XI. Legislation and Petitions

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Law-making was one of the prime functions of parliaments. Before the accession of James I, the future of parliamentary law-making seemed secure. However, in the following chapter it will be shown that this future, already called into question by James’s inappropriate use of proclamations,1 was undermined by a collapse in Parliament’s ability to enact legislation. As one lobby group after another abandoned legislation, those who looked to Parliament for redress rediscovered the petition as a means of approaching England’s representative assembly. In the Commons, too, which struggled to secure statute remedies for its grievances, petitioning of the Crown witnessed something of a revival. However, before we examine the legislative crisis of the early seventeenth century and the growth in petitioning that it spawned, something should first be said about the legislative process itself.

Introducing legislation

Anyone wishing to lay legislation before Parliament had first to decide where their bill should be presented for, as William Hakewill remarked, ‘it is in the choice of the party to prefer his bill first into the upper House or into the House of Commons … as he shall think it may most advantage his cause’.2 However, most of the legislation that came before Parliament under the early Stuarts began life in the Commons rather than the Lords.3 Why this should have been so is unclear, but it made sense for those with friends or relatives in the House, or for corporations with representatives in the Commons, to begin proceedings there. Moreover, the fees payable to the officers of the Lords for private bills acted as a powerful disincentive for initiating proceedings in the upper House, as they were at least double those demanded in the Commons. Whereas the Speaker charged a flat rate of £5 per bill, the head of Chancery customarily demanded £10, and though the clerk of the Commons exacted £2 for every bill, the clerk of the parliaments was apt to charge as much as £5.4 By going first to the Commons rather than the Lords, those who drafted bills could reasonably expect to defer the heaviest payments for as long as possible.

During the first half of the sixteenth century parliaments had convened primarily with the aim of enacting government legislation. Thereafter, however, the volume of government bills declined sharply and by the early seventeenth century the Crown’s interest in legislation was modest.5 It is true that in 1604 the government drew up an ambitious schedule of legislation, including bills to recognize the king’s title to the throne and to confirm Magna Carta, but many of the measures listed – such as one to put the Ulster plantation on a statutory footing and another to disfranchise rotten boroughs – appear never to have seen the light of day. 6 Discounting the perennial demand for bills of subsidy, the only major legislation desired by the Crown between 1604 and 1629 concerned the Union, the Great Contract and Tunnage and Poundage. Aside from the sessions of 1604 and 1610, the one Parliament in this period in which it is possible to talk about a Crown legislative programme is that of 1614, in which James laid before the House eleven grace bills, so called because they were concessions that the king was willing to make voluntarily in the hope of inducing the Commons to grant him a generous supply.7 By the 1620s, as Conrad Russell observed, the concept of a government bill had ‘lost all meaning’.8

Most Commons’ bills were introduced either by private individuals or independent corporations. It was by no means unusual for Members to draft legislation themselves, since many gentlemen entered Parliament in order to further their own legislative interests. Sir John Acland, for instance, primarily sought election in 1607 to promote a bill that would allow him to allocate some of the funds belonging to the sinecure prebend of Cutton, in his native Devon, to the establishment of a new school in the nearby village of Broad Clyst.9 In 1604 Sir William Smith entered Parliament for the first time in the hope of confirming his ownership of particular pieces of land.10 Of course, many Members drafted bills out of concern for the good of the commonweal rather than from reasons of self-interest. The puritan firebrand Nicholas Fuller, for instance, regularly produced bills addressing the shortcomings of the Church.

Not everyone approved of individual Members drafting private legislation. ‘No Member of the House ought to draw a private bill’, declared Thomas Crewe in 1621, ‘for he is a judge and ought to be indifferent’. Hakewill agreed, for though the practice was not unlawful ‘yet it cannot be but very inconvenient, seeing they are afterwards to be judges in the same course’.11 Despite these criticisms, the Commons resolved in March 1606 that ‘any Member of the House might put in a bill’.12 A ban would have removed a powerful motive for entering Parliament, and besides, the Commons was perfectly capable of deciding whether or not a bill was in the public interest, regardless of the identity of its author. Sir John Acland’s bill passed through all its Commons stages because it offered a genuine public benefit as well as a measure of private gain (Acland stood to obtain the services of a private chaplain), as did another bill of a philanthropic nature laid before the Commons by Acland in 1610. By contrast, a bill to fund the new pier at Axmouth that was drafted and introduced by Sir Walter Earle in 1614 failed to emerge from committee, probably because its author was primarily trying to save himself money at public expense.

Although Members who drafted their own legislation sometimes attracted disapproval, no one questioned the right of the Commons as a whole to draft bills. Under the early Stuarts, as under Elizabeth, it was common for public bills to originate with committees appointed by the House. In March 1604, for instance, the Commons ordered the committee appointed to consider the general motion of Sir Robert Wroth to draft bills against both monopolies and purveyance. Two months later, Sir Edward Montagu brought into the House two bills ‘drawn by the committees for religion’.13 Furthermore committees, whether concerned with public or private legislation, were entitled to draft bills without the explicit direction of the House. If a committee disliked a bill entrusted to its care, for instance, it was entitled to draft another in its place.14 Alternatively, as the practice of the 1597 committee for the bill against those who bought up goods in order to sell them on for a profit demonstrates, it could reduce the scope of the bill in its custody, and create a second, fresh bill out of the material that had been removed from the first.15

One measure that was only ever penned on the direct instructions of the Commons was the subsidy bill. Before 1597 it was customary for the attorney-general to draft the main text and for a committee to draw up the preamble. However, alternative arrangements had to be made in 1597, 1601 and 1606, as Attorney-General Coke preferred not to sit in the Commons. The solicitor general and the chancellor of the Exchequer, both of whom had seats, were given the task of drafting the body of the bill in 1597, and in 1606 the Commons appointed a committee to draft the whole bill.16 By 1610 Coke had been replaced as attorney-general by Sir Henry Hobart who did have a seat in the Commons. However, by now the practice of allowing the attorney-general to sit was under attack,17 and rather than order Hobart to draft the body of the subsidy bill as might have been expected, the Commons gave this task to ‘the king’s counsel’. This was a form of words which included not only the attorney but also Sir Francis Bacon (solicitor general), Sir John Doddridge (King’s Serjeant), Speaker Phelips (King’s Serjeant) and Sir Henry Montagu (King’s Counsel).18 Following the attorney-general’s permanent exclusion from the Commons in 1614, the job of drafting the subsidy bill fell exclusively to a Commons’ committee rather than the Crown’s law officers, at least in 1621 and 1624 and perhaps also in 1625.19 In 1628 however, the Commons, perhaps eager to demonstrate its willingness to grant substantial supply in return for the king’s consent to the Petition of Right, ordered the solicitor general rather than a committee to prepare the bill.20

There were two methods of introducing a bill to the Commons. The first, and by far the most common, was for the bill’s author or an agent acting on his behalf, to approach privately the Speaker or the clerk of the Commons (or their servants). Payments recorded in the accounts of the London livery companies, which regularly laid bills before the Commons before the mid 1620s, suggest that the Speaker was frequently visited at home. Some of these lobbyists were former Members of the Commons, whose knowledge of the workings of Parliament clearly made them useful to those seeking to introduce legislation. In 1604 the Brewers’ Company paid George Whitton, a veteran of three parliaments, £5 ‘to help us prefer our bill into the Parliament House’. Three years earlier the Brewers employed a certain ‘Mr Adams’, not only to draft a bill for them but also for ‘his pains to attend Mr Speaker’.21 The reference is almost certainly to the barrister Nicholas Adams, who had sat in 1589.

The second method of introducing legislation involved presenting it to the Speaker on the floor of the House. This approach had the advantage of letting everyone know who was behind the bill from the outset, which might be a source of suspicion if not declared. ‘Mr Speaker’, announced Francis Bacon in November 1601, ‘I am not of their minds that bring their bills into this House obscurely, by delivery only to yourself, or to the clerk, delighting to have the bill to be incerto authore as though they were ashamed of their own work or afraid to father their own children’.22 In May 1604 it transpired that even the Speaker was ignorant of the identity of the promoter of a bill to confirm the title of those who owned assart lands because the necessary fees had been paid to the Speaker’s servant, who had not kept him fully informed.23

Many Members like Bacon who publicly handed bills to the Speaker were lawyers, which perhaps indicates that they had penned the measures themselves.24 However it was perfectly common for non-lawyers to present the Speaker with legislation in full view of the House: the Northamptonshire magnate Sir Edward Montagu did so in 1606, as did the Norfolk gentleman Sir Hamon L’Estrange in 1621.25 Whenever a Member introduced a bill publicly it was customary for him to make ‘some short speech setting forth the needfulness of a law in that behalf’.26 Hayward Townshend provided just such a brief explanation when he offered a bill to prevent perjury and unnecessary lawsuits in November 1601. So too did Sir Francis Evers in January 1606, when he handed the Speaker a bill for the better observation of the Sabbath.27 In June 1625 John Carvile offered ‘with a preface’ a bill to reverse erroneous decrees and judgments in courts of equity.28 One of the best documented prefatory speeches was delivered in November 1610 by Richard Martin, who revealed that he had sought the opinion of friends regarding earlier versions of his bill.29

Whether a bill was presented to the Speaker privately or openly, there was no guarantee that it would ever be read. When, in January 1629, Ignatius Jourdain publicly handed Speaker Finch a bill to print the marginal notes in the Bible, the House called for the measure to be ‘laid aside till another time’, a demand which one diarist correctly interpreted to mean that the bill ‘was not fit to have … read at all’.30 In May 1614 the London Bakers invested considerable time and money in an attempt to obtain a reading of their bill to suppress the sale of unsized bread. Through the City solicitor, the bill was presented in private to the Speaker and all fees were paid. The Company also enlisted the aid of three of the Commons’ most prominent Members, the London representatives Sir Henry Montagu and Nicholas Fuller and the Hereford Member John Hoskins. Furthermore, copies of the bill summary, known as breviates, were distributed to ‘divers other of the burgesses’. Despite these labours, the bill never received a single reading.31

Bill procedure and the workings of bill committees

Bills generally followed a common format. At the top of the first page was the title, below which was the text, consisting of a preamble and the enacting clause. The purpose of the preamble was to explain the necessity of the measure. In public bills the preamble tended to be fairly short, presumably because, as Chris Kyle has argued, most Members were familiar with public matters. However, in many private measures it was exceedingly long, sometimes running to several pages, as bill authors were apt to explain in detail the nature of their grievance or the background to the case.32 As preambles varied widely in length bills did not conform to a standard size. Some, like the 1606 measure for the education of recusants’ children, which ran to ‘twelve press of parchment and a half’ and took an hour and a quarter to read, were immensely long, while others such as the 1606 bill against informers, which took up ‘not one sheet of paper on one side’, were astonishingly short.33 Long bills naturally occasioned complaint: Sir Henry Poole remarked sourly of the Coventry bill in April 1621 that ‘this bill long’; the following month he grumbled that the worst feature of the clothing bill was its length, ‘which may be helped at the committee’.34 However, short bills were just as likely to attract criticism: in 1621 Sir George More described the bill to prevent secret offices as good, ‘yet short, because no notice to be given to the terre-tenant’.35

Although they varied widely in length, bills shared the same physical characteristics. Unless they originated in the Lords, bills, like petitions, were meant to be submitted on paper rather than on parchment, as the process of transferring bills to parchment, known as engrossing, was reserved for measures that were intended to receive a third reading. In April 1604 the House turned a blind eye after the bill to establish a merchants’ court in London was submitted on parchment, but when a petition against purveyors was presented in the same form later that month, it was declared that in future ‘no petition, or other thing, [is] to be brought in ready engrossed, but in paper’.36 In order to allow amendments to bills to be made easily, it was required that a space should left between each line, and that large sheets of paper be used.37 Even so, a bill might become so heavily annotated that, as in the case of the 1606 bill for keeping the king’s subjects in their due obedience, it was necessary for the Commons to order the writing of a fresh copy.38 Before 1621 most bills were presented as manuscripts, but during the 1620s they were frequently printed. This was despite an order issued in 1610 forbidding the printing of breviates.39 The reason the Commons was initially hostile to print is unclear, but it may have been feared that the new medium would undermine the House’s settled procedures in respect of bill readings. These formal readings had become necessary because, before the age of print, and given the impracticality of producing multiple handwritten copies, the only means of informing Members of a bill’s contents had been for the clerk to read the text aloud.40

