The 'Leaven in the Lump' Bishops in the House of Lords

By Nash, Michael L. | Contemporary Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

The 'Leaven in the Lump' Bishops in the House of Lords


Nash, Michael L., Contemporary Review


At first sight, it now seems anomalous to say the least that there is a 'spiritual dimension to the legislators of the second chamber in Britain. Like much that is British, or perhaps English, history will explain it. But explanation is not justification. Can there possibly be any reason for keeping the 'lords spiritual' in a reformed second chamber, post Blairite government and post millennium?

The late Enoch Powell wrote extensively of the bishops and other legislators of the House of Lords in the Middle Ages. So did the distinguished constitutional historian, Luke Pike, in 1894. As far back as 1820 a Report was produced on the Dignity of a Peer of the Realm, considering among other things the position of the Bishops.

Before the Reformation Parliament of Henry VIII it was easy to see why there had been bishops, and indeed abbots, in the House of Lords. They existed in other legislatures. In the last Estates General called in France in 1789 the bishops and other clergy featured prominently. Yet even in these early assemblies their position was peculiar, and their status questionable. Their contributions to law-making and governing generally was also spasmodic and unpredictable.

In 1295 Edward I sent writs of summons to 70 abbots and priors, to the meeting of the 'Model Parliament', the first properly authorised parliament, though not the first parliament. After Edward II's reign, however, that is, after 1327, the numbers had already fallen to 27, which was less than one-tenth of the total number of abbots in the country. Why then had Edward I summoned them in the first place, and why did the numbers fall off so quickly? The ecclesiastics were the sole repositories of learning; often among the ruling classes only they were literate. From their ranks the chief officers of state were often selected. However, secondly, they were the possessors of enormous wealth, at least part of which was spent in the public services: hospitals, the relief of the poor, education. The assistance of clerics in Council was therefore essential. But not so many succumbed to this worldly ambience and ambition. Most abbots were constantly seeking to be excused from distracting duties of state. We should not therefore be surprised that recent moves to give a peerage to the shortly-retiring Cardinal Hume (a former abbot) have not met with any enthusiasm on his part. He was perhaps a reluctant bishop in the first place, and now after twenty-three years in the public eye, he wishes to return to the cloister. In the Middle Ages, many never wished to leave it at all.

However, in the Middle Ages, the bishops, abbots and priors exercised a profound influence over all orders of society. Despite their reluctance, at one point their numbers were greater than those of the lay peers in the developing House of Lords. Even when the abbots and priors had been removed at the time of the Reformation, the bishops on their own formed one-third of the Upper House. Yet in 1998, Frederic William Maitland, perhaps one of the greatest of all our legal writers, noted that the temporal lords since that time had been increased fourteen-fold, but the bishops had only been increased from 21 to 26, to whom was added for a time the Irish bishops. The ecclesiastical element in our legislature, observed Maitland, had therefore become relatively inconsiderable and subordinate. Instead of being a third of the second chamber, they had become a thirty-third part of it.

However small though, their presence often provoked opposition, which suggests that they continued to exercise an effect out of proportion to their numbers. The Bishops, since the time of Henry VIII, had of course been bishops of the Established Church. They therefore might have expected repudiation by every sect of Dissenters, and they were, in 1641, ejected from Parliament by the Puritans, and finally reached their nadir when the Second Chamber was abolished altogether by Cromwell. …

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