VII. Topography

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

Ever since the middle of the sixteenth century the House of Commons had assembled in St. Stephen’s Chapel. Located in the heart of the medieval Palace of Westminster, St. Stephen’s was acquired by the Crown in 1547/8 and converted for use by the lower House. Ninety feet long and around 30 feet wide, it was two storeys high with an octagonal tower at each corner. On the ground floor was an undercroft known as St. Mary-in-the-Vaults,[footnote] while above lay the area occupied by the Commons, consisting of a main chamber and a lobby.

Conjectural plan of the Palace of Westminster in the early seventeenth century

There were several doorways leading into the palace, but perhaps the principal point of access for most Members was from New Palace Yard. Here they might leave their coaches,[footnote] and enter Westminster Hall at its northern end. After walking the length of the Hall, which housed the courts of Common Pleas, Chancery and King’s Bench as well as many ‘little shops or stalls’,[footnote] they would make their way to a stone staircase leading up to St. Stephen’s Chapel. Those who wished to avoid the hustle and bustle of Westminster Hall may have found alternative routes, perhaps from St. Margaret’s Lane to the west. However, it seems unlikely that there was a route from New Palace Yard through St. Stephen’s Court and into St. Stephen’s Cloister during this period, as has been supposed. By 1593 the rooms off the cloister served as lodgings for a couple of the officers of the Exchequer, and the cloister itself was partitioned and used for storing fuel.[footnote]

The stairs and the lobby

The stone staircase leading to St. Stephen’s Chapel consisted of thirty-two steps and was situated in the south-east corner of Westminster Hall, next to the court of King’s Bench. At the top stood an arched doorway, through which lay a landing; to the left stood the entrance to the lobby of the House of Commons, while ahead lay a further set of stairs which led down to the Court of Wards and the Court of Requests.[footnote] Mortared and whitewashed in 1604,[footnote] the stairs were a favourite haunt of Members’ servants, many of them ill behaved. In 1581 the Commons grew so weary of their misconduct that the officer responsible for security in Westminster Hall, the warden of the Fleet, was instructed to station two of his men at the top of the stairs.[footnote] In subsequent parliaments the warden neglected this duty, and in 1601, with the disorders reportedly now so great that ‘men dare not go down the stairs without a conductor’, the serjeant-at-arms had to be detailed to clear the stairs of pages and servants.[footnote]

During James’s reign the stairs continued to act as a focus of disorder. In January 1606 several pages on the stairs ‘much abused the passengers’ and set upon two of the clerks in King’s Bench, for which they were imprisoned by the judges.[footnote] Four years later a group of pages took to robbing the servants of some Members of their masters’ cloaks, which they pawned to finance their drinking at a nearby tavern.[footnote] In February 1621 an affray broke out ‘in the face of King’s Bench, the court sitting’, between various coachmen and footmen. Swords were drawn and hands were lost, whereupon the lord chief justice arrested the malefactors and sent them to the Commons for punishment. Following this incident the order requiring the warden of the Fleet to police the stairs was revived, and for the rest of the 1620s no further trouble was reported.[footnote]

The lobby played an important part in the life of the Commons. Described by the office of Works as ‘a big room’, one of its main functions was to serve as a waiting area for suitors, and those witnesses and counsel who were required to appear at the bar of the Commons.[footnote] In February 1610 the chairman of the committee for grievances, Sir Edwin Sandys, reported having received 32 grievances in total, some from his fellow Members ‘and some by others which he would not receive but at the Parliament door’.[footnote] In 1643 Sir Roger Twysden was handed a petition by ‘a person who stood in the lobby before the entering in, with several petitions in his hands to present them to each Member’.[footnote] Despite this degree of public access the lobby – or at the very least the entry to the Commons’ chamber – was not open to those who wished to eavesdrop on debates. Attempts to keep them out, however, were not always successful. In April 1628 Philip Parsons, a ‘scholar, lately come from beyond seas’, was discovered to have stood in the entry for almost an hour before he was apprehended. The following month, during the debate on the Petition of Right, Robert Barbor was caught standing in the same place.[footnote] There was evidently a small opening in the door to the lobby, for in June 1628 a letter was found on the floor of the lobby, ‘flung in as it seems at a hole there is in the outward door of the Commons House’.[footnote]

As well as a waiting area, the lobby, which was re-floored ahead of the 1604 session, served as a workroom for the clerk’s assistants, who sat at a ‘long table’.[footnote] This may have been as much as thirteen feet in length, as a table of that size was bought for the Commons in 1604, when seven pairs of trestles and six joint stools were also provided.[footnote] The frequent comings and goings of Members, witnesses and suitors must have made the lobby a difficult place in which to work. Not surprisingly, therefore, in May 1604 it was proposed that a room be built ‘for the clerk and his servants to attend and write in’. As a result of this suggestion Lord Treasurer Dorset ordered the surveyor of the Works to fit out a room either under the council chamber in the nearby Court of Requests ‘or some other room of like quality near thereabouts’.[footnote] In the event neither of these instructions was obeyed, although sometime between October 1604 and September 1605 two large rooms were constructed by the office of Works in the Court of Requests on top of a new floor, which was supported by columns. The main room included a large table and presses.[footnote] These new offices may have been provided for housing the records of the Court of Requests, however, as there is no evidence that the clerk of the Commons or his staff ever took possession of them.[footnote]