There was no limit to the number of bills that could be read in a single day. Half a dozen was not unusual, but the number read largely depended on the volume of other business that needed to be transacted. On one day in April 1604, during brief the lull that followed the end of the Buckinghamshire election dispute, the Commons read no less than twenty-five bills – ten in the morning and fifteen in the afternoon.41

In general it was at the discretion of the Speaker to decide which bills to read, but if there was a particular bill that a majority of Members wished to consider first the Commons was perfectly at liberty to overrule him. The supremacy of the House over its Speaker in this matter was so clear that when, in December 1601, one Member claimed that the House had no right to tell the Speaker which bill to read he was hissed. Nevertheless, the Speaker might resist calls to read a bill that he had not had time to inspect.42 Pressed in May 1604 to read a bill that he had been handed that morning, Speaker Phelips asked that he first be allowed to peruse the measure, whereupon the demand was dropped.43 Normally the Speaker took away with him any bill that was presented to him on the floor of the chamber so that he could read it at his leisure. When, for instance, Sir Robert Wroth brought in a bill in January 1606 to force all young men who intended to travel overseas to take the Oath of Supremacy, Phelips put the bill in his pocket so that he might look at it later. However, on rare occasions the Speaker might decide that a bill was so important that it would admit of no delay, in which case he might inspect its contents from the chair. On being presented by Sir Edward Montagu with a bill to institute an annual thanksgiving to celebrate the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot, Phelips perused the measure while the clerk read a private bill to the House.44 Similar treatment appears to have been accorded to Sir Edward Coke’s bill for the restoration of writs of ad quod damnum, which was given a first reading on the very same morning that Coke presented it to the House in April 1621.45 In this case, though, it was not the measure that was important but the author: in 1621 Coke was the uncrowned king of the Commons, and as such he was accorded the privilege of either having his bill inspected immediately by the Speaker or of having it read without being inspected at all.

Priority was customarily given to public bills rather than private measures. Moreover, according to Hakewill, bills for the service of God or the good of the Church took precedence over other public bills, even legislation concerning the king, his revenue or his Household.46 However, the distinction between public and private bills was not always clear, even to contemporaries, for as Sir Samuel Sandys remarked in May 1621, ‘some public bills [are] private’, while ‘other, private bills [are] public’.47 In June 1607 it was observed that the clerk of the Commons had described the bill for the better execution of the Somerset sewer commission as a private measure even though ‘it concerns a whole shire’. Five days later Speaker Phelips explained to the House that the bill for the repair of the highways in Sussex, Surrey and Kent, though it was ‘followed and pressed as a public bill’, was in fact, ‘by all former precedents’, a private bill, ‘being only for three shires’.48 Such classifications are hardly surprising, as private bills incurred fees, which were payable to the officers of the Commons, while public ones did not.

By the middle of Elizabeth’s reign it was customary for successful bills to receive three readings.49 However, the general pardon, traditionally granted in return for subsidies and sent to the lower House already signed by the monarch, was excluded from this rule. So too was the bill, originating in the Lords, which laid subsidies on the clergy, who enjoyed no representation in the lower House. As neither measure was theoretically capable of examination or amendment, each was automatically passed after one reading per House.50 However in the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period doubts lingered about correct procedure in respect of the clerical subsidies bill, which prior to 1581 had always received three readings. It received two Commons’ readings in 1597, and three in 1606.51 Furthermore, in 1610 the Commons broke with the tradition established under Elizabeth of not amending the general pardon, for after conferring with the Lords it secured the addition of a clause exempting the notorious projector Sir Stephen Proctor from the bill’s provisions.52 It was perhaps to prevent the repetition of such an incident that in 1624 James sent the Commons advance notice of the main features of the general pardon bill. On being given its customary single reading one month later, the bill was so well received that the whole House, with one voice, shouted ‘vive le Roy!’53

Every bill reading had two stages. First the bill was read aloud by the clerk. It was then handed to the Speaker who, standing bareheaded, summarized the contents briefly, either from memory or by reference to an abstract known as a breviate, which was meant to accompany every bill.54 The lack of a breviate was considered irregular, and could prevent a bill from being read. In February 1621 it was ‘urged as an ancient order by the Speaker, that bills ought not to be read till they be breviated, and the Speaker considered of them’, and in March 1628 Speaker Finch moved ‘that no bill may be brought in without a breviate’.55 However, the lack of a breviate, though tiresome, was insufficient to halt the reading of an important piece of government legislation. In April 1614 the Commons was sent the bill, without a breviate, to naturalize the king’s son-in-law, the Elector Palatine, leaving the Speaker, unable to recollect the measure’s contents in their entirety, with no option but to read the whole bill himself.56 Where a bill was heavily amended in committee the Speaker was likely to find the breviate of little value come third reading. In March 1607 Speaker Phelips therefore persuaded the House to order that whenever a committee amended a bill it should also alter the accompanying breviate.57

It was usual to leave an interval of two or three days between first and second readings to allow the Commons time to study a bill’s provisions.58 During this time Members were entitled to demand sight of the bill from the clerk, or to buy copies from him at the rate of a penny for every ten lines.59 If a bill was read twice in quick succession there was the risk that mistakes would go unnoticed at an early stage. When it was suggested that the duchy leases bill be granted two readings on the same day in February 1621, Sir Walter Earle recalled ‘the inconveniences that came the last session’ after the bill to naturalize the Elector Palatine had been given two readings in one morning. In their eagerness to accord the bill two rapid readings, Earle observed, Members had failed to notice before the committee stage that the measure was so badly drafted ‘that the duke of Bavaria had been in succession to the Crown of England’. Earle’s observation prompted the House to defer the second reading of the duchy leases bill to the following day.60 However a similar warning, issued by Sir George More in March 1604, failed to dissuade the Commons from giving the bill to recognize the king’s title to the throne three readings at a single sitting.61

Although two or three days normally separated bill readings, Hakewill observed that this custom might be disregarded when Members ‘lacketh other businesses wherein to employ themselves, especially if the bill be of no great importance’.62 Bills might also receive two readings in one day, when time was short for instance, or there was an emergency. In July 1607, following the outbreak of the Midlands Rising, the bill to extend the Unlawful Assemblies Act was given two readings at one sitting.63 The same treatment was afforded in 1610 to the bill to erect a hospital at Hallingbury, in Essex after it was learned that its sponsor, Thomas Sutton, was dying. In early December 1621, with the end of the session fast approaching, the House abandoned the deeply flawed bill to prohibit the export of wool and fuller’s earth, and rushed through instead a replacement drafted by Glanville, which hurriedly received two readings on the same morning.64 The widespread fear that the plague might at any moment bring down the curtain on the Parliament doubtless explains why eight bills were read more than once on the same day in June and July 1625.65 Concern that the country’s taxpayers would be displeased if subsidies were granted before grievances were addressed led Thomas Crewe in April 1614 to advocate the reading of the grace bills ‘doubly in one day’.66

As a matter of courtesy, bills sent from the Lords were sometimes given more than one reading in a single day, particularly if they concerned peers or members of the royal family. Two examples have already been mentioned: the bill to recognize the king’s title in 1604 and the bill to naturalize the Elector Palatine in 1614. Others include the bill to confirm the jointure arrangements made for Anne of Denmark in 1604, and the bill to naturalize the marquess of Hamilton in 1624.67 However the Commons was not obliged to give preferential treatment to Lords’ bills. None of the five measures which originated in the upper House in 1610, for instance, were accorded first and second readings on the same day, even though one concerned the earl of Derby and another the earl of Oxford.68 During the late 1620s the practice of reading bills received from the Lords twice in one day was a courtesy reserved exclusively for enemies of the duke of Buckingham, for out of the nine bills sent to the Commons by the upper House in 1628 only two – those relating to the earls of Arundel and Bristol – were granted such preferential treatment.69 In general, bills received from the Lords were given two readings in fairly rapid succession – usually within two or three days. However in 1626, when relations between the Commons and the Lords were strained over the impeachment of Buckingham, intervals of one week, two weeks and a month separated the first and second readings respectively of the Bromfield and Yale tenants’ bill, the bill to preserve the king’s revenue and the bill to naturalize Samuel Powell. A fourth bill – to increase trade and prevent the export of gold and silver – had to wait almost six weeks after its receipt before being given a solitary reading, while a fifth (to confirm hospitals and free schools) was never read at all.70

One measure that never received more than a single reading in the same day, no matter how urgent, was the subsidy bill. However, subsidy bills were subject to another convention peculiar to themselves: if the first reading took place during the morning, the second would occur in an afternoon, and vice versa.71 Why this practice was deemed necessary is unknown, but between 1606 and 1628 every subsidy bill except that of 1624 was dealt with in this idiosyncratic manner.72

It was unusual to reject a bill after only one reading, as it was generally assumed that Members would need to hear it twice before making up their minds. Indeed, just sixteen of the 173 bills examined by the 1624 House of Commons failed to proceed beyond a first reading.73 The presumption that most bills would receive a second reading explains why first readings were normally confined to the early part of the morning, when the House was generally only thinly attended.74 According to one anonymous contemporary, only bills that had been sent down from the Lords and which had therefore already received close scrutiny could be discarded at first reading,75 but whether a bill received a second reading was actually a question that was determined by its contents rather than its House of origin, as Hakewill observed. Some bills were considered so harmful to the commonweal that they were deemed unfit to be read again.76 During the 1621 Parliament, which met against the backdrop of widespread hostility to monopolies, the Commons threw out after a first reading three measures introduced by some of the London livery companies on the grounds that they sought to create monopolies. A fourth bill, which would, inter alia, have made all existing monopolies lawful by giving statutory authority to the king’s letters patent, was also rejected after one reading after Digges described it as ‘the most dangerous bill that ever came into the House’.77 Bills which sought to attack individual property rights were also unlikely to proceed to second reading. In March 1621 the bill to declare the sheep in Waltham Forest commonable cattle threatened to turn privately owned livestock into public property, thereby provoking such anger that it was not only rejected after a single reading but was also torn up on the advice of Sir Edward Coke.78

Rare though it was for bills to be rejected at first reading, according to Hakewill it was the duty of the Speaker to discourage the practice. However, the Speaker could not disregard the wishes of the House, and despite querying whether ‘it were the custom to read every bill twice before it be cast away’, Phelips was unable to prevent the bill concerning the true manufacture of linen and sack cloth from being rejected after only one reading in January 1606.79 On one occasion a bill that was disliked at first reading was retained, for in March 1604 it was resolved not to throw out the bill to deprive those guilty of stabbing others of benefit of clergy even though it was ‘misliked’ because ‘it might beget a good bill’.80

The presumption that most bills were worthy of receiving at least two readings meant that the possibility for debate at first reading was severely limited. At first reading Members were not permitted to defend a bill or even criticize individual clauses, but only to call for the bill as a whole to be rejected.81 In April 1621 Sir William Brereton was prevented from defending a bill concerning a town in his native Cheshire, which the House decided to cast out on the grounds that it was ‘against the course of Parliament to speak for a bill at the first reading’.82 From time to time, however, an individual Member succeeded in evading this rule. In February 1621, for instance, the Bristol merchant John Whitson, hearing the bill for making wool cards spoken against at its first reading, rose and said that ‘the abuses were truly alleged and of importance for the true making of cloth’, whereupon it was resolved that the bill should be retained.83

