VI. Times of Sitting

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

Over the course of the early seventeenth century a silent and hitherto unnoticed revolution took place in respect of the Commons’ working arrangements. At the beginning of James’s reign the House generally met only in the mornings, since the afternoons were reserved for committees. However this traditional arrangement soon began to break down, and by the 1620s it was not uncommon for the House to sit for the entire House day. Whereas under Elizabeth a Member could reasonably expect the working day to last as little as three hours (not including time spent in committee), his counterpart in the 1620s was faced with the prospect of spending up to eight or nine hours each day in the chamber, not to mention further time in bill committees. How and why this dramatic shift in the working day of Members took place requires explanation but before this is done, something more needs to be said about the general working pattern of the Commons.

Days of sitting

To a very large extent the Commons’ working rhythm was dictated by the Christian calendar. Except for a single occasion in October 1566, when a committee met on the Sabbath to consider petitioning the queen over the succession, no meeting ever took place on a Sunday. When, in May 1604, the Lords proposed conferring with the Commons on a Sunday they were politely rebuffed by the lower House, which offered ‘any other day’ instead.1 Although sittings normally took place on the remaining six days of the week, the Commons customarily rose for the principal religious feasts: Easter, Whitsun, St. John the Baptist (24 June), All Hallows (1 November), Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day.2 Most of these adjournments were of short duration, but sometimes the Easter break was lengthy: in 1604 it lasted six days, and in 1607 Members rose for no less than three weeks. Spring sessions generally witnessed an adjournment for Ascension Day. Many of the hotter sort of Protestants in the House disapproved of this practice and twice precipitated divisions, one of which – that of 1604 – resulted in a continued sitting.3

In addition to these customary adjournments, the Jacobean House of Commons habitually observed the anniversary of James’s accession (24 March 1603), cutting short its morning proceedings to allow Members to attend a service in Westminster Abbey. Afternoon committee meetings were also abandoned, at least in 1621. This brief adjournment to celebrate the monarch’s accession, misleadingly known to contemporaries as ‘Coronation Day’, was said in 1610 to have begun under Elizabeth, though the surviving records for 1597 and 1601 suggest otherwise.4 However the practice mysteriously ceased in 1624 and was not resumed under Charles I.5 Unlike the Lords, the Commons sat on St. George’s Day (23 April), with the sole exception of 1607, when the festivities were seized upon as an excuse to adjourn a thin House.6

Although the main religious feasts were the cause of regular adjournments, the Commons claimed the right to adjourn itself, as did the Lords, and so in theory could interrupt its proceedings whenever it wished.7 In January 1606 business was suspended for a day so that Members could attend the trial of the Gunpowder plotters, and in February 1629 the House refused to sit on the 24th after the king required it to desist from pursuing the customs officials responsible for levying Tunnage and Poundage.8 The Commons, if it so wished, could use the right to adjourn itself to lengthen an existing holiday. Thus in 1607 the Coronation Day celebrations were extended when the House, emulating the Lords, took the following day off. In 1610 the Commons contemplated augmenting the All Hallows break by taking off the Feast of All Souls (2 November), but eventually resolved to continue sitting, because Members ‘knew not what occasion [there] might be of a quick meeting after the king’s speech’.9

In general the Commons were loath to abandon their holidays. When the Lords asked for a meeting on Whit Monday 1604, the request was declined as ‘it had never been usual for the Parliament to sit on those days’.10 However in 1625, against a background of rising plague, Members voluntarily set aside their observance of the Feast of St. John the Baptist ‘in regard of the great business in hand and the shortness of time they have to sit’.11 In 1628 the Commons conspicuously failed to break for Easter or Whitsun, being ordered to continue sitting by the king, who was determined to force the House to complete its business concerning the liberties of the subject so that it might turn to voting subsidies.12 Charles’s intervention, which raised a question over the Commons’ right to adjourn itself, 13 caused resentment, and in respect of Easter proved only partly effective, as the king’s instruction was not communicated to the House until the Thursday before Good Friday, by which time many Members had already slipped away.14

Before the 1620s the advent of a holiday normally signalled the suspension of all business, including all committee work. No committees sat during Easter 1606: indeed, the House’s legislative committees could not meet, because Members had been instructed to surrender all unreported bills to the clerk before the adjournment for safekeeping.15 In the following year, only the committee investigating the mistreatment of English merchants by the Spanish was permitted to assemble over Easter, and on the day the House rose for Whitsun it was ‘moved and agreed that no committees should sit until their next meeting’.16 A reluctance to allow committees to convene during the holidays was also apparent in 1610, and again in 1614: on 3 April 1610 it was ordered that the recusancy committee ‘and no other’ should sit over Easter, and on 19 April 1614 it was announced that only the committee for drafting a bill to regulate parliamentary elections would be permitted to assemble during the recess.17 It was wholly exceptional that in 1604 six committees met over Easter.18 This striking departure from normal practice was probably intended to impress the new king with a show of zeal and efficiency, but since it occurred at the height of the quarrel between James and the Commons over the Buckinghamshire election, it is unlikely to have achieved the desired effect.

