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The Parliamentary Archives Jargon Buster: The Main Papers

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Cataloguing, History, Politics, Protestation Returns

This blog was written by Verity Jones, Archives Assistant (Graduate Trainee).

For our second jargon busting blog, we’re looking at one of the most unhelpfully named collections in the Parliamentary Archives – the Main Papers. While their name gives little away about their purpose or history, they are one of our largest and most used collections. Dating back to 1499, they give us one of the most robust accounts of the workings of Parliament throughout history.

Protestation Returns
Protestation Returns, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/109

What are the Main Papers?

The Main papers are the records of the House of Lords sittings. They are the papers that have been laid before the House of Lords during each session. This means they are the documents that are circulated and discussed during sittings. As they are debated, the verbatim accounts are recorded by Hansard and the actions are recorded in the Lords Journals. The Main Papers are a valuable way of understanding the debates and decisions made in the Chamber.


Why are they important?

The Main Papers give us an unparalleled insight into the workings of Parliament from the 15th Century onwards. Although there is a House of Commons equivalent, called the Unprinted Papers, our collection of these perished in the 1834 fire which destroyed most of the Medieval Palace of Westminster. Therefore, we only have these records from after 1834. Luckily, the House of Lords records were stored in the Jewel Tower, separate to the Palace, when the fire started. Therefore, these records remain undamaged. This means that they are one of the most important set of records for understanding the workings of Parliament.

Protestation Return for York 1642,
Protestation Return for York 1642, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/108/42

Main Paper Highlights…


All kinds of different records are classed as Main Papers – if it was laid before the House of Lords, it is a Main Paper. The images you have already seen in this blog are of 17th Century Protestation Returns, which list adult men residing in different parishes. This makes them invaluable for family historians, as they are the closest thing we have to a census from this period. You can learn more about searching these records here. As well as documenting the lives of ordinary people, the Main Papers also contain records about some of the most important historical events of the last 500 years. Read on to learn more about some of these monumental moments.


First up is the Death Warrant of Charles I (HL/PO/JO/10/1/297A), one of our most famous items. Charles I was placed on trial in January 1649. He refused to plead either guilty or not guilty three times, which meant that the court was unable to try him. After four days of proceedings, his refusal to plead was judged to be a confession and he was sentenced to death by beheading. The sentence was carried out on January 30th in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall. The warrant bears the signatures and seals of 59 of the commissioners who judged him. They became known as the 'Regicides'. On the back of the warrant, written in a 17th-century hand, it says 'The bloody Warr[an]t for murthering the King'. Although the warrant dates from 29th January 1649, it is filed among the Main Papers laid before the House on 31st July 1660, as this is when it finally came before the House of Lords.

Death Warrant of Charles I
Death Warrant of Charles I, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/297A

Another item held in the Main Papers which marks an important historical event is this copy of the American Declaration of Independence (HL/PO/JO/10/7/542A). It dates from 20th January 1778, when it was laid before the House of Lords. The American War of Independence had been going on since 1775, and there were growing fears in Britain about how to bring it to an end. The opposition parties in Parliament called for papers to show the challenges that would arise from trying to restore America to the ‘King’s Peace’. Among the papers was the copy of the Declaration of Independence, which had been agreed in 1776. The war was not officially ended until 1783.


Copy of the American Declaration of Independence, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/7/542A
Copy of the American Declaration of Independence, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/7/542A

One important set of records held in the Main Papers are those with royal signatures. Royal Commissions are signed by the Monarch to give Royal Assent to Bills to make them Acts of Parliament and are part of the Main Papers collection. Also in the collection are several Accession Declarations. These are signed by the new Monarch when they ascend to the throne. Below is the example of Elizabeth II’s Accession Declaration from 1952 (HL/PO/JO/10/11/247A). Therefore, it is clear to see how the Main Papers cover a breadth of historical periods and events, and give us real insight into the workings of Parliament.

Accession Declaration of Elizabeth II
Accession Declaration of Elizabeth II, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/11/247A

Finding the Main Papers


When searching our online catalogue, you will be able to recognise the Main Papers because their catalogue references always begin HL/PO/JO/10. From there they are divided into further sub-series. They are mostly separated by date ranges, although some, such as the ‘large parchments’ (HL/PO/JO/10/3), are filed separately due to conservation reasons.

Explore our collection of Main Papers though our online catalogue here.

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