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As Thomas Wentworth was concluding his oration on office-holding to the Commons on 17 March 1626, Sir Simon Weston rose to his feet and launched a virulent attack. His concern was not the substance of Wentworth's remarks or even their tone, but the manner of delivery: '[R]hetorical speeches here and amplifications take up time and are of no purpose.' The House of Commons, in the midst of a fraught parliamentary session, following on from the failure and dissolution of the first Caroline Parliament the year before, did not have time for long-winded, flowery speeches. The clear implication was that Parliament was a place of business and that required debate not oratory. Two years later William Hakewill noted, '[We] should be rather logicians than rhetoricians.' But it was Hakewill who also wrote that the ethos of the chamber was that 'such as speak are not stinted to any time for the length of their speech.' Reconciling these two seemingly contradictory statements, to avoid excessive rhetorical flourishes but not be constrained by time, was the challenge faced by every member who spoke in the early modern house of Commons: most failed.
As befitted the most prominent aspect of the parliamentary soundscape, speaking was governed by a series of rules. Sir Thomas Smith in his De Republica Anglorum (1583) provided an exposition on the conduct of those who wished to speak in the Commons:
In the disputing is a mervelous good order used in the lower house. He that standeth uppe bareheadded is understanded that he will speake to the bill. If moe stande uppe, who that first is judged to arise, is first harde, though the one doe prayse the law, the other diswade it, yet there is no altercation. For everie man speaketh as to the speaker, not as one to an other, for that is against the order of the house. It is also taken against the order, to name him who ye doe confute, but by circumlocution, as he that speaketh with the bill, or he that spake against the bill, and gave this and this reason, dothe not satisfie but I am of the contrary opinion for this and this reason. And so with perpetuall Oration not with altercation, he goeth through till he do make an end.
No one was allowed to speak twice to a bill on the same day, and usually debate on the bill did not take place until the second reading. However, when the House sat in committee or bills were assigned to individual committees, then members were free to speak as often as they liked (or the committee would allow). William Hakewill, in his tract on speaking in the Commons, suggested that speakers read their audience: '[He] that speaketh if he be observant shall easily perceive (even while he is speaking) how far he may presume upon the patience of the house in that regard.' Sir Thomas Smith advised that
no reviling or nipping wordes must be used. For then all the House will crie, it is against the order. So that in such a multitude, and in such diversitie of mindes, and opinions, there is the greatest modestie and temperance of speech that can be used. Nevethelesse with moste doulce and gentle termes, they make their reasons as violent and as vehement the one against the other as they may.
The well-nigh impossible degree of rhetorical poise demanded by this discerning, not to say hypersensitive, audience required walking the tightrope between forceful argument ('violent and as vehement') and the gentle arts of persuasion free from 'reviling' and 'nipping.' A similar code of conduct existed in the Lords, where members were not to speak in a 'personall, sharpe or taxing' manner. They too were restricted in naming other members and speaking only once to a bill on the floor of the House. Members of both Houses were also expected to speak according to their conscience. The Parliament-man, John Hooker, considered that a member needed to be of 'such audacity as both can and will boldly utter and speak his mind according to his duty, and as occasion shall serve, for no man ought to be silent or dumb in that House, but according to his talent he must and ought to speak in the furtherance of the King and Commonwealth.'
In order for members to be able to speak their conscience they required freedom of speech. This was one of the four 'ancient privileges and liberties' that the Speaker of the Commons sued the monarch for at the opening of Parliament: '[T]hen that every one of ye house may have libertie of speech, and freely to utter, speake and declare his minde and oppinion to any Bil or question to be proponed,' in the words of John Hooker. This did not mean, of course, either that members would be spared the 'crie' of 'the multitude of diverse minds' or that they were free to debate whatever subject they liked. Speeches touching on matters of the royal prerogative, especially foreign policy, were regularly admonished by the monarch and often expressly forbidden in the monarch's opening speech to the Parliament. Elizabeth bristled at the Commons meddling in the succession and her marital status; James dissolved the 1621 Parliament for criticizing his policy of a Spanish match for Prince Charles; and Charles more than once angrily rebuked the Commons for attacking his policies and his chief minister, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Freedom of speech was a strictly limited notion and one, as we shall see, that increasingly became a point of conflict between the Crown and Parliament.