The Commons’ reluctance to allow committees to sit during an adjournment evaporated in 1621 when the House, meeting after an interval of more than six years, was overwhelmed with business. Faced with this surge in demand, Sir Robert Phelips proposed that any Member intending to stay in London over Easter should report to the clerk, so that three committees could be established to continue the work of the grand committees. At the same time moves were made to permit several legislative committees to meet. Both suggestions aroused some disquiet. Sir Edward Giles desired that part of the holiday be kept free of committees so that Members might have ‘vacant times to refresh themselves’, while Sir George More, overlooking the precedent of 1604, averred that bill committees had never met during a holiday. Edward Alford, too, argued that legislative committees could not function during a recess as bills were to be surrendered to the clerk whenever the House adjourned. However, William Hakewill, overlooking the evidence of 1606, maintained that bills were only handed to the clerk when the Parliament was dissolved or prorogued.19 As Hakewill was the House’s leading expert on procedure it was his intervention that proved decisive, and over Easter at least three legislative committees met.20 The precedent thereby established paved the way later in the same Parliament for committees to sit in the afternoon on Ascension Day and during Whitsun week.21 The novelty of these developments nevertheless occasioned a backlash, for in 1624 the House expressly forbade any committee from sitting over the Easter holiday, apart from that for the expiring laws continuance bill which needed to draft fresh legislation by the time the House reassembled.22 Even so, committees sat on Ascension Day, as they had done in 1621.23 By 1626 the pendulum had swung back again, for on 25 May, when the House adjourned for Whitsun, it was ‘with a saving of all committees specially ordered to meet or proceed in any business’.24

Although committees were generally forbidden from meeting during an adjournment, they enjoyed considerable scope to determine their own times of meeting. The House determined the time and place of the first meeting of a committee, but thereafter committees were usually at liberty to decide when and where they should next meet.25 As a rule only those committees which found themselves inquorate, and therefore incapable of setting the time of their next meeting, came back to the House for further instructions. In 1604 committees notified the House whenever they changed their meeting arrangements, but in February 1606 the Commons grew tired of this system, which took up valuable time, and gave committee members the freedom to appoint a day amongst themselves ‘without making [it] known to the House’. This evidently proved to be a retrograde step, however, for in February 1607 it was ordered ‘that the adjournment of every committee, amongst themselves, should be published the next day in the House’.26 Notification of the times of committee meetings, and perhaps also the details of changed arrangements, were posted on the doors to the Commons chamber, a practice that was described in 1621 as ‘ancient’.27

Morning sittings of the House

Before the 1620s the House normally assembled at eight in the morning.28 However the chamber was often thinly attended at the start of the day, as Members were frequently slow to arrive. Consequently, it was accepted practice for the early morning to be set aside for the first reading of bills, which did not require a well-attended chamber. Second and third readings generally occurred later in the morning since they merited the attention of a fuller assembly.29 It was in order to ensure the preservation of this arrangement that in April 1614 Sir Edwin Sandys proposed ‘that no bill may be read the second time until half past eight, and the 3rd time till past nine’.30

As a session wore on the backlog of business tended to grow, causing many Members to become anxious that they would not be able to complete their business before the Parliament was dissolved. Under such circumstances there was a natural tendency to convene earlier than eight o’clock. Seven weeks into the 1614 Parliament Members were henceforth ordered to assemble at 7am, while nine weeks after the opening of the 1624 Parliament they were instructed to attend ‘by half an hour after seven of the clock; and bills to be put to passage by eight’.31 In 1621 the panic at being faced with a heavy workload not only caused committees to continue sitting over Easter but also set in much earlier than in previous parliaments. Just six days into the Parliament, the Commons held a roll call at seven. Thereafter, as a letter from the Hull Member John Lister makes plain, the House continued to assemble every morning at the same hour, much to the disgust of Sir Henry Poole, who complained in May of the long hours that Members were expected to work.32 Seven o’clock was just about the earliest that most Members were prepared to start work. When, on the morning of 28 March 1604, several Members turned out at six to discuss how best to defend the election of Sir Francis Goodwin before the king, whom they were due to meet at eight, they were obliged to read bills instead, as most of their colleagues had failed to stir from their beds.33

Lengthening the morning sitting not only created extra time but also helped to make up lost time. On 23 March 1610 the House, contemplating the hour which would be spent in attending the Coronation Day sermon at Westminster Abbey the following morning, resolved to meet an hour earlier than usual.34 However, time lost was often irrecoverable. On 27 May 1614, four days after the House had resolved to meet each morning at seven, proceedings were delayed until almost ten by the Speaker’s late arrival. The three hours thereby lost were never made up, but the next day Members came better prepared, as ‘a committee of the whole House sat till the Speaker came’.35

