Wednesday, 16 October 2019

S.Roskell, Perspectives in English Parliamentary History

By C Thompson

Academic essays which survey the state of particular areas of historical interest rarely have long shelf lives. They are creatures of the moment, useful to undergraduates but soon outdated by the passage of time. As new articles and books appear, their utility declines and, before long, they are forgotten. Nonetheless, there have been surveys of this kind which encapsulate the understanding of historians at a particular point in time and which pose an interesting contrast to later claims.

The essay composed by the distinguished medievalist, J.S.Roskell, on perspectives in English Parliamentary history and published in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library in March, 1964 falls into this category.[1] Roskell took as his subject the development of Parliament from the medieval period onwards up until the year 1700 and made some critical points about the point at which the institution became an indispensable and permanent part of the country’s constitution.

In the pre-modern period, Parliament depended on the sovereign’s will for its meetings: such meetings were extraordinary and occasional events. Until Parliament became a regular part of the constitution, it could not control royal governments. J.E.Neale’s works on Tudor Parliaments made it clear that it was not the business of Parliament to supervise the government of England. It was true that the House of Commons had gained a degree of control over attendance and of freedom from arrest. But Queen Elizabeth had contested with success claims by M.P.s like Peter Wentworth to speak on matters like the royal succession and, indeed, on religion. Restiveness in opposition is one thing but the thing it was not was power. 

“So much”, Roskell concluded, “for the treat to personal monarchy and the preparation of the constitutional revolution of Stuart times.” Under James and Charles, too, the right to free speech proved illusory in practice: M.P.s could be and were confined during and Parliamentary sessions in 1614, 1621, 1626, 1629 and the spring of 1640. It was not until the Bill of Rights of 1689 that there was any constitutional safeguard for freedom of speech.

The acid test of Parliamentary power rested on the control of direct and indirect taxation. This had actually contracted under the Tudors because of the life-time grant of Tonnage and Poundage in the first Parliaments of their reigns. The bargaining power of the House of Commons was thereby reduced. It was not withheld until 1625 but Charles I still collected taxes without Parliamentary authority. As long as a King could dissolve Parliament at his discretion and could use his prerogative to choke opposition, it was impossible for the House of Commons to secure the abolition of levies like impositions and Ship Money collected on the basis of royal authority backed by judgments in the courts of law.

If Parliament was to control taxation, it was necessary to make its grants conditional upon their appropriation to specific purposes and to ensure that these were adhered to. This requirement was resurrected in 1624 and 1641 but only made invariable post-1688. The auditing of such grants was only indisputably re-established in 1667.

The real break, Roskell argued, came with the end of the power of the Crown to govern effectively without Parliament. What the Tudors had created was not the “power” of the House of Commons, much less authority, but merely potentiality. What was being fashioned under the early Stuarts was the procedural means to secure power but not, critically, power itself. The new practices identified by Wallace Notestein were the means to an end but control over the Crown itself was not established. The great divide in Parliamentary history came in the late-seventeenth century when Parliaments had to meet regularly, when taxes had to be voted year by year, when, in fact, they became a regular part of the constitution.

The significance of this essay lies in its summary of historical understanding in the mid-1960s. Roskell was perfectly clear that Parliament was not an institution wielding power and that its existence depended upon the willingness of monarchs to summon it. He was no less clear on its pre-1640 role as an extraordinary and occasional event. It could not control the government nor could it prevent levies or taxes without Parliamentary approval being collected. Monarchs could and did disregard privileges like freedom of speech when they chose: they could and did incarcerate members of both Houses during Parliamentary sessions and after adjournments and dissolutions. Procedural changes did not give either House “power” as such.

This analysis undermines claims for the novelty of Conrad Russell’s assault on the Whig interpretation of Parliamentary history when it was made over a decade later. Historians like John Ball in his study of Sir John Eliot’s role in Parliaments between 1624 and 1629 had already disposed of such an interpretation while J.H.Hexter in 1959 had repudiated the claim that there was a struggle for sovereignty between the Crown and Parliament. The views Russell criticised were antique and no longer current in the historiography of the period. Roskell’s essay confirmed this verdict.

1.J.S.Roskell, Perspectives in English Parliamentary History. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library. Volume 46, No.2 (March, 1964), Pp.448-475.