It was much more common for bills to fail after a second reading than after a first. However, by the early seventeenth century it had become customary to regard bills that failed at this stage as ‘sleeping’ rather than as having been rejected. This is not always readily apparent from the Commons Journal, which frequently records that bills were ‘rejected’ at second reading, or even ‘dashed’.84 During the early Elizabethan period the practice had clearly been different: in 1563 two bills that failed to win acceptance at second reading were physically destroyed.85 The correct procedure was described in detail by Edward Nicholas in 1621. Following second reading, the Speaker was not entitled to decide whether a bill should be rejected or retained, ‘albeit the House cry “away with it!”’, but was to ask instead if it should be committed. If the decision was against the motion, he was to demand to know whether the bill should be engrossed. If both these questions were answered in the negative ‘then the bill sleepeth, and may be no more meddled with’ during that session.86 By putting a bill to sleep, the House left open the possibility of reviving it in a subsequent session. Instances of such resuscitations were not unknown. In November 1606 Thomas Damet moved ‘that such good bills as slept, or were left in the hands of the committees the last session, might be revived’, and as a result of his motion at least one bill, described as ‘a sleeping bill of the last session’, was subsequently laid before the House. At the beginning of the 1614 Parliament the committee for the continuance or repeal of expiring statutes was instructed ‘to peruse over the sleeping bills concerning matters of Church and commonwealth’.87

The prohibition against reviving a bill that had been put to sleep until the next session was liable to be regarded as inconvenient. In November 1601 a government bill for the sowing of hemp, which had been made to sleep after its second reading three weeks earlier, was reintroduced by the Crown’s spokesmen and craftily given a new title. However, the subterfuge was spotted, and although the comptroller of the Household pleaded that ‘a bill of this nature might not so slightly be rejected’, it being essential for the maintenance of the Navy, his request was rejected after a division on the grounds that ‘a bill once cast out should be not be read again’.88 Not all attempts to circumvent the prohibition on reviving sleeping bills before the next session were so unwelcome however, for in June 1604 the Commons ordered a bill for the draining of marshland that had been put to sleep on the recommendation of a committee nine days earlier to be revived.89 The inconsistency leads to the suspicion that the Crown’s real offence in 1601 was not that it had sought to circumvent the prohibition on reviving a sleeping bill prematurely but that it had attempted to hoodwink the Commons. By far the easiest way to bypass the prohibition was to introduce a new bill. In December 1621 John Glanville was allowed to lay his bill to prevent the export of wool and fuller’s earth before the House after a previous measure that had been read three times had been found to contain so many defects that it was made to sleep.90

A bill that survived second reading was placed in committee unless no fault could be found with it.91 It was highly unusual to dispense with the committee stage, but three bills were accorded this treatment in 1604,92 as were several measures in 1624, among them the Sabbath bill and the bill to explain the 1606 Recusancy Act. These bills had passed the Commons in the previous Parliament, and it was presumably felt that they had received sufficient scrutiny already. 93 There were no restrictions on the types of bills permitted to omit the committee stage, but both Sir Edward Hoby in 1601 and Sir Edward Coke in 1621 declared that private bills should always be committed in order to discover whether they concealed any hidden interest.94 However this was a counsel of perfection: on 27 April 1624, as James’s last Parliament neared its end and time was running out, three private bills were all ordered to be engrossed without first being committed.95

There was no limit to the number of changes to a bill that a committee might make, provided that the measure retained its overall sense. Indeed, it was not unknown for a committee to change even the title of a bill if it considered the original inadequate or misleading.96 When the Chepstow bridge bill emerged from committee in April 1606 twice as long as when it was committed it was queried whether it should now be considered an entirely new measure, whereupon it was ruled ‘that a committee may alter, add or diminish what, and as much, as they think good, so as they bring back the same bill in substance.97 However, although committees enjoyed free rein, any changes they made had to be approved by the House.98

The Commons’ method of appointing bill committees was extraordinarily chaotic. Once the House had consented to the establishment of a committee, the Speaker invited the assembly to call out the names of those men whom it wished to serve on the new body. It then fell to the clerk to jot down those ‘whose names (in that confusion) he can hear’. Once the Speaker had decided that a ‘convenient number’ of names had been shouted out he would ask the House to assign the committee a time and place for its first meeting. Then, after the House had fallen silent, the clerk would read out, ‘with a loud voice’, the names of the committee members, together with the time and place of the commitment, ‘that the committees may take notice thereof’.99 The Speaker himself was not entitled to nominate any Member to a committee,100 though this did not prevent Phelips from serving on one in 1604.

In theory, only those Members present in the chamber at the time that a bill committee was established were capable of being named to that committee.101 In practice, of course, the appointment procedure was so confused that it was perfectly possible for men to be named who were not present. In April 1606, for instance, it was reported that a Member ordered to help search the records in the Tower would have done as he was asked ‘if he had understood he had been one of [the] committee’.102 Moreover, there were exceptional circumstances when, even if a Member was absent, it was still important that he be named to the committee. In June 1628 the House, realizing that Sir Ambrose Browne was not present, nevertheless appointed him to help consider the bill to annex the earl of Arundel’s land bill, because both he and Arundel owned parts of the manor of Dorking.103

The main function of bill committees was to improve the bills in their care. For this reason the Commons required that no one who was fundamentally opposed to a bill should serve on the committee, for as Hakewill put it, ‘he that would totally destroy will not amend’.104 In August 1625, for example, Sir John Stradling was specifically excluded from serving on the committee for the petty larceny bill after he had earlier opposed its provisions.105 The principle of excluding those who were opposed to a bill root and branch was so ingrained that it even extended to non-legislative committees: when Sir Anthony Cope demanded to know in May 1614 why baronets were being excluded from the body appointed to consider the criticisms directed against the new baronetcies he was told by Sir Edward Hoby ‘that no man speaking against the body of a bill should be a committee’. 106

The principle of barring from committee membership those who had spoken against the body of a bill sometimes led the House to exclude anyone who, by virtue of their office, was deemed to be hostile to the bill. In March 1624, for instance, ‘Exchequer men’ were expressly forbidden to serve on the committee for the bill for pleading upon alienations without licence.107 Four years later, in March 1628, the House ruled that no Member who was a deputy lieutenant could belong to the committee appointed to investigate the abuses allegedly committed by the deputy lieutenants of Surrey.108 Nevertheless, the principle of barring particular Members from individual committees on the assumption that their office predisposed them to be hostile to the body of the bill was sometimes resisted. When, in April 1621, Sir George Chudleigh attempted to exclude all those who belonged to trading companies from membership of the free trade bill on the grounds that ‘the companies are intended to be against the body of the bill’, he was opposed by Sir Henry Poole, who pointed out that several company members in the House ‘serve for towns who ought to have voices’. In this particular instance a compromise was reached, whereby all were allowed to attend the committee but any who were members of companies and wished to speak were first required to declare their interest.109 In 1624 the Commons attempted to settle the question by declaring that the rule barring those who opposed the body of a bill from membership of the committee ‘was limited to those that speak in the House before the committing’.110

Despite the Commons’ attempt to exclude from committee membership those hostile to a bill in principle, some Members inevitably insinuated themselves onto committees in the hope of undermining confidence in measures they found disagreeable. In May 1614 Sir Francis Williamson, despite serving on the committee, declared his complete opposition to the bill to speed up the recovery of small debts, prompting the committee’s chairman, Nicholas Fuller, to remind him that ‘one that hath spoken at against the body of a bill cannot be a committee’.111 In November 1601 the Crown’s chief spokesman in the Commons, Sir Robert Cecil, succeeded in demanding an exemption for London’s Members in respect of the bill to shorten Michaelmas term, arguing that although the Londoners had opposed the bill, ‘in a case of so great consequence and so greatly touching the City of London’, there was ‘no reason’ why they should not have ‘their particular voices as committees, as well as every Member of this House’.112

Just as bill committees might be infiltrated by Members hostile to their aims, so too they might be dominated by men whose interests were closely allied to those of the bill’s author. Committees for private estate bills in particular, remarked Sir Francis Barnham, were often composed ‘for the most part’ of men who were ‘very favourably affected’ to them.113 Where bills on a particular geographical area were concerned, the Speaker might regard it as his duty to suggest that special consideration be given to those who lived closest to the place affected. In January 1606, for instance, the Speaker moved that a bill concerning a vicarage in Dorset ‘might be committed to some gentlemen of the county’, which proposal was ‘thought fit to be’.114 However, to some at least, the domination of a bill committee by a single interest group was inherently unhealthy. Speaking in the debate which followed the third reading of the Pelham land bill in 1614, Sir Henry Poole, brimming over with disapproval, declared that of the committee’s twelve members ‘all [were] Sussex men but he; and all agreed, but he’.115 When the Speaker proposed in 1628 that the committee to investigate the abuses of deputy lieutenants should be composed entirely of soldiers and lawyers, he elicited from Sir Thomas Hoby the hope ‘that the committee may be of other men as well’.116

Many in the Commons considered that reform of the committee appointments system was needed. In April 1604 Richard Martin proposed that the existing method of nomination should be scrapped entirely. Instead, at the beginning of each day, a set number of names should be drawn from three urns, one each for the knights of the shire, citizens and burgesses. Those names selected would, in turn, be placed in a fourth urn, and whenever a bill was committed the Speaker would take from this urn the names of seven or nine Members, who would then serve on the committee.117 Martin’s scheme had the advantage of being relatively simple and would have made the selection process entirely random. However, depriving Members of their ability to influence the composition of committees must have seemed far too radical a step to many. What was needed, perhaps, was a scheme containing a random element that would nevertheless allow Members some say in the selection process. Just such a scheme was put forward in March 1626 by Sir Dudley Digges, who proposed that every time a committee was appointed various names should be drawn out of a box under the clerk’s table. Those chosen would not actually serve on the committee themselves, but each individual selected would name another man to do so instead. Every man thereby nominated would then appoint one other Member to serve with him. Not surprisingly, Digges’s scheme was dismissed as cumbersome and time consuming and likely to breed discontent, as a Member granted the right of naming someone else to a committee would find himself forced to choose between friends. Various alternative proposals were put forward instead, one of which was to divide the House into ten equal parts, each of which would serve as a committee when needed.118 However, in such a large House, containing so many competing interests, agreement proved impossible to reach, and in 1629 the Commons found itself pondering the same problem again.119 Even attempts to achieve modest reform proved difficult. In 1606 Nicholas Fuller declared that no Member was entitled to name more than two members to a committee, but his assertion was denied and his motion that the rule be observed was rejected as ‘frivolous’.120 Not until 1621 did the Commons relent and adopt his suggestion.121

One of the worst features of the existing system was that only those nominations called out by Members seated close to the table were likely to be heard by the clerk. In April 1614 Sir James Perrot moved ‘for the indifferent naming of committees’ after complaining that most of those chosen to serve were seated ‘about the chair’; those sitting at the lower end of the House, he grumbled, were ‘not heard, or not respected’.122 However it is important not to exaggerate this problem, for during this period committee membership was affected by a hitherto unnoticed procedural development. Under James it became increasingly common for all Members to come along to bill committees to participate in their proceedings. This practice, which should not be confused with the basic right of a Member to attend a committee as an observer if he wished, was entirely unknown before July 1607 when, in a rapidly thinning House, it was ordered that anyone could be a member of the committee for the bill against rebellious assemblies.123 In the following session, in 1610, no less than fifteen of these open committees were established.124 During the 1620s the frequency of committees with open-ended memberships greatly increased. This was undoubtedly partly down to the fact that it was becoming more and more difficult to get nominated members to attend committee meetings, but another reason was undoubtedly that they ‘prevent the inconvenience of not putting in those which sit far off from the chair’, as Barnaby Gooch observed in 1621.125 Open committees must also have made it harder for committees to be dominated by interest groups. This perhaps explains why Sir John Savile was so annoyed in April 1624 that the committee for the Goathland manor bill was made open-ended, a practice he claimed (incorrectly) that was ‘contrary to the order of the House in a private bill’.126

Like all other committees, bill committees sat under the auspices of a chairman. By the 1620s most appear to have chosen the occupant of the chair themselves. Indeed, Sir Francis Popham claimed in 1625 that ‘it is against precedent that he that sits in the chair at a committee should be named by the House’.127 However, this had not always been the case, for early in James’s reign the anonymous author of ‘Policies in Parliaments’ indicated that the chairman was invariably the Member named in the House who took the bill and committee list from the clerk.128 When and why the Commons abandoned the practice of appointing the chairmen of bill committees is unclear, but during the late 1650s it was claimed that it was found that the absence from committee of House-appointed chairmen ‘hindered all the business’.129

