IX. Attendance

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

Unlike their Tudor counterparts, students of early Stuart parliaments have paid scant attention to the attendance of the Commons by its Members. Most studies have generally ignored the subject entirely or treated it only in passing,1 although Sheila Lambert has offered some general observations, Mary Keeler has briefly analyzed the role played by the committee for privileges in respect of absenteeism, and Chris Kyle has explored committee attendance.2 One undoubted reason for the lack of scholarly interest is the unpromising nature of the sources. Unlike the House of Lords, the Commons kept no record of daily attendance, and although occasional roll calls were held none of the registers in which these were recorded have survived.3 Instead, any Member who intended to be absent was required to obtain a licence which, by statute, was supposed to be recorded in ‘the book of the clerk of the Parliament’. By counting these permits it should, in theory, be possible to determine rates of absenteeism. However, between 1604 and 1629 only 154 are recorded as having been granted, an average of just twenty-two per Parliament. One reason for the smallness of this number is that the clerk sometimes failed to enter these licences in the Journal. In March 1610 Sir John Heigham, knight of the shire for Suffolk, having spent the previous five weeks confined to his chamber through illness, informed Lord Chancellor Ellesmere that ‘I have gotten licence to depart from the Parliament’, but if any such licence was issued there is now no trace of it in the official record.4 Undoubtedly the main reason that the recorded number of licences is so low, however, is that most men who took leave did so without permission. Take the case of the Norfolk Member Sir Roger Townshend, who on 13 June 1628 arrived in his native county, where he proceeded to relate to his constituents news of the Commons’ proceedings. There is no evidence that Townshend received formal leave to depart the House, which remained in session until 26 June. However, Townshend was just one Member among many to slope off early, for on 23 June those who remained at Westminster passed a resolution forbidding Members from leaving without the House’s permission.5

If licences of absence fail to provide a reliable guide to the numbers in the House at any one time, divisions of the House are also not entirely helpful. Whenever the Commons divided the clerk normally recorded in his Journal the number of votes cast. From this record the precise number of Members present can easily be calculated, since abstentions were not permitted. However, divisions occurred only rarely, especially in the 1620s. There were none at all in the winter sitting of 1621, the Oxford sitting of 1625 or the 1629 session, and only two each in 1624 and the Westminster sitting of 1625. Moreover, the number of Members who participated in any particular division is no sure guide to peak attendance that day, as divisions often occurred before nine in the morning,6 when Members were still arriving, or during the afternoon, when many would have been sitting in committee. The belief that divisions must represent peak attendance on the assumption that divisions only occurred when controversial matters were being debated is false.7 Divisions during the early seventeenth century often concerned procedural matters, such as whether or not to commit a particular bill, rather than matters of state. Even if this were this not the case, Members received almost no advance notice of a division that would have allowed them to plan their attendance in advance.

Since Members were ordinarily free to come and go as they pleased, the most that can be said about divisions is that they provide a snapshot of the numbers present at any given moment. Occasionally it is possible to catch sight in the records of a prominent Member entering the Commons midway through a debate. Sir Edward Coke, for instance, arrived late on 24 November 1621.8 Likewise, we are sometimes afforded glimpses of Members departing prematurely. In March 1610, for example, Sir William Smith unwisely left the chamber immediately prior to a division, ‘which is taken to be an offence’, while in May 1628 many Members became so bored during the reading of the subsidy bill that they got up and left.9 However, unless two divisions were held within a short space of one another, as they were on 24 April 1606,10 the effect on numbers of the routine coming and going of Members can seldom be calculated. In addition to all this, many Members were accustomed to loitering around the door, or, as the preacher at the funeral of William Strode observed in 1645, to ‘peep now and then into the House to inquire “What news”?’11

Borough accounts provide a further source of information on attendance, but like licences of absence and records of divisions they need to be handled with care. Many enfranchised boroughs no longer paid their Members parliamentary wages, and those that did had no formal means of checking that their representatives had attended the Commons as often as they claimed when settling their bills. Christopher Stone evidently received wages for the whole of the 1604-10 Parliament from his Bath constituents, while Robert Wilcocks was allowed 3s. a day for the entire duration of the Addled Parliament by the borough of New Romney, but whether either Member was as assiduous in his attendance as his wage payments suggest is a matter for speculation,12 since Stone is mentioned only twice in the Commons Journal and Wilcocks went altogether unrecorded. It must have been tempting for Members who failed to attend regularly to fiddle their expenses. In 1615 a former Member for Gloucester, John Jones, secured two Chancery writs for the payment of £69 6s. in unpaid parliamentary wages, whereupon the borough claimed that Jones ‘had not given his attendance at the said Parliament ... but had for some time absented himself thence without licence’.13 However, any Member who lived in or near his constituency and who returned home prematurely was certain to have his wage bill reduced accordingly. After Sir George Smith obtained leave of absence on 11 February 1607 due to gout, his Exeter constituents paid him for just 92 days for the session, which sat for 126 days in total.14 Likewise, Plymouth paid its representative Sir Richard Hawkins for just 42 days in 1606 after he came home early.15

Despite the limitations of the evidence provided by divisions, licences of absence and borough accounts, the study of Commons attendance is far from being a hopeless venture. Used cautiously, all three types of evidence are an invaluable source of information. Supplemented by the accounts of debates, the observations of diarists and newsletter writers and information locked up in local government records, they enable us to reconstruct a surprisingly detailed picture of Commons attendance during the early seventeenth century. It is to this picture that we now turn.

The importance of attendance

Addressing a sparse chamber in March 1606, Robert Bowyer, sitting for Evesham, argued that a thin House was just as competent to handle business as a well-attended one on the grounds that the representative nature of the Commons did not depend upon the numbers present in the chamber at any given time.16 On the face of it, this proposition was perfectly correct: before 5 January 1641, when it was ruled that the Speaker could not take the chair unless at least forty Members were present, the Commons was technically incapable of being inquorate.17 However, in practice many Members were uncomfortable with the idea of pressing on with business regardless of attendance. On 21 April 1607, and again on 31 May 1610, the House briefly abandoned its sitting because too few Members were thought to be present,18 while in February 1621 the clerk declared that prayers would not be said until at least twenty Members had turned up.19 It was widely understood that a thinly attended chamber might undermine the legitimacy of the House’s proceedings, or at the very least impede its business, particularly when issues of national importance required consideration. In 1607 James twice expressed dismay at the exodus of Members from Westminster, as he wished the Union to be debated in a full House.20 Three years later, in July 1610, Lord Treasurer Salisbury was so anxious that the Commons might later repudiate the Great Contract for having been concluded in a thin assembly that he reassured those of its Members who had not yet left Westminster that they were ‘a number competent that have made the conclusion’.21

Members themselves, alert to the fact that the Commons was an institution representative of the nation as a whole, were equally aware of the need to reach important decisions in a well-attended chamber. In June 1607 Dudley Carleton persuaded the Speaker to defer debate on the Hostile Laws bill on the grounds that it would be better if those who opposed the bill were present ‘that we may satisfy them’.22 In May 1614 Francis Ashley proposed that three days’ notice be given before subsidies were discussed, ‘that there might be a full House’,23 and in November 1621 Sir Robert Phelips got the Commons to postpone the debate on breaking off the Spanish Match for a few days, ‘that the [House] may be full’.24 When the Commons in December 1621 drafted its Protestation in a chamber that was more than two-thirds empty, an angry king reminded Members that ‘in all matters of weight, their usual custom is to put nothing of importance to the question till the House be full’.25

It was not only matters of national importance which required the attention of a full chamber. Thin attendance might also cause relatively minor business to be deferred. When, on 25 May 1604, Francis Moore sought to establish whether mayors were entitled to serve as Members, the matter was postponed ‘till the House fuller’.26 On 31 March 1607 the third reading of a bill regarding marshland in northern Kent was postponed until later that morning ‘by reason the House [was] empty’.27 In December 1621 the second reading of the Magdalene College bill was put off because ‘the House not yet thought to be full enough’, and in April 1624 reports from two committees were postponed for the same reason.28 Many similar instances can be documented.29