Persuasion, explanation and argument are the province of rhetoric, the main component of Tudor grammar school education. Parliamentary oratory thus enables us to examine the impact of humanist rhetorical training in practice. At the same time, rhetorical theory can help us understand the effect of individual speeches as well as the broader implications of parliamentary discourse. (Peter Mack)
Demosthenes's speeches, along with Cicero, Aristotle, and Quintilian, formed part of the early modern grammar school syllabus. Pupils were taught to think of their speech in terms of persuasion and argument. 'Oratory represents, in its purest form, the proposition that all human speech is a form of persuasion.' However, in a chamber composed of nearly five hundred people representing not only the Commonwealth as a whole but also conflicting local interests, argument and persuasion could indeed change minds but not always in the way in which the speaker intended. for example, during the debate on a bill that concerned the Earl of Devonshire, Edward Bysshe claimed to have been 'unconstant and unresolved in opinion which way to give my opinion before [Christopher Sherland] spoke, and now I am against it.' Similarly, Sir Robert Wingfield cited a speech by Dudley Carleton as a reason for altering his position on the union with Scotland.
Mack's definition of three types of parliamentary speech—classical rhetoric (usually ornate and long), the university training of disputation (shorter argumentative orations), and formal replies, a hybrid of both—neatly captures most ideal types of verbal behavior in Elizabethan parliaments. Questions about practice on the ground remain, however: did the nature of parliamentary debate and discourse alter during the period? Would William Cecil carefully listening to the debate on the Elizabethan religious settlement in 1559 have recognized the tone and nature of debate in 1628? And, to what extent was grammar school training a useful tool in the daily life of members of Parliament?
Sir Edward Coke, displaying his own grammar school training in rhetoric to the House of Commons in 1624, implied that in this regard his education was not very useful at all. He critiqued classical training and articulated a sharp distinction between classical rhetorical theory and useful discursive practice. He pronounced that 'Demosthenes orations best when longest; but not so with his speeches.' For Coke, at least at this moment, 'speeches' were the pragmatic Anglo-Saxon mode of communication in the legislature, as opposed to Latinate 'oratory.' Coke's intervention, as with the many others who claimed to eschew rhetoric, was somewhat disingenuous, and he was more than capable of lengthy orations if the occasion demanded it.
THE SPEAKER, RHETORIC, AND THE OPENING OF PARLIAMENT
The breakdown of both rhetorical and political ideals is vividly apparent in the troubled history of the Speaker throughout the early Stuart period. Theoretically, the Speaker was chosen by the house from among its members. however, the choice was well known before the actual day, and in practice the Speaker was a Crown appointee. As Sir Edward Coke noted in his fourth Institute, '[T]he use is that the King doth name a discreet and learned man whom the Commons elect.' Coke should have known since he had served as Speaker in 1593 and was so informed by the Queen at Hampton Court some three weeks before his election by acclamation in the Commons. In 1626 the designated candidate, Heneage Finch, was even asked to draft his speech and submit it to the government well before the Parliament opened. John Hooker explained the task of the Speaker in the House: '[H]is Office is to direct and guide the house in good order, and to see the ordinances, usages and customs of the same to be firmely kept and obeyed.' This role required parliamentary experience, tact, and an ability to tread a fine rhetorical line, acting as the conduit between the Crown and the Commons, an increasingly difficult task in the early seventeenth century. Members in the midst of heated debate found the Speaker an easy target on which to vent their frustration at royal policies. Sir Edward Phelips, the Speaker in the first Jacobean Parliament, 1604–10, had lost so much respect in the House by the end of the Parliament that one member 'challenged him on the stairs' and, in a gesture singularly absent from the precepts of Ciceronian oratory, 'popped his Mouth with his finger in scorn: Did again this morning do it in the Street on horseback.' The 'duel' between the house and the loyalty of its Speaker reached a climax in 1629 when Speaker Sir John finch, attempting to adjourn the house by leaving the chamber, was dragged back to his chair and forcibly held down. The 'dual' role of serving both the King and Commons often became a matter of choosing sides, and when the Speaker erred in favor of the monarch, his authority in the Commons waned.
