Speaker’s House Westminster LONDON SW1A 0AA
20 October 1992
When I was elected Speaker of the House of Commons in April of this year, one of my first and most important duties was to lay claim on behalf of the Commons to its undoubted rights and privileges, particularly to freedom of speech in debate, freedom from arrest, freedom of access to Her Majesty whenever occasion shall require and that the most important favourable construction should be placed upon all our proceedings. That I should do so with the assurance of receiving a favourable reply from the Monarch is due in no small measure to the activities of John Hampden and others of his generation.
As members of the public wishing to watch our debates in the House of Commons or to lobby their Member of Parliament enter the Palace of Westminster, they pass through St. Stephen’s Hall, site of the Commons Chamber until the nineteenth century. At the entrance to the Central Lobby stand two statues, representing two alternative visions of our Parliamentary development. On one side stands the Earl of Clarendon, in his Lord Chancellor’s robes, symbol of the respect for the law. On the other side there is the splendid figure of John Hampden, dressed for battle, sword at his side, ready to defend Parliament’s rights and privileges by any means necessary. Now that the struggles which divided these two great men lie in the distant past, we can cherish both visions.
John Hampden is, of course, most famous not so much for his activities in Parliament but for his steadfast refusal to pay a tax levied without Parliamentary approval – Ship Money. Yet throughout his political career he was dedicated to the idea that a free Parliament was essential to the defence of the King’s subjects. In the Parliament of 1628 he was one of the first to argue that the policies pursued by Charles I amounted to “no less than the subversion of the whole state”.
By the time Parliament finally met again in 1640 John Hampden was one of the most famous men in England. Throughout the short Parliament he reminded Members that the freedom of speech in debate was the most important issue before them. The principle he asserted – that Members of Parliament should not be held to account in the courts for their activities in the House – is one which is now universally accepted, enshrined as it is in the Bill of Rights, and which is integral to the effective functioning of Parliament to this day. Nor is this essential democratic rule confined to the United Kingdom: the freedom of speech of Parliamentarians in the conduct of their duties is now accepted as one of the most significant benchmarks for assessing the democratic credentials of parliaments and international assemblies throughout the world.
John Hampden’s virtues as a Parliamentarian are such as to commend him to a Speaker in any age. He did not favour long set-piece speeches but short well-timed interventions designed to influence the outcome of debate. He was obviously loyal to and well liked by his constituents. Five thousand inhabitants of Buckinghamshire came to London in his support after the King attempted his arrest.
His defence of Parliament led him, in Clarendon’s phrase, to draw his sword and throw away the scabbard. After his mortal wound on the field at Chalgrove, he was buried at Great Hampden, a ceremony conducted by the Rector Robert Lenthall, brother of one of my most illustrious predecessors. Thus, his link to Parliament remained until the very end.
As Hampden had foreseen, his place in history was soon eclipsed by his cousin, Oliver Cromwell, whose statue has pride of place outside the Palace of Westminster. However, John Hampden’s lasting contribution to the securing of modern Parliamentary freedoms should not be forgotten and I welcome the contribution your new Society will make to keeping his memory alive.
I am sorry that I cannot be with you on the Inauguration Day of your Society, but my first and paramount duty is my attendance upon the House of Commons. I am sure that is something John Hampden would have understood.
Roy Bailey Esq
John Hampden Society
The Malt House