The quality of those present in the chamber was scarcely less important than their quantity. Though all Members were in theory equal, some, by virtue of their particular expertise or talents, were generally regarded as more useful than others. When James tried to stem the flow of Members leaving Westminster in February 1607, he particularly demanded ‘that no lawyer, or other Member of note, might depart the town’. 30 Concern that proceedings would suffer were a particular influential Member to be absent was not unknown. On 20 November 1621 Mallory ‘misseth Sir Edwin Sandys’ and ‘moveth we may know what is become of him’. Four days later consideration of the informers bill was delayed ‘because of the absence of Sir Edward Coke’, who had ‘taken great pains in it’.31 It was nevertheless unusual for business to be deferred because of a particular Member’s non-attendance. When, on 21 March 1621, it was proposed to adjourn a grand committee because the two lawyer-Members who had drafted the monopolies bill were absent, the idea was rejected ‘as dishonourable to the House that they should seem in any matter of judgment to depend so much upon particular men’.32

Patterns of attendance

From the middle of the sixteenth century, when the Commons took up occupancy of the disused chapel of St. Stephen’s in the Palace of Westminster, it was inevitable that the chamber of the lower House would experience occasional overcrowding. At just 54 feet long and 26 feet wide, St. Stephen’s could comfortably seat only about 200,33 yet when James’s first Parliament assembled in 1604 the Commons consisted of 468 Members. By 1629 this number had risen through fresh enfranchisements to 493. At the beginning of the 1604 session insufficient seating forced many Members ‘to stand in the entrance and midst of the House, contrary to order’. Additional seats were subsequently installed but conditions remained cramped.34 Nine days into the 1614 Parliament the House was reportedly so full that latecomers ‘can hardly get room’.35 Following further complaints, a gallery was erected in the spring of 1621 to provide still more seating. Overcrowding nevertheless continued, and in April 1626, and again in March 1628, Members who briefly left the chamber were ordered not to deposit their gloves on their seats so as to avoid causing resentment among those obliged to stand.36

A crowded House was not necessarily well attended, for even if only half its Members turned up the Commons would be full to bursting. Nevertheless, faced with a sea of occupied benches a Member might be forgiven for thinking that attendance was impressive. On Good Friday 1628 Sir John Strangways observed that he could ‘see no thinness, nor no empty places in the House’ after Sir Walter Earle protested that the House was too thin to permit discussion of the subsidy bill.37 Genuine high attendance was not, however, unknown. Three times in 1604, 70% of Members were present for a division,38 while on 6 March 1621 attendance reached 75%.39 On 22 June 1625, 8 March 1626, 24 April 1626 and 13 May 1628 the proportions were even higher: 76%, 80%, 81% and 82% respectively.40 The highest recorded attendance of this period, however, was reached on 1 June 1614, when a staggering 83% of all Members were present.41 This figures helps to confirm the impression obtained by Sir Henry Wotton, himself a Member of the 1614 Parliament, who declared the day after the dissolution that ‘our committees were as well attended commonly, as full houses [as] in former sessions’.42

If the Commons occasionally bulged at the seams, at other times it was almost deserted. Absenteeism had been endemic under Mary and Elizabeth, and following James’s accession this problem increased in severity. Indeed, during the second session in 1606 attendance plummeted. Division records suggest that during the first half of March around 58-59% of Members were in daily attendance, but by 25 March the Commons had shrunk to half of its membership.43 On 31 March an embarrassed Sir Thomas Holcroft declared ‘that it will be a scandal to show [that] what we have done is done with so small a number’, while on 4 April the Speaker announced that no important matters would be laid before the House until it was full.44 Some Members proposed that unauthorized absentees should be fined, while others suggested that the county sheriffs should be required to order the absentees to return. This latter proposal had to be abandoned, however, after James objected that the House had no authority over his officers.45 Instead, the House ordered a succession of roll calls, a tactic often employed under Elizabeth whenever numbers had begun to thin alarmingly. In the event only one roll call was actually held, on 9 April, and was attended by nearly 300 Members.46 This number certainly represented an improvement on recent attendance, but six days later a mid-morning division revealed that only 213 Members were present. Thereafter numbers appear to have remained low until the session ended in May.47

Parliament reassembled in mid October, and following the Christmas recess it resumed business in earnest. It soon became apparent that the slump in attendance that had occurred in March 1606 had not been a mere flash-in-the-pan, for on 27 February 1607 the Speaker reported that the departure of so many Members from Westminster had worried the king, who was anxious to have the Union debated.48 In response the Commons again resolved to hold regular roll calls, and this time the serjeant-at-arms was ordered to search out those absent without reasonable excuse and a circular was to be sent out explaining to Members the need for their attendance. However, these measures did not satisfy Sir Henry Poole, who suggested legislation, a solution which had last been attempted in the 1550s. This idea found favour with Edward Alford at least, whose attendance bill received a first reading on 4 March.49 To both Poole and Alford it was clear that a bill was needed, as the existing statutory penalty for unauthorized absenteeism – loss of parliamentary wages – had long ceased to be meaningful due to the fact that many constituencies no longer paid their representatives a salary. Despite the threat of legislation, by mid-morning on 26 March only 200 Members, including the Speaker, were present, a figure which represented just 42% of the House’s strength.50 Two days later the Commons responded to a request from the Lords for an immediate conference by asking for a postponement ‘sithence we are now but half a body’.51

There was no improvement after Easter. The House reassembled on 20 April, yet by 10 a.m. there were ‘not above three-score’ Members in the chamber, and those present felt compelled to abandon their sitting until the following day.52 When the House met again on the 21st it was still almost empty, and since there was no prospect of any immediate improvement proceedings were adjourned for six days.53 Not until early May did attendance improve dramatically. Although a division taken on 2 May revealed only 154 Members present, another taken two days later indicated that there were 243 Members, or 62% of the total membership, in attendance.54 However, the recovery was short-lived. On the first day of business after the Whitsun recess (27 May), the Speaker declared that the king ‘taketh notice of the general absence of the Members of this House and he holdeth it dishonourable to himself, to this House, to the business, that so many should be away at the handling of this matter’.55 Once again James’s reproach had little effect. Although Alford’s bill was granted a second reading on 28 May, by late morning on 5 June there were only 246 Members present – around 52% of the House – and by the end of the month the chamber was almost deserted. Only twenty Members took their places on the afternoon of 30 June, and just seventeen presented themselves for business early the next morning.56 Even allowing for the hour of the day, this must surely represent the low-water mark of Commons attendance under the early Stuarts.

The last two sessions of James’s first Parliament were as bedevilled by poor attendance as their immediate predecessors. In late February 1610 the Commons mustered a respectable 65% of its strength, but by 10 March this figure had fallen by half. Symptomatic of this sudden slump were two calls of the House, held on 3 and 17 March, and the reintroduction of legislation to compel attendance.57 This measure, which was almost certainly the Alford bill of 1607, sought to make unauthorized absentees liable to a maximum fine of £20 each, and after completing its passage through the Commons it passed to the Lords, where it failed to progress beyond a first reading.58 Perhaps anticipating that the bill would pass into law, the House, on its own authority, also imposed fines on absentees, the first time it had done so since 1554. However, numbers in the chamber remained stubbornly low. Less than half of Members were present on 26 June to hear Alford’s bill given its third reading, and although numbers subsequently rose, with attendance reaching around 59% on 11 July,59 this was too little too late, as Parliament was prorogued twelve days later. When the House reassembled in mid-October the situation worsened. On the 21st Sir Nicholas Halswell, serving for Bridgwater, pointedly wrote to his brother-in-law Sir Richard Paulet, sitting for Whitchurch but then absent in Hampshire, that there was ‘much complaint of burgesses’ absence’.60 The following afternoon a call of the House had to be abandoned when less than 100 Members turned up for fear of leaving ‘so ill a precedent to posterity as that seven days after a Parliament begun no more company were come together’.61 On 3 November the House excused its slow proceedings to the king by claiming ‘want of competent number’.62 Not until the final day of the session was the House said to be ‘very full’.63

