Lords, House of

views updated May 29 2018

Lords, House of. The upper chamber of the British Parliament. Originally part of the great council or the king's council of the Norman and Plantagenet monarchs, the Lords became separated from the Commons in the reign of Edward III. It has been in continuous existence since, except between 1649, at the end of the English Civil War, when it was abolished by a unanimous vote of the Commons, and 1660, when it reassembled at the Restoration of Charles II. Its membership then consisted of the ‘lords spiritual’ (the bishops) and the ‘lords temporal’ (the hereditary and life peers). Before the Reformation the spiritual lords (who then included abbots and priors) were in a majority. After 1529, when the abbots and priors were removed, the House was dominated by the lay peers, whose numbers expanded enormously, particularly after the late 19th cent. With the introduction of life peerages in 1958 (which also allowed peeresses in their own right to sit for the first time), the hereditary element in the House (while still a theoretical majority) declined in its daily attendance. The Labour government of 1997 deprived hereditary peers of their right of attendance, without being sure what the ultimate composition of the House was to be.

The numerical strength of the lords spiritual was fixed at the Reformation to include the archbishops of Canterbury and York and the 24 bishops (an increase of 5 bishops on the pre-Reformation period). Upon the expansion of English sees, which began with the creation of the bishopric of Manchester in 1847, it was enacted that the number of bishops sitting in the Lords should not be increased. The current lords spiritual consist of the archbishops, the three senior bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester, and the 21 next in seniority of consecration.

Since the Anglo-Scottish Union in 1707, the Scots peerage had assembled in Edinburgh (or by sending a proxy or signed list) to elect sixteen representative peers at each general election to sit in the House. By-elections were held when necessary. By votes of the House in 1709 and 1711, Scottish peers who held British titles (i.e. titles conferred after the Union) were not allowed to vote in Scottish peerage elections, nor to sit in the Lords. These votes were reversed in 1782. In 1963 the Act which allowed peers to renounce their titles on their succession also abolished the election of Scottish representative peers (the last election took place in 1959), giving all peers of Scotland rights of membership.

At the Union with Ireland in 1801, the Irish peers met in the Irish House of Lords in Dublin and elected 28 representative peers for life. All subsequent elections to fill a vacancy were conducted by post. The last election took place in 1919, and no vacancies were filled after the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, although those peers already elected remained members of the Lords. The last Irish representative peer died in 1961. The Irish Act of Union also allowed for the election of four representative bishops of the Anglican Church of Ireland.

The House of Lords is the highest court of appeal, a function developed since the late 13th cent. when Parliament was regarded as the highest court of royal justice, though the control by the House of appeals from the English courts of common law may be traced back to the king's great council. This control was later extended to the Courts of Chancery or equity in England (1677), and to the courts of Scotland (by the Union) and Ireland (by an Act of 1720). The appeals were heard by the whole House and any member could take part. An increased work-load led to the problem of finding judicial personnel, and eventually (after a failed attempt in 1856 to create a judicial life peer) led to the creation in 1876 by the Appellate Jurisdiction Act of the modern judicial powers and practice of the House. These included salaried ‘lords of appeal in ordinary’ (who were to hold peerages only during their terms of office), though the Act did not disqualify any peer from taking part in judicial proceedings. A further Act of 1887 allowed the lords of appeal to retain their peerages for life.

Over the years the powers of the House of Lords vis-à-vis the House of Commons have been severely curtailed. This process probably began in 1407 when Henry IV agreed that money grants were to be initiated in the Commons. By resolutions of 1671 and 1678 the Commons asserted their exclusive right to control taxation. The custom was that the Lords could reject, but not amend, a money bill, but rejection was rarely used as it invariably led to a crisis between the Houses. The rejection by the Lords of the Finance Bill in 1909, which contained Lloyd George's ‘People's Budget’, including such important social measures as old-age pensions, led to a major constitutional crisis which was resolved by two general elections and the promise of a massive creation of peers given by King George V to Prime Minister Asquith. The Lords backed down and the resulting Parliament Act of 1911 drastically reduced the powers of the Lords to those of limited delay. A money bill could receive the royal assent after one month even though the consent of the Lords had been withheld, while other public bills could only be delayed by two years (reduced to one year by the Parliament Act of 1949). Upon the massive Labour victory in 1945 the marquis of Salisbury, the leader of a permanent inbuilt Conservative majority in the House, established an understanding that the Lords would not delay legislation that had appeared in the winning party's election manifesto. Designed to avoid conflict with the Attlee government, this understanding has sometimes led to the House being more critical of Conservative than Labour legislation.

Until 1801, when an increase in membership resulting from the Union with Ireland necessitated a larger venue, the Lords had met in the white chamber of the old palace of Westminster. It then moved to the white or lesser hall. After the fire of 1834 which destroyed large parts of the old palace, the Lords occupied the painted chamber until they moved in 1847 into their present chamber in the new palace. Between 1941 (when the Commons' chamber was destroyed by German bombing) and 1950 the Commons met in the House of Lords, while the Lords met in the royal robing room. The Labour Government of 1997 proposed a reform of the House of Lords and, after protracted discussions, the hereditary peers were excluded. The final changes have yet to be agreed.

Clyve Jones


Graves, M. A. R. , The House of Lords in the Parliaments of Edward VI and Mary I: An Institutional Study (Cambridge, 1981);
Jones, C. (ed.), A Pillar of the Constitution: The House of Lords in British Politics, 1640–1784 (1989);
Jones, C., and Jones, D. L. (eds.), Peers, Politics and Power: The House of Lords, 1603–1911 (1986);
Powell, J. E., and and Wallis, K. , The House of Lords in the Middle Ages: A History of the English House of Lords to 1540 (1968).

House of Lords

views updated May 14 2018

House of Lords Upper House of the British Parliament. In its legislative capacity, the Lords is completely subordinate to the House of Commons. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 checked virtually all its power, except to delay passage of a bill for one year. Members of the House of Lords include the Lords Spiritual (26 archbishops and bishops), Lords Temporal (c.1000 hereditary and life peers) and the Lords of Appeal (Law Lords). The Law Lords form Britain's highest court of appeal. In 1999, the number of hereditary peers was reduced to 92 as a first step in the major reform of the House.