Although before the 1620s committee meetings were normally confined to the afternoons, it was not unknown for committees to intrude upon the morning schedule. In April 1610, for instance, three committees (on the preservation of woods and game, and on religion) were allowed to sit until nine o’clock.36 Prior to the 1620s committees sitting at the same time as the House were uncontroversial, even though they necessarily deprived the Commons of part of its membership. However, in 1621, owing to the great press of business, the continuance of this practice came to be regarded by some as an annoyance. On 1 May Edward Alford, irritated that several committees were meeting between eight and nine, a time customarily reserved for bill readings, suggested that the House should allow ‘no committees [to] sit when the House sits to pass bills’. Six months later Alford persuaded the House to reject Sir James Perrot’s proposal for committees to sit in the mornings to receive petitions, arguing that such an arrangement would cause many Members to be ‘absent from the public service of the House’.37

Despite Alford’s objections, committees were never forbidden from meeting while the House was sitting. The closest the Commons came to issuing such a ban was on 1 May 1624, when it ordered that ‘no committee shall sit after eight o’clock’. Significantly, the reservation ‘without special order’ was added to this ruling, and just three weeks later, on 22 May, the House issued just such a dispensation in respect of the committee regarding the Fleet prison, which was ordered to meet at eight o’clock on the 25th.38 Banning committees from sitting while the House was in session would have severely hamstrung the work of bill committees, which were already finding it difficult to work around the newly emerged committees of the whole House (a subject discussed below). It would have deprived the Commons of the ability to require a committee to meet straight away in those cases where the House was anxious to take immediate action. It would have meant, for example, that the House could not have ordered the committee for the informers’ bill on 6 March 1621 to ‘retire presently’ into the committee chamber to perfect the measure entrusted to it.39

One way to allow bill committees to meet in the mornings without forcing Members to decide between attending either the House or a committee was to permit them to convene before the House assembled. Prior to the 1620s this certainly happened. On 12 May 1604, for instance, the committee for the bill to naturalize the family of Sir Roger Aston was instructed to meet at seven on the 14th, and on 23 January 1606 the committee for the thanksgiving bill sought permission to reassemble the next morning ‘before the sitting of the court’.40 However, just as Members were reluctant to turn up for meetings of the House earlier than seven, so too they were unwilling to come along to committees at the crack of dawn. On 26 May 1606 the committee for the bill to repress popish recusants was ordered to meet at six the next morning, but the circumstances were exceptional, as 27 May was the last day of the session and the House was acutely aware that time was running out.41

The popularity of early morning committee meetings – meaning those held before eight o’clock – rose sharply in 1624, when at least 11 committees were instructed to assemble at seven.42 It seems likely that this was a response to the emergence of standing committees of the whole House, which so dominated afternoon proceedings that smaller committees were displaced from their traditional time slot.43 However, subsequent parliaments did not prove as keen as the 1624 assembly to require committees to meet at seven. On only five occasions in 1626 did the Commons issue such an instruction,44 and in 1628 the order to do so was given only seven times.45

Rising for dinner

The House normally rose each morning at eleven o’clock after a three-hour sitting. For those who had been up since the crack of dawn a hearty midday meal (known to contemporaries as dinner rather than lunch) beckoned, and woe betide any Member who kept his colleagues from their food by delivering an untimely speech. As Sir Robert Wingfield observed in 1607, it was ‘a great disadvantage to speak after a wise man or after eleven a clock’.46 Towards the end of the morning’s debate on 27 March 1628, Sir Richard Shilton promised his listeners that ‘I will not imprison your stomachs with any long discourses’.47 The importance of breaking for dinner on time meant that debates were often interrupted halfway through. On 4 December 1621, for instance, the House postponed consideration of a letter from the king which had just been read out until the following morning, it ‘being then upon the point of eleven of the clock’.48

Under normal circumstances it was the House, rather than the Speaker, that determined when the House should rise. However, since the Speaker served the king as well as the House, he was sometimes required to curtail unwelcome debates, to the dismay of his fellow Members. On 9 March 1621 Speaker Richardson, acting on instructions from James, attempted to cut short discussion of the referees by rising from his chair, only to be prevented from leaving by Sir William Herbert, who declared that ‘he was required by the greatest voice of the House to sit still’.49 Herbert was seconded by Sir Nathaniel Rich, who added that the Speaker ‘may never rise out of the House at an inconvenient time; nor at the ordinary time if the House oppose it, without deciding it by the question’. The problem posed by the Speaker’s dual loyalties remained unresolved, however, and on 2 March 1629, Speaker Finch, having been compelled by the king to announce an adjournment, was held down in his chair by several irate Members who claimed that the right of adjournment ‘did properly belong unto themselves’.50

Inevitably, as Elizabethan experience showed,51 there were occasions when the morning sitting had to be extended. When, in March 1610, the House ordered the committee of the whole House for wardship to sit until 9.30 each morning it also extended the morning sitting by half an hour.52 On 31 May 1604 the free trade debate lasted until almost twelve, while on 27 March 1607 the Commons agreed to remain sitting until midday in response to a request from the Lords.53 Midday seems to have been the normal time of rising for dinner in 1621, when the House struggled to cope with a vast workload.54 Sometimes Members sat even longer. On 31 May 1628 the Speaker, winding up the debate on whether Oxford or Cambridge should be accorded precedence in the subsidy bill, remarked drily that ‘though two universities be in question, yet it is but one o’clock’.55