The dramatic falls in attendance that occurred between 1606 and 1610 were among the worst of the early seventeenth century, but they were by no means isolated events. The entire winter sitting of the 1621 Parliament suffered from sparse attendance. Just 200 Members assembled in the chamber on 14 November, and six days later attendance remained so poor that it was proposed to call the House the following day ‘that we may know every man’s particular reason of absence’.64 Sir Thomas Wentworth sought to hold together an already thin House on 14 December when he moved ‘that no Member of the House shall go out of the town’,65 but to no avail: four days later less than a third of Members were present to hear the Protestation debated. The 1625 House of Commons, too, was notoriously badly attended by its Members, many of whom drifted away soon after Parliament opened in mid June.66

Widespread absenteeism was clearly commonplace during the early seventeenth century, and yet, as has been seen, there were periods when members flocked to the Commons in great numbers. How is it possible to account for such wide fluctuations? What caused a previously crowded chamber to become denuded of Members? Were attendance levels merely a matter of chance, or were there good reasons why the lower House was better attended at some times than at others? To answer these questions it is necessary to look beyond the House of Commons itself to the wider society from which it was drawn.

Factors influencing attendance

For many newly elected Members, the state opening of Parliament was a spectacle too grand to miss. Large numbers witnessed the ceremonies of 1614 and 1624, while in 1604 the added attraction of a new king caused a higher turnout ‘than was ever seen on the first day of a Parliament in any man’s memory’.67 Once the pageantry was over the Commons settled down to business, and it seems likely that many Members new to the chamber and curious about its workings initially proved assiduous in their attendance. On 25 May 1628 Sir George Radcliffe, sitting in his first and only Parliament, wrote proudly to his wife that ‘since I was of the Parliament I have not been absent from Westminster forenoon or afternoon, but this afternoon’.68 The high attendance seen during the opening weeks of the 1614 Parliament may have owed something to the fact that more than 56% of the Commons were novices.69 However, as a session progressed numbers tended to dwindle, leaving a band of stalwarts – men like Sir James Perrot, Sir Edwin Sandys and Sir Francis Barrington – in regular attendance. Commons’ business doubtless paled beside the rival attractions afforded by the metropolis, especially for those who lived some distance away or were infrequent visitors to the capital. Many, too, were doubtless diverted by their private affairs. In February 1621 Sir Edwin Sandys was kept from the House by his responsibilities as treasurer of the Virginia Company, much to the disapproval of Sir Edward Giles, who urged ‘Virginia not to keep him from England’.70 Business interests may also explain why Joseph Field went unmentioned in the parliamentary records. Elected for Hull in March 1607 against his wishes, he desired to be left to pursue ‘his own private affairs in trade of merchandise’.71 Taken together, boredom and outside business undoubtedly accounted for a good deal of absenteeism. Although nearly 300 Members attended the roll call held on 9 April 1606, a further 68 were reported absent but about town, some of whom must surely have been fit for duty.72

In any Parliament it was inevitable that some Members would be kept away by illness or by the sickness of a close relative. However, only twenty-one individuals – less than five per cent of the House’s total membership – excused themselves from the roll call of 5 April 1626 on these grounds.73 Fear of sickness rather than actual illness may have had a greater impact on attendance levels. Few illnesses excited greater fear than bubonic plague. During the first quarter of the seventeenth century England experienced two severe plague outbreaks, the second of which, in 1625, coincided with the sitting of Parliament. The epidemic was one of the worst of the century and was the main reason that the Commons thinned out so rapidly after Parliament opened in mid June. Among the few who remained behind was the Hull Member John Lister, who deplored the exodus on the grounds that if most of his colleagues took to their heels the courtiers who were left behind would be given a free hand to do as they wished in respect of the bills of subsidy and Tunnage and Poundage.74 Fear of plague also helps to explain why the subsequent Oxford sitting was poorly attended. Among those who dared not travel from their homes in Kent were Sir Edwin Sandys, his son Henry and his son-in-law Sir Thomas Wilsford.75

The 1625 assembly was not alone in meeting in the shadow of the plague. Between 1606 and 1610 London experienced a lengthy period of infection which accounted for ten per cent of all recorded burials.76 Since those same years also witnessed a succession of sharp falls in attendance, it is tempting to relate the two phenomena. Certainly many Members were nervous about remaining in the capital during time of plague. This seems to have been particularly so in 1606, at the start of the outbreak. On 10 April 1606 there were calls to postpone business until the following session to avoid infection.77 Five days later a mid-morning division revealed only 213 Members in the chamber, whereas just six days earlier there had been 299.78 However the impact of plague on the Commons should not be overstated. In the first half of July 1610, after three Members of the House succumbed to the plague, there was no dramatic collapse in attendance. On the contrary, on 11 July there were, as the record of two divisions held that day demonstrates, slightly fewer than 280 Members present.79

The collapse in attendance that occurred in May and June 1607 may have been related to the plague, but it probably owed more to the disorders known collectively as the Midlands Rising, which began at the end of April and lasted until mid-June. Although the rioters’ activities were mainly confined to three counties – Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Leicestershire – there were also disturbances in five others,80 and contemporaries probably expected the unrest to spread even further. Members of the Commons who feared for their property are unlikely to have remained at Westminster, and some of them at least were needed to help quell the disorders. On 23 May Sir Edward Montagu was ordered by the Privy Council to return to his Northamptonshire home for this very reason, and dealing with the aftermath of the rising kept him from Westminster until 26 June.81 It was not, of course, only during the Midlands Rising that Members returned home prematurely to take care of their property. In May 1624 Richard Daniel was granted leave after learning that his house at Truro had burned down. Fear for the safety of his property might also cause a Member to remain at home when he should have been at Westminster. In 1610 William Cary, one of the Members for Mitchell, dared not venture from his home in north Cornwall because pirates had threatened to fire his house in his absence.82

Local affairs were among the most important determinants of Commons attendance. Most Members of the Commons held local office, and since local government did not cease while Parliament was in session, those involved in its administration found themselves pulled in opposite directions simultaneously. Members who wished to perform their local duties while serving in Parliament had no choice but to limit the time they spent at Westminster. Sir John Boys, who represented Canterbury, twice attended meetings of the east Kent sewer commission in 1604 on days when the House was sitting.83 In 1626 Launceston’s deputy recorder, Richard Estcott, attended four meetings of the corporation on days when Parliament was sitting, despite having been elected to serve as one of the borough’s Members.84 During that same Parliament Richard Gay sought licence to return to his Bath constituency to investigate a suicide and murder, for as well as being one of the city’s elected representatives he was also its mayor and coroner.85 Fear of losing local office might also be responsible for drawing a Member away from Westminster in just the same way as the duties of office. In March 1606 Sir Richard Hawkins was granted permission to return home to Plymouth after he learned that an inquiry into his activities as vice admiral of Devon had begun.86

Occasional falls in House attendance sometimes reflected the fact that a large proportion of Members were magistrates. By law the justices of each county were required to assemble four times a year at prescribed times, and although by the early seventeenth century only about half of all shires strictly observed this rigid timetable the effect on Commons attendance was nevertheless noticeable. On 18 April 1604, for instance, only 47% of Members were in the House by mid-morning. Among the absentees were Sir Edward Littleton, Walter Chetwynd and Thomas Lawton, all of whom had attended the Staffordshire quarter sessions the previous day.87 On the final day of the Westminster sitting of the 1625 Parliament, the MPs Sir John Boteler, Sir William Lytton and John Boteler all attended the general sessions of the peace at Hertford rather than the Commons.88 It was not only Members’ duties as magistrates, however, which sometimes drew them away from the Commons. Many were also deputy lieutenants or commanded companies in their local trained bands, and were therefore expected to turn out whenever musters were held. Normally there was no overlap between musters and parliamentary sittings, but in the spring and early summer of 1621 the two unhappily coincided. By the end of May attendance in the Commons was so slender, there being only 120 Members present at a division on the 29th, that the king resolved to bring the session to a speedy close. Among the reasons given for his decision was ‘the absence of the many deputy lieutenants’.89

