The Speaker is one of the most important figures in British parliamentary politics. Speakers are central to the image and mythology of Westminster, some of them credited with founding the distinctive norms and practices for which the House of Commons is widely known.
The role of the Speaker
The Speaker is the chief officer and highest authority of the House of Commons and must remain politically impartial at all times. During debates, the Speaker keeps order and calls MPs to speak.
The House of Commons has had a presiding officer since the 13th century, although it was not until the 14th century that the term ‘Speaker’ for this office first emerged. Peter de Montfort is recorded as having been 'prolocutor' (i.e. speaker) of the 'Mad' Parliament which met at Oxford in 1258.
In the Parliament of 1376, the Commons chose Sir Peter de la Mare to act as its spokesman before the King. The following year, Thomas Hungerford was the first spokesman to be termed Speaker in the official record.
From the office’s emergence until the 17th century, Speakers were appointed by the King and were often regarded by the Commons as his mouthpiece.
However, Speakers did sometimes have to deliver bad news from the Commons to the King and this made their job risky. Between 1394 and 1535, the role of Speaker became synonymous with death as seven men who held or had previously held that position were executed by beheading.
The Speakership gradually achieved greater independence from the Sovereign. A watershed moment in this evolution occurred in 1642, when King Charles I entered the Commons chamber to arrest five Members he suspected of treason.
Speaker Lenthall made the following famous speech: ‘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…’.
Last updated October 2016