The House of Commons Speaker is a significant role within parliament that began in the 14th century and carries on to modern day. Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer, will examine how the responsibilities of the Speaker have changed over time. We’ll do this by taking a closer look at some of the key people who have held and shaped the position of Speaker.
The House of Commons Speaker is the presiding officer during debates. This means that either the Speaker or one of three Deputy Speaker’s will always be in the Speaker’s chair during a debate. The Speaker ensures that the Parliamentary rules of debate are observed. They decide who to allow to speak and when, making sure the debates run smoothly. The Speaker is supposed to remain completely impartial to politics and to maintain balance. Their job is to protect the rights of minority interests and opinions in the House.
The office and role of the House of Commons Speaker has existed since the 13th century, the earliest being Peter de Montford in 1258. However, the official title of Speaker did not exist until 1377, before then they were simply referred to as the Spokesman or Presiding Officer. Sir Thomas Hungerford was the first to be officially recorded in the Parliamentary rolls with the title and role of Speaker in 1377.
Election of the Speaker
A new Speaker is elected when the previous Speaker resigns, retires, dies, or at the beginning of a new parliament following a general election. A debate is held to discuss and decide who will be elected, or re-elected, as the Speaker. But without a Speaker to preside over the debate, who chairs this election debate?
The Clerk of the House use to preside over the debate in the Speaker’s stead. However, as the Clerk is not an MP, they are not permitted to speak in the chamber debates. So, instead of announcing who was next to speak in the debate, the Clerk would simply stand up and point at them. This was recorded in Hansard as you can see in this debate from 1951:
“Sir Hugh O'Neill (Antrim, North) stood up, and addressing himself to the Clerk of the House (who, standing up, pointed to him and then sat down)” Sir Hugh O’Neill MP, 31 October 1951, c.2, Election of Speaker
After 1971 this tradition was changed, the Father of the House (the MP who has the longest record of continuous service) would preside over the election debate instead of the Clerk of the House. The current holder of this title is Sir Peter Bottomley who became an MP in 1975.
After being elected, the new Speaker is traditionally dragged to their chair by two other Members. This dramatic induction is because historically the role of the Speaker was to communicate the opinions of the Commons to the Monarch. This could have deadly consequences for the postholder. You can see the current Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, dragged to his chair after the 2019 general election on Parliament Live.
One Speaker, John Popham, was elected for just one day. He was elected on 8 November 1449 and then excused by King Henry VI due to ill health. William Tresham was subsequently proposed and elected.
William Lenthall was one of the most famous historical Speakers. He was elected Speaker several times: 1640-1647, 1647-1653, 1654-1655, and 1659-1660. He most notably stood up to Charles I when he stormed into the Commons Chamber to arrest five Members on 4 January 1642.
Lenthall is quoted in the Rushworth Historic Collections with the following reply to Charles I demand for arrest: “I Have neither Eyes to see, nor Tongue to speak in this Place, but at the House is pleased to direct me, whose Servant I am here”.
No monarch has entered the Commons Chamber since this day. You can learn more about this event on our blog: I see the birds have flown
Arthur Onslow currently holds the record as the longest serving Speaker. He served as the Speaker for 33 consecutive years from 1728 to 1761. Onslow was responsible for distancing the role of Speaker from the authority of the Crown and established many practises still associated with the Speaker. He was well-known for his impartiality and integrity, which became a recognised part of the Speaker’s role.
“There is no doubt that the foundation of this House and the high reputation of Speakers rest upon what Mr. Speaker Onslow did in his day. He was the great Speaker who severed the connection of the Chair from the Crown.” Charles Pannell MP, 18 November 1959, c.1191, Mr. Speaker Morrison's Retirement Bill
Onslow was the first Speaker to be issued with a pension on his retirement in 1761. The pension was passed as an Act of Parliament, it provided him and his son with an annual sum of £3,000. This was a large amount of money at the time and equates to approximately £300,000 in today’s money.
Betty Boothroyd was the first and only woman to be elected Speaker, she sat in the chair from 1992 to 2000. She was MP for West Bromwich and West Bromwich West 1974-2000. Before she was elected Speaker she also served as one of the Deputy Speakers for five years (1987-1992).
Each Speaker has their own coat of arms, which is designed and displayed on the interior walls of the Speaker’s House. You can see the design process for Boothroyd’s coat of arms below, including the motto ‘I speak to serve’. Traditionally, the Speaker is given a life peerage after retiring, so she now sits as Baroness Boothroyd, a crossbench peer in the House of Lords.
However, Boothroyd was not the first woman to sit in the Speaker’s chair. Betty Harvie Anderson was the first woman Deputy Speaker from 1970 to 1973 and as part of her role as deputy would chair debates on behalf of the Speaker.
Betty Harvie Anderson was clearly respected in her role by the Members, as demonstrated by this speech when her resignation was announced: “The hon. Lady has presided over us with a great deal of ability, confidence and fairness and at the same time with dignity, kindliness and tolerance. There have been many occasions when her stern voice could have scared the life out of us had we not known that behind it lay a great deal of kindliness, friendliness and warmth.” Edward Short MP, 25 October 1973, c.1492, First Deputy Chairman Of Ways And Means (Resignation)
Interestingly, Harvie Anderson was still referred to as Mr Deputy Speaker in the official Hansard record whereas Boothroyd was referred to as Madam Deputy Speaker and later Madam Speaker.
We now move to the conclusion
The role of the House of Commons Speaker has changed considerably over time since the first recorded Speaker, Sir Thomas Hungerford, in 1377. William Lenthall played a large part in distancing the role of Speaker from the control of the monarch and Arthur Onslow in establishing the political impartiality and integrity that the Speaker is now known for. And finally, boundaries and traditions were broken by electing the first woman Speaker Betty Boothroyd in 1992.
The Speaker, House of Commons Info Office, Factsheet (August 2010) https://www.parliament.uk/globalassets/documents/commons-information-office/m02.pdf
House of Commons Library, Speakers of the House of Commons, Briefing Paper 04637a (21 August 2015) https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN04637/SN04637.pdf
House of Commons library, Election of a Speaker, Briefing Paper 05074 (13 January 2020) https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN05074/SN05074.pdf
Rushworth Historic Collections, Vol 4, 1721 (4 Jan 1642) https://www.british-history.ac.uk/rushworth-papers/vol4/pp473-494#h3-0004