The House of Lords (House of Peers) is the upper house of Parliament situated in the Palace of Westminster. Membership of the Peers (as equals) is made up of Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal.
Lords Spiritual are led by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York who are primate of all England. The occupants of the five ‘great sees’ include London, Durham and Winchester as Lords of Parliament. Of the remaining 35 English diocesan bishops, the 21 most senior (by length of service) sit in the House of Lords.
Bishops are not peers but are Lords of Parliament. The Lords Temporal are secular members who are either life peers or hereditary peers. They are all members of the Peerage. Under the ‘House of Lords Act, 1999’, only ‘life peerages’ automatically entitle their holders to seats in the House. Of the ‘hereditary peers’ only 92 (including the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain) are elected by their peers to retain their seats in the House.
The Lords have three main roles in Parliament: Making laws, Consideration of public policy and Holding the government to account. They spend more than half their time considering bills (draft laws), examining each bill in stages. Government policies are examined in detail, debated and questioned before being agreed.
The ‘House of Lords’ is an historical development of the Norman feudal system begun following the Conquest in 1066. Before the Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon Assembly, in the name of the ‘Witenagemot’ was the national council or parliament. Its members were known as the ‘Witan’ (wise men).
The ‘wise-men’ considered, debated and advised the king as required. They were ‘noblemen’ high in social class, of ecclesiastic and secular status. They were the aristocratic (thegn) development of the ealdormen’s folkmoots. Members of the Witan were the king’s councillors. They were named witnesses to the charters making grants of land. Some 2,000 charters and around 40 law codes have survived from the Witan’s acta. There were certainly more than 300 recorded meetings of the Witan.
The Witenagemot under the Normans was replaced by the ‘Curia’ or ‘Concilium’ and the Witan replaced by the ‘Barones’. Wisdom was replaced by ‘Tenure’. It became simply the Witan, Sapientes or wise men, there is no trace of any property qualification. Members of the Witan were the national officers, lay and clerical, who formed the older and more authorative portion, along with the king’s friends and dependents.
Under Henry II and his sons, the national council operated as was introduced at the Conquest and has grown into consistency under the Norman kings, that of a complete council of feudal ‘tenants-in-chief. In this way, the king had full control over a ‘King’s Court of feudal vassals’ to strengthen the Curia Regis and to protect the popular courts.
The Norman ‘curia or concilium’ was derived from the Witan, the changes incorporated, initially gave the kings a hold over any resistance by the English. It prevented any cooperative invasions by their allies and formed a tie between him and his scattered followers.
It should be clearly understood that barons and peers stem from feudal ‘vassalage’. The word baron developed, not in relation to the ‘man’ or ‘lord’, but to his ‘land’. A vassal ‘receives under feudal institutions. A tenant-in-chief (of the king) is a contraction of baro-regis (of the king).
A palatine tenant, as in the case of the Palatine Earldom of Chester, may possibly address their tenants as barons. Every earl was also a baron. Today we inherit these terms in relation to the Barons of London and of the Cinque Ports. The Peers are their fellow barons, the word peer comes from pare or equal. A trial by peers, the judicium parium, was confined to no one class in the vast feudal hierarchy. It applied to all freemen of parity.
The development of the concilium from the curia denoted its consultative aspect and this became the parent of the ‘House of Lords’ and eventually of all ‘Parliament’. Curia Regis, representing the judicia aspect became the parent, not only of our judicature, but also, through the Exchequer, of our financial administration.
The House of Lords descends, ‘by unbroken succession’, not from the primary assembly of freemen, not even from the aristocratic ‘Witan’ but from the feudal curia, in which the dominus was surrounded by his barones (Barons).
Commune concillium – the body of tenants-in-chief. Attendance was not regarded as a burden but as a right. To hold per baroniam meant each as a tenant-in-chief. The heirs of which would them as ‘Baronies by Writ’. They would be heirs in blood of the party first summoned.
The House of Lords is feudal in origin, Consequently, its feudal principle of primogeniture, the identification of the fief with its actual tenant alone still dominates our peerage.
In the House of Commons, we have the resultant of the representative system in the Anglo-Saxon local (moot) courts.
The ‘Constitutions of Clarendon’ were a set of legislative procedures passed by Henry II in 1164. They were 16 articles in an attempt to restrict ecclesiastical privileges and curb the power of the Church courts. It was this the finally led to the death of Archbishop Thomas Becket, the martyr assassinated in 1170.