XII. Meetings and Conferences

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

Addressing the representatives of the Lords at a conference between both Houses in December 1601, Sir Robert Cecil declared that ‘we be all members of one body, and as we cannot be without your lordships, so you cannot be without us’. Ennoblement under James did nothing to alter Cecil in this opinion. During the midst of the debates over the Great Contract, he reminded the Commons that ‘though we be divided in place, yet we [are] all but one lawmaker’. Indeed, ‘if we confer not, we shall spend many days in vain’, as nothing could be accomplished without cooperation.1 Since each House was but one half of the same institution, meetings between the Commons and Lords formed an essential part of parliamentary life, and could achieve dramatic results. After the Lords requested a meeting to discuss the informers’ bill in April 1621, the Commons’ spokesman, Sir Edward Coke, demolished all fifteen objections raised by the Crown’s law officers, with the result that the Lords agreed not only to embrace the bill but also to improve it.2 On the other hand, collaboration was no guarantee of success. The Great Contract ultimately collapsed even though the two Houses conferred on the project sixteen times between February and July 1610.

Although conferences were a vital part of the parliamentary process, there were no rules to determine when one House ought to consult the other. Some Members of the Commons were understandably wary of Cecil’s argument that the two Houses formed a single court and therefore ought to confer because they feared jeopardizing the lower House’s independent authority. When it was suggested in February 1621 that the Commons should seek the aid of the Lords in petitioning James for the right to free speech on the grounds that both Houses formed a single court, Sir Edward Coke opposed the motion, ‘for then they [the Lords] should have to do in examining returns’.3 In December 1601 Sir George More advised conferring with the peers over the Leicester Member George Belgrave, then being prosecuted in Star Chamber for posing as the earl of Huntingdon’s parliamentary candidate, on the grounds that Belgrave was accused of having committed an offence ‘against the High Court of Parliament’, a phrase which of necessity meant the Lords as well as the Commons. However, an unconvinced Serjeant Harris retorted that he could ‘see no reason to confer with the Lords when we may proceed ourselves’.4

In many instances it was simply a matter of choice whether one House decided to confer with the other. However, if the Commons intended to petition the king on the subjects’ liberties or property rights, common sense dictated that the Lords should also be approached. As Sir Edwin Sandys remarked during the impositions debates of 1614, if the peers agreed to throw their weight behind the Commons, ‘we shall have their strength’.5 Courtesy, too, meant that seeking a conference was sometimes more or less obligatory, particularly if one House found itself at variance with the other. On finding ‘many difficulties’ in the 1621 informers’ bill, which had originated in the lower House and was highly prized there, the Lords requested a meeting to discuss the matter.6 However, during the first Jacobean Parliament at least, the main reason why one House conferred with another was that the Crown, having few spokesmen in the Commons, needed to communicate with the lower House through its ministers, most of whom had seats in the Lords.7

Types of meetings

Speaking during the war debate of March 1624, Sir Edwin Sandys declared that there were two sorts of meetings with the Lords – ‘conferences and audience’.8 Conferences, or ‘free conferences’ as they were sometimes known, were meetings at which the representatives of both Houses engaged in debate, whereas audiences, often described simply as ‘meetings’, were gatherings at which one side merely listened to the views of the other. Audiences had the not inconsiderable merit of preventing the Commons’ representatives from committing themselves to positions not officially sanctioned by the House. When the Lords asked the Commons in May 1610 to send to a meeting such men as would ‘make answers’ and ‘ask questions’ in order that both sides ‘might know [the] other’s mind’, the lower House voted down the proposal. It would be preferable, declared Sir Nathaniel Bacon, simply to hear what the Lords had to say rather than allow the members of the conference committee to answer, as individual Members were not ‘wise alone’. John Hoskins, too, remarked that even the wisest members of a Commons deputation ‘may mistake in answering’.9

Although audiences enabled the Commons to keep its conference committees under tight control, they also had the effect of slowing down business to a snail’s pace. During the negotiations over the Union and the Great Contract, the Commons’ refusal to allow its representatives to engage in debate until they had reported back the Lords’ position frequently maddened the Lords beyond belief. As Lord Treasurer Salisbury observed in 1610, the whole point of conferring was to hasten the dispatch of business.10 At a meeting on the Instrument of the Union in November 1606, at which the Commons’ representatives were instructed ‘not to confer, but to hear what the Lords will propound and to report to the House’, Lord Chancellor Ellesmere expostulated that ‘silence in consultations effecteth nothing’, and demanded that the House appoint representatives who would ‘speak as well as … hear’.11 In June 1610 the Lords complained that recent encounters between the two Houses had been ‘rather meetings than conferences’, and though not doubting the great care taken by the Commons over the Contract, they required that ‘all protraction in this so great and necessary a business … be avoided’.12 Salisbury, the architect of the Contract, who at the start of the negotiations had expressed the hope ‘that arguments might freely pass and flow forth on both sides’, was at a loss to know why the Commons was so reluctant to allow its representatives to engage in debate, given the talent at its disposal: ‘for the number of judges you are more, besides you have more lawyers than we, and for eloquence you are too hard for us, and for our places the greatness of us makes not the argument stronger’. He was forced to conclude that, unlike the Lords, whose spokesmen customarily enjoyed great latitude of speech at conferences, the Commons simply did not trust its representatives, who were often little better than passive listeners or message-bearers. It was, he told the Commons on 26 May, a ‘strange misfortune’ that the Commons ‘had never any trusted to make a reply’.13 When, a few months later, the Lords demanded to listen to the Commons’ representatives rather than debate the ecclesiastical Canons bill, it was with grim satisfaction that Salisbury observed that ‘now the shoe pincheth you, you dislike it’.14

Not everyone in the Commons approved of the House’s unwillingness to grant its representatives permission to engage in debate at conferences. In March 1607, following a conference at which the Commons sulkily declined to debate with the Lords after the latter declined to allow the legal status of those Scots born before James’ accession to be handled separately from the status of those born after 1603, Dudley Carleton declared that business ‘hath been much hindered by the strict commission which went from this House’. His opinion was shared by Christopher Brooke, who wished ‘to leave it to the discretion of the committees whether they will reply or not’. However, his motion was ‘received with a general and universal mislike’.15 In later parliaments the Commons proved equally reluctant to empower their committee members to take binding decisions. When the Lords sought to confer in March 1621 on matters ‘which they will propound’, Sir Robert Phelips advised that the House should agree only to hear and to ‘answer nothing’. In March 1628 the committee appointed to confer with the peers about the problem posed by recusants was instructed ‘to hear and not to speak’.16

On one notable occasion the Commons, though it refused to give its conference representatives carte blanche, succeeded in reconciling the need for caution with the need for haste. Midway through talks with the Lords in May 1628, the Commons’ representatives broke off to report back to the House and then, ‘after some small stay’, returned to continue the conference.17 However, this behaviour was not typical of wider practice, and probably only occurred because the matter in hand was not a piece of Crown business, like the Union or the Great Contract, but an important issue that had originated with the Commons itself – the Petition of Right.

Meetings between the Commons and the Lords, whether they were mere audiences or free conferences, were not normally held in the presence of the monarch. In May 1604 James attended one such meeting by prior arrangement in order to address the peers and Members present, but James was then still unfamiliar with English parliamentary procedure, and may have assumed that his presence would be welcome. Indeed, only the previous month the Commons had invited him to preside over a meeting between its representatives and the judges.18 However, the absence of the monarch from conferences of the two Houses was essential if the Commons was to preserve its right to free speech. This was spelt out with crystal clarity by the Bristol Member John Whitson in May 1614, after several of his colleagues, convinced that the king was being misled by his own Council over the legality of impositions, proposed that James be asked to attend a planned meeting with the Lords. Were James to be present, Whitson observed, none of the Commons ‘dare reply’.19

Although the king was not expected to attend conferences between both Houses, meetings between himself and Members of the Commons were fairly frequent and might be requested by either party. Though sometimes described as ‘conferences’,20 they afforded no opportunity for debate. Instead they were intended to allow the king and the Commons to acquaint each other with their views, or the king to express his intentions in summoning a Parliament. At such meetings the Speaker alone spoke for the Commons.21 From time to time, the whole House attended the king in company with the Lords. On such occasions it was normal for the lord chancellor to act as spokesman for both.22

When in London, the king generally received Commons’ deputations, many of which were sizeable, in the Banqueting House at Whitehall. At around one hundred and twenty feet long and fifty-three feet wide, this building was ideal for such large gatherings.23 Prior to these meetings, Members of the Commons normally assembled in the Preaching Place, located next to the Banqueting House on its eastern side.24 Between 1606 and 1609 the Banqueting House was temporarily unavailable as it was then being rebuilt. Consequently in March 1607 James, seated ‘under a cloth of estate’, addressed both Houses in ‘the great chamber at Whitehall’.25 This building, evidently identical to the Guard Chamber, was the second largest room in Whitehall prior to the completion of the new Banqueting House in 1609.26 Alternative arrangements also had to be made following the destruction of the new Banqueting House by fire in 1619. Inigo Jones’s replacement building was not finished by the time the third Jacobean Parliament assembled in February 1621.27 Consequently the king met both Houses that same month in a room described as ‘the Guard Chamber, on the queen’s side’ in one account and as ‘the Great Chamber, on the queen’s side’ in another.28