Before the 1640s it was rare for the House to sit through dinner, which normally lasted until two.56 Indeed, the only occasion when this seems to have happened prior to the 1640s was on 13 and 14 June 1610, when those present were so immersed in debating the vital subject of impositions that they went without their dinners twice in succession.57 In general Members preferred to sacrifice part of the morning sitting rather than surrender all or part of their mealtime. Thus on 1 December 1606 the House opted to rise at ten rather than eleven after learning that a conference with the Lords that afternoon would begin at one rather than two.58

Though the House was reluctant to sit during the time reserved for dinner, committees were sometimes encouraged to do so. On 19 May 1604 the committee for religion was ordered to assemble in the Exchequer Chamber between one and two in order to appoint a subcommittee, and in March 1610 the subcommittees of the grand committee for grievances were ordered to sit ‘from one till three’. Whenever the Commons’ schedule was overcrowded it was almost inevitable that some committees had to meet during the dinner break. In 1626, for instance, the attempt to impeach Buckingham so dominated the Commons’ timetable that two committees were instructed to assemble at one o’clock.59

Afternoon sittings and the lengthening of the Commons’ day

The Elizabethan commentator John Hooker observed that neither the Commons nor the Lords ‘sit at after noons’, since these were reserved for committee meetings.60 As a general rule this statement was broadly accurate, at least before the 1620s, but there was always a demand for occasional afternoon meetings to be held. One reason for this was that, as a session wore on, the Commons inevitably found itself short of time to cope with the backlog of work. Another reason was the success with which the Commons attracted legislative business. There were sometimes so many bills to read and consider that there was not enough time to examine them all before dinner. On 19 April 1621 it was said that between 100 and 110 measures still awaited a first reading even though Parliament had been sitting since 30 January.61 Had morning meetings been devoted exclusively to bill readings, this volume of legislation would not have posed any difficulty. However, mornings were as much a time for general debate as for bill readings, and many Members wanted bills to be dealt with quickly so that they could turn to other matters. The prospect of shortening the amount of time available for debate in order to spend more time on reading bills was not one for which most Members had any great enthusiasm. Five days after Sir Thomas Trevor persuaded the House in March 1621 to defer second readings until nine, the Commons, following complaints from Edward Alford, Sir Edward Giles and Sir George Calvert, reverted to the practice established in 1614 of holding such readings at half past eight.62

Since the House was reluctant to surrender debating time to the reading of bills, the only way for it to keep up with its legislative business was to meet occasionally in the afternoon. However, many Members, especially those who lived busy lives outside the chamber, may have resented having to attend afternoon meetings, which were often arranged at extremely short notice.63 Moreover, if the House sat after lunch to read bills, how could Members also be expected to attend bill committees? Indeed, where was the point in reading more bills if the committees needed to consider them were hobbled in the process?

These conflicting priorities meant that the popularity of afternoon sittings tended to wax and wane from one Parliament to another, as the evidence from Elizabeth’s reign demonstrates. In 1563 the Commons sat on 21 afternoons out of a 12-week session, but in 1566 Members proved reluctant to repeat the experience, and the number of afternoon sittings fell to just two. The practice of assembling the whole House after dinner was nevertheless revived in 1571 at the suggestion of Thomas Norton who, perhaps exploiting the fact that more than 60% of his colleagues were new to the Commons, persuaded the House to sit every afternoon to read bills. These regular gatherings, described by Neale as ‘the sixteenth-century equivalent of our all night sittings’, were repeated in 1576, but thereafter their frequency again dwindled. Indeed, it was not until 1601 that afternoon meetings began once more to increase in frequency. In a session lasting 39 working days, the House assembled after lunch eight times. The driving force behind these meetings was Sir Robert Cecil, who was anxious to bring the Parliament to a speedy conclusion.64

This pattern – spasmodic bouts of afternoon sessions punctuated by long periods without them – was initially repeated under James. In 1604, when 88 days of business were transacted, ten afternoon sittings were held, mostly to clear a growing backlog of bills.65 Fewer such meetings occurred in the following session – just nine out of 104 days of business – but because four occurred in April 1606 a sense of unease was created. On 24 May there was ‘much dispute whether to sit in the afternoon’, and whether the Speaker had the right to order such gatherings; a vote was only avoided out of a ‘tender regard of the orders of the House’.66 In the short term the malcontents were thwarted, as the Commons met after lunch on 26 and 27 May,67 but their views were clearly not disregarded, for during the third session, in 1606-7, only four afternoon meetings were held.68

So up until 1607, then, the Elizabethan pattern prevailed: while afternoon meetings occasionally proved necessary there seems to have been a quiet consensus that they were best avoided if possible. However, beginning in 1610 the shape of the Commons’ day underwent a dramatic transformation. In the first session of 1610 the pressure for more afternoon meetings increased sharply, largely as a result of the volume of business generated by the negotiations over the Great Contract and the Commons’ concern to dispute the legality of impositions. The steepness of the increase is not readily apparent from the clerk’s Journal, which records just ten afternoon meetings, mostly in July, during the final two weeks of the session.69 The true figure was much higher, however, as the House frequently assembled after dinner, not under the Speaker but as the committee of the whole House, a body whose proceedings were not recorded in the Journal.

