop was not only the head of the Church, but advised the chieftain-kings or primas in all religious affairs. And because the bishop was also literate he extended his influence widely into the affairs of the state. Later, the bishop’s presence became more, not less influential, with the establishment of a united kingdom in Britain.

The composition of lay witan was diverse. Among the laity one would find people of different professions: military leaders, provincial governors, landowners, judicial officers. They were all royal appointees, thus royal servants, always the king’s subordinates. It became customary to give their ← i. 2 | i. 3 → functions a name or a title. Here the old Roman appellations persisted. The earliest of these titles comes, comte (later count) appeared during the Roman occupation of Britain. At that time there were two comites: the Comes Saxonici Littoris per Britanniam and the Comes Britanniarum. The Comes Saxonini Littoris had a military jurisdiction, and the Comes Britanniae enjoyed wider powers. This comes had administrative jurisdiction over the Provincia Britanniae. The comes was also entitled to be the companion of the sovereign.

Then there was the Dux (later duke) Britanniarum. His ensign (during the Roman occupation) was an island with castles upon it. He was a military officer and had fourteen prefects under his command. However, this changed later. The title of duke, generally from the king’s household, was associated with territorial jurisdiction.

The word ‘lord’ stems from the Anglo-Saxon hlaford, hlaf-weard – guardian of the lvaf (bread), thus the owner of a small farm. The title could also relate back to the Roman term dominus. For his services to the king a man might be rewarded with a grant of land, becoming a lord. Thus a landholding aristocracy came into being.

The title ‘earl’ has a different origin. In various shires both military and civil authority lay under an officer called the ealdorman (alderman – signifying seniority). The Latin senior and the German elder certainly contributed to the essence of the title. Under the Danish kings the name changed first to eorl (from Danish jarl), then took its modern form ‘earl’. An earl also owned land.

William, the Conqueror (1066–87), assembled the witan after the Conquest. But it was a totally new set of witan composed almost entirely of Normans, William’s own people. The Conqueror gave the witenagemot a new name, the curia regis – the King’s Court, also called the King’s Council. In this court the principal persons of the realm assembled, lay and ecclesiastical. William surrounded himself with men he could trust and to whom he owed his success. Norman counts and earls replaced the English nobles. The title ‘baron, a lay tenant-in-chief, was an import from Normandy. All barons had been granted lands by the king, who was in effect their landlord. They were bound to him by contract and ‘their whole life depended on service to the Crown’.

← i. 3 | i. 4 → English sees were often filled by bishops from abroad, but the Royal Chapel (the chief administrative office in the kingdom) remained the principal recruiting ground for bishops – and William’s household and chapel were almost entirely Norman. Only abbeys and priories retained for any length of time their native English heads.

The Conqueror held his court three times a year, the times coinciding with the three great festivals of the Church: at Easter (Winchester), at Whitsuntide (Westminster) and at Christmas (Gloucester). Although the meeting of the court enabled its members to pay respects to the sovereign, it acted as a court of justice. At a court held at Laycock in 1086, it is recorded that William decided personally on a case about a land dispute in Sussex. Also present with the King were thirty-five curia members, including his two sons, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of Durham, Winchester, Lincoln, Coutances, Chester, Hereford, Salisbury and London, three comites, eighteen barones, two abbots, three monks and six laymen.

The Conqueror’s successors improved on the judicial functions of the curia regis (or King’s Court). Circuit courts such as justices in eyre or justices itinerant were established to carry a delegated authority into the shires. In case of appeal, or an error from courts below the King’s select council – the ‘Supreme Court of Justice’ – a small body chosen by the king would get involved in the case. Some time about 1176 the Court of Common Pleas came into being. Here disputes between party and party were heard in the king’s presence. The justices who heard the claims or plaints were generally appointed by the curia regis. Next, in 1184, we come across the coram rege (literally ‘before the king’), which was the King’s Court, afterwards called the King’s Bench. Hearings here would not necessitate the presence of the king, though he could be present if he so desired. The Court of King’s Bench was also known as ‘the Court of our Lord before the King himself’.

