The post of Serjeant at Arms originated in the late thirteenth century when Edward I formed a bodyguard of 20 Serjeants at Arms. Their duties in this period were not confined to parliamentary ones: on the contrary, they performed a wide variety of administrative and judicial tasks for the king, from tax collecting to making arrests. In 1415, the King appointed one of his Royal Serjeants, Nicholas Maudit, to attend upon the Commons specifically.
Serjeants were appointed by the monarch from Henry VIII’s time until 1962 when the Commons’ right to choose the Serjeant at Arms was restored. For much of the Commons’ history, documents have made it clear that the Serjeant answers to both the Speaker and the House in general.
At first, according to historical records, the relationship between the Commons and its Serjeant was ambivalent. Gradually, relations improved as the Commons came to appreciate the powers of the Serjeant to protect the House’s privileges, and in particular, to arrest without a warrant any individuals that the Commons summoned.
Warrants were unnecessary for Royal Serjeants to make arrests (and in any case, they were superfluous since few people could read or write in this era); all they needed to do was show their maces.
The last stranger (non-Member) to be brought before the Bar of the House by the Serjeant at Arms and admonished by the Speaker was Sunday Express newspaper editor John Junor on 24 January 1957, for an article published in the newspaper that cast doubt on the honour and integrity of Members over their constituency petrol allowances. Junor apologised and no further action was taken.
Gradually, Serjeants’ maces came to be regarded as the corporate symbol of the power and authority of the Commons, leading to the idea that the House could not be properly constituted in the absence of the mace.
This notion, which took hold in the seventeenth century, explains why the mace must be conducted to the Chamber and placed on the table before the House commences each day, and why it is placed on brackets under the table when the House sits as a Committee of the Whole House.
Last updated October 2016