I’m finally getting around to another of those books I’ve been wanting to read for decades, The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke by Catherine Drinker Bowen. I’ve just started it and already found a Latin tag I have to pass along, at the end of this passage about Coke’s appointment by Elizabeth as Speaker of the Commons in 1593:

The Speaker was responsible for procedure. And none knew better than Coke that in Parliament as in the law courts, procedure was vitally important to the liberties of the electorate. When a bill came to the vote, how were the voices counted? Should the Noes keep their seats during the count, and had the Speaker himself a vote? Small matters, but they could make the difference between freedom and tyranny, between an independent Commons and a Commons controlled by faction or by clique. In the previous Parliament (1589), Coke, sitting as Burgess from Aldeburgh in Suffolk, had noted these things, noted also how the Speaker’s attitude and bearing affected every corner of the House. He had acquired a rare and helpful little book, still in manuscript. Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, it was called; The Manner of Holding Parliaments. It would be convenient to have at hand during sessions. And though Coke considered it more ancient than it later proved to be, its rules were clear and explicit. In such matters men prefer the authority of print. Coke himself confessed to the scholar’s adage of non lego non credo — if I don’t read it I don’t believe it.

Like so many of my favorite books, it tosses out eye-opening nuggets almost as asides: “In pre-Tudor days it had been looked on as a calamity to be sent to Parliament. To leave one’s farm or shop or tavern and ride halfway across England, merely to vote a tax against one’s community — what was gained but tired buttocks and an empty purse? … Two knights from Oxfordshire fled the country on hearing of their election. Torrington in Devon managed to secure by charter perpetual exemption from representation in all Parliaments henceforth.” Quite a leap to “No taxation without representation”! (By the way, in case you didn’t know, Coke is pronounced “cook.”)


  1. One of the most interesting features of parliamentary history that I ever stumbled across was that it was the Great Reform Act 0f 1832 that abolished votes for women. Before then some constituencies had apparently looked upon voting as a household duty/privilege: if the head of household happened to be a woman (typically a widow) she could vote (if otherwise qualified). But one of the points of the Act was to enforce uniformity and the uniformity that parliament opted for was the uniformity of male voters only.

  2. Never knew that.

  3. mollymooly says

    Did any women actually vote before 1832? I thought it was just a matter of changing the prohibition from common law to statute law.

  4. I thought that in extended the vote to a greater number of male persons in 1832, the “male” qualification was indeed made explicit for the first time, but that a few decades later in Chorlton v. Lings it was decided that prior to 1832 women weren’t “persons” for the purposes of interpreting the previous qualifications.

  5. Jeffry House says

    In Canada, women became full “persons” only in 1929. Prior to that, there wa some doubt as to their precise status, since an 1876 British decision–then binding in Canada–held that women were “persons in matters of pains and penalties” but not in matters of “rights and privileges”.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    On this side of the Atlantic, householders “worth fifty pounds clear estate” were allowed to vote in New Jersey from independence in 1776 and this turned out to include spinsters/widows who met the property qualification. Reform-minded legislators closed this “loophole” (which apparently in some counties had also been interpreted to permit qualifying blacks to vote), but it doesn’t strike me as inherently implausible that something similar could have happened in England. As Senator Platt said, “When Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, he was
    unconscious of the then undeveloped possibilities of the word ‘reform.'”

  7. By God, that’s a good one from Platt.
    “Did any women actually vote before 1832?” I don’t know – I was reporting my reading, which I think (but my memory isn’t the best) implied that they did. Since I can’t remember my source there’s not much more I can usefully say. Except (i) since the point the writer was making was about the non-uniformity of the habits in different constituencies, I doubt whether the matter of women voting concerned only Common Law, and (ii) hen discussions like this talk about “British” or “Britain” they almost always mean “England” (or more accurately England & Wales) – which is, of course, what would matter for Canada or New Jersey anyway.

  8. rootlesscosmo says

    The “last refuge” line has entered general understanding by now, but for what it’s worth, Dr. Johnson wasn’t defining patriotism–indeed he considered himself to be a genuine patriot. He was accusing the Earl of Bute, a scoundrel in Johnson’s opinion, of cloaking his bad policy in false patriotism.

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