The reign of Edward I (1272–1307) saw further improvement in the protection of rights of the people. The ‘Courts of the King in his Council in his Parliament’ – a rather intimidating term – came into existence. In it sat prelates, earls, barons and other ‘learned persons’. There ‘[doubts respecting] judgements were determined, there new remedies were established for new wrongs, and there justice would be awarded to every one according to ← i. 4 | i. 5 → his deserts’.4 The Court of King’s Bench had an inferior jurisdiction; yet the time of Edward I is characterized by further widening and strengthening of the instruments of justice. We see the appearance of various councils convened at the command of the king. The functions of these councils were not clearly defined. We have the Common Council of the Realm, summoned perhaps only on great occasions; then there was the Great Council, seemingly a more permanent body; the Secret Council, perhaps dealing with state affairs as the term suggests. The ‘Whole Council’ is recorded as having included the chancellor, the treasurer, the justices of the two benches and the barons of the exchequer. Most important at this stage, however, are the terms chancellor and chancery. The chancellor was the chief attendant in the Common Council of the Realm, and the chancery an office of this council. It was the chancery that issued the original writs, duly sealed, but on the approval of the Common Council of the Realm.

It is difficult to define the character of an assembly which Edward I summoned in the twenty-third year of his reign. The King commanded the archbishops and bishops, forty-two abbots, eleven priors, sixty-four earls and barons, the justices of benches and others; but in the twenty-fifth year ‘neither Prelates nor Burgesses were summoned, but only ninety-four Earls, Barons, and Knights’.5 These assemblies were called ‘parliaments’. Here we must seek the assistance of a recent discovery of records. The term ‘parliament’, H.G. Richardson and G.O. Sayles observe, is to be found in the records of a court of law in 1236.

Furthermore, this parliament is evidently so-called because the term is acquiring a technical meaning. It is a special meeting, an afforced meeting, of the king’s council to which the justices of the king’s bench know they can refer for consideration one of the cases before them in which the king has expressed an interest. This meeting, described also elsewhere as a ‘general’ council or a ‘great’ council, is well documented. It was attended by archbishops, bishops, abbots and priors and by earls and barons; there was ← i. 5 | i. 6 → legislation for the royal forests and for changes in the period of limitation in certain forms of action; the king’s demand for an aid was met by the grant of a thirtieth in return for a confirmation of the Charters. These are matters of high politics, such as engaged the attention of many of the king’s parliaments in later years. On this ground alone our document would have considerable interest. But it may serve also to direct attention to the significant fact, apparently not yet adequately appreciated, that relatively unimportant matters, as well as important ones, were discussed at parliaments and that this was happening as early as 1236.6

We may infer, then, that it was in this spirit perhaps that the Common Council of the Realm functioned. This Council seems to have been ‘the fountain of justice, the source to which men commonly went if they felt aggrieved by the manner in which their causes were being heard in the court of Common Pleas, or in the Court of King’s Bench’.7

The composition of the House

We must now refer briefly to the men who composed what grew into the House of Lords. They were given titles of honour by the king, and with the titles they acquired lands. These titles were governed by a principle of hierarchy, in which the title of duke was the highest. This particular title seems to have been reserved for the king’s nearest relatives. The first duke created was the Duke of Cornwall – Edward the Black Prince, son and heir of Edward III (1327–77). He was girt with a sword, and vast possessions of ← i. 6 | i. 7 → lands were assigned to him. These lands now became an inseparable part of the dukedom. Then came the earls, generally favourites of the king. This dignity also carried with it the possession of lands. The earls were also girt with a sword. Identified with the earldom was the term comitatus, county, headed by vicecomes, vicounte (the vice-earl), the old English ‘shire-reeve’. The county was equivalent to the possessions attached to the earldom.

‘Baron’ and ‘knight’ were titles brought to England by the Conqueror. The title of baron was associated with the tenure of land. A baron generally held the lands from the duke and owed him military service. The knight held his land from the baron, to whom he owed military service. Thus the Conqueror established a feudal system that was strictly territorial and hereditary, the eldest son inheriting the title of his father. New dignities were created, as previously by charter, or by letters patent, in successive reigns. In the reign of Richard II (1377–99) we have the first marquess, and in the reign of Henry VI (1422–61) the first viscount. It was also in the latter reign that questions of precedence came into prominence. Dukes, generally being of royal blood, had precedence over marquesses, marquesses over earls, earls over viscounts, and viscounts over barons.