Whatever the limitations of classical/humanist rhetoric, every utterance within St. Stephen's chapel was institutionally framed and inaugurated by the ritual orations that attended the opening procedures of Parliament to which the Speaker was key. Members of both houses fell to debate only after these formal declamations. The most conspicuous aspect of these proceedings was the opening oration by the newly appointed Commons' Speaker, or what was customarily called the 'disabling speech.' The election of the Speaker occurred on the first day of Parliament after the Commons had listened to the Lord Chancellor's opening speech given on the monarch's behalf. After which the Commons were willed to return to St. Stephen's Chapel and choose a Speaker. Contemporary parliamentary commentators suggest that it was the foremost privy councillor who should commend one man to the house. If none other was named (and generally they were not), then the member should rise and humbly stress 'his defectes both of nature and arte are such as he is altogeather unable, and therefore praieth them to chuse another more fitt; which peticion is comonly answered with a full concent of voyces upon his name.'
The disabling speech followed the rhetorical formula of the Introduction and Division (exordium); Three points (Narration); Why there was a need for change (Proof and refutation); Conclusion and apology for length of speech.31 The rhetorical strategy of 'disabling' occurred in the opening remarks, in a declaration of unworthiness for the task at hand, whether as a learned man, an orator, or simply for the assigned duty. This now culturally remote but carefully coded gesture of obeisance before Crown and Parliament betrays the shifting rhetorical terrain between Henrican and Elizabethan humanism and the 1620s.
Perhaps the most vivid example of this is the speech of Sir Edward Phelips before the King and Parliament when he was appointed Speaker in 1604. After a lengthy enunciation on the divine sovereignty of the monarch, Phelips launched into his own state: he described himself as 'worthless, unworthy, defective with secret imperfections, estranged from virtue, labouring under the weight of a so heavy a burden, under which [he] already do groan, and shall both faint and fail.' The Commons, he noted, was 'misguided' in their wisdom and 'favours'; 'unwarranted' in nomination; and 'misled' in its opinions. Unsatisfied with these pejoratives, he went on metaphorically to throw himself at the feet of the King, claiming how he would want to be 'cooled by death' rather than neglect James's service, and not only that, but his body suffered 'through frost-bitten Defects of [his] own Imperfections.' fortunately, Phelips had recovered from frostbite by the next paragraph, to be warmed by his zeal, which 'resembled fire, hot yet trembling: hot in my Desire to discharge the full Measure of my Duty; but, Pisander like, trembling, in my fear, lest, through my Imperfections, I fail in that, which I should perform.' Clearly, Phelips was suitable for the task at hand and was duly appointed. His oration was described by Sir Edward Mountagu as 'an eloquent speach in disabling himselfe,' in which in the exordium Phelips had established his ethos as the appropriate and skilled candidate by disparaging his own rhetorical skills. In contrast, Speaker Sir Robert Bell in 1572 had failed to tread the fine rhetorical line. It seems that it was possible to 'disable' oneself mightily, and yet avoid being seen as too obsequious toward the monarch or as diverging too far from the customary trope. Bell, named as 'the orator' in the parliamentary satire Lewd Pasquil, was criticized for being 'too full of flattery, too curious and tedious.'
Even in the more fraught circumstances of the early Caroline Parliaments, the disabling strategy on the theme of unworthiness did not lose its essence. Perhaps it lost some of its rhetorical flourish and amplification, although this may be dependent, as we have seen, on the individual Speaker rather than political circumstance. Sir Heneage Finch, chosen Speaker in 1626, noted his 'unworthiness' as well. He, too, spoke of weight and burden, weakness and inability, and casting himself at the foot of the royal throne, but certainly with less recorded enthusiasm than Phelips in 1604.36 By November 1640, the opening of the Long Parliament, the strategy of disabling, while still utilized, was greatly diminished. In a speech that was immediately printed, Speaker Lenthall threw the entire house at the King's feet in a noticeably less obsequious fashion than his predecessors. He even went so far as to 'lament to thinke how great a mist may overcast the hopes of this Session.' The tenor of the 'disabling speech' had changed when Lenthall could speak of the Commons 'endeavour[ing] a sweet violence which may compell your Majestie to the love of Parliaments.' Although violence here should be taken to mean 'intensity' rather than 'physical force,' the rhetorical barb barely concealed in the double meaning of 'violence' was probably not lost on anyone present.
Excerpted from Theater of State by Chris R. Kyle Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 31, 2012