By Dr Andrew Thrush, History of Parliament
Four hundred years ago, shortly after the start of the third Jacobean Parliament in 1621, the House of Lords created its first set of Standing Orders. Divided into thirty-three numbered clauses and amounting to approximately 2,000 words, the new Orders covered a wide range of subjects, including the role of the Lords’ Speaker, peers’ seating arrangements, the manner of voting, the fining of latecomers and the number of peers permitted to speak during debate. Following their adoption, the Upper House ordered that the new Orders be enrolled on parchment. It seems likely that this instruction was not carried out before the dissolution nine months later, perhaps because a new clerk of the parliaments, Henry Elsyng, had only just been appointed. At any rate, the first extant roll of Standing Orders dates not from 1621 but from 1624, when the fourth Jacobean Parliament met. This roll, together with the original 1621 draft (on paper), is now in the Parliamentary Archives.
The Lords soon discovered that their new Standing Orders were far from comprehensive. Beginning in 1624, fresh clauses were added. Thereafter the Orders were expanded and amended as the need arose, so that they have developed into the Standing Orders we know today.
The reason for the creation of the Standing Orders in 1621 has long remained a mystery. Maurice Bond, clerk of the records to the House of Lords Record Office for thirty-five years, suggested that they owed their inception to the revival of impeachment, which power had lain dormant since the mid-fifteenth century. By contrast, the noted early Stuart parliamentary historian Conrad Russell argued that the creation of the Standing Orders reflected a fifty per cent expansion in the Upper House’s membership since 1601, when the last Elizabethan Parliament met. According to Russell, the Standing Orders were needed ‘to deal with a new situation’, the expansion of the House having transformed the Lords ‘from a large committee into a small debating chamber’. However, neither of these explanations is convincing. The revival of impeachment in March 1621 post-dated the creation of the Standing Orders, which existed in draft form by 8 February 1621; while only three of the thirty-three of the Standing Orders drafted in 1621 had any bearing on debate.
The most plausible explanation for the creation of the Standing Orders lies in the changing complexion of the Upper House. The 1621 House of Lords was a far more inexperienced body than its immediate predecessors. Forty-two per cent of its members had never sat in the Upper House before, while many others only had experience of the short-lived Addled Parliament, which met in 1614. By comparison, only twenty-five per cent of peers were new to the Lords in 1604 and only twenty per cent in 1614. This increase was partly a result of chance, as there was a high rate of mortality among the bench of bishops in the years immediately preceding the assembly of the 1621 Parliament. However, it was also because Parliament had not sat for six-and-a-half years.
The main danger facing an inexperienced Upper House was that its rules and procedures were at risk of being forgotten. That danger was particularly acute in 1621, because none of the key figures involved in managing the Lords – the Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban, Prince Charles and George Villiers, Marquess of Buckingham – had sat in the Upper House before. In the House of Commons this danger was never as great, even though it was normal for around half of all members to be parliamentary novices. That is because the Lower House, being a much larger body than the Upper, always had the experience of a large number of veteran members to call upon.
The American historian Vernon Snow thought that responsibility for the new Standing Orders lay with the lawyer and future MP John Selden. That is because, in 1621, Selden was employed by the Lords to help draw up a list of the privileges enjoyed by the peerage, which document he presented to the Upper House in the form of a short treatise later that year. Snow’s view has been widely accepted, not least by the historian of the 1621 Parliament, Robert Zaller. However, while the start of the investigation into peers’ privileges coincided with the creation of the Standing Orders, the two exercises were in fact entirely separate. It is far more likely that the principal architect of the Standing Orders was the thirty-five year old Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, a veteran of two parliaments.
On 5 February 1621, Arundel moved to create a committee for privileges, on the grounds that ‘there are … divers orders which were anciently observed in this House, which by disuse and want of putting in practice are now almost lost’. There seems little reason to doubt this claim, as the resulting Standing Orders refer to disorderly practices in need of remedy. However, it is worth noting that Arundel, aside from being a stickler for order and proper procedure, was also eager to be appointed earl marshal. In the early seventeenth century, demonstrating one’s credentials as a reformer was the customary way for the ambitious to demonstrate their suitability for high office.
As a result of Arundel’s motion, the Lords immediately established a committee for privileges, the first time they had ever done so. Three days later Arundel and his fellow thirty-one committee members – twenty-seven of whom had sat before – presented to the House a set of draft Orders entitled ‘Remembrances for order and decency to be kept in the upper House of Parliament when His Majesty is not there …’. The key word in this title is ‘remembrances’. It demonstrates that the Orders were not intended to be new, but rather to serve as a codification of existing practice. It also points to the influence of Arundel in their creation.
The Standing Orders were immediately adopted following their presentation on 8 February 1621, on the understanding that the privileges committee would make a fuller report at a later date. Although there is no evidence that the committee ever reported back, the Lords ordered on 27 March 1621 that the Standing Orders be enrolled. Thereafter the new Orders quickly became woven into the fabric of the Upper House. In 1626, the Lords instructed that the clerk read aloud the roll of Standing Orders at the beginning of every session. Copies were also made available to peers, courtesy of the clerk, who supplied them for a fee. How many peers took up this offer is unknown. However, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, includes the copy owned by Henry Hastings, 5th Earl of Huntingdon, while the Henry E. Huntington Library, in California, possesses the copy owned by John Egerton, 1st Earl of Bridgwater. Both peers sat in Parliament during the 1620s.
It was not only at Westminster that the Standing Orders became entrenched. In 1634, Arundel provided Ireland’s Lord Deputy, Thomas, Viscount Wentworth, with a copy. The Irish Parliament was about to meet after an interval of nineteen years, and Wentworth was concerned that Irish familiarity with parliamentary procedure was now but a distant memory. Wentworth was extremely grateful, and thanked Arundel for ‘the good rules and orders your lordship sent’. When the Dublin Parliament assembled shortly thereafter, the Irish House of Lords adopted the Standing Orders virtually unaltered.
Dr Andrew Thrush is Editor of the History of Parliament’s Elizabethan House of Lords Section. He previously co-edited The History of Parliament’s The House of Commons, 1604-29 (C.U.P.; 2010), and edited the History of Parliament’s newly published The House of Lords, 1604-29 (C.U.P.; 2021).