Subject guide: parliamentary history on British History Online

By Paul Seaward, Director of the History of Parliament

Parliament Rolls of Medieval England

(The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England are premium content.)

The parliament rolls constitute the formal record of the medieval parliaments. They begin in 1275 and continue until 1540, when they are effectively replaced by the House of Lords Journal. Although parliaments existed before 1275, the edition begins in this date because significant official records of its proceedings are available only from the reign of Edward I. Only from the 1360s, however, do they survive with any consistency, adopting a standard format that emerges during the 1340s. This incorporated the initial opening speech and sermon, any grant of taxation, the common petitions (the requests presented by the Commons during the parliament) and the king’s answers to them and the statutes that arose as a result of the assembly. They may also record details of impeachments held in parliament. The parliament rolls are generally a record of the conclusions of the assembly, rather than indicating the process by which those conclusions were reached, and they are often rather coy in recording anything that might indicate major political conflict. An extensive introduction to the parliament rolls provides much greater discussion of the status and meaning of these documents.

The Journals of the House of Lords and House of Commons

These are the central record of business in both Houses of Parliament, in which decisions taken by either House were (and still are) formally recorded. The run of House of Lords journals begins in 1510 (although there is evidence of the existence of a journal from at least half a century before); that of the Commons a bit later, in 1547. The Lords journal forms a continuous series; some volumes of the Commons journal went missing in the seventeenth century and have never been found, and therefore there is a gap from 1581 to 1604 (the gap occurs in volume 1 in the printed version used here). The text here is that which was produced and published in the eighteenth century from the original manuscripts. Both journals record on a day to day basis the decisions taken by either House – readings of bills, orders and resolutions about the House’s internal affairs, and increasingly from the eighteenth century the reports of committees and the text of papers provided by the government in response to an order by the House. With one exception (in part of volume 1 of the Commons Journal covering the beginning of the seventeenth century) the journals do not record what was said in parliament: it is solely a record of decisions. There are important differences between the journals of either House: the most noticeable is the fact that the Lords records at the beginning of each day’s proceedings those who attended on that day; the Commons Journal does not. British History online contains vols. 1-39 and 62-64 of the Lords Journals covering 1510-1793 and 1830-32. It contains vols. 1-12 and 85 of the Commons Journal covering 1547-1699 and 1830. Journals outside these dates are available through other online sources (House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, published by Proquest, and Commons Journals after 1835 in PDF format on the Parliament website).

Parliamentary diaries

Next to the journals, the key records for parliamentary activity are the diaries in which individual members of parliament would take a note of what was done and said in the chamber, and notes of speeches either written down in advance of or more usually after delivery, often with the intention of publishing them in print or manuscript. These provide something closer to the modern output of Hansard than do the journals. Although some texts a little like parliamentary diaries exist from the fifteenth century, they first appear in any numbers at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries. The best diarist of the reign of Elizabeth I was Hayward Townshend, whose accounts were published in the late seventeenth century as Historical Collections: or, An exact Account of the Proceedings of the Four last Parliaments of Q. Elizabeth (1680). The seventeenth century scholar, Sir Simonds D’Ewes, collected a number of other records relating to Elizabeth’s parliaments, and these were published shortly after Townshend’s texts in The Journals of all the Parliaments during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1682). A modern scholarly edition of these texts is also available (though not online) as Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I ed. T.E. Hartley (3 vols, 1981-95), which should be consulted for detailed discussion of the sources. An extensive series of diaries covering parliament during the reigns of James I and Charles I has been edited and published by scholars linked to the former Yale Center for Parliamentary History, though these are not yet online. British History Online has the only diary source for the parliaments of the Protectorate in the 1650s, that published as The diary of Thomas Burton: recent research, however, has shown that it is a complex document: its nineteenth century editor spliced together two separate accounts of the proceedings, by Burton and Guibon Goddard, with the result that it can often seem repetitive. Debates of the House of Commons from the year 1667 to the year 1694 collected by the Hon.ble Anchitell Grey is the only diary to cover proceedings of the Commons for much of the period 1667-1694. British History Online also incorporates one of the main compilations of debates constructed in the eighteenth century, Chandler’s History and Proceedings of the House of Commons. Published in 1741-4, it incorporated many of the manuscript accounts then available for the parliaments since 1660.