A third important function of the lobby was to enable the House to hold divisions. When a vote was held the outer doors, which opened onto the landing, were shut, and anyone in the lobby at the time was sent upstairs to the committee chamber. Once cleared, one side trooped into the lobby to be counted, while the other remained in their seats.[footnote]

The lobby was occasionally pressed into service at the beginning of a Parliament. In 1593 the newly elected Members took the Oath of Supremacy at ‘the Parliament door’. Four years later the Court of Requests was employed for this purpose instead, but the process took too long as the lord high steward and his deputies, seated at a little round table, were able to swear in only a few Members at a time. In frustration two of the deputies, Secretary Cecil and Comptroller Knollys, retired to the lobby, where they seated themselves at the end of the long table and began swearing in Members in groups of seven and eight.[footnote] In 1626 the names of the newly elected Members were read aloud in the lobby by the deputy clerk of the Crown and a crier in Chancery. This was unusual, however, for in 1604 and 1621 this exercise was performed in the Court of Requests instead.[footnote]

On rare occasions the lobby was used for impromptu meetings. In May 1606, for instance, the committee for the distribution of the money collected from Members ‘met at the Parliament door’ and considered its business ‘in the utter chamber’.[footnote] It was also to the lobby that an errant Member might be sent while his colleagues debated his punishment. In February 1607, after hearing his explanation at the bar, Sir Christopher Pigott was ordered ‘to retire to the door’. Only when the Commons had concluded its deliberations was he called in again.[footnote]

Just off the lobby, probably in one of the two bays formed by the buttresses on the south wall, was a small room. Writing in the 1640s, Sir Edward Peyton recalled that, while serving as Member for Cambridgeshire in 1621, he had been called out of the chamber by the serjeant ‘to the little room in the lobby’, where three of his colleagues offered him £10,000 if he would refrain from opposing the fen drainage bill.[footnote] The precise purpose of this small chamber is unclear; it may have served as a common room for Members, or perhaps it was simply a lavatory. Certainly, when Parliament decamped to Oxford in August, a room near the Divinity School (which temporarily served as the Commons’ chamber) was ‘enclosed with boards, for a retiring place (as it was said) for the gentlemen of the lower House, where there was much tobacco taken’.[footnote] This small room probably occupied the space previously allocated to the Elizabethan clerk of the Commons, Fulke Onslow. During the late 1560s and early 1570s Onslow enjoyed the use of a room that was almost certainly situated off the south-west corner of St. Stephen’s Chapel.[footnote] However, there is no trace of this office in the Works’ accounts after 1571,[footnote] and by 1605 Onslow’s successor, Ralph Ewens, was lodged either under the Court of Requests or the Court of Wards.[footnote]

The Commons chamber

Around forty-two feet from floor to ceiling,[footnote] the chamber was entered through a door at its western end, the key to which was normally kept by the serjeant-at-arms. Members seem usually to have entered through a small wicket gate inserted into this door, as family tradition has it that Richard Vaughan II, Member for Merioneth in 1628-9, ‘was so fat and unwieldy that the folding doors of the House of Commons were opened to let him in’.[footnote] The inside of the door, and also the doorposts, served as a noticeboard, upon which the clerk set the orders of the House, as well as the names of the committees that were scheduled to meet that day, the list of their members and the times and place of their sitting.[footnote] The door was normally left open, presumably to allow quiet access, but as a result Members often loitered in the entrance, blocking the way for others. Rather than order the doors to be kept shut, the House resolved in 1621, and again in 1628, to fine those who stood in the entrance.[footnote] Entry to the chamber was generally restricted to Members themselves, the servants of the House and witnesses summoned to the bar, but messengers bearing letters were sometimes granted access. In March 1624 Sir Richard Young received a letter from Lord Zouche ‘delivered to me myself by the post-boy of Dartford’ at nine in the morning while he was sitting in the House.[footnote]

The floor of the chamber, like that of the lobby outside, was constructed of wood. By the beginning of James’s reign many of the boards were so damaged that they had to be repaired before Parliament met in 1604.[footnote] Members sat around the walls on benches arranged in tiers which, during Elizabeth’s reign, were placed four ranks deep.[footnote] In 1604 the Speaker ordered additional seating, as many Members were ‘forced to stand in the entrance and midst of the House, contrary to order’.[footnote] Ten new benches, four of them thirteen feet long, were subsequently provided, as were ‘certain new steps’.[footnote] This extra seating seems to have allowed the addition of a fifth row. Two illustrations of the interior of the Commons dating from the 1620s certainly show five ranks.[footnote] Moreover, when the Commons convened at Oxford in August 1625 the seats, which were transported by barge from Westminster, were arranged in ‘5 degrees or ranks’.[footnote]