With the acceptance of Christianity by the crown, bishops and abbots participated prominently in its administration. They were learned. It was understood that the churchmen owed their spiritual loyalty to the Pope, but they had to make an oath offealty to the king. And although the bishops and the abbots were elected by the clergy, the king controlled their nomination. An arrangement was reached in the reign of Henry I (1100–35) whereby ‘the King of England ceded to the Pope the right of investing the new Bishops with the spiritual staff and ring. But he retained the right of claiming their feudal homage as Barons. And the choice of the man who was to be Bishop tacitly remained with the king’.8 The bishop held lands by barony, and it was thus that he ‘could have livery of the temporalities only on making an oath of fealty to the king. This was commonly done before his consecration, after which he had all the liabilities and privileges of Bishop and Baron, including that of the writ of summons to Parliament’.9

← i. 7 | i. 8 → The proceedings were almost similar in the case of an abbot. ‘Licence to elect, election by the Convent or members of the religious House, the royal approval, and restitution of the temporalities, which had been taken into the King’s hand when the vacancy occurred, were all necessary before the new Abbot could be in full possession of his abbeys or the lands held in its right’.10

The bishops and abbots were classified as prelates, and distinguished as ‘lords spiritual’ when they sat in parliament. And in contrast to lay temporal lords, a spiritual lord could not transmit his lands or dignity for an heir to assume after his death. The land and the dignity went to his successor. Also no ‘corruption of blood’ affected this succession. If a spiritual lord ‘committed treason or felony and was attained, the corruption of his blood had no effect on the succession of his lands or of his dignity. Whether Bishop or Abbot, a Spiritual Peer was always a corporation, either a corporation sole or the head of a corporation aggregate; and the blood of a corporation could not be corrupted, or rather a corporation had no blood to corrupt. A corporation aggregate could not commit either treason or felony, and could not therefore be subject to the penalties following upon the commission. If a person who, in his official capacity, was a corporation sole, committed treason or felony, he committed it as an individual and not as a corporation, and it was only as an individual that he could suffer the penalty. A parson might be attained for treason, and executed, but the glebe and the tithes were not forfeited to the Crown. A Bishop or an Abbot might also be attained, but the temporalities of the bishopric or abbey, though seized into the King’s hand during the vacancy, still remained the right of the abbey or bishopric, and the succeeding Abbot or Bishop was summoned to Parliament.’11 A bishop did not hold ‘either his particular dignity of Bishop or the lands attached to his bishopric for life. He was subject to deprivation, in which case his lands and his dignity went to his successor. He might be translated to another see, in which case the lands and the dignity of his first see went to his successor during his own life, and he acquired new lands and new dignity. His dignity, however, was purely ← i. 8 | i. 9 → ecclesiastical; his summons to Parliament, after the Conquest, was solely in consideration of the lands which he held in barony’.12

We must add a word here on the doctrine of blood. After the Conquest, only Church marriages were recognized and thus lawful. A child born otherwise was nullius filius, no man’s child. Thus evolved the right of primogeniture. We learn that whenever ‘any person, not being a corporation, held land in fee simple, there existed in his blood a capacity of inheritance – a capacity not limited to his eldest son, but pervading the whole of his descendants and, in the absence of descendants, extending still further. It was a capacity which he himself had no power to destroy. He could not, before the reign of Henry VIII (except in virtue of certain local customs), affect the disposition of the land after his death by will. If he died seised of his estate in fee simple, the land could go only to his heir, who might be his eldest son, or the issue of his eldest son, or failing them a younger son, or failing a younger son and his issue a daughter or daughters, and so on according to the law of descent in relation to consanguinity. He was absolutely powerless to affect the inheritance or to destroy the virtue of his own blood. He could affect his heirs only by affecting himself. He could convey away his land during his lifetime; and, in that case, it would of course no longer go to his heir, but solely because it was not his when he died. He in no way affected the capacity of the blood to inherit that which he held himself.’13

The principle of the descent of dignities was different. Noblemen ‘in the higher grades of the peerage held their honours in virtue of charters or letters patent, barons in virtue of letters patent or writs of summons. In all these cases the title to the peerage could be proved only by record in the chancery, which necessarily showed who was the first holder, and consequently in whose blood the dignity must descend.’14

On attainder of high treason the blood of the offender immediately became corrupted, and its capacity of inheritance was also lost. All lands in possession reverted to the king.