Few positions in local government were incompatible with a Member’s presence in the Commons. The most conspicuous exception to this rule was the sheriff, whose oath of office required him to be permanently resident within his bailiwick unless licensed to be absent by the king. Under normal circumstances, sheriffs were barred from membership of the Commons because, as returning officers, they were prohibited from returning themselves. Yet although a sheriff could not become a Member of the Commons, a Member of the Commons could become a sheriff. Indeed, it was almost inevitable that some Members would be appointed to the shrievalty in a Parliament as long as that of 1604-10. Four Members of the first Jacobean Parliament – Alban Stepneth, Sir John Peyton, Sir William Bulstrode and Sir John Townshend – were pricked as sheriffs in November 1604, while a fifth – Sir Gamaliel Capell – served as sheriff of Essex in 1606/7. Stepneth, Peyton, Bulstrode and Townshend all seem to have stayed away from Westminster until their term of office expired, but Capell attended the House despite his office after the Commons, seizing upon the king’s message of 27 February 1607, demanded the presence of all Members to debate the Union.90 Despite the exception made for Capell, a sitting Member who was subsequently pricked as sheriff was effectively barred from attending the Commons for the duration of his shrievalty. It is hardly surprising that some Members of the Commons found this objectionable. In November 1621, after it was learned that Sir Thomas Thynne had been pricked to serve as sheriff of Gloucestershire despite then sitting for Heytesbury, Sir George More proposed an addition to the elections bill stating that ‘no Member of this House shall, during the Parliament, be elected sheriff’.91

Like sheriffs, the holders of Crown office with seats in the Commons were sometimes prevented from attending the House by their official duties. As clerk of the Signet, Sir Thomas Lake periodically absented himself from the chamber during the first Jacobean Parliament in order to accompany the king on his frequent hunting trips to Royston and Newmarket. In June 1604 the keeper of Waltham Forest, Sir Robert Wroth, requested one week’s leave from the Commons after the king began hunting near his home.92 A secretary of state who sat in the Commons frequently found it hard to combine his normal duties with his parliamentary responsibilities. In 1624 Sir George Calvert gently upbraided his fellow secretary Sir Edward Conway for not attending the Commons more often because of his official duties,93 while in 1625 Sir Albertus Morton never managed to take his seat as he was dispatched to the Netherlands on a diplomatic mission which lasted the entire length of the Parliament. Morton’s successor, Sir John Coke, missed almost half of the 1628 session after he was sent to take charge of urgent naval preparations at Portsmouth.

Coke was not alone in being kept from Westminster by naval duties in 1628. Sir James Bagg, sitting for Plympton Erle, attended the House for less than three of the fourteen weeks’ session because he was busy victualling the Navy’s ships at Plymouth, and he would probably not have come up at all had he not been summoned for questioning by the Commons.94 In February 1629 the lieutenant of the admiralty Sir Robert Mansell mustered the seamen of London on a day when the Commons was sitting, even though he was then knight for Glamorgan.95

The weather undoubtedly influenced levels of attendance. The afternoon of 22 March 1610 ‘fell out so foul’ that Robert Bowyer chose not to return to the House after lunch.96 In May 1624 many Members were forced to leave the chamber in the week following the Whitsun recess owing to the stifling heat. Among those who fled was Secretary Calvert, then not in the best of health having recently let blood.97 The high temperatures probably explain why only 214 Members took part in a division on the afternoon of 28 May when there had been 311 in evidence that morning.98 However, extreme weather conditions did not always occasion low attendance. When Parliament assembled in early February 1621 it was so cold that the Thames froze over,99 but there is no evidence that Members were slow to arrive at Westminster. Although a call of the House was held on 10 February,100 it seems more likely that this was because it was feared that many of the lawyer-Members were about to leave the chamber to go on circuit rather than because attendance had hitherto been poor. For many Members, the opportunity to sit in Parliament again after an interval lasting more than six years may have acted as a powerful incentive to endure the biting conditions.

Another significant influence on Commons’ attendance was the holiday period. It was customary for the House to break for Easter, Whitsun and Christmas, but the approach of these festivals frequently caused attendance to dwindle as Members anxious to return home tended to anticipate the adjournment by a few days. Shortly before the House broke up for Whitsun in May 1604, it was reported that ‘many of the Members of the House were gone home, and many were ready to go home’. Among those champing at the bit was the Calne Member John Noyes, who remained at Westminster only because he feared that if he went early he might be fined.101 Six years later, in 1610, a mid-morning division held two days before the Whitsun recess revealed there to be only 144 Members in the chamber, whereas three weeks earlier there had been 260.102 When the king belatedly ordered the House to sit over Easter in April 1628, he sent his instructions to a Commons that was already half empty, many Members having already ‘retired about their own particulars’, as Christopher Lewknor remarked.103 Among those who appear to have quit Westminster early were Thomas Godfrey (New Romney), who spent the middle of April putting up a wooden frame for his new house in Kent, and John Newdigate (Liverpool), who paid a visit to Windsor.104

Just as it was normal for Members to anticipate their holidays, so too it was usual for them to extend their breaks. Time and again they drifted slowly back to Westminster after Easter. Two days after the end of the Easter recess in 1621, the king postponed his address to the Commons, scheduled for later that day, ‘because the House [is] not now full’.105 On the day that the Commons reconvened after the Easter break in 1624, attendance was once again sparse because, as one contemporary observed, many Members ‘were gone into the country, and not yet returned’.106 Among those to arrive late was the Winchelsea Member Edward Nicholas, who did not resume his seat until five days into the new sitting.107 The day after the House reassembled following the Easter recess in 1626, the Tuscan ambassador reported that two-thirds of Members had not yet returned to Westminster.108

Such tardiness was understandable, as the holiday period was often all too short. In 1604 and 1606 just five days were allowed for Easter, while in 1624 the number was only six. Whitsun was even shorter: a mere three days were allotted in 1604, 1610 and 1624. Breaks of this duration were simply not long enough for a Member like Sir Richard Paulet to make the round trip to his Hampshire home and back. Instead of coming up for the start of the new sitting on 30 May, Paulet delayed returning until 4 June, the day of Prince Henry’s investiture as prince of Wales. Many of his colleagues seem to have done the same, because on 31 May the Speaker decided to abandon the day’s sitting, partly because of the noisiness of the preparations being made by those outside for the prince’s creation, but also because the chamber was so thin.109

The holidays were not always brief, though. In 1607 the Easter recess lasted nearly three weeks, quite long enough for most Members to return home from Westminster and get back again. Yet by 10 a.m. on 20 April, the day on which the Commons reconvened, only 53 Members were to be found in the chamber.110 The next day, as Sir Edward Montagu observed, the House was ‘still so thin’ that it was decided to adjourn proceedings for six days.111

The failure of most Members to return to Westminster after an interval lasting almost three weeks is so striking that it demands an explanation. One possibility is that Members were gripped by fear of plague. On 22 April, the day after the Commons adjourned its proceedings, the Venetian ambassador recorded that the king and queen were preparing to leave the capital as the plague was showing signs of spreading. Indeed, there had already been plague-related deaths in Westminster.112 However, if fear of plague really did cause many Members to delay their return to Westminster, the general sense of alarm must have abated quickly, because by 4 May at the latest more than 240 had resumed their seats.113 A more likely culprit than the plague is the quarter sessions. By law the Easter sessions were supposed to take place in the week following the last Sunday of Easter,114 and in 1607 the holiday was so long that any Members who were magistrates should, in theory, have been able to attend the sessions and yet return to Westminster in time for the new sitting. However, in some parts of the country it was customary to hold the Easter sessions later than the last Sunday of Easter. This was certainly the case in the North Riding of Yorkshire, where the bench sat at Thirsk on 29 April, nine days after the Commons reassembled. One of the magistrates to attend the Thirsk meeting was the town’s parliamentary representative, Sir Timothy Whittingham.115