According to the author of ‘Policies in Parliaments’ it was the chairman’s responsibility to read the bill to the committee, ‘and to every point, as they speak and agree, [he] amendeth the bill’. He also claimed that the chairman was not barred from debate, though if correct this practice was at variance with that of committees of the whole House. Forced into the chair of a grand committee against his will in 1621, Sir Dudley Digges ‘took it as a reprehension of his too much speaking that they would put him into a place of silence’.130

The chairman naturally formed part of the committee’s quorum, so that if he were absent or late ‘the committee cannot proceed’.131 Before April 1604 the quorum was defined as fifty per cent of a committee’s strength.132 This rule seems to have informed the House’s order of 26 March 1604 appointing a committee of four lawyers, ‘or any three or two of them’, to draft a bill to restrain purveyors or cart-takers. However, in response to the slow dispatch of bills owing to the poor attendance of committees, the Commons decided in April 1604 that a committee was quorate provided that eight of its members were present.133 Since most of the committees established during the first Jacobean Parliament consisted of between fifteen and thirty members,134 this was plainly an attempt to allow committees to transact their business even if fewer than half their members attended. In 1607 Speaker Phelips persuaded the House that the correct number in the case of legislative committees was just seven, but the clerk failed to make a note of this in his Journal and in February 1624 the 1604 ruling was reaffirmed.135

The 1604 ruling ought to have made it impossible for the House to appoint minuscule committees such as the abovementioned four-strong body established to draft a bill against purveyors. However the new rule conflicted with historic practice: in 1621 Sir Thomas Hoby, drawing upon precedents from the reigns of Henry VI and Henry VIII, claimed that the minimum number needed to make a committee was half a dozen, while Edward Alford argued that ‘it was the ancient use not to have above eight’.136 On several occasions during the 1620s the Commons quietly forgot its rule about the quorum and established committees consisting of as few as five or six.137 The reasons behind this are not entirely clear, but poor committee attendance remained a problem throughout the 1620s and some Members, like Alford and Sir Thomas Roe, believed that the situation would improve only if men were named to fewer committees.138

The procedure for voting in committee differed slightly from that followed in the Commons. In the House those opposed to changing the status quo – normally those Members against the motion – left their seats and trooped into the lobby. On re-entering the chamber the no voters were counted by tellers appointed by the Speaker, while those who remained in their seats were numbered separately.139 In committee the two sides were also physically divided, but since most committees met in rooms outside the Commons’ chamber there was no lobby into which one side could withdraw. Consequently the practice was simply for each side to move to opposite ends of the room, ‘whereby it will easily appear which is the greatest number’.140 No tellers were appointed, presumably because, before the advent of grand committees, most committees were relatively small. Instead the chairman acted as teller himself. Following the emergence of the committee of the whole House it initially became unclear whether grand committees should adopt the procedure followed by their smaller brethren or by the House, but in July 1610 it was resolved that, despite the availability of the lobby, the committee system should be followed.141

Casting votes in writing or keeping a record of how each man had voted were practices that were generally frowned upon. When the Crown’s law officers lost a vote in committee in July 1607 over continuing the Marian statute against lawful assemblies, they demanded that lists of names be drawn up showing which way each man had cast his vote, but they were denied ‘lest the names should be showed to high persons’.142 Nevertheless, written votes were not unknown, for in March 1624 the chairman of the committee for privileges, reporting a vote in his committee over the Southwark election, declared that ‘one of the committee [had] mis-writ, so had not his voice’. In this case the committee was split so evenly that an attempt to discern the greater size by other means had presumably failed.143 Some chairmen seem also to have conducted votes by calling out the names on the committee list, which they annotated accordingly, for in 1624 the Westmorland Member Sir John Lowther recorded in his parliamentary diary that ‘voices at committee [are] to be taken by calling of their names’.144

Bills that elicited protests outside the Commons sometimes merited special treatment. Counsel for both sides would be invited to attend to argue their clients’ case, and counsel for the side opposed to the bill was always heard first.145 This process normally occurred after the committee stage, but in April 1604 it was ordered that counsel was ‘always to be heard before the commitment’, a rule which was enforced for the remainder of the 1604 session.146

Bills that emerged from committee were reported to the House. The reporter, who seems normally to have been the committee’s chairman, was obliged to relay the condition of the bill in its entirety. When Sir Edwin Sandys called for a passage in the subsidy bill to be reported in 1624, Sir John Savile objected that it was ‘against all order or precedent to report a part or piece of a bill’.147 Reporters were not required to relay everything said at the committee, but only such matters as the committee had agreed.148 Furthermore, they were expected to keep to the facts, and to add ‘neither sugar nor gall’, as Sandys put it.149 No provision was made for a minority report, but any member of the committee who disagreed with the alterations made by his colleagues was at liberty to register his objections. In May 1621, after Glanville reported the bill to prohibit the collection of tithes on those who fished off the American coast, William Nyell (Neale) complained that the measure, as it was now penned, fell ‘far short of that relief which [was] intended by the preferrers of the bill’, whereupon Glanville replied that ‘at the committee, no one voice with Mr Neale’.150

Any clauses added to the bill in committee were subsequently read formally as many times as the bill itself, and were pinned to the bottom of the bill rather than the top.151 If the House was unhappy with the alterations, or required further amendments, the bill was usually recommitted, even if the only fault related to a single word. However, in the case of important public bills it was permissible to make minor alterations at the clerk’s table so as not to delay the passage of the bill.152 Once the House was happy with the committee’s alterations, those bills which had originated in the Commons were engrossed by the clerk or his servants who, presumably to make it easier to locate the bill after it was filed, placed the title on the back rather than at the head of the text.153 Those bills which had come from the Lords, on the other hand, moved straight to third reading, a point of procedure that seems to have been established beyond doubt in April 1606 in respect of the bill against unlawful hunting.154

Once a bill had progressed to third reading it became much harder to amend, as further alterations necessarily involved defacing the bill, which had already been transferred to parchment. Consequently anyone who announced that he had discovered a fault in the bill or raised an objection at third reading might cause the whole measure to fail.155 Experienced Members were well aware of a bill’s vulnerability at this stage in its proceedings, and were not averse to exploiting the situation to quash measures they found disagreeable. In May 1614, for example, at its third reading, Edward Alford raised an objection to the bill to punish abuses on the Sabbath, whereupon Sir Jerome Horsey expostulated ‘that this is a trick of old Parliament-men, to give a bill a jerk at the last reading’.156 The difficulties involved in altering a bill after it had been engrossed were such that in April 1606 Sir Francis Bacon confidently declared that ‘we cannot amend upon the third reading’.157 Bacon, however, was wrong, for in June 1604 the Commons had seriously considered altering the Tunnage and Poundage bill at its third reading. Only after ‘much dispute’ and three readings of the proposed alteration (a proviso belatedly offered by one of the Members for Chester to exclude his city on the basis of its charter), was it decided to leave the bill in its original form.158 Moreover, in May 1606, less than one month after Bacon’s assertion, the Commons decided to allow the amendment of bills at third reading after the usury bill ran into trouble and various amendments were belatedly tabled in respect of the bill against forestallers and regrators.159

Deleting unwanted text was easier than inserting new matter, and was done by the clerk or one of his servants, who scraped out the offending words with a knife at the clerk’s table in full view of the House. This practice was not universally popular, however, since ‘ill-disposed persons’ might, after a bill had been passed, secretly make their own erasures. To avoid this problem, it was proposed in 1610 that in future the Speaker and the lord keeper or lord chancellor should place their signatures alongside all erasures that had been legitimately made. However, the motion was ‘not further prosecuted’, as it was resolved instead that there should be ‘no more rasure in any bill in any great quantity’.160

Where the addition of a few words was required there was generally no option but to interline the text, a task that was also performed by the clerk at the table. In the case of the 1621 informers bill however, the number of amendments needed was so great that interlining the existing text was impractical. Consequently, in accordance with a precedent dating from 1585, it was ordered that the bill should be re-engrossed.161 In extreme cases, where the nature and extent of the changes needed remained undecided, a bill might be recommitted. This was not, however, a practice that everyone was happy to encourage. When, in July 1625, the bill to prevent the session from being ended by the Royal Assent was returned to committee after its third reading, John Glanville warned that ‘to recommit engrossed bills will be a dangerous precedent’.162

Once a bill had passed its third reading it was sent to the Lords, though not before being annotated by the clerk. Those measures that had originated in the Commons were endorsed in the top right-hand corner of the first sheet with the words ‘soit baillé aux seigneurs’, while those that had begun life in the Lords were subscribed ‘a ceste Bille les Communs sont assentus’ at the foot of the first page.163 The precise timing of a bill’s transmission to the Lords was determined by the Speaker, who waited until he had a ‘convenient number’ in his hands – normally five or six but sometimes up to a dozen – before asking the Commons to notify the Lords that there were bills ready to be sent.164 Often bills were sent up in batches, carried to the upper House by one or two of the more senior Members of the Commons. The subsidy bill, however, was normally transmitted to the Lords on its own, borne by the leading privy councillor in the House and attended by most, if not all, of his fellow Members ‘for the more honour thereof’, as Sir Edward Hoby observed in 1601.165 In 1624, however, the accompanying deputation appears to have been limited to just the privy councillors in the House, while in 1625 there may not have been any accompanying deputation at all.166 Other important bills were also accorded special treatment in the manner of their delivery. The bill to institute an annual thanksgiving for the safe delivery of the royal family and Parliament from the Gunpowder Plot, for instance, was carried up to the Lords in January 1606 by Secretary Herbert, Sir Edward Montagu (the bill’s author), and ‘divers others of the House’.167 Bills sent up in batches to the Lords were carefully arranged. Those that had originated with the Lords came first, followed by any measures that had been sent back to the Commons for amendment. After them came all the public bills that had originated in the Commons, placed in order of their perceived importance. Bringing up the rear were the private bills, arranged ‘in such order as the Speaker pleaseth’.168

Once a bill had reached the Lords it was no longer possible to amend it. When Sir Herbert Croft moved to send to the Lords in April 1606 asking them to correct an error in the bill for taking the four English border counties out of the jurisdiction of the council in Wales, it was ruled that ‘after a bill hath passed here, and remaineth with the Lords, we cannot send any message of reformation’.169 However a bill might return to the Commons bearing amendments made by the Lords. In the case of provisos, these changes were normally sent to the Commons on parchment, despite the convention that provisos added by the second House should be written on paper.170 Provided that the Commons was willing to accept these changes, which if they involved adjustments to the main text were usually made by one of the clerk’s servants in the lobby,171 the bill would be ready for the Royal Assent, but if not the entire measure would fail. Where a key piece of legislation was concerned, the prospect of rejection at such a late stage was decidedly unpalatable. In May 1624 the Commons resolved to accept the Lords’ alterations to the concealments bill on the grounds that it was better ‘to take what we have now’ than to ‘lose all’.172

The legislative crisis of the early seventeenth century and the growth of petitioning

During the sixteenth century the work of scrutinizing legislation formed the backbone of parliamentary business. Members came to Westminster primarily in the hope of passing legislation that would benefit their counties, their friends or their families. However, under the early Stuarts, as Elizabeth Read Foster has observed, legislation declined.173 The root cause of this decline, which by the 1620s had assumed the proportions of a crisis, was the Commons’ inability to process or enact legislation.