Although the new Banqueting House was ready by the spring of 1621 – it was used to receive the knights of the Garter on 23 April – James seems to have been reluctant to allow it to be employed for parliamentary purposes. On 20 April he addressed the two Houses in ‘the Hall at Whitehall’.29 This must refer to the Great Hall rather than the Great Chamber, and indeed two weeks later the Journal records that James summoned the Commons to a further meeting in ‘the Great Hall’.30 Built by Wolsey in the late 1520s, the Great Hall was the largest building in Whitehall Palace next to the Banqueting House and was normally reserved for diplomatic and ceremonial functions or the staging of plays.31 In choosing to meet his subjects there rather than in the smaller, less impressive Great Chamber, James may have been expressing pleasure at the unusually harmonious relations between himself and the Commons.32

Although the king’s chief minister might hold private talks with individual Members of the lower House,33 by convention the monarch was unable to enter into debate with Members of the Commons, or even to exchange opinions frankly with them. This convention proved a source of frustration to James who, prior to 1603, had been accustomed to sitting alongside members of the Scottish Parliament. Matters came to a head in May 1610, after the Commons asked to present James with a petition of right condemning impositions. During the course of the ensuing meeting, held at Greenwich, James attempted to mollify his guests by admitting them into the Withdrawing Chamber (a privilege never afforded by Elizabeth to Members) and treating them to dinner. He then issued an extraordinary invitation. Members of the Commons, he said, should in future visit him whenever they wished in groups of ten or twelve at a time, either in the gallery at Whitehall or in his withdrawing chamber, rather than in ‘the solemn form of Parliament but homely … where we might acquaint him with our attentions, and he with his’. That way, he declared, ‘there might be no more mistakings amongst us’.34

The Commons never took up this startling offer, perhaps because many of its Members suspected that James would use such meetings to put pressure on those who attended them. James, however, remained convinced that there was a place for more intimate gatherings than was customary, as did Lord Treasurer Salisbury, who in July 1610 convened a private meeting between himself and leading Members of the Commons at Hyde Park.35 Following the collapse of the Great Contract in November 1610, James, through the Commons’ serjeant-at-arms, privately summoned thirty leading Members of the lower House to Whitehall in an attempt to salvage something from the wreckage.36 At the ensuing meeting – the closest James ever came to conferring with the Commons – the king challenged those whom he had summoned to deny that he was in financial want. He was answered by Sir Henry Neville who, speaking for the rest, declared that though he did not doubt that the king was deeply in debt, it was the duty of the Commons to relieve him only insofar as ‘Your Majesty’s expense groweth by the commonwealth’. He also pointed out that James had already been granted four subsidies and seven fifteenths, ‘which is more than ever was given by any Parliament at any time, upon any occasion, and yet withal they had no relief of their grievances’.37

James’s hope that a direct meeting with the unofficial leaders of the Commons would help pave the way to a vote of subsidies was thereby dashed. Moreover, news of the meeting quickly spread among the rest of the House, many of whom were furious. To those who had not been invited it looked as though James was trying to strike a deal with the House’s leaders behind their backs. Tempers ran so high that William Hakewill thought it necessary to oppose any idea of calling the offenders to the bar or sending them to the Tower, while James was obliged to send a message to the House denying that it had been his intention to persuade the thirty Members – dubbed by contemporaries ‘the thirty doges’ – to act as his spokesmen.38

The resentment engendered by this episode, coupled with the furore at the beginning of the next Parliament over the rumours of a secret undertaking, should have led James to the conclusion that meeting leading Members of the Commons privately was an experiment that could not safely be repeated. However, James, who held his own powers of persuasion in high regard,39 refused to abandon his faith in the personal touch. During the final stages of the 1614 Parliament, after the House refused to transact any further business until it received satisfaction from the Lords over the aspersion cast on it by Bishop Neile, James invited the Speaker and up to forty Members of the lower House to see him ‘in the Long Stone Gallery by the [Privy] Garden’, presumably in the hope that the relative informality of the surroundings would induce the Commons’ representatives to be more amenable.40 This conciliatory gesture proved ineffective, however, and shortly afterwards James famously remonstrated with the Spanish ambassador that it was impossible to deal with the House of Commons because, inter alia, ‘there was no head’.41

In seeking to find a way to deal directly with the Commons’ leadership at moments of crisis, James was attempting to overcome the convention that barred the Commons from conferring with all but the Lords. This was not James’s only attempt to challenge settled practice in respect of conferences, however, for during the opening session of the first Jacobean Parliament, while still a relative newcomer to England and its Parliament, he twice insisted that the Commons confer with bodies other than the Lords.

The Commons received the first of these irregular instructions on 29 March 1604, one week into its dispute with Chancery over the Buckinghamshire election return. The king, convinced that the Commons was not legally entitled to resolve disputed elections, gave the House ‘special charge’ to ‘admit of conference with the judges’, in the hope that once Members heard the legal arguments for themselves they would withdraw their support for Sir Francis Goodwin.42 However, since the judges only enjoyed the status of legal assistants in the Lords rather than membership of the upper House, this instruction was regarded as demeaning by the Commons. As one anonymous Member later observed, the House ‘thought it not fit that so high and so noble a body as is the Parliament should move towards any private person’.43 Indeed, when the matter was put to the vote on 2 April the motion for conferring was, ‘by general voice’, soundly defeated.44

On learning of the Commons’ defiance James was furious, and three days later he ‘desired and commanded, as an absolute king, that there might be a conference between the House and the judges’ in the presence of the Privy Council. At this fresh instruction the Commons was stunned into silence. There was now no alternative but to comply, not least because the Commons was hoping that James would look favourably on its arguments in the Goodwin case, which were now ready for presentation. The only concession that the House managed to extract was that James would attend the conference in person ‘to hear, moderate and judge’.45 Not surprisingly the subsequent meeting, which was held on or shortly before 11 April, failed to cause the Commons to reconsider its innate hostility towards conferring with the judges. When the prospect of holding a further conference was raised two years later, Nicholas Fuller reportedly declared dismissively ‘that the judges were not competible for conference with the lower House’.46

Although forced to climb down over the judges, the Commons proved less compliant a few weeks later, when James, having heard that Members wished to treat of matters of religion, required the lower House to confer with Convocation, the representative assembly of the English church. During the ensuing debate, held on 16 April, it was pointed out ‘that there was no precedent of any conference with a Convocation’ and that ‘clerks of the Convocation were not their peers’.47 The following day the Speaker, on behalf of the king, repeated James’s request, ‘and delivered certain reasons, which he read’. Far from causing the Commons to relent, however, this fresh message merely prompted further defiance. Astonishingly, it was the king rather than the Commons who now retreated. On 18 April James withdrew his demand, and assured the Commons that ‘by commanding a conference with the Convocation’ it had never been his intention ‘to bring in new precedents’ or abridge the liberties of the House.48

James had now reversed the position he had adopted less than two weeks earlier, when he had commanded the Commons, ‘as an absolute king’, to confer with the judges. This alteration is so striking that it demands an explanation. In early April the Commons had been left with little choice but to accede to James’s demands, because gaining the king’s support in the struggle with Chancery over the right to adjudge election returns was essential. By 18 April, however, it was James rather than the Commons who now found himself in a position of weakness: having conceded the Commons’ claims in the Buckinghamshire election dispute, he was anxious to press on with the Union, and to avoid doing anything that would cause the Commons to oppose the intended merger of the two kingdoms. A further factor in James’s decision to retreat was that a middle course lay open to him, for as early as 16 April the lower House had declared that, while it would refuse to meet the representatives of Convocation, it would be willing to confer with the bishops ‘as lords of Parliament’. This assurance, which was seized upon by James on 18 April, was somewhat misleading, as it soon became apparent that the Commons was not prepared to enter into discussions with a Lords’ committee composed wholly, or even mainly, of bishops.49 To do so would risk breaching the principle that the only body capable of conferring with the Commons was the House of Lords. Consequently, when the representatives of both Houses finally met, the Lords’ committee consisted of sixteen lay peers and just fourteen bishops.50

Several conferences between the Commons and the bishops (albeit in the company of lay peers) ensued, and in mid May James bestowed upon these gatherings the royal mark of approval by having them take place in the Council chamber at Whitehall. However on 4 June Convocation, alarmed that the Commons ‘should deal in any matters of religion’, informed the Commons through Bishop Bancroft that unless these negotiations with the bishops ceased it would appeal to James, ‘who had given them authority to deal only in these matters’.51 Outraged at being told that matters of religion lay outside its competence, the Commons demanded to see a copy of Convocation’s letters of authority, but the quarrel was pursued no further, as it was clear that the bishops were now withdrawing their support. At one fell stroke the church’s representative assembly had destroyed the Commons’ ability to deal directly with the episcopate.