← i. 9 | i. 10 → It is difficult to assert when exactly the term ‘peers of the realm’ came into actual use. A.F. Pollard in his The Evolution of Parliament suggests that it was the law of the land that anyone who proved ‘himself the heir of a magnate of 1295’ was entitled to a peerage.15 Titles to peerages had been decided, not (in the absurd popular phrase) by ‘blueness of blood’ but ‘by royal writs and judicial decisions’.16

Etymologically, the term ‘peer’ means ‘equal’. In the earliest Anglo-Norman legal terminology, Pollard writes, it ‘simply denoted equality. Co-heiresses were said to be pares in respect of their father’s inheritance, because all inherited equal shares. The Modus Tenendi Parliamentum implies that every member of a parliament was a peer by dividing the whole assembly into sex gradus parium – clerics, proctors, knights, and burgesses, as well as prelates and magnates.’17 Peers became hereditary, for there were privileges attached to the tenure of land. During the reign of Edward I estates passed from father to son by right of heredity, and with the estates the privilege of exercising judgement, which ‘seems to be the essential factor in peerage. By the end of Edward’s reign England may fairly be said to have had an hereditary peerage’. But this peerage had yet little to do with parliament. There were ‘many hundreds, possibly thousands, of these pares’, but Edward I summoned ‘less than a hundred magnates by special writ to parliament’. Those who sat in parliament had no hereditary claim to do so. Every peer was summoned in person, and the process of limitation began by the restriction of ‘peerage’ to those who could judge – those of the magnum concilium. In the process of time the magnum concilium became ‘a small gathering of great men rather than a great gathering of small men. Greatness, not tenure-in-chief, constitutes the right or the liability to a special writ of summons to the magnum concilium – “council of magnates” – in the reign of Henry III and Edward II.’18 During Edward II’s reign peerage made its debut as a constitutional force in parliament. Peerage ← i. 10 | i. 11 → was a principle used to support the magnates in resistance to the crown. Peers, observes Pollard, could ‘hardly pretend to independence so long as they were tenants-at-will of the crown and called themselves barons. But hereditary tendencies culminating in strict entails had rendered the lords of the land secure; and lords, seigneurs, barons, and peers of the land came to be used as synonymous terms to express a landed aristocracy striving for political supremacy. Their claims reach their high-water mark in the ordinances of 1311. The king is not to leave the realm, declare war, appoint judges or ministers, keepers of castles or wardens of ports without the assent of [the] baronage’.19

The king’s magnum concilium which met in the camera magni concili – the ‘parliament chamber’, eventually became the House of Lords. The essence of the House of Lords, Pollard suggests, was not that it was based upon the principle of heredity, like the old nobility of the continent, but upon ‘the principle of primogeniture, which as the foundation of a legislative chamber was peculiar to England’. Primogeniture was ‘given its peculiar and exclusive privilege in order to keep fiefs intact, and not from any belief in its efficacy in the transmission of wisdom. The special writ of summons became attached to great hereditary baronies because the consent of their holders was essential to the financial success of the king’s proposals in parliament.’20 The fundamental change in the House of Lords ‘has been its conversion from the king’s great council, sitting in parliament in virtue of royal writs, into a body of legislature basing their right to legislate and their independence of the crown upon the principle of primogeniture’.21

← i. 11 | i. 12 → The House of Commons: the roots (1)

The House of Commons had a different start. Its roots go back to the forty-ninth year of Henry III (1216–72). In that year it is recorded that the King summoned representatives (usually knights) from the boroughs and shires to a national assembly. The provisions of the new charter marked the inclusion of a new group of people in the decision-making process of the crown. The following passage is relevant: ‘With the unanimous consent and will of our son Edward, of the Prelates, Earls, Barons, and Community of our Realm, it is by agreement provided that the ancient Charters of Common Liberties and of the Forest heretofore granted by us to the Community of our Realm […] shall be inviolably observed for ever.’ Having regard for the consent of the communitas was indeed a new factor in the law-making of England. The burgesses, however, do not appear as an estate of the realm. Any charter that established the law was an act of royal grace enacted in consultation with the King’s Council consisting chiefly of archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls and barons. The common man, the people (populus), had as yet little power to alter the laws of the land. The people might be present on such great occasions as when the sovereign was crowned, but nowhere could they pretend to speak in the name of the commons of England.

The medieval English parliament


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2011. Book One: XXVIII, 604 pp., num. coloured and b/w ill.; Book Two: X, 623 pp., num. coloured and b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Peter Raina (Author)

Peter Raina is currently Visiting Research Scholar, Faculty of History, Oxford University. He has been Senior Research Associate, Balliol College, Oxford, and Honorary Member of the High Table and Associate Member of the Senior Common Room, Christ Church, Oxford.


Title: House of Lords Reform: A History