Committees composed of most Members had begun to appear towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, and in November 1606, during the Union debates, a committee that apparently consisted of every Member was set up.70 However, it was not until 1610, when standing committees on grievances, wardship and impositions were established, that committees of the whole House became a permanent fixture. From this date onwards these grand committees had a profound impact on the number of afternoon sittings, and therefore on the length of the Commons’ day. In 1610 perhaps the grand committee that made the greatest impact on afternoon sittings was the one that dealt with grievances. Between 20 February and the end of April its meetings appear to have been sporadic but confined exclusively to the afternoon.71 Thereafter, at the suggestion of Sir Edwin Sandys, who has been credited with the responsibility for turning the Elizabethan great committees into genuine grand committees,72 it was put on a more regular footing and its time was divided equally between the mornings and the afternoons. Even so, it still met three afternoons a week.73

The grand committees of 1610 represent a dramatic break with the Elizabethan past. Thereafter it became common for all Members to sit together in the afternoon. In 1614 a grand committee for considering petitions was established, and though it initially met for just one afternoon a week, by the middle of May it took up three.74 In 1621, 1624, 1626 and 1628 there were three standing grand committees, dealing with trade, grievances and the courts of justice, and between them they took up four afternoons a week.75 In 1629 the number of standing grand committees fell to just two, as the House decided not to establish a committee on the courts of justice, but even so these bodies accounted for three afternoons a week between them.76 Only in 1625 were standing grand committees deemed to be unnecessary.77 During the 1620s only Saturday afternoons, which were customarily set aside for the committee appointed to peruse the Journal, remained free of standing grand committees.

It was not only the grand committees which began to colonize the afternoons after 1610. During the 1620s the Speaker was required to preside over afternoon sittings of the House more frequently than ever before. Over the course of the first sitting of the 1621 Parliament, which lasted 76 working days, the Speaker sat in the afternoon 19 times, equivalent to one afternoon in every four. In 1624 and 1626 he presided over an afternoon sitting one day in every five.78 These percentages were not much higher than they had been under Elizabeth, but gone was the irregular pattern that had characterized the period before 1610; these Speaker-led sessions were a feature of every session. Moreover, in contrast to the period before 1610, afternoon meetings chaired by the Speaker were no longer largely confined to the final few weeks of a session, but were instead spread more evenly throughout each session.

One reason that Speaker-led afternoon sittings became a settled and regular feature of the Commons’ day is that grand committees served to encourage them. All that was needed for the grand committee to transform itself into the House was for the Speaker to take the chair, and this was usually easily accomplished as the Speaker was often in the House at the time, sitting as an ordinary Member. Even if he were absent he might be summoned to the chamber, or warned in advance that his presence would be needed when the committee had wound up its business. The ease with which the Commons could switch from grand committee to the House, and vice versa, meant that Speaker-led meetings frequently followed afternoon sittings of the grand committee. This necessarily gave rise to some very late meetings. Following the regular Wednesday afternoon meeting of the grand committee for grievances on 7 June 1626, for instance, the House reassembled at five, while on the afternoon of Thursday, 12 March 1624, after the grand committee for trade had completed its business, the Speaker took the chair at ‘about six o’clock’.79

Another reason for the increase in Speaker-led afternoon sittings was that grand committees proved so popular that they also invaded the mornings. During the 1620s it became increasingly common for the House to resolve itself into a grand committee to debate matters of general importance which, for one reason or another, fell outside the remit of the standing committees (such as messages from the king, the subsidy bill or the expiring laws continuance bill). In 1626 these ad hoc committees were joined by a fourth standing grand committee – the committee for evils, causes and remedies – and this body lacked an afternoon slot. Since the standing grand committees usually took up the time after dinner, these ad hoc grand committees were generally forced to assemble in the mornings. The frequency with which they did so was sometimes astonishing. In the week beginning Monday 10 May 1624, for example, a grand committee met three mornings out of six, and on the morning of 18 December 1621 a committee of the whole House sat not once but twice.80 The high number of such meetings put pressure on an already overcrowded morning schedule, forcing the House to postpone consideration of much of its ordinary legislative business. This in turn created a demand for more regular afternoon sittings chaired by the Speaker.

The vast increase in the number and length of afternoon sittings, whether under the Speaker or the chairman of the committee of the whole House, had several serious consequences, quite apart from the effect it had on the length of the working day. In the first place, it put pressure on the smaller (mainly legislative) committees, whose customary afternoon timeslot was now under threat. Since no Member could be in two places at once, grand and smaller committees were forced to compete with one another for members. In this competition, the grand committees often had the advantage, as they frequently dealt with issues of general interest to all Members, whereas most bill committees, for instance, were more limited in scope, debating subjects that must often have seemed dull by comparison. The poor levels of attendance that afflicted many legislative committees during the 1620s to which Chris Kyle has drawn attention must surely have owed something to the emergence of grand committees.81

