- Commons v. Chancery:The 1604 Buckinghamshire Election Dispute Revisited⋆
History of Parliament
It was once a truism that the famous Buckinghamshire election dispute of 1604 was a crucial milestone in the development of the English House of Commons. Following the intervention of James I, the Commons effectively won from chancery the right to judge the validity of parliamentary election returns, so eliminating the possibility that the crown, through the lord chancellor, would pack the chamber with its own nominees. However, in recent years several scholars have questioned the central importance of the case. Derek Hirst, while conceding that a battle for supremacy took place, has stressed the compromise nature of the final settlement, argues that chancery continued to pose a threat to the Commons after 1604, and demonstrates that one of the questions at the heart of the dispute - the right ofmen who had been outlawed to sit in the Commons - remained unsettled as late as 1624.1 Eric Lindquist has gone further, claiming that the issue of whether chancery or the Commons was the proper judge of election returns was merely a smokescreen created by Goodwin's opponents. He also maintains that the Commons never claimed that it was the sole judge of returns, merely that Goodwin had been unfairly excluded.2 R.C. Munden, too, has divested the conflict of much of its historic importance by claiming that the dispute was the result of faction fighting at the early Jacobean court.3 Taken together, these reinterpretations challenge the view that the Buckinghamshire election dispute was essentially a fundamental conflict between the Commons and chancery, or that it marked a milestone in the development of parliament. However, the positions adopted by these revisionist historians are profoundly misguided. The Buckinghamshire election dispute was primarily a struggle between the Commons and chancery for supremacy, and its outcome proved decisive. Furthermore, this conflict, which astonishingly has never been adequately explored, may have been deliberately engineered.
Thanks to Linda Levy Peck, we now know that Goodwin v. Fortescue was, in part, the culmination of 30 years of factional struggle in Buckinghamshire.4 However, [End Page 301] it was also the climax of more than 20 years of conflict between the Commons and chancery. As is well known, this conflict began in 1581, when the Commons reassembled after a prorogation lasting nine years. During this interval several members had died, but the Commons refused to allow Lord Chancellor Bromley to issue writs for by-elections until the clerk of the crown in chancery had first received a warrant from the lower House. Emboldened by its success, perhaps, in 1586 the Commons asserted its right to determine the outcome of the disputed Norfolk election, despite the queen's insistence that the matter properly belonged to chancery. Three years later, however, the Commons was forced to beat a hasty retreat, as it ruled that 'this House is to take notice of all returns only in such sort as the same shall be certified into this House by the clerk of the crown in chancery and not otherwise'.5
The appointment of Sir John Puckering as lord keeper in 1592 held out the possibility of co-operation rather than conflict between the Commons and chancery. As Speaker of the Commons in both 1584 and 1586, Puckering had previously raised the issue of the validity of several elections himself, and had been in the chair when the lower House had successfully defended its right to determine the outcome of the Norfolk election. Under his leadership it must have seemed unlikely that chancery would seek to undermine the Commons' claim to be entitled to judge the validity of election returns. It is certainly striking, as Jennifer Loach once remarked, that the Commons 'seems to have been anxious to work with the lord keeper rather than against him'.6 During Puckering's tenure of the lord keepership the Commons, in 1593, took the momentous step of putting its election committee on a firm procedural footing by combining it with the standing committee for privileges.
If Puckering was perhaps willing to work with the Commons rather than against it, the same cannot be said of his successor, Sir Thomas...