Despite this setback, some Members hoped that the experiment of conferring with the bishops would be revived. During a debate on the deprivation of godly ministers in March 1606, Sir William Strode, seconded by John Hoskins, proposed ‘that a conference may be desired of the Lords the bishops to understand if they be justly or unjustly put out’. This motion was taken so seriously that it was put to the question, but it evidently failed to find favour.52 Thereafter the Commons struggled to find an acceptable manner of conferring with representatives of the church. During the debate on the pluralism bill in May 1614, the privy councillor and former private secretary to the king, Sir Thomas Lake, proposed – perhaps on behalf of the king – that the Commons should confer with Convocation. However, the House remained just as hostile to conferring with Convocation in 1614 as it had in 1604, and once again it was countered that the Commons should confer with the bishops instead. Echoes of this same debate continued to be heard as late as 1621.53

Requesting a conference with the Lords

Whenever the Commons wished to confer with the Lords messengers were dispatched to the upper House. Those chosen were often Members of some stature rather than mere novices.54 Normally it was thought sufficient to send only a couple of messengers, but in March 1604 twenty-four Members were dispatched to request a conference on wardship.55 Any Member who wished to accompany the messengers was entitled to do so.56 The precise wording of the message was often left to whichever messenger was detailed to address the Lords. This normally posed little difficulty, but in 1607 Sir Edward Hoby sparked off a quarrel between both Houses when, out of his own ‘fantasticality’, as Sir Thomas Wilson put it, he referred to the Members for the Cinque Ports as ‘barons of the Commons House of Parliament’, a phrase that caused the peers to bridle.57 Individual Members of the Commons were not meant to confer with the Lords in private, and in April 1604 Sir Thomas Crompton landed himself in trouble when he revealed that he had spoken to a number of bishops about the bill to reform commissary courts without permission.58 However, during the 1620s it was perfectly commonplace for Members to confer with peers in private.59

At the start of the seventeenth century neither House had refused to confer with the other within living memory. In 1593, it was true, the Commons, enjoying the sole right to grant supply, had initially declined to debate the subsidy with the Lords on the grounds that to do so would be ‘a derogation of the liberties of this House’, but after reflection and under pressure it had relented.60 Provided that each House accepted that the other was discussing legitimate business, the convention that they should meet on request was never seriously in doubt. In 1604, however, the Commons refused a meeting to discuss the Buckinghamshire election dispute. Elections, the peers were informed, were matters for the lower House alone and besides, the issue concerned had already been decided. To James, who was anxious to suppress the return of Sir Francis Goodwin, this refusal was intolerable and therefore he ordered the Commons to confer with the peers. Faced with such a demand, the Commons had little alternative but to comply.61 It did not again refuse outright to meet the Lords for the rest of the reign. In late November 1606 the Lords, having ‘expected the House would have yielded to a conference’, admittedly declared that ‘they were not well satisfied’ after the Commons failed to respond adequately to a request to discuss the Instrument of the Union. However it had not been the Commons’ intention to rebuff the Lords, and after explaining the purpose behind its original answer the House readily agreed to confer.62

Although the Commons continued to meet the Lords on request for the rest of James’s reign, on one notable occasion the same courtesy was not extended to the Commons by the Lords. This was in May 1614, when the Commons asked to meet the peers to discuss impositions. A majority in the Lords, however, judged that impositions were a matter for the royal prerogative, and that the king’s right to levy them was not open for discussion. On 24 May, after a debate lasting two days, the Lords resolved not to confer.63 The earl of Southampton, whose allies in the Commons included the influential Member for Rochester Sir Edwin Sandys, was horrified that the peers should refuse to meet the Commons ‘to hear the just complaints of the people in a matter of right, as they conceive’, but his concerns were brushed aside by the lord chamberlain, the earl of Suffolk, who assured his fellow peers that ‘our refusal will make them surcease their suit’.64 Suffolk’s confident assertion that ‘we may send our refusal in such a manner as shall have no bitterness’ proved to be wholly misplaced, however, for on learning how the Lords had voted, the House launched a bitter attack on Bishop Neile, who had reportedly said that were the peers to confer, they would hear nothing but mutiny and sedition. In the short term this incident did much to hasten the collapse of the Parliament, but in the longer term it also left a legacy of bitterness: at the start of the next Parliament, in February 1621, Sir James Perrot advised the House against conferring with the Lords on any matter, for ‘if they deny us again, a prejudice’.65 It may have been out of sensitivity to these wounded feelings that during the very first conference of the 1621 Parliament the Lords not only agreed to join the Commons in petitioning the king to take firmer actions against Catholic priests and recusants, but also praised the lower House’s ‘care of religion’.66

Although the Lords proved anxious not to rebuff the Commons again, they inadvertently caused offence once more in December 1621. On announcing that they had decided to reject the monopolies bill, which had originated in the lower House, the peers offered to discuss a replacement measure, as they professed to ‘like well the scope and end’ of the original bill. The Commons, however, was offended that the Lords had rejected an important piece of legislation without consulting the House first. ‘They have ... cast it away without conference with us’ complained Sir Edward Coke, and it would ‘hardly stand with the precedents of this House for us to confer with their lordships ... on a new bill for the same purpose’. He accused the peers of showing ‘disrespect’ to the Commons, whose Members had shown ‘all due respect to them’. Sir Nathaniel Rich agreed, and like Coke he recommended that the Commons should reject the Lords’ offer. However a majority in the House, perhaps mindful of earlier events, was unwilling to go that far, and accordingly the Lords were told that the Commons would consider what answer to give them ‘in convenient time’.67

Following these events neither House rebuffed the other until the final stages of the Petition of Right. On 23 May 1628 the Lords proposed that a select committee composed of specially chosen Members of both Houses should hammer out the remaining sources of disagreement over the Petition. The Commons baulked at this suggestion, which was condemned by Sir Edward Coke as being ‘as dangerous a thing as ever came in Parliament’. Were the House to delegate the power to iron out the remaining difficulties to a handful of its Members, he warned, it ran the risk of agreeing, through its representatives, to ‘new propositions and declarations’ that might serve to weaken or even nullify the effect of the Petition. Either the Lords should accept the Petition as it stood, he added, or they should declare themselves dissatisfied, in which case the Petition would be made to ‘sleep’.68 By refusing to confer, the Commons was playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship. Yet, far from precipitating the collapse of the Parliament, or causing serious offence, as the Lords had done both in 1614 and 1621, the Commons’ point blank refusal paid off, as shortly thereafter the Lords accepted the text of the Petition without further alteration.

Conference committees

Whenever the Commons conferred with the Lords it appointed a committee for the purpose. The size of this committee varied from one meeting to another and was determined, indirectly, by the Lords. This was because, as the clerk of the Commons noted in 1604, it was ‘an ancient rule of the House’ that the size of the House’s deputation was ‘always double that of the Lords’.69 Some contemporaries believed that treble the number had sometimes been the ‘ancient use’,70 but the practice almost invariably followed during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was to double the size of the Lords’ deputation. A rare exception was the conference committee of 14 April 1604, to which the Commons named 100 Members even though the Lords had announced they would be sending just forty. The occasion for this departure from customary practice was the opening meeting on the Union, and the change was probably intended to signal to the Lords the seriousness with which the Commons regarded the proposed merger of the two kingdoms.71

So far as is known, conference committees were appointed in precisely the same way as bill committees: that is to say, Members called out the names of those whom they wished to be included, and these were then recorded in the Journal. However, on 4 May 1604 the Commons adopted a more rigorous approach to the appointment of the 20-strong ‘select’ committee instructed to confer with the Lords about drafting a bill regarding the commissioners of the Union. The name of each prospective member of the committee was read aloud, presumably by the clerk, ‘and a several question [was] made upon his name’.72 The Speaker was prohibited from belonging to conference committees, just as he was barred from bill committees, unless the intended conference was with the king.73

In theory only the members of the conference committee were entitled to attend the conference, but in practice those who had not been named to the committee also expected to come along, in the same way that they did to bill committees to which they were not formally appointed. This perhaps explains why in 1621 the novice Member Charles Howard, trying to make sense of Commons’ procedure, noted that ‘it is always the order of the House that there be at the least twice as many (and as many more as will) of the Lower when they go to the Lords’.74 It may also help to explain why one commentator, writing in about 1640, believed that the number of Members at a conference ‘is usually treble the number of the Lords’.75

Shortly after the opening of the 1604 session, the Commons resolved to enforce the rule that only committee members should attend conferences after complaint was made ‘that sundry other of both Houses, besides the committee themselves, were present’.76 However, on 4 April Sir Francis Bacon was obliged to report that at the previous day’s conference, ‘though the committees employed were a number specially deputed and selected, yet … the Lords admitted all burgesses without distinction’.77 When, later that same month, the Commons complained to the Lords about overcrowding at conferences, the peers replied that this was the Commons’ own fault because, ‘in meeting, they do exceed the number of the committees, which the Lords do not’.78 By the mid 1620s, the Commons’ expectation was not that named Members alone should attend conferences, but that those who had not been appointed to the conference committee should allow those who had been to take their places before them. When, in March 1624, there was an unseemly rush by all and sundry to the conference venue the culprits were brought back and reprimanded. The formal members of the committee were then required to file out first after their names had been called.79

