Introduction to Survey

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer

There are 2,668 biographical articles in these volumes, but because of difficulties encountered in the identification of borough MPs (almost all the county Members have been identified) the precise number of men who sat in the House of Commons during this period cannot be stated. Some of the articles do no more than discuss the problems of identification, or weigh the evidence for choosing one of two or more namesakes, either or any of whom may have been the MP; in others it has been possible to discuss the MP’s general career in some detail, but not to identify his family background. Sometimes the man in Parliament is elusive, that is to say, it is uncertain which of two or more namesakes, of known careers, and known to have been Members during this period, sat at a particular time. Even in computing the number of ‘certain’ identifications, 2,438 (over 90%), the criterion adopted sometimes falls short of positive proof, since it is that no reasonable person would doubt the identification; in other words that only one man fits the known career. The next group of identifications, described as ‘highly likely’, indicating a slight doubt, amounts to 92 of the total (3.4%). Following this come the ‘quite likely’, numbering 73 (3%). ‘Quite likely’ means that a man has been found to fit the constituency and date, but little or no positive evidence points to his having been the MP—see for example, John Smith, MP for Camelford in 1559. Where, in the following pages, the phrase ‘all identified MPs’ is used, it refers to the sum of categories ‘certain’, ‘highly likely’ and ‘quite likely’, 2,603. In 14 instances the MP must have been one of a number of namesakes, none of whom has a better claim than the rest to have represented a particular constituency or constituencies at the relevant date or dates, and in 51 others nothing whatsoever is known about the MP except his name. No significant variation occurs in the proportion of Members identified as between the earlier and later Parliaments.

Another limiting feature is the short time occupied by Parliament in the lives of most of its Members in the sixteenth century. Parliament was in session for no more than 5% of the total amount of time covered by this period, compared with approximately half of the time from the eighteenth century until to-day, for the sessions were short and widely spaced through the years. Thus there were virtually no MPs for whom membership of the Commons was a career, though some, lawyers especially, used the institution as a stepping stone. This applies not only to hundreds of local men who went to Westminster no more than once, to a Parliament which may have lasted only a few weeks, but also to statesmen at the very centre of affairs. See, for example, the biography of Francis Walsingham, Privy Councillor and a Member of every Parliament during his 17 years as secretary, who is not known to have made a single significant intervention in debate; who exercised hardly at all the considerable powers of borough patronage open to him and, more to the point, scarcely refers to Parliament in his private papers, his apparent lack of interest in it going far beyond anything that can be accounted for by the defective nature of the sources.

Some dichotomy therefore exists between the general careers of the men in these pages, and their parliamentary careers. As we are really considering the lives of Elizabethans who, for a few weeks or months, took their places in a specific Parliament or Parliaments, we will first look at them collectively, as the men who formed the total membership of the Commons in this period before we consider them in Parliament. But space is limited, and the distinction may not be fully spelled out in every instance. For example, under the subject of honours, the computed conclusion that knighthoods were conferred on nearly a quarter of all the men who at one time or another sat in any Elizabethan Parliament is more tautly, if less precisely rendered as ‘nearly a quarter of all Elizabethan MPs were knighted’.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler

End Notes