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A History of the House of Lords

Review By Cheryl Bolen

A History of the House of Lords
Lord Longford
Sutton Publishing Limited, 1988, 1999
224 pages, $23.95

No peer could be more imminently qualified to pen this book than Lord Longford. A member of the House of Lords for 53 years when he published this title, he had also served as Leader of the house from 1964 to 1968. Added to such vast experience, he is a member of what is indisputably the first family of historical biography in Great Britain, if not in the world. His daughter, Antonia Fraser, and granddaughter, Flora Fraser, followed in the footsteps of his wife, Lady Elizabeth Longford, as imminent biographers of English historical figures. (See previous reviews of some of their books at www.CherylBolen.com.)

To chronicle the House of Lords without getting enmeshed in colorful personalities of its members over the centuries is a daunting task. Lord Longford does an admirable job of keeping  within the scope of "history" of the House of Lords. His particular interest is in legislative changes.

Americans wishing to learn more about the inner workings of British government might do better elsewhere.

Those of us interested in the Georgian era will have some of the meat but not the full carcass. The Trial of Queen Caroline is treated, and the seven-year impeachment trial of Warren Hastings is touched upon, but little background to those two events is given. Regency enthusiasts would have liked more information on famous divorce proceedings in the House of Lords or in the trials of peers, but neither were forthcoming.

Still, Lord Longford's work is an interesting, well researched read. The earliest Parliaments were counsels ordered by kings, beginning in the eleventh century. By 1377 the House of Lords had become a separate chamber of Parliament. They met in the White Chamber of the Palace of Westminster, while the Commons met in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey until 1547 when they moved across the road to occupy St. Stephens Chapel within the Palace of Westminster. Up until 1621, the sovereign himself invested peers of the first creation. Peers do not sit in Parliament until they attain their majority.

In 1801 the House of Lords moved into the former Court of Requests until fire destroyed Parliament in 1834. The Lords moved into the new Parliament buildings in 1847, but the House of Commons did not accept the construction of their chambers until 1853, three years after the chambers were available to them.

Though Parliament was dissolved during both the civil war and the last four years of Charles II's reign, from 1688 onward, Parliament would meet annually.

The House of Lords entered its "Golden Years," from 1689-1750. In 1688, four of the seven signatories of the invitation to William of Orange (and his wife Mary, who was the daughter of King James), four were powerful members of the House of Lords.

"The House of Lords was unquestionably supreme as a political forum throughout Anne's reign," Longford tells us.

The rise of political parties began in the period 1783-1837.

Important events in the House of Lords include the inclusion of Scottish peers by the Act of Union in 1707, which allowed 16 of Scotland's 165 peers to sit in the House of Lords for life, and the inclusion of 28 Irish peers into Lords in 1801. In 1678 a bill was passed debarring Catholics from sitting in Parliament, and in 1829 Catholic membership in Parliament was restored. The first time a monarch created peers to ensure passage of legislation occurred in 1713 when Tory leaders in the House of Lords persuaded Queen Anne to create 12 new peers to ensure ratification of the Treaty of Utrecht.

While it is true that, as a non-representative house, Lords' power has diminished, in a chapter on aspects of the House of Lords in the nineteenth century, Lord Longford says, "The House of Lords has remained the highest Court of Appeal for all except Scottish criminal cases."

According to Longford, the year 1911 marks the showdown between the two houses of Parliament.  The country was governed overwhelmingly by liberals, but membership in the Lords, understandably, was overwhelmingly conservative.  After the Lords refused to pass the liberal government's budget, the liberal prime minister persuaded the new king to create as many as 500 new peers who would ensure passage of the bill. Under such a threat, the Lords caved.

Much has changed in Lords during the past one hundred years.  In 1963 peers were allowed to renounce their titles, and a few have done so. At the writing of this book, 67 female peers sat in the house, the first four as life peers in 1958. Following the 1963 act, female hereditary peers began to sit in Lords.

The book does not take into account the changes made by Blair's administration. Unfortunately, Lord Longford will not be able to update the text. He died in 2001 at the age of 95.

This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in February 2011.  

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