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Response to Review of The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1604-1629

The History of Parliament welcomes the broadly favourable review accorded to these, our most recent set of volumes, by Christopher Thompson, who himself contributed a number of entries to them. We naturally share his belief that they are an indispensable tool for scholars of early Stuart parliaments, and also hope that they will prove valuable for those with a wider interest in English and Welsh politics and political culture during the early modern period.

Mr Thompson makes a number of criticisms of the volumes to which a response is required.  Most seriously, he appears to claim that we have, in the biography volumes, confused Sir Montagu Bertie with his uncle Sir Peregrine Bertie, and given the 1614 Bridgnorth Member John Pierse the wrong Christian names. These errors do occur, but they occur only in the ‘Introductory survey’ (Volume one, pp. 156 and 157). The biographies themselves provide the correct details. The review refers to ‘many minor errors’. Errors there no doubt are in a work of this scale, but these two are the only errors of fact adduced.

The review’s other criticisms largely relate to the interpretation provided in the ‘Introductory survey’. There is no basis for the assertion that the authors were ‘constrained from advancing too far-reaching a set of explanations for the history of the House of Commons in this period’. (The anti-revisionist flavour of the chapter on the management of the Commons in the ‘Introductory survey’, to which Mr Thompson draws attention, is not the product of institutional conservatism, as he seems to imply, but the result of a long, hard look at the evidence.) Mr Thompson is critical of the argument that Members of the Commons decided to lay upon themselves a self-denying ordinance in respect of impositions, describing it as ‘erroneous’. But the absence of debate on this subject, set alongside the welter of criticism directed against impositions in 1610 and 1614, is so striking that no other explanation is plausible. Mr Thompson is also on shaky ground when he suggests that the Commons was ‘willing to contemplate supply’ for a war in November 1621. The subsidy debate of 27 November actually revealed little appetite to give. Sir Guy Palmes, for instance, announced that ‘the country saieth that we have already given subsidies, but have brought them nothing’, while Sir Edward Sackville thought it would be ‘a dangerous precedent for us to give more subsidies without having some bills’. When, the following day, the House brought the matter to a conclusion, it resolved to give one subsidy – hardly an enthusiastic response to the government’s request for a liberal grant of supply.

Mr Thompson is right to draw attention to the need for further work on the links between the Commons and the Lords. A detailed study of the members of the House of Lords between 1604 and 1649 has now begun, and it should be possible, at the end of this project, to assess the extent of peers’ influence over the lower House. Mr Thompson also questions whether committee nominations were analysed using computer technology during the preparation of the Commons volumes. The answer to this question is no, since, as the work of Chris Kyle has demonstrated, committee nominations are not evidence of committee attendance. Surviving committee attendance records bear little resemblance to committee lists; the latter are not even necessarily evidence of interest, though sometimes a nomination (or group of nominations) is so suggestive that interest may reasonably be inferred. For these reasons, committees are best examined individually rather than subjected to computer analysis, the results of which would almost certainly be misleading.

Mr Thompson makes little reference in his review to volume two, which contains articles on all 259 English and Welsh constituencies, together with a further entry on the Cinque Ports. His only comment on this volume is that it sheds light on the electoral influence of the peerage. The articles in this volume deserve fuller mention, as they represent a significant departure from earlier practice. Instead of providing mere election summaries, they set out to explore, where possible, the political background to each election and the legislative and economic interests of the constituencies with which they are concerned. Some even challenge the existing literature. The entry on Canterbury, for example, undermines Peter Clark’s claims that Canterbury’s electoral politics during the 1620s were the product of religious divisions within the city. Taken as a whole, these articles form the basis for the wholesale reappraisal of electoral politics during the early modern period.

The review refers rather darkly to administrative and financial pressures to complete publication. It is no secret that while The History of Parliament’s funders, trustees and editorial board expect high quality work, they expect it to appear within a reasonable time. They do not expect the pursuit of such perfection that publication is indefinitely delayed. Like any scholars, we would always like to research more and investigate further. But no single work of scholarship can expect to be definitive or to address every issue, and The History of Parliament: The House of Commons, 1604–29 can be no exception. The History of Parliament is, as Herbert Butterfield wrote back in 1964, ‘a germinal thing’, a work which ‘draws a strong line across the history of that whole branch of study and may become a springboard for a new development’. What we hope and expect is that, as Mr Thompson suggests, the volumes will provide a massive stimulus to new interest in the politics of this fascinating and essential period, and that as these volumes are analysed by the community of historians and absorbed into historical scholarship they will act as a platform for new research and the basis for new insights.