On Tuesday I was lucky enough to have the opportunity of visiting the Parliamentary Archives. My research purpose was to check out the Proxy Books covering the House of Lords career of the 2nd Earl of Chatham (1778 – 1835), but since I was on the spot I decided to order up Chatham’s official House of Lords Pedigree as well.
Chatham’s pedigree (Courtesy of Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/22/1/3 f 42)
The practice of delivering Pedigrees when a new peer took his seat in Parliament dates back to a House Standing Order of 11 May 1767, designed to put an end to succession disputes and confusion over descent. The practice of record-keeping by the Office of Heralds had lapsed over the centuries, and the importance of tracing accurate lineage was increased by the fact the House of Lords was both a political and a legal institution.
The Standing Order required “that Garter King of Arms do officially attend this House upon the day and at the time of the first admission of every Peer, whether by creation or descent, and that he do then and there deliver in at the table a Pedigree of the Family of such Peer, fairly described on vellum”, covering the peer’s parents, siblings, spouses, children, and so on, “according to seniority, down to the day on which such Pedigree shall be so delivered in”. Each peer was permitted to prove his Pedigree before the Committee of Privileges, and a copy of the Pedigree would be kept with the Records of the House of Lords and the Office of Arms.
I was hoping to settle a point that has been bothering me for a long time. A few days ago I blogged for Chatham’s birthday, and explained my reasons for believing him to have been be born on 10 October 1756. His father wrote several letters on that date announcing his birth, and when he was baptised on 7 November, the 10th October was recorded as his date of birth. However, his family celebrated his 17th birthday on 9 October 1773, and nearly everyone since has followed that lead.
I therefore hoped that seeing the Pedigree might help settle the issue, and I was not disappointed. It seems Chatham’s registered date of birth is incorrect: the date of birth he provided the House of Lords, and declared “to be true to the best of my knowledge Information and Belief, upon my Honor” was — 9 October 1756. This, to me, seems to be a clear-cut case. It does not matter if Chatham was actually born on the 9th, or 10th, October, or bang on midnight (which is the most likely explanation of what happened): he believed his birthday to fall on 9 October, and that’s good enough for me.
Chatham’s declaration (Courtesy of Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/22/1/3 f 42)
If that was all, this post would be much shorter than it is. But I was so utterly breathtaken by the sheer beauty of the thing laid before me on the desk that I felt moved to purchase a photograph licence, and then to request permission to reproduce the images on this blog (graciously granted).
The Pedigree, on fine vellum as required by the 1767 Standing Order, was bound in tooled leather with fifty others spanning the period 1784-91. I am not kidding when I tell you it took both my strength and that of one of the archivists to wrestle it out of the box and onto the table.
With silk cords and gold tassels (Courtesy of Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/22/1/3 f 42)
And truly, these photographs do not do it justice. The whole thing — every one of the fifty-one pedigrees in the box — was painted and written by hand. (They cost £20 to draw up, not an inconsiderable sum.) There was shiny gold leaf. There was calligraphy. There was — beauty. There is no other word for it.
Here is Chatham’s crest, complete with Garter.
Courtesy of Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/22/1/3 f 42
The photograph does not really show the gold leaf on the Earl’s coronet and Garter, which frankly elevated this from “gorgeous” to “stunning”, in my opinion.
But what totally melted me was the combined Chatham/Townshend crest to represent any future offspring of Chatham’s marriage to Mary Elizabeth Townshend (there wouldn’t be any, of course, but since Mary was only 28 in March 1791, nobody could have known that):
Courtesy of Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/22/1/3 f 42
The other Pedigrees in the book were equally beautiful, but as this was the one I wanted to see, I spent a good long while examining it and just drinking it in. I do not think I have been so entranced by a historical document for a long time.
Beautiful — just beautiful. I’m so glad I’m able to share it.