Many contemporary illustrations of the Commons’ interior show that at the eastern end of the chamber the seats were arranged in a curve around the Speaker’s chair. This not only made it possible to see the Speaker more clearly, but also allowed a further short rank of seating, capable of taking up to five Members, to be inserted in each corner.[footnote] This diagonal corner seating was badly needed, for even with the extra benches provided in 1604 the chamber was so small that it could accommodate only around half the membership of the House.[footnote] During the 1560s, at the height of the fashion for wearing stuffed breeches, additional space had been provided by means of a gallery, which had run around the walls of the chamber. However, this had subsequently been removed after fashions changed.[footnote] In March 1621, after one Member pointedly called for ‘an enlargement of this room’ during the debate on the bill to enfranchise County Durham, it was decided to reinstate the gallery, though only at the western end.[footnote] This new structure, which was in use by early June 1621,[footnote] was supported by three columns and topped by thirty-eight balustrades, all of which were painted a mottled red. It was reached by stairs in the south-west corner of the chamber that were described by D’Ewes in the early 1640s as a ‘ladder’.[footnote] By 1625 the gallery had become such an accepted feature of the Commons that when Parliament fled to Oxford the office of Works felt obliged to construct ‘a kind of terrace loft’ inside the Commons’ makeshift chamber, the Divinity School.[footnote]

The gallery soon displaced the ‘rebellious corner in the right hand of the House’ as ‘the resort of mutineers’.[footnote] It was from there that in February 1624 those unhappy with the Crown’s choice of Thomas Crewe as Speaker called out the name of Sir Edward Coke instead.[footnote] And it may have been from the gallery that Edward Kirton delivered his dismissive response to Secretary Coke’s Fourteen Propositions for supply on 26 March 1628. Newdigate, at any rate, refers to the speech as having been given by ‘a gentleman above’, and Kirton certainly spoke from the gallery on 5 June.[footnote]

Near the eastern end of the chamber, in the middle of the front row of benches placed along that wall, sat the Speaker in a special chair that was raised on a small, stepped platform.[footnote] The chair used during the early Stuart period was relatively new, having been made in 1586/7 and modified in 1592/3 so that the queen’s arms were made ‘to stand over the Speaker’s head’. Four feet six inches long and two feet wide,[footnote] these arms are clearly depicted in many of the more detailed contemporary prints of the early Stuart Commons’ interior. Like the benches, the Speaker’s chair was portable. Indeed, in 1610 it was temporarily moved to the Court of Requests for the investiture of the prince of Wales.[footnote]

Green cushions may have been provided for the comfort of the Speaker and the privy councillors in the House. Certainly thirteen such items were in the serjeant-at-arms’ possession in 1576.[footnote] Ordinary Members, however, had to make do with matting, which was laid both on the seats and floor. Several new mats were laid in 1604, and those that were old were beaten and turned. The wear and tear on the mats over the next few years was considerable, and in 1606/7 it was necessary once again to mend or replace many of them.[footnote]

Behind the Speaker, overlooking the Thames, was the great window, which occupied almost the entire eastern end of the chamber. Its lower lights, consisting of twelve or sixteen individual windows, could be opened outwards and perhaps provided the main source of ventilation.[footnote] Occasionally, in late spring, birds flew into the chamber, presumably after the windows were opened to let in fresh air.[footnote] Since the Commons usually sat between eight and eleven its Members benefited from the morning sun, which streamed through the huge expanse of glass. However, on sunny days the glare was blinding for those seated at the western end. Efforts to resolve this problem during the sixteenth century are poorly documented, but in 1576 the incoming serjeant-at-arms took into his custody thirty-nine yards of ‘blue and yellow say’, which had presumably been used to create a makeshift curtain. Say was a fine material, being a mixture of silk and serge, and so the effect of hanging it at the window would have been to eliminate the glare without reducing the light. If the blue and yellow threads were woven together, the chamber would also have been bathed in a shimmering green light. [footnote] However, no permanent solution was reached, and in 1621 the House appointed a committee to decide, inter alia, how to make the chamber ‘more shady … to keep out the sun’.[footnote] An outbuilding, described as a ‘penthouse’, was subsequently erected outside the window, to whose roof an awning of canvas was fitted. This structure apparently still existed in 1628, when a labourer fitted canvas to the roof of ‘the shed without the great window at the upper end of the lower House’. However, it seems to have gone unused in 1625 or 1626, when a simple awning was erected outside with the aid of scaffolding instead.[footnote] The Commons was not always bathed in light, of course, especially in the depths of winter. Indeed, in December 1601 Hayward Townshend was twice forced to stop writing his diary ‘for want of light’.[footnote] Under the early Stuarts, however, candles were evidently provided, for in December 1621 the Commons sat ‘by candle-light’ to draw up its Protestation, and in 1642 two brass candlesticks were supplied by the Crown for the use of the clerk.[footnote]

