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The term ‘House of Lords’ was first employed during the reign of Henry VIII (1491–1547; reigned 1509–1547), though its origins as the Upper House is traceable through the earlier development of the parliamentary system in England. Whilst its purpose, powers and composition have changed considerably over the centuries of its existence, one constant has been the importance of customs and traditions in the Lords. This briefing describes the customs, traditions, rules of behaviour and courtesies for both Members of the House and the Chamber, their historical origins and development, and their continuing importance to the manner in which the House conducts its business.

In recent decades, there have been numerous commentaries on the customs and traditions of the House, particularly concerning the State Opening of Parliament. Whilst opinion on the necessity and relevance of these traditions may differ, their basis in history remains of great significance. Thomas Erskine May (1815–86), former Clerk of the House of Commons and constitutional theorist, wrote in his eponymous first 1844 guide to Parliamentary procedure that the Legislature’s constitution was now defined by:

The clear and written law,–the deep-trod footmarks

Of ancient custom.

The customary rules and traditions of the Lords are based in the Standing Orders of the House of Lords Relating to Public Business. These originated in 1621, when a Committee of Privileges to “take Consideration of the Customs and Orders of this House, and of the Privileges of the Peers of the Kingdom, and Lords of Parliament” was established on 5 February, under whose auspices the first draft was almost certainly produced. On 27 March 1621 it was then ordered that “the Acts, Judgments, and Standing Orders of the House, be inrolled and kept in Parchment”. A number of the present Standing Orders are mainly or wholly unchanged from their first drafting in the seventeenth century. Whilst the Standing Orders and accompanying guides could be seen to offer a degree of ‘codification’ of behaviour (they were originally titled the “Remembrances for Order and Decency to be kept in the Upper House of Parliament by the Lords”), they should not necessarily be seen as proscriptive, yet rather act as guides or frameworks to behaviour. The actual conduct of Lords in the Chamber, in the organising of business and in debates, is still largely governed by historical traditions and customs.

Begun in 1624, the earliest surviving Roll of Standing Orders of the House of Lords, or “Remembrances for Order and Decency to be kept in the Upper House of Parliament by the Lords when his Majesty is not there”. With thanks to the Parliamentary Archives.


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