There were few more serious causes of absenteeism than the workloads of the professional lawyers. Like local government, the judicial system continued to function when Parliament sat. This was inconvenient for the Commons, as lawyers constituted a large proportion of its membership and their expertise in drafting legislation and debating matters of law made their presence invaluable. During the law terms, lawyer-Members faced with competing demands on their time and energy tried to square the circle by flitting between the House and the central law courts, which were conveniently situated in Westminster Hall and elsewhere within the Palace of Westminster. In consequence, many were frequently absent from the Commons, much to the irritation of their colleagues, who often ordered the serjeant-at-arms to fetch them from the law courts.116

In general the lawyers resented all attempts to compel their regular attendance. In 1606 the recorder of Canterbury, Sir John Boys, argued that the House lacked the power to fine absentees, while in 1607 the recorder of London, Sir Henry Montagu, termed Alford’s legislative solution to unauthorized absenteeism ‘a scandalous, idle, needless bill’.117 When, in December 1621, Sir William Strode proposed that an hour be set aside each week in which all Members should be required to assemble, the Lincoln’s Inn barrister Thomas Wentworth protested that the ‘lawyers cannot do it in term time’.118 However, during the impositions debates of 1610 the attendance of the lawyer-Members was seen as vital if the case against the Crown’s right to levy taxes without reference to Parliament was to be made successfully. On 18 June, ten days into the start of Trinity term, it was resolved that the name of every lawyer in the House should be set down in writing and a note kept of their attendance. The following day the names of the absentees were read aloud by Sir Herbert Croft.119 The impact of this makeshift register on attendance is difficult to gauge, but in 1614, when impositions were again debated during term time, the House never felt it necessary to dispatch the serjeant-at-arms to Westminster Hall to fetch them.

The proximity of the law courts to the Commons chamber did not only serve to lure away the lawyer-Members, of course. During the first two months of 1606 Sir John Leveson spent several days in the Court of Wards when he should have been in the Commons.120 On the afternoon of 14 May 1614 Sir John Holles hastened from the House on learning that Chancery was about to turn its attention to a long-running lawsuit between himself and Sir John Molyneux. While acknowledging that ‘my service may be requisite for my country’, Holles, being ‘the meanest of so many far more worthy associates’, thought he might easily be spared from serving on committee for the space of a single afternoon.121

One solution to the problem posed by the law terms was to avoid them wherever possible. In July 1612 Sir Henry Neville, a diplomat by training rather than a lawyer, told James that if he wished to summon a Parliament that autumn he should either postpone Michaelmas term or defer the meeting ‘till that time [when] there is little business done so that the lawyers may well attend the Parliament, whose absence will otherwise breed delay’.122 An alternative solution was suggested by Sir Edward Hoby on the first day of Easter term 1614. Anticipating the usual exodus of lawyers from the chamber, Hoby suggested that the judges be asked to give priority to those causes involving the lawyer-Members so that the latter might better attend the Commons.123 In the event this suggestion was not taken up, perhaps because attendance that session was impressive. Interestingly, Hoby did not consider the possibility that some of the absentee Members might be judges themselves. In 1621 the Maldon Member and master of the Rolls, Sir Julius Caesar, put his legal duties before attending the Commons. However, his frequent absences were a source of irritation not to his fellow Members but to the king, who expected him to help his fellow privy councillors to manage the House in the Crown’s interests. Indeed, in November 1621 James was so irritated by his poor attendance that Secretary Calvert instructed him ‘to be in the lower House tomorrow morning ... and so to continue every day as long as this House sits, notwithstanding your term business, which may well give way to His Majesty’s service in the Parliament, rather than be a hindrance to your attendance there’.124

The disruption to Commons business caused by the law terms should not, perhaps, be exaggerated. Only once during the early seventeenth century – in the second half of November 1621 – did the law term coincide with a period of exceptionally poor attendance,125 and on this occasion the weather may have been a contributory factor. Certainly the second week of December was so cold that John Chamberlain could barely hold a pen, while the Exeter Member John Prowse found that his ink ‘freezeth too fast to continue a long letter’. By the 22nd temperatures were so bitter that Chamberlain was only able to write wearing gloves, ‘a thing I never used nor practised before’.126 Under such conditions, many Members may have thought twice before journeying outdoors. Another factor that probably had a significant bearing on attendance in the winter sitting of 1621 was the end of the Twelve Years’ Truce between the United Provinces and Spain. Several Members had commissions in the English and Dutch forces in the Low Countries and, following the expiry of the truce in April 1621, they proved eager to rejoin their regiments. Sir Edward Cecil, sitting for Chichester, left England soon after Parliament adjourned for the summer, as did his fellow colonel Lord L’Isle, knight for Kent. L’Isle’s travelling companions included Sir William Harington, one of the Members for Newtown, Isle of Wight, who, though not a soldier, evidently had business interests in the Netherlands. L’Isle returned to England on 8 December, but did not reach London until the 19th, the day on which the Parliament broke up.127 Cecil arrived in the capital sooner – by 17 December at the latest– but only by a whisker.128 Even after the renewal of hostilities, the demands of a military commission may have kept a number of Members from Westminster. In 1625 Sir Thomas Littleton, who commanded a company of foot in the Low Countries, preferred to travel abroad rather than take up his seat in Parliament as knight for Worcestershire.129

Although the law terms caused disruption to the Commons, they were not responsible for the worst collapses in attendance of the early Stuart period. This is not as surprising as it may seem, as the law courts were so close at hand that it was easy for absentees to return to the chamber when their business was completed. Attendance fell most sharply when the lawyers could not return to the House rather than when they could, a point that has previously escaped notice.

There were two periods in the English legal calendar when the majority of the lawyer-Members were unwilling or unable to attend Parliament – the winter and summer assizes. By the early seventeenth century most barristers earned the greater part of their livelihood from circuit work.130 Whenever the assizes drew near the lawyers in the Commons had to choose between absenteeism on the one hand and a significant loss of income on the other. This was a choice that needed to be made with considerable frequency, for between 1604 and 1629 only the autumn session of 1610, the Parliament of 1614, the winter sitting of 1621 and the Westminster sitting of 1625 did not overlap with the assizes. It is scarcely surprising that lawyer-Members often put their financial well being ahead of the needs of Parliament.

The impact of the assizes on attendance was exacerbated by the fact that it was not only barristers who were affected. Many gentry Members had suits before the circuit judges, while others like Thomas Remchinge, who in 1607 wished to give evidence against a seminary priest, were needed as witnesses.131 Moreover, during the 1620s two long-serving Members of the House – Matthew Cradock, clerk of the Oxford circuit and Francis Lucy, clerk of the Midlands circuit – were required to attend the assizes, though they themselves were not practising lawyers.

There is a striking correlation between the assizes and the sudden, dramatic falls in attendance that marked the sessions of 1606, 1607 and 1610. This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by reference to the events of February 1607. On 12 February, two days after the House reconvened following Christmas, Hilary term came to an end. This was the signal for the lawyers and those with suits before the justices of assize to begin leaving London. Two weeks later the king sent the Commons his irate message demanding that Members remain in town until the Union was ‘brought to more ripeness and perfection’. Four days after that, it was reported that the barrister-Member Lawrence Hyde, ‘pleading certain business of his clients and other his private occasions of profit and necessity’ had left town ‘without the assent or leave of the House’. Four other lawyer-Members were also said to have ‘gone down in the same circuit’.132 By this time the assizes were in full swing: the judges of the Home circuit sat at Rochester on 9 March, at Hertford on the 20th and at Chelmsford on the 23rd.133 The impact of the exodus is revealed by the mid-morning division of 26 March, which indicated the presence of just 42% of all Members; and on the 28th the House described itself as ‘but half a body’ whose Members were ‘scattered’.134

