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Ill-at-ease estates of the realm

18 July 2014

This parliamentary chronicle is written with a sure hand, says Serenhedd James

Palace of westminster collection

Hardy perennial: an engraving of Westminster Hall, c.1750, by H. Gravelot, from Westminster Hall The First Day of Term, A Satirical Poem, which is one of the colour plates in Parliament: The biography

Hardy perennial: an engraving of Westminster Hall, c.1750, by H. Gravelot, from Westminster Hall The First Day of Term, A Satirical Poem, which is o...

Parliament: The biography. Volume 1: Ancestral voices
Chris Bryant
Doubleday £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT641 )

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 as "friars".

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 different.

Dr Serenhedd James is Visiting Tutor in Ecclesiastical History at St Stephen's House, Oxford.

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