The Earl of Chatham’s Pedigree (endorsed 11 May 1791) is in the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/22/1/3 f 42. All photographs used here were taken by me and reproduced with kind permission of the Parliamentary Archives.
 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England III, 11th edn (London, 1791), pp. 105-6
 John Palmer, The Practice in the House of Lords of Appeals, Writs of Error, and Claims of Peerage … (London, 1830), pp. 341-3
Today, something a little different, to celebrate the 4th anniversary of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog and the publication of their second anthology of articles: Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, volume II. For further information and links, including how to link to other posts in the CCK Blog Hop, see the bottom of this post!
My background is in political history. I love British politics, current and not so current. I wrote my high school dissertation on an the 1784 general election (think “Blackadder the Third” … startlingly accurate), chose political options as an undergraduate whenever possible, and studied 18th century political discourse for my PhD. Unsurprisingly, my career path has also taken me close to politics. Although I am a librarian by training, I spent a year working in a government department, and one of my duties was to compile daily lists of parliamentary debates.
Hansard, from here
Ah, Hansard… Hansard, since 1803(ish) the official record of British parliamentary goings-on. If it’s not in Hansard, it didn’t happen. Modern Hansard comes in densely-typed A4 packets, sewn together to form a booklet from about a centimetre to a centimetre and a half in thickness (depending on how verbose members are feeling on any particular day). Dull, you say? Anything but. My Hansard perusals were the highlight of my day.
You see, Britain’s Parliament has been around for a good long while — its history goes all the way back to Magna Carta (if you’ve been living in a cave for the past year of 800th-anniversary celebrations, that was signed in 1215) and the 13th century. Simon de Montfort summoned the first “proper” parliament in 1265, incuding representatives from all around England. That’s 750 years of (sort of) regular parliaments, and 750 years’ worth of weird and wonderful customs and traditions. Because if there’s one thing we Brits love, it’s a weird and wonderful custom.
So, ever wondered why poor old Black Rod gets a door slammed in his face every time Parliament is opened? Or why the Lord Chancellor sits on a woolsack? Or all this fancy politeness of only referring to other members as “the honourable Member for [insert random constituency here]”? Wonder no more….
1. That Black Rod thing
… is really quite simple. It’s a statement of the Commons’ independence from the Crown. It goes back to the 17th century, when Charles I came into the House of Commons in 1642 to arrest five MPs. They had been forewarned and escaped, but it was the last time a monarch was allowed to enter the Lower Chamber. After all, if the Civil War proved one thing, it was that even the monarch was not above British law.
Nowadays Black Rod (the person in charge of Westminster security — so named because he carries a black staff as a symbol of his office) summons the House of Commons to come to the House of Lords to hear the Queen’s speech whenever she opens Parliament. Because he represents the royal authority, the door of the House of Commons is slammed in his face as he arrives, and he has to knock three times to gain admittance.
Yes, that is the political equivalent of “We’re the kings of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal”.
2. Why does the Lord Chancellor sit on a Woolsack?
This one is also quite simple: because wool was one of England’s most important products and exports. Edward III made it compulsory for his Lord Chancellor to preside over the Grand Council on a bale of wool. The current Woolsack is stuffed with wool from around the Commonwealth.
I’ve actually come across a few examples of this occurring in my research. “Naming a Member” is a disciplinary procedure in the House of Commons. Using an MP’s name is forbidden: only the Speaker can do it, when he /she calls on a member to speak in debate. Otherwise, it’s all “the honourable Member for” whichever borough elected them in the first place. Thus David Cameron (if he weren’t prime minister) would be “The honourable member for Witney”, and George Osborne (if he weren’t Chancellor of the Exchequer) “the honourable member for Tatton”, etc.
However, if an MP is especially naughty — maybe they might accuse another member of telling a direct lie[*] — the Speaker might “name” them, by saying “I name the Honourable Member for Mouldy-in-the-Hills, Ms Winterbottle, for disregarding the authority of the Chair”. Big deal? Maybe, but the named MP is then suspended for five days. If Ms Winterbottle is named again during the same session, she is suspended for twenty days. If she does it a third time, she might not sit again for the remainder of the session.