Below the Speaker was a table at which sat the clerk of the Commons and one of his servants. Often referred to as ‘the board’,[footnote] it served primarily as a writing desk, although it was also where the chairman of the committee of the whole House sat after the Speaker had vacated his chair.[footnote] Moreover, it was ‘at the table’ that a Member who arrived late took the oaths.[footnote] In 1625 the table was described as being ‘of wainscot with drawing boxes’; the latter were presumably used to hold pens, ink and stationery.[footnote] Contemporary illustrations of the Commons’ interior all show that the table was covered with a cloth. This was perhaps green, to match the cushions provided for the Speaker and privy councillors, for in 1576 the items in the serjeant’s possession included ‘one little carpet’ of ‘black and green garnicks’.[footnote] The clerk placed his books on the table, and there the serjeant-at-arms probably rested his mace when the Speaker was in the chair.[footnote]

Directly opposite the table, in front of the door, lay the bar, which was fixed in a post. Normally it was kept raised, presumably to allow Members to come and go freely, but except when the earl of Southampton and Lord Sheffield were allowed to hear the debate relating to the Virginia Company in May 1614 it was lowered when outsiders were brought in.[footnote] It was at the bar that counsel argued their case, where malefactors were informed of their punishment, and where messengers from the Lords probably stood.[footnote] Unless it was to amend defective election indentures at the clerk’s table,[footnote] strangers were rarely permitted to venture any further. However, in 1607 the Commons allowed Sir William Seaton to give his testimony regarding violence on the Borders two or three feet beyond the bar ‘for that he came not as an offender’,[footnote] and in 1626 six members of the council of war summoned to give evidence to the House were provided with chairs ‘at the lower end within the bar’. Two were set on one side and two on another ‘so that the passage to the bar was left open’. The remaining seats were placed length ways ‘just before the lower seats on each side’.[footnote] Most exceptional of all, in 1621 the bearer of a message from James was permitted to come up to the table, ‘for that we ought to give all respect to the king’s messenger’.[footnote]

Members of the Commons, unless they were the Speaker or the chairman of a grand committee, seem rarely to have ventured beyond the bar onto the floor of the House, unless it was to reach their seats. However, it may not have been unusual for reporters from committee to do so: in April 1604 Sir Francis Bacon related the deliberations of the committee on the Union while standing next to the clerk’s chair.[footnote] Contemporary illustrations of the Commons’ interior indicate that the area within the bar, containing both the Speaker’s chair and the table, was bounded by a kickboard. The space itself may have been carpeted, for in 1576 the serjeant took into his custody ‘one long carpet’ of ‘black and green garnicks’, colours which matched the covering placed over the table.[footnote]

In 1593 the chamber acquired a clock, paid for by the Members themselves.[footnote] It seems to have become a permanent fixture, for in 1624 a handsome wooden case, costing 14s., was made to house it.[footnote] What persuaded the Commons to purchase a timepiece is unclear, as there was no shortage of audible timepieces in the vicinity. The nearby church of St. Margaret’s had a chiming clock,[footnote] and in New Palace Yard, opposite the entrance to Westminster Hall, stood a great clock, housed in an ancient stone tower.[footnote] Its bell – known as ‘Edward of Westminster’ – was so loud that, on a calm day, it could clearly be heard in the City;[footnote] certainly its ringing helped to govern proceedings in Westminster Hall.[footnote] However, the quarterly chimes were less distinct, for in 1607, and again in 1611, the ‘tails of the quarter hammers’ were repaired ‘to make the jacks strike louder’.[footnote] For Members who led busy lives, particularly those who juggled their time in the Commons with business of a legal nature in Westminster Hall, an audible time-check every hour may not have been sufficient.

There were evidently fireplaces dotted around the chamber,[footnote] but their location is unknown and no payments for their upkeep are recorded in any of the early Stuart Works’ accounts. The walls of the chamber were ‘curiously painted’, and were much admired in 1601 by the diarist Hayward Townshend, who remarked upon ‘the arms so artificially drawn, the imagery so perfectly done’.[footnote] Given the presence of so many puritan Members, the most surprising feature of the chamber was that, despite having long ceased to serve as a chapel, it remained adorned with religious statues. Indeed, these were still in situ as late as May 1641.[footnote] In one contemporary print of the Commons’ interior, two of these statues, nestling in the corners either side of the great window, are clearly depicted.

The committee chamber

Immediately above the lobby, on a mezzanine level, was the committee chamber. Like the main chamber the committee room was matted, but here there was a table around which Members could sit. In 1604 the committee chamber was described by the Works’ department as ‘a little room’.[footnote] This is surprising, because on the very same account the lobby below was said to be large. This discrepancy hints at the possibility that there was more than one room above the lobby. The serjeant-at-arms must have needed a room to hold prisoners before they were brought to the bar, and evidence for such a room exists for 1593.[footnote]

As its name suggests, the committee chamber provided a venue for committees. However, being small it was generally considered suitable only for those committees consisting of less than 20 Members. (That said, in May 1604, a 33-strong committee was appointed to meet there to consider the bill to restore in blood Lord William Howard).[footnote] Consequently, relatively few committees met there. During the 1604 session, for instance, only six committees were ordered to assemble there, and in 1628 the number was just five.[footnote] Nevertheless, one standing committee did meet in the committee chamber on a regular basis – the small body which assembled every Saturday afternoon to inspect the clerk’s Journal.[footnote] The reason the committee was allocated this venue is not recorded, but use of the committee room prevented the official record of the Commons’ business from being taken off the premises or out of sight of the clerk, who was responsible for its safekeeping.

