There was a time when the most dangerous job in England was that of Speaker in the House of Commons. Seven Speakers were beheaded after, as the spokesperson for Parliament, delivering parliamentary decisions to the King that he didn’t want to hear.
The hazardous job was not eagerly sought. The pay was good, the power in the House supreme, but the risks for the first centuries of parliamentary democracy saw few MPs volunteering for the task. That reluctance to accept the Speaker’s role is still reflected in every parliament in our Commonwealth when a new Speaker is elected and hustled, protesting, to the chair by fellow members from government and opposition benches.
The brief ceremony these days is accompanied by chuckles and polite laughter, the origin of the charade long forgotten. But between 1377 and 1642 the Speaker’s chair was not a comfortable pew.
And one cold London day on Jan. 4, 1642, with Speaker William Lenthall in the chair, it was very uncomfortable indeed.
King Charles the First was on the throne and a most unhappy royal. He had been informed that five MPs were speaking and voting against his royal demands. With a strong armed guard, he marched into the Commons, occupied Lenthall’s Speaker’s chair and demanded to know where the five MPs (who had wisely absented themselves) were hiding. He wanted them arrested and charged with treason.
A remarkable oil painting still hangs in the corridors of the English Parliament in London recording that dramatic event, when Parliament through its Speaker faced down a ruling monarch. It shows the king standing imperiously in front of Speaker Lenthall’s chair to make his demands. Lenthall has fallen to one knee, hat in hand, to address the king.
Behind him sit two table officers, clerk Henry Elsing and clerk assistant John Rushworth.
Elsing is looking over his shoulder, obviously fearful in the king’s presence. Clerk assistant Rushworth, charged with the duty of recording events in the House, bends to his task, scribbling furiously. It is to
Rushworth we owe thanks for the still-preserved record of the happenings on that historic day when Lenthal told the reigning king his first duty lay with the people’s Parliament, not the palace:
“When ... his majesty asked him, Whether any of these persons were in the house? Whether he saw any of them? and where they were? ... the Speaker, falling on his knee ... answered:
“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; and humbly beg your majesty’s pardon, that I cannot give any other answer than this to what your majesty is pleased to demand from me.” (The capitals and punctuation are as recorded.)
So, what has any of this to do with we citizens of British Columbia in the year 2012, close to 400 years after a clerk in Parliament recorded the challenge to a would-be dictator king? Possibly nothing, possibly everything, if we believe our form of democracy with its myriad faults is the best form of government — and have respect for those who bravely laid its foundations.