10th November 1596. The Dark Tower.
Today in 1596 Puritan leader Peter Wentworth MP died in the Tower of London. Wentworth’s incarceration resulted from his refusal to be cowed by Queen Elizabeth regarding free-speech, and exceptional at a time when the Commons by self-censorship, and by failing to defend itself. were complicit in allowing free speech to be curtailed.(1)
By the mid 16th century it was the custom that at the opening of the English parliament, the newly chosen Speaker would seek confirmation of ‘ancient liberties of the Commons’, namely freedom of speech and ‘privilege’ from arrest during sessions.
However from the beginning Queen Elizabeth was having none of it, and qualified ‘liberties’ as ‘liberty of speech for the well debating of matters propounded’, thereby reserving control over what the Commons may. or may not, discuss.(2)
Some members notably Wentworth and his brother Paul, challenged the restrictions on the grounds that traditionally Parliament had a counselling role, no matter how unwelcome, for, ‘no estate can stand where the prince will not be governed by advice’.(3)
On successive occasions members continued to assert their right to speak openly on any topic. It appears that in attempting to silence them it was the Queen who was going against traditional practice, which was exacerbated by her placing in the Commons her own councillors and courtiers, to a greater extent than previously.
The first direct clash over freedom of speech came in November 1566, when the Commons asked the Lords to jointly petition the Queen to marry and settle the Royal Succession. However the Queen intervened to block further debate which prompted Wentworth to ask whether it ‘breached the lybertie of free speache in the Howse’.(sic)
Wentworth was to deliver another memorable speech, on February 8th 1576, but before he could finish, the Speaker interrupted him due to its provocative nature, which resulted in his committal to the Serjeant’s Ward, and then imprisoned in the Tower.
After he was released, he resumed his duties as an MP, but became embroiled in controversy again when he sided with Sir Anthony Cope (1548-1614), when in February 1587 Cope presented to the Speaker a Bill abrogating Ecclesiastical Law and a Puritan revision of the Prayer Book, thus defending the liberties of the Commons. However this was dangerous ground as it interfered with the Queen’s ecclesiastical prerogative. This time both were sent to the Tower.
In 1593 Wentworth was lodged in the Tower again for presenting a Petition on the Crown’s succession, but this time he wasn’t to see freedom again, as he died there three years later.
By the time of the Civil War the perception of the Speaker as a King’s man had changed, but not before Speaker Finch in 1629 had declared: ‘I am not less the King’s servant for being yours’.
In 1653 the Speaker was in fact removed when Cromwell dismissed the Rump Parliament, calling Members ‘corrupt and unjust men’, prior to setting up the Protectorate.
Nowadays Speakers are unlikely to be over-ridden by monarchy or anyone else, being merely controllers of debate. It is the executive office of the Prime-Minister, which now effectively stifles free speech from his own side, with criticism left to the Opposition. Members though are immune from the law of libel in the House, a privilege which is freely used.
(1) Born in 1530 Wentworth, he became MP for Barnstaple in 1571. His first wife was a cousin to Henry VIII’s last wife Katherine Parr, and his second was the sister of Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State to Elizabeth.
(2) Procedings in the Parliament of Elizabeth I. ed T.E.Hartley i 42.
(3) proceedings i 431.
Ref: M.A.R, Graves, Elizabethan Parliament 1559-1601 PP 49-51.