As is well known, the quarrel between the king and the Commons over impositions meant that the 1614 Parliament was legislatively sterile. For those lobbyists who had spent good money on bills, this was an unprecedented disaster, as no further opportunity to lay legislation before Parliament arose for more than six years. Consequently, by the time that the 1621 Parliament met there was an enormous pent up demand for the Commons’ legislative services. Just two months into the Parliament the clerk of the Commons calculated that there were 110 bills, including those that had been rejected, ‘in the schedule in the House’.174 In May 1621 Edward Alford expressed horror at the volume of private measures before the Commons, declaring that ‘it is not the custom of the House to read so many private bills’. Sir Edward Sackville was equally aghast at the legislative deluge, and warned that ‘the hand that grasps too much holds nothing’.175

The difficulty of coping with this barrage of legislation was compounded by two or three closely related developments. The first was the revival of impeachment, which, as Conrad Russell observed, ‘was more exciting than bills, and … a great consumer of parliamentary time’. Many in the Commons now regarded ‘the little business of laws’, as the younger Sir Edward Conway put it in April 1624, as a tiresome distraction from the main business of the House – the investigation of grievances and the examination of the misconduct of the Crown’s advisers and ministers.176 However, the revival of impeachment was not the only problem facing legislation: in May 1614, at the height of the impositions debate, Sir Edward Montagu complained that bills were ‘now not so well penned as before’ because Members not only chatted during bill readings but hastened bills into committee ‘without suffering men to speak’. In the following Parliament Montagu again berated his colleagues for being ‘not attentive enough to bills’ and ‘too hasty in committing bills’.177

This disdain for legislation was encouraged by the development of standing committees of the whole House. Grand committees had first appeared in 1606, but not until 1621 did the Commons take the momentous step of placing four of them on a standing footing. As a consequence, afternoons were now largely given over to meetings of the House’s entire membership rather than to bill committees, which were forced to meet at irregular hours or not at all. Their attendance rates, which were never very impressive, appear to have suffered accordingly.178

Faced with an avalanche of bills, and an afternoon timetable dominated by committees of the whole House, it is not surprising that the Commons proved incapable of handling the sheer volume of legislative business before it. Matters reached crisis point towards the end of May, when the king announced that he would shortly bring the session to a close. The news threw the Commons into a panic, for despite having sat since February many bills were not yet ready to be presented to the king. Many favoured asking James for additional time in which to complete the passage of legislation, while others thought it better to request an adjournment in place of the intended prorogation, so that when Parliament reconvened in the autumn the Commons would not have to begin the legislative process all over again. In the short term the Commons succeeded in buying additional time by persuading the king to grant an adjournment, but with the single exception of the subsidy bill its entire legislative programme was lost at the end of the year when James and the Commons fell out over the Spanish Match, a disagreement which led to an angry dissolution.

When Parliament next met, in 1624, no legislation (with the single exception of the 1621 subsidy bill) had been enacted for almost fourteen years. Once again the Commons found itself inundated with bills. During the three months in which the Parliament sat the House handled 173, but as in 1621 it struggled to keep abreast of its legislative business. Writing in April 1624, John Chappell, solicitor to the corporation of Exeter, advised the mayor of Exeter not to petition the Commons because the House was ‘possessed with many petitions and bills, and if every day were a week, yet would be time little enough to determine them, and many will come short in their expectation’. The following month the Rye Member John Angell, writing to explain why he had not yet laid before the House the town’s bill to take control of Dungeness lighthouse, declared that the Commons was so preoccupied with its grievances ‘that these ordinary businesses are put off from time to time and infinitely delayed’.179 Eight days earlier the House, desperate to stem the flow of new legislation, had resolved that ‘no more bills shall be received this session’ without special order.180 Like its 1621 predecessor, the Parliament of 1624 proved far too successful in attracting business for its own good.181

Unlike the parliaments of 1614 and 1621, the 1624 assembly managed to enact a number of important new measures, such as the monopolies bill and the bill against concealments. However, the success rate was hardly impressive: only 39% of all bills examined by both Houses reached the statute book, and only 36% of bills that began life in the Commons were enacted.182 Three successive parliaments had now failed in the legislative sphere. In some quarters at least, confidence in the Commons as a legislative body began to wane. This is most clearly discernible in London. Before the 1620s it had been customary for the Corporation of London to pursue a sizeable legislative programme every session. On only one occasion had this not happened – during the autumn session of 1610, which many had presumably believed would be dominated by the Great Contract to the exclusion of all else. However, the experience of losing all its legislation in 1614 evidently taught the Corporation to be cautious, for in 1621 it laid only a handful of bills before the Commons. This wariness proved to be entirely justified, and consequently in 1624 the Corporation failed to place a single bill before the Commons, although it did sponsor a measure put in by the City’s cheesemongers. A similar story emerges in relation to the City livery companies and hospitals. Like the City Corporation, these bodies usually submitted a large number of bills between them, but following the disastrous experiences of 1614 and 1621 the well virtually dried up.183

The experience of the 1624 Parliament might have served to revive London’s confidence in the Commons as a legislative body had it not been for the plague of 1625, which appeared to promise a short and unproductive meeting. Consequently, neither the Corporation nor any of the City’s institutions presented bills to Parliament. Outside the capital, however, not everyone seems to have shared the Londoners’ gloomy assessment, for although the Parliament did indeed prove to be short-lived, lasting barely seven weeks and sitting for just five, a total of 53 bills were laid before the Commons.184 Of these 53 bills, nine reached the statute book in mid July. This modest legislative success may have been helped by the fact that, from the outset, the Commons chose not to appoint two of its standing grand committees, on the grounds that, at the start of a new reign, there could be no grievances to consider.185 When Parliament reconvened at Oxford in August, however, it was a different story: mounting attacks on the royal favourite, the duke of Buckingham, caused the king to dissolve the Parliament before the Commons could complete the remainder of its legislation.

The 1626 Parliament witnessed the beginning of a collapse in the volume of legislation handled by the Commons. Although this Parliament sat for more than four months, the Commons read only 117 bills – far fewer than had received a hearing in the shorter Parliament of 1624.186 Since there is no evidence that a backlog of unprocessed bills existed, it would seem that many had finally come to the conclusion that the pursuit of legislation offered little realistic chance of success. Certainly, none of the London livery companies apart from the Apothecaries introduced any bills, nor did the City’s Corporation, although the court of aldermen did agree to sponsor a bill drawn up by the ‘country tanners’ for the better furnishing of Leadenhall market.187

Instead of focusing on legislation, the 1626 Parliament expended much of its time and energy in a vain attempt to impeach Buckingham. When the king refused to abandon his favourite, the Parliament became the third assembly (if the 1621 Parliament is included) to be dissolved without enacting any legislation in twelve years. Measured in terms of the Commons’ ability to attract legislative business, the impact of this failure on the next Parliament, which met in 1628, was catastrophic: only 73 bills were read by the Commons during the course of the 1628 session,188 which lasted for roughly the same time as the 1624 assembly. London continued to show little interest in legislation, as neither the Corporation nor any of the livery companies offered bills to either House. Indeed, the only body within the capital to seek legislation (successfully, as it happened) was the Charterhouse Hospital.189

One symptom of the legislative crisis of the 1620s was a sharp decline in bills in favour of petitions. Petitioning had, of course, long been an accepted manner of approaching the Commons. Indeed, ‘in ancient times’, as Sir Edward Coke observed, ‘all Acts of Parliament were in form of petitions’.190 However, the huge growth in the number of petitions directed to the Commons during the early seventeenth century is striking. In 1604 the House considered just two private petitions – one from the puritan minister Bryan Bridger against the bishops and the other from the serjeant-at-mace who had arrested Sir Thomas Shirley – 191 whereas in 1628 it read no less than 65.192 The Commons, it would seem, had temporarily lost its traditional role as legislator only to rediscover its earlier function as a clearing house for grievances.

The rise of petitions at the expense of bills is a phenomenon most clearly visible in the records of the City livery companies. In 1628, for instance, none of the City livery companies introduced legislation, whereas the Apothecaries, Brewers, Grocers, Goldsmiths and artisan Clothworkers all preferred petitions. At ground level, the switch to petitions can perhaps be best illustrated by reference to the Brewers’ Company. Between 1601 and 1614 the Brewers laid five separate bills before the Commons, of which only one – a measure promoted jointly with the Salters in 1610 – reached the statute book. During the 1620s, when they tried desperately to get a newly introduced impost on malt lifted, the Company petitioned the Commons instead.193

Although the growth of petitioning was the result of a collapse in legislation it was also an inevitable consequence of the creation of standing committees of the whole House. These bodies were incapable of processing legislation, but were extremely good at examining grievances. Since they also had the effect of displacing bill committees from their customary position in the parliamentary timetable,194 many lobbyists naturally abandoned legislation in favour of petitioning. This arrangement was not without its advantages. First, private petitions were freed from the laborious and time-consuming procedure to which bills were subjected. Secondly, there was a reasonable chance that a private petition would be brought to the attention of the king even if the Parliament failed to enact any legislation. Thirdly, petitioning was cheaper than legislation, for once a private petition had cleared the Commons there was no need to send it to the Lords, which meant that fees were payable only in one House. Moreover, unlike the Speaker, chairmen of grand committees seem never to have charged for their services.195

It was not just corporations and private individuals who decided that petitioning was preferable to legislation. Many Members had long considered that when dealing with the Crown petitions were more appropriate than bills, particularly when attempting to place limits on the royal prerogative. By couching their demands in the form of a petition rather than a bill Members could reasonably expect to avoid offending the monarch, who would otherwise be displeased if the Commons passed a bill restricting the Crown’s authority. It was for this reason that during the 1601 debate on the bill to prohibit the export of iron ordnance, Thomas Fettiplace declared that ‘to proceed by bill would savour of curbing Her Majesty’s prerogative, but to proceed by way of petition is a safe course and pleasing’. Besides, there was no guarantee that legislation, even were it enacted, would ultimately bind the monarch, as the latter enjoyed the power to dispense with inconvenient legislation at will. As William Spicer remarked during the monopolies debate of 1601, petitioning the queen was the ‘safest course, for it is to no purpose to offer to tie her hands by way of Act of Parliament when she may loose herself at her pleasure’.196

Under the early Stuarts, however, the number of petitions presented to the monarch by the Commons rose sharply. In part this may have reflected a deterioration in relations between the Commons and the Lords. Whereas the consent of both Houses was needed before bills could be presented for royal approval, petitions could be laid before the monarch by the Commons alone. In May 1614 Sir Edwin Sandys proposed that the Commons should condemn impositions by way of petition rather than by bill, as petitions did not require the consent of the Lords, who subsequently refused even to confer about this important subject.197 However, the rise in the number of petitions presented by the lower House to the monarch also owed something to the legislative crisis of the 1620s. Two remarks by Sir Edward Coke certainly point to this conclusion. The first was made in late May 1621, when it became clear that Members would be required to return to their constituencies with nothing to show for three months’ sitting apart from the subsidy bill. Since they had ‘nothing yet to carry with us into the country’, observed Coke, ‘let us labour to prepare grievances for the king by petition that we may have something to refresh the country withall’.198 The second comment by Coke dates from November 1621, when the House was struggling to cope with the volume of business before it. The Commons should petition the king to suppress various grants and patents, he declared, because there were so many of these ‘we cannot make laws against them all’.199

Despite the declining popularity of bills, petitioning never displaced legislation entirely. Indeed, in 1628 fractionally more bills than private petitions were read by the Commons. Moreover, towards the end of the 1620s there is some evidence that the pendulum had begun to swing back in favour of bills, for in 1629 the London Brewers, having repeatedly failed to gain redress through petitioning, once more contemplated introducing legislation.200

The petitioning process

For private individuals and corporations who preferred not to proceed by bill, or for whom legislation was regarded as inappropriate, the correct way of addressing the Commons was by petition. When the warden of the Fleet wrote to ‘Mr Speaker and the rest of that honourable House’ from his prison cell in May 1604, it was moved ‘that he ought to submit himself by petition to the House, and not by letter’.201 Like bills, petitions were supposed to be submitted on paper rather than parchment. In May 1628, however, a former soldier, injured in the Elizabethan war with Spain, submitted a petition ‘wrought in needlework’, in which he begged Members to bear his charges for a trip to take the waters.202 As with bills, private petitions might also be introduced on the floor of the House. In November 1621, for instance, James Lasher ‘tendereth two petitions to this House from some merchants who have their goods taken away by the king of France his ships of war’. In June 1625 Sir Nicholas Saunders offered the Commons a petition from Lady Coppyn and her son directed against Sir William Cope.203 Unlike bills, most private petitions were read only once before being placed in committee, though naturally there were exceptions. On 26 April 1626, for instance, it was resolved to read again the petition of the London Goldwiredrawers’ Company against the apparel bill once the latter had been reported.204 It was rare for a private petition to be thrown out before being considered in committee, but in June 1625 Sir William Cope discovered to his cost that the practice was not unknown after he petitioned the Commons in protest at Lady Coppyn’s petition.205

At the start of a Parliament petitions concerning disputed parliamentary elections were often laid before the House by individual Members, but thereafter they appear to have been directed by their authors to the committee for privileges and returns.206 Other types of petition tended to be submitted in a more haphazard fashion, at least before 1614. When Bryan Bridger wanted to bring his petition against the bishops to the attention of the Commons in 1604, he accosted the Speaker as the latter was making his way to the Commons through Westminster Hall.207 At the beginning of the 1614 Parliament the receipt of petitions other than those concerned with elections was put on a formal footing. A grand committee for petitions was established, which initially met once a week under the chairmanship of Sir Edwin Sandys and which soon found itself ‘much encumbered’ with petitions against impositions and monopolies.208 Although this committee was not recreated in later parliaments, its duties were subsumed in the 1620s by the various standing committees of the whole House, appointed at the start of each session, for grievances, trade and the courts of justice.

