History of the Speakership

Speaker William Lenthall

The Speakership under its present title dates back to 1377 when Sir Thomas Hungerford was appointed.

Equivalent presiding officers before this time were called 'parlour' or 'prolocutor' and have been identified as far back as 1258 when Peter de Montfort is said to have presided over the so-called 'Mad Parliament' held at Oxford that year.

A perilous role

Until the seventeenth century, the Speaker was often an agent of the King, although they were often blamed if they delivered news from Parliament that the King did not like.

This made the role of Speaker quite perilous; seven Speakers were executed by beheading between 1394 and 1535.

Neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak

During the Civil War in the 1640s, however, the struggle between Crown and Parliament was reflected in the attitude of the Speaker of the House to the King.

When King Charles I came to Parliament in 1642 to arrest five Members of the Commons for treason, Speaker Lenthall (pictured above) gave the following reply:

May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here, and I humbly beg Your Majesty's pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what Your Majesty is pleased to demand of me.

Restoration

After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Speakers often had political associations with, and sometimes held posts in, Government.

Speaker Arthur Onslow (Speaker 1728-61, pictured above) was responsible for distancing the role of the Speaker from Government and established many of the practices associated with the Speaker today.

By the mid-nineteenth century, it was the norm that the Speaker should be above party.

Images: (c) Palace of Westminster Collection

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Visit our Living Heritage section to find out about Speaker Lenthall's role in the build up to Civil War, as relations between Parliament and King Charles I broke down.

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Pictured left: William Lenthall and his family, attributed to Edward Bower. Lenthall was Speaker during the turbulent period of the Civil War.


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