Owing to its proximity, the committee chamber was ideal for performing business that needed to be transacted immediately. Whenever the House decided that a message or bill was not quite worded correctly, or one or two details needed modification, the original committee, with some Members added for the purpose, was immediately sent upstairs to redraft the offending passage or clause. A clear instance concerns the Commons’ response to Bishop Neile’s outburst against the lower House in May 1614. On 26 May the Commons appointed a committee to meet that afternoon in the Court of Wards to draft a protest to the Lords. However, when the committee’s draft was read out the following morning, Sir George More objected that ‘the latter part … differeth from the Order’, whereupon the drafting committee was ordered to reassemble ‘presently’ in the committee chamber, along with several additional Members. A short while later the ‘recommittees’ returned, having redrafted the offending passage, and the whole message was approved.[footnote] Last-minute additions to documents were also usually made in the committee chamber. During the war debates of March 1624, for example, the Lords sent the Commons a paper containing some additional reasons for breaking off the marriage negotiations with Spain. A small group of Members was thereupon promptly dispatched to the committee chamber, where the new arguments were hurriedly appended to the list already compiled by the Commons.[footnote] Sometimes those Members entrusted by the Commons to manage a conference with the Lords were sent upstairs to the committee chamber to prepare for their meeting.[footnote]

The smallness of the committee chamber was not the only reason it was used infrequently as a committee room. It was often needed for other purposes, and these tended to preclude its use by committees when the House was sitting. One of these additional functions was as a holding room during divisions. That is to say, any Member in the lobby when a division was called was sent upstairs to the committee room until the voting had ended. Another purpose to which the committee chamber was occasionally put was to act as a waiting room. Under normal circumstances witnesses seem to have been expected to use the lobby, but where it was feared that they might influence one another if they met, one or other witness was invariably sent upstairs. During the impeachment of Lord Treasurer Middlesex in April 1624, for instance, Abraham Jacob ‘was sent into the committee chamber, that he might not confer with other witnesses’.[footnote] Those witnesses deemed to be in danger of intimidation might also be required to use the committee chamber. During the investigation of the Member for Yorkshire, Sir John Savile in June 1626, Daniel Foxcroft ‘retired into the committee chamber’ after being cross-questioned by the Speaker, and was subsequently brought down for further examination.[footnote]

One of the key functions of the committee chamber was to serve as a withdrawing room for the Speaker. In 1604 it was prepared for Speaker Phelips before the newly elected Members of the Commons were summoned to the Lords to hear the king’s speech. On this particular occasion Phelips declined to use the room, but in May 1606 he ‘stayed in the committee chamber to remember his speech to the king’.[footnote] Following the emergence of the committee of the whole House, the Speaker often withdrew to the committee chamber while the Commons carried on its deliberations without him. On 19 May 1610, for instance, Phelips ‘retired to the committee chamber’ while the grand committee for grievances sat, only to be called down a short while later after it was reported that a message had arrived from the king.[footnote] On the very last day of the 1606-7 session, by which time most Members had returned home, Phelips ate his dinner in the committee chamber, along with the clerk, the serjeant-at-arms and two or three Members.[footnote] In 1628 the Speaker, Sir John Finch, was actually provided with a dining room somewhere in the Palace of Westminster, which was furnished with tapestries and carpets by the royal wardrobe.[footnote] However, this arrangement was evidently temporary, for in February 1642 Speaker Lenthall was seen to retire to the committee chamber at dinner time.[footnote]

Like the Speaker, ordinary Members may have made use of the committee chamber informally when it was not otherwise needed. In March 1626 Sir Thomas Bludder penned a letter to the earl of Middlesex on recent events in the Commons, a missive which seems to have been written from the committee chamber, as Bludder mentions that it was in this room that he found the paper on which to write.[footnote]

Other committee venues

As the Commons possessed only one small committee room, most of its committees had to meet elsewhere. Under Elizabeth it was not uncommon for bill committees to meet in the main chamber itself.[footnote] This practice certainly survived into James’s reign. In 1614, for instance, six committees, three of them legislative, were instructed to assemble in the House.[footnote] During the 1620s the use of the chamber as a committee room became commonplace following the emergence of the committee of the whole House. However, this same development meant that the chamber was no longer able to play host to smaller committees as it once had done.