Absenteeism caused by the assizes pre-dated the first Jacobean Parliament, but has largely gone unnoticed.135 The poorly attended session of 1581 coincided with the winter assizes,136 and in March 1585, as the judges began traversing the Home circuit, the Commons was reported to be ‘of no great number’.137 Assize-related absenteeism was also commonplace after 1610. On demanding to know in March 1624 why so many lawyers had not yet received the Members’ communion, Edward Nicholas learned that it was because they had gone on circuit.138 The brief but poorly attended sitting at Oxford in August 1625 not only met in the shadow of plague but against the backdrop of the summer assizes. Among the absentees was the future Lord Keeper, Edward Littleton, who obtained formal leave of absence on 4 August. His private journal not only demonstrates that he travelled the Oxford circuit in August 1625 but also shows that he did the same in 1624 and 1626, when he should have been in the Commons.139 The impact of the assizes on the Oxford sitting may have been considerable, for two days after the dissolution Lord Keeper Williams, challenged by the king to explain his failure to exercise greater control over the Commons, explained that his influence in the lower House had been greatly reduced ‘by reason of the paucity of the lawyers, who were in the circuit’.140

Although the assizes continued to have a noticeable effect on Commons attendance after 1610, the 1620s witnessed something of a sea change. From 1621 it ceased to be axiomatic that whenever the assizes coincided with Parliament the Commons would suffer a sharp fall in attendance. Members themselves were taken by surprise by this development. In February 1621 the House sought to avoid the anticipated exodus,141 but as late as 6 March 75% of Members were in the chamber even though the Home circuit was well underway.142 On the 22nd, six days after the Hertford assizes, attendance still stood at around 68%, and four days later the chamber was so crowded that a committee was established to consider increasing the seating.143 The same picture emerges when the evidence for 1626 is examined. On 8 March, the day of the Maidstone assizes and one day after the assizes at Reading, the Commons mustered more than 80% of its strength.144

It seems clear that, in general, those who sat in the Commons during the 1620s were more conscientious about attending than their predecessors. Much may have depended on whether Members felt sufficiently motivated to turn up. During the 1606 and 1607 sessions few could muster much enthusiasm for the Union. Only a handful troubled to attend the committee for the bill to abolish Hostile Laws on 9 May 1607, for instance, and those who came arrived late, tardiness which Thomas Wilson ascribed to ‘unwilling proceeding’.145 A lack of enthusiasm for the Great Contract must also go some way towards explaining the attendance problems experienced during both sessions of 1610. Among the absentees was Sir William Lower, who spent June making astronomical observations from south Wales rather than debating the king’s necessities at Westminster.146 After 1610, however, Members in general proved keen to pursue their own agenda, and to oppose royal policies of which they disapproved or Crown ministers whom they disliked. This meant that they could no longer achieve their objectives – as to some extent they had done with respect to the Union – by simply failing to turn up. Moreover, as relations between king and Commons reached crisis point many Members found themselves drawn to the chamber like moths to a flame. As has been noticed already, on 1 June 1614, as the Commons steadfastly refused to accede to the king’s demand for an immediate debate of supply until it had first received satisfaction in respect of impositions, no less than 83% of Members attended the House. On 8 March and 24 April 1626, during the attempted impeachment of Buckingham in 1626, more than four-fifths of Members were recorded as being present, while on 13 May 1628, in the middle of the debates surrounding the Petition of Right, turnout rose to above 80%.147

As many Members came to realize that active opposition to royal policies or the king’s chief minister required their physical presence, so they became more intolerant of unauthorized absenteeism in their own ranks. In 1626 fines were imposed for the first time since 1610, but whereas on the latter occasion Members who missed a roll call without good reason were required to pay a mere 30s. for their offence, they were now ordered to pay £10. In all, twenty-five Members were subjected to this draconian penalty, although several culprits had their fines remitted after tendering their excuses.148 The prospect of incurring a hefty fine clearly proved a powerful deterrent to even the wealthiest of Members. Not only was the policy of fining on this scale reintroduced in the following session, but the House also resolved, in June 1628, to levy 12d. from any man who arrived after morning prayers.149 Moreover, from 1626 the number of those seeking licences of absence rose significantly, a sure sign that Members took the threat of being fined seriously. Thirty-three licences were issued in 1626 compared with just three in 1625 and two in 1624; in 1628 the Commons issued twenty-eight licences, more than all those granted in the parliaments of 1614, 1621, 1624 and 1625 combined. The significant fall in attendance that occurred in late May 1628 was not an indication that the policy of fining no longer served to deter absenteeism but resulted from a widely held but incorrect assumption that the king would allow the House to adjourn for Whitsun.150

In 1628 the House not only attempted to compel attendance but also, during the debates surrounding the Petition of Right, to prevent its Members from leaving the chamber. On 1 and 2 May Members were actually locked in.151 At the meeting of the grand committee for considering the Lords’ proposed additions to the Petition on 22 May, Members were ordered not to depart without permission and the serjeant-at-arms was instructed to man the door to the lobby to ensure this ruling was observed. When Sir William Herbert subsequently left without authorization the serjeant was ordered to bring him back.152 On 5 June the House, again sitting as a grand committee and fearing a repetition of the disobedience displayed by Herbert, threatened to send to the Tower any man who attempted to leave. Members’ freedom to come and go as they pleased was again curtailed the following day, and also on the 9th.153 Astonishingly, no-one seems to have complained openly at these restrictions, even though as recently as December 1621, when a grand committee first decided to lock its own members inside the chamber while it drafted the Protestation, Sir Humphrey May had protested that it was ‘a fundamental liberty of the House that at a committee every man may go out of the House that will’.154 One reason that Members consented to having their movements restricted in 1628 was that they wished to maintain utmost secrecy while deliberating the Petition, for were they to be free to leave the chamber whenever they wished word of their discussions would soon leak out. However, by compelling attendance and refusing to allow Members to leave, the Commons could also hope to achieve the greatest possible legitimacy for its proceedings. James I’s jibe that the Protestation of 1621 had been agreed by only a third of all Members could not with justice be hurled at the authors of the Petition of Right.

Like their Tudor and medieval forbears, Members of the early Stuart House of Commons pursued outside interests which frequently impinged upon their parliamentary activities. Official duties, professional obligations and personal business all intruded upon the life of the House to a greater or lesser extent, taking many Members away from the Commons’ chamber, often when they were needed there the most. The legal calendar, in particular, was a considerable enemy of Commons attendance. During the law terms the professional lawyers curtailed the amount of time they spent in the Commons in order to practise at the bar, while during assizes they were generally unavailable at all. Even Members who were not lawyers were often obliged to spend time away from the Commons to help administer justice since many of them were active magistrates. A Parliament that avoided the legal calendar was a practical impossibility. Even so, unlike the Midlands Rising or the plague epidemic of 1625, the course of the law year was predictable and so, therefore, were its likely effects on Commons business. It is a measure of the poor advice that he received from his Council that in 1607 James I ordered the Union to be debated as the winter assizes approached.

Members’ outside interests, though, comprise only one part of the story. A vital element in determining levels of attendance was the importance Members attached to their presence. On the face of it the sharp decline in attendance that occurred in March 1606 and March 1607 was mainly down to the assizes, but this is not an entirely satisfactory explanation, for during the 1620s the assizes did not result in widescale absenteeism. Many Members undoubtedly stayed away from the Commons in 1606 and 1607, not because they wished to attend the assizes, but because they wanted to avoid debating the Union, which was widely unpopular in the Commons. In other words, in 1606 and 1607 passive opposition to royal policy was translated into poor attendance.

