Too Big for Their Britches? Fashion in the Early Modern House of Commons

Created on Wednesday 13th April 2016 by:
Dr Elizabeth Biggs

I came to the College of Canons based at St Stephen’s from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries from looking at fifteenth-century political interpretations of history. I’m working on all aspects of the college’s life from building projects to the daily round of masses. I can spend half a day... Read more

Thomas Egerton, 1st Viscount Brackley, unknown artist. Oil on panel, late-sixteenth to early-seventeenth century. © The National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 3783.

I’m currently working in the Huntington Library, twelve hours flight away from St Stephen’s Chapel, because they have a fabulous collection of early modern material collected by Thomas Egerton, Lord Ellesmere in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. He was a lawyer, judge and then Lord Keeper and Lord Chancellor to Elizabeth I and James I, so kept lots of papers that today would have to be handed over to The National Archives. One of the things I’ve been looking for here in the California sunshine is clues about how MPs adapted St Stephen’s Chapel to suit themselves after around 1550 when they took over the chapel for their first permanent home. I love this gossipy note and think it more than fits the bill:

"Memorand(um) that over the seates in the Parliam(en)t house are certaine holes some 2 inches square in the Walles in w(ch) were placed postes to uphold a scaffold round about the house for them to sitt on w(hi)ch used the wearing of great Breeches stuffed w(i)th haire like woolsacks w(hi)ch fashion being left in y(e) Parliament holden 8 Eliz. the scaffold were then pulled downe & never since sett up. Neither were they ever since used, This all the old Parliam(en)t men affirmed talking one day
together in y(e) house before the Speaker came."

Townshend Parliamentary Journal, Huntington Library MS EL 2578 f. 49r.

Sir Philip Sydney, unknown artist. Oil on canvas, eighteenth century, after an original of c.1576. © The National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 2096.

What on earth is going on here? We have high fashion in the early years of Elizabeth I for massive breeches stuffed uncomfortably with horsehair, gossipy MPs chattering away in 1601 before the day’s work starts and the lovely image of 5cm square holes just casually left in the walls of the chapel.

It’s a nice account of how procedure hasn’t really changed much in Parliament. People still stand around chatting idly until the Speaker arrives in the Commons and the serious work and debate can begin. Later MPs poked idly at the walls of St Stephen’s - a couple of medieval fragments were found that way according to nineteenth century antiquarians - but in 1601 they clearly talked about the past exploits and the golden days of the Commons.

The History of Parliament Trust noted the same account back in 2012 as it has been printed in the past, but they took it entirely seriously as an account of fashion in the Commons. It’s hard to believe that breeches in the early years of Elizabeth I from 1558 to around 1567 were so large that MPs couldn’t sit on the benches and so a sort of platform had to be set up for them to perch on around the walls of the chamber. Elizabethan breeches were large, and MPs certainly could be a vain lot, but to go to those lengths? Also breeches stayed large for most of the reign, such as in these uncomfortable looking pictures of dandies from the 1570s, so why would the scaffold have stayed down after 1567?

Sir Richard Grenville, unknown artist. Oil on canvas, seventeenth century, after an original of 1571.  © The National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1612.

Rather than changing fashions, I wonder if the "old Parliament men", the veterans of Elizabethan debates on everything from religion to whether the Queen should marry, to war with Spain, were having some fun with the gullible younger men. The young men around the Earl of Essex were still wearing fashionably large breeches and would probably have liked to have seating just for them and would have lapped up stories of a past with seats for breeches. The holes would have had to be visible in 1601 for the joke to work. St Stephen’s was small and cramped even for the 300 or so MPs then, so maybe there had been extra seating set up that didn’t work for some reason, or the holes were for something else. Do you have any ideas about what they could have been? Do you think they were for highly fashionable MPs to sit with their oversized breeches for a few years in during the early years of St Stephen’s as the House of Commons?

Note on Illustrations:- Sir Philip Sydney sat as MP for Shrewsbury in 1572, and as MP for Kent in 1584. Sir Richard Grenville sat as MP for Cornwall in 1571 and 1584.

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