Many committees during Elizabeth’s reign had met outside Westminster, some in the Guildhall, others at Serjeants’ Inn or the Inns of Court, which were situated in and around Chancery Lane. By far the most popular venue among the four Inns was the Middle Temple, which hosted meetings in its ‘Parliament chamber’. Although used sparingly in 1593, the Middle Temple was invariably the second-most popular meeting place, and in 1571 no less than 38% of all committees were ordered to meet there. The remaining Inns were less frequently in demand: Gray’s Inn was not employed before 1597, while the Inner Temple was not brought into use until 1601, at which time Serjeants’ Inn ceased to serve as a committee venue. Lincoln’s Inn, however, was the designated meeting place of four per cent of committees in 1586.[footnote]

Between 1604 and 1607 the Commons continued to use the Inns of Court regularly. In 1604, for instance, the Inner Temple served as the meeting place for both the committee for privileges and eight bill committees.[footnote] However, by 1610 the Inns had faded in popularity. Indeed, the Middle Temple ceased to be employed much beyond 1607 even though the second largest contingent of lawyers in the House was drawn from this Inn.[footnote] One reason for the Middle Temple’s decline was identified by the anonymous author of ‘Policies in Parliament’. Writing in about 1606, he observed that the Middle Temple was then considered ‘not so good as other places, because the table there at which the[y] sit is all in length by whereof they are not so well heard as in other places where the tables be square’.[footnote] It may have been this shortcoming which explains ‘some difference touching the place of meeting’ that occurred in the Commons on 4 May 1607. The matter was only settled after the Speaker put it to the question, whereupon it was decided that the committee for the London estates bill should assemble in the Middle Temple.[footnote] However, the shape of its table may not have been the only feature which rendered the Middle Temple less attractive as a committee venue than it once had been. From about 1610 it became increasingly common for the lower House to sit for the entire day rather than just the morning. Afternoons had previously been spent on bill committees, but now they were often taken up with meetings of the newly devised committee of the whole House. Any Member who wished to attend the Commons both morning and afternoon would therefore have found it highly inconvenient were bill committees (which had somehow to be squeezed into the day’s schedule) to continue to assemble in one or other of the Inns of Court.[footnote]

The emergence of the committee of the whole House signalled the decline rather than the end of the use of the Inns of Court as committee venues. When the Commons instructed its Members from Lincoln’s Inn to draft an elections bill in March 1621, it naturally ordered them to meet in their inn.[footnote] Three years later, in March 1624, the committee for the bill regarding lands alienated without licence was instructed to assemble at the Inner Temple, presumably because it lay next door to the Alienations Office, whose records and officers the committee may have wished to consult.[footnote] In 1628 no less than seven committees were ordered to meet at the Inner Temple.[footnote] This may have owed something to the personal convenience of several of the leading Inner Templars in the Commons, such as Sir Edward Coke and John Selden, one or other of whom was appointed to most of these committees. Certainly, Coke’s chambers in the Inner Temple were designated as the venue for a small committee in May 1628.[footnote]

Even before the committee of the whole House made it undesirable for smaller committees to continue meeting in the Inns of Court, the majority of committees assembled in the law courts situated in the Palace of Westminster. As the courts sat only during the morning, their rooms were available in the afternoon during term time, and during vacations they were free all day. Use of the law courts enabled Members to move swiftly from committee to the Commons’ chamber, and vice versa. After attending a bill committee in one of the rooms off Westminster Hall in April 1606 Robert Bowyer recorded that he and Lord Buckhurst ‘went both into the House’.[footnote] Use of the law courts was probably negotiated with the usher of each of them, for whom such an arrangement was undoubtedly lucrative, as the Commons often made payments out of its Members’ collection to the ushers or their servants. In 1607 the House ordered that £2 be paid ‘to the usher’s man of the Court of Wards’, and a further £1 10s. was to be given to ‘the usher’s man of the Exchequer’.[footnote] In 1624 £5 each was paid to the attendants of the Court of Wards, Exchequer and Star Chamber.[footnote] Private individuals and corporations anxious to ingratiate themselves with a particular committee also tended to tip the doorkeepers posted by the usher. In 1604, for instance, the London Brewers’ Company paid 12d. ‘to the porter that kept the Exchequer Chamber door where our committee met’, while in 1610 the corporation of Exeter gave 5s. ‘to the keeper of the Checker Chamber where the committees [for the Exeter weir bill] sat’.[footnote]

From the mid-1570s the most popular committee venue by far was the Exchequer Chamber. Rebuilt in the mid 1560s, and with a brick and stone exterior, the Exchequer Chamber served as the upper court of the Exchequer, and was situated on the western side of Westminster Hall between two buttresses.[footnote] In 1576 just under one third of all committees were instructed to meet there, more than any other venue, and by 1593 this figure had leapt to an astonishing 61%.[footnote] Under James the Exchequer Chamber continued to be heavily frequented. It was the place most commonly assigned for the privileges committee to meet,[footnote] and in March 1610 no less than 26 of the 43 bill committees for which a location is recorded were ordered to assemble there.[footnote] Interestingly, of these twenty-six committees, five were instructed to meet on the same day – Tuesday 3 April. This multiple booking suggests that either the clerk was inept or the Exchequer Chamber was divided into more than one room.[footnote] Though frequently used, the Exchequer Chamber was evidently not all that large, for in 1624 Sir Thomas Edmondes moved for the privileges committee to adjourn ‘to some larger place’ after he was ‘much thronged’.[footnote]