The smaller committees did not always lose out to meetings of the entire membership, of course. Where the general assembly was discussing a matter as unpopular as the proposed union with Scotland, many individuals preferred to attend the smaller committees. Thus on the afternoon of 29 April 1606, finding the benches only sparsely occupied, the serjeant-at-arms was sent to round up additional Members from the various committees which were then meeting.82 On several occasions, when an afternoon meeting of the general assembly was scheduled, the House was obliged to prevent smaller committees from creaming off Members by ordering their suspension. On 30 March 1610 the grand committee for grievances was ordered to sit that afternoon ‘and all other committees put off’. An equally draconian order was issued on 25 June: ‘All that should have been this afternoon to be on Wednesday’. Similar edicts were issued on 12 May 1624, to allow the grand committee to consider the subsidy bill; on 1 March 1626, to enable all Members to debate the arrest of the St. Peter; and on 12 June 1626, to allow discussion of the king’s letter to the Speaker regarding the hastening of a vote of subsidies.83

It was nevertheless unusual for afternoon committee meetings to be suspended in favour of the House’s own gatherings. In general, Members baulked at such a drastic solution and instead attempted to fit the work of the smaller committees around the work of the whole assembly. One method of doing this – having bill committees meet before the House assembled in the morning – has already been discussed. Another way of fitting the smaller committees around their larger brethren was to push them to the end of the afternoon, so that they sat after the grand committees had met. However, this approach was uncommon: in 1624 the early morning solution prevailed to such an extent that only four bill committees were instructed to meet at three or four in the afternoon, and in 1628 the number of smaller committees given late afternoon time slots was about the same.84

There was a third solution to the problem posed by afternoon meetings of the general assembly. Instead of forcing the smaller committees to work around their larger brethren, the grand committees could be fitted round their smaller cousins. The smaller committees would meet for an hour or so after two o’clock, and the grand committees would sit at three or four. This approach was certainly adopted in 1614, when the House, unwilling to allow it to meet immediately after dinner, required the grand committee for petitions to assemble at either three or four.85 A similar solution was probably adopted in 1626, when most of the smaller committees were ordered to meet at two despite the fact that only Mondays and Saturdays had been kept free of afternoon meetings of the grand committees. It looks as though meetings of the grand committees and of the House were simply postponed until after the smaller committees had transacted their business. Indeed, this is clearly how the Journal entry for the morning of 18 March, which states that the House was to meet at three that afternoon ‘and the committees to sit in the meantime’, should be interpreted.86

None of these solutions to the problem caused by the displacement of the lesser committees by the grand committee necessarily excluded the others. Indeed, sometimes it was a mixed approach that was adopted. In 1621, for instance, the grand committee for the courts of justice was required to meet every Wednesday at two. This meant that each Wednesday the smaller committees, if they were not to compete for members with the grand committee, were forced to assemble either after the grand committee had completed its deliberations or at the start of the day. However, the grand committee for grievances, which sat every Monday and Friday, was required to assemble for its first meeting at three, giving time for the lesser committees to meet after dinner.87

Despite the best efforts of the Commons, it was inevitable that afternoon meetings of the grand committees would coincide with some of the smaller committees. The most conspicuous example of just such an overlap was with the committee for privileges and returns, a body which normally consisted of around fifty or sixty Members. During the 1620s, almost without exception, the privileges committee was required to meet every Tuesday and Thursday at two, but except in 1629, when Tuesday was kept free, these afternoons were also reserved for meetings of various grand committees.

In general, though, the House found ways of reconciling the competing demands for afternoon time, and where conflicts arose it quickly resolved them. A case in point concerned Saturday afternoon meetings of the House, which were never very frequent, and the committee for inspecting the clerk’s Journal, which customarily met at this time. The conflict between the two came to a head in April 1624 after the Commons assembled under the Speaker on two consecutive Saturday afternoons. On the morning of the second of these Saturdays (10 April), William Mallory proposed that the Journal should henceforward be inspected every morning between six and seven o’clock, before the House assembled. His intervention seems to have provided the solution, for although the House met again under the Speaker on the afternoon of Saturday 22 May there is no further evidence of tension. In 1626, however, the House, anticipating that conflict might recur, adopted an alternative solution to the problem than the one proposed by Mallory. It restored the Journals committee to its regular Saturday slot but ordered it to assemble between the hours of four and five, thereby working around any sittings of the House earlier in the afternoon.88

Whereas the colonization of the afternoons by the grand committees forced the Commons to develop more flexible working arrangements in respect of bill committees, it may, paradoxically, have also caused the development of fixed arrangements with regard to the committee for privileges and returns. Before the emergence of the committee of the whole House the time allotted to the privileges committee was something of a moving feast. In 1605/6 and 1606/7, for example, the committee appears to have assembled on Wednesday afternoons, whereas in 1610 it met every Saturday.89 However, from 1621 the privileges committee met every Tuesday and Thursday at two, with the exception of 1629, when it met only on Tuesdays. These settled arrangements mirrored those made in respect of the standing grand committees, each of which was assigned particular time slots that were, in general, transferred from one Parliament to another. For example, throughout the 1620s, with the exception of 1625 (when there were no grand committees) and 1629, the committee for grievances always sat on a Friday afternoon.