Each conference committee was led by at least one spokesman. Normally the House appointed the spokesmen, but sometimes this task devolved upon the committee charged with planning the conference. The number of spokesmen varied depending on the extent and complexity of the business in hand. It was not unusual for two or three Members to be deputed, but ahead of the Union conference of 28 April 1604 no less than twenty-six Members were assigned speaking roles.80 Where only one spokesman was chosen he might be afforded some assistance. When Sir Edwin Sandys was instructed ‘to propound to the Lords as he hath delivered’ in July 1610, five other Members were ordered ‘to assist and help him’.81 However arrangements like this did not necessarily reflect well on the spokesman concerned. When Sir Jerome Horsey suggested that assistants be appointed to help Sir Edward Coke at a conference with the Lords in November 1621, Sir Edward Giles declared that the task of speaking should be left solely to Coke, ‘and not to distrust him’.82

Members chosen as spokesmen were not normally permitted to decline the honour. When Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Henry Montagu tried to excuse themselves in December 1606, their appointments were, ‘notwithstanding, ordered to stand’, although two other Members were instructed ‘to join them in the same charge’.83 In April 1624 William Noye explained that he was incapable of speaking at a conference on the monopolies bill ‘for that he was a stranger to the bill’, but his excuse was brushed aside by Sir Edward Coke, who declared that he ‘would have his company’ as he ‘was always armed, and carried bibliothecam in capite’.84 Most of the time the Commons showed little outward appreciation of the services performed by its spokesmen, but after one particular conference with the Lords in May 1628 ‘especial thanks’ were given to John Glanville and Sir Henry Marten ‘with acclamation and putting off hats’.85


While either House could request a conference with the other, only the Lords were entitled to choose the venue. The Lords offered to waive this right just once, in February 1606, by way of soothing the injured feelings of the Commons, as they had criticized the behaviour of John Hare at a conference twelve days earlier. However the Commons, prompted by Humphrey Winch, deferred to the peers as usual.86 The peers never proved willing to surrender their right permanently, even though Nicholas Fuller claimed in 1607 that medieval practice dictated that whichever House desired a conference should send members to the other.87

Meetings normally took place in the Painted Chamber, situated within the Palace of Westminster.88 Built in the early thirteenth century, the Painted Chamber was a large, rectangular building, eighty feet six inches long and twenty-six feet wide. Despite having once served as the Commons’ own chamber, in the early seventeenth century it was an anteroom to the House of Lords, which it adjoined, being frequently employed as a committee room or as a waiting room for messengers sent by the Commons. Indeed, to peers as well as to others, the Painted Chamber was often known as ‘the outward chamber of the upper House’.89 Access for the Commons was afforded through a door situated in the south-west corner which led off the Stone Lobby, while the Lords entered through a doorway near the south-east corner, opposite the entrance to their own lobby.

During the 1580s and 1590s the Council Chamber in Whitehall Palace was also occasionally pressed into service.90 Like the Painted Chamber this room was not neutral territory, as the Lords frequently employed it for committees.91 Its use as a conference venue did not long survive the death of Elizabeth. However during the 1604 session it hosted parliamentary conferences on three occasions. The first was on 3 April, when representatives from the lower House handed the Lords the Commons’ reasons for defending the election of Sir Francis Goodwin.92 In effect, this was a meeting between the Commons and the Privy Council, most of whose members had seats in the Lords and to which body the Commons had been ordered by the king to report.93 The venue was significant, for by choosing to meet the Commons in its own chamber the Privy Council was signalling its support for Goodwin’s rival, the privy councillor Sir John Fortescue.

The second occasion on which the Council Chamber was used in 1604 was in early May, when it hosted two meetings to consider complaints against purveyance.94 Once again, the Privy Council was so clearly behind the choice of venue that Pauline Croft has described the second of these meetings, held on 8 May, as nothing less than a ‘conference with the Privy Council … in the guise of a joint committee of the Lords and Commons’.95 The third time conferences between representatives of both Houses took place in the Council Chamber followed the direct intervention of the king. On 17 May James instructed that the conference scheduled to take place in the Painted Chamber later that day to discuss religious reform be switched to the Council Chamber because he ‘had a purpose, after the conference, to use some speech to the committee’.96 At least three further conferences on the same subject were held in the Council Chamber over the next eighteen days. 97 There is no evidence that the king attended any of these meetings, and since James left London for Greenwich on 31 May he must certainly have missed the final gathering on 4 June.98 However, by allowing the conference committee to continue meeting at Whitehall after 17 May, James left open the possibility that he might call by.

Although the two were probably unconnected, the relatively heavy use of the Council Chamber in 1604 coincided with growing dissatisfaction in the Commons over the suitability of the Painted Chamber as the customary conference venue. On 28 April 1604 the Commons condemned the Painted Chamber as ‘too strait and not convenient’, and requested that ‘some other’ room be found instead.99 On the face of it this criticism was surprising, as the Painted Chamber was the largest undivided space in the Palace of Westminster,100 and was only four feet narrower than the Commons’ own chamber. However, whereas in the Commons Members made good use of the rectangular shape of their chamber by sitting opposite one another along its length, this was not possible at conferences, at which it was customary for Members to stand across the width of the room facing the eastern end, where the peers were seated at a table near the door leading to the Lords’ chamber.101 Perhaps because relations between the two Houses had recently been severely strained by the dispute over the Buckinghamshire election, the Lords were unmoved by the Commons’ complaint.102 ‘The inconvenience of the usual place of meeting’, declared the peers, was wholly down to the Commons, which habitually failed to restrict its deputations to those Members formally appointed to the conference committee.103 Consequently, although conferences on purveyance took place in the Council Chamber in early May, another, on the Union, was held in the Painted Chamber as usual.104

Pressure of numbers on the Painted Chamber increased rather than decreased thereafter. The reason was not primarily the growth of the Commons’ membership – from 478 in 1604 to 493 in 1629 – but the emergence of the committee of the whole House, and the corresponding practice whereby grand committees of Both Houses met. The numbers involved in such gatherings – as many as six hundred Parliament-men and legal assistants all told – was immense, and the overcrowding was often made worse by interlopers who, taking advantage of the press of people, often managed to worm their way in.105 However as late as 1621 the Lords continued to bury their heads in the sand by insisting that the problem of overcrowding would be solved if only the Commons limited the size of its conference committees.106

In demanding that ‘some other’ room be provided, the Commons may have been casting envious eyes on either the Great Hall or on the Banqueting House which, as has already been noted, was commonly used by the king to receive deputations from one or both Houses. It was certainly to the Great Hall that on 24 February 1624 the Lords turned when, out of the blue, they dropped the Painted Chamber as the venue for that afternoon’s conference between the entire membership of both Houses on the grounds that it was ‘too strait’ for the purpose. The Great Hall, explained the Lords, was ‘better accommodated’ for the ‘ease and hearing’ of the Commons than the Painted Chamber,107 and it was vitally important that everyone should hear what was to be said at this meeting, as Buckingham and the two secretaries of state intended to lay out in detail the history of the Spanish Match and explain why the Parliament had been summoned. This was a surprising volte face, for the Lords had now conceded that the Painted Chamber, at least in respect of conferences between the committees of both Houses, was entirely unsuitable. However if anyone in the Commons expected that conferences would now regularly be held at Whitehall they were to be sorely disappointed, as the Lords quickly reverted to convening meetings in the Painted Chamber. This was galling, but to have complained publicly might have jeopardized the harmony that then existed between the Lords and Commons, who were broadly united in their desire to break off the Spanish Match.

Tension only resurfaced at Oxford in August 1625, when relations between the two Houses deteriorated as a result of the handling of the war with Spain and the role played by Buckingham. When the Lords requested that a conference be held in the room dubbed ‘the Painted Chamber’ for the purposes of the Parliament (namely the south wing of the Picture Gallery, situated on the top floor of Bodleian Old Schools quadrangle), the Commons criticized the venue on the grounds that the place chosen was ‘too weak to bear so great a multitude’. Emboldened by Sir Nathaniel Rich, who revived Fuller’s claim that in medieval times the Lords had not automatically determined conference locations but had ‘come down into this House to acquaint us with business’, the House declared that it had arranged for St. Mary’s, the university church, to be used instead. This was a direct challenge to the authority of the upper House, but the Lords, anxious not to jeopardize the king’s chances of obtaining additional subsidies, agreed to change the location. Nevertheless, they denied that the original venue was dangerous and preserved their right to choose by selecting Christ Church Hall rather than St. Mary’s church.108

For Members of the Commons, the suitability of the Painted Chamber at Westminster would undoubtedly have been improved had seating been provided or permission been given to keep their hats on. Instead, they were expected to stand bareheaded throughout conferences in deference to their social superiors, the peers, who sat at a table wearing their hats. The only Members entitled to sit at conferences were those assigned to act as reporters, as they needed to take notes. At Oxford in August 1625 ‘a little form was left at the upper end of the table’ for them.109

Under Elizabeth the discomfort of standing bareheaded at conferences had never become an issue, probably because conferences tended to be held only infrequently. The 1601 Parliament, for instance, which lasted three months, witnessed only six meetings between the Lords and the Commons, although five of these gatherings were held within the space of a week.110 Too many conferences, argued Francis Tate on the eve of the 1581 Parliament, tended to prolong a session and might enable the peers to terrify Members of the Commons, thereby undermining the lower House’s ability to reach decisions freely and without fear.111 During the early years of James’s reign, however, the number of conferences increased, mainly because there were far fewer privy councillors in the Commons to guide government business. In May 1604 alone the Commons received no less than ten reports from conference spokesmen.112 Both the Union and the Great Contract generated large numbers of conferences. During the spring session of 1610, for example, twenty such meetings were held, all but four of them on the Contract. It is true that the rate of conferences was not excessive by Elizabethan standards – the twenty conferences held between February and July 1610 averaged roughly one a week after taking into account the two weeks’ Easter recess – but meetings tended to be clustered together rather than evenly spread throughout the session. Seven of the twenty conferences held in the spring session of 1610 took place in July, for instance.

