Some early Acts

The earliest Acts of Parliament were written on parchment rolls. These might consist of a single goatskin membrane, or more frequently of membrane sewn to membrane, head to foot, until the roll took on formidable proportions. Before 1603, the Acts were sometimes signed by the Sovereign at the head.

The first Act stored at the Palace in 1497 was 'An Act for taking of Apprentices to make worsteds' (a type of wool cloth) in the county of Norfolk. It is inscribed with the Norman-French phrase "Soit bail© as Seigneurs" (let it be sent to the Lords), having been drawn up by the Commons and sent to the Lords.

The Lords assented to it (of which there is no note), and the Royal Assent was given in the formula: "Soit fait come il este desir©" (may it be done as desired). King Henry VII gave his assent in person, and diligently added his monogram "H.R" to the document.

The first Royal Commission

On 11 February 1542, the first Royal Commission was issued directing others to assent to an Act on the monarch's behalf. This method was used for the remarkable purpose of sparing Henry VIII from having to attend in person to assent to the Bill for the attainder and consequent execution of Queen Katherine Howard.

This device of assenting by Royal Commission was employed on other occasions and since 1854, every Act has in fact been passed in this way.

Later Acts

Later Acts preserved in the Victoria Tower bear similar inscriptions to the medieval ones. This is demonstrated by the Poor Law of 1601, which established the principle that the local community was responsible for the care of the poor.

The Poor Law was written on a vellum roll 13ins wide; at its head stands three inscriptions in Norman-French, which are still used today by the Clerks: "Soit baill© aux Seigneurs" to send the Bill from the Commons to the Lords, "A ceste bille les Seigneurs sont assentus" (the Lords agree to this bill) and "La Royne le veult" the formula of Royal Assent, more usually spelt "La Reyne le veult" (the Queen wishes it).

Did you know?

The longest Act of Parliament held by the Parliamentary Archives is nearly a quarter of a mile (348m) long, and used to take two men a whole day to rewind. It is about the raising of taxes and was passed in 1821