Of course, turnout did not have to be abnormally low for attendance to serve as an indicator of political discord. Writing in the aftermath of the passage of the Petition of Right, Sir Edward Coke claimed that ‘when there is best appearance, there is the best success in Parliament’,155 but in point of fact one of the most well attended assemblies of the early Stuart period – that of 1614 – was also the most sterile. In the early seventeenth century, an exceptionally well-attended lower House was not necessarily evidence of harmonious relations between the Commons and the king.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Andrew Thrush

End Notes

  • 1. Just a few stray remarks appear in W. Notestein, The House of Commons 1604-10, pp. 209, 245, 397, 400. With the exception of the 1625 assembly, Conrad Russell’s study of the parliaments of the 1620s ignores attendance: Russell, PEP, 205, 217, 222.
  • 2. S. Lambert, ‘Committees, Religion, and Parliamentary Encroachment on Royal Authority in Early Stuart Eng.’, EHR, cv. 67-8; M.F. Keeler, ‘The Committee for Privileges of the House of Commons 1604-10 and 1614’, PH, xiii. 155, 159, 163; 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. See also D. Smith, The Stuart Parls., 1603-89, pp. 23-4.
  • 3. Normally, only the fact that a call had been held was recorded in the Journal, although the clerk made an exception on 9 Apr. 1606, CJ, i. 295. For the existence of a register for roll calls, see CJ, i. 381b, 406.
  • 4. Suff. RO, FL501/11/351.
  • 5. Diary of John Rous ed. M.E. Green (Cam. Soc. lxvi), 16-17; CD 1628, iv. 426. For further evidence that Members habitually left without seeking formal permission, see ‘Paulet 1610’, f. 2; CJ, i. 403b.
  • 6. For evidence that the Commons was normally thinly attended during the first hour of proceedings, see Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 135.
  • 7. For an example of this misconception, see Loach, Parl. under the Tudors, 40-1.
  • 8. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 202-3.
  • 9. CJ, i. 417b; CD 1628, iv. 8.
  • 10. CJ, i. 300b.
  • 11. G. Hicks, The Life and Death of David (1645), p. 20. I am grateful to Paul Hunneyball for this reference. See also Lambert, ‘Committees, Religion and Parliamentary Encroachment’, 68; Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 453.
  • 12. Bath and N.E. Som. RO, chamberlains’ accts., transcript, i. nos. 45, 47-9, 51; E. Kent Archives Centre, NR/AC 1, f. 210v.
  • 13. Glos. RO, GBR B3/1, f. 262.
  • 14. Trans. Devon Assoc. lxviii. 108; CJ, i. 1012a.
  • 15. W. Devon RO, W132, f. 157v.
  • 16. Bowyer Diary, 97.
  • 17. CJ, ii. 63. I am grateful to Jason Peacey for this reference. For an instance of the House becoming inquorate after this date, see Pvte. Jnls. of the Long Parl. 3 Jan. to 5 March 1642, p. 443.
  • 18. On the second of these occasions the sitting was also abandoned because the noise of drums and fifes outside was too loud to proceed. It may have been these episodes, both of which are discussed below, which led William Hakewill to remark in May 1621 that the Commons ‘doth use to adjourn itself upon all occasions’ whenever attendance was so slender that those present ‘are too few to pass laws’: CD 1621, v. 190.
  • 19. CD 1621, ii. 63. No record of this ruling was entered in the Commons Journal, nor was it said what would happen if, after prayers, numbers fell below twenty.
  • 20. CJ, i. 343b, 376a; Bowyer Diary, 299.
  • 21. Procs. 1610, ii. 288-9.
  • 22. Bowyer Diary, 351.
  • 23. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 245.
  • 24. CJ, i. 642b; CD 1621, vi. 317.
  • 25. J. Rushworth, Historical Collections, i. 54.
  • 26. CJ, i. 980a.
  • 27. Ibid. 1035a. In the draft version of his Journal, however, the clerk avoided hyperbole and recorded, rather more accurately, that the bill was not read ‘by reason the House was not full enough to put it to the question of passage’: HLRO, ms Journal 7, f. 129.
  • 28. CJ, i. 655a; ‘Pym 1624’, f. 61.
  • 29. Bowyer Diary, 293; CJ, i. 522b, 570b; Procs. 1625, p. 424; Procs. 1626, iii. 139; CD 1628, iii. 629.
  • 30. CJ, i. 343b.
  • 31. Ibid. 641a; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 202-3.
  • 32. CD 1621, iv. 160.
  • 33. Coates, Young and Snow reckon, on the basis of pictorial representations of the House, that the Commons ‘had seating space for only about one-half of the Members’. Pvte. Journals of the Long Parl. 3 Jan. –5 March 1642, xxi.
  • 34. CJ, i. 141b. For a more detailed discussion of the provision of additional seating, see Chapter 6.
  • 35. Chamberlain Letters, i. 525.
  • 36. Procs. 1626, iii. 61; CD 1628, ii. 193.
  • 37. CD 1628, ii. 417.
  • 38. CJ, i. 199a, 205a, 240a, 993a, divisions of 4 and 9 May, and 15 June; 332, 329 and 340 MPs, plus Speaker, present. It is true that by 3 July attendance had slumped to just 37%, but this happened on the last day of the session, when many members may already have left for home, CJ, i. 251b, 1000b, division of 3 July, 175 MPs plus Speaker present.
  • 39. CJ, i. 541a.
  • 40. Procs. 1625, p. 217; Procs. 1626, ii. 227; iii. 53; CD 1628, iii. 386.
  • 41. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 405. The reasons behind this extraordinarily high turnout are discussed below.
  • 42. Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton ed. L. Pearsall Smith, ii. 31.
  • 43. CJ, i. 276b, 286a, 286b, 287b.
  • 44. CJ, i. 291a; Bowyer Diary, 97.
  • 45. Bowyer Diary, 99-101.
  • 46. CJ, i. 295b.
  • 47. Ibid. 300b, 303b, 305a.
  • 48. The House had divided two days earlier, when only 141 MPs were present, but as the division occurred early in the day it seems unwise to attach too much significance to it: CJ, i. 340b.
  • 49. Ibid. 344a, 347a, 1022a, 1025b. For repeated attempts to legislate between 1554 and 1559, see HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 17-19.
  • 50. CJ, i. 354b, 355a.
  • 51. Ibid. 356b.
  • 52. Ibid. 364a. See also Bowyer Diary, 253; HMC Buccleuch, iii. 115.
  • 53. CJ, i. 364a.
  • 54. Ibid. 366b, 368b.
  • 55. Bowyer Diary, 299; CJ, i. 376a.
  • 56. CJ, i. 376a, 379b; Bowyer Diary, 363.
  • 57. CJ, i. 403a, 405a, 408b, 412b, 415b.
  • 58. Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, i. 281; CJ, i. 440a, 443b; LJ, ii. 633a, 637b.
  • 59. CJ, i. 448b.
  • 60. Hants RO, 44M69/F2/6/1.
  • 61. Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 296.
  • 62. Parl. Debates 1610 ed. Gardiner, 127.
  • 63. Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 347.
  • 64. CJ, i. 640a; CD 1621, iii. 410.
  • 65. CJ, i. 663b.
  • 66. Procs. 1625, pp. 510, 718.
  • 67. CJ, i. 140b, 455b, 670b.
  • 68. Life and Original Corresp. of Sir George Radcliffe ed. T.D. Whitaker, 161.
  • 69. Moir has calculated that 281 out of 464 Members, or 61% of the whole, were novices, but in fact only 266 Members were newcomers and there were 471 seats available (discounting the two seats at Minehead, which borough briefly lost its representation): Moir, Addled Parl. 55.
  • 70. CJ, i. 510, 513.
  • 71. Hatfield House, Cecil Pprs. 115, f. 137. I am grateful to Simon Healy for this reference.
  • 72. CJ, i. 295b.
  • 73. Procs. 1626, ii. 431.
  • 74. Procs. 1625, p. 718.
  • 75. Magdalene College, Cambridge, Ferrar Pprs., 23 Dec. 1625, Sandys to Nicholas Ferrar.