Meetings not only increased in frequency; they also became far longer. In the past, it had been customary to iron out most of the problems contained in a bill before the House conferred with the Lords, but now, complained Edward Alford in March 1607, ‘the whole body of the business’ is ‘discoursed and debated at conferences, which maketh the attendance long’.113 A perfect example of what was meant is provided by the conference of 16 April 1628 on the liberties of the subject, at which Sir Edward Coke, Selden and Littleton spent five hours locked in debate with Lord Keeper Coventry and Attorney-General Heath. Even in the absence of debate, conferences could drag on interminably. Salisbury took two hours to set out the king’s financial situation and demands in February 1610.114 Long standing, complained Nicholas Fuller in 1607, was ‘almost impossible for the strongest body to endure, considering the length of the conferences and the crowding and thronging there’.115 The pain of standing for lengthy periods in high temperatures was said to have been ‘intolerable’,116 and Edward Alford was probably not exaggerating when he claimed that ‘divers of this House have, after conference, found themselves sick and lame long after’.117 In May 1626 a conference which had already lasted four hours was cut short because those present were ‘wearied with the heat’ and ‘thronged’.118

Discontent first surfaced in April 1604, when the Commons not only complained that the Painted Chamber was too narrow but that it was a place ‘full of dis-ease’. Two years later, in May 1606, Fuller grumbled that ‘we stand long’.119 However, matters did not reach boiling point until March 1607, shortly after Sir Francis Bacon reported a conference of such length and complexity that he was obliged to spread his account over two mornings.120 The Commons, angry at being forced to stand for so long, appointed a committee to investigate.121 Quite apart from the frequency and length of conferences, many Members were aggrieved at the inferiority to the Lords that standing necessarily implied. They pointed out that the commissioners of the Union, drawn from the members of both Houses, had quite properly sat together as equals, for on every commission of the peace ‘the meanest gentlemen … sits on the same bench’ wearing a hat ‘with the greatest earl’. It was unjust that the Commons, each of whose Members was ‘a body representative, either of a whole country or a borough at the least’, should be treated as inferior to the Lords, whose members do ‘represent but themselves … how great and honourable soever’ any of them might be.122 However, the Lords, perhaps irritated that the lower House was unwilling to comply with the king’s wishes in respect of the Union, were no more willing to listen to these complaints than they had been to respond to criticism of the choice of venue. A message sent to the upper House, apparently informally, requesting that the Commons be granted ‘more ease’ at conferences, was not even deemed worthy of reply.123

After 1607 most Members gave up complaining, at least publicly. Ill feeling nevertheless remained. When the Commons’ spokesmen were criticized by their colleagues in March 1621 for failing to identify at a recent conference those responsible for recommending to the king the granting of various patents, Sir Robert Phelips declared that the omission might have been the result of forgetfulness ‘or want of ease in standing’. Eight months later Sir Francis Barrington, in his early sixties, ‘moveth for some course to be taken for avoiding crowding at the meeting, whereby much disease and hurt’, after learning that the lord keeper had been instructed to deliver a message from the king to both Houses in the Painted Chamber.124 As late as 1660 the former clerk of the parliaments, Henry Elsynge, remarked that ‘I have heard it often questioned whether the Commons did sit anciently at conferences with the Lords’.125

The widespread pain and discomfort experienced at conferences might easily have led to problems with attendance, but in fact the Commons never encountered the difficulties that constantly plagued its bill committees. On the contrary, the enthusiasm with which Members trooped off to conferences was often equalled only by their eagerness to ensure a good vantage point ahead of their colleagues, as those who made a dash for the Painted Chamber in March 1624 after the Lords requested an immediate meeting demonstrates.126 During the 1620s at least, conferences gave rise to moments of high drama that were, despite the discomfort involved, simply not to be missed. In May 1626 the Painted Chamber was so jammed with Members eager to witness the presentation of the impeachment charges against Buckingham that the serjeant was sent to fetch back those who, unable to get in, were blocking the doors.127

Timing and planning

Just as the Lords always determined the venue, so they invariably chose the time of meeting. This was the case even if it was the Commons that requested the conference.128 Unlike the choice of venue, though, the Commons was free to reject the time suggested by the Lords if this conflicted with its own arrangements. When the Lords asked to confer ‘presently in the Painted Chamber on matters of great importance’ in March 1626, the House replied that, having ‘some special occasions that hinder our meeting for the present’, it would happily meet that afternoon instead. The Lords were not offended by this polite refusal, nor could they be, having asked to meet immediately only if the Commons found it convenient.129 In May 1628 the Lords again asked to confer straight away, but on being informed that the Commons was not yet ready to meet they were ‘pleased to alter the time’ to the following afternoon.130 Inconvenience was not the only reason that the time offered by the Lords might be rejected. When the Lords sent word on Saturday 5 May 1604 that they desired to confer about purveyance the following afternoon, they received the reply that the Commons would not agree to meet on a Sunday.131

The Commons did not always react well to being asked for an immediate conference. In April 1606 the Lords suggested meeting either straight away or that afternoon to discuss ecclesiastical matters, whereupon Sir Robert Wingfield protested that the peers’ request was intended to ‘surprise us of a sudden’.132 In matters as important and as controversial as church reform, Wingfield clearly expected ample notice of any meeting so as to be able to plan thoroughly for it. In this he was by no means unique, as conferences on key issues such as church reform, the Union or the liberties of the subject were frequently planned in great detail beforehand. Normal practice was to appoint a committee to identify key points and report its recommendations to the House for approval. Sometimes planning committees would also nominate conference spokesmen and allocate particular parts to them, although this task might be left to the House. A typical case was that of the committee for preparing a conference on the Union in April 1604. On 27 April it reported having succeeded in reducing the business to several heads and that its members had ‘assigned several parts to several persons, of several qualities, as they conceived fit’.133 Conference committees were sometimes furnished with written instructions as a result.134

Some of the most thorough planning of the period occurred ahead of the anticipated conference on impositions in May 1614. During the interval between 5 May, when it was decided to seek a meeting with the Lords, and 21 May, when the request was actually sent, the Commons’ planning committee was immensely busy. Indeed, a week elapsed before it made its preliminary report, and at least one further meeting of the committee was deemed necessary in order to allocate parts, ‘that so nothing may be omitted’. In addition, the records in the Tower were searched, the customs books in the Exchequer were inspected, and letters were dispatched to Sir Robert Cotton and two other private individuals regarding documents in their hands.135 After all this detailed preparation, it is scarcely to be wondered at that the Commons was angry when the Lords refused to meet.

Not all conferences were as well planned as this though, and some were barely planned at all. In June 1607 Thomas Wentworth, Member for Oxford, confessed that at a conference on the Hostile Laws bill the Commons had ‘met with the Lords unprovided to answer them’.136 In November 1606 Sir Edwin Sandys urged the House to debate the Instrument of the Union point by point before conferring with the Lords, for in recent conferences ‘we have rather lost ground commonly than gained’.137 After requesting a conference with the Lords on the Great Contract in February 1610, the Commons spent the next three days reading bills and considering grievances. The morning before the conference the Speaker was so alarmed at the lack of preparation that he was compelled to remind the Commons that it had still not appointed spokesmen or decided their remit.138 In the short term this admonition seems to have had a salutary effect, and the next conference, on 8 March, was planned more thoroughly.139 However, by May 1610 the Commons had slipped into bad habits again, for on reporting a conference on the Great Contract John Hoskins declined to summarize some of the speeches made by the Commons’ spokesmen because they were ‘dismembered and disjointed’ and ‘would prove nothing but froth’.140

Poor conference planning seems to have plagued the 1621 Parliament. On 7 March an anxious Sir Robert Phelips proposed to defer the following day’s conference on the patentees on the grounds that they would ‘not be ready’, but his concerns were brushed aside by Sir Edward Coke, who argued that the House already had sufficient grounds on which to proceed against the principal patentee Sir Giles Mompesson, and that it was unnecessary to seek out more. However, the next day’s conference was such a fiasco that on 9 March Edward Alford, declaring that he had warned his colleagues before of ‘haste’, said that he had never seen a Parliament ‘so out of order’. Two months later Sir Edwin Sandys condemned the preparations for the opening conference on the scandalous remarks uttered by the Catholic barrister Edward Floyd as ‘a mere confusion’, for at the appointed hour of meeting ‘no man’ knew ‘what he was to speak’.141

