|Cobbett's Parliamentary |
History, vol. 1 (1806)
is the official report of parliamentary debates in the House of
Commons and the House of Lords (I work a bit as a reporter in the Lords). So it's a bit surprising to learn
that the first speech reported in its history dates from before
there was even a Parliament. To explain this odd fact, we need to understand a bit about how Hansard
For a long time, it was against the law to publish the votes and proceedings of Parliament. That was seen as a threat to parliamentary
privilege. MPs might be less likely to speak openly in debates if
their words were to be shared outside the Chamber.
However, there were those prepared to risk prison to publish anyway – because they thought it would be profitable and/or because they thought it was
right to hold Parliament to account. As early as 1675, there were
full transcripts of debates.
went to prison, but while individual publications were stopped others
continued undaunted. Four times in the 1700s the ban was reaffirmed
in law. Publishers wriggled round these strictures by printing
reports months after debates had taken place or while Parliament was
no longer sitting, or by inventing satirical reports from imaginary Parliaments
. Even with real debates, what reporting there was could
be selective and inaccurate – which didn't help win over MPs.
Finally, in 1771,
after a campaign by the radical MP John Wilkes, permission was given
for the publication of verbatim – word for word – reports. Such
reports became a regular feature in newspapers.
In 1802, William Cobbett began to publish Parliamentary Debates
, which compiled these
accounts from different newspapers. In 1809, Cobbett employed a new
printer, Thomas Curson Hansard, who took over the publication from
1812. Hansard made many improvements to the speed and accuracy of his
reports, such as employing reporters directly rather than copying
reports from elsewhere. In 1829, his name appeared on the reports –
which is why they're known as Hansard
today. Last week, Hansard
published its 3,000th bound volume of debates.
before handing his publication to Hansard, Cobbett had seen another
opportunity: to collect reports of Parliament from the more distant
past. This he did over 36 volumes in – to use its full title –
Cobbett's Parliamentary History of England. From the Norman Conquest, in 1066, to the year, 1803. From which last-mentioned epoch it is continued downwards in the work entitled “Cobbett's Parliamentary Debates”
the history and the debates make up one continuous work, Hansard
to 1066, before there was a Parliament.
Cobbett tells us in
his own preface that he compiled his history from,
“the Records, the
Rolls of Parliament, the Parliamentary or Constitutional History, and
from the most reputable English Historians.”
exemplary sources, he also bemoans having had to work his way through
“immense load of useless matter, quite unauthentic, and very
little connected with the real Proceedings of Parliament”,
included battles, sieges and even the entire contents of pamphlets.
His history is, then, a distillation of earlier reports,
concentrating on what was said, by whom, where and when.
Though the title
of his history claims that it begins with the Norman conquest, the
first date given is 1072, where he tells us that,
“William I, at the
instigation of the pope, summoned a national synod, to determine the
dispute betwixt the sees of Canterbury and York about supremacy.”
We're told this happened at Windsor, but not what was said or how the
matter was resolved.
next account, from 1106, is the first reported speech in Hansard
Speaking in London, William's son Henry I makes the case why he
should be king and not his older brother Robert. But how accurate can
that report be? Cobbett tells us the source for this account is the
Benedictine monk Matthew Paris (c. 1200-59), whose Historia
– a history of
England from 1070 to 1253 – is thought to have been written between
1250 and 1255, or 150 years after King Henry gave his speech.
Note that Cobbett doesn't tell us what clinched Henry's claim to
the throne over that of his older brother. The English barons and the
church had complained of bullying behaviour under the previous king,
William II. To gain their support, Henry agreed to sign the Charter
of Liberties or Coronation Charter – the first time that a king
stated that his powers were subject to the law.
promises were largely ignored by Henry and his descendants for the
next 100 years, but it set a precedent for events to follow. Henry's
great grandson, King John, also found himself forced to agree
concessions to the nobles, and in 1215 he placed his seal on Magna Carta
– the great charter.
Historians argue about the significance of Magna Carta
, but one thing it established
was a Great Council, with representatives from the counties, cities
and church, that would take charge of taxation and could – if it
had to – stand against the king for the benefit of the country.
There had been councils of nobles before, but always subject to the
Having agreed to
Magna Carta, John then ignored it – and the barons turned to the
French Prince Louis for help. There was war – with castles besieged
at Dover, Windsor and Rochester. For a brief while, it looked like
the barons might win and Louis become king of England.
But John died in
1216. The barons thought they would have more control over John's
nine year-old son, Henry, than over French Prince Louis. Henry III
was crowned king on the condition he agreed to the great charter. He
reigned until 1272, during which time his council first became known
as “Parliament” – meaning “to speak”.
In addition, a
rebellion in 1265 by Henry's brother-in-law Simon de Montefort led to
what's often referred to as the “father or Parliaments”. For the
first time, it wasn't the king who decided who sat in Parliament.
“from each county four prudent and law-worthy knights”,
were chosen by election. The right to vote was given to men who owned
land with an income worth 40 shillings or more per year. For the
first time, people in the country – if not a huge number of them –
had some say in how it was run.
didn't last, but we can see in that father of Parliaments – as well
as in Cobbett's accounts from the reigns of Henry III and Edward I –
the beginnings of Parliament as we know it today. In Cobbett's
account of 13 January 1223, we have the first recorded speech of a
non-royal person in Hansard
from the king's councillor William Briwere. We can see decisions
being made by agreement not decree, and – as in 1279 – that the
church dared not speak against decisions made by Parliament. We can
see the king using Parliament to give his decisions – such as his
verdict on Llewellyn – extra weight and authority. We see
government referring to precedent, basing their actions on how things
have been done before.
these earliest entries from Hansard
us a sense of the changing terms of power, the early, faltering steps
towards the Parliament we know today.