The establishment of fixed and transferable time slots for both the privileges committee and the grand committees was almost as significant as the extension of the Commons’ working day. It suggests that during the 1620s the Commons developed the rhythms of working associated with a body that increasingly regarded itself as a semi-permanent institution. Yet, despite this development, the Commons never traded fixed patterns of working for flexibility. Arrangements that suited one Parliament did not always suit another. The grand committee for the courts of justice moved from sitting on Wednesday afternoons in 1621 and 1624 to Tuesday afternoons in 1626 and 1628, while the grievances committee exchanged Monday afternoons, which it enjoyed in 1621 and 1624, for Wednesday afternoons between 1626 and 1629 inclusive. Moreover, when urgent business intervened, such as the impeachment of Buckingham, even the grandest of grand committees might find themselves temporarily elbowed aside.90

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Andrew Thrush

End Notes

  • 1. G.R. Elton, Parl. of Eng. 1559-81, p. 354; CJ, i. 965a-b.
  • 2. Hooker’s Order and Usage, 178.
  • 3. The second division occurred in 1614: CJ, i. 972b, 505a.
  • 4. Observatyones of the Procs. in the Parl. held at Westminster Anno Primoe et Secundo Jacobi Regis ed. C. Thompson, 6; CJ, i. 354a-b, 414a, 572a. For 1597 and 1601 see D’Ewes, Jnls. of all the Parls. 558; Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I, iii. 359-61.
  • 5. CJ, i. 747b-49b.
  • 6. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 115. For further discussion of the thinness of the House at this time, see Chapter 9.
  • 7. For this right, see CJ, i. 150a; CD 1621, iii. 377; v. 190.
  • 8. CJ, i. 260b; Bowyer Diary, 8; CD 1629, pp. 168-9; CSP Ven. 1628-9, p. 566.
  • 9. Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 308.
  • 10. CJ, i. 228a.
  • 11. Procs. 1625, pp. 230, 238-43. The holiday is referred to incorrectly in the draft Journal as Midsummer’s Day.
  • 12. The House also failed to rise for the Feast of St. John the Baptist in 1628, but there is no evidence that this was the king’s doing. It was perhaps due to the fact that the feast fell just two days before the Parliament was prorogued.
  • 13. For further discussion of this point, see below under ‘Rising for Dinner’.
  • 14. Several Members suspected that the delay in notifying the Commons was intentional: CD 1628, ii. 401; Procs. 1628, vi. 177-8.
  • 15. CJ, i. 298b.
  • 16. Ibid. 1034b, 344b. One contemporary, commenting on the prohibition issued prior to the Whitsun recess, concluded that ‘committees may meet notwithstanding an adjournment for a few days except special order to the contrary’: Lansd. 486, f. 122. His deduction was reasonable but rather misleading.
  • 17. CJ, i. 468b.
  • 18. Ibid. 165b (cloth bill), 166a (Exchequer process; extortions), 166b (Neville’s motion; outlawries), 167a (privileges).
  • 19. Ibid. 572a; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 220; CD 1621, v. 190. Nicholas’ account inaccurately suggests that Alford’s intervention swayed the House.
  • 20. CJ, i. 572b (iron ordnance), 577b (expiring statutes), 578a (recusancy frauds).
  • 21. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 51; CJ, i. 624a, 625b.
  • 22. CJ, i. 748b, 750b.
  • 23. Ibid. 699a.
  • 24. Ibid. 865a.
  • 25. Ibid. 153b.
  • 26. Ibid. 273b, 333a. In his 1604 Journal the clerk did not bother to record the details of changed arrangements. Instead he inserted, where appropriate, the rather misleading phrase ‘committees adjourned’. During the next session, after the House asked not to be notified of changes in committee arrangements, these entries disappear from the Journal. They only reappear from 18 Feb. 1607, after the House reversed its earlier policy, but now a more helpful form of wording is employed, such as ‘sundry committees adjourned to several days’. The clearest entry is the one dated 1 June 1607: ‘The adjournment of some committees published’: ibid. 337a, 377b.
  • 27. CD 1621, ii. 32.
  • 28. CJ, i. 150a, 334b, 392b; Neale, Elizabethan House of Commons, 367.
  • 29. Hakewill, The Manner How Statutes are Enacted (1671), p. 135.
  • 30. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 47.
  • 31. CJ, i. 495a, 689b.
  • 32. CD 1621, ii. 47, 53; iii. 279; Hull RO, L.170.
  • 33. CJ, i. 156b.