There was a limit to how far any conference could be planned, of course, because to a considerable degree the Commons was reliant upon the verbal dexterity and learning of its spokesmen to accomplish its ends. Once the House had agreed the points that were to be made and the roles to be played by each speaker, there was nothing for it but to rely upon the judgment of its spokesmen to know when and how best to intervene during the subsequent debate. Indeed, the House frequently made this point crystal clear to those entrusted with managing conferences on its behalf. Thus the spokesmen appointed to speak in March 1607 on the status of the Scots naturalized by France were instructed ‘to speak interchangeably, as there shall be occasion, to maintain any former doubt or opinion delivered by the committee’, while in April 1628 the spokesmen for the conference on the liberties of the subject were given ‘power to speak, as occasion [shall arise], to make good what [had] formerly [been] propounded there’.142 Any spokesman who failed to carry out the orders of the House was consequently liable to be severely censured. In March 1621 Sir Thomas Roe declared that ‘the order for mentioning the referees’ had been ‘so broken’ by the Commons’ spokesmen ‘as [it] much dishonoureth the House’. Had it not been for the efforts of Sir Dudley Digges and Sir Edward Coke, added William Mallory, ‘the business concerning Sir Giles Mompesson … had fallen to the ground’.143

Conference procedure

Before the mid 1620s at least, Members of the Commons were meant to turn up at conferences ahead of the peers, who were required, by their standing orders, to arrive in a body rather than singly so as not to detract from the ‘gravity’ of their House.144 However, theory and practice did not always coincide: in December 1601 a deputation from the Commons arrived at the Painted Chamber to find the Lords already seated.145 Moreover, the growing problem of overcrowding at conferences, fuelled by the emergence of the committee of the whole House, meant that the arrangement whereby the Commons arrived first became increasingly unsatisfactory, at least from the point of view of the Lords, as it was often difficult for peers to reach their seats. On one occasion, in November 1621, a delegation from the Lords entered the Painted Chamber only to find it ‘so full of the lower House … that divers of the Lords could get no place, but were fain to stand at their best ease’. 146 The peers were naturally unwilling to tolerate the indignity of standing themselves, and at Oxford in August 1625 their representatives ‘were set in the room before the Commons came’, even though this was ‘not according to the ancient order’. Edward, Lord Montagu, shrugged off this departure from normal practice in his parliamentary diary, ‘for being at Oxford, there is no precedent to be made of these small errors’.147 At Westminster the following spring, however, ahead of the meeting at which the Commons began to lay its impeachment charges against Buckingham, the peers resolved to enter the Painted Chamber first, and to keep the doors shut until they were all seated, ‘to avoid the great thronging and keeping out of their places which commonly the Commoners did at such great meetings’.148

In theory the spokesmen of whichever House had initiated a conference were expected to speak first, although it was customary that whenever the Lords were the initiating party a spokesman from the Commons should announce that the representatives of the lower House were ‘ready to hear their lordships’ pleasure’.149 However, when the Lords asked to confer with the Commons in February 1621 regarding the petition that was shortly to be presented to the king, the lord chancellor proposed that the Commons’ representatives should be invited to speak first because the petition had originated in the lower House.150 Once debate had begun, the only constraints on conference spokesmen, other than the customary social courtesies, were the limits placed upon them by their respective Houses. It was nevertheless regarded as poor form to address one another through written messages when standing face to face. ‘I am very sorry after so great [a] disputation’, declared Lord Admiral Nottingham in May 1610, ‘that we deliver messages in writing, which ever since I have been a Parliament man was not the manner of either House’.151

From time to time the representatives of one of the two Houses would ask their counterparts to be allowed to consult together privately. The Lords would put their heads together at the table or withdraw into a corner, but for Commons’ deputations, being at least double the size of the peers’, it was permissible (at least before the emergence of conferences involving the grand committees of both Houses) to leave the Painted Chamber briefly. Midway through one meeting in December 1601, for instance, the Commons’ conference committee ‘went forth into another room, and there conferred what speech or answer to make’.152 Difficulty arose only in respect of the Lords’ legal assistants, who often attended conferences but were not members of the upper House. The Lords expected, where necessary, to consult these officials privately, but the Commons frowned upon their presence, and during the first Jacobean Parliament at least the legal assistants were ‘entreated to withdraw into another room’ so that they remained close at hand.153 However, following Sir Edward Coke’s resumption of his Commons career, there was a marked softening of attitude. When Edward Alford demanded to know in March 1621 why the Commons should be obliged to ‘plead and confer’ with the Lords’ assistants, Coke, a former lord chief justice and the greatest common lawyer of his age, retorted that he did not fear to confer ‘with any’.154 In 1628 Alford again objected to allowing either the judges or the attorney-general to participate in a conference later that day on the liberties of the subject, ‘for they are not members of the Lords House’. At this Sir Robert Phelips remarked that the Commons was ‘so confident of the honesty of those gentlemen that are to argue for us’, among whom was Coke, that there was no need to fear ‘any contingency’.155 Nevertheless, at the conference later that day, Coke, in deference to Alford, protested at the appointment of Attorney-General Heath as one of the Lords’ principal speakers. This was little more than a token objection however, as Coke then added that he would ‘rather break order than defer the business’.156

Spokesmen for the Commons were supposed to be given room by their colleagues to discharge their duty. In the cramped conditions of the Painted Chamber this was, of course, easier said than done, but in May 1628 the House threatened to take the names of anyone who ‘shall hinder it’.157 Commons’ spokesmen were not at liberty, as they were in their own House, to express their personal opinions, but were expected to uphold the position adopted by the Commons as a whole, even if they did not share it. Consequently, in 1604 Sir Francis Bacon, speaking at conferences on the Buckinghamshire election dispute and the Union, was obliged to argue in favour of positions that he himself had previously opposed.158 At least one Member found this constraint disagreeable, for in March 1607 Serjeant Hetley asked to be excused from acting as a spokesman at a forthcoming conference on the Union on the grounds that ‘he was directly against the matter in opinion’. Coming from a lawyer, whose profession required him to speak to other men’s briefs, this request was perhaps surprising. More remarkable still was the fact that Hetley’s request was granted, for as has been seen a Member chosen as a spokesman was not normally permitted to decline to serve. Henceforward, it was ruled, no man was to be employed as a spokesman if he did not hold the opinion he was required to espouse.159

Although conferences were generally courteous affairs, it was not unknown for the peers to rebuke the Commons’ representatives. In June 1607 the earl of Northampton upbraided the Commons after the lower House requested that both Houses jointly petition the king in support of those merchants who complained of mistreatment in Spain. The Commons, he declared, was ‘not fit to handle matters of state’, and to petition the king on this matter would be tantamount to saying that James ‘did so sleep in the sobs of his people that it were needful to wake him by a Parliament’.160 Irksome though it must have been to be lectured in this fashion, the Commons took such collective criticism on the chin. However, it was a different story when the peers found fault with John Hare for his enthusiastic denunciation of the evils associated with purveyance at a conference in February 1606. Incensed that one of its spokesmen had been singled out for criticism, the Commons immediately cleared Hare of the charge of misconduct. While Speaker Phelips privately believed that Hare had behaved like ‘an unconsiderate firebrand’, most Members appear to have agreed with Robert Bowyer, who remarked in his diary that Hare’s speech had been ‘well composed’. They also felt that if their spokesmen were to be subjected to such censure, few would be willing to undertake the duty of speaking in future. The Lords, declared an irate Sir Maurice Berkeley, should desist from reprimanding the Commons’ spokesmen in future, or else ‘I could wish our conferences should not be so frequent as they have been this session’. However, once tempers had cooled, it was deemed prudent to communicate these concerns verbally and in a ‘mildly tempered’ fashion to the peers at the next conference rather than to fire off an angry message in writing.161

Ahead of a conference that it requested, the lower House sometimes sent the Lords an outline of the points that it wished to discuss. In February 1621, for example, the Lords were sent five headings which the Commons proposed as the basis for a joint petition from both Houses. However, these were sent only after the Lords had agreed to confer rather than with the messengers who requested the meeting, as one Member had suggested.162 Conference committees dispatched by the Commons had no authority to create subcommittees. When the Lords requested that the Commons bestow this authority on its committee for conferring on the informers’ bill in April 1621, the Commons initially agreed to give ‘such power as is desired’. The following day, however, it was the House, not the committee, which appointed the subcommittee.163

Reporting back to the House

Following a conference it was expected that a member of the conference committee should provide the House with a detailed verbal report of proceedings, which would then be summarized by the clerk and entered into the Journal. It seems likely that it was normal practice for reporters to stand by the clerk’s chair while delivering their reports. Certainly Sir Francis Bacon did so on 27 April 1604, when he reported a conference with the Lords on the Union.164 The Commons usually nominated reporters itself, but in March 1626 six Members required to take notes at a meeting were instructed to choose a reporter from among themselves.165 Members selected to serve as reporters often also acted as spokesmen, which explains how in April 1628 Sir Edward Coke ended up reporting his own speech to the House.166 However, on 27 March 1604 Bacon reported the previous day’s conference on wardship even though, as he himself observed, he had been ‘no actor’ in its proceedings.167