Next door to the Exchequer Chamber, off the north-western corner of Westminster Hall in an upstairs room, was the Exchequer Court, which served as the lower court of the Exchequer. Compared with the Exchequer Chamber, the Exchequer Court was barely used as a committee room, although it was apparently ‘a fair large place’.[footnote] Indeed, in 1604 only four committees were ordered to meet there, and in 1628 the number was just seven.[footnote] Another venue used only infrequently as a committee room was the Treasury Chamber.[footnote] Its precise location, like that of the ‘Queen’s Court’ (employed as a committee room in May 1614) and ‘Westminster Court’ (used in November 1621),[footnote] is uncertain. However, it was situated in the Exchequer,[footnote] and as contemporaries often used the term ‘treasury’ to mean a record office, it was probably one of the rooms used to store the Exchequer’s papers. By 1610 the Exchequer possessed four such repositories, but only one was located within the Palace of Westminster. Consisting of ‘a little room’, it formed part of the Exchequer of Receipt, which lay off the eastern side of Westminster Hall.[footnote] It may have been the Treasury Chamber that Sir Robert Wingfield had in mind when he wrote in 1606 to Sir Maurice Berkeley and Sir Herbert Croft asking them to meet him ‘in the Exchequer, in some private place there’, to discuss the fen drainage bill.[footnote]

Next to the Exchequer of Receipt lay the law court of the duchy of Lancaster.[footnote] Like the Receipt, the Duchy Chamber was reached by a staircase – one Member in 1614 reported having found a paper ‘upon the Duchy stairs’ – and perhaps also by a gallery.[footnote] It was not used as a committee room until 1621, at which time the chancellor of the duchy, Sir Humphrey May, introduced a bill in the lower House concerning the copyholds of duchy tenants.[footnote] No further use of the Duchy Chamber is recorded until 1628, when five committees were appointed to meet there.[footnote] (A sixth was instructed to assemble in the ‘Duchy Court’).[footnote] In May of that year the Commons rewarded the usher of the Duchy Chamber for the use of this room with a payment of 40s.[footnote]

A short distance to the north and east of the Duchy Chamber, housed in a range of buildings on the eastern side of New Palace Yard, lay Star Chamber.[footnote] Divided into two rooms, one of which was described as the ‘inner Star Chamber’,[footnote] it was capable of hosting more than one meeting at a time. During the middle of Elizabeth’s reign Star Chamber was an extremely popular committee venue. Indeed, in 1571 more committees were instructed to assemble there than anywhere else. However, its usage subsequently fell dramatically. By 1593 it was designated as a committee room on only two per cent of occasions, and in 1601, probably because of rebuilding works, it was not used at all.[footnote] In 1604 the Commons briefly returned Star Chamber into use, ordering nine of its committees – equivalent to roughly seven-and-a-half per cent of the whole – to meet there.[footnote] However, for the rest of the first Jacobean Parliament it was almost completely forgotten, as only one committee was instructed to assemble there – in May 1610. The story is much the same for 1614: of 74 committees established during the Addled Parliament, only one was assigned Star Chamber as its meeting room.[footnote] Not until 1621, when it hosted 15 committees, did the use of Star Chamber as a committee venue begin to rise. In 1624 no less than thirty-nine committees met in Star Chamber, as a result of which the Commons ordered £3 to be paid to its doorkeepers.[footnote] Between 1625 and 1629 Star Chamber became the settled meeting place of the committee for privileges.[footnote] However, as this body met two or three times a week, other committees were consequently able to use Star Chamber less frequently than in 1624.

If Star Chamber was the courtroom furthest from the Commons, the closest were those of King’s Bench, Chancery, Wards and Requests. The first two, however, were unsuitable as committee rooms, as they, like the slightly more distant Court of Common Pleas, were situated in Westminster Hall behind partitions that can have afforded little or no privacy. The Court of Requests, by contrast, was housed in the White Hall, a large, two-storey medieval building, second only in size to Westminster Hall.[footnote] However, aside from the swearing in of Members at the beginning of each Parliament, this venue went unused before May 1614, when three committees were instructed to assemble there, and during the 1620s it was employed only once – by the committee appointed to consider the bill to allow free trade in Welsh cotton in 1621.[footnote] The reason for this low usage remains a mystery. One possible explanation is that the Court of Requests served as a thoroughfare, and was thus subject to much coming and going. Certainly there were passages that led to King’s Bench in Westminster Hall in one direction and to Old Palace Yard in another.[footnote] Perhaps, too, it lacked suitable subdivisions, although this seems unlikely. As has been seen, a warrant of 1604 refers to a room under ‘the Queen’s council chamber in the Court of Requests’,[footnote] and by 1605 there were also two new large upstairs rooms, in one of which there was a sizeable table.

