‘A collection of unruly gentlemen?’: explaining the English Parliament’s functioning, 1660-1702

by Kara Dimitruk (Stellenbosch University)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.


Houses of Parliament, St. Stephen’s Hall (Interior), London, England. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

How organised are legislatures in their work and policy-making? Does the organisation change and does it matter for economic activity? These questions may make you think of finding out more about the US congress or Westminster Parliament today. My work asks similar questions but looks to the past for answers.

The research, presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, studies members of the English parliament and their committee work before and after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which altered fundamental rules influencing parliament’s organisation. This is important because, prior to the Industrial Revolution, countries in Europe with functioning parliaments saw greater economic growth than those without.

Using an interdisciplinary approach and set of tools, my study helps to reconcile different views on parliament’s functioning. It reveals that Members of Parliament were not ‘a collection of unruly gentlemen’ during the period, but MPs with local interests, experience and expertise, and interests in high politics came together on private bill committees. The evidence supports the idea that the Glorious Revolution made, as previous historians have characterised, ‘parliament useful to the nation’.

From 1660 to 1702, constituents introduced projects to Parliament to reorganise their property rights. Each project had to be approved by a committee and then by the entire House of Commons and Lords. Parliament saw about 900 such projects during this period.

The projects, formally called private bills or estate bills, presented a problem for parliament because each one cost the legislature time. The committee stage was crucial to ensure that projects were approved. It gathered information about the quality of the project to present to the rest of the House. The specialisation could allow parliament’s time to be used to discuss a variety of other issues.

My study collects data on MPs and their committee work for these projects. The data collection was made possible because of improvements in the accessibility in historical data made available by the British History Online, the Institute for Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust.

Figure 1 shows the MP-committee network in two sample legislative sessions. Squares are bills; circles are MPs. The size of the squares represents the size of committees; the size of the circles represents how important MPs are to the network based on their committee connections.


I find that MPs with constituent interests were significantly more likely to work on committees, but were not central in the network for the entire period. A ‘quiet source of stability’ for parliament’s functioning, these MPs were the more likely to be the small circles or spokes in the network.

The Glorious Revolution changed institutional rules relating to government finance and parliamentary meetings, which in turn altered the value of experience and interests in high politics for committees. Committee experience became more valuable to parliament. MPs with previous committee experience were 11% more likely to work on projects and were more central.

MPs with interests in high politics, such as chairs of government finance bills, with connections the monarch, and affiliated with political coalitions or parties, were more likely to work or hold central positions in the committee network from 1660 to 1689. MPs with these interests were no more or less likely to work on committees or be central in the network after the Revolution.

The evidence suggests that the Glorious Revolution may have made parliamentary organisation relatively more efficient than in the previous era. Studying organisational changes to parliaments in the past not only provides insights into the links between functioning parliaments and historical growth, but can also provide important lessons for our understanding of the operation and organisation of modern legislatures.

Stealing for the market: the illegitimacy of enslavement in the early modern Atlantic world

by Judith Spicksley (Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.



Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, c.1833 (oil on canvas)
The Slave Trade (Slaves on the West Coast of Africa), by Auguste-François Biard, 1840. Available at Wikimedia Commons. 

Slavery was understood to be illegitimate long before anti-slavery activists called for the abolition of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. Slavery is now prohibited in international law, but it was a legal institution in the vast bulk of societies at some point in the past.

A range of legal methods were used to enslave people, of which the most common were birth, capture in war, judicial punishment, debt, and poverty. But there was another method of enslavement that historians include in their list: the kidnap and theft of persons for sale on the market.

These practices were never considered acceptable forms of enslavement. In among the earliest law codes that survive from Old Babylonia in the second millennium BCE, to Israel in the first, are punishments for the theft of a person, which attracted the death penalty.

But demand for slaves created opportunities for traders to sell those they had stolen as if they were slaves proper, and increase their wealth in the process. These cases of illegal enslavement ran alongside bona fide sales throughout the period in which slavery was legitimate.

Examples include the activities of Cilician-based pirates in the eastern Mediterranean in the late Roman Republic and early Empire, and the violent sourcing of labour in Africa for the American plantations in the early modern Atlantic world. But it was the raiding bands that scoured the Slav lands of Eastern Europe for captives in the high medieval period that encouraged an understanding of the meaning of slavery as illegal in the west.

The term ‘slave’ appeared in English, and in the languages of Western Europe more generally, from the late medieval period via the ethonym Slav. This was the name given to members of the Slavic peoples living in Eastern Europe whose communities were frequently raided for persons who could be sold as slaves.

But the term ‘slavery’ does not enter the English language until the mid-sixteenth century. At that point, it was applied as a metaphor for the tyranny of Catholicism, as the development of Protestantism created a major religious schism.

The term ‘slavery’ was also applied to the activities of the earliest English slave traders. During his first voyage in 1562, John Hawkins is reputed to have violently captured around 400 Africans in Guinea, whom he later sold in the West Indies. He repeated these activities over the next five years with the support of Queen Elizabeth.

Hawkins was following in the footsteps of other Europeans, most notably Lançarote de Freitas, the Portuguese explorer, who is recognised as having set the transatlantic slave trade in motion. De Freitas returned from North Africa to Lagos in 1444 with a cargo of 235 Berber captives seized in a series of raids, who were subsequently sold into slavery.

From the mid-seventeenth century, with the challenge to the divine right of kings, ‘slavery’ became a metaphor for, and a weapon of, political tyranny in England. It also became a reality for travellers.

The seventeenth century saw an increased level of activity by the so-called Barbary pirates, operating out of North Africa, who seized European sailors and travellers and held them as ‘slaves’ for ransom. Englishmen and women were captured and enslaved in the Americas too, as the Atlantic economy underwent expansion.

As a result, the meaning of ‘slavery’ as a system of illegal subjection, linked to tyranny, violence and theft, had become deeply embedded in English thought before the abolitionists were established as an organised force from the late eighteenth century.