It was not permissible to refuse to serve as a reporter. On being called upon to report a conference on the Union in February 1607, Attorney-General Hobart ‘laboured to excuse himself by a great cold he had taken’, whereupon the House, dissatisfied, made him deliver his report anyway. One month later William Holt requested that two other men perform his duty as a reporter, but having been seen to take notes diligently at the conference he too was not allowed to shirk his responsibility.168 Normally reporters were appointed ahead of a conference, but on 27 April 1610, the day after a Commons’ committee heard Salisbury reject the House’s offer to compound for wardship alone, fourteen Members were ordered ‘to consider of the report, and assign a reporter’.169 From time to time, the Commons forgot to appoint a reporter altogether. In April 1604 Sir Francis Bacon was called upon to relay the outcome of the conference with the judges, whereupon he declared, quite correctly, ‘that he was not warranted to make any report’.170 Three years later, Bacon declared that he had no authority to relay the proceedings of part of a conference, as these concerned the House’s attempt to persuade the Lords to join in petitioning the king on behalf of English merchants mistreated by the Spanish, and ‘I was neither nominated a reporter nor appointed a speaker’. However, having taken notes on this part of the proceedings ‘for my own provision and store’ he was ‘ready for your better service’ to discharge this duty if the House so wished.171

In general a day or two elapsed between a conference taking place and the report being made so as to allow time for the report to be compiled. This was particularly needful where the debate to be reported was complex or the conference had been of long duration. On 16 February 1610, the day after Salisbury spent two hours laying before the Commons the state of the royal finances, those entrusted with the task of reporting were granted permission to defer making the report until the following morning, as the lord treasurer’s speech ‘was of that length and stood of so many parts’ that they could not compile the report any faster.172 On 26 February 1624, two days after Prince Charles and the duke of Buckingham laid before both Houses the complex history of the Spanish Match, Secretary Calvert secured a postponement of the report of their relation until the following morning on the grounds that ‘the business is so large ... that those who are to report it cannot do it in so short a time’.173 Occasionally reports were ready to be delivered immediately after the conference committee returned to the House. On 26 May 1610, for instance, a conference on the recusancy bill was reported straight after the meeting took place. However, some Members may have been concerned to avoid reports being thrown together hastily. Following a conference on the Great Contract, which took place on the morning of 19 July 1610, the reporters offered to deliver their report straight away, but ‘it was much disputed whether to be this afternoon or tomorrow’.174

Under Elizabeth, and during the opening two sessions of the first Jacobean Parliament, it was the practice to appoint only one reporter per conference. However, as meetings became longer and more complex, the burden of reporting frequently became too great for one man to shoulder alone. Crisis point was reached on 28 February 1607, when Sir Francis Bacon, reporting a conference on the Union two days earlier, ran out of time, his report being ‘very long, consisting of many divisions and particulars and interlaced with much variety of argument and answer on both parts’. Bacon finished delivering his report two days later, whereupon not surprisingly he ‘prayeth the House that at other times they would use some other, and not oppress him with their favours’.175 His request evidently had a salutary effect, as the House subsequently reviewed its practice. On 12 March two Members were appointed to report a forthcoming conference on the Union while two others were assigned to report another.176 Thereafter, it became normal for long conferences to be reported by more than one Member. No less than seven Members were assigned to relate one particular conference in August 1625, though in the event the task was performed by only three of them.177 Where teams of reporters were employed, they were sometimes left to divide up the work between them. In April 1628, for instance, the Commons declared that a report on a conference on the liberties of the subject was to be made by Sir Edward Coke, Sir Dudley Digges, Edward Littleton and John Selden ‘in such sort as they shall agree among themselves’.178 Individual reporters continued to be employed, of course, particularly if they were gifted speakers like Sir Edward Coke, but whereas Bacon had been afforded only the assistance of the ‘notes and memorials’ prepared by the rest of his colleagues, a lone reporter might now be granted the help of named Members. On 8 March 1610, for example, Recorder Montagu, Serjeant Hetley and Heneage Finch were instructed to make their notes available to Richard Martin, who was required to report the conference on Dr. Cowell’s Interpreter.179

During the 1604 session the burden of reporting was not only fixed upon a single Member, but also the same individual – Sir Francis Bacon – was repeatedly chosen for this task. Over the course of the session Bacon reported no less than fourteen conferences with the Lords (two of them in one day) plus a meeting with the king;180 only nine conferences were reported by someone else.181 For the first two months of the session Bacon enjoyed a virtual monopoly as a reporter. Whether his primacy represented a departure from previous practice, or whether in fact the task of delivering reports had normally fallen to the same individual is unclear, as the Commons Journal for the period 1581 and 1601 is no longer extant. Whatever the truth may have been, Bacon did not long enjoy his near monopoly. On 21 May 1604 there was ‘some dispute’ over Bacon’s report of a conference regarding the Union, and three days later there were demands ‘that others might supply what [was] wanted in his report’.182 During the second session Sir Francis, his reputation for full and accurate reporting now clearly damaged, delivered only one conference report, although he also relayed the king’s speech of 14 May. Bacon, though he was later to complain of the burden of being a sole reporter, evidently resented being shunted aside, for after Solicitor General Doddridge delivered the first report of the session on 7 February he proceeded to repeat ‘that which Mr Solicitor reported’.183

After Bacon’s displacement no other Member assumed the unofficial mantle of prime reporter until Sir Edward Coke resumed his Commons’ career in 1621. Like Bacon, Coke was an exceptionally talented speaker, and during the opening weeks of the session he earned praise from his colleagues for the leadership he displayed, both in the Commons’ chamber and at conferences. However by 1621 he was nearly seventy and no longer at the height of his powers. In November John Chamberlain related hearing that Coke had reported one particular conference with the Lords only ‘indifferently well’, it having been ‘a hard task for so old a memory’.184 Sir Robert Phelips, on the other hand, publicly praised Coke’s performance, but then Phelips, being Coke’s close ally, may simply have been observing the necessary courtesies.185

Conference reporters were often selected from among the most outspoken and influential Members of the Commons, men who, by virtue of their sheer personality, played a leading role in the management of business. The task of directing the Commons was immensely complex, and it is to this subject that our attention now turns.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Andrew Thrush