  • 76. P. Slack, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart London, 145-6.
  • 77. CJ, i. 296b.
  • 78. Ibid. 295b, 298b. Lambert states that the high attendance at the call of the House on 9 April shows that Members were prepared to stay in town even in time of plague, but she has overlooked both the anxieties expressed the following day in the Commons and the sharp fall in attendance indicated by the division held on the 15th: Lambert, ‘Committees, Religion and Parliamentary Encroachment’, 68.
  • 79. Birch, Ct. and Times of Jas. I, i. 124; CJ, i. 448b.
  • 80. J.E. Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism, 164-7.
  • 81. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 116.
  • 82. CJ, i. 416b, 695b.
  • 83. Cent. Kent. Stud., S/EK/SO2, unfol., entries of 13 Apr. and 31 May 1604.
  • 84. Cornw. RO, B/LAUS/339-40.
  • 85. Procs. 1626, ii. 68.
  • 86. CJ, i. 277.
  • 87. Q. Sessions Rolls V: 1603-6 ed. S.A.H. Burne (William Salt Arch. Soc. 1940), pp. 119-20; CJ, i. 176b.
  • 88. HALS, QSB 2A, f. 87.
  • 89. CJ, i. 629a, 631a. The nationwide muster was ordered on 28 Feb., but returns were not required until 24 June (APC, 1619-21, p. 355). Essex held its musters between 5 and 7 May. Bedfordshire, Nottinghamshire, Cheshire and Lancashire did so in early June: The Maynard Lieutenancy Bk. 1608-39 ed. B.W. Quintrell, pt. 1, pp. 54-5; CSP Dom. 1619-23, pp. 261-2.
  • 90. CJ, i. 353a.
  • 91. Ibid. 649b.
  • 92. Ibid. 236b.
  • 93. M. Kishlansky, Selection, 65-6.
  • 94. Bagg did not leave Plymouth for Westminster until the end of April 1628, by which time the Commons had sat for around six weeks: Procs. 1628, vi. 209; CSP Dom. 1628-9, p. 99.
  • 95. SP16/135/38.
  • 96. Procs. 1610, ii. 64.
  • 97. ‘Hawarde 1624’, p. 307; SP14/165/11.
  • 98. CJ, i. 797a, 797b.
  • 99. CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 219. See also William Whiteway of Dorchester His Diary 1618 to 1635 (Dorset Rec. Soc. xii), 33.
  • 100. CD 1621, ii. 53. For a discussion of the impact of the assizes on attendance, see below.
  • 101. CJ, i. 228a; Wilts. N. and Q. iv. 368.
  • 102. CJ, i. 424a, 432a.
  • 103. CD 1628, ii. 397-8, 402-5; Procs. 1628, vi. 177-8.
  • 104. Top. and Gen. ii. 461; Warws. RO, CR136/B1102.
  • 105. CJ, i. 580a.
  • 106. Diary of Sir Simonds D’Ewes ed. E. Bourcier, 189; CJ, i. 751b.
  • 107. ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 110v.
  • 108. HMC 11th Rep. pt. 1, p. 57. The dispatch is dated 24 April new style (i.e. 14 April o.s.).
  • 109. ‘Paulet 1610’, f. 14v; CJ, i. 434b.
  • 110. Bowyer Diary, 253. The clerk recorded in his Journal that there were ‘not above three-score’ present: CJ, i. 364a.
  • 111. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 115; CJ, i. 364a.
  • 112. CSP Ven. 1603-7, p. 494; HMC Hatfield, xix. 85.
  • 113. CJ, i. 368b.
  • 114. SR, ii. 177.
  • 115. Q. Sess. Recs. (N. Riding Rec. Soc.), i. 30.
  • 116. CJ, i. 188a, 962b, 442b, 602b, 650a, 693a, 891a, 925b; Bowyer Diary, 25, 341; Procs. 1626, iii. 269.
  • 117. Bowyer Diary, 98-9; CJ, i. 1025b.
  • 118. CJ, i. 668a.
  • 119. Ibid. 441a, 441b.
  • 120. WARD 9/528, ff. 12v, 89v, 109v-10.
  • 121. HMC Portland, ix. 23.
  • 122. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 251.
  • 123. Ibid. 199, 206.
  • 124. L.M. Hill, Bench and Bureaucracy, 223.
  • 125. For supporting evidence, see CJ, i. 640a, 650b; CD 1621, iii. 410.
  • 126. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 414, 416; HMC Exeter, 113.
  • 127. L’Isle’s movements in 1621 can be tracked through his personal financial records, for which see Cent. Kent. Stud., U1475/A41/2, ff. 8v-9, 15, 25-6. For the evidence that Harington had business interests in the Netherlands, see C78/295/3.
  • 128. CJ, i. 666b.
  • 129. C2/Chas.I/L4/17.
  • 130. J.S. Cockburn, A Hist. of English Assizes, 1558-1714, p. 143.
  • 131. CJ, i. 353b.
  • 132. Ibid. 346a, 346b.
  • 133. Cal. of Assize Recs., Kent Indictments, Jas. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 33; Cal. of Assize Recs., Herts. Indictments, Jas. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 33; Cal. of Assize Recs. Essex Indictments, Jas. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 14.
  • 134. CJ, i. 354b, 355a, 356b.
  • 135. Wilfred Prest appears to be alone in noticing the phenomenon: Prest, Rise of the Barristers, 255.
  • 136. CJ, i. 127b, 128a, 129b, 130a, 136b; Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, i. 546; Cal. of Assize Recs., Suss. Indictments, Eliz. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 158; Cal. of Assize Recs., Surr. Indictments, Eliz. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 211; Cal. of Assize Recs., Essex Indictments, Eliz. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 208.
  • 137. D’Ewes, Jnls. of all the Parls. 361b. For evidence that the assizes were then being held, see ibid. 362a, 365b; Cal. of Assize Recs., Suss. Indictments, Eliz. I ed. Cockburn, 264; Cal. of Assize Recs., Essex Indictments, Eliz. I ed. Cockburn, 258.
  • 138. ‘Nicholas 1624’, ff. 87v-8.
  • 139. Procs. 1625, p. 385; Exeter Coll., Oxford, Jones ms 168. The importance of Littleton’s manuscript for the study of attendance was first noticed by G.D.G. Hall, ‘An Assize Book of the Seventeenth Century’, American Jnl. of Legal Hist. vii. 235.
  • 140. J. Hacket, Scrinia Reserata (1691), p. 17. I owe this reference to the kindness of Lloyd Bowen. The assizes continued to be regarded as a problem by the government as late as February 1659, when they were postponed so that the Lord Protector’s party in the Commons would not ‘lose so considerable a part of their strength as the lawyers’: S. Bethell, A True and Impartial Narrative (1811), p. 7. I am grateful to Patrick Little for this reference.
  • 141. CD 1621, v. 456; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 37-8.
  • 142. CJ, i. 541a. The Maidstone assizes sat 28 Feb., the Sussex assizes on (at East Grinstead) on 5 Mar.: Cal. of Assize Recs., Kent Indictments, Jas. I ed. Cockburn, 178; Cal. of Assize Recs., Suss. Indictments ed. Cockburn, 158.
  • 143. CJ, i. 570a, 573a; Cal. of Assize Recs., Herts. Indictments, Jas. I ed. Cockburn, 237.
  • 144. Procs. 1626, ii. 227. For the date of the Reading assizes, see Exeter Coll., Oxford, Jones ms 168, f. 99. For the Maidstone assizes, see Cal. of Assize Recs. Kent Indictments, Charles I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 11.
  • 145. Bowyer Diary, 382.
  • 146. P.M. Hunneyball, Sir William Lower and the Harriot Circle (The Durham Thomas Harriot Seminar, Occasional Paper 31), p. 7.
  • 147. Procs. 1626, ii. 227; iii. 53; CD 1628, iii. 386.
  • 148. Procs. 1626, iii. 344, 346-7, 350, 368.
  • 149. CD 1628, ii. 375-6; iv. 138; Rushworth, i. 610.
  • 150. For the king’s belated order requiring the House to continue sitting, see CD 1628, iv. 14. Those Members who absented themselves in anticipation of a recess were treated sympathetically by their colleagues, who reduced their fine to 20s. each: CD 1628, iv. 51, 53.
  • 151. CD 1628, iii. 186, 208.
  • 152. Ibid. 526.
  • 153. Ibid. iv. 138, 197.
  • 154. CD 1621, vi. 339.
  • 155. Coke, Fourth Part of the Institutes of the Laws of Eng. 1.