The most important of the many privileges of a British peer was that of the right to a seat in the House of Lords (or it was until the passage of the House of Lords Act 1999)
This was not always the case as originally it was a matter for the king's pleasure as to whom they should summon to attend the House of Lords, but over the years the 'right' to a seat in parliament had come to be regarded as something that had been sanctioned by centuries of constitutional usage,
although the matter remained in some doubt as there was no clear statement of the law one way or another.
It was not until the early seventeenth century that the opportunity arose to decide the issue once and for all, when the Earl of Bristol fell into Charles I's bad books. The circumstances were as follows; John Digby was a diplomat and politician who was much favoured by James I and was created by that king, Earl of Bristol in 1622. For most of his time between the years 1611 and 1623 he served as the ambassador to Spain and was busy conducting the prolonged but ultimately fruitless negotiations for the marriage of Prince Charles to the Spanish infanta. These negotiations were eventually scuppered in 1623 by the visit of Charles and George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham to Madrid, which event appears to have a cause of friction between Digby and the young prince.
Having thus fallen into disfavour, the unfortunate Earl of Bristol found himself recalled back to Britain and was even subjected to house arrest until he protested his treatment before Parliament. Worse was to come when Charles became king in 1625, as he was accused of treason and imprisoned without trial in the Tower of London.
The Earl was soon released without charge, but when Parliament was called in 1626 Charles I deliberately withheld from him his writ of summons to attend the House of Lords, in what the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica considered as "a deliberate attempt to recover the ancient discretion of the Crown in the issue of writs of summons". Thus excluded from the House the Earl of Bristol complained to Parliament, who referred the matter to the Lords' Committees for Privileges. On the 30th March 1626 the Earl of Hertford gave their verdict to the House as follows;
after diligent search, no precedent being found that any writ of summons hath been detained from any peer that is capable of sitting in the House of Parliament; and considering withal how far it may trench into the right of every member of this House, whether sitting by ancient right of inheritance or by patent, to have their writs detained; the Lords Committees are all of opinion, That it will be necessary for this House humbly to beseech His Majesty, that a writ of summons may be sent to this petitioner, and to such other Lords to whom no writ of summons hath been directed for this Parliament, excepting such as are made incapable to sit in Parliament by judgment of Parliament or any other legal judgment.(Journals of the Lords, III, 526-64)
"Whereupon" as the official records reported "the Duke of Buckingham signified unto the house that, upon the earl of Bristol's petition, the king had sent him his writ of summons"
(Of course, in this, as in many other cases the House of Lords was being somewhat economical with the truth; had their search been truly 'diligent' they would have found a number of such historical precedents whereby a writ of summons had been withheld.)
This was not however, quite the end of the matter as on the 31st March the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal Thomas Coventry wrote to the Earl of Bristol enclosing the following letter with his writ of summons;
My very good Lord, By His Majesty's commandment I herewith send unto your Lordship your writ of summons for the Parliament, but withal signify His Majesty's pleasure herein further; That, howsoever he gives way to the awarding of the writ, yet his meaning thereby is not to discharge any former direction for restraint of your Lordship's coming hither; but that you continue under the same restriction as you did before, so as your Lordship's personal attendance is to be forborne(March 31, 1626. Lords' Journals, iii. 563)
Which is to say; the king sent the Earl of Bristol his writ of summons but instructed him not to attend Parliament. However on the 17th April the Earl of Bristol attended the house arguing that a writ of summons from the King was of greater weight than a mere letter from the Lord Keeper, and petitioned the House once more.
Faced with such obstinacy Charles eventually gave in, and abandoned any further attempts at withholding summonses to Parliament to individual peers. Since that time the Earl of Bristol's Case has been recognised as the leading case on the matter, as the House Select Committee on Privileges reported in 1999;
Since the Earl of Bristol's Case (1626), it has been established in Your Lordships' House that a hereditary peer is entitled as of right to be sent a writ of summons to Parliament
As noted above this is no longer the case as since the House of Lords Act 1999 only those ninety hereditary peers who have been so elected as representative peers, together with the so-called Weatherill peers (those persons holding the offices of Great Chamberlain and Marshal) are entitled to a seat in the House of Lords.
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for PEERAGE - See http://1911encyclopedia.org/index.htm
- Biographical details on John Digby, 1st Earl of Bristol from
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition (2001) at
University College London:Digby Letters and Reports at
- Extracts from the Journals of the Lords taken from
- Select Committee on Privileges First Report