End Notes

  • 1. Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 465-6; Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, i. 80.
  • 2. CD 1621, ii. 307-8; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 203.
  • 3. CD 1621, ii. 57-8.
  • 4. Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 446, 449.
  • 5. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 151.
  • 6. CJ, i. 582a.
  • 7. For a discussion of the paucity of councillors in the first Jacobean Parliament, see Chapter 13.
  • 8. Holles 1624, p. 33.
  • 9. CJ, i. 424a, 424b.
  • 10. Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 77.
  • 11. CJ, i. 324b, 315b; Bowyer Diary, 191.
  • 12. CJ, i. 436a.
  • 13. Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, i. 11, 92-3; ii. 77, 122.
  • 14. Ibid. i. 127.
  • 15. Bowyer Diary, 245, 249.
  • 16. CJ, i. 569b, 875b.
  • 17. Lords Procs. 1628, v. 422-3; CD 1628, iii. 409.
  • 18. Both of these episodes are discussed in more detail below.
  • 19. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 148, 150-1; CD 1621, vii. 634. Whitson’s objection appears to have been shared by Sir Edwin Sandys, although Sandys’s additional objection, that James should not be present because of the ‘length’ and the ‘tediousness’ of the business, looks to have been a smokescreen.
  • 20. CD 1621, vi. 192.
  • 21. For one example among many, see Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 15.
  • 22. LD 1621-8, p. 4.
  • 23. Hist. of the King’s Works ed. H. Colvin, iv. 330.
  • 24. CJ, i. 412b, 982b.
  • 25. Ibid. 357b; ‘CD 1604-7’, p. 111.
  • 26. LCC Survey of London, xiii. 66; S. Thurley, The Royal Palaces of Tudor Eng. 122.
  • 27. R. Cust, ‘News and Pols. in Early Seventeenth Century Eng.’, P and P, cxii. 67.
  • 28. CJ, i. 522a; LD 1621-8, p. 4. On this room, see LCC Survey of London, xiii. 67n.
  • 29. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 285. On the 1621 Garter ceremony, see Colvin, 330.
  • 30. CJ, i. 605b; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 9.
  • 31. S. Thurley, Whitehall Palace, 29, 76.
  • 32. On this brief period of harmony, see Chapter 13.
  • 33. For a nice example from the reign of Henry VIII, see HP Commons 1509-58, iii. 452. I am grateful to Alasdair Hawkyard for drawing this to my attention.
  • 34. CJ, i. 432b; Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 116.
  • 35. T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Jas. I, i. 122-3.
  • 36. Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 337; Parl. Debates 1610 ed. S.R. Gardiner, 140; HMC Hastings, iv. 226-7.
  • 37. Winwood’s Memorials ed. E. Sawyer, iii. 235.
  • 38. HMC Rutland, i. 425; Procs. 1610, ii. 339, 342.
  • 39. For James’s belief that he could, by persuasion, convert Catholics to Protestantism, see Add. 32023B, f. 188.
  • 40. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 377.
  • 41. Narrative of the Spanish Marriage Treaty, 288.
  • 42. CJ, i. 158b.
  • 43. Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 55.
  • 44. CJ, i. 162a.
  • 45. Ibid. 166a, 166b.
  • 46. Ibid. 297b.
  • 47. Ibid. 172b, 173a; Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 55.
  • 48. ‘CD 1604-7’, pp. 69-70; CJ, i. 176b; HMC Buccleuch, iii. 87.
  • 49. Though not apparent from the Journal, it is made perfectly clear by the anonymous author of ‘Policies in Parls.’: Strateman Sims, 56.
  • 50. LJ, ii. 282b.
  • 51. CJ, i. 189a, 988b.
  • 52. Ibid. 285a, 285b.
  • 53. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 220; CJ, i. 543a; CD 1621, iv. 257.
  • 54. Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 56.
  • 55. CJ, i. 153b.
  • 56. CD 1621, vi. 349.
  • 57. Bowyer Diary, 212-15.
  • 58. CJ, i. 173a, 947b; Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 58.
  • 59. For discussion of this point, see Chapter 13.
  • 60. Neale, Elizabeth and Her Parls. 1584-1601, pp. 302-7; Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 95-6, 98-100.
  • 61. CJ, i. 156a, 156b, 163b.
  • 62. Bowyer Diary, 191, 197, 199n; CJ, i. 326a; LJ, ii. 455b.
  • 63. LJ, ii. 706a, 706b.
  • 64. HMC Hastings, iv. 261-2.
  • 65. CJ, i. 509b.
  • 66. Ibid. 521b.
  • 67. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 301-3.
  • 68. CD 1628, iii. 597-8; v. 527.
  • 69. CJ, i. 154b. See also Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 88.
  • 70. Procs. in Parls. Eliz. I, iii. 450.
  • 71. CJ, i. 172a; ‘CD 1604-7’, p. 66.
  • 72. CJ, i. 199a.
  • 73. CD 1621, vi. 192.
  • 74. Ibid. 349.
  • 75. Tanner 391, p. 114. It seems more likely, though, that the writer had been misled by a precedent from 1593, which he mentions in passing. The precedent cannot now be found, either because it is incorrect or because of the paucity of the records.
  • 76. CJ, i. 937a; Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 56.
  • 77. CJ, i. 165ab, 166a.
  • 78. LJ, ii. 286a, 286b. For a more detailed discussion of this episode, see ‘Venues’ below.
  • 79. Holles 1624, p. 38.
  • 80. CJ, i. 188b, 189a.
  • 81. Ibid. 543a.
  • 82. Ibid. 641b.
  • 83. Ibid. 330b.
  • 84. Holles 1624, p. 63.
  • 85. CD 1628, iii. 557.
  • 86. LJ, ii. 383a; CJ, i. 275a.
  • 87. Bowyer Diary, 233-4.
  • 88. Sir Edward Montagu’s diary for 1604 occasionally mentions that meetings were held in ‘the great chamber’, but as the Commons Journal makesclear, Montagu was referring to the Painted Chamber rather than the Great Chamber in Whitehall. ‘CD 1604-7’, pp. 91, 93; CJ, i. 248a, 1001b.
  • 89. LJ, ii. 277b, 337a; Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 100. By the Tudor period it was often referred to as the Waiting Chamber: Hawkyard, 63.
  • 90. CJ, i. 122a, 129a; LJ, ii. 207b, 215b.
  • 91. For just two examples among many, see LJ, ii. 290a, 410a.
  • 92. CJ, i. 165b, 942a. There is, however, no mention of this meeting in the Lords Journal.
  • 93. Ibid. 158b.
  • 94. Ibid. 198a, 200a, 200b, 963b.
  • 95. P. Croft, ‘Parl., Purveyance and the City of London’, PH, iv. 15.
  • 96. CJ, i. 212b.
  • 97. The additional meetings took place on 21 and 31 May, and 4 June: ibid. 225a, 235b, 988b.
  • 98. For James’ departure on 31 May, see the Venetian ambassador’s dispatch of 8 June (n.s.): CSP Ven. 1603-7, p. 155. For evidence that the Court was at Greenwich on 4 June, see CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 116.
  • 99. LJ, ii. 286a.
  • 100. Both Westminster Hall and the Court of Requests were larger, but the former housed the law courts and the latter was partitioned into several rooms. For a discussion of the Court of Requests, see Chapter 7.
  • 101. Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 465.
  • 102. CSP Ven. 1603-7, p. 142.
  • 103. LJ, ii. 286a, 286b.
  • 104. See above, under ‘Types of Meetings’.
  • 105. CJ, i. 636b; CD 1621, iii. 397; vi. 188; Holles 1624, p. 2; Lords Procs. 1628, v. 244.
  • 106. LJ, iii. 18b.
  • 107. CJ, i. 672a; Holles 1624, p. 2.
  • 108. Procs. 1625, pp. 146-7, 425. The south wing of the Picture Gallery was known, for the purposes of the Parliament, as the Painted Chamber: ibid. 127n. For Fuller’s remarks in 1607, see CJ, i. 352b; Bowyer Diary, 233-4.
  • 109. Procs. 1625, p. 425.
  • 110. For these conferences, which took place on 7, 8, 11, 12, 14 and 16 Dec., see Procs. in Parls. Eliz. I, iii. 441, 449, 452, 465, 470; LJ, ii. 243b, 249a, 250a, 255a, 255b.
  • 111. Harl. 253, f. 35v.
  • 112. CJ, i. 194a, 194b, 196b, 202a, 204b, 211b, 218a, 226a, 235a, 251a.
  • 113. Bowyer Diary, 233.
  • 114. CD 1628, ii. 485; Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 28.
  • 115. CJ, i. 352b.
  • 116. ‘CD 1604-7’, p. 110.
  • 117. Bowyer Diary, 232-3.
  • 118. Procs. 1626, i. 385.
  • 119. CJ, i. 189a; Bowyer Diary, 158.
  • 120. CJ, i. 345a, 345b. See below under ‘Reporters’ for further details.
  • 121. Bowyer Diary, 232-3.
  • 122. Ibid. 233-4.
  • 123. ‘CD 1604-7’, p. 110.
  • 124. CJ, i. 546b, 640b.
  • 125. H. Elsynge, The Manner of Holding Parls. (6th edn., 1678), p. 105.
  • 126. Holles 1624, p. 38; ‘Hawarde 1624’, p. 209. See above.
  • 127. Procs. 1626, iii. 219.
  • 128. Bowyer Diary, 103.
  • 129. Procs. 1626, ii. 217.
  • 130. Lords Procs. 1628, v. 395-6.
  • 131. CJ, i. 965a, 965b.
  • 132. LJ, ii. 410b; Bowyer Diary, 107-8. See also CJ, i. 295a.
  • 133. CJ, i. 188a.
  • 134. Ibid. 179n.
  • 135. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 151-2, 211-15, 258-9, 291, 297, 309.
  • 136. Bowyer Diary, 328.
  • 137. Ibid. 197n.
  • 138. CJ, i. 398a, 399a.
  • 139. Ibid. 407a.
  • 140. Ibid. 425b.
  • 141. Ibid. 543a, 547a, 613b.
  • 142. CD 1628, ii. 480.
  • 143. CJ, i. 546b; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 135.
  • 144. Lords Procs. 1628, v. 509n.
  • 145. Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 465.
  • 146. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 222.
  • 147. Procs. 1625, p. 171.
  • 148. Procs. 1626, i. 385.
  • 149. Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 56.
  • 150. LJ, iii. 18b; LD 1621-8, p. 4.
  • 151. Procs. 1610, i. 81
  • 152. Bowyer Diary, 239; Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 465-6. The room in question was probably the Stone Lobby.
  • 153. Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 56.
  • 154. R. Zaller, ‘Edward Alford and the Making of Country Radicalism’, JBS, xxii. 66.
  • 155. CD 1628, ii. 483, 487.
  • 156. Lords Procs. 1628, v. 249.
  • 157. CD 1628, iii. 557.
  • 158. Strateman Sims, ‘Policies in Parls.’, 55; L. Jardine and A. Stewart, Hostage to Fortune, 282.
  • 159. CJ, i. 350a.
  • 160. Bowyer Diary, 339.
  • 161. Ibid. 38-9, 41, 47-8, 51, 53; CJ, i. 272a, 273a, 273b.
  • 162. CJ, i. 519a, 521a.
  • 163. LJ, ii. 82b, 83a; CJ, i. 590a, 592a. See also Tanner 391, p. 118.
  • 164. CJ, i. 959b.
  • 165. Procs. 1626, ii. 218.
  • 166. CD 1628, iii. 5.
  • 167. CJ, i. 155b.
  • 168. Ibid. 334a, 352b.
  • 169. Ibid. 421b.
  • 170. Ibid. 168a.
  • 171. Bowyer Diary, 334. The House did wish him to do so.
  • 172. Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 28.
  • 173. ‘Nicholas 1624’, ff. 24v-5; CJ, i. 720b.
  • 174. CJ, i. 433b, 452b.
  • 175. Ibid. 345a, 345b.
  • 176. Ibid. 352a; Bowyer Diary, 232.
  • 177. Procs. 1625, pp. 424, 429-31.
  • 178. CD 1628, ii. 480.
  • 179. CJ, i. 343a, 408b.
  • 180. On 9 May: CJ, i. 204b. For the rest of his conference reports, see ibid. 155b, 165b, 168a, 182b, 193a, 194a, 196b, 211b, 218a, 226a, 244b, 253b.
  • 181. Sir Henry Montagu, John Hare and Sir Edwin Sandys all delivered one report each; Francis Moore presented two; and Sir Francis Hastings delivered four: CJ, i. 173a, 202a, 214a, 224b, 230a, 235a, 251a, 252a, 253b.
  • 182. Ibid. 218a, 224b.
  • 183. Ibid. 265a, 309a.
  • 184. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 410-11.
  • 185. CD 1621, ii. 432-9; iii. 430; v. 401.