Petitions made the Commons an easy target for those wishing to make claims of a libellous or treasonous nature. In April 1614 Sir Edwin Sandys recommended that no petition should be considered unless it had been signed. Once the author was known and the petition had been read and allowed, the signature could be torn off if required.209 In February 1621, after a woman preferred a petition deemed unsuitable, Sir Dudley Digges ‘prayed that an old order might be observed, that he that sat in the chair might consider whether the petition were fit for our hearing’. However, both Edward Alford in 1621 and Sir William Strode in 1625 thought that all petitions should be submitted publicly rather than ‘delivered to one man’.210 One way to overcome this objection was to entrust the task of deciding which petitions should be discarded to a committee. In March 1621, at the suggestion of Sir Robert Phelips, a six-strong subcommittee of the committee of the whole House was appointed to receive petitions. The subcommittee immediately left the chamber, and on its return one of its Members, Sir Edwin Sandys, gave ‘an account of the petitions’. 211 This arrangement, which echoed ancient practice in the Commons (and perhaps existing practice in the Lords, which appointed triers of petitions at the start of every Parliament), evidently proved so successful that at the start of the 1624 Parliament Sir Humphrey May recommended that it be repeated to ‘avoid expense of time’. On this occasion, Sir Edward Coke objected that the members of a petitions subcommittee would come under intolerable pressure from ‘great persons’ eager to ensure that their petitions were not among those discarded.212 However, despite the esteem in which Coke was held, the grand committee went ahead regardless.213

The manner in which the Commons handled private petitions depended upon the nature of the petitions themselves. Those submitted in response to legislation, such as the 1626 Goldwiredrawers’ petition against the apparel bill, invariably prompted the House to summon the authors and invite them to be heard through their counsel, either in committee or at the bar.214 However a petition submitted as the result of a grievance might be taken under the wing of the Commons and recast as a petition from the lower House to the king, in which case it usually received two readings before being engrossed. Two such examples are the petition against a new impost on wines presented by the merchants trading to France in 1625 and the petition by the Levant Company against the appointment of Sir Thomas Phelips as ambassador to Constantinople in 1626.215 However most of the petitions adopted by the Commons were incorporated into a general petition of grievances.

The explosion of private petitions in the 1620s was mirrored by a marked increase in the number of petitions addressed to the king by the Commons itself. Perhaps the main reason for this rise was a growing perception that existing laws were either not being enforced or were being broken by the Crown. Since legislation under such circumstances was clearly futile, the only recourse available to the Commons was to petition the king. The Commons’ belief that there were grievances that could only be addressed through petitioning stimulated the revival of a long defunct form of petitioning during James’s reign, that of the petition of right.

Writing at the end of the 1620s, Sir Edward Coke declared that petitions drafted by the Commons could be divided into three sorts: petitions of grace, petitions of right and petitions containing matters of both grace and right.216 Petitions of grace took the form of requests rather than demands, and because of this the monarch was not obliged to answer them. When the Commons learned in December 1621 that James was affronted that the House intended to petition him to marry his son to a Protestant, Sir Edward Coke declared that the request was ‘but a petition of grace, which requires no answer and therefore cannot offend’.217 A king who chose to answer a petition of grace was, as Justice Jones remarked in April 1628, perfectly entitled to reply in the negative.218 For this reason, Charles I was well within his rights to decline to respond to the Commons’ Remonstrance of June 1628 calling for Buckingham to be removed from office.219

Many petitions of grace were inoffensive to the monarch and contained requests that were uncontroversial. For instance, Charles made no difficulty when the Commons, in conjunction with the Lords, called upon him to order a general fast in both 1625 and 1628. Moreover, a polite request to be permitted to discuss matters pertaining to the royal prerogative was not calculated to displease. James certainly took no offence against the 1604 petition regarding purveyors. However, where the Commons did not first defer to the king but used petitions of grace as a mechanism with which to express its opinion in affairs of state, they were liable to prove deeply controversial.220 Faced with petitions of this sort, the monarch’s instinct was to smother them in the cradle. In 1572 Elizabeth, anxious not to be seen to be acting under pressure from the Commons, seems to have prevented the lower House from presenting her with a petition of grace calling for the execution of the duke of Norfolk.221 On learning in 1607 that the Commons intended to ask him to enforce the recusancy laws (a request which Sir Francis Hastings evidently regarded as a petition of grace since he said it was in the king’s power to refuse it), James sent a message to the lower House stating that, while he would ‘ever be most careful to execute those laws’, it was a matter ‘merely belonging to himself’ and that it ‘shall be needless to press him in it’. As a result of this message an aggrieved Commons abandoned the petition.222 However the monarch’s interventions were not always this successful. In 1621 James notably failed to stop the Commons from petitioning him to break off the Spanish Match, and as a result he angrily dissolved the Parliament. In 1628 Charles proved powerless to prevent the Commons from presenting him with its Remonstrance calling for the removal of Buckingham, whereupon he admonished the lower House for assuming that it knew more about state affairs than he did himself.223

Petitions of right, unlike petitions of grace, were demands for redress to which the king was obliged to give an answer, and consisted of complaints against a particular grievance, or set of grievances.224 As their title suggests, petitions of right were theoretically incapable of refusal, since they were demands for the law to be enforced and not broken. As Sir Edward Coke put it in April 1628, ‘our petition is a petition of right, and the king is to do it in right’.225 Yet although the king could not flatly refuse the demands laid out in a petition of right, he could postpone giving his answer indefinitely. In May 1624 James deferred answering the petition of right against the pretermitted customs, since he could not afford to surrender such a valuable source of income. When Charles came to give a fuller answer in June 1625, he too prevaricated, pleading that he had not had sufficient time to consider the matter, which he now put off until the next session.226 Alternatively the king might reply in a manner which the Commons found unsatisfactory, as Charles famously did when he gave his first answer to the Petition of Right of 1628.

Unlike petitions of grace, petitions of right had fallen into disuse in the fifteenth century. The precise date of their revival under the early Stuarts is not entirely clear. William Hakewill, the best historian in the Commons and an unrivalled expert on Commons procedure, stated in 1628 that no petition of right had been formulated in the last 200 years.227 This assertion, if shown to be correct, would make the Petition of Right of June 1628 the first of its kind. However, it seems likely that Hakewill held an extremely narrow view of what constituted a petition of right. Unlike Coke, who in 1621 declared that a petition of right was simply a ‘petition that grievances may be suppressed’,228 he perhaps believed that no petition of grievances, unless it were enrolled and given the status of law, could genuinely be regarded as a petition of right.

Hakewill’s opinion has not been endorsed by Elizabeth Read Foster, who has concluded that by the end of James’s reign the Commons ‘had come to think of certain parliamentary petitions as petitions of right’. According to Foster the first petition of right of the early Stuart period was the 1604 petition against purveyors, but close examination of the text makes it clear that this document was in fact a petition of grace. The purpose of the 1604 petition was not, as Foster supposes, to demand that purveyance be properly regulated, but to ask James to allow the Commons to proceed by bill, the lower House having heard from the officers of the Greencloth that James would veto any legislation.229 There may be a case for regarding the grievances petition of May 1606 (the text of which has not survived but whose contents are known) as the first petition of right to be presented to the king during this period, for in 1610 the Commons described this document as ‘not merely a petition of grace, but of grace accompanied and supported by justice’.230 However the first undoubted petition of right in this period was drawn up in May 1610, after Sir Herbert Croft propounded that the Commons, in order to defend its right to free speech and to discover the reason for the judgment in Bate’s Case, should make ‘not a petition of grace but a petition of right’.231

The third type of petition described by Coke combined both matters of right and grace. Like petitions of right, these hybrid petitions may have been new. The first to be drafted, perhaps, was the Form of Apology and Satisfaction of 1604, which described itself as being ‘several humble petitions … of different nature, some for right and some for grace’.232 However, this landmark document was never formally presented to the king. Another example of the mixed form was the grievances petition of 1624. This actually consisted of a series of petitions, each of which was drafted separately. Some of these individual petitions – like the one against the pretermitted customs or another calling on James to ensure that the 1566 Statute of Artificers was enforced in respect of the clothworkers – were described by the Commons as petitions of right, while others, such as the complaint against the patents granting private individual custody of common gaols, contained elements of both right and grace.233 There was no requirement that a mixed petition should contain an equal balance between matters of grace and matters of right. Although there were certainly elements of grace within the Apology of 1604 – on purveyance the Apology entreated the king’s ‘gracious favour to treat of composition with us’ – most of this document consisted of a series of carefully couched demands, the most explicit of which was for ‘that justice which our princes are sworn neither to deny, delay nor sell’.234

Not all petitions formulated by the Commons fall neatly into one of the three categories identified by Coke. The prime example is the petition against impositions of July 1610. At the committee established to ‘devise some course for drawing our petition in right to the king concerning these impositions’ it soon became apparent that, while some wanted to present the king with a petition of right, others wished to submit a petition of grace.235 In the end it was decided ‘to frame a petition by way of grievance implying the right’ because it was thought too provocative to condemn the judgment reached in Bate’s Case.236 The result was a sort of disguised petition of right that defies easy classification. Another document addressed to the king which does not fall neatly into one of the three categories identified by Coke is the Humble Answer of April 1604.237 This is hardly surprising, however, as the Humble Answer was not really a petition at all but a carefully worded defence by the Commons of its handling of the Buckinghamshire election dispute.

Little scholarly attention has been paid to the Commons’ procedures in respect of its own petitions. According to E.R. Foster, ‘procedure by petition remained flexible’ under Elizabeth, whereas the early Stuarts saw the development of a regular form of procedure that was virtually complete by 1625.238 In fact, although the procedures applied to petitions were loosely modelled on the practice followed in respect of bills, they remained remarkably fluid throughout the early seventeenth century.

Whereas bills were normally read three times, the number of readings granted to petitions tended to fluctuate. During the 1604 session petitions formulated by the Commons received only two readings each, as did the petition against the Spanish Match in 1621. By contrast the 1606 grievances petition and the 1610 Petition of Right were both read three times.239 The 1628 Petition of Right is also usually said to have received three readings, but if the reading of the draft petition on 8 May is counted it was actually given four.240 Unusually, the 1625 petition of religion was read just once, on 30 June, although various amendments were given a separate reading on 6 July.241 Broadly speaking, however, by the mid 1620s it was normal to accord petitions three readings. In 1625, for instance, the petition for a general fast was ‘thrice read by the clerk’, while the petition against the new impost on wines was read once in the form of a petition from the merchants and twice more after being recast by a Commons’ committee.242

Unlike the procedure employed with bills, it was not considered necessary to leave a minimum interval between each reading. The 1610 Petition of Right received all three readings on the same morning, and the second reading of the completed text of the 1628 Petition of Right took place immediately after the first on 26 May.243 Nor was there an assumption that Commons’ petitions would normally require commitment after reading. During the 1620s most petitions formulated by the Commons were drafted in grand committee, and consequently by the time a petition came to receive its formal readings in the House most of the committee work had already been done.

