The History of Parliament is a major academic project to create a scholarly reference work describing the members, constituencies and activities of the Parliament of England and the United Kingdom. The project is the most ambitious collective biography apart from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in the United Kingdom, and possibly, apart from other national biographical dictionaries, anywhere else. In addition, it is one of the most well-established and productive historical projects in Britain, together with the Victoria County History; and probably the most extensive dictionary of political figures in the world. The History is funded by both Houses of Parliament, and has its own research staff, based at 18 Bloomsbury Square; and although it is not formally part of a university, it has close associations with the Institute of Historical Research (IHR).
Although it is strongly associated with Sir Lewis Namier – so much so that the word 'Namierism' was virtually coined to describe the project – the History's roots are more complex. In part they lie within Parliament itself. The initiator of the History was an amateur historian and politician – the Liberal, then Labour MP for Newcastle under Lyme from 1906, Josiah (later Lord) Wedgwood (1872–1943).(1) Identifying and describing the lives of Members of Parliament for particular constituencies had become a popular genre of antiquarian research in Britain in the late 19th century, in which Wedgwood himself had dabbled: his Staffordshire Parliamentary History was published in three volumes in 1918–22.
Wedgwood's history was suffused with romanticism and nationalism: he wrote in his Staffordshire volumes that
York or Lancaster, Protestant or Catholic, Court or Country, Roundhead or Cavalier, Whig or Tory, Liberal or Conservative, Labour or Unionist, they all fit into that long pageant that no other country in the world can show. And they one and all pass on the same inextinguishable torch – burning brightly or flickering – to the next man in the race, while freedom and experience ever grow. These men who have gone by, who have had the glimmer of the torch on them for a little time, are those whose memories I want to rescue.(2)
Wedgwood's romanticism also reflected the Whiggish, Anglo-American historiography of works such as C. H. McIlwain's High Court of Parliament (3) or A. F. Pollard's The Evolution of Parliament of 1920, in which Parliament assumed an almost mystical role in shaping the political future of the English, and British, nation: 'Parliamentary institutions have, in fact, been incomparably the greatest gift of the English people to the civilisation of the world'; 'Parliament has been the means of making the English nation and the English state'.(4)
In the 1920s Wedgwood began to lobby for a state-funded national dictionary of MPs, badgering the government into supporting the establishment in 1928 of a semi-official committee to prepare for it, although he had not anticipated the ferocious differences of opinion about the nature of the project which would divide the parliamentarians and the academics on his committee (his greatest supporter among the latter was Pollard, the founder-director of the IHR).
Despite his committee's support, in the economic and political climate of the early 1930s he could secure nothing more from the government other than a promise to fund the publication of the volumes, not the research itself. Having alienated most of the historians, Wedgwood began work himself, with a small body of assistants, paid for through determined fundraising. He and his team had by 1938 produced two volumes: although their scholarship did not stand too close scrutiny, it was a remarkable achievement.
The History went into abeyance during the war, and with Wedgwood's death. But in 1951 it was revived and secured Treasury funding, partly due to the efforts of Lewis Namier and a number of powerful academic colleagues, including Sir Frank Stenton, the first chairman of the History's editorial board. Namier was the only one who had been a member of Wedgwood's 1928 committee, and was clearly the man who shared most closely Wedgwood's vision of the project.
In 1928 he had written in support of the Wedgwood project in terms remarkably similar to Wedgwood's:
the biography of the ordinary man cannot be profitably attempted unless one writes the history of a crowd The student has to get acquainted with the lives of thousands of individuals, with an entire ant-heap, see its files stretch out in various directions, understand how they are connected and correlated, watch the individual ants, and yet never forget the ant-heap.(5)
Namier's interest was rather less emotive, though, and was in the accumulative effect of such biographies as a tool for investigating the period as a whole. It was, in fact, prosopography, although he never seems to have used the word, and it is difficult to imagine that there was not some influence on Namier from the German prosopographical tradition in classical history which so influenced Sir Ronald Syme in the 1920s and 1930s: the Prosopographia imperii Romani, the first series of which was published in 1897, and the work of Friedrich Mnzer, a pioneer of scholarly prosopography.
Namier was not alone in proposing collective biography: Mary Frear Keeler (a student of Wedgwood's friend the American scholar Wallace Notestein) published in 1954 The Long Parliament 1640–41,(6) a biographical dictionary of those elected to a single, highly significant Parliament. Sir John Neale – another member of the early editorial board – wrote in his The Elizabethan House of Commons of 1949 about the background of those who sat in the House, arguing that 'The House of Commons was a reflection of Elizabethan society and offers an approach to social history that it would be a mistake to ignore'.(7)
The History has been working continuously ever since, although the resources available have fluctuated. The volumes either published or in preparation cover the House of Commons from 1386 to 1832 and the House of Lords from 1660 to 1832. So far (2008) 28 volumes have been published. They deal with the House of Commons in 1386–1421, 1509–58, 1558–1603, 1660–90, 1690–1715, 1715–54, 1754–90 and 1790–1820: in all, about 16 million words covering 281 years of parliamentary history, including around 18,000 biographies and 2,100 articles on politics and elections in each constituency in the period concerned.
Currently under preparation are sets of volumes on the Commons in 1422–1504, 1604–29, 1640–60 and 1820–32. The History has also begun to work on the House of Lords, with research and writing currently underway on the Restoration and Augustan periods, 1660–1715, and planned for the remainder of the 'long' 18th century. It will also begin to work on the period after 1832, most immediately on 1832–68, on the imminent completion of the 1820–32 project.
Over time, the biographies have become fuller and more thorough, dealing with much more than Namier's principal interests in connection and patronage. In the most recent projects, the history of Parliament as an institution – its business and mode of operation, largely ignored in the early volumes – has become a growing theme: the House of Lords projects and the project covering the period after 1832 will deal in some detail with how Parliament worked and was conceived as well as with the activities of its Members. More details are available on the History's website.
The History is not unique, and was not the first of its kind. Adolphe Robert and Gaston Cougny published in 1889 the Dictionnaire des Parlementaires Franais depuis le premier Mai 1789 jusqu'au premier Mai 1889.(8) Many other Parliaments have now established similar projects.(9) But none of them has covered nearly as much chronological ground as the History of Parliament, or match its academic rigour and ambition. The History is currently planning to put its entire output online within the next 18 months, which will give an opportunity for more historians, and many other researchers, to explore the History's full potential as a record of political, but also social, economic, cultural and intellectual life over 600 years.