Acts of Parliament

The statutes passed by Parliament have been published in various different forms. The authoritative source for the statutes passed up to the early eighteenth century is the Statutes of the Realm. Three of the eight volumes, covering 1628-1701, are currently available on British History Online. This collection does not include the legislation passed by parliament during the Civil War and Interregnum, declared null and void at the Restoration in 1660. This was edited by C.H. Firth and R.S. Rait as Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660 (1911).

Other political sources

Besides these key sources relating to Parliament and its business, British History Online incorporates a number of others with close relevance to parliamentary politics. Rushworth’s Historical Collections is a compilation of material put together by the one-time clerk assistant of the House of Commons, John Rushworth (1612-90), much of it concerned with the proceedings of parliament during the Civil War. The Thurloe State Papers consist of the business correspondence of John Thurloe (1616-68), the secretary of state during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, containing much evidence relating to the foreign and military policies of the Protectorate and its monitoring of royalist conspiracy. Sir Roger Whitley was a Member of Parliament for only part of the time covered by his diary, reproduced here from the manuscript in the Bodleian Library: but the diary shows how he carefully built up his prominence locally before regaining his seat in parliament in 1695.

Beyond British History Online

A number of other online sources complement those provided in British History Online. Most notably, The History of Parliament Online provides biographical details and sketches of members of parliament and accounts of politics and elections in each constituency. There are more parliamentary papers relating to the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the subscription service House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online, including reports from committees, and accounts and papers submitted to parliament, and some of the journals up to 1835 not included in British History Online. The online version of historic Hansard provides the text of Hansard from 1803 up to 2005.

Strengths and weaknesses

British History Online contains a large amount of the material required for researching English political and parliamentary history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and (in the shape of the Lords Journal) has a good collection of eighteenth century material too. However, the parliamentary material available on British History Online is largely pre-modern; those researching British political or parliamentary material after 1832 are advised to go to Historic Hansard online and the Proquest collection of House of Commons Parliamentary Papers. It should be recognised that the most extensive runs of material – the Journals of both Houses, and the Parliament Rolls – are largely records of what was done in Parliament, rather than what was said. This does mean it provides evidence of matters dealt with which are rarely recorded in accounts of what was said in Parliament before the mid-nineteenth century – local business is quite often not reported before then. Our records of debates are strong in the mid and late seventeenth century, but at present contain little from the early seventeenth century. These debates can be accessed via the volumes published by the Yale Center for Parliamentary History, which are currently unavailable online. British History Online does not contain resources relating to the separate Irish and Scottish Parliaments, as yet. The pre- Union records of the Parliament of Scotland may, however be found at the Records of the Parliament of Scotland.

Search strategies

Researchers should be especially aware of problems that arise when using the House of Commons and House of Lords Journals. These incorporate many names, both of people and places, and searches for either may throw up thousands of unwanted references. They should be aware in particular of the fact that many of the peers in the House of Lords Journals have titles which are the same as places (for example, the Earl of Devonshire, or the Bishop of Bristol), and that each day’s proceedings begin with a list of the peers present on that day, thus resulting in a large number of hits. Names are often spelled in non-standard ways, and titles may be partly in Latin and abbreviated (the archbishop of York is referred to as Archiep[iscop]us Eb[orac]orum, for example, before the Civil War, though after it gradually the names of places and then titles are change to English).

Further reading

Maurice F. Bond, Guide to the Records of Parliament (1971)

Geoffrey Elton, ‘The Early Journals of the House of Lords’, EHR 89 (1974)

Alasdair Hawkyard, ‘The Journals, the Clerks of the Parliaments and the Under-Clerks, 1485-1601’, Parliamentary History, 33 (2014), 389-421

Jason Peacey, ‘The Print Culture of Parliament’, Parliamentary History, 26 (2007), 30-48