Like bills, petitions drafted by the Commons were engrossed, but the stage in proceedings at which this occurred remained flexible. The 1610 Petition of Right was not transferred to parchment until it had been given three readings, whereas the 1628 Petition of Right was engrossed before receiving a final reading on 27 May.244 Just like bills, petitions might fail to progress. Sometimes this was because the monarch moved to remedy a complaint before it could be complained of as a grievance, as in 1597, when the queen pre-empted a plan by the Commons to petition her about the abuses connected with monopolies.245 At other times a petition was set aside to make way for other, more urgent business. The preparation of articles of impeachment against Buckingham undoubtedly explains the disappearance in May 1626 of the petition, twice read, calling upon the king to increase and reform the royal finances.246 At least two petitions were dropped after it was realized that their reception would be unwelcome. The first was the 1604 demand that the clergy be permitted to refrain from subscribing to any articles of religion other than those laid down by statute in 1571. Though orders were given for its presentation to James, it was never in fact proffered, probably because the House voted to reject the king’s demand for a subsidy.247 The second, already mentioned, was the 1607 petition to enforce the recusancy laws. Interestingly, the Commons, after giving this document a single reading, did not declare that it had been rejected but that it had been allowed to ‘sleep’.248 This was, of course, a direct borrowing of the language employed in relation to bills, and it was to be heard again in May 1628, when Sir Edward Coke stated that if the Lords failed to agree with the Commons over the wording of the Petition of Right then the petition ‘must sleep’.249

In theory the Commons was obliged to seek the agreement of the Lords to its petitions if the matters concerned were ‘general’. When the Commons resolved in March 1604 to ask the king to allow it to discuss compounding for wardship, ‘it was first propounded as necessary that the Lords, being part of the body and sensible of the same burden, should join in [the] petition’.250 In 1625, and again in 1628, the Lords were invited to join the Commons in petitioning the king to order a general fast. In both cases the lower House drafted the petition itself, but left a space blank near the beginning in which the peers could, if they wished, insert the words ‘the lords spiritual and temporal’.251 In 1621 the Commons invited the Lords to help petition the king against Jesuits, seminary priests and recusants. After perusing the proposed petition, the text of which was prepared by the Commons, the Lords declared that they approved of ‘every article’.252

In practice, however, most Commons’ petitions were unilateral affairs. No help was sought from the Lords when the lower House petitioned the king against impositions in 1610, for instance, nor were the peers involved in the petition to break off the Spanish Match in 1621. One reason for this reluctance to seek the assistance of the Lords was a fear that the peers were not always willing to be cooperative. This suspicion was well grounded, for in March 1604 the Lords caused anger and dismay by refusing to join the Commons in petitioning the king on wardship, a setback which John Holles described as ‘an incomparable defeat’.253 In May 1628 the Commons only narrowly succeeded in persuading the Lords to agree to the wording of the Petition of Right. Given these difficulties, many in the Commons were not surprisingly reluctant to enlist the Lords’ help. ‘Rather a petition at the king’s feet than a bill at the Lords’ bar’, declared Sir Edwin Sandys in the impositions debate of May 1614. Nicholas Fuller agreed, and added that the Lords should be shown rather than asked to sign up to the Commons’ intended petition.254 In June 1625 the question whether to approach the peers over a petition for a general fast was so controversial that it led to a division which, in a House attended by more than 360 Members, the yeas won by a margin of just twenty-three votes.255

There was broad agreement that the Speaker, who was not permitted to carry any message in writing to the king, should not present petitions from the Commons.256 Instead, the task was commonly entrusted to a deputation, the size of which tended to vary. The purveyance petition of 1604 was submitted to the king by around 20 Members, while the grievances petition of 1606 was delivered to James by a body twice that size. Although petitions were presented in writing, they were also read aloud to the king. In 1604, for instance, the Commons instructed Francis Bacon to present the grievances petition ‘with some speech of introduction and explanation’, and after he had finished John Hare read the petition itself to the king.257 Petitions which originated in the Commons to which the Lords had given their support were presented in the name of both Houses by a member of the upper House. In July 1625 the petition complaining of the increase in papists and the failure to execute the recusancy laws, which was drafted by the Commons but amended by the Lords, was presented to Charles by Lord President Manchester.258 Likewise, the 1628 Petition of Right was delivered to the king by Lord Keeper Coventry.259

A key disadvantage of petitions over bills was that they did not acquire the force of law even if the king consented to them. The royal answer, were one to be given, need not even be written down, nor was there any mechanism for ensuring that the king kept his word. This was clearly unsatisfactory, and from at least 1614 there were rumblings of discontent. In May 1614 Sir Edwin Sandys complained that a petition submitted in 1610 had never been answered in writing, but only ‘by word, by my lord treasurer’, the earl of Salisbury.260 In November 1621 Sir Edward Coke proposed that the Commons should petition the king, ‘that we may have answers to every of our petitions of grievances, expressed in a Parliament roll, according to ancient course’.261 In the short term Coke’s proposal fell by the wayside, but the debates of May 1628, over whether the king’s word alone was sufficient to secure the subjects in their liberties, breathed new life into it. In June 1628, after the king was deemed to have replied satisfactorily to the Petition of Right, Coke repeated his earlier suggestion, whereupon the king agreed to allow the Petition to be entered in the Parliament rolls.262 This development, coupled with the fact that Charles had now signified his consent to the Petition by using a form of words that closely resembled that which was given to private bills on receiving the Royal Assent – soit droit fait comme est désiré as distinct from soit fait comme il est désiré – had the remarkable effect of conferring upon the 1628 Petition of Right the status of law.263

