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House of Lords Reform: A History

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

Peter Raina

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.
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Chapter 6: Peerages for Life: The Wensleydale case, 1856


← i. 114 | i. 115 → CHAPTER SIX

Peerages for Life: The Wensleydale case, 1856

On 16 January 1856, on the advice of Lord Cranworth, the lord chancellor, Queen Victoria directed the issue of letters patent to create Sir James Parke (currently a baron of the exchequer) Baron Wensleydale – a peer ‘for and during the term of his natural life’. The lord chancellor had thought it expedient to take such a step to strengthen the House of Lords in its judicial capacity. He believed that men whose means would be ‘insufficient to support the dignity of an hereditary peerage’ would be helpful to the House if they were created peers for life only.1 The original initiative appears to have come from the Queen herself. Victoria had written to her prime minister, Lord Palmerston,2 as early as 19 September 1855, remarking that the want of law lords had often been complained of, and stating that ‘the Queen has long been of opinion, that in order to remedy the same without adding permanently to the Peerage, the Crown ought to use its prerogative in creating peers for life only’.3

The initiative was well thought out. But that was not how most of their lordships saw it. Its deadliest opponent proved to be Lord Lyndhurst. Who was he? John Singleton Copley, Baron Lyndhurst (1772–1863) had ← i. 115 | i. 116 → distinguished himself as a brilliant lawyer. He had read classics at Trinity College, Cambridge and, it is said...

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