Parliament: The biography. Volume 1: Ancestral
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CHRIS BRYANT is to be congratulated on having produced a book
that is as sumptuous and colourful as the glorious Puginesque
wallpaper that adorns its cover. In 14 chapters, he charts the
growth of Parliament from its shaky 13th-century origins to its
effective reconstitution in the Act of Union of 1801.
Bryant pays particular attention to the haphazard manner of the
introduction of the clergy to the legislature, and to the various
parliamentary upheavals effected by religious affiliations: whether
in the persons of bishops, mitred abbots, Dissenters, or Nonjurors.
Unsurprisingly, the former assistant curate of All Saints', High
Wycombe, writes with an impressive and reassuring grasp of
ecclesiastical affairs, and (praise be) even refers to Dominicans
Judiciously chosen illustrations enhance the work, and Bryant
brings to his writing an admirable lightness of touch. He treats
topics thoroughly, but constantly aerates his prose with details
that both inform and delight: reminders, for example, of the
hapless and indecisive Speaker John Wenlock, who died at the Battle
of Tewkesbury only because his own exasperated commander, the Duke
of Somerset, finally snapped and beat him to death; of the Prices
of Foreign Hats Act of 1529; of Archbishop Accepted Frewen of York
and his brother Thankful (spot the Puritan parentage); or of the
fact that Habeas Corpus got on to the statute book only because the
teller for the Contents raised a laugh by calling an immensely fat
peer for ten votes, and the Not Contents' teller failed either to
notice or to object.
Two perennial truths abide. First, that the relationship between
Parliament and the Church has rarely been comfortable; and, second,
that parliamentarians in their several generations are not
necessarily better or worse than their predecessors - just
Dr Serenhedd James is Visiting Tutor in Ecclesiastical
History at St Stephen's House, Oxford.