The Court of Wards and Liveries was a self-contained brick building which, like the Exchequer Chamber, dated from the mid 1560s. Located off the southern end of Westminster Hall, and easily reached, either through Westminster Hall or from stairs leading from the landing outside the Commons’ lobby, it (like Star Chamber) consisted of two separate chambers, the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’.[footnote] Surprisingly, it was not initially favoured as a location for committees. Indeed, it seems not to have been used at all before 1597, and throughout the first Jacobean Parliament it was employed only sparingly. In 1604, for instance, it was the designated meeting place for just seven of the 158 committees appointed that session.[footnote] Usage increased as the Parliament wore on, but even so, in March 1610 only seven out of forty-three bill committees whose locations are specified were ordered to meet there.[footnote] Perhaps the officers of the Wards, angry at the Commons’ attempt to abolish wardship in 1604, were unwilling to allow their court to be used on a more frequent basis.[footnote] However, matters changed suddenly in 1614, when the Court of Wards became the second-most popular committee venue.[footnote] By the end of the 1620s it was employed even more frequently than the Exchequer Chamber. Whereas forty-one committees were ordered to meet in the Exchequer Chamber in 1628, fifty-three were allocated the Court of Wards.

The increased use of the Court of Wards may have been made possible by the master of the Wards who, with the exception of the parliaments of 1624 and 1628-9, was a Member of the Commons himself from 1614. In 1628-9, when use of the court reached its peak, the Commons probably relied on the goodwill of two other of its Members, the usher of the Court of Wards, Sir Thomas Farnefold, and his colleague, the attorney of the Wards, Sir Walter Pye. The reason that the Court of Wards emerged as the Commons’ principal committee room is probably that the lower House could no longer afford to disregard such a useful space on its own doorstep. As has been seen, the emergence of the committee of the whole House forced the Commons to reduce its dependence on rooms outside the Palace of Westminster – hence the spectacular decline of the Middle Temple as a venue. Since the Exchequer Chamber was already heavily used, the Commons was obliged to seek out other suitable court rooms that had previously been neglected, such as Star Chamber, which to some extent recovered the important position it had held under Elizabeth as a committee venue. However, the main source of additional space was provided by the Court of Wards, as the Court of Requests was, for reasons that remain unclear, evidently considered unsuitable. The transformation of the Court of Wards into the Commons’ main committee rooms was one of the most striking developments of this period, and was almost certainly a consequence of the rise of the grand committee.

The Commons’ records repository

During the final stage of converting St. Stephen’s Chapel for use by the Commons in 1552-3, provision was made for ‘safe keeping the records’ at a cost (with other minor works) of nearly £40. It is not clear where space was found, but Alasdair Hawkyard’s suggestion that it may have been in the attic of the Commons’ chamber is probably correct.[footnote] Indeed, in 1604 the Works department paid for the ‘forcing up [of] a timber door case going up to the House of Records over the Parliament House’.[footnote] As the records of the House of Lords were stored in the nearby Jewel Tower,[footnote] the mention of ‘the Parliament House’ must refer to the House of Commons.

For the clerk and his assistants, the storage of the records in the attic evidently proved unsatisfactory. Equally inconvenient was the continued use of the lobby as a workroom. Consequently, in May 1604 a motion was made in the House ‘that there might be a special place built, and assigned, for the keeping of the register and records and papers of the House’, and for use as a workroom.[footnote] As has been seen, this led the Lord Treasurer to order the fitting out of a room under the Queen’s Council Chamber in the Court of Requests, ‘or some other room of like quality near thereabouts’.[footnote] Although this instruction seems never to have been carried out, two rooms were built within the Court of Requests in 1604-5. Described as ‘the new treasury’, they were fitted out with a large table and ‘sundry great wainscot presses for keeping the records’.[footnote]

There can be little doubt that, despite the building work in the Court of Requests, the Commons’ records continued to be lodged in the roof space over the Commons. Indeed, in 1649/50 a committee of the House of Commons was so concerned at the weight of the records in the roof that it commandeered space in the ‘treasury’ of the former Court of Wards.[footnote] The records’ repository built in 1604/5 may, in fact, have been intended for the Court of Requests itself rather than the Commons; certainly there is no evidence that the clerk or his servants ever took over these premises. Given that the records remained in the attic, it is astonishing that in both 1614 and 1621 leading Members of the lower House claimed that the Commons lacked a repository. In May 1614, for instance, Sir Herbert Croft moved ‘that there might be a petition to the king that we might have some place assigned to keep the records of the House’, as, ‘by reason of the want thereof there were divers things missing by the death of the clerks’.[footnote] Similar complaints were voiced by Sir Thomas Roe, Sir Edward Sackville and John Pym in 1621, while William Hakewill cast his eyes enviously over the facilities enjoyed by the Lords.[footnote]

The driving force behind these complaints may not have been the absence of a repository but the inadequacy of the attic and the habit of successive clerks of treating the Commons’ records as though they were their own private property. Following the death of the clerk, Ralph Ewens, in 1611, many of the Commons’ records went missing because Ewens had kept them at home. On learning of this, an alarmed Sir Edwin Sandys proposed in April 1614 that the committee for privileges be instructed to ‘consider of a safe course for keeping the Journals and other the memorials and records of this House’. It was essential, he added, that the committee should ‘consider of a fitting place to keep them in’, so that they did not fall into the hands of executors.[footnote] However, this advice was ignored, and on the death of the clerk of the Commons, John Wright, in 1632 the Crown moved swiftly to prevent any more papers from being lost by ordering their seizure from his house.[footnote]

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Andrew Thrush

End Notes