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Andrew Thrush

End Notes

  • 1. For a detailed discussion, see Chapter 1.
  • 2. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 132.
  • 3. J. Amspoker, ‘The Development of Procedure in the House of Commons in the Early Stuart Period (1603-1629)’ (Univ. of Minnesota D.Phil. 1959), p. 221.
  • 4. For a list of the fees charged by the officers of both Houses in the case of the 1628 Charterhouse hospital bill, see LMA, Acc/1876/G/01/10/5. For a discussion of the fees charged by the officers of the Commons, see Chapter 8.
  • 5. Russell, PEP, 45; Amspoker, 220.
  • 6. SP14/6/99.
  • 7. M.A.R. Graves and C.R. Kyle, ‘The Kinges most excellent majestie oute of his gracious disposicion: the evolution of grace bills in English parliaments, 1547-1642’, PER, xviii. 46. For a discussion of the Crown’s attempts to use the grace bills to persuade the Commons to grant supply see Chapter 13.
  • 8. Russell, PEP, 46.
  • 9. For the details of this bill, and another measure introduced by Acland in 1610, see the biographical entry on Acland.
  • 10. CJ, i. 267b, 270a, 276a, 357a, 364b, 1042b, 1043b.
  • 11. CD 1621, v. 157; Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 133.
  • 12. CJ, i. 288b.
  • 13. Ibid. 153b, 160a, 983a.
  • 14. Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 50.
  • 15. D’Ewes, Jnls. of all the Parls. 558.
  • 16. Ibid. 560; Bowyer Diary, 31; CJ, i. 266b.
  • 17. See Chapter 2.
  • 18. CJ, i. 448b.
  • 19. Ibid. 523b, 762a, 771b, 772a. In 1625 a committee was appointed to draft the preamble, but there is no record of any instruction to the law officers concerning the drafting of the main text: Procs. 1625, p. 313.
  • 20. CJ, i. 984a.
  • 21. GL, ms 5442/5, unfol. (1601/2 and 1603/4 accts.)
  • 22. Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 319.
  • 23. CJ, i. 197b.
  • 24. For instance, see CJ, i. 258a (Francis Moore); Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 325 (William Savage). Examples could easily be multiplied.
  • 25. Bowyer Diary, 4; CJ, i. 529a.
  • 26. Hakewill, 132.
  • 27. Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 359-60; Bowyer Diary, 8.
  • 28. Procs. 1625, p. 215.
  • 29. Procs. 1610, ii. 327-9.
  • 30. CD 1629, p. 110.
  • 31. GL, ms 5174/3, ff. 249v-50.
  • 32. Kyle thesis, 22-3.
  • 33. CJ, i. 298a; Bowyer Diary, 135-6. The 1585 subsidy bill took two hours to read: D. Dean, Law-Making and Soc. in Late Elizabethan Eng. 37 n.12.
  • 34. CJ, i. 584b, 609a.
  • 35. Ibid. 596b.
  • 36. CJ, i. 165b, 959a; ‘CD 1604-7’, p. 63.
  • 37. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 132; CD 1621, v. 62.
  • 38. CJ, i. 288b, 289a. For some Elizabethan examples of bills which had to be rewritten because they had been rendered illegible by alteration, see Lambert, ‘Procedure in the House of Commons’, 755-6.
  • 39. CJ, i. 419b.
  • 40. Neale, Elizabethan House of Commons, 370.
  • 41. CJ, i. 180a-81b.
  • 42. CD 1621, vi. 356; Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 459-60; Hakewill, 136.
  • 43. CJ, i. 210b.
  • 44. Bowyer Diary, 2, 4.
  • 45. CJ, i. 578a, 579b.
  • 46. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 134; CJ, i. 592b, 623b.
  • 47. CJ, i. 623b.
  • 48. Lansd. 486, f. 125v; CJ, i. 388a.
  • 49. Hooker’s Order and Usage, 168; Graves and Kyle, 27.
  • 50. Lambarde’s Notes, 61, 80; Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 50. Before 1553 the general pardon ‘was subject to a variable number of readings’: Graves and Kyle, 35-6.
  • 51. D’Ewes, Jnls. of all the Parls. 575; Bowyer Diary, 153, 164; CJ, i. 91a, 112a, 113a, 309a. Dean claims that ‘normally the three reading rule was observed’ under Elizabeth: Dean, Law-Making, 53.
  • 52. CJ, i. 453b-454b; Graves and Kyle, 44.
  • 53. CJ, i. 774b, 796b.
  • 54. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 137; Hooker’s Order and Usage, 168. See also CJ, i. 456a.
  • 55. CD 1621, v. 481; CD 1628, ii. 89.
  • 56. CJ, i. 459a, 465a.
  • 57. Ibid. 346b. See also Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), pp. 137-8.
  • 58. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), pp. 141, 143; Smith, De Republica Anglorum, 54.
  • 59. Hooker’s Order and Usage, 172.
  • 60. CD 1621, iv. 112; C.R. Kyle, ‘Prince Chas. in the Parls. of 1621 and 1624’, HJ, xli. 614.
  • 61. Observatyones of the Parl. ed. C. Thompson, 10.
  • 62. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), pp. 141-2.
  • 63. CJ, i. 389a.
  • 64. Ibid. 653a, 653b, 654b, 658a.
  • 65. Procs. 1625, pp. 226, 229, 238, 252-3, 282-3, 313, 324.
  • 66. CJ, i. 463a.
  • 67. Ibid. 158b, 224a, 767a.
  • 68. Ibid. 410a, 415a, 417a, 417b, 440b, 441b, 442a, 442b, 443a, 443b, 445a, 445b.
  • 69. Ibid. 903b, 911a. For the progress of the other seven bills, see Procs. 1628, vi. 5-6.
  • 70. Procs. 1626, iv. 86-7, 94, 6, 99, 101, 102, 106.
  • 71. Bowyer Diary, 115.
  • 72. CJ, i. 297b, 299b, 449b, 895b, 905a; Procs. 1625, pp. 298, 313.
  • 73. Kyle thesis, 30.
  • 74. For a discussion of the times of day allocated to bill readings, see Chapter 6.
  • 75. Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 92-3.
  • 76. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 139; ‘Lowther 1624’, f. 73. For the rejection at first reading of two Elizabethan bills that had originated in the Commons, see CJ, i. 101a; Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 361.
  • 77. CD 1621, ii. 97; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 55; CJ, i. 544b, 590a, 619b, 620a; Amspoker, 230.
  • 78. CJ, i. 560a; CD 1621, ii. 236; v. 305-6.
  • 79. Bowyer Diary, 12-13. The Journal incorrectly states that this bill was rejected after a second reading: CJ, i. 261b.
  • 80. CJ, i. 161a; ‘CD 1604-7’, p. 61.
  • 81. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 74; CD 1621, iii. 19.
  • 82. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 344-5. It was also objected that he was not entitled to speak because the bill was in his own interest: CD 1621, iv. 271.
  • 83. CD 1621, iv. 45.
  • 84. For example, see CJ, i. 399a, 400a, 837a.
  • 85. CJ, i. 63b. The physical destruction of these bills is noticed by Lambert, 756, but she fails to comment on the stage in the bill reading process at which this happened.
  • 86. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 33. Provisos, as well as bills, could be ordered to sleep: CJ, i. 241b.
  • 87. CJ, i. 314a, 324b, 457a.
  • 88. Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 318, 400.
  • 89. CJ, i. 232b, 239a.
  • 90. Ibid. 533a, 653b, 654b, 658a.
  • 91. Add. 18597, f. 14; CD 1621, vi. 350.
  • 92. The bill to recognize the king’s title; the bill to prevent outlaws from sitting in Parliament; and the bill to naturalize Adam Newton: CJ, i. 158b, 170b, 176a, 248b.
  • 93. Ibid. 673a, 673b; Kyle thesis, 20.
  • 94. Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 360; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 89.
  • 95. CJ, i. 691b.
  • 96. Bowyer Diary, 106; CJ, i. 398b, 407a. For examples of bills given misleading titles, see Bowyer Diary, 135-6; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 45.
  • 97. Bowyer Diary, 117.
  • 98. Hooker’s Order and Usage, 189. See also Sir Edward Coke’s likening of committees to juries: CD 1621, ii. 35.
  • 99. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), pp. 145-6.
  • 100. CJ, i. 616b.
  • 101. Bodl. Tanner 391, p. 117.
  • 102. Bowyer Diary, 117.
  • 103. CD 1628, iv. 339.
  • 104. Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 51; Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 146.
  • 105. Procs. 1625, pp. 245, 411.
  • 106. CJ, i. 494b. The same principle must explain why in November 1610 the Commons excluded the ‘thirty Doges’ from membership of the committee set up to investigate their interview with James. HMC Rutland, i. 425. On this episode, see Chapter 13.
  • 107. CJ, i. 679a. The same rule was applied to the committee for examining the abuses in the Exchequer: ibid. 730b. The following month the Commons ruled that, in the case of the bill regarding the fees paid to customs officials, ‘none [were] to be of the committee, to have voice, that have interest in it’: ibid. 768a.
  • 108. Ibid. 876a.
  • 109. CD 1621, v. 110; CJ, i. 595b.
  • 110. Kyle thesis, 32, n.87, citing ‘Pym 1624’, f. 40.
  • 111. Williamson may not have been the only member of the committee to have been opposed in principle to the bill. Sir William Walter told the House ‘that he, and two or three more of the committee’ were ‘not engaged’. Ibid. 481a, 490a.
  • 112. Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 342-4.
  • 113. The Ancestor, ix. 206.
  • 114. Bowyer Diary, 5.
  • 115. CJ, i. 493b.
  • 116. CD 1628, ii. 90.
  • 117. CJ, i. 172b; Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 55.
  • 118. Procs. 1626, iv. 196-200.
  • 119. CJ, i. 920a.
  • 120. Bowyer Diary, 9.
  • 121. CD 1621, v. 171, 379; Holles 1624, p. 63.
  • 122. CJ, i. 461b.
  • 123. Ibid. 389a.
  • 124. Ibid. 413b, 425b, 427a, 429a, 429b, 432a, 433a, 435b, 442b, 443a, 444b, 446a, 449a, 449b, 450b.
  • 125. Ibid. 616b.
  • 126. Ibid. 771b.
  • 127. Procs. 1625, p. 234.
  • 128. Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 53. Occasionally the clerk indicated in his Journal the name of the Member to whom he had delivered the bill and committee list: CJ, i. 978b, 1031b.
  • 129. Diary of Thomas Burton, iii. 312.
  • 130. Zaller, The Parl. of 1621, p. 226.
  • 131. Bodl. Tanner 391, p. 118.
  • 132. Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 53.
  • 133. CJ, i. 153b, 169a.
  • 134. Mitchell, Rise of the Revolutionary Party, 35.
  • 135. Bowyer Diary, 207; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 20v.
  • 136. CJ, i. 635a; CD 1621, ii. 66; vi. 347.
  • 137. Procs. 1625, p. 260; CJ, i. 893a, 920b, 924a.
  • 138. CJ, i. 518b.
  • 139. For further details, see Chapter 8.
  • 140. Coke, The Fourth Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England (1671), p. 35.
  • 141. ‘Paulet 1610’, f. 22v.
  • 142. Bowyer Diary, 366-7.
  • 143. CJ, i. 724b.
  • 144. ‘Lowther 1624’, f. 73.
  • 145. See, for instance, the case of the 1607 bill to incorporate the churchwardens of St. Saviour’s, Southwark: CJ, i. 340a, 349a.
  • 146. CJ, i. 197b, 251b, 955b.
  • 147. Ibid. 788a.
  • 148. Bowyer Diary, 314; Lansd. 486, f. 123.
  • 149. Bowyer Diary, 378. See also the remarks of Sir Edward Coke in Nicholas, i. 83.
  • 150. CJ, i. 630a.
  • 151. CD 1621, ii. 162.
  • 152. CD 1628, iii. 364.
  • 153. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 150.
  • 154. Bowyer Diary, 136-7. However, the Journal says that matter was ‘left doubtful’: CJ, i. 300b.
  • 155. CJ, i. 514a.
  • 156. Ibid. 492b.
  • 157. Ibid. 297a.
  • 158. Ibid. 237a, 237b, 238a, 239a.
  • 159. Ibid. 306a; Bowyer Diary, 151-2.
  • 160. CJ, i. 396b, 407b; Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 174. See also Lambert, ‘Procedure in the House of Commons’, 754n.
  • 161. CD 1621, ii. 460.
  • 162. Procs. 1625, pp. 323, 341.
  • 163. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 154.
  • 164. Ibid. 175.
  • 165. Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 437; CJ, i. 309a.
  • 166. CJ, i. 710a. In 1625 the bill was carried to the Upper House by the treasurer of the Household, Sir Thomas Edmondes: Procs. 1625, pp. 347, 350, 354.
  • 167. CJ, i. 260a.
  • 168. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 176.
  • 169. Bowyer Diary, 115.
  • 170. Kyle thesis, 36.
  • 171. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), pp. 172-3.
  • 172. CJ, i. 710a.
  • 173. E.R. Foster, ‘Petitions and the Petition of Right’, JBS, xiv. 27.
  • 174. CD 1621, iii. 19. The number was recorded as being 100 by the anonymous diarist: ibid. ii. 300.
  • 175. CD 1621, iii. 240; v. 287.
  • 176. Russell, PEP, 36-7.
  • 177. CJ, i. 475b; CD 1621, iv. 141.
  • 178. For the impact of grand committees on bill committees, see Chapter 6. For a useful study of committee attendance, see C.R. Kyle, ‘Attendance, Apathy and Order? Parliamentary committees in early Stuart Eng.’, in Parl. at Work: Parliamentary Committees, Political Power and Public Access in Early Modern Eng. ed. C.R. Kyle and J. Peacey, 55-7.
  • 179. HMC Exeter, 138-8; HMC 13th Rep. IV, 171.
  • 180. CJ, i. 702b.
  • 181. Russell, PEP, 36.
  • 182. Kyle thesis, 19, 30.
  • 183. See the London constituency article for the details.
  • 184. Procs. 1625, pp. 635-7.
  • 185. Ibid. 220.
  • 186. Procs. 1626, iv. 84-108.
  • 187. On the Apothecaries’ bill, see CJ, i. 823b, 830a, 836a, 862b. For the Leadenhall bill, see CLRO, Reps. 40, f. 142; CJ, i. 830b; Add. 34218, f. 99v. In addition to these two measures, the New River Company introduced a bill to the Lords to confirm its letter patent: Procs. 1626, iv. 100.
  • 188. Procs. 1628, vi. 4-6.
  • 189. CJ, i. 877a, 880a, 880b, 887a, 894b.
  • 190. Coke, Fourth Part of the Institutes of the Laws of Eng. 25.
  • 191. CJ, i. 157a, 157b, 215a. The House also received a ‘certificate’ signed by the clerk of the Crown regarding Botley, in Hampshire, which sought the right to be restored to the franchise: ibid. 152a. John Dee printed a petition in verse addressed to the Commons in favour of an Act against slander, but I know of no evidence that it was ever presented: C.R. Kyle, ‘Parl. and the Palace of Westminster’, 93.
  • 192. The figure is calculated from the table of petitions printed in Procs. 1628, vi. 15-19, and excludes petitions sent to the king by the Commons.
  • 193. For a more detailed discussion, and for supporting references, see the London constituency article.
  • 194. See Chapter 6.
  • 195. No such payments are recorded among the fees paid by the Grocers when they petitioned the Commons against the Apothecaries in 1621: GL, ms 11571/10, f. 445r-v.
  • 196. Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 373, 384, 443-4.
  • 197. CJ, i. 472b. For the Lords’ refusal to confer, see Chapter 12.
  • 198. CD 1621, iii. 329.
  • 199. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 248.
  • 200. GL, ms 5445/15, unfol. (27 Jan. 1629).
  • 201. CJ, i. 213a.
  • 202. CD 1628, iii. 613. His request found a sympathetic audience.
  • 203. CJ, i. 649b; Procs. 1625, p. 209.
  • 204. CJ, i. 850a, 850b.
  • 205. Procs. 1625, pp. 215, 222-3.
  • 206. Ibid. 209.
  • 207. CJ, i. 157a.
  • 208. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 303.
  • 209. Ibid. 85-6.
  • 210. CD 1621, ii. 116; Procs. 1625, p. 207. In Alford’s view, all petitions ought to be read, even if they had been rejected by a committee, ‘for a committee’s opinion is not to bind the whole House’: Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 69; CJ, i. 621a.
  • 211. CD 1621, vi. 275-6, 278.
  • 212. ‘Spring 1624’, p. 27; ‘Pym 1624’, i. f. 7. For the Lords’ appointment of receivers and triers of petitions at the beginning of each Parliament, see Coke, Fourth Part of the Institutes of the Laws of Eng. 10-11.
  • 213. ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 85; CJ, i. 739a.
  • 214. CJ, i. 850b.
  • 215. For the 1625 wine merchants’ petition, see Procs. 1625, pp. 268, 284-5, 287, 323, 326-7. For the Levant Company’s petition, see SP105/148, ff. 145-6; CD 1628, ii. 271-2, 329-30.
  • 216. Coke, Fourth Part of the Institutes of the Laws of Eng. 11.
  • 217. CD 1621, v. 231.
  • 218. Lords Procs. 1628, v. 238.
  • 219. Procs. 1628, vi. 197. For the text of the Remonstrance, see Rushworth, Historical Colls. i. 624-6.
  • 220. Foster, ‘Petitions’, 28.
  • 221. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parls. 1559-81, pp. 276-7; Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, i. 313-14.
  • 222. CJ, i. 384a-385b. For Hastings’ remark, see Bowyer Diary, 331.
  • 223. CD 1628, iii. 356; Procs. 1628, vi. 197.
  • 224. CD 1621, iii. 367.
  • 225. CD 1628, iii. 95.
  • 226. CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 259; Procs. 1625, p. 304.
  • 227. CD 1628, iii. 278.
  • 228. CD 1621, iii. 67.
  • 229. Foster, ‘Petitions and the Petition of Right’, 33, 35; CJ, i. 190b.
  • 230. Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 270. For the contents of the petition, see Bowyer Diary, 153-8.