  • 34. Ibid. 414a.
  • 35. Ibid. 499b; Procs. 1614 (Commons), 377.
  • 36. CJ, i. 418a, 422a.
  • 37. Ibid. 650b.
  • 38. CD 1621, iii. 119; CJ, i. 696a, 792b.
  • 39. CJ, i. 423a, 540a.
  • 40. Ibid. 208b; Bowyer Diary, 5. For further examples, see CJ, i. 313a, 388b, 409a-b, 422, 424b; Procs. 1625, pp. 283-5.
  • 41. CJ, i. 313b.
  • 42. Ibid. 717b, 762a, 763a, 764b, 772b, 781b, 782b, 783b, 791a, 793b.
  • 43. For their times of sitting, and their impact on the Commons’ daily schedule, see ‘Afternoon sittings’ below.
  • 44. CJ, i. 829a, 857b, 858b, 866b, 871a.
  • 45. Ibid. 879a, 895b, 911b, 913a, 914a, 918b, 919a
  • 46. Ibid. 1039a.
  • 47. CD 1628, ii. 156.
  • 48. CJ, i. 658a.
  • 49. Ibid. 547b.
  • 50. CD 1629, p. 103.
  • 51. Neale, Elizabethan House of Commons, 368.
  • 52. CJ, i. 411b.
  • 53. Ibid. 983a, 355b.
  • 54. Hull RO, L.170.
  • 55. CD 1628, iv. 49.
  • 56. For evidence of this practice in 1642, see Pvte. Jnls. of the Long Parl. 7 Jan. to 5 Mar. 1642 ed. W.H. Coates, A.S. Young and V.F. Snow, 172, 217.
  • 57. Birch, Ct. and Times of Jas. I, i. 114-17; Parl. Debates 1610 ed. S.R. Gardiner, 57.
  • 58. CJ, i. 327a.
  • 59. Ibid. 215b, 409b, 826a, 847a.
  • 60. Hakewill, 178. Another reason that the Lords did not sit in the afternoons was that Convocation met then.
  • 61. CD 1621, ii. 300; iii. 19.
  • 62. CJ, i. 511a, 549b.
  • 63. In 1604 the afternoon meetings held on 19 Apr., 11 May, 23 May, 18 June and 28 June were all scheduled on the morning of the days they occurred. In 1606 there is evidence that more advance notice was given, but even so Robert Bowyer failed to attend the House on the afternoon of 21 Jan. 1606 because he had not heard that it was intended to meet then: Bowyer Diary, 2.
  • 64. Neale, Elizabethan House of Commons, 379-80; W.M. Mitchell, Rise of the Revolutionary Party, 130, n.8.
  • 65. On 3, 14, 19 and 21 Apr.; 1, 11 and 23 May; 15, 18 and 28 June: CJ, i. 165b, 172b, 178a, 181-2, 194b, 207a-b, 224a, 240a, 241b, 248a.
  • 66. CJ, i. 312a. Regrettably, Bowyer did not record this debate in his diary.
  • 67. CJ, i. 313a-14; Bowyer Diary, 184.
  • 68. On 31 Mar., 9 June, 30 June and 1 July: CJ, i. 363a, 381b, 389a-b.
  • 69. CJ, i. 405a, 412b, 433a-b, 449b, 450a-b, 452a-b, 453a, 454a-b.
  • 70. S. Lambert, ‘Procedure in the House of Commons in the Early Stuart Period’, EHR, xcv. 760-1; Bowyer Diary, 199.
  • 71. CJ, i. 397a, 409b, 411b, 417a, 418a, 419a; ‘Paulet 1610’, ff. 2, 4v.
  • 72. Rabb, Jacobean Gentleman, 123.
  • 73. CJ, i. 422b.
  • 74. Ibid. 457a, 481a.
  • 75. In 1626 the attack on Buckingham actually saw the number of such committees briefly rise to four with the establishment of the committee for evils, causes and remedies. It normally met in the mornings; its only afternoon meeting occurred on 18 Mar.: CJ, i. 838b.
  • 76. CJ, i. 927a.
  • 77. The motion not to establish standing committees was made by Sir Edward Coke, who argued, inter alia, that there could be no grievances for a committee of grievances to consider, it being the start of a new reign: Procs. 1625, pp. 215-16, 220.
  • 78. In 1624 there were 15 Speaker-led afternoon sittings out of a total of 75 working days; in 1626 there were a total of 19 such sittings out of 99 working days. The figure for 1624 excludes 12 and 16 Feb., on which dates the House assembled only to be adjourned.
  • 79. CJ, i. 735a, 867b.
  • 80. Ibid. 668b, 703b, 704a, 789b; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 354, 357.
  • 81. 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, passim. For a discussion of committee attendance, see Chapter 11.
  • 82. CJ, i. 302b.
  • 83. Ibid. 417a, 443b, 703b, 827b, 870b. A similar suspension of general committee business was issued on 1 June 1604 so that Members could attend that same afternoon the committee appointing the commissioners for the Union: CJ, i. 230a, 231b.
  • 84. CJ, i. 697a, 710a, 744b, 756a. On 28 April the subcommittee for grievances was also ordered to assemble at 4pm the next day.
  • 85. They initially resolved to meet at four, but changed the time five days later to three: CJ, i. 475a, 481a.
  • 86. CJ, i. 833a.
  • 87. Ibid. 510b, 514b.
  • 88. Ibid. 818a.
  • 89. Ibid. 256b, 316a, 392a, 409a.
  • 90. See the illuminating ruling of 22 May 1626: ‘all grand committees, for grievances and courts of justice, from henceforth [are] to hold their former days’: CJ, i. 862a.