[*] See below
4. … Speaking of lying in the House…
Accusing another MP of lying is an example of “unparliamentary language”. (Euphemisms are allowed: Winston Churchill once accused another member of “terminological inexactitude”). Swearing and general insults are also not allowed. According to a House of Commons Factsheet on traditions of the House, “Among the words to which Speakers have objected over the years have been blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hoolian, rat, swine, stoolpigeon and traitor”.
MPs can apologise for unparliamentary language by “withdrawing” it. Otherwise, if the language is not withdrawn, then the Speaker may order the MP to withdraw instead.
Occasionally, refusals to withdraw “unparliamentary language” have led to arguments been taken, as it were, outside. In 1798, the prime minister, Pitt the Younger, accused an opponent, George Tierney, of deliberately obstructing a government measure. When Pitt refused to withdraw his comments, Tierney challenged him to a duel. Both escaped unhurt.
5. Dragging the Speaker
The Speaker [or chairperson] of the House of Commons is elected each session by the MPs. Traditionally, the Speaker Elect is not supposed to be happy at all with the honour. On the contrary, they should be physically dragged to the chair. (Extra points are, presumably, given for kicking and screaming on the way.)
Why? Because in centuries past, the Speaker would lay the advice of the Commons before the monarch. If the monarch didn’t like it… the Speaker could be imprisoned, or even executed. It doesn’t happen any more, of course, but still!
6. … And some other examples of weird and wonderful customs
The Mace: sits on a table in front of the Speaker in the House of Commons, and is carried in and out in procession each day. It represents the Royal authority and, unless it is present, Commons decisions are not binding. It is occasionally a focus for parliamentary protests, therefore: any MPs who so much as touch it are “named” and suspended for five days. John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, was suspended in January 2009 for trying to carry it off in protest during a debate on Heathrow Airport.
Hats: MPs used to be required to wear them, unless speaking in debate. Until 1998 they were still required to wear one while raising a Point of Order (i.e., challenging whether a breach of House rules has occurred). Two top hats were kept in the Commons for precisely this purpose (although some MPs, to save time, put their copies of Hansard on their heads instead). The rule was (unfortunately) abolished in 1998. Male MPs are still forbidden from addressing the House in a hat. (Women are allowed.)
Swords: MPs used to wear them, and in the 18th century government members were still required to wear Court dress — which included a dress sword. Nowadays, as a Commons Factsheet puts it, “It is not now permitted to carry arms of any kind into debate”. There are still sword hangers in the cloakroom, though, and the Treasury and Opposition benches are still two sword lengths apart …… just in case.
Armour: Also not allowed: since 30 October 1313, it seems. If you were wondering, yes, it’s specifically forbidden.
Snuff: Smoking, obviously, is forbidden, and has been since 1693. Snuff on the other hand, would you believe, is provided at public expense for MPs, and still kept in the doorkeepers’ box. “Very few Members take snuff nowadays,” reports a Commons factsheet. Which implies that some do……
There are, of course, many more British parliamentary customs: this is but a flavour. It’s worth checking out the House of Commons factsheet on the subject, and also the following sources:
An article from the Daily Telegraph on the subject
A Listverse article entitled “10 Oddities of the British Parliament”
Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, Volume 2
Edited by Debra Brown and Sue Millard
An anthology of essays from the second year of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, this book transports the reader across the centuries from prehistoric to twentieth century Britain. Nearly fifty different authors share the stories, incidents, and insights discovered while doing research for their own historical novels.
From medieval law and literature to Tudor queens and courtiers, from Stuart royals and rebels to Regency soldiers and social calls, experience the panorama of Britain’s yesteryear. Explore the history behind the fiction, and discover the